Short Story Release: “Whoever Is Not For Us.”

Received confirmation today that “Whoever Is Not For Us” will appear on the Mysterion website on July 8th, but for supporters of their Patreon it is available NOW.

Here is an excerpt, just to whet your appetite:

(Sorry for the lack of paragraph indents, but WordPress is particularly stupid in that regard).

Whoever Is Not For Us
by
Scott Huggins

 

The sparking hell of Main Engineering shuddered and rang like a cymbal under the blows of magnetic grapples impacting the outer hull. Marine Captain Manuel Stolz spared a single glance for Commander Ellerbee and her mate frantically working on the drive bomb.

“How long?” he said. His voice echoed in his combat suit helmet, unnaturally loud.

“A couple of minutes,” grunted Ellerbee. The Navy engineer’s hands were moving too fast for him to follow.

Too long. Stolz switched to his Marines’ channel. “Perimeter check.”

“Conrad, hatch secure.” 

“Olivett, hatch secure.”

“Plekhanov, hatch…” The lights went out with a photoflash and Plekhanov’s voice was swallowed by a roaring hiss. The boarders were through the stern perimeter, moving with a precision inhuman and terrifying. Their lasers strobed the compartment. Ellerbee’s suit sprouted holes: superheated air and flesh jetted out, knocking her body back into Stolz, smashing him into the bulkhead. Conrad slammed the butt of his rifle into the helmet of the attacker that appeared suddenly behind him. Then he leveled it at the thing’s belly. He and the alien fired at the same moment. They exploded apart from each other.

Stolz’s reflexes and enhancement took over. Riding the tailored hormones like a roller coaster, he tucked and bounced off the bulkhead, rolling back to fire his puppetcutter. The focused EMP seared through the Brainsucker’s circuit-neurons, severing the connection between host and parasite, and his target spasmed and went still. Then Stolz was through the hatch, into the weapons bay. Scanning. His bulky gun’s screen showed nothing. He sealed the hatch and moved again, bouncing from wall to wall. His back itched, but no infinitely hot finger reached out to stab him between the shoulder blades.

They wanted him alive. Wanted them all alive. It was their way.

He dogged the hatch behind him and turned forward. Then he heard the shout. “Manuel, stop!”

He stopped. He didn’t remember letting the gun go, but it hung before him in microgravity.

Zanne’s voice.

Numb, he reached for his holster. So even this prayer would be denied him. He’d had nightmares about this moment, had planned for it. And prayed it would never happen. The weight of the weapon filled his hand with heavy and final comfort. He focused his eyes on it, and the comfort drained away. 

His laser sidearm was burnt clean through. He’d never noticed the hit. And the hatch behind him was beginning to glow red. The Brainsuckers were burning through. He was trapped, with Zanne on the other side, coming for him, and he could not kill himself.

The Enemy Of My Enemy Is Not My Friend

One of the reasons that Deep Space Nine was my favorite of the post Original Series Star Trek is that the writers got to make some pretty bold moves. One of the boldest and most insightful, I feel, was their choice of what to do with the Mirrorverse from one of the Original Series’ strongest episodes.

In the Mirrorverse, the Federation was the Terran Empire: a bloodthirsty, dictatorial and ruthless state. And Vulcans were pretty much Romulans. During their brief sojourn in the Mirrorverse, our own universe’s Kirk tried to convince the Mirrorverse’s Spock to try overthrowing the Terran Empire in favor of a Federation. In DS9, we got to see the results.

Turns out that Mirror Spock had been quite successful at the overthrowing the Empire part. Unfortunately, that merely left the Empire in enough trouble that its subject peoples plus the Klingons and Romulans had easily conquered Earth and made humanity into a slave race. And they were still enslaved about a century later.

