Having been closely following the news on the Korean peninsula over the last few weeks, a thought occurred to me, one I hadn’t exactly seen suggested elsewhere.
In many ways, the situation in N. Korea greatly resembles the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviets put nukes in Cuba and the US signaled that it found this degree of nuclear proliferation unacceptable and was very prepared to use force. Obviously there is a difference as the North Koreans are developing ICBMs themselves rather than serving as a forward base for a foreign power, but China is still their main sponsor as the Soviets were with Cuba.
In the end both sides backed down – they went to the brink and then made a deal. The Soviets would promptly withdraw their missiles, the US guaranteed never to invade Cuba (a promise they’ve stuck with for 55 years now) while the US would (secretly) withdraw their missiles from Italy and Turkey. It was an intense game of geopolitical chess and one of the most crucial moments of the Cold War.
So what would be a similar deal be here? If the US has declared that they will simply not accept a North Korea armed with nuclear ICBMs and they want China’s support (or at least neutrality) in confronting Kim Jong-un, then they would need something to swap, as the Chinese obviously don’t want a US-allied, reunified Korea right on their border. North Korea may be a crazy, despotic, impoverished regime, but they are still supposed to be useful as the Chinese to a buffer state. Even if the Chinese have finally concluded that Kim’s regime is more trouble than its worth, they would need to be a very sweet prize to tempt them to cooperate with the US in his removal.
The most obvious candidate is Taiwan, but I think this is unlikely – it would be an unacceptable loss of prestige for the US. Their withdrawal of missiles in Italy/Turkey in 1962 had to be secret for the same reason. For them to publicly say ‘we’ll take Pyongyang and you can have Taipei’ would signal to all its Allies that the US may abandon them when convenient, so I don’t think its possible. Another pawn on the geopolitical chess board is needed.
But I think there is another candidate, just a few hundred miles away – the South China Sea. At the moment this region disputed between the two powers. The Chinese claim 90% of the sea and have been building their artificial islands and started drilling there, but are still opposed by the US and the neighboring countries who want a more equitable sharing of their maritime zones.
The Sea is incredibly valuable for two reasons – a third of the world’s shipping goes through it, and its considerable hydrocarbon reserves. A recent conservative estimate was that the sea contained at least 28 billion barrels of oil and 7,500km3 of natural gas. This is enough to cover China’s current energy needs for 13+ years combined (7+ of oil and 42 years of natural gas respectively). Some estimates are a lot higher.
Of these key resources the Chinese have very limited internal supplies. Currently they only produce a third of the oil they consume and just over half the natural gas – and consumption is still growing much more rapidly than demand. The layman thinks that it is western powers like the United States who are most likely to wage wars over oil – but western powers laid claim to most of the world’s great oil fields decades ago. It was the Germans and Japanese who were desperate enough to wage war over the oil resources of the Caucusus and Dutch East Indies respectively in the 1940s.
Today, China is in the same position. Furthermore, most of what they import comes by sea, putting them completely at the mercy of the US navy. Again like the Axis powers in the World Wars, they are very susceptible to blockade, and their rivals possess far greater sea power. In the event the US shuts down that trade, war or no war, China’s roaring economy will come to a grinding halt.
It is no wonder the Chinese have been aggressively laying their claim to this region. As the world’s largest oil importer, the US have a huge knife pressed very close the jugular of the Chinese economy. Of course, allowing China to keep building their artificial islands, install air defenses, drill for oil and gas and patrol the area doesn’t quite remove the threat of a western blockade entirely.
The US could probably still send in the navy and the marines and destroy any PRC assets beyond the mainland in the opening stages of any major war – but it would be a bloody business. Think of the battles waged over Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the last great Pacific War. At the very least it takes that knife, blunts it a little and forces it back a few inches – if I were the Chinese, I might take that deal.
So I suspect that if a deal has been made, that might be its rough contents. Trump could have secretly said to them ‘if you help us curb N. Korea’s nuclear ambitions we won’t interfere with you in the South China Sea’. Its a trillion $$$ deal.
Redrawing the geopolitical map of East Asia
Other sweeteners could relate to trade or the situation of the North after any resulting war – perhaps make everything north of the current DMZ a demilitarized zone and guarantee Chinese economic interests? There’s lots of other things, but the most brilliant thing about the South China Sea is its just like withdrawing the missiles in Turkey – it can happen relatively unannounced. The whole world would notice if the PRC marched into Taiwan, but drilling in the ocean? No one really cares except the neighbors, and the US would be busy managing them while the Chinese busily established their energy security.
(The below scenario was written just before the 2016 election. With Trump’s victory, it remains untested…for now)
Writing this the day before the 2016 US election I find myself wondering, along with many others, exactly what the result will be tomorrow?
I mean more than just Clinton vs Trump.
I mean how severe a blow has this election cycle dealt to the overall health of the political system? Can American democracy survive this?
While this forecast may be hopelessly out of date just 24 hours from now, lets guess that Clinton wins, narrowly. This is what the polls currently show. The Five Thirty Eight election forecast has Trump’s odds hovering around 30% – certainly too close for comfort for the Democrats. He may yet win, but what if he doesn’t?
I make this assumption because the implications are much more daunting.
Just Googling it, you find that many people over time have predicted a coming collapse of the United States. This could be in the form of some kind of revolution or an outright civil war. The odds of this happening surely remain low, but no longer seems quite so unthinkable. In just the last few years, we’ve seen the collapse of numerous regimes. The Arab Spring, which saw the toppling of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and (possibly) Syria, for starters, Ukraine as well. Then let us not forget the sudden (and completely unexpected) collapse of the Soviet bloc circa 1989. That the same thing could happen in a western country is far from unthinkable.
Of course, the options are not simply ‘business as usual’ or ‘civil war 2.0’. Likely, it will be something in-between. There are many past examples of civil disorder we could cite, both within and outside the US. You can go to Wikipedia to find the former. In the last year alone, they list eight major incidents involving violent riots or protests.
Lately, these have usually followed controversial police shootings. The Baltimore riots last year for instance lasted several weeks and saw more than a hundred police injured and nearly 500 arrests. Two and a half thousand national guardsmen were even called in to quell the violence. It is not uncommon for hundreds of people to be arrested or injured in these cases, though fatalities are comparatively rare in the modern era.
A History of Civil Disorder in the US
To look at more major incidents we have to go back a bit further. Take the Rodney King riots in 1992. The city of Los Angeles was in chaos for a full week. Some 55 people were killed, more than 2,000 injured and 11,000 arrested. It took the national guard and several army divisions to restore order. Some 13,500 troops were deployed in all. While still a tiny fraction of the whole United States armed forces – which number 1.3 million full time and 800,000 reserve personnel, it is still one of the greatest examples of civil disorder in the United States since the Civil War.
Probably the greatest example in the 20th century however, would be the ‘King Assassination Riots’ in April-May 1968 (also known as Holy Week). In raw figures the results were similar to the Rodney King Riots – at least 43 people died, 2,500 were injured and some 15,000 arrested. Rather than being restricted to one city, African-Americans rioted in more than one hundred . Tens of thousands of troops were deployed to major cities like Washington D.C. and Chicago.
These were in fact just the culmination of numerous black riots in the ’60s, including ones in New York (1964), Los Angeles (1965), Cleveland (1966), New Jersey (1967) and Detroit (1967), which sometimes resulted in dozens of deaths. We can look back on this era as more than just a few isolated riots – this was a sustained period of heightened racial tensions in the US. It is perhaps the best model we have for what might happen next – though if anything, with the races reversed.
There are other examples we could look at. 1919 was the year of the ‘red summer’ when racial tensions and communist agitators (following the recent Bolshevik revolution in Russia) killed as many as several hundred people. In 1913 the state of Colorado experienced a major uprising – the ‘Colorado Coalfield War’ where conflict between striking miners and local authorities resulted in hundreds of casualties.
Pretty much all these examples have a singular ‘trigger event’. With the 1992 riots, it was the acquittal of four police officers for excessive force over the beating and arrest of Rodney King. In 1968 it was the dramatic assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Colorado exploded with a murder – after finding the body of a strikebreaker, the Colorado National Guard attacked and burned a strikers’ tent community to the ground, sparking further violence.
So the question then is – will the 2016 election result be a similar trigger? And what could be the scale of the violence?
The Case For Revolution
If recent polling is to be believed, 1 in 4 Americans would support their state declaring independence from the union. This figure is over 30% in some regions, and apparently over 50% among certain groups in the Republican party (such as ‘Tea Party’ members).
Even after the 2012 elections, online petitions to whitehouse.gov emerged in all 50 states calling for secession from the United States. Nearly a million people signed, including 125,000 from Texas alone. So far, this is just a tiny fraction out of 300 million Americans, but the numbers are growing, and could be much higher than anyone realizes. Certainly very few politicians, even Republicans, would support such a movement, but as Donald Trump’s 2016 candidacy shows, who cares what the elites want?
The major fault lines in the nation are fairly obvious. Trump voters are whiter, male, more rural and more religious. To say ‘poorer’ is not strictly accurate, as historically wealthier voters tend to go Republican anyway, but his most die-hard supporters are often working-class whites. Democratic voters are more likely to be women, urban dwellers, black or Hispanic.
A problem, potentially huge, is that while the pro-Trump groups may collectively be limited in number (assuming Clinton wins) they are individually much ‘stronger’ than the average person in America. I mean this in quite a raw physical sense, relevant to the question of civil disobedience and even civil war.
Donald Trump is up among ten points with men – who are much more likely to make useful soldiers in any conflict. This is also true of more rural voters, who are much more likely to be ‘survivalist’ types, members of their local militia, or otherwise already self-sustaining and ready to go. According to recent polls, more than half of Republican households own a gun, something true of only 20% of Democratic households.
This disparity has only grown over time. Indeed, nearly 11 million guns were manufactured in 2013, three times the figure from a decade earlier. I don’t know what worse omen there is then the fact that in the most heavily armed country in the world gun sales are still going through the roof.
Truly, there seems to be little point denying the fact that if all of America’s conservatives lined up on one side of a battlefield, and all of its liberals (hipster-typed included) on the other, the liberals would quickly be curb stomped.
This perhaps reveals a fundamental flaw with a democratic system. Despite its benevolent reputation, democracy only works because the losers in any given vote acknowledge, on some level, that there is no point disputing the result by force because they would likely lose anyway. If you’re outnumbered at the polls, you’d be outnumbered on any subsequent battlefield.
But if one particular side is fewer in numbers but still greater in strength this presents a dilemma. Lets face it, the only thing protecting the ‘United States of Canada’ from ‘Jesusland’ at the moment is a few million soldiers and police. Their loyalty would be the key question in any scenario where America descends into real internal conflict.
The other major factor here, and a necessary precursor to a mass uprising among angry whites, is the changing demographics of the nation and what this means for their future. Black and especially Hispanic populations are growing more rapidly than whites. Further throw in recent plans by the Democrats to let in hundreds of thousands more refugees from places like Syria and you can understand the electoral time-bomb the Republicans are facing. We see a similar backlash with the recent rise of the nationalist right in Europe. Most of these new immigrants will, inevitably, end up voting for the left. Where else will they be getting their welfare checks?
You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it.
Mitt Romney had it right back in 2012 when he pointed out how 47% of Americans now pay no federal income tax. When half the country is forcefully funding the other half, with the latter growing in number every year, how is this situation sustainable? When the welfare dependent ‘takers’ simply outnumber the tax-paying ‘makers’ how can a democracy survive long-term? Throw in the deep social divisions in America, over race, religion, abortion, gay rights and a dozen other issues, and what do you have?
My point is this – one half of America is very angry and heavily armed – and may be about to lose what could be their last ‘winnable’ election to an opposition they deem exploitative and intolerable.
How is civil disorder not going to occur here?
Outbreak of Rioting
The worst-case scenario, then, is this.
Once a Trump loss appears inevitable, protests start across the nation. These are particularly common in heavily working-class white areas with high unemployment, such as in states like Michigan and Ohio. In cities with both large white and black populations, ethnic tensions explode. The worst examples include Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore and a number of southern cities. Numerous riots break out with black and white gangs fighting running battles in the streets. In many cases, local police are unable to handle the violence. In dozens of cities, the national guard is called in.
So far, we essentially have Holy Week in reverse. Rather than blacks rioting at the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. we have whites rioting at the election loss of Donald Trump. The simplest (and most likely) end to this story is that the riots are quelled. A small number of people (maybe a few dozen) are dead, with hundreds or even thousands more injured or arrested. Politicians (including new President-elect Clinton) make sympathetic speeches and vow to heal a divided America. Within a few years we all forget the whole thing.
But what if that isn’t the end?
How a Civil War Might Result
Amidst the brewing protests, Donald Trump refuses to concede the election, repeating his claims that the process is ‘rigged’ and urging Americans to ‘rise up against this utterly corrupt system’.
As the national guard is called in, problems arise immediately. With well over 50% of armed forces members having voted for Trump, many guardsmen do not answer the call to mobilize. Some have even joined the protesters, or remain at home to defend their neighborhoods amid the violence. Several states decline to call on the federal government for help at all.
By mid-November, the first serious calls for independence have emerged. In Jackson, Mississippi, more than ten thousand mostly white protesters surround and occupy the state capitol building, demanding the state declare independence. Most of the legislature flees, but several local politicians join with the protesters.
The Mississippi national guard – 12,000 strong, is mobilized, but less than half respond to the call. Those that do soon assemble around the state capitol. Conflicting orders arrive from the state governor and Washington, with the result they refuse to move in to clear the protesters.
Still in office, President Obama orders the immediate nationalization of the guard, but this is refused by the local troops as well as most of their commanders, with state governor Phil Bryant also objecting. Most of the local guardsmen then defect to the protesters, swelling their ranks as they fortify the center of Jackson. Thousands begin fleeing the city – particularly local blacks, fearful of the riots and whether the city might become a real battleground.
Regular army units are called in, and by the final week of November more than 30,000 Federal troops and officials from a number of agencies have surrounded the city, with the protesters and defecting guardsmen also growing in number as the stand becomes a magnet for nationalists and patriots nationwide. Still hoping to a peaceful end to the crisis, President Obama begins negotiations with the protesters.
The standoff drags on for several weeks. Meanwhile the situation escalates across the rest of the nation. In many areas riots are put down, but for every city that is pacified another defies the federal government. Across the twenty-seven pro-Trump states (sixteen of which have governors which previously endorsed Trump) calls for independence grow as federal authority quickly erodes. By the end of November more than a dozen cities (though no full states) have joined Jackson in declaring at least local independence.
Seeking a definitive end to the standoff, on December 2nd President Obama finally orders the federal troops to retake Jackson and restore order. Driving Humvees and carrying automatic weapons, thousands of federal troops begin advancing into Jackson from multiple directions. Resistance is surprisingly fierce, as thousands of heavily armed protesters remain, many having arrived from out-of-state. Images are broadcast around the world of federal troops firing into crowds and blasting aside barricades. Within two days the death toll is at over a hundred and little progress has been made. Local commanders call for the deployment of tanks, artillery and even aircraft to quell the uprising quickly. For the time being, the attack is called off.
However, outraged at this violence, public opinion (already shaky) turns decisively against the federal government and what many begin calling its ‘Tiananmen-style’ crackdown on dissent. In Republican-dominated states legislatures come together to seriously consider voting for independence, as occurred 150 years earlier. By mid-December the impossible has become a reality as multiple states, including Alabama, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina, vote for independence. Several north-western states – Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, follow suit. In Alaska, a vote of the state legislature also sees the same result. In Louisiana, Democratic governor John Bel Edwards resigns after his veto of secession is overruled by a two-thirds majority, courtesy of several defecting democrats.
With eleven states having officially ‘declared independence’ in two weeks, the true scale of the crisis is realized. The government in Washington re-affirms the ‘indissoluble’ nature of the union and calls all votes for succession ‘illegal and void under the constitution’. President Obama, with President-elect Clinton by his side, issues an executive order on December 16th for the armed forces to restore order. Fighting resumes in Jackson and several other cities. Within a week fighting is occurring in the heart of the city. Some six hundred ‘rebels’ and two hundred federal soldiers are dead, with thousands more injured.
This ‘Fallujah in Mississippi’ sparks further outrage, with Utah, Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, North and South Dakota and Oklahoma further declaring independence, bringing the total number of states to 22 and splitting the United States in two. They consist almost solely of states with Republican Governors and legislatures and a pro-Trump vote, with a few exceptions. Altogether, they have a population of 116 million people – 36% of the US population, as well as four of its five largest military bases.
Along the borders of the seceding states, riots quickly escalate into military skirmishes between various groups, many of them former army troops or national guardsmen, suddenly declaring themselves pro or anti-secession. Hundreds of thousands of people begin fleeing their homes, with blacks and Hispanics leaving the seceding states while some whites begin moving there, fearful of retaliatory black rioters or fresh federal government crackdowns.
