One of the distinguishing features of David Weber
's space opera
is his obsessive attention to detail when it comes to technology, tactics and strategy. In each of his universes, he has constructed an internally self-consistent system for interstellar (and intrasystem) spaceflight, as well as a dominant technological mode for that universe's weaponry. From these technological 'first principles,' he goes on to derive - with quite credible results - a complete system of combat tactics
and warfighting strategy (where required) for the characters of that universe to employ.
Sometimes, it takes several books just to get enough story to hold up enough information to fully explain the ramifications of that universe's tech. Sometimes he only has one book to do so. Sometimes we, the audience, get to watch technology develop over time in the universe, and see the tactics and strategy change.
I'm not going to comment on his plots, his dialogue, or his character development - that's not the point of this writeup. I read Weber because I enjoy seeing the system of thought behind the glitz; underneath every thermonuclear explosion in deepspace, and behind every graser bolt lies a carefully crafted structure which he exposes a bit at a time - and it's always fun to see if my own extrapolations from the information he's already given me match his own construct. They don't have to; this is fiction, after all, and space opera to boot.
I'll offer one example - the Honor Harrington universe. In this series, Weber is almost obsessively trying to recreate Terran fleet naval warfare problems. Let's look at how he goes about it (Note: stop here if you don't care).
Honor Harrington's Starships - Combat, Operations and Tactics
This is probably the area that always requires the most handwaving. In HH's universe, starships have three primary means of propulsion. The first, reaction thrusters, are used for maneuvering near other objects. They are, according to Weber, quite similar to hydrogen-fuelled rockets constructed 'way back when' - like, for example, the Space Shuttle Main Engines. As soon as a ship has cleared the traffic limit from other objects, though, it will typically turn on the first of its drive systems - the gravitic impeller. This device creates two enormous bands of gravitically stressed space above and below the vessel, which are angled so as to come together at the front of the ship. The angle thus subjects the ship to an offcenter gravitic field, and off it goes towards the 'front' of the 'wedge.'
One of the most important performance limitations on ships is not their available power (although that does come into play at times) but the stength of their inertial compensator. This bit o' magic allows ships to accelerate much more quickly than their occupants could handle by 'diverting' g-loads into the 'sump' of an operating impeller wedge. Different size ships have different abilities to do this, rendering the observable max acceleration of a ship highly useful information. This is also where we begin to run into the specific holes in Weber's technological reality - for example, if the impeller drive operates as a gravitic 'tank track' and could theoretically accelerate the ship up to near c nearly instantaneously (as he states at one point) then we have to assume that it operates by creating an external gravitic influence on the ship, which pulls the ship forward, which moves the gravity field, etc. Well, there's the hole - if the gravity field moves the ship, why doesn't it also move the people? Wave your hands, people. It might not make much sense, but the artificial limit makes the story much more fun.
This system can take a starship up to and above c, but is highly dangerous to use up there as well as inefficient. After running up from rest to lightspeed and transitioning into the 'hyper bands' of space, above c, ships will typically switch to Warshawski sails - enormous gravitic lenses, projected by the same equipment that projects the impeller wedge. These 'sails' can 'catch' gravitic currents in hyperspace, and pull the ship along. In fact, the only way to ride the enormous and mostly-mapped currents is using them; trying to fly near a current on impeller will blow a ship's engines, and hence the ship.
Finally, there are wormholes, called 'Junctions' in HH's world. These are stable points of interference whereby moving a ship into one at low speed, with sails extended, will instantly move it from that point to another known endpoint of the junction. HH's home nation of Manticore is quite wealthy because a Junction with at least four known endpoints terminates inside its star system; traffic fees and tariffs on goods passed through the Manticore Wormhole Junction make the Star Kingdom of Manticore's revenues enviable.
Ships carry two types of weapons - beam and missile arms. The beam weapons are typically grasers or lasers, backed by the huge output of a working fusion or direct fission plant. These weapons are lightspeed, which over the distances involved in fighting for a star system means not instantaneous. Moreover, they are only useful at extremely short range compared to the speed of the vessels, to the range of missiles, and to intrasystem differences. Ships carry most of their energy armament in the form of broadsides - each flank of a starship contains ports with energy mounts behind them. There's a reason for this - see sidewalls below. In addition to main mounts, there are point defense clusters - smaller, more numerous laser and graser mounts designed to shoot down incoming missiles.
Energy weapons have a range of several light-seconds before they disperse enough to lose effectiveness. Missiles, while having an effectively infinite range due to inertia, are realistically only useful if they are under acceleration - because an enemy's point defense will have no problem destroying a missile that isn't changing its path and acceleration as it approaches. As for range, this depends highly on the relative position and velocities of the firer and the target.
As in the days of sail, there is in fact armor, and it is in fact better to have certain parts of one's vessel aimed at certain parts of the enemy's vessel. When a ship is under way, the impeller wedge produces two regions above and below the ship which are essentially impenetrable. The gravitic flux will not only destroy missiles which enter it, but will warp and twist energy beams in such a way that they cannot penetrate and do damage. Hence, it is advantageous to take incoming fire on the 'roof' or 'floor' of one's wedge.