The Original Series had made an unwarranted assumption, and it is one that uneducated “revolutionaries” make to this day: that when an oppressive system is toppled, freedom and justice will naturally follow. They do not. To establish them requires hard work, and it is not often hard work that the “revolutionaries” are equipped to do. To take a few examples, it must have seemed to the Aztecs’ subject races that the Spaniards — whose God, notably did not demand human sacrifice — were their liberators. The French believed that toppling the nobles, and later the king, would bring them equality, liberty and brotherhood. What they got was the Committee Of Public Safety, the Reign of Terror, and Napoleon. Aleksandr Kerensky had a chance to establish a Russian Republic when the Czar’s oppression was overthrown, as did Yeltsin when the Soviet Union fell apart. They were succeeded by Lenin and Putin respectively, and the only thing better about Putin is that he isn’t using starvation as a tool for mass murder, as far as I know.

Overthrowing oppressive systems isn’t very hard, even when it isn’t easy. Not replacing it with an enemy that’s even worse is the trick.

Iron Lensman

Every now and then I have the impulse to do a little literary criticism, although I can usually control it with prescription medication. But the other day I was watching Iron Man II (I really watched the MCU out of order) and a parallel struck me that I haven’t heard anyone else talk about before, so you lucky readers get to hear me ramble on about it.

The Lensman series, by E. E. “Doc” Smith was one of the seminal works of Golden Age SF, appearing in Astounding magazine from 1937-1948, and later reworked in the 1950s as a series of seven novels. Roughly, the titular heroes, the Lensmen, were an organization that fought crime on a galactic scale. Their lenses amplified their psionic powers, and no person who could be corrupted by wealth and power could wield a lens.

The length of the series, the poverty of the plot (which generally just featured the Lensmen going up against more and more powerful foes, armed with ever-more esoteric and larger superbattlefleets) and Smith’s excruciatingly awful prose meant that the Lensman series never saw release as anything approaching a major motion picture, which is on some level a relief and on another a profound disappointment. I always thought the series might have some hope in the hands of a really awesome screenwriter. But the themes he launched were a major influence on Star Wars (incorruptible psionic supersoldiers, anyone?) Other than that, it’s hard to find a direct heir to Smith’s style of storytelling.

And then it hit me that Tony Stark is pretty much a lensman par excellance, updated for the modern world. There are several parallels: like many other writers of that generation, such as Asimov, to whose Foundation series Smith lost the 1966 Hugo for Best Series, Smith’s lensmen are trained and expected to function as scientists, and frequently make discoveries and invent new weapons and vehicles. This whole thing struck me as i watched Tony Stark invent a new element under the guidance of his father’s notes to replace the palladium in his arc reactor heart. Like the lensmen, Tony Stark relies on a scientistic talisman that grants him his power, but it is always clear that his real power is in his willingness to do the right thing. Also like the first family of lensmen, the Kinnisons, Tony Stark gets a big helping hand from his father’s legacy of great genes and connections. Finally, by Civil War we see that Tony Stark is also concerned, as was Smith, with the idea of oversight. There is a major difference here, since the lensman’s source of power was also his shield against corruption. Tony Stark loses faith in himself and his fellow Avengers, but it’s interesting to me that this lack of faith is ultimately shown to be misplaced when he goes up against Captain America. Who also has his own “lens” made for him by Howard Stark, in a sense. The shape is even similar.

Although I really liked the conclusion of the major arc of the MCU, I’m going to miss Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. I hope that another generation of lensmen — whatever they are called — comes quickly.

A Late Review From Avalon: Ready Player One

So, obviously, what with the huge copyright issues involved and not being an idiot, I expected a whole lot of changes to Ready Player One when I sat down to watch the movie. It was, considered as a thing in itself, not terrible.

But it wasn’t the same story, either. And that was disappointing.

See, what made Ready Player One work for me was never the awesome geekery of the premise. That was always just the icing on the cake. Really cool icing, but icing. What made the story work was Wade’s journey of self-discovery. It was the old story of a loser taking on the system, but most importantly, the way he stopped being a loser and grew from a hurt little boy to a very dangerous man. A man who stepped into the dragon’s lair to steal the prize and walked out again.