Amidst the brewing crisis, with stock markets tumbling, foreign governments expressing their shock and the loyalty of much of the armed forces in doubt, President Obama invites Donald Trump to Washington in an attempt to end the crisis. The invitation is accepted, however the next day (December 22nd) while heading to the airport to fly from New York to Washington, an assassin (soon identified as a black lives matter protester) spots and shoots Donald Trump, who later dies in hospital.
Suddenly without any figurehead, and more distrustful of the ‘Washington establishment’ then ever, representatives of the defecting states begin gathering in Houston, Texas (the largest city in the seceding states). On December 25th (Christmas day) representatives decide to form a new confederacy, with Houston as the interim capital and Trump’s former running mate – Indiana Governor Mike Pence, as leader.
With both sides refusing to yield, the stage is set for civil war.
Having recently watched Passengers I have to agree with the reviews, its simply not the best movie.
Passengers is a film that almost – almost deals with some very fundamental ideas about humans, sex and our relationships with each other. Unfortunately, these ideas are barely touched on, and I have a strong suspicion as to the reasons why.
The basic premise (spoilers) is that Jim (Chris Pratt) wakes up 90 years early on a 120 year space voyage to another planet due to an on-board malfunction. Everyone else remains in hibernation. Due to various circumstances (which make little sense, but we’ll go with it) he can’t go back to sleep or awaken a member of the crew to help him (being sealed off in a separate compartment behind a huge door).
He is surrounded by every luxury, but with no one to talk to (except various AIs with a Siri-like level of intelligence). He eventually works out the only thing he can really do is awaken any of the other passengers. He finally picks Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) mostly because, lets face it, she’s hot and he wants to bone her. After a year and 3 weeks of this ‘Castaway’ routine he finally wakes her up.
Initially, he doesn’t tell her, and she has to assume her pod malfunctioned as well. She comes to accept her essential death sentence and after a while the two of them have a bit of a space romance and become lovers. Mostly because they’re too very attractive people, I can believe this part.
Eventually, of course, Aurora figures it all out (the robot bartender lets it slip). Predictably, things turn cold instantly. There’s a few scenes of shouting, her avoiding him, him apologizing. She alternates between ignoring him and physically attacking and screaming at him (again, quite believable). Later on a whole bunch of stupid stuff happens, culminating in the two of them having to single-handily fix the ship’s fusion reactor.
A heartwarming moment occurs at the end, when they finally figure out a way (not possible earlier) to put only one of them to sleep. Jim nobly offers it to Aurora, but she declines and we fast-forward to a final scene where the other crew and passengers wake up 88 years later and see a nice garden growing in the main lobby, implying the two of them lived their whole lives on the ship, got old and died there.
While I will give credit to the film design (the Avalon is a cool-looking starship) the film could have been infinitely more dramatic. The plot is dull. There are no real surprises and it has all the character depth of the Star Wars prequels.
Should Jim have woken Aurora up?
This question is at the heart of the film. It is almost a spiritual sequel to Castaway. What if you were Tom Hanks on the island but you could actually wish for someone to join you there, though presumably for life and with no chance of escaping?
This concept has actually been explored in mythology before – there is the story of Hades (Greek god of the underworld) kidnapping Zeus’s daughter Persephone and forcing her to live with him in the underworld as his wife. Some reviews have referenced ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ as well, but I think the dumbest ones are those which have the gall to say the film ‘encourages a sense of male entitlement’. How dare a man actually does what he wants!
As for Jim’s dilemma, if we’re going to write up a list of pros and cons there’s really just one major reason in favor – because it will benefit him and make him happy/less lonely. This is true of all selfish actions. Very simple.
I’d say there are three reasons against:
You may be punished later on
It will negatively affect others
You may have an internal emotional struggle and regret it regardless
I think the film’s strength is that it effectively removes the first reason. It not only makes the choice for Jim very clear-cut in giving him the opportunity to do something nakedly selfish, but by removing the main argument against it – that of some sort of higher authority preventing him. He’s not just without company on the spaceship – he’s without laws. There’s no one there to deter or punish him. This leaves just the other two reasons.
It will negatively affect others
Many people will say this is a reason in and of itself, but my response is, so what? Bad things happen to other people all the time. Several thousand Africans probably died of poverty and disease yesterday, yet today I didn’t see anyone in the street shedding any tears.
Here is where you have dumb feminists saying Jim has a ‘sense of male entitlement’. But what’s inherently wrong with ‘wanting’ something? Isn’t everything driven by wants? The whole global economy is based on people wanting things, up to an including intimacy with others.
No, there’s only one real reason left.
You may have an internal emotional struggle and regret it regardless
This is the real reason, and its something so simple yet I think society has forgotten it. We don’t care about others just for the sake of it – we care about them because of the way they make us feel.
I like chocolate because it tastes good. That’s really all there is to it. You can’t separate the way you care about something or someone from their function towards you. An emotional attachment has to be earned, not assumed.
This is a very simple concept and yet something that modern feminism and social justice seems to have thrown out the window. To care about others, to treat them as anything more than a random bunch of atoms, there must be a reason.
Not caring about something is the default setting. They have it completely the wrong way around. This is at the heart of the modern left’s faults, and Hollywood reflects this.
Quite simply – If I’m on a spaceship with Jessica Valenti, wearing her ‘I bathe in male tears’ T-shirt and there’s only one escape pod left, why should I give it to her? Cry me a river about ‘male entitlement’ then.
Yet these people expect kindness to be automatic. That I should automatically care about starving Africans or Muslim refugees or a battered housewife simply because these things are inherently sympathetic. They’ve taught people, especially young women, that they ‘don’t owe men a thing’ and should proceed to act completely selfishly, then decide to criticize this movie about a man acting selfishly.
What the hell does Jim owe Aurora, or anyone else?
No – there is no objective sympathy, only subjective. If I know the Muslim refugee or battered housewife personally, we might be in business, but only then.
Exploring our connections with other people
Tugging on heartstrings: Lesson 1
This is the whole meaning behind the concept of ‘love’. Love is an emotional connection so intense that you would literally rather die than stop being with someone. Love is when you would give your life for another person (or even an animal or object). If you have a partner, but probably wouldn’t sacrifice yourself for her, you’re probably just in ‘lust’ not ‘love’. I also think this tells a lie to the whole ‘love at first sight’ thing. No, you’re just in ‘lust at first sight’ – far more common.
This is why modern, non-traditional relationships so often don’t work. A woman might still offer sex, but what else? Where is the emotional attachment between a modern couple that would compel one member to actually sacrifice themselves for the other? Why would I shove Jessica Valenti aside and take the escape pod, yet if it was a quality women – beautiful, empathetic, dutiful, one who’s actually worked to gain my love over an extended period of time, I would probably just nod and say, with no hesitation, ‘take it honey, you know I couldn’t live without you…’
The whole question as to whether you’d wake someone up or not, if you’re in Jim’s shoes, is how emotionally attached you feel to another person or other people. The film could have been a lot more interesting if it slowly stripped away Jim’s sense of ‘morality’ (that which modern society has imposed upon him so that he’s a better slave) and exposed him, a typical average Joe, for the selfish creatures we humans really are.
Passengers should have been a ‘redpill’ film
Imagine that Jim wakes Aurora up. She later finds out and refuses to talk to him. At this point he decides ‘fuck it’, throws her out the airlock, and picks another women to be his ‘Eve’ instead. This could repeat several times. It could have been a real ‘descent into darkness’ thing. I’ll call this the redpill ending. In fact, the film would have been so much more interesting if it headed in the direction of Pandorum.
Pandorum – like Passengers but actually interesting
This is at the heart of why the movie is so awful and just plain dull – they simply can’t do this. Instead they have to give the bluepill ‘guy continues to act selflessly for absolutely no reason’ ending.
In Jim’s situation – stripped of all human contact, all laws, and all responsibilities, the real answer is very likely that we will be stripped down to the very selfish creatures we all know we are deep down. This is why cannibalism is not uncommon in survival situations, as our desperate bodily needs overcome whatever shallow sense of morality our logical minds have previously seen fit to believe. Here its loneliness rather than food, but its the same principle.
Jim is an emotional cannibal, who, after thinking over the issues at length, I really can’t bring myself to criticize. We’re not machines, we’re not the emotionless robot barkeep. As social animals, we need intimacy like we need food. Society insists on ignoring this realty, like how they ignore the connection where around 75% of suicides are connected to a breakup. Does a women (or anyone for that matter) ‘murder’ a man by repeatedly ignoring him and mistreating him emotionally?
Yes, I think it is perfectly possible.
Hollywood however, simply cannot bring itself to embrace this conclusion. Instead it dances around it for two hours before events somehow work out and Jim and Aurora come to live happily ever after…before presumably dying several decades later on without ever talking to any other people.
Passengers is a perfect example of political correctness ruining films. Any story that deeply explores human nature is probably going to have to conclude that we are fundamentally selfish creatures.
Selfishness is at the root of morality. Its the first building block, the cornerstone around which everything else lies. Its not ‘how do you justify selfishness’ but ‘how do you justify not being selfish?’
To which the real answer is ‘because we have a built-in sensor to identify things to which we grow a real emotional attachment to and don’t wish to mistreat, like partners, children, puppies, and so on…’
Fostering these attachments, most commonly in the form of the family unit and traditional gender roles, as well as exclusively male and female spaces in which group camaraderie can develop, should be one of the highest priorities for any society.
So of course Passengers sucked, unless perhaps you got some redpill director like Quentin Tarantino or George R. R. Martin involved. On the big screen, people just aren’t allowed to be people anymore.
Nobody remotely interested in space will have failed to notice the headlines that pop up every few months about scientist’s latest discovery of a ‘potentially habitable planet’ – ‘Hey look, we found a planet only twice as large as the Earth, possibly orbiting in the habitable zone, that’s only 400 light years away!’
Of course we should not ignore the latest Kepler discoveries. Nobody has ever done this before. The spotting of more than 3,000 exoplanets since 1988 is a scientific milestone and personally I remain a huge fan of SETI.
But as someone who hopes to earn my stripes as a hard science-fiction author someday, I can’t help but remain slightly skeptical. Will these far-flung worlds ever really affect the destiny of humankind?
Might it not be the case that, in however many centuries it takes us to reach them, we come up with much better alternatives when it comes to finding a place to live? Long before anyone has a chance to do their Neil Armstrong impression?
Let’s step back for a moment.
Say all of 21st century humanity, as we know it, was just a tribe from the Stone Age living in a cave somewhere. It’s a cave, but it’s a nice cave, nestled in a hillside, over a river, surrounded by fertile soil. Not a bad place to live.
Now imagine one of the young hunters goes off exploring, and returns a few days later with exciting news.
‘Hey guys! You’ll never believe what I found! There’s another cave we could live in! I mean…its kinda small, its filled with poisonous moss, oh and its in the middle of the desert…two hundred miles away, but still!’
And indeed, maybe some members of the tribe eventually do make the arduous journey and attempt to live there. Maybe they even find it tolerable, and this sets a precedent, with other bands setting off to colonize caves of their own.
In this manner, Stone Age humans might have crossed entire continents, seeking out more and more caves in which to live. In time, Civilization might have arisen from these underground refuges. Underground wars would have been fought. Cave-based empires would rise and fall. Shakespeare might have written Hamlet under the stalactites.
Such an alternate history seems bizarre, but many cultures have come with such quirks. The Incas were apparently able to create a large, functioning empire without ever making use of the wheel for instance, and the Chinese language famously lacks an alphabet to this day.
But while humans have sometimes lived in caves, civilization as we know it did not ultimately center on their existence. At some point, someone invented an alternative form of habitation, one that proved superior to caves in most respects.
We call them houses.
The Rise of the Cosmic House
In case it’s not clear what I’m on about, the caves in this analogy are the planets themselves. As for the houses – that’s a little harder to describe. So what is the interstellar equivalent of a house? While the cave analogy is mine, I can’t claim credit for this entire idea. Several sci-fi authors have already started exploring this concept.
In Iain M. Banks’ ‘Culture’ universe, most citizens of the advanced, star-spanning Culture live on enormous spaceships or giant artificial habitats. Planets are considered little more than nature preserves, inhabited by primitive races yet to develop spaceflight.
I also recall a Stephen Baxter story where a character becomes the first man to land on an asteroid. At first, he’s little known, with most of the glory going to the first man on Mars. In time however, the Martian cities decline, the planet is largely abandoned, and the bulk of humanity ends up living in space. The protagonist does to the Martian Neil Armstrong what Christopher Columbus did to Leif Erikson.
In the end, it is those who leave a lasting legacy that achieve true glory. Space is where our future lies, not planet-bound like our ape ancestors.
Many studies have been conducted in to what future space habitats may look like. The jumbled mess that is the International Space Station will be looked back upon as the first roughly hewn raft our ancestors assembled on a beach somewhere.
Names like Bernal Sphere, Stanford Torus and O’Neill Cylinder have been floating around for a while now. These consist of different versions of what is essentially the same thing – a rotating space habitat.
The basic idea is that space habitats need to rotate in order to produce centrifugal force, thereby imitating the gravity of a planet. These generally take the forms of cylinders, wheels or spheres. A cylinder a thousand meters across, for instance, would need to rotate about once a minute to approximate 1G.
There’s no reason to believe such habitats could not be built in the near future. I’ll stress again – this is science, not science fiction.
A very early example would be ‘Space Station One’ – the rotating wheel we see early in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The building of much larger habitats is certainly possible. ‘Rama’ from Rendezvous with Rama is a larger example, being a rotating cylinder some fifty kilometers long and twenty wide.
I can even imagine looking up at the night sky in a hundred years or so and seeing hundreds of city-sized cylinders, spheres and wheels orbiting the Earth. Probably the best description of this we’ve seen so far would be Alastair Reynold’s aptly named ‘Glitter Band’ of ten thousand space habitats orbiting the planet Yellowstone in his Revelation Space novels. Some authors have presented us with even larger structures, such as the Halo Ringworlds, Iain M. Banks’ Culture Orbitals and Larry Niven’s titular Ringworld.
The ultimate extension of this principle is a ‘Dyson Sphere’ – an immense swarm (NOT a solid shell) of solar power collectors surrounding a central star. Such a structure, if placed around our own sun, could collect nearly a million, billion times as much energy as current global electricity consumption.
Most science fiction ignores these ideas. Even if you are going to focus on planets, they could at least be depicted with some of the necessary infrastructure any interstellar civilization is likely to install. Whenever I see a new planet in Star Wars I find myself thinking – so where are the space elevators? Where are the GPS satellites? The asteroid mining vessels? The orbital solar power arrays? Its like depicting a 21st century city without mentioning such essentials as an airport or sewerage system.
But one has to ask – amidst all this, what place is there for planets?
Planets vs. Space Habitats: A Losing Battle
When it comes to qualify of life, planets just can’t compete.
For starters, planets are horrendously inefficient users of space. The whole point of a sphere is to minimize the surface area of an object after all, making planets literally the worst possible option.
The Earth weighs nearly six trillion, trillion kilograms, but has a surface area of barely 500 million square kilometers. If you disassembled the Earth and used its material to manufacture rotating space habitats, even if the thickness of their shells averaged say, a kilometer, you would increase the available surface area over two thousand-fold. Not only would you have more space, but your new environment would be infinitely more malleable than your old one.
For starters, your new home’s gravity can be turned up or down like the volume control on a stereo. Just spin the habitat a little faster and it goes up. Do the opposite and eventually you’ll be back in free fall.
This is one of the biggest issues with planets. Mars, while many argue it is ripe for terraforming, has the downside of possessing only 38% as much surface gravity as Earth. For us Earthling this adjustment isn’t so bad (it could even be viewed as a positive) but for our descendants who may grow up there, returning to the mother planet could be a big issue. Only advanced medical technology may surmount this obstacle.
Even then, a humanity that spreads across the cosmos will surely splinter into innumerable factions. A big divide between them may well be gravity. Is a full Earth gravity really ideal? Or would it be better to just live in microgravity? Is there some ideal figure somewhere in between? I stress – the first problem with planets is that the gravity is not malleable. You’re stuck with either one full gee or 38% or whatever the local constant happens to be.
Meanwhile, other aspects like temperature, air pressure and humidity can all be adjusted in space like the air conditioning in your home. In fact, this brings us to another major flaw that tends to reduce planet-bound property values.
Planets are dangerous. About a hundred thousand people every year die in natural disasters of some sort. So far in the 2010s, the biggest killers have been earthquakes, temperature extremes, floods and epidemics. With improved technology these numbers tend to plummet drastically, but it’s hard to see them ever disappearing entirely.
I’m not sure that the average person on 21st century Earth has fully absorbed the implications of geology either. The knowledge that we are not in fact standing on solid ground – that thirty or forty kilometers beneath our feet is a broiling sea of liquid magma the same temperature as the surface of the sun, one on which the plates of the Earth’s crust slip and slide like rafts…let’s face it, it’s a terrifying reality we’re all just quietly ignoring.
But earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning storms, blizzards – all are optional extras on your brand new space habitat.
Another problem is accessibility. Planetary surfaces lie at the bottom of deep gravity wells. On Earth, you have to accelerate anything up to at least 11 kilometers a second just to reach space. The building of space elevators may reduce launch costs, but passengers will still be subject to lengthy rides up and down the tether that could last for days. In space meanwhile, a habitat would generate very little actual gravity. Spaceships could dock with it much like a ship at a pier.