If you absolutely cannot do so, you have options. The broadsides of the ship can be protected with energy shields called sidewalls; basically weaker, non-propulsive versions of the impeller wedge whose strength is limited by the need to not interfere with the wedge itself. Further, ports can be opened in the sidewalls to fire weapons through. Sidewalls can be brought down by determined direct attack; wedges can only be dropped by damaging the ship behind them through another route.
Finally, the throat and the rear of the wedge - called the 'kilt' for 'up the kilt' - both are vulnerable. The throat not so much, due to the impeller fields closing together at the front of the wedge; however, the rear is open open open. No sidewalls can cover these two openings without interfering with the main wedge - hence, tactics are your friend.
Detection and Communications
Coming out of or going into hyperspace is incredibly noisy - ships will produce a gravitic wave called a 'hyper footprint' which can not only give away their location, but can even be analysed to discover the size of the field - and hence ship - that made it. In Weber's HH universe (this is the most important pseudofact to remember) gravitic waves move FTL. Hence, coming out of hyper near a star system instantly alerts anyone in the area that you've arrived.
Enough Already, what's it all mean?
Hah. Sorry. In any case, here are some observations on how these starting pseudofacts drive starship behavior in Honor's universe (sometimes called the Honorverse).
- Speed is life. Even more than position. If you are fighting another vessel, or are about to engage another vessel, you will be better able to dictate the terms of engagement (closing time, engagement length, etc) if you have a velocity advantage. If you don't want to engage the other guy, you either need to be far enough away to get up to hyperspace speeds before he closes in on you, or to have enough speed up that he won't be able to close the gap before you're gone. In this manner, combat is similar to terrestrial air combat. There are some analogies to altitude - ships 'in-system' and 'at rest' near planets or stations are vulnerable to high-speed incoming vessels that arrive at the outskirts.
- Broadsides. The sidewall and impeller wedge makes the broadside the most effective fighting presentment. You can't shoot through your own wedge, and while you can see through it, it's hard. Ergo, you'd like to have your own ships broadside presented to the other ships' kilts at the moment of truth. This also means...
- Defenses are Saturable. Point defense can be saturated! This means the more missiles you can get into space at once, the better off you are. Hence, there are definite advantages to ships travelling in numbers and coordinating their actions; this means fleets.
- Everything of value is on or near a planet. This means most major combat, other than piracy/antipiracy and convoy actions, will take place inside starsystems. There's stuff there. You can hide behind things and the like. However, it also means that one side typically is trying to protect the fixed asset, and that's hard - when high-fractional cee missiles used normally to fight ship-to-ship can take out several thousand square miles of planet, or more, this makes the defender's job much harder. Weber does posit a 'norm' of no planetary bombardment, but...well...
- You can be individually defensive or offensive. Not both at once. If you are a ship in a fleet action, flying in what Weber calls the 'Wall of Battle' (reference to the Line of Battle) then if your ship becomes beleaguered, you can 'roll ship' and present the enemy with your impeller wedge. This is a mixed blessing; while the only thing that can harm you at that point is bomb-pumped laser missiles fired past your sidewalls, you can't shoot at the enemy either.
- Little things matter. Given the enormous sizes of large fleet actions (thousands of missiles, dozens of ships) small differences in performance can mean a lot. This is a wonderfully fictional application of the Lanchester Rules!
- Fixed defenses lose. Compared to the ability of ships to accelerate themselves and their ordnance up near lightspeed, it almost never makes sense to have fixed defenses. Ships and forts with equal missiles mean the forts lose; the ships can accelerate and 'toss' the missiles into the forts without coming inside the forts' missile envelope.
These are some fairly immediate and primitive extrapolations of Weber's HH systems. The series does, in fact, explore the whole structure quite thoroughly (and at times, using outlier cases). Plus, of course, it's fun as heck to read about starships intent on blowing the living hell out of each other, and at that, Weber excels.
So again, why does this matter? It matters because one of the ways fiction works is by showing us how the characters deal with their world and situation. Are they smart? Dumb? Stubborn? Romantic? How well do they do their jobs? How poorly? Etc. In this case, Weber has a constructed system that is consistent enough and detailed enough to not only inform how his characters do as naval officers, but (when used properly) can also provide consistent, solid answers to questions that tend to come up in space opera. These questions and how they're answered can make or break a story; they tend to focus on how and why things happen. Why did they turn off their hyper-freem drives right then? Why not ten minutes earlier? How did character A save their fleet from extinction? Was it an 'offscreen miracle' or can we see how they did it? The latter is usually a tighter, more fun read.
This is not an unmitigated good. Weber's stories tend to suffer, particularly near the beginnings and before major space actions, from lots and lots of expository character internal monologues, or worse yet, forced dialogues as he explains all the necessary physics/tech/tactics to us, the dumb reader. He can't just assume we've read the previous 5 books; he has to ensure that even if we're a pickup reader we can see that he's not just asking us to believe in a miracle of 'a fights b, a wins.' His miracles are constrained, boxed, tightly compartmented - 'a starship can create fixed gravitic waves,' for example. You don't have to wave your hands madly about the whole thing - just a few bits at the beginning. Once you're able to swallow those (which is easier than swallowing whole plot sections) then he can lead you to the outcome he wants through narration rather than sheer invention.
None of this says anything about his skills in other areas of writing, as I've disclaimered above. Still, I have enough fun climbing his pyramids of fantasy-supported logic when he builds them to keep buying the books for that reason alone - which makes any successes in the other fields gravy, for me.