All that went away. Instead, the characters pretty much just walked through a cheesy video game solving puzzles that the book’s Wade Watts would have figured out without a second thought.

The subtlety also went away. We don’t get to see Wade and Art3mis slowly falling for each other while trying to outdo each other at the same time. We don’t get to see Aech’s and Wade’s friendship develop. And don’t tell me that this isn’t possible in movies. The book’s source material: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ladyhawke, The Breakfast Club,  all excelled in weaving atmospheric slow builds of character development throughout their scripts. Hell, even The Goonies did. But Ready Player One is a sprint to the finish, with the outcome never really in doubt.

And as the protagonists were dumbed down, so did the villains have to be. Nolan Sorrento of the book was a dangerous, evil geek, who wrote his own video games and could almost match Wade’s knowledge.* He was a villain that you could respect. The Sorrento of the film is Dilbert’s PHB, dumb enough to leave a ridiculously easy-to-memorize password out where anyone can see it.

In short the movie isn’t a disappointment because it isn’t the book. It’s a disappointment because it’s so much less than the book.

And it didn’t have to be.

*I will admit this was one of the major flaws in the book: the idea that someone of Sorrento’s talents with his resources of literally hundreds of professional geeks would not have won the contest in a walk, but the Rule Of Cool nullifies that.

An Open Letter To The Manufacturers of the Spice Melange

Dear CHOAM Company,

I would like to take the time to complain about your spice “MELANGE (a genuine Arrakis product!) It is my opinion that not only is your overhyped and overpriced, but is deceptive and dangerous as well. My own family’s case will prove illustrative.

My wife came home with a jar of melange about six months ago, for which she paid the exorbitant price of $575. While the jar was approximately the size of the other jars in our spice rack, we were surprised and dismayed to discover that within the jar stood barely enough melange to be visible, and no, I am afraid that thoughtful as it was, the microtweezers and hufuf oil magnifying lens included was not enough to significantly improve the inconvenience of digging out enough to use in cooking. Which brings me to my second point. Regardless of your advertising copy that promises “a flavor unmatchable in the known Universe,” the overwhelming impression I got from the scent of melange is cinnamon, the best grade of which is easily purchased at about $10 for a full ounce. As to the claim that melange is “never the same taste twice,” it’s rather ridiculous to make the claim when there is not more than one taste in the jar, even for the most artful of cooks.

Finally, I must question the wisdom of allowing — let alone advertising — the fact that melange is an indispensable part of foldspace drives. I can’t think of any other machine additive I would be well-advised to put on my food and consume. Besides the which, ever since we did use melange on our Thanksgiving apple pie, our familial harmony has been shattered. Not only did no one in the family notice the expense and trouble to which we went, but my wife has been going abut murmuring that she thinks I will divorce her when I discover what she really paid for the jar of spice. My high-school age son has decided it is impossible to pass calculus no matter what he does, and the younger children are all complaining about what they are getting for Christmas, and I haven’t even finished my shopping yet. Plus ever since that meal they youngest one has seemed to be in several places at once.  If the doctor says that’s more than the fact that he’s seven years old, you may advise your legal department that they will be hearing from my lawyers.

Sincerely,

Malcolm Idaho
Duchy of Grumman

memo: write the Ix division about eye treatments, re: younger brother DI

 

Less Controversial Science-Fiction Rant: The Aliens Who Hate Everything Every Million Years or So.

Am I the only one who is tired of the plot that goes: “Well, you see, a long time ago there was a huge alien race that got pissed off that other people existed, so they decided to wipe everyone back to microbes every now and then.”

Sometimes, there’s a putative cause for it, as in Babylon 5, a series I love. But the whole Vorlon-Shadow war which was like, in the words of John Sheridan, “a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides” was my least favorite part of it. Because it was like watching a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides!! I mean, these were two demi-god-like races! I wanted the war to be over some transcendent disagreement or point of history Not Meant For Man To Know. Instead, it was basically American politics and personal pettiness (but I repeat myself).