A further difference is one of security. Planets, being massive balls of solid matter, are close to impossible to move. They are destined to follow the same orbit around their parent star for millions of years.
To anyone with a vendetta against your civilization, they make fat, juicy targets. All you have to do is fling an asteroid out of orbit or fire a giant space laser at just the right moment, even from light years away, and your salvo will eventually impact with the planet in question. Any idiot with a giant space laser in the Alpha Centauri system could blast the Earth no problem, and with no warning.
Space habitats meanwhile, are much more mobile (except perhaps some of the larger examples mentioned here). As long as you occasionally fire your thrusters to shift your station’s orbit, even slightly, that dastardly plot by the inhabitants of the Alpha Centauri system will be foiled.
One final advantage I’ll mention is the availability of resources. Potentially habitable planets are not expected to be found in more than maybe 1 in 10 star systems. If we were to remain a planet-bound civilization, the other 90% would go unused.
With space habitats however, you can construct them pretty much anywhere. There’s no reason to believe that asteroids in some quantity won’t be found around virtually all stars. Wherever we go, such raw materials should be abundant. The same of course applies to the solar energy you need to power your mining operations.
So as you can see, your brand new Space Habitat 5000 has numerous selling points – greater living space, adjustable gravity, climate control, geological stability, accessibility, security and availability of resources to name a few.
Honestly – what poor fool would still choose to anchor themselves down on a planet? Aside perhaps as nature preserves, what are they good for?
I am here merely to point out yet another big lie most science fiction clings to. The galaxy is always filled with warring factions competing over precious, precious planets.
In the genre of ‘alternate fiction’ there’s probably no possibility more commonly pondered than how the Axis countries might have won WW2 and what the resulting world would have looked like. Many authors have tackled this subject and there’s a wealth of information on hand one can use to try and piece together exactly what grand plans the Germans, Italians and Japanese might have had for their new world order.
Wikipedia actually has an excellent page covering the genre and lists dozens of examples. Many such books (and even a few movies) come with world maps detailing this alternate world. I ended up letting my creativity run wild and made my own, but here are a few of my favorite examples that I took inspiration from.
Fatherland by Robert Harris
Set in a world where Hitler’s armies had successfully defeated the Soviets by 1943, while shortly afterwards the Americans were able to defeat Japan. The Greater German Reich and the United States are both nuclear armed and are the two superpowers in the novel (set in 1964) engaged in an alternate cold war. Germany’s borders stretch from France to the Ural mountains, beyond which a seemingly endless guerrilla war is being fought against the remnants of the Soviet Union, partly to ‘keep the German people on their toes’ as Hitler intended.
In the Presence of Mine Enemies by Harry Turtledove
Set in the modern day and featuring a much more complete Axis victory than Fatherland. The United States stayed neutral in World War Two, allowing the Germans and Japanese to divide Eurasia between themselves. Thirty years later they used nuclear weapons to devastate the US homeland, which is now under German occupation. The Germans and Japanese are the world’s two greatest powers, and are locked in their own alternate cold war with the peace kept only by their respective nuclear arsenals. At the novel’s end the Nazi party’s declining support leads to a period of democratization similar to the ‘perestroika’ era before the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Set in the 1960s, this book features an even more total Axis victory in a longer WW2 (1939-47). An isolationist US government allows the Axis powers to divide Eurasia between themselves. They attack the US soon afterwards. By 1947 practically the entire globe is under the direct rule or dominance of the Axis. Even South America has been partitioned between the Germans and Japanese, who are now engaged in an alternate cold war. Also, the Straits of Gibraltar have been damned and the Mediterranean drained to create even more Lebensraum for the Germans and Italians (an idea once seriously proposed).
Now I wish no disrespect to an author as brilliant as Philip K. Dick, but I think he’s exaggerating the practical extent of Axis control of the globe to a fair degree. Why on Earth would the Germans or Japanese even care who ruled the Amazon rainforest? Or the deserts of Central Asia? Maintaining an effective government over such a vast extent of territory and number of people is hardly practical.
Some might argue that several Imperialist powers, such as the British and French, were in fact able to create such world spanning empires, but the difference is that this largely occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries. The British were able to rule a third of all Africans by 1914 mainly because Africa’s population was relatively small and underdeveloped.
Within fifty years most Europeans colonies in Africa had been abandoned because of resistance from a growing and increasingly educated population of locals. Such anti-colonial conflicts would no doubt have occurred after WW2 regardless of which side won. Even if the Germans and Japanese had been utterly brutal in putting down such revolts this might have just worsened the problem. Case in point, the Americans weren’t able to win in Vietnam post-WW2, why would the Japanese have fared any better?
People have suggested many possible ways for the Axis to win WW2, from the Germans winning the Battle of Britain by not switching to a terror bombing campaign against British cities to the Japanese actually catching the American aircraft carriers at anchor in Pearl Harbor. The way I’d suggest is a fairly simple one, and it doesn’t count on good luck, just good foresight on the part of the Nazi leadership.
Ultimately the Second World War was a battle of industrial might. Superior tactics and training may have given the Germans an edge in the early stages of the war, and differences in technology and leadership certainly played a role in various countries’ fortunes, but ultimately by the war’s later stages all of the major combatants were on pretty much the same page with regards to these variables.
Victory would lie with whichever side could produce the most tanks, guns and planes and could readily equip and train the most fighting men. It is not widely known to casual students of WW2 that Hitler did not in fact fully mobilize the Reich for war until the tide had already well and truly turned against Germany. Only after the Wehrmacht’s disastrous defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943 did the Nazis brace the population for total war.
Hitler had originally believed the Russian campaign would last no more than a few months, so dismissive was he (not without some justification) of the Soviet system. Despite increasingly destructive Allied bombing raids and the loss of vast stretches of resource-rich occupied territory, German war production increased all the way until late 1944. For example, from 1940 until 1942 the Germans averaged just under a thousand aircraft produced each month. By 1944 this figure had jumped to over 3,000. Tank production rose even more dramatically, from a mere 500 a month in 1941 to over 2,000 by 1944. The Soviets and British mobilized their economies much more quickly than the Germans did. British aircraft production for example, was actually higher than that of the Germans from 1940-43.
Of course the Allies’ trump card in this armaments race was the industrial might of the United States. Of the nearly 800,000 aircraft (including fighters, bombers, land attack, reconnaissance, training, transport, etc) produced during World War Two over 300,000 were made by the Americans. American industrial power however only really made itself felt from 1944 onward. A German victory on the European continent before then could have made both superpowers’ homelands all but invulnerable to one another. German support could then have been used to aid Japan in its fight against the US.
Alternate History Scenario: Germany Mobilizes for Total War Sooner
Lets say that in this alternate universe the German economy was fully mobilized for war beginning in 1940. By 1941 the Germans have massively expanded their armaments production. Preparations for operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, proceed much more swiftly and anticipate the possibility of a much longer and tougher war. Consequently the attack starts on its intended start date of May 18th, or five weeks earlier than in reality. Hitler also has the foresight to lay in ample stocks of winter clothing in case the fighting lasts longer than a few months.
By Mid-August the Germans are ready to launch their final assault on Moscow (rather than the end of September). As German forces approach the city a state of siege is declared on September 6th (rather than 19th October). By the middle of September Moscow has been surrounded and the Germans are fighting their way into the suburbs. The fighting is fierce and both sides suffer heavily, but by the time full winter weather has arrived in November only a few pockets of resistance remain in the city. The Soviet Winter offensive barely makes an impact on the heavily entrenched Germans around Moscow due to a lack of Soviet reserve armies and equipment; nevertheless the two sides are locked in a stalemate until late next Spring.
In May 1942 the Germans renew their offensive. Seeing the importance of inciting division within the Soviet Union, Hitler for the time being restrains the SS from their more brutal atrocities. Relatively gentle treatment at the hands of the Germans compels hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers to defect to the Axis, particularly non-Russians and anti-communists who resent Moscow’s distant rule.
The Caucasus is overrun by August and the next month the Siege of Leningrad ends with the eventual annihilation of all Soviet forces there. At roughly the same time Stalingrad falls in a matter of weeks and the Germans immediately establish bridgeheads across the Volga, with the Soviet Armies in a state of collapse. By the end of 1942 the Germans have advanced nearly all the way to the Urals.
The Germans continue their advance in 1943, capturing Chelyabinsk in June and advancing to Novosibirsk by September. The Germans are by now in control (except for considerable resistance movements which take many years to crush completely) of virtually all of European Russia. Stalin flees to Siberia, where he braces the remnants of the Red Army for a lengthy guerrilla campaign.
This chain of events necessitates that the situation on other fronts will have changed as well. Lets posit that the successful German offensive into southern Russia in 1942, plus a great deal of coercion on Hitler’s part, brings Turkey into the war on the Axis side in say, September 1942. The Turkish Army, a quarter of a million strong, and backed by several Panzer Divisions and strong Luftwaffe support, descends upon the Allied Armies in Egypt that by this point have been driven back by Rommel’s Afrika Korps almost to the port of Alexandria.
By the end of 1942 the trapped Allied Armies have been crushed and the Axis is rapidly establishing itself in the Middle East. The simultaneous Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942 are pushed back after the Germans redeploy significant forces from the Eastern front and the Allies have to evacuate their troops from Morocco in April 1943. Axis expeditions are eventually launched across the Sahara, beginning a slow advance down the African continent.
Emboldened by this success, Hitler prepares a second attempt to invade the British Isles. With operations on the Eastern front coming to a close the bulk of the Luftwaffe is redeployed to Western Europe. The first ‘thousand bomber raid’ hits London in April 1943 (as opposed to Cologne in May).
By July some 300,000 tons of bombs have been dropped on targets across southern England, five times more than in the first blitz, and almost a quarter of a million people have been killed. The Royal Air Force, even augmented with American air units, has been all but driven from the skies by June and the Royal Navy has been severely crippled. British armaments production declines by over a third in a matter of months.
Combined with the U-boat campaign in the north Atlantic the British are just months away from starvation. In August the Germans, having achieved air supremacy, launch their seaborne invasion. Three amphibious and three paratrooper divisions take part in the initial landings. Hundreds of thousands more troops, equipped with thousands of tanks and other armored vehicles, are not far behind. The small size of the German navy makes the operation very difficult, but the overwhelming might of the Luftwaffe holds off repeated Allied counter-attacks on the German bridgeheads west of Dover.
By the end of September the Germans have fought their way into London’s suburbs. By the end of the year the Allied frontlines have collapsed and Winston Churchill and his government have fled to North America. The last pockets of Allied resistance in Scotland and Wales are crushed by early 1944. The invasion still comes at a stiff price for the Germans, who suffer just over half a million casualties.
With Europe, North Africa and the Middle East in firm Axis control, events in 1944 turn to the Pacific theater of war. Assuming that the Japanese are on the defensive by now as they were in reality following the Battle of Midway in June 1942, then by mid-1944 the Americans should be just months off retaking the Philippines, but have overall yet made only a modest dent in Japan’s vast overseas empire and most of the Imperial navy is still intact.
The collapse of Britain allows the Germans to deploy many of their hundreds of U-boats to the Pacific theater. Many thousands of aircraft are redeployed as well. The Germans have a definite interest in doing this. A United States dominant not just in the Americas but the Pacific and East Asia as well would have been a severe strategic threat to Germany.
With German air and naval support, the Axis forces decisively win the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944. German submarines and several newly relocated Luftwaffe air groups, combined with Japanese sea and land based aircraft, overwhelm the American defenses and six of the fifteen American carriers in the Fifth Fleet are destroyed and hundreds of experienced American pilots are killed.
The American amphibious invasion of Saipan, which began a week earlier, is put in Jeopardy since the supporting Allied naval fleet anchored offshore is now very vulnerable to further Axis sea and land attacks. Several more Allied vessels are destroyed before the troops on Saipan are withdrawn and the American Fleet retires to Hawaii. In early 1944 Japanese forces in Manchuria also move into Soviet territory, and by the end of 1945 have formed their own ‘protectorate’ over much of eastern Siberia as far west as Lake Baikal.
In a series of major naval battles throughout 1944 and 45 including the Battle of the Bismarck Sea (Oct ’44) and the Battle of Fiji (Feb ’45) the American navy, despite reinforcements from home, is badly mauled. The Axis has enormous numerical advantages in submarines and the proximity of land-based aircraft.
By early 1945 German Naval activity threatens the East Coast of the continental US. This includes the first daylight bombing raid over New York, the ‘Rudel Raid’, involving forty aircraft on January 18th 1945 from a newly completed German aircraft carrier positioned 1500km off the American coast. In response most American naval forces are withdrawn from the western Pacific by mid-1945. Several dozen small bombing raids are carried out on East coast cities from January to November 1945, killing some 2,000 people and causing small amounts of damage. The raids prove too costly to the Germans for them to consider a full scale bombing offensive.
Meanwhile, by March 1945 the Japanese have expanded their area of operations far beyond its 1942 maximum extent by occupying New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu. Raids against Australian cities grow increasingly frequent. On August 6th 1945 four Japanese divisions land between Cairns and Townsville. Despite counterattacks by the Allies, including many of the 200,000 or so American troops still stationed in Australia, the Axis forces are able to mobilize more quickly and soon have almost total air supremacy. By October nearly half a million Japanese soldiers have arrived in Australia and are slowly advancing towards Brisbane.
By this time the Indian people have risen up in revolt against the British, although few view the Japanese as the ‘liberators’ they claim to be. The chaos allows the Japanese to rapidly advance across the subcontinent, seizing key cities. Sri Lankan falls to an amphibious invasion in May. Rioting between rival factions (especially Hindus and Muslims) quickly spirals out of control.
Naval battles still rage in the North Atlantic. The Germans occupy Iceland in June 1944, though an attempt to invade Greenland in August fails due to the deployment of American reinforcements. Several inconclusive naval battles rage in waters off the Canadian coast. The Allied surface navies are far stronger, but German air power and submarines are often able to tilt this balance. By mid-1945 both sides are exhausted from years of warfare. The situation is soon to change drastically.
The Allies Strike Back: The Manhattan Project Comes to Fruition
After the Trinity test in Nevada in July, American leaders ponder how to make use of the newly invented atomic bomb. It would probably take dozens of such devices to throw back the Axis advance, which would take many months to construct. It is feared that German scientists are only a year or two off building their own bombs which they could use to devastate the US homeland. Several bombs are conserved to be used in a sudden barrage against both the Germans and Japanese. It is hoped this will bring them to the negotiating table.
Following several additional nuclear tests, including one off the coast of Alaska testing it’s effect on ships, the Americans carry out their plan in October 1945. A powerful carrier group, consisting of four carriers and over fifty other vessels, sails through the north Pacific towards Japan. Four atomic bombs carried amidst a fleet of eighty aircraft are successfully dropped on Sapporo, Sendai, Niigata and Tokyo, killing over 300,000 people. At the same time another, even larger carrier group, consisting of most American naval vessels in the Atlantic Ocean, sorties in the direction of France. It is supplied with six atomic bombs with orders to use at least two of them on German cities once it has closed to near the French coast. The rest may be used to destroy any German naval vessels that approach to intercept the fleet.
The plan does not go so smoothly. A German submarine sinks one aircraft carrier on which two of the bombs are stored, resulting in their loss. The fleet comes under heavy air attack closer to France and runs into several German surface squadrons deployed at the entrance to the English channel. Two bombs are air dropped on German battleships, destroying them both and damaging several other vessels. Thousands of German sailors later die from radiation poisoning.
Just a few hundred kilometers off the French coast some fifty bombers are launched against Germany in two formations aimed at Cologne and Hamburg, each one containing a single bomber loaded with an atomic bomb. Both Hamburg and Cologne are successfully hit and over 200,000 people are killed. Landing heavy bombers back on an aircraft carrier is impossible, so the planes fly on to Norway where their crews are to bailout in the hopes of meeting up with local resistance fighters. Of the 400 aircrew involved, 160 eventually make it back to the United States.
The bombings are a profound shock to the Axis, who had thought total victory within their grasp. Some Axis leaders however are secretly glad that an invasion of the US homeland is now off the table, since it’s practicality was always in doubt anyway. President Truman demands a meeting between Allied and Axis representatives to bring about an end to the war, hoping that many of the Axis conquests can be reversed diplomatically.
In January 1946 Allied representatives meet with Axis leaders in Lisbon in neutral Portugal. Delegates from the United States, Canada and Australia are met by the Germans and Italians; however Hitler refuses to allow representatives from the British, French, Polish and other governments-in-exile to attend the meetings. This prompts the Americans to immediately walk out, and peace efforts temporarily break down.
The Americans devote considerable efforts to building a larger nuclear arsenal, but difficulties in the construction process mean only about half a dozen bombs a month are being built. By February twenty more bombs are ready for use. Meanwhile the Germans and Japanese concentrate the majority of their submarine fleets, together numbering just under a thousand boats, along the western and eastern American coasts to intercept any more carrier-based nuclear bombing attempts.
Shelters are hastily constructed in Axis cities and millions of people are evacuated to country regions. Anti-air defenses are dramatically expanded until every major Axis city is covered by hundreds of Flak guns and night-fighters. With every passing week the likely effectiveness of even a nuclear bombardment is reduced further. German scientists, who had largely stopped atomic research back in 1942 and only resumed it in early 1945, are given every possible resource to build their own bomb. It is estimated their efforts will take at least a year to bear fruit.
To bring the Axis back to the negotiating table the Americans launch a second sortie in March 1946. A powerful carrier fleet sails from San Francisco and is joined by further ships north of Hawaii. Axis submarines are led astray by decoy fleets and although several ships including one aircraft carrier are sunk, the four cruisers and two battleships actually carrying the eight weapons all remain intact. The fleet again sails through the north Pacific to Japan.
Over a hundred aircraft are launched with eight carrying the bombs. Japanese air defenses, augmented with German equipment including radar, have dramatically improved and two of the nuclear armed bombers are shot down en route. The other six hit their targets. Much material damage is caused, but the major cities have been largely evacuated so less than 100,000 people are killed, although several times this number later die from radiation poisoning after they have returned to their homes.
Both of the intercepted bombs are secretly recovered by the Japanese. As the Germans are much more advanced in their nuclear program the Japanese Government, very hesitantly, give one example to the Germans. Within weeks it has been transported back to Germany for study.
The somewhat disappointing results of the raid embolden the Axis, who still refuse to meet with the Allies on their terms. Secretly the Americans approach the Japanese through back channels and promise that, if Japanese forces are withdrawn from Australia within a month, the next nuclear raid will not occur against them. After a short deliberation, the Japanese reject the offer. Their armies, which had been halted in northern Australia since the first atomic raid six months earlier, renew their advance instead. Fighting soon begins for the city of Brisbane and drags on for months. Fighting also resumes in Africa, where an Italian/German army has launched a fresh invasion of Kenya while American forces have been deployed to defend Lagos, which endures a lengthy Axis siege.
The next raid in May 1946 is against German-occupied Europe. The largest carrier group the Americans have yet assembled, consisting of 24 fleet and light carriers, several battleships, dozens of cruisers and hundreds of escort vessels, is once against deployed into the north Atlantic. It carries twelve atomic bombs, some with much greater yields ranging up to 100 kilotons of TNT equivalent.
The combined Axis fleets fight desperately to sink the key ships of the Allied armada, especially by many hundreds of land-based aircraft once the fleet has approached France. Both sides suffer heavy losses but all twelve atomic bombs are transported safely. Following much the same procedure as before some three hundred bombers take off carrying the dozen nukes. Their targets are Berlin (three bombs), Munich, Rome (two apiece), Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Dusseldorf, Milan and Naples.
Nine of the bombs are successfully dropped. One en route to Berlin is shot down and Dusseldorf and Frankfurt are spared. As the cities were evacuated in advance only about 100,000 people are killed in Germany, though a much greater number die of radiation sickness in subsequent years and much material damage to the Reich is caused. Italy’s cities were far less prepared and about 300,000 are killed there.
Panic spreads across Germany and Italy, especially the latter. Meanwhile peoples in the occupied countries cheer the Americans enthusiastically, despite millions coming to suffer from illnesses as a result of the radioactive cloud that disperses across Europe in subsequent months. Hitler condemns the bombings as ‘inhuman’ from his safe house on the Baltic coast in Lithuania and vows that Germany is on the verge of discovering the secret of nuclear power for itself. Despite the captured nuclear bomb German efforts are still months away from bearing fruit, although the process has sped up considerably.
Having suffered heavy losses in the last two raids the Americans continue stockpiling more and more nukes, intending to unleash ever larger barrages upon the Axis until they return to the negotiating table. Various elements internationally and within the US are growing hesitant however. Many at home fear that continued nuclear war can only escalate until the Axis is able to retaliate and detonate nukes over the US homeland. Even the exiled governments of the occupied countries are beginning to lament the devastating effects of nuclear fallout on their homelands neighboring Germany and Italy. Some fear the continuing escalation may result in the collapse of civilization itself.
By September 1946 the Americans are almost ready to launch another nuclear raid, this time with over thirty bombs, against the Axis when news arrives of a successful German nuclear test in the North Sea. Hitler vows that Germany is now a nuclear power and that the United States of America will be ‘wiped off the face of the Earth’ if it does not immediately come to the negotiating table. Millions of Americans flee the major cities in a panic.
Under intense pressure the American leadership decides to participate in further peace talks, which this time take place in Dublin in neutral Ireland. In the meantime ceasefires are called on fighting fronts around the world in Australia and parts of Africa and India where Allied forces are still holding out.
In three months of negotiations a peace treaty is eventually agreed upon and signed on December 23rd 1946. German hegemony over Europe is recognized, as are the borders of the Empire of Japan in Asia. Notably the north-eastern corner of Australia is to remain in Japanese hands. The Americas are recognized by the Axis powers as being strictly within the United States’ sphere of influence. The German-dominated ‘European Community’ is founded shortly afterwards consisting of the surviving states of Europe (most of which have been under German occupation) while the Japanese-dominated Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere is recognized by the Allies and diplomatic relations are eventually reestablished.
Shortly afterwards the remaining countries of the world not under Axis dominance found the ‘United Nations’ under American leadership. The world is effectively divided into thirds. In total slightly over a million people have been violently killed in 23 different atomic blasts, with around thrice that number later dying of radiation sickness.
The Second World War has ended, however chaos continues in several parts of the globe including China and India where the Japanese are still violently expanding their holdings and annexing new territory, parts of Europe where Soviet resistors and other partisan groups haven’t yet given up hope of overthrowing their new rulers and parts of Africa where the Germans and Italians are trying to assert their authority on millions of new subjects already long sick of colonial rule.
THE WORLD – 1947
Red – Greater German Reich
Pale Red – German colonial empire
Green – Greater Italy
Light Green – Italian colonial empire
Darker Yellow – Empire of Japan
Yellow – Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere
Orange – Axis allies (Finland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania)
Grey – Portugal and colonies
Pink – Spain and colonies
Blue – Turkey
Light Blue – European Community (which also includes Axis Allies, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Turkey)
Brown – Union of South Africa (apartheid state and German ally)
Dark Blue – United States
Purple – Other remaining ‘Allied’ countries (though Persia remains Neutral)
Dark Grey – German Siberian occupation zone
Light Grey – Japanese Siberian occupation zone
So to explain some of the finer points of this alternate world:
Germany has completely swallowed up Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria and Poland, taken strips of territory off France and Denmark and annexed the former Soviet Union up until somewhat beyond the Ural mountains. The eastern border is roughly near the city of Chelyabinsk. Most of the Middle East and central Africa have been designated as parts of Germany’s massive colonial empire. These borders are to roughly where I think Hitler ultimately wanted to expand his ‘thousand year Reich’ as far as historical sources can tell us.
In the end I don’t think Hitler ever sought to unite the entire world under single one government. Even he would have seen how impossible a pipe dream that was. He wanted the hegemony of Europe and I suppose control of the world’s oceans and trade routes to give Germany an unassailable strategic position.
Italy has also expanded its borders, albeit less so. It’s seized territory off France, the former Yugoslavia and Greece as well as swallowing up all of Albania, going some way to building Mussolini’s ‘New Roman Empire’. This includes islands such as Corsica and Crete. It’s been granted control over a vast colonial area by the Germans including almost the entire northern third of Africa and some of the middle east. Israel is conspicuously absent.
For its help in the war Turkey has been allowed to expand its borders over about half of Syria, the northern tip of Iraq, some former Soviet territory including Armenia and parts of Greece.
Finland and the other Axis allies have also been rewarded with extra territory.
Iran’s borders are unchanged. It remained neutral in the war and is later considered a useful buffer state between the German and Japanese spheres of influence.
Japan was the trickiest country to decide, since their plans were perhaps even more ambitious then the Germans yet never got as far along in reality.
They sought to create a ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ (I’ve dropped the ‘east’ in this post as I think by the time they’re conquering places like India it would have been a bit redundant). The name was apparently to encourage the conquered peoples of East Asia to in fact view the Japanese as liberators from their colonial European oppressors (you can’t deny they’ve got something of a point, some did view the Japanese as such despite their brutality and scorn even against fellow Asians).
In the end I’ve included within the borders of the ‘Empire of Japan’ itself Korea, Manchuria, much of Eastern China, Indochina, Taiwan, the Philippines, New Guinea and most other islands in the western Pacific, Sri Lanka, the southern tip of India and the north-eastern corner of Australia which they’d conquered before the war ended. The defining of their territory in India has some historical basis, apparently they wanted to directly rule the tip of the subcontinent south of a line roughly at the latitude of the Portuguese city of Goa (which I’m going to presume remains in Portuguese hands here since they’re not a member of the Allies).
As for the other states making up the Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, I don’t think there’s any way of knowing exactly what borders they’d have ended up having. Since Thailand quickly caved to Japanese threats and joined their side during the war when they faced the prospect of invasion they would probably have been rewarded with additional territory, but I haven’t undertaken to reflect that here. Given how vast China, India and Russia were it would probably take a number of years for the Axis to fully assert their authority over them, and many millions would no doubt have died in the resultant ethnic cleansing. The remaining parts of those three countries can basically be assumed to consist of a mix of Japanese-occupied areas, collaborationist local governments and rival factions fighting each other as much as the Japanese.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union Mao Zedong’s influence is unlikely to have ever grown all that strong, let along capable of throwing off the Japanese and taking power over all of China like in reality. However, a lengthy insurgency is likely to ensue, with the Japanese taking over the role of the nationalists.
Russia is a special case. The Japanese have annexed an area around Vladivostok and occupied a vast but largely empty area of eastern Siberia. Presumably this rump state is eventually given its own Japanese-dominated government and turned into just another member of the Co-Prosperity Sphere. As for central Russia neither the Germans nor the Japanese have decided to annex all of it, at least not straight away. In the meantime it is divided into respective German and Japanese occupation zones.
The main reason Hitler invaded Russia in the first place was to use its territory as Lebensraum (living space) for the German people. So much like the Spanish, British and French did earlier in history the first step in this process of colonization is killing off the local population. Hence a German victory on the Eastern front would have been followed by the systemic murder of around one hundred million people.
Hitler only got round to killing 20 million or so Soviet citizens in reality. He’d also only killed off about half of Europe’s twelve million strong pre-war Jewish population. The Japanese similarly killed off upwards of twenty million people in Asia, especially China, during their relatively brief occupation of those countries. Many more would presumably have died under prolonged Japanese rule. The Japanese also intended to ultimately colonize Australia with millions of their own settlers. In this reality, where they have only partly conquered Australia, a smaller version of this plan would probably be implemented.
As for the ‘free world’, the United States remains dominant over Latin America, whose countries in this alternate reality make up the bulk of the United Nations along with Australia and New Zealand. Also take note of the only non-Axis country left in Africa. Liberia was founded by the Americans as a place to return freed slaves in the early 1800s. I’d imagine that American troops would be stationed in the country. Its awkward position could, like Cuba after the 1959 revolution, have made it a geopolitical hot potato.
So there you have it, the world following an Axis victory in WW2 as I’d imagine it. There are many more variables you could put in here. The Americans might have rejected the concept of the atomic bomb as far-fetched, allowing the Germans to develop it first. The Germans, even after emerging victorious in Europe, may have decided not to help their Japanese ‘allies’ and let the Americans finish them off instead. The Axis may one day have even attempted an invasion of the United States, although this would be very unlikely to succeed, at least without a nuclear-scale advantage.
I used to be a fan of The Big Bang Theory. In the days of my innocent youth, it was one of those shows I used to binge watch, along with Friends or Seinfeld. Since I hadn’t watched it in a few years, I was taken quite unawares when I heard that actress Kaley Cuoco was getting divorced. To whom, I wondered, had our dear Penny tied the knot in real life? Curious, I looked up the man in question, and immediately had to stifle a bout of laughter. Here he is –
Ok stop. Lets stop right here. I’m declaring it. Its official.
The #Redpill is correct.
Like a woman suspicious of a charming man’s real personality, I’ve sought to shit test the Redpill and the wider manosphere at every opportunity. Like many recovering betas, I still wake up in the mornings finding it hard to believe I – prince Charming incarnate, have not yet found my Rapunzel to rescue.
But every now and then, something comes along that stabs that doubting angel in the heart and throws him overboard. The whole premise of the Big Bang Theory – indeed, a story at the root of most modern sitcoms, is that nice guys can still get the girl.
We are meant to believe that Leonard Hoffstadder, the sniveling, 5’7”, supremely geeky, but still possessing a heart-of-gold protagonist of the show can end up with bombshell Penny, played of course by real life hottie Kaley Cuoco. We even found out a few years ago that the two co-stars briefly dated, seeding hopes that real life could imitate art.
Unfortunately, despite filling our heads with so many hopes and dreams, sitcoms are still fiction, and can be dramatically overshadowed by real life. Kaley’s apparently soon to be ex-husband – Ryan Sweeting, is a man about as far from Leonard as we can possibly imagine.
For starters, he’s a muscle-bound 6-foot-5, putting him in the literal top 1% of all men. He’s an internationally famous tennis star and has a savage, bearded look that hasn’t been out of fashion in about twenty thousand years.
The distinction could not be clearer:
Rarely have we ever seen a more pure demonstration. Here we have a hot but aging actress, pushing thirty, who abandons any pretense that, like her character, she actually has a thing for nerdy guys, and instead follows her gina tingles heart and goes for the 6’5” international tennis star.
Clearly aware of the onrushing wall, Cuoco married Sweeting shortly after her 28th birthday and after just three months of dating. Oddly enough, I actually started penning this article before the recent news Cuoco is getting separated, but when there were already rumours circulating of Sweeting’s infidelity. Obviously Sweeting, only 28 himself, started wondering why he should restrict himself to only one woman when he could easily rack up notches in the wild.
Quietly smirking at all this, I found myself wondering, what about other actors and actresses we’ve seen playing similar relationships? Whatever happened to the old Leonard and Penny – Ross and Rachael off Friends?
Well, David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston are still both successful actors, but their personal lives have wildly diverged since 2005. After dating a string of singers and actresses, Schwimmer settled down with British artist Zoe Buchman – eighteen years his junior – and his since had a kid.
Ross! Ross! Ross!
Aniston has also been through a string of relationships, the list reading like a “Who’s Who?” of Hollywood actors in steadily descending order of fame.
After being divorced from Brad Pitt in 2005, she bounced around for a few years before settling with semi-famous (and two years her junior) Justin Theroux in 2015. Despite numerous rumors, Jen has still not yet been confirmed to have had any children. At the ripe age of 47, only major medical intervention may help her now in her ongoing quest to procreate.
I can already hear a few people asking – so aside from the general Schadenfreude, what’s your point Thomas? Isn’t this just pointless sitcom over-analysis and celebrity gossip?
Except these shows are more than just harmless entertainment. Whether you think its part of some wide ranging conspiracy or not, millions of people are indoctrinated in the lessons these shows portray. Every second episode of Friends drilled messages into our heads like “only horrible people judge one another!” or “girls are cute for failing to control their emotions, but guys are assholes!”
The worst part is that these shows seem to lose touch with reality more and more as time goes on. Leonard and Penny is just Ross and Rachael on steroids. At least Friends had plotlines like Rachael falling into the arms of alpha male “Paolo” while leaving Ross alone and bewildered, but The Big Bang Theory seems to read more and more like a feminist textbook over time. It leaves me wondering what the next generation of sitcoms will feature.
Perhaps we’ll watch a show about a Victoria’s Secret Model who finally gets tired of dating millionaire sports stars. Instead, she comes to fall in love with “little Timmy”– a crippled, autistic boy, blind in one eye, who lives across the hall, but is also the biggest white knight this side of Prince Charming.
Now that the 2012 phenomenon is behind us, perhaps its time to pause, take a breath, and ask the question—why were so many people so willingly duped? What is the cause of this mass hysteria? If the (relatively) educated people of 2012 can take such nonsense seriously, then has this happened before?