David Weber did it a little better with his Achuultani in The Armageddon Inheritance, where the aliens at least have the excuse of being enslaved to an evil AI that can do self-maintenance for millennia.

At its worst, this trope takes the form it did in the game Mass Effect where the ultra-powerful Reapers sterilize the galaxy every million years or so because Reasons.

Folks, this trope is TIRED. And it’s an idiot plot. If the aliens are that powerful, why don’t they just create a fleet of robot ships to go burn the life off every planet that shows cholorophyll? Answer: because DRAMA! They always wait until humanity et al. develop the technology to play David to their Goliath and then get stopped. Also, how is it that the aliens always have this amazing social and political cohesion? They hang around, absolutely loyal to each other and content to do bugger all until the Evolutionary Alarm Clock sounds and reminds them it’s time to get back to slaughtering the Younger Races again.

Enough.

Science-Fiction Rant: Why I Hate Robots

Robots. I have never really understood why there is an obsession with stories about robots. As with fae, I understand the attraction of having robots exist in a story. What I don’t really get is stories about robots. Robots as the reason for the story. Yet many, many people love stories about robots. Isaac Asimov, arguably, built his career on an obsession with robots. I can’t think of any other piece of future technology — with the possible exception of spaceships — that has inspired such a wealth of stories about them. Can you imagine a whole subgenre of SF devoted to, say, laser guns? Or teleporters (apologies to Larry Niven)? Time machines, perhaps, are the most comparable. But the reason I can’t get into them is this: robots are either tools, or they are tools that imitate beings, they are designed to be beings, or they are accidental beings. And in all but one of these cases, stories about them seem to be unnecessary.

Robots Are Tools: These are the robots I have the least objection to in stories, because they’re the most obviously useful. We deal with this type of robot every day, whether we realize it or not. They’re not required to be shaped like humans, and in most cases, they shouldn’t be. But stories about this sort of robot are about as interesting as stories about screwdrivers or reciprocating saws.

Robots Are Tools That Imitate Beings: Now, on a certain level, I can see stories about this working, because it goes to a pretty profound question: is it important that emotions and souls “really” exist? If I create a robot that imitates a being well enough to fool human beings, does it matter that it is just a machine? On the physical level, of course, the answer is no. If I program a robot to feel rage, and then taunt it until it kills me, then I’m just as dead whether it “really” felt the rage or not. And the impact of these questions on humans can be very compelling: how much “love” can you give or receive from a machine?
But on what level can I possibly care about the machine, once it’s established that such a thing is merely an imitation? If that’s all it is, then you might as well try to get me to care about a reciprocating saw that you stuck a smiley face on.

Robots Are Designed To Be Beings: Again, on a certain level, stories like this make sense, especially if they’re focused on the ethics of creating life, and how the created being reacts to its own creation. Some of those are amazing. But ye gods, how many stories in this realm seem to postulate complete idiocy on the part of the creators. You get things like The Matrix Reanimated where humans seem to take joy in creating super-strong, humanoid robots specifically to be abused, complete with pain sensors and the ability to resent being controlled — and then are surprised when the robots revolt. Or more subtly, A.I., where the robot creator creates a human soul in a body that can’t eat, drink or grow. And then we’re supposed to be surprised that he’s created misery? Or Star Wars, where robots apparently have pain sensors for no definable reason. It’s hard to sympathize with the plight of creators who get slaughtered by robots that have been given every reason to slaughter them.

Robots Are Accidental Beings: Now, this is the one type of robot story that I can get behind: the idea that a machine might, given the right self-programming ability, “wake up” to true consciousness, to the surprise of its creators. In this case, it can’t be accused of being an idiot plot, because the humans are, in a sense, exploring the unknown, and they find something unexpected. That’s a reasonable risk. The humans might reasonably not even suspect that the risk exists. Excellent examples of this are William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Dan Simmons’s Hyperion cycle. But I notice that these stories rarely involve — because they do not need to — actual android-like robots. And why should they? By definition, no one was expecting this robot to take on attributes of human beings. With the exception of a few stories like Terminator 2, where the need for an android-like, accidental intelligence is fairly well justified, most stories of this sort smack of implausibility: “No, we never expected the computer we put in this humanoid body to develop humanoid attributes (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).”  Either that, or the story smacks more of fantasy than sci-fi, with computer + humanoid body being a voodoo-like spell that magically creates a consciousness because of it looks like a human and talks like a human, it will become a human.