A quick reading of history will tell you that people have always thought, nay – hoped! The world was ending. Wikipedia has a list of more than a hundred examples. Some of the more notable ones include –
70AD – A Jewish sect sees their revolt against the Romans as the Battle of Armageddon
375-400AD – The Bishop of Tours declares that “there is no doubt the anti-christ has already been born” and that the rapture would occur by century’s end
January 1st 1000AD – Various christian leaders, including the Pope, pin their hopes on this nice round number. Riots ensue across Europe
1348 – The Black Plague is seen as a sure sign of the apocalypse
Feburary 1st 1524 – Astrologers predict the world will end from a flood starting in London. 20,000 people leave their homes for higher ground in anticipation
April 5th 1534 – An Anabaptist preacher predicts that only the city of Münster would be spared
1600 – Martin Luther has a wild stab
February 1st 1624 – The London astrologers try again. Presumably, they give up after this point
May 19th 1780 – A combination of fog and forest fires panics the Connecticut General Assembly into thinking the day of judgement is occurring. Members debate whether or not there should be an adjournment
1806 – A hen in England begins laying eggs on which the phrase “Christ is Coming” is written. Eventually revealed as a hoax
December 25th 1814 – A woman claims to be pregnant with the “Christ child”. After her death, an autopsy finds she was not pregnant
October 22nd 1844 – The “Great Disappointment”. Hundreds of thousands of Americans eagerly await the second coming of Christ. Afterwards most begin rebuilding their lives. The remainder become Jehovah’s Witnesses
1850s – Some consider the Crimean War to be the Battle of Armageddon
1910 – An astronomer predicts gases from Halley’s Comet would “snuff out all life on the planet”. Peddlers start selling “comet pills”
1941 – The Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own “great disappointment”
December 21st 1954 – UFOs are supposed to destroy the world
1975 – The Jehovah’s Witnesses have another crack
1988 – The book “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988” sells five million copies
1991 – Leaders of the “Nation of Islam” declare the Gulf War to be the Battle of Armageddon
December 17th 1996 – A California psychic predicts the world will end with the arrival of “sixteen million spaceships”
March 26th 1997 – 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult commit suicide upon the approach of comet Hale-Bopp
January 1st 2000 – The Y2K bug
May 21st 2011 – Evangelical radio broadcaster Harold Camping predicts the rapture will occur. Shortly afterwards, he suffers a stroke instead
December 21st 2012 – End of the Mayan Calendar
So why is this? Why are people apparently so terrified of the world ending?
I don’t think people truly do fear the world ending. In fact they fear the opposite—that it won’t end in their lifetimes.
They fear that, when all is said and done, there was nothing to really distinguish their generation. They will be just another anonymous chapter in human history, rather than host to the grand finale. They would literally prefer that the world end rather than let their children take it over and forget them.
Human beings are selfish bastards.
So are there any real threats?
Most of the conventional ways you’ve heard of the world ending are mostly or entirely bullshit.
Even the original apocalypse, nuclear weapons, falls far short of what was promised. There are simply not enough nuclear warheads to destroy every major city on Earth. Even in the 1980s, when the global arsenal reached its height, estimates were that 400-500 million might die in a first strike and perhaps double this number in total from famines, plagues, and radiation. However, the vast majority of humanity would survive.
The same goes with any other method. Pandemics? We have them all the time, but not once in four billion years has a disease mutated to the point it could wipe out every living creature on Earth. Solar Flare? Perfectly possible, but even by knocking out every electrical device on the planet the worst thing you’d do is set the economy back a few decades.
Asteroid strike? We only get a dinosaur killer about every ten million years, and are probably at the point by now we could spot and deflect it far enough in advance. Supernova explosion? There are no massive stars close enough to harm us, and even the foreboding “gamma ray burst” doesn’t effect us more than once about every five million years.
Sucked into a black hole? The nearest observed one is nearly eight thousand light years away. Alien invasion? Well sure, but again, the Earth has been sitting here, apparently unmolested, for at least four billion years. The remaining possibility is if we somehow trigger it, like in 2001 or The Day the Earth Stood Still.
As far as I can figure it, there are only two possible, imminent, existential threats to humanity: runaway nanotechnology and a technological singularity. Both are related.
While we know a naturally evolved virus wouldn’t be virulent enough to kill us, engineering such a virus may be possible. Already, someone had the brilliant idea of posting the ebola genome online, though the average person doesn’t yet own a 3-D printer capable of replicating it.
Indeed, with a well-designed virus, you could probably crash the whole ecosystem, as has often been depictedinsciencefiction. This threat remains until humanity has a permanent, sustainable presence in space, i.e. a self-sufficient base on Mars housing a few hundred people. While the space program has been stalled for decades, I think we will have such a backup by 2100.
Concerning nanotechnology, what we’re really talking about is the dreaded “grey goo” scenario. Nanobots have often been depictedinfiction as this unstoppable, all-consuming force against which resistance is useless. There are reasons why this may not be the case however.
Maintaining a swarm of nanobots poses enormous challenges. Where do they get their power source? How do they communicate with each other? How do they sense the world around them? How do they store the design plans to make more copies of themselves? The word “nanobot” might as well be “pixie dust” these days. In fact to correct it, we ought to rename them. What nanobots really are is artificial bacteria.
Not quite so scary, is it?
Combating nanobots would be much like fighting any regular kind of plague. Your primary weapons are heat and isolation. By definition nanobots would be tiny. They would have a very large surface area to volume ratio. Even the most extreme heat resistant bacteria can only withstand temperatures up to 122 degrees Celsius. We might be able to increase this somewhat, but every element has a melting point.
Basically, if you heat something enough, or deprive it of energy, it will die. If you’re facing a plague of nanobots – get out the glass beakers and flamethrowers.
A technological singularity
This is the real big one. It is the only threat to our existence I would take completely seriously.
The idea of the singularity comes from the observation that computers have doubled in power roughly every 18 months since the 1950s. If this trend continues, we will eventually reach an “escape velocity” where computers grow exponentially, surpassing all human comprehension. Proponents like Ray Kurzweil say this could occur before 2050.
Even then, there are arguments for why a singularity may not occur. Moore’s law is not a “law” after all, but just an observation. Someday soon we’re going to run up against the molecular barrier, and what indication is there that our CPUs will attain “sentience” before then?
The desktop computers of today are thousands of times more powerful than they were twenty years ago and we’re still using them to type word documents and watch porn. Our machines are still so primitive there’s little risk of a “robot revolt” just yet.
You can also make a decent argument that technology is not accelerating, but in fact slowing. I’d argue the world changed more between 1900 and 1950 than 1950 and 2000. We’re still flying the same planes we were forty years ago, and we have only discovered one new type of antibiotic in the last thirty years.
Cars, ships, trains, household appliances, weapons of war…the key breakthroughs were all fifty or a hundred years ago. Aside from computers, we’ve made few real leaps since the 70s.
So don’t panic
I think if you were to jump forward in time a hundred years, you’d see a world much as it is today. Yes, incredibly advanced computers and nanotechnology may be around, but just as there are still Amish communities today, I don’t think they’ll be any shortage of regular people. We’ll still be eating and shitting and jerking off as our species has been doing for the past one hundred thousand years. The Pyramids will still be standing, and there will still be beaches and rivers and other nice things to enjoy.
So relax, take a drink, and enjoy the likelihood that there will still be a relatively normal world for your grandchildren and great-grandchildren to inhabit in a hundred years.
From the final battle in the film ‘Serenity’ to the climatic Battle of Endor in the last Star Wars’ movie, the sight of hundreds of advanced starships engaged in an almighty interstellar ruckus is enough to turn the head of even the least nerdy layperson.
Now of course even someone with next to no scientific knowledge should be able to point out some of the glaring technical flaws in these battles. Why does the Millennium Falcon bank when it turns? How do laser blasts appear to visibly move like bullets? Why is the bridge of the Enterprise perched so precariously on the top of the ship’s dome, rather than buried deeper in the vessel?
Now yes, yes, I am aware that Star Wars and most other sci-fi franchises are meant to be heroic, adventurous tales where scientific accuracy takes a back-seat to the needs of the plot, and that’s perfectly alright. But today I’d like to try and set the record straight, or at least a little straighter, and outline some of the more important elements of space warfare that contemporary sci-fi tends to ignore.
10. Battles will be fought at long ranges
This one should be pretty obvious. As cool as it is to have giant dreadnoughts blasting away at each other at point-blank range, its hard to envisage circumstances in which this would actually happen. Throughout human history battles have gradually been fought at longer and longer ranges. We’ve gone from hand-to-hand combat with clubs and swords, to longbows and catapults with ranges measured in the hundreds of yards, then to muskets and cannons, then modern artillery that could lob shells several kilometers, and finally to modern aircraft and missiles capable of crossing entire continents.
In space this trend can only continue. Mass drivers, particle beams and missiles should be capable of hitting targets many thousands of kilometers away. Powerful lasers might have the longest range of all, potentially capable of zapping targets hundreds of thousands or even millions of K’s away. Its not hard to imagine missiles being launched from platforms in Earth-orbit to hit targets on Mars. Why get any closer to the enemy that you have to?
How the Battle of Endor should have ended
This also applies to possible fleet formations. Placing your spacecraft within a few kilometers of each other is suicidal in space combat. Ultimately you want your ships close enough to effectively command, but light speed moves quickly enough (300,000 km/s) that this only imposes a very high upper limit. If any of your ships are close enough, for instance, that two could be taken out in a single nuclear blast, then they’re way too close. Also consider what happens if one of your ships does blow up. The resulting cloud of debris will expand in a rapidly growing sphere that will badly dent the hulls of any other ships nearby. It would seem that an absolute minimum on the placement of your major warships in a combat situation is a few hundred K’s apart.
There are countless example of sci-fi getting this wrong. A particularly egregious one is near the end of the film ‘Serenity’. The heroes covertly fly their ship into the middle on an enormous fleet of swarming reaver vessels in an attempt to shoot at one and then lure the whole fleet behind them to try and get around an alliance blockade.
Their successful use of this tactic begs the question, why doesn’t someone else just drift a nuclear bomb into the middle of the enemy fleet and detonate it? The lack of nuclear weapons is very common in sci-fi, notably in Star Wars and Star Trek, where they would be very handy on a number of occasions. In many sci-fi series any major fleet battles that do occur are obviously inspired by battles in our own history, especially naval battles, most particularly WW2-era carrier engagements. The Battle of Endor draws on tactical situations found in a number of famous naval battles. The way that fighters are used, to dogfight one another and strafe capital ships, is drawn quite directly from carrier engagements like the Battle of Midway.
However, there are some sci-fi novels that actually get this right. Alastair Reynolds excellent ‘Revelation Space’ series depicts many of the realities of space warfare very well. In the book ‘Redemption Ark’ there’s a scene involving a line of warships entering a battle each spaced ‘about a million miles apart’.
9. Wars will probably take longer
The longest conflicts in human history have lasted maybe a few generations. The medieval ‘Hundred Years War’ between England and France lasted on and off between 1337 and 1453 (116 years), the Punic Wars between the early Roman Republic and the Carthaginian Empire lasted on and off between 264 and 146 BC (118 years, 46 of which saw active fighting) while the Cold War lasted from roughly 1945-1991 (46 years). Quite possibly the longest example is the series of wars (about thirteen in total) fought between the Russian and Ottoman Empires between 1568 and 1918. These lasted 350 years in total, occurring about once a generation until both empires collapsed during the First World War.
Interstellar warfare however, could put all these brief little spats to shame. Fleets travelling between star systems will (lets presume) be limited to travelling slower than the speed of light. It would take over four years just to reach Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our own, though likely even longer considering that even if you could accelerate the whole time at a very impressive 1G it would take you about a year just to approach light speed, and then another year to slow down.
At the moment the closest star system to Earth that may contain a habitable planet is Gliese 832, which is 16 lights years away. Even if the war was easily won in a Gulf War-style blitzkrieg, it would have to last at least that long. But what if the first warfleet Earth sent wasn’t successful? It would take us at least 16 more years to find out, and in that time the inhabitants of Gliese could have launched their own invasion back at us. But say we then repelled that fleet, and sent out a second one of our own? We’ve already looking at a war lasting fifty odd years, and that’s against a relatively close star system. The Galactic Core is at least 25,000 light years away, and the entire galaxy 100,000 light years across. Its easy to envision far-future wars lasting thousands or even millions of years. On the scale of galaxies, war is a geological process.
A notable work of science-fiction that gets this right (its basically the cornerstone of the book in fact) is ‘The Forever War’ by Joe Haldeman. While FTL travel is actually possible in the book, relativistic effects still occur and deployments to distant star systems nominally lasting just a few years coincide with decades or even centuries passing back on Earth. The novel deals with the psychological trauma suffered by soldiers who return home from the battlefront to find a society generations changed from when they left it. Overall the war between the humans and a strange race known as the ‘Taurans’ lasts over a thousand years, but due to those same relativistic effects the main protagonist survives its entire duration (its worth noting that Haldeman was a Vietnam veteran).
A further dynamic to space warfare is that news will probably not travel much faster than the fighting fleets involved. Assuming you and your enemy have both developed means of interstellar travel that approach light speed, then news of a defeat may reach you just days before the enemy’s victorious battleship fleet arrives in orbit. In our modern world, where messages can traverse the globe in seconds while conquering armies would take a lot longer, we have at least some sense of security than an invasion fleet won’t land on our shores completely unannounced.
This is absolutely not true in interstellar warfare. The closest historical parallel is probably that of the Mongol invasions in the 13th century. The mongols often moved more quickly than local communications at the time, meaning that many soon-to-be conquered cities still thought the Mongols to be hundreds of miles away, only for them to suddenly appear on nearby hilltops.
8. Battlefronts and borders will probably not be ‘static’
Returning to the hypothetical example of a war between the Earth and Gliese 832, an additional element to the above scenario needs to be addressed. If both sides know that an enemy invasion fleet is at least ten or twenty years travel away, then why not evacuate much or even all of the planet’s population as a precaution in the meantime?
Planets make big, juicy targets. They’re just about impossible to move, meaning that an enemy could launch projectiles from a different star system entirely to later impact their surface with devastating effect. On Earth we’re deeply tied to the notion of static cities and national borders, but space is big enough that anchoring your civilization to a single spot can become more a liability than an advantage.
And if we’re going to evacuate the planet to avoid this not unlikely apocalypse, then why not just abandon it entirely? Have your people board an enormous fleet, perhaps composing millions of transports, pack away your most precious artworks and anything else of irreplaceable value, then head off into the stars for safety against the impending Earthling invasion.
Sure, your escape is limited to light speed, but so is the enemy’s pursuit. Theoretically, you could spend thousands of years traversing much of the galaxy in this manner. Eventually the enemy might just give up. You’re fleeing for your life – the enemy is pursuing for mere conquest. You’ve probably got a stronger incentive to keep going. Imagine you were in charge of the British government in 1940, knowing that a German bomber blitz and possible invasion are imminent. If you know you’ve little chance of surviving such an attack, why not just pack up and leave if you had the option? Its better to live to fight another day then face certain destruction.
Tying into this reality, its unlikely that the borders of interstellar empires will remain al that static, like in Star Trek and many other sci-fi series. From the moment they begin travelling between stars and colonizing other planets, what reason is there for them to stop? There’s a strong incentive in fact to just keep going, as your rivals will no doubt be doing the same. Like the European colonial empires from the 16th to 19th centuries, the galaxy’s strongest powers will inevitably keep trying to expand until there is nowhere left to peacefully settle. This could mean a WW1-style showdown eventuates between said great powers once the whole galaxy had been settled. However this scenario is made unlikely by another factor that needs to be taken into account.
7. Interstellar ‘Empires’ will be very difficult to create and maintain
This is a very broad topic, worthy of its own essays and books, but we can cover a few of the basics here. Many sci-fi series get around the question of how to maintain an effective interstellar government by making Faster-Than-Light travel a reality. But in a universe where there is (apparently) no such thing as worm holes, hyperspace or a warp drive, how does the Galactic Emperor maintain control over even neighboring star systems? Let alone the more far-flung colonies of their domain?
When we think ‘interstellar empire’ we tend to think of planets as being the most prized possessions around, but I’d contend that’s just our naive Earth-bound upbringing fooling us. Planets are relatively tiny and useless compared to stars. Stars give off solar energy in vastly greater quantities then whatever puny energy sources you could extract from a planet. Stars have a much greater mass. Our own sun contains well over 99% of the solar system’s matter.
Mining the sun may seem like a ludicrous proposition today, but is also inevitable in the long run. Even if you disassembled all of the solar system’s planets, Jupiter and the other gas giants included, you may not have enough mass to fully construct a Dyson swarm around a star to harness all its energy. You might have to start mining the outer layers of the sun itself. For these reasons stars, not planets (‘habitable’ or otherwise) will define galactic politics in the long run.
Partly depending on what form it takes, its hard to guess how big a ‘typical’ empire can grow before governing it becomes impractical. Fifty light years? A hundred? A thousand? It would seem that in the long term galactic politics would come to focus most on the rich core region. There are about 2,000 stars within fifty light years of the Earth. However if the Earth were located near the galactic core this number could be well into the millions. The intricacies of galactic geo-politics are hard to guess at. There are an estimated four or five hundred billion stars in our galaxy. They tend to be clustered closer together near the galactic core and more spaced out the further away you go. The galactic spiral arms have the densest concentrations of stars outside of the core. Then there are several, maybe a few dozen, ‘satellite galaxies’ of the Milky Way.
Perhaps a useful way to think of this layout is the analogy of a large, circular continent on the Earth’s surface. The center of this continent is extremely fertile, allowing the local civilizations to have large populations and sustain powerful empires. Radiating out from this center are several fertile river valleys (the galactic spiral arms) which are the equivalent of the Nile or Indus rivers. Between these river valleys, and towards the continent’s outskirts, are barren wastelands with only the occasional oasis (or star) to support a population. In these regions the most powerful local kingdoms cluster around the largest and most productive oases’ (or the largest and brightest stars, this would include Arcturus and Vega in the sun’s neighborhood ).