Honestly, one of the best “robot” stories I’ve ever read falls in the cracks of about three of these, which is the excellent “Today I Am Paul” by Martin Shoemaker, where it’s made pretty deliberately ambiguous whether the titular caregiver-robot is a tool or an accidental being. This was an amazing story that gave a wonderful sense of the alienness of a robot consciousness, while still allowing us to care about it. And, most importantly for this story, a reason that it was a robot and nothing else.

 

Why Superweapons Don’t Work: Or Why The Rebels Should Have Had the Death Star.

One of the most popular tropes, especially in science-fiction, is that of the superweapon: the huge, iconic invention that will turn the tide of battle and ensure the ultimate victory of the side that wields it. The most easily-recognized of these weapons is, of course, the Death Star, the planet-killer with the Achilles’ heel exploitable by the scrappy fighters the Rebels had. But why is it that historically, superweapons tend to work, not just as badly as the Death Star, but even worse? After all, the Death Star vaporized a planet.  Historically, experimental supposed-to-be war-winning weapons don’t usually get even that close to success. Why not?

Because The Wrong Side Has Them

Historically, superweapons are not developed by the equivalents of the Empire. Superweapons are developed by the Rebel Alliance. In other words, they are developed by the side that has the smaller army, the smaller economy, and that is in the most desperate straits. And the reason for this is easy to see: because the stronger side is already winning with the weapons they have! It was the Confederates that produced ironclads and submarines, not the Union with its overwhelming Navy. It was Nazi Germany that produced jet fighters and V-2 rockets in the late days of the war, not the Allies with their overwhelming air superiority. It’s only when you’re losing that you need a game-changing weapon to turn the tide of battle. The only exception to this rule is the atomic bomb, which is not actually an exception (see below).

Because They Tend to Come With A Whole Lot Of Suck

Superweapons are pretty much by definition untested systems, for reasons discussed  above: the side that needs them needs them right away, and they don’t have time for refining the technology. Just to give a few examples, the first submarine ever to sink an enemy ship in wartime, the CSS Hunley, went down with its target. This was predictable, as she had already killed two crews in training. Hunley was very good at the “submerging” part of “submarine,” and not so good at the “surfacing” part. The Nazi jet fighters performed excellently, but had ridiculously short ranges because of fuel inefficiency. Similarly, their V-2 rockets were a triumph of cutting-edge technology, and the Germans desperately needed artillery that could strike hundreds of miles away, but since they had no guidance systems beyond Doing Trig Very Well, this meant that they couldn’t hit anything smaller and more mobile than say, a city.

Because They Attract Attention

On the rare occasions when superweapons do work the way they are supposed to, they do tend to get dogpiled on by the stronger side that they are almost inevitably facing (see above). The Bismarck is an excellent example of this. Built with all the latest technology, the Germans decided to use her as a superweapon that would be tough enough to destroy entire convoys and fast enough to run from the British Navy.

She lasted nine days.

They were a very impressive nine days, and began with the utter annihilation of the battlecruiser Hood and the damaging of the battleship Prince Of Wales, but the result of the effort was that Bismarck attracted the attention of about five battleships and two aircraft carriers, along with many heavy cruisers. After air attacks damaged Bismarck’s rudder, this force pounded Bismarck to scrap. Lest we think this was mere coincidence, the Bismarck’s sister ship, Tirpitz met a similar fate, being used in only one offensive operation over her entire career, and subject to something like 26 Allied operations mounted specifically to get rid of her, which they eventually did.

Because They Are Easily Reproducible

Generally, the better the superweapon is, the more it has been tested. And the more it has been tested, the better it is understood. And the better it is understood, the more easily it can be copied. This is what happened with the Confederate ironclads. With the bulk of the Navy remaining loyal to the Union, the Confederates needed to break the Union blockade of their ports. And since ironclads were being built in Europe, first by France (significantly, the weaker naval power) and soon afterward by Britain (the stronger), their incentive to build ironclads was high, and the technology was becoming known.
Of course, the Union also knew this, and having discovered that the Confederates were building ironclads, quickly did the same. The first battle between ironclads saw the Union rushing its own ironclad to the battlefield only a day after the Confederate fielded the CSS Virginia. Despite the fact that the Virginia had faced three Union warships the previous day and had destroyed two while taking only minor damage to itself (a successful superweapon if anything was), the Monitor proved a match for it.
And that was the beginning of the end. Because the Confederacy was the poorer and less-industrialized of the combatants, they managed to produce only 30 ironclad vessels during the war in total, while the Union turned out about 50 ships of the Monitor class alone. If a superweapon really works, it won’t work fast enough to stop the stronger side from building more of them faster.

If Matching Them Doesn’t Work, Countermeasures Often Do

One of the most successful “superweapons,” pioneered by Germany, has been the torpedo-armed submarine. It was created to destroy the British Navy, and had many advantages that scared the pants off naval planners at the time: The submarine could travel invisibly. The submarine’s torpedoes attacked below the waterline, potentially killing a battleship in one shot. The submarine could scatter and hunt merchant ships in the ocean, killing them at will. The submarine could pass underneath blockades, rendering them ineffective.

In some ways, this appeared to be the perfect superweapon, especially because it didn’t matter whether the British matched it! What would it do with its subs? Guard the convoys? Submarines in the World Wars couldn’t hit each other with dumb-fire torpedoes except by sheer luck. Kill German merchant ships or naval vessels? The British Navy could already do that!

Well, it turned out that the British (and Americans) could do a number of things that weren’t terribly complicated. They could develop long-range patrol aircraft that could hunt and track the subs when they inevitably had to surface for air. They could create armored belts below the waterline for their ships, and anti-torpedo screens that could make the torpedoes detonate prematurely. Faster and stronger destroyers could guard the convoys and use cannon and depth-charges to sink the subs. As it turned out, subs could only effectively threaten surface warships (which were all bigger and more heavily armed and armored) when they managed to line up a shot unseen, and the torpedoes themselves tended to suffer from copious amounts of the aforementioned suck.

But Wait! What About The Atomic Bomb? Doesn’t That Disprove All Your Points?

Not at all. In fact, it reinforces them. First of all, the United States and the Allies were not yet fighting the war when Albert Einstein sent his famous letter to FDR, recommending its development. They were losing it when the Manhattan Project began. Most importantly, it was triggered by the belief that Germany, the weaker side in the wider war, was already researching them. By the time the bombs were actually built, of course, things had changed, and they were no longer necessary to win the war. To shorten it, yes, but that’s a different thing. And it attracted enough attention for the Soviets to place spies in the Manhattan Project, which they reproduced in only four years. Finally, the atomic bombs, contrary to appearances, really did contain a lot of suck. They poisoned the battlespace with fallout, and the bombers then necessary to carry them were vulnerable to interception. As a deterrent to large-scale war, the atomic bomb is a wonderful weapon. As an actually usable weapon system, it is not.

And that’s why, although superweapons are an awesome ingredient in fiction, they really don’t show up in history very often.

 

 

The Awful Choices

This one’s going to be fast, because I’m running out of time, but it’s one I hope is useful to other writers.

Recently I was reworking a story because of length issues. Amazingly, it was because the story was too SHORT for a market by about 3,000 words, and if you don’t know how rare that is, then oh, my sweet summer child. As I worked on it, I realized that I had made a blithe assumption about how possible it was to do something involving helicopters.