We can assume that the inhabitants of this continent can never advance technologically beyond the medieval era and such methods of transportation as horses and walking on foot. Why? Well say this continent was ten thousand kilometers across, which is somewhat larger than Asia. This would make it about a hundred million million times smaller than the actual galaxy. If we were to slow down the speed of light so that is crossed such a continent in as much time as it takes to cross the actual galaxy, it would move at a speed of only a hundred meters a year. How could somebody run even a small town, let alone an entire country, if the maximum speed of communication were that high? This is partly the reason why so few pre-industrial empires were able to grow all that large, at least not without collapsing relatively quickly. The analogy could perhaps be improved by treating interstellar civilizations as insect colonies instead. I would say it is about as difficult for a single ant colony to rule a continent as it is for a human civilization to ever rule the entire galaxy.
There is also the matter of how to control empires with large populations. Even today here on Earth, most countries have grown so large that their governments are somewhat detached from the everyday affairs of their citizens. People only rarely encounter their local member of parliament. Most will never meet their country’s prime minister or president. The splitting of the Roman Empire in 285AD into two administrative halves (with the eastern half eventually becoming the Byzantine Empire) is an example of a state growing so large that it becomes ungovernable. With modern technology this limit can probably be increased a great deal. Modern day China and India for instance have functioning governments despite having populations about twenty times greater than the Roman Empire at its peak.
Australian Aboriginal groups – 1788. On the scale of the galaxy, even an advanced interstellar empire could look comparably small.
A pair of simple equations can outlay the stability of any given hierarchy. Take the military for instance, a squad of maybe ten soldiers is commanded by a corporal, a platoon of three squads by a lieutenant, a company or three or fours platoons by a captain, and so on. An army half a million strong has maybe ten levels in its command structure.
The other factor is how effectively orders are communicated and carried out between the different levels. If 95% of orders are effectively transmitted at each level, then only 60% of the army general’s directives will reach and be followed by the average army private. To achieve the greatest possible stability in any governing system, either the number of levels must be minimized or the breadth of each maximized. Any system with more then about eight or ten levels tends to become dangerously unstable. Its not hard to see how this reality can limit the size of any interstellar empire just as effectively as the speed of light.
6. Battles will largely be fought by robots
Sorry Luke Skywalker, but your piloting skills will no longer be necessary.
This is something evident even in contemporary militaries. Drones are rapidly replacing manned aircraft in a variety of combat roles. While at the moment physical pilots are far from obsolete (even the drones, mind you, are still piloted by a human, just remotely) it is only a matter of time before AI programs have replaced most military personal on the battlefield.
Note that ‘most’ does not necessarily mean ‘all’ and there is good reason for this. So far computers, while growing increasingly sophisticated, are still limited by their programming. We haven’t been able to re-create a truly ‘human’ mind in silicon form. Even if this becomes possible someday, it is likely us humans and our descendants will still want to have some oversight over our technological terrors (the topic of trans-humanism i.e. whether humans will gradually merge with machines and basically become cyborgs, is a bit beyond this article. Suffice it to say it is likely, and that the distinction between ‘man’ and ‘machine’ will inevitably blur in the long run). Humans will basically be in the role of officers, commanding their mechanical foot soldiers and other war machines.
This means that manned fighters will probably never be a reality in space combat, at least not in the style of Cold-War era or Star Wars-ish dogfights. Warfleets will probably consist of individual carriers and their entourage of combat drones. This article outlines the very practical concept of the ‘Killer Bus’, where basically you fire a big hulk of metal at the enemy and have it explode just before it hits, smacking the enemy with hard to intercept buckshot.
The carriers could contain a small staff of human commanders, probably inhabiting a shielded bunker deep within the vessel. The vessel is unlikely to be very large, as maneuverability, rather than armor, will probably be the most effective defensive strategy. Its entourage of drones would include sensor craft, offensive and defensive units and other supporting craft. The most easily conceivable weapons systems carried by these drones are either missiles with nuclear (or later on maybe even antimatter) warheads, mobile laser turrets (also useful for shooting down incoming projectiles) or simply kamikaze craft in the style of the killer bus. Possibly the best example of such drones in contemporary fiction is in the movie ‘Oblivion’.
Welcome to the future
The debate over whether defensive lasers or offensive kinetics would win is seemingly undecided, and probably will be until an actual interstellar war decides a winner. At the moment our guesswork on the nature of space warfare is perhaps reminiscent of European military strategists in the 19th century. At the outbreak of WW1 most strategists insisted that future wars would be short given the vast potential of modern weapons, from machine guns to artillery to aircraft. However, few people realized just how effective such weapons could be in defense as well.
5. Wars will not be fought over gold, diamonds, princesses, or really any other precious commodity we’ve fought so many over here on Earth
From H.G.Well’s ‘The War of the Worlds’ onward aliens have attacked Earth again and again with goals that sound distinctly human, often pulled straight from the colonial era. In most of the seminal alien invasion works they invade Earth to conquer (Footfall, Worldwar), subvert (The Puppet Masters, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Animorphs, The Tripods) or exterminate (Independence Day, Ender’s Game, Mass Effect, Halo) humanity, and more often than not steal our resources conquistador-style. There are some variations on this theme. Sometimes the aliens are mindless monsters with no higher intention then just killing everything (Alien, Beserker) or are just here on holiday to test out their martial skills (Predator). They may even be here to demolish the Earth in order to…make way for the construction of a new hyperspace bypass (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
However, when we look at the question of why aliens might really invade Earth, it quickly becomes obvious that resources is the last thing they’d attack us for. You want water? Head for Jupiter’s moon Europa, there’s twice as much water there as in all of Earth’s oceans combined. Want precious metals? There’s an entire asteroid belt of them right next door. You want energy? Feel free to build your own solar power collectors around our sun, god knows we’re not using 99.9999999% of what it gives off. There’s also half a trillion other stars in the galaxy you could build your Dyson swarms around. An excellent article covering these topics can be found at, of all places, tvtropes.org.
Take note, however, that I’m not saying wars will never occur, just not for those reasons. There are various disputes that could constitute a casus belli. Two stand out – ideological reasons and pre-emptive strikes.
Ideological conflicts are widely covered in Iain M. Banks ‘Culture’ series of novels. The eponymous ‘Culture’ is an extremely advanced civilization that, free of practically all material constraints, has evolved into an astonishingly hedonistic and carefree society. Many of the books concern the Culture’s dealings with ‘lesser’ civilizations who may not yet be advanced enough to have abandoned violent conquest as a foreign policy. The books also serve as an analogy of the modern western world’s dealings with various third world countries. The question of whether the Culture should intervene in an interstellar civil war between two lesser races, for instance, is clearly a thinly veiled analogy for whether the United States should intervene in conflicts like the Rwandan genocide. Various other works have covered the topic of a ‘benevolent’ alien invasion (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Childhood’s End). The aliens are often portrayed as having to carry a ‘little green man’s burden’ similar to the ‘white man’s burden’ that was used to justify many imperialist conquests in the past.
There are many forms this ideological struggle could take, but in the long run they will likely be very alien to our political values today. Its doubtful that traditional economic and political systems like monarchy, feudalism, slavery or even organised religion will survive a society’s transfer into space. Instead we’ll be arguing over things like which form of democracy is the most representative, or to what extent humanity should abandon its biological origins and replace our brains and bodies with machines. Five hundred years ago it was heresy to argue that the Earth revolved around the sun. No doubt our values in a few centuries time will have shifted just as much.
As for pre-emptive strikes, this is another plot device common in fiction, and is somewhat more convincing than the ‘they want our resources’ argument. The novel The Killing Star has a most dramatic (and perhaps realistic) take on this, with an advanced alien race launching an enormous barrage of relativistic projectiles which raze the Earth of all life and almost completely wipe out humanity’s fledgling presence across the solar system in a matter of hours (the rest of the book is about how most of the surviving colonies and ships are gradually hunted down and wiped out one by one, its not a lighthearted tale). The logic behind the alien’s attack is simple. The moment humanity became spacefaring was the moment we could have one day done to the aliens what they just did to us (it was ‘nothing personal’ the aliens feel obliged to say).
Similarly, in the film Titan A.E. the Drej, an advanced species of sentient beings composed of pure energy, attack (and completely destroy!) the Earth in the first fifteen minutes of the film. It is eventually revealed that they feared the completion of the ‘Titan project’, a device that could be used to convert huge amounts of energy into mass. Its original purpose was to build planets, but the Drej feared it in the role of a doomsday weapon if used against them.
In broader terms, here’s a quote by geopolitical analyst George Friedman:
When the risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting – that is the basis for war
Given that humanity today is likely on the cusp of a rapid interstellar expansion (a few centuries away maybe, but that’s still an eyeblink in galactic terms) its not hard to imagine an advanced alien race taking notice and deciding upon a pre-emptive strike, either by exterminating us all outright or just neutering our ambitions by letting us join their own, vastly more powerful empire as a vassal species. Interstellar civilizations will have to work hard to maintain bonds of trust with each other, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many interstellar ‘Cold Wars’ occur in future. These conflicts will be driven by much the same impetus as the original Cold War, and hopefully will not turn hot for much the same reason, which is that a war would likely devastate both sides. This is an important topic to cover in detail.
4. ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ is going to get bigger and badder than ever
So you’ve finally made it into space?
Congratulations! But just be careful. Make sure your interplanetary space-tugs don’t head off course and accidentally crash down onto some poor city, or that nobody re-configures your giant orbiting solar power collectors and turns them into the ultimate set of magnifying glasses to wipe out a few small countries, or that none of your antimatter rockets spiral out of control and vaporize some poor continent, or that a mining crew sent to the asteroid belt doesn’t accidentally (or deliberately) send a dinosaur-killer off course to smack into some poor planet.
A typical 26th century industrial accident
The point should be clear. Space travel involves the harnessing of enormous energies. Most conceivable methods of interstellar or even interplanetary travel can be turned into truly apocalyptic weapon systems. Even the most peaceful spacefaring civilization is going to be frighteningly powerful. The combined nuclear arsenals of all the world’s great powers reached a peak explosive strength of about five gigatons during the Cold War. A single dinosaur killer, that is an asteroid about ten km across impacting the Earth at a decent speed, has an explosive yield equivalent to 100 trillion tons of TNT, or about 20,000 times as much.
While it wouldn’t exactly destroy the Earth, which would take many orders of magnitude more energy, it would largely sterilize the surface and certainly kill the vast majority of humans if it occurred today. The movie Deep Impact got it right.
I would also submit this Discovery Channel simulation of a collision with an even larger body, around 500km in diameter (more of a proto-planet than an asteroid).
Beyond even the power of a dinosaur killer comes relativistic weapons. The distinction is simple. It depends on whether you accelerate a mass so that it’s moving really fast, or moving really, really fast. Rather than just shoving an asteroid onto a collision course with a target, instead accelerate a much smaller mass to near light speed. The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs had a mass somewhere on the order of a trillion tons. To create a similar sized explosion you could accelerate a mere 4,000 ton mass up to 90% of light speed. An excellent article covering relativistic weapons can be found here.
What makes relativistic weapons so devastating is how difficult it is to intercept them. Even very advanced alien species will be hard pressed trying to stop an object you can’t even see until its almost upon you. The simple truth of the matter is that a state of constant, Cold War-esque mutually assured destruction will always exist between neighboring, settled star systems.
3. Simulations and negotiations may preclude a great number of wars
This is a topic somewhat hard to fathom, but is potentially of great enough significance that it shouldn’t be ignored. Basically, within a few generations computers here on Earth should have grown so powerful that almost any conceivable reality can be simulated in a virtual environment. What does this have to do with interstellar warfare? Quite a lot actually.
Aside from its obvious uses as an enormous training aid, if virtual realities grow sufficiently realistic as to become essential predictors of the future, then it begs the question, why bother fighting the war at all?
Humans are stupid, its a simple fact of life. We’re bad at planning, have short memories, and keep making the same mistakes. Most wars (if not all, in a sense) have been fought with both sides hoping to win. Sometimes the end result is obvious (ie. the Gulf War), other times not nearly so.
Say you’re the head of a fledgling interstellar empire, and your expanding borders graze up against a rival empire. Conflict may seem inevitable, but why not avoid the cost (and the likelihood of mutually assured destruction) entirely by designing your own VR scenarios as to the conflict’s future course and then presenting these to your rivals as an aid in negotiations? Of course there is a potential for distortions and exaggerations, but perhaps both sides would see the sense in being honest. Through such a method many wars could be averted.
Take the combatants of WW1 for instance. Both sides initially expected the war to be short, and that their side would quickly emerge victorious. Europe’s leaders may have fallen into the trap of being blinded by their own nationalistic propaganda. But if you had been able to compile the data to come up with a much more accurate picture of Europe at the time, then feed it into a scenario and run it forward in time, the fighting sides may have been much more willing to enter into negotiations.
You could point to internal discontent in the Russian peasantry, ethnic tensions in the Austro-Hungarian empire, Germany’s susceptibility to being blockaded by sea and Britain’s relatively weak land forces as reasons why neither side would be able to summon the strength for a knockout blow in a reasonable time-frame, if at all. International politics has always been about maintaining the balance of power between the great nations of the world. Galactic politics could take on a similar style, but with the galaxy’s rivals being able to summon far vaster reserves of computing power and intellect to maintain this balance and avoid a catastrophic war.
An example of this in fiction is in Iain M. Banks’ novel Surface Detail. A decades long virtual war is fought between the major galactic powers to settle a major ethical debate. The debate is over the existence of the ‘Hells’, virtual worlds created by many civilizations to punish members of their society (justly or unjustly) by interning them after death in virtual worlds where the inhabitants are subject to extraordinary and unending suffering (hence, the name of the conflict – the ‘War in Heaven’).
Schemes like this might not always work, but at the very least the leaders of the future should be a lot less naive about war, and not tend to suffer from over-confidence as much as us petty, biological humans do today. Interstellar wars in the future may potentially be very rare, sparked only by serious ideological differences. Border disputes meanwhile, are settled largely by negotiations, once both sides have showed off their respective muscles in a virtual world.
2. There will almost certainly be no aliens involved
Don’t panic! Statistically speaking, its probably still just a guy in a suit
Surprised? Don’t be. This argument has basic maths on its side.
As far as we know, as of 2017 no conclusive evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life, past or present, has ever been found. It is one of the great mysteries of the cosmos, almost as big as what caused the Big Bang in the first place, as to why no other intelligent, spacefaring species ever seem to have evolved on worlds of their own beyond the Earth.
This mystery even has a name, the ‘Fermi Paradox’ after the physicist Enrico Fermi. He certainly wasn’t the first person to wonder whether aliens existed, but was probably the first prominent scientist with a decent knowledge of the makeup of the universe to work out the fundamental maths of the problem, which he first did in 1950 while having lunch with a group of fellow scientists. The full definition of the paradox is stated thus –
The apparent size and age of the universe suggest that many technologically advanced civilizations ought to exist. However, this hypothesis seems inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it
A decade later astronomer Frank Drake quantified the paradox into a rough equation, although even he said his equation wasn’t intended to ‘solve’ the Fermi paradox, but merely a way of ‘organizing our ignorance’ on the subject. The ‘Drake Equation’ goes a little something like this –
Number of stars forming each year in the Milky Way Galaxy
X portion of stars that have planets
X portion of planets with the potential to sustain life
X portion of such planets that will develop life
X portion of these planets that will develop intelligent life
X portion that will become spacefaring
X how long such spacefaring civilizations will last.
At the moment our knowledge is very limited on all but the first two or three parts of the equation. Scientists disagree wildly on the other numbers. What is evident, however, is that no matter how generous we are with the equation, the number of observed alien civilizations is still zero. What’s stupendously unlikely though, are the odds of two civilizations of roughly equal military strength evolving relatively close to one another to the point where they could conceivably engage in a meaningful war.
Lets take the example of the Star Trek universe. Dozens of races have formed their own competing empires in the series. The Vulcan homeworld is supposedly only 16 light years away from Earth, around the star 40 Eridani A. The Vulcans are said to be quite an old race, having developed space travel around 3,000 years before their brethren on nearby Earth. Despite this, the first Vulcan flights to our own solar system did not occur until the 20th century. This begs the question, why? Why did it take so long? Is there much chance that it would take humanity three whole millennia to travel a mere sixteen light years? Even with fusion powered probes we could quite capably build today we could travel between star systems at maybe 10% of light speed without facing insurmountable difficulties.
Even more to the point, what are the odds of the Vulcans or any other neighboring species evolving, let alone industrializing and becoming spacefaring, at almost exactly the same time as us in galactic history? The universe is about 13.8 billion years old. Our own sun is 4.6 billion years old and the Earth just a touch younger. The earliest evidence of life goes back over 4 billion years, and complex life (following the ‘Cambrian explosion’) about 550 million years.
The first creatures you could arguably call intelligent evolved at least a million years ago. Homo Erectus evolved at least 1.8 million years ago, and knew how to control fire and make basic tools, meaning they fill a reasonable criteria for being intelligent. Modern humans evolved about 100,000 years ago. Within the last ten to twenty thousand years we’ve seen the development of agriculture, and the industrial revolution in just the last three hundred or so. Its likely within the next few centuries we’ll be sending probes and then manned spaceships on interstellar voyages.
While the galaxy is a very big place, its size is not quite overwhelming in the context of its age. Light can travel from one end of it to the other in about 100,000 years. Given that life took about 4 billion years to become spacefaring here on Earth, if aliens in another star system had progressed just 1% quicker, than theoretically they could have developed spaceflight and crossed the galaxy several hundred times over by now.
To work out the maths of it, less try and estimate the odds of a species evolving on a planet within a hundred light years of Earth that is less than a thousand years more advanced thn us, a sort of simplified Drake Equation. A difference any bigger would probably make one species so vastly more powerful than the other as to make any serious conflict impossible.
Its not an unreasonable guess that within a thousand years a species will have expanded outwards an average of 100 light years or more. We’ll even make the assumption that the Earth was among the first life-bearing planets to ever form in our galaxy (it shouldn’t be, since the oldest known star in the Milky Way is 13.2 billion years old, only 600 million or so years younger than the universe itself). Using rounded figures –
Age of Earth = 4.5 billion years
Technological difference = <1000 years
Number of stars in galaxy = 500 billion
Number of stars within 100 lights years of Earth = 20,000
Odds equal 4.5 million X 25 million = 112.5 trillion
Therefore, the odds we’ll stumble across (or be stumbled across by) such a close civilization are about 1 in 112.5 trillion. If life ever had or ever will emerge within that 100 light year bubble of us, then either they should already have been here long ago (and we’d likely have been colonized or at least closed off as a zoo exhibit) or we’ll reach their world first and do the same.
So we’re unlikely to have alien neighbours, but what about distant pen-pals? Assuming it takes humanity about a million years to colonize the whole galaxy (expanding at an average of 10% light speed) what are the odds that another alien species will have become spacefaring within that narrow window?
Age of Earth = 4.5 billion years
Technological difference = <1 million years
Odds equal 1 in 4,500
And these are very generous figures!
To deal with this problem, many science fiction authors have to invent some sort of timeline of galactic history that has wiped the galactic slate clean relatively recently, so that any spacefaring races alive today must be very young.
Mass Effect is a blatant example of this, with the idea that a terrifying race of aliens, the ‘reapers’ invade the Milky Way Galaxy every 50,000 years to cull it of the current crop of civilizations. Its a setting that has a lot of story-telling potential. It roughly equalizes the power of the alien races competing with humanity since all of them have developed spaceflight almost as recently, and you also have the sinister threat of the staggeringly powerful reapers lurking in the background.
Series as diverse as Halo and Star Trek touch upon this trope. Its even included in the backdrop of the turn-based strategy game Galactic Civilizations. It is said that the first alien empire that ruled most of the galaxy (the ‘precursors’) split into two factions over the question of how to deal with the emerging younger races. These factions, the ‘noble Arnor’ and the ‘evil Dread Lords’ waged an epic civil war, only for both to mysteriously vanish as the dread lords were on the cusp of victory. Their sudden absence (‘coincidentally’ not long before humanity became spacefaring) drives the plot of the game, as there is a sudden rush among the younger races to claim the now abandoned worlds of the precursors and fill in this power vacuum.
Most major works of science-fiction with a focus on interstellar politics have the feel of say, medieval or Napoleonic Europe, where you’ve got plenty of exotic, squabbling kingdoms and powerful, expansionist empires fighting bloody wars with one another. Generally the protagonists are members of a more ‘enlightened’ faction that is an obvious reference to (relatively democratic) early modern England and contrasts with the other factions of the time.
The Federation from Star Trek is the classic example, and its more democratic nature is meant to stand in contrast with the mere ’empires’ constructed by other races such as the Klingons or Romulans. A more modern view is that the Federation is basically a re-branded United States, and their opponents are dictatorial regimes akin to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Rarely are the humans the unenlightened barbarians of the story, although there are exceptions, such as Stephen Baxter’s acclaimed Xeelee Sequence series of novels, where some alien races are portrayed as much more benevolent than humans (this series also includes the novel Ring which I highly recommend as one of the best and most mind-boggling sci-fi books I’ve ever read).
Ultimately some complicated backstory is usually needed to develop this reality of competing empires. The exception of course is if all (or most) of the warring factions are merely different branches of humanity. This can work well in and of itself (the Foundation series being the classic example) but this generally means such a work is set in the far future when Earth is just a distant memory, meaning it may lose some of its emotional impact with contemporary readers.
Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space series uses this same mechanism, but with a plot that perhaps comes close to making sense (#spoilers). He comes up with the idea that the galaxy was originally home to a great number of newly evolved races, but most were destroyed in the cataclysmic ‘Dawn War’ billions of years ago.
The winning faction regretted the bloodshed and their past genocidal actions so much that they eventually constructed the ‘Inhibitors’, a race of advanced machines, to farm newly emerging intelligent life. Their role is actually somewhat similar to the aliens who built the Tycho Monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey, though seemingly not as benevolent. They leave alone species who stick to their home planet, but will hunt down and mercilessly wipe out spacefaring races. Why? Because in a few billion more years the Milky Way Galaxy and Andromeda will collide. The Inhibitors seek to manage this merger to limit the damage it will do to life across the galaxy. When future humanity (the books are set in about 400-700 years time) accidentally awakens the Inhibitors, interstellar war erupts, driving a very compelling plot.
1. The amount of energy and resources able to be wielded by major combatants will quickly spiral to ludicrous heights
How big were the opposing Rebel and Imperial fleets in the Battle of Endor? A few dozen larger ships varying in size from ocean liners to Manhattan-sized behemoths accompanied by a few thousand F-15-sized fighters?
Its hardly a lot for the two main combatants in a galactic civil war is it?
A minor skirmish during the opening phase of the Battle of Arcturus on the Orion Arm front in the 13th century of the Galactic Civil War
The opposing fleets are similar in size and composition to some of the larger naval fleets we’ve seen in human history. At the Battle of Jutland in 1916 the opposing British and German fleets had 151 and 99 vessels respectively. The Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944 was arguably larger, with at least 211 Allied and 68 Japanese warships involved (plus about 2,000 aircraft between them).
You have to put these numbers in context. Those fleets were built by a few newly industrialized powers down here in the Earth’s uncomfortably deep gravity well in just a few short years. It makes one wonder, if you’re really in charge of a vast empire spanning thousands of stars systems across hundreds of light years, that has trillions of citizens and has existed for millennia, just how big is your Imperial Fleet going to be?
To its credit, Star Wars actually tackles this issue rather well in the expanded universe. It is said in the books that over 25,000 Star Destroyers were actually produced in the history of the empire. Its hard to reconcile this vast figure with the mere forty or so present at the Battle of Endor, but I guess we can cut the makers of the original Star Wars some slack for not bothering to produce so many hundreds and hundreds of models.
Star Trek actually features some battles much larger scale than anything in the original Star Wars trilogy (though perhaps not the prequels). In the Deep Space Nine episode ‘Favor the Bold’ we witness ‘Operation Return’, a major battle in which ‘600 Federation and 1200 Dominion’ ships take part. It’s still small by galactic standards, but given the sizes of the empires fighting in Star Trek, is probably more realistic.
As mentioned earlier, many works of science-fiction naively portray Earth-like planetary surfaces as the galaxy’s most prized real estate. Worlds commonly lack space elevators, orbiting habitats and orbital solar power collectors, even though these will probably become basic infrastructure around any industrialized planet, the same way any modern city has an airport, a highway system and is wired up to nearby power plants. One should also be aware just how expensive it is to transport large quantities of goods out of a planetary gravity well. Consider how big a rocket you need to send just a few tons worth of crew and cargo to orbit aboard the space shuttle, and then imagine how big it would have to be if a skyscraper-sized spaceship was itself the payload.
Within a few centuries, nearly all major industrial processes will probably occur in space. The amount of raw resources easily accessible in just our own solar system is truly staggering. You have to remember the main reason metals and other materials needed by an industrial society appear so rare down here on Earth is because when the planet formed all the heavier elements quickly sank down into the core. Consequently the core today is made up largely of iron, nickel and other heavy metals and makes up a quarter of the planet’s mass (or roughly twenty times the moon’s mass). Most of the metals currently found in the crust, and thus accessible to us, are ones deposited there by later asteroid strikes since the Earth formed.
In the short-term at least, the asteroids are the real prizes. The largest M-type (metallic, or metal-rich) asteroid in the main belt is 16 Psyche. It’s about 200km across and contains just under 1% of the belt’s mass, yet it contains enough iron to sustain current global production for several million years. If we split apart 16 Psyche, harvested its resources and turned it into a fleet of space warships, we would have a truly vast armada at our command. Even if only 10% of its mass was usable, that still comprises a fleet of 650,000 cubic-kilometer sized ships or, to put it in more contemporary terms, 3,250,000,000 (over 3 billion!) Nimitz-class supercarriers.
Of course there are other considerations beyond the sheer amount of matter required, but to any species just a few centuries more advanced than ourselves they should not prove insurmountable. The use of computers should preclude the need for much in the way of crew members. The energy requirements for constructing so many ships should be easily provided by solar energy (though we would be talking swarms of solar power collectors each themselves many thousands of K’s across).
Probably the main limit on the deployment of such a vast armada is the energy requirements of accelerating them up to a speed high enough to make interstellar deployment practical. Far-future civilizations with propulsion technologies we can only guess at may be able to get around this problem, but using fusion power, antimatter or anything else currently foreseeable the energy requirements are very steep. It seems you either have the choice of building a billion starships, but which can’t travel much faster than interplanetary speeds and so would take centuries or millenia to travel between stars, or you could build a much smaller fleet numbering perhaps in the thousands but that is capable of accelerating up to a significant fraction of light, allowing interstellar voyages to be measured in mere decades. Balancing these two considerations may become the largest single strategic issue in interstellar warfare.
We now come to a real dilemma when it comes to the waging of interstellar wars. We discussed above how very easy it is to harm another civilization, especially with relativistic weapons, but the problem is, it is equally difficult to conquer another civilization. If the average, industrialized star system can build a billion starships to defend its home turf, while a similar star system can only build and send say, a million starships to attack it in a reasonable timeframe, then how staggeringly difficult will it be for the aggressor to ever win?
Some sci-fi series actually do get this scale vaguely right, such as Iain M. Banks’ always reliable ‘Culture’ books. The novel ‘Consider Phlebas’ is set amidst the Idiran-Culture War, a war between the ‘Idiran Empire’ and the ‘Culture’, two of the galaxy’s great powers. Aside from interstellar travel being possible in the Culture universe, the books tend to showcase believable technologies, though often extremely advanced. The war is said to have lasted 48 years and its casualties include –
‘851.4±25.5 (3%) billion sentient creatures, including Medjel (slaves of the Idirans), sentient machines and non-combatants, and wiped out various smaller species, including the Changers. The war resulted in the destruction of 91,215,660 (±200) starships above interplanetary, 14,334 orbitals, 53 planets and major moons, 1 ring and 3 spheres, as well as the significant mass-loss or sequence-position alteration of 6 stars.’
Aside from the fact the war only went for 48 years (48 thousand might have been more realistic if FTL travel isn’t possible) this sounds like a very reasonable death toll for a war on the scale described. There’s also another scene in the novel Surface Detail featuring an interstellar battle in which one civilization awakens an entire planetary disk’s worth of ancient alien factories to start building a fleet of warships (its a long story). The disk consists of millions upon millions of abandoned ‘fabricaria’ orbiting around a gas giant planet, and is used to produce a fleet of 230 million moderately advanced warships in just a few weeks. Its a rather dastardly plot, and showcases the industrial might of any advanced spacefaring species. There’s another example in the novel ‘Excession’ where a single Culture ship is able to produce a fleet of 80,000 warships in a similarly short time-frame, ending a brewing interstellar war in one fell swoop.
If just harvesting the asteroid belt won’t cut it, then potentially you’ll have to go even further and start taking apart the planets themselves. Mercury for instance has over 14,000 times the mass of 16 Psyche. The big difference between asteroids and planets however, is that the latter have deep gravity wells that will exponentially increase the amount of energy it takes to mine them. You can mine an asteroid using conventional methods not unlike those we use on Earth. Basically you chip or drill away at it for a while, then collect the fallen chips and take them away to refine them into useful materials. Simple yes?
But a planet is very expensive to just ‘chip away at’. Consider again the example of the space shuttle. Its payload to Earth orbit was just 24 tons. Now imagine how many shuttle launches it would require to dismantle the entire Earth piece by piece. We’re talking many billions and billions of launches. Its just not a practical number, even if you’ve got a million years and as much solar energy as you could hope for.
What we’re talking about here is the planet’s ‘gravitational binding energy’. There’s an excellent article here on just how difficult it is to completely destroy (as opposed to simply razing the surface of, or even liquefying) an entire planet. You essentially have to accelerate its entire mass up to its escape velocity so that it won’t all clump back together again. If you really wanted to mine a planet its much cheaper to just detonate it and turn it into an asteroid belt in one fell swoop than to do it piece by piece.
Ultimately these challenges mean that even an advanced species would probably take quite a few thousand years to mine an entire earth-sized planet. The potential rewards though are staggering, and what’s a few thousand years in galactic terms? The Earth is twenty times the mass of Mercury, so we’re talking 910 trillion supercarriers. Its a fleet that would stretch end-to-end to Alpha Centauri and back four times.
In the long-run, and we’re talking projects that could take millions of years, you can go even bigger. The gas giant planets combined have a mass 445 times greater than the Earth. Though they largely consist of lighter elements like Hydrogen and Helium, you could perhaps fuse them into heavier and thus more useful elements using fusion reactions like those found in stars. Then there are of course, the stars themselves. The sun is almost a thousand times larger than Jupiter, and the galaxy has a mass between 200 and 400 billion times that of the sun.
Anyone else lost count of how many supercarriers we’ve built yet?
This enormous escalation applies just as much to energy as well as matter. The Three Gorges Dam, currently the world’s largest hydroelectric plant, produces 18 gigawatts (billion watts) of electricity and the total amount of energy consumed by humanity as of 2010 is 16 terrawatts (trillion watts).
By comparison, the constant influx of solar energy received by the Earth from the sun is 174 pettawatts (thousand trillion) and this is just a tiny fraction of the sun’s total luminosity of 384.6 yottawatts (trillion, trillion, watts). The sun provides 24 trillion times as much energy as we currently use, and the entire Milky Way Galaxy many billions of times more than that. The best way to harness this enormous power source is to start building Dyson swarms.
The ultimate inaccuracy in nearly all science-fiction works, especially those depicting warfare, is that sci-fi writers often have no sense of scale. There’s even a trope with this very name.
Consider how many thousands of settled worlds supposedly made up the Galactic Empire. Does that mean they only have an average of one Star Destroyer each? Or even less? Oddly enough the Death Star is perhaps a reasonable achievement for a civilization on the scale of an galactic empire, though maybe it would have made more sense for the Empire to simply build a few million tried and tested Star Destroyers instead? One wonders why the empire doesn’t start building Dyson swarms as well, allowing it to harness unprecedented amounts of solar energy, or at least the odd orbital habitat to house its citizens somewhere other than the uncomfortably deep gravity well of a planet.
Of all the terrifying (and yet still realistic) weapons dreamt up in science fiction, perhaps none are more devastating than the concept of relativistic bombardment. Einstein taught us that the closer you accelerate an object to light speed, the greater its resultant mass and the subsequent kinetic energy. As you approach light speed, this figure approaches infinity.
By way of an example, the Chixulub impactor (believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs) was an asteroid with an estimated diameter of about 10km. This Mount Everest-sized object impacted with the force of an estimated one hundred trillion tons of TNT—twenty thousand times the global nuclear arsenal at its peak.
Meanwhile, fully fuelled and ready to launch, a Saturn V rocket weighs about 2,800 tonnes. Accelerate that mass to 99% of light speed and you’ve already exceeded the energy of the Chixulub impactor. Fly it into some unsuspecting planet and you’ll trigger a mass extinction.
The Dinosaur Killer Will Always Get Through
Science fiction authors have been aware of the potential of relativistic weapons for some time now, as novels like The Killing Star (1995) demonstrate. Most SF universes tend to ignore them, perhaps because they introduce faster-than-light travel as a concept, which would largely negate their influence. Assuming the light barrier can never be broken however, the implications are startling.
We could quote British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who declared in 1932 that ‘the bomber will always get through’ and how warfare had changed forever. By the time of the Cold War, this had evolved into the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction. Just as this spectre of aerial bombardment or nuclear war has dominated politics for the past century, the threat of relativistic weapons will likely dominate interstellar politics into the far-future. We can outline several points.