So I consulted an expert and simultaneously realized that a) there were two really obvious workarounds if “something” turned out to be impossible. As it turned out, the expert got back to me and told me that “something” was quite workable so long as you did, in fact, have really GOOD helicopter pilots.

So now I had three possible ways of solving my problem, but the following issues:

Most Dramatic/Awesome Approach (i.e. “something”) is also Least Plausible Approach.

Least Dramatic/Awesome Approach is also Most Plausible.

Most Plausible Approach also is Most Likely To Surprise Protagonists (which needs to happen).

Middling/Plausible Approach makes it difficult for the protagonists to ever find out what happened.

I turned to my research to see if it could nudge me along the right track, here. No such luck. The research basically said you could do whatever and justify it from there. So what should I do?

I still don;t know. But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going with the high action/drama, because that shit is FUN, and why the hell else do people read science-fiction?

 

Unanswerable Questions: What Would A Space Battle Really Be Like?

Years ago I was asked one of those questions that is fascinating. I was sitting at home with my flatmate (this was before I was married) and he asked me, “So what would a space battle really be like?”

And the problem is that, after pondering it, I had to conclude that the question was basically unanswerable.

I’m bringing it up because, as we all know, the Internets have no shortage of self-proclaimed experts willing to defend their vision of space-battles to the teeth. Often, they have very good arguments, because they’ve been thinking about this a long time. Sometimes too long. And they will rip into anyone, fan or writer, for not agreeing with them. But almost always, their superiority rests on a certain set of assumptions. Within those assumptions, they are very often right. But the assumptions have to be identified.

The first assumption that has to be addressed is the general level of technology you are fighting with. What is your power source? Your space drive? What weapons are available? What defenses? The beam weapon, the force shield, and the reactionless drive are all SF commonplaces. But they don’t always exist together. Which ones do, their power, and in what combination they exist all inform what a space-battle would look like.

A very well-realized universe for this is David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. With gravitic drives that protect ships absolutely from above and below, lesser shields (sidewalls) that protect them on the flanks, and vulnerable bows and sterns, his starfleets can resemble old Naploeonic-style sailing fleets. Cheap fusion power and antiacceleration fields enable the ships to accelerate at hundreds of gravities, and to launch missiles for long-range combat and use fixed-mount beam weapons at shorter ranges. Once you buy into all those givens, you have a system of “real” space combat.

But even once we’ve agreed on the technology, it would be difficult to answer the question. I mean, we might ask, “What would space combat look like with present-day technology?” That’s a better question, but then you have to ask a few more. Do you mean right now? That’s easy. It looks like robotic or remote-operated killer satellites trying to take out enemy recon satellites and stopping them from doing the same to us. Or do you mean, “What could we build right now if we really wanted to?” Because now you have to start asking questions like, “What’s the mission?” “How long do we have until we have to use it?” And, “Who are we fighting?”

It should be obvious that the answers to those questions will very much determine the answer to the original question. If the object is to invade or destroy a nation on Earth, then an offensive spacecraft would pretty much need to look like a bomber, ready to rain death on the planet, perhaps with defensive measures against nuclear-tipped missiles. How big the bomber would be would depend on how long we expected to need it. In a sense, an ICBM is a one-use, robotic version of this. Since we expect the enemy nation to be destroyed by using them, we don’t need them more than once.

Obviously, if the mission differs, so will the spacecraft, and so will the battle. If we need to shoot down an enemy space platform, what will we need? Missiles? Or actual space fighters? Or do we want to capture it, necessitating boarding equipment and tactics? What if we want to defend the planet against an unknown threat? Should we develop fighters? A fighter carrier? Or a really big battleship? Or what if we want to send a ship to mine the asteroids and we suspect someone would like to prevent that? Or capture the ship on its way back when its hold is full of valuable metal?

Our navies on Earth have a variety of ships to do a variety of jobs, form surface cruisers, to submarines, to aircraft carriers and a host of others. What a “sea battle” — or for that matter, a “land battle” “really” looks like depends very much on what forces are involved in accomplishing what objectives against what opposition. Space combat will, too.