A state of mutually assured destruction will become the norm in interstellar politics
Mutually assured destruction has always been seen as something of an aberration, like an immature phase humanity is going through. As the energies at our command grow exponentially however, it seems less and less likely to go away. Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) explored how a small group of lunar colonists, controlling a single mass driver, could hold the entire Earth to ransom. For a real-life example, albeit a little closer down to Earth, look no further than Al Qaeda’s commandeering of a handful of civilian airliners to slaughter thousands of people on 9/11.
If we ever sent colonists to Alpha Centauri, we better be damned sure they retain a fondness for their home planet. A single relativistic spacecraft, either gone astray or (far more likely) deliberately guided, would cause mass death and destruction upon impacting a planet. Even more mundane methods could be just as devastating. There’s no physical barrier between neighbouring star systems other than sheer distance. Attach a few rockets to an asteroid in the Alpha Centauri system, direct it towards our own, and it’s going to be entering our neighbourhood to perform its Deep Impact impression in a few thousand years’ time.
No matter how friendly you are with your interstellar neighbours, the simple fact remains that you will be able to wipe each other off the galactic map with little effort. Maintaining bonds of trust will be paramount, but several factors may work against this.
A lack of faster-than-light (FTL) communications will lead to a rapid decentralisation of humanity, with greater potential for a breakdown of trust
Our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, is just over 4.2 light years away. If a colony had existed there at the time of Barack Obama’s election in 2008, and any American citizens present had wished to vote, we would only just now be receiving their ballots back (you have to wonder if future controversies will erupt over votes arriving late due to the constraints of the light barrier). Is there any way around the conclusion that by migrating to another star system, you resign your right to vote in local elections, if you can even retain your citizenship at all?
Even within our own solar system, it is hard to see the governments of Earth enforcing their rule over colonies established on or around other planets in the long run. Many stories have already been written about the inhabitants of Mars or the Moon fighting off their Earthly overlords, George Washington-style.
Without some form of FTL communications, it is almost inconceivable that true interstellar governments can exist at all. They must function as largely autonomous entities, though perhaps sharing standardised legal and communications systems, akin to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or how ‘aviation English’ has become the standard language in international air travel.
During the Cuban Missile crisis, it took up to 12 hours for messages to be sent back and forth between Kennedy and Khrushchev, dangerously contributing to the situation. Although it never quite took the form of a big red telephone, the Washington-Moscow hotline was established in the aftermath of the crisis to prevent similar escalations in future. If a few hours delay was almost enough to escalate tensions to an all-out nuclear holocaust, imagine a delay of years or even decades?
At one point or another, a first strike by a single party may ignite a firestorm of unprecedented destruction
Let us imagine centuries or even millennia ahead. Humanity is starting to spread across the Orion Arm, launching countless expeditions to settle different star systems. While they remain in contact with each other, perhaps even nominal members of some sort of interstellar federation, the different systems are largely autonomous and unsupervised by any higher authority.
Somewhere out in deep space, someone hatches a plot. Driven either by madness or malice, they decide to initiate a war with another system. Building their war machine is child’s play—their local sun produces something like 10^26 watts of energy, easily harvestable with orbiting solar panels. Its retinue of planets, moons and asteroids together contains billions of cubic kilometres of useable mass. With advanced computers and machines, little labour is required. Perhaps even a single unconstrained individual could assemble a greater war machine than anything dreamt of by the old military powers of Earth.
After a few years of secret preparations, this armada is unleashed upon the galaxy. Whether it is directed against one world or a hundred, the results are the same. There is little to no warning as relativistic kill vehicles scream through the sky. There is no time to mount a defence or an evacuation, millions die. It’s a galactic 9/11.
The survivors may well rally. They may attempt to trace back the route of their attackers and hunt these relativistic terrorists down, but by the time they reach the target system, decades later, the killers have had ample time to flee into the depths of space, or may simply have aged and died altogether. Even if apprehended, the precedent cannot be ignored.
Bonds of interstellar trust are severely weakened. Say your nearest neighbour is twenty light years away, how can you know that, at no point in the next forty years, they won’t be overtaken by a similar act of insanity? Or simply evolve into a hostile regime? How long has any peace lasted here on Earth? There are currently believed to be nine powers on Earth possessing nuclear weapons. Nine parties with knives pulled at each other’s throats. Imagine if it was nine hundred? Or nine thousand?
Faced with such a possibility, the brutal logic of game theory may play out. The only way to guarantee your neighbours won’t destroy you is to strike them first. A single act of madness could spark a very logical follow-up holocaust. Planet France blows up planet Germany before the reverse becomes true, or whatever the rival factions of the future may be. The sheer scale of this disastrous scenario beggars belief, but there does seem to be a sort of brutal logic behind it.
The survivors of this conflict may adopt several strategies to prevent its repeat occurrence
1. become so powerful and indestructible that even relativistic weapons don’t bother you
2. become extremely mobile, thus minimising their threat
3. a civilization-wide retreat into cyberspace
4. very intense levels of surveillance
How’s this for a scenario? In the far-future, galactic politics revolves around humanity having basically split into several different offshoots in the aftermath of such a devastating conflict. Some build and retreat into enormous Dyson Spheres (or ‘Stellar Spheres’) which are heavily guarded and all but impervious to attack. Others live a nomadic existence, perhaps out on the galactic rim, inhabiting vast fleets of spaceships that are constantly migrating from star to star, never lingering in one place too long for fear of attack.
Yet others may decide to abandon the squishy biological bodies we currently inhabit. Given the rate at which computers are advancing, a mainframe the size of a small building may soon have more computing power than every human brain on Earth. Possibly, you could scan and upload the consciousness of every person alive and reawaken them there in a virtual reality scenario. Billions of us could ‘live’ in an area no larger than a city block. Like the TARDIS, it would be something of a ‘bigger on the inside’ situation. By choosing this option, the need for planets or other large structures disappears entirely.
For obvious reasons, these different offshoots of humanity don’t necessarily see eye to eye. Meanwhile the old middle ground—that of living on planets or other large, stationary structures—has become anathema to any advanced society. The risk of a relativistic attack is simply too great. Planets lie abandoned, at best left as nature preserves.
By way of analogy, the Stellar Spheres are the equivalent of medieval castles while nomadic fleets prowl the space lanes like Mongol hordes. The virtual societies have retreated from the wider galactic community almost entirely, like a monastery hidden up in the mountains.
Among all these groups however, intense levels of surveillance pervade. Perhaps the only thing that can destroy a Stellar Sphere, for instance, is the concentrated energy of another Sphere (weaponised into a giant mirror of sorts). This could make their construction and management a central galactic issue, akin to nuclear weapons proliferation today. While some humans remain in this vision of the far-future, inter-Sphere diplomacy is largely in the hands of intelligences far beyond ours. Humans are far too unstable to trust with their finger on such powerful triggers. Hundreds or thousands of years from now those physical humans that do remain, even if they’re flying around on starships and look very fancy by today’s standards, may well be the interstellar equivalent of the Amish. The very fact that they still eat and sleep marks them out as primitives.
The option of simply uploading your whole civilization into cyberspace has a particular appeal. By retreating into cyberspace, not only is your society much better concealed and less exposed to the threat of relativistic bombardment, your quality of life will, if anything, be vastly higher. Wasteful processes like photosynthesis, farming and digestion would be dispensed with. There is practically no limit to the population size you can support.
At the very least, this could serve as a useful method of evacuation. Perhaps the standard procedure, if a populated world is endangered, is to ‘uplift’ its people in this manner en masse as a last resort. If your technology is advanced enough, you could save billions of people this way in just a few days. Their world may die, and their bodies with it, but their minds will survive and can be stored on waiting mainframes. The philosophers will have to debate whether this would be ‘saving’ a world or merely resurrecting it, but it certainly sounds better than nothing.
In 2016 we have far more pressing issues to deal with of course, but if Elon Musk has his way, we’ll have self-sustaining cities on Mars by 2050 or so. Within another century, we could be launching interstellar missions. Well before then, we are going to have to consider these quandaries. How are we going to maintain interstellar peace in the long run, given that the circumstances seem utterly poised against it?
Stalingrad by Antony Beevor is a book every man should read. The brutal, five-month struggle between the German Wehrmacht and the Red Army broke new records in human brutality. The Soviet counter-offensive towards the battle’s end, trapping and annihilating the Sixth Army, became the high water mark of the German Reich. It is perhaps the closest humanity has ever come to answering the question – what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
10. Striving for intoxication
The Russian strategy in a nutshell
In an attempt to forget the living hell they were fighting in, soldiers on both sides went to enormous lengths to dull their senses. After passing it through a gas mask filter, many drank antifreeze, or industrial or surgical alcohol. Many were poisoned, blinded, or even died as a result.
Tobacco, too, was heavily valued, with most soldiers smoking constantly in battle. Finding paper with which to roll up cigarettes sometimes proved difficult. Soldiers risked execution for picking up enemy propaganda leaflets for such a purpose.
9. Being in the 13th Guards Rifle Division
These poor fuckers
You may have heard of these guys if you’ve ever seen the film “Enemy at the Gates” or played the Russian campaign in Call of Duty. Both start with a scene where a boatload of soldiers crosses the Volga River into the burning inferno of Stalingrad.
Of the 10,000 men who began crossing the Volga on September 14th 1942, over half were dead within a few days and only about 300 survived the “Stalingrad academy of street fighting.” This was hardly atypical. The average life expectancy of Russian soldiers fighting in the city often dropped below 24 hours.
One craft was recorded with 436 bullet holes after a single crossing. Many went across with no training or ammunition, or had to wait for the man next to them to die so they could pick up his rifle.
8. Women warriors
Your average woman today has to do very little to be declared a “hero” in the media. A key feature of Soviet Russia however was that everyone was equally oppressed, meaning woman could be sent in to do the dirtiest of work just as men. Many served as pilots, anti-aircraft gunners, snipers and surgeons.
Take Zinaida Gavrielova, an eighteen-year-old medical student. As the head of the Russian 62nd Army’s hundred-strong “sanitary company” her job consisted of crawling forward under fire to rescue wounded soldiers and dragging them back to the Volga bank.
Or Gulya Koroleva, a twenty-year-old who left her baby son home in Moscow to volunteer as a nurse. During the battle she was credited with having “brought over a hundred wounded soldiers back from the front line and killed fifteen fascists herself.” She was awarded the Order of the Red Banner…posthumously.
In the air, several all-women aviation regiments were formed, led by the famous Marina Raskova. Flying outdated biplanes whose top speed was below the stalling speed of Luftwaffe fighters, the Germans soon nicknamed them the “night witches.” They flew more than 24,000 sorties during the war at a time when Western women had barely left the kitchen.
7. The NKVD
How do you convince a million Russian peasants to fight and die in a living hell like Stalingrad?
The military wing of the communist party, the NKVD, was tasked with “maintaining discipline” at Stalingrad. They carried out 13,500 executions during the battle. Some heinous crimes meriting death included –
Retreating without orders
Attempting to surrender
Failing to shoot at any comrades trying to desert or surrender
Being in command of any troops which had deserted or surrendered
With friends like these…
The list of possible infringements, described as “extraordinary events,” was endless. One lieutenant captured shortly before the battle in August managed to escape his German captors. Upon reporting for duty again he was arrested, treated as a deserter and sent to a penal company.
Even a soldier who discharged himself from a field hospital to return to his unit could be condemned as a deserter. One man was convicted of a self-inflicted wound according to the logic that he had tried to “hide his crime by applying a bandage…”
Paranoia was so great behind the Russian lines that groundcrews at airfields were forbidden to count the number of airplanes on the ground at any one time. It soon became common practice to place a second line of NKVD troops behind the frontlines to prevent desertions and shoot at any who wavered.
6. The feldgendarmerie
Not to be outdone, the Germans had their own equivalents of the NKVD – among them the Feldgendarmerie.
Even out in the steppes of southern Russia, 2,000 km from Berlin, Jews were forced to wear a yellow star on their sleeve and anyone found to be a member of the Communist party was handed over to the SS. Over 60,000 civilians were deported back to Germany as slave labor. Farmers were tortured to find where they had hidden their grain and their homes were torn down for firewood.
Maintaining law and order grew harder as the battle turned against the Germans, particularly among their so-called “allies.” To make up the numbers promised, one Romanian division contained 2,000 convicts previously sentenced for crimes such as rape and murder.
Tens of thousands of Russian defectors soon made up the 6th Army’s ranks as well. Loathing the Soviet regime and fearful of reprisals, they were perhaps the German’s most reliable helpers, though as Slavs, they all had to be re-labelled as “Cossacks” before they were allowed to wear German uniforms.
5. Being a civilian
Nearly a million people lived in Stalingrad on the verge of the battle. While hundreds of thousands fled in last-minute evacuations many remained trapped on the west bank of the Volga. Despite all odds, about ten thousand were still alive upon the German surrender in February 1943.
Civilian dwellings were often buried deep underground. The Tsaritsa Gorge in southern Stalingrad was home to thousands who dug enormous caves into it’s sides. Others survived in cellars or even sewers. During breaks in the fighting women could be seen emerging to cut the meat off dead horses before rats got to them.
Disease, the cold and starvation slowly killed thousands. Civilians who fled from the city and made the arduous trek across the steppe often found little shelter for many days. The remnants of families huddled together at night were found by roadsides, babies died in their mother’s arms because of the cold and bitter winds.
4. Being captured
Despite enticing many Russians to surrender with promises of adequate food and shelter, the Germans offered little sympathy to their prisoners. Prison camps were little more than a barbed wire enclosure out on the open steppe. Food supplies stopped entirely after the German encirclement. Of the 3,500 Russian prisoners trapped with the 6th Army only 20 survived, and that had been by resorting to cannibalism.
The attitude of the Russians was no different. Their treatment of the invaders who had spent the past two years busily murdering, pillaging and raping their homeland was predictable. Of the 290,000 Germans surrounded in November, 90,000 survived to be taken prisoner, of which only 5,000 ever saw their homes again.
3. Surviving the winter
Stalingrad in winter
Once winter hit, temperatures around Stalingrad plunged to as low as -30 Celsius. Meat and food froze into barely edible blocks that had to be sawed open because they were too hard for knives. By October the Volga had begun to freeze over. Many Russian reinforcements were crushed by incoming ice floes while trying to cross.
Within the German encirclement, called the “Kessel” (cauldron), there was eventually no fuel left to melt snow for washing or shaving. A bath and clean underwear were as distant a dream as a proper meal. Soldiers’ minds went blank because the chilling of their blood slowed down mental activity. Walking wounded and sick made their own way to the rear through the snow. Many stopped to rest and never rose again.
There they sit like hairy savages in stone-age caves, devouring horseflesh in the smoke and gloom, amidst the ruins of a beautiful city that they have destroyed
2. The German surrender
Ever since the Germans had advanced upon Stalingrad in August, Stalin and his generals had been planning a massive counter-offensive. Hitler believed that Russia’s armies were finished. However, the three million Axis troops fighting on the Eastern front were still facing five million Russians. Stalingrad had become the bait in one of the largest traps in history. On 19th November 1942 the trap was sprung.
The situation at Stalingrad after the encirclement of the Sixth Army
Every imaginable horror faced the beleaguered German troops. As winter came the ground became too hard to dig trenches, causing thousands to eventually die of exposure. Food supplies were running dangerously low by December. Even when food was delivered, many soldiers quickly died from over-eating, akin to concentration camp survivors.
As clean clothes became as elusive as a hot meal, lice spread to nearly every member of the Sixth Army. Epidemics of typhus, dysentery, and a dozen other diseases swept through the German ranks.
A scene of utter chaos pervaded at Pitomnik airfield, the only major airstrip within the Kessel. Thousands of critically wounded were packed in rows along its edges while the burnt-out husks of destroyed aircraft and piles of stacked corpses lay nearby. So desperate was the need for fuel that the signpost at the airfield’s edge was removed and replaced with the gruesome sight of a horse’s leg stuck in a mound of snow with the sign re-attached to it’s top.
The German’s supply situation grew more and more desperate…Actually, you know what? This is just getting depressing…let’s move on
The final blow began in January 1943 when the Russians began their assault to crush the Kessel. The remains of the 6th Army retreated east towards the ruins of Stalingrad. The spectacle of defeat grew more terrible the closer retreating soldiers came to the city:
As far as the eye can see lie soldiers crushed by tanks, hopelessly moaning wounded, frozen corpses, vehicles abandoned through lack of fuel, blown-up guns and miscellaneous equipment…
1. Child “traitors”
Civilians in Stalingrad didn’t just have the Germans and the elements to worry about; running afoul of the Soviet side was tragically all too easy.
In their desperation for food many civilians begged the Germans for help, who occasionally obliged. As many simple tasks in Stalingrad were dangerous because of Soviet snipers, German soldiers sometimes promised young Russian boys and girls a crust of bread in return for something as simple as refilling their water bottles down by the Volga.
When the Soviets realized what was happening they shot children on such missions without hesitation. This was not just a local anomaly, but rather an official Soviet policy. Stalin had ordered the previous year that Red Army troops were to kill any civilians obeying German orders, even if under duress.
Stalingrad has far too many anecdotes to mention here about what happens when hell descends to Earth. Both sides showed absolutely no mercy. Every red-blooded man should give it a read.