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  1. #1
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    Realism, Suspension of Disbelief, and Boarding Parties (A Question)

    Hey all!
    I could not find a topic regarding this, so I apologize in advance if the issue has already been discussed. I have been in the process of writing a science-fiction epic spanning hundreds of planets and an entire fictional galaxy. Now I am a big fan of realism-believability is very important to me. However, my foray into science-fiction has brought my creative process into conflict with desire for realism. At this point, after spending the better part of two months defining the level of required suspension of disbelief, of which I am quite pleased with (For instance, the starships in my story do not adhere to the logical spherical design most likely to be found on such a vessel, along with the actual physics of ship-to-ship combat being slightly skewed to allow more narrative flavor, and not to mention FTL capabilities) but there is an aspect which I have been struggling with to this point. Normally I would allow myself to reach a conclusion on my own, then submitting it for analysis to a friend or an editor, but in this case something is urging me to find a popular consensus beforehand.

    The topic is space boarding-parties; the act of marines, soldiers, or personnel actively attempting to subvert another, hostile ship's defenses with the intention of boarding the vessel.

    Now my thought process. Part of me is saying 'just include them, they are an exciting aspect of the genre and can fulfill a variety of roles within the plot.' That being said, my story is aimed to create sense of 'false realism' where physical laws are bound to logic, but not necessarily identical to those found in our universe. boarding parties are literally the only part of the story I have not decided on including/excluding. This question may be better meant for a physics forum, or maybe a speculative-physics forum, but I figure for questions regarding science-fiction, why not go right to the source (authors)?

    So, to sum up the question; in a pseudo-realistic world where the laws of physics can bend slightly at the whims of the narrative, would the idea of having boarding parties be stretching the limits of realism, or is there a way to do it without impacting the factor of suspension of disbelief overmuch? Part of me says they're ridiculous (the risk/reward factors, the manpower required, and cost of such a venture must be close to that of an initial planetary invasion) but another part of me says not to overthink it. What do you guys and gals think?

    Thanks! (Hopefully I posted this in the right place, sorry if not.)

  2. #2
    it could be worse Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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    Hello CZilla! Welcome to the forum.

    While I think you probably should ask readers (in the Science Fiction forum) whether they would buy it or not, let's leave the thread here for now and see how many bites you get.

    I suspect that most hard sci-fi fans will not take space-pirates very seriously, but I think it also depends on the nature of your story and the world you've built for it. I guess if you give your pirates a big enough reward for the risk, anything is possible, no?

  3. #3
    known as Noumenon no more Andrew Leon Hudson's Avatar
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    To be honest, I'm not sure what the question is really asking. I don't understand how the realism/semi-realism issue impacts on what seems to me to be "Can I have boarding parties?" The answer to that is, Yes, you can. Part of my problem there is you haven't defined your problem very clearly, so in everything that follows I'm trying to cover general bases.

    To respond (negatively!) to Nila's hard-sf suspicion, I'm struggling to imagine a harder notion than conquering a vessel by putting your own people on it--assuming that it is happening in conventional space, that is. Then it's no more controversial than the (no doubt significant) difficulties of connecting one ship to another, or firing a boarding craft like a bullet at a target (and if you can already do that then having the crew survive the transit isn't a disastrous physics bend). It's just an extrapolation from naval ship boarding, with an extra dimension of movement to complicate matters. Ruling it out seems as logical as ruling punches out of a street-fight: there may be other, fancier ways to win, but you can always go back to the basics.

    On the other hand, if we're talking about boarding a ship that is currently travelling faster-than-light then, no, that sounds implausible to the point of broken. Even if the boarding ship can move faster than faster-than-light and catch up effectively, it would still be like chasing a photon. Just to find your target, you'd need to know its starting point, direction and speed (assuming these remain constant, maybe they don't)--and since all this happening in hyper space* (or your equivalent) you'd also need to know how long they were going to spend "jumping" to avoid them simply dropping back into conventional space without you ever knowing it and over-shooting by vast distances. AND, all of that is just to be able to get You close enough to the Target to even attempt to board it: it says nothing about the mechanics of attaching ships together, or how a boarding craft would be able to transition "left-to-right" between two vessels moving forward faster that light.

    Look at Star Wars, for example: the fleeing Millennium Falcon is in danger of being boarded right up until the point at which they "make the jump to light speed", but after that they are basically in Magic Space and Have Got Away.



    * presumably, since in conventional space you'd need to be dodging planets and space dust and all that sort of thing, some of it coming at you faster than your own speed (relativistically speaking), and if that IS what you're claiming then "boarding ships" is the least problematic issue your narrative realism has to deal with...
    Last edited by Andrew Leon Hudson; March 18th, 2014 at 11:12 AM.

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    I wouldn't sweat it too much. Different works demand different things, and if you have FTL travel you've probably already lost the readers that demand total realism anyway.

    I'm pretty much on board (ha!) with Andrew Leon Hudson. Your biggest hurdle, probably, isn't justifying the physics of it. Take into account the basics, like getting the boarding crew over to the target in a believable manner, addressing issues of pressure and, of course, the immense scale of space, and you'll be fine.

    What you should think very hard about and provide a good explanation for is: why? Why would a crew choose to board an enemy to (presumably) engage in deck-by-deck in-person combat? Why not blow it up (maybe they want cargo), why not depressurize it and kill the enemy crew before boarding (maybe they're trying to capture a person alive), why not send robots (maybe robots suck in your world)? If the reasons for the boarding aren't plausible and compelling, it will look like you just said "awesome, space pirates" and figured out a way to ramrod it into the story.

    Incidentally, I think boarding is awesome and you should figure out a way to work it into the story.

  5. #5
    Registered User StephenPorter's Avatar
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    While I'm not a science fiction buff, I can't imagine any other way to take over a ship. Just about any ship-to-ship combat would run a severe, if not guaranteed, risk for the ship to be destroyed, thus losing anything you wanted to take from it. Even in such a far off future these spaceships would have to be incredibly valuable, and destroying them outright would be a total waste of resources.

    If you can make a massive spaceship that can navigate across the galaxy, overcoming the myriad complications involved in that, then coming up with a boarding party should be child's play. Outfitting a well armed infantry group would cost only a small fraction of what an entire functional ship would cost.

    If your goal is to capture, then at some point your own troops are going to have to go on board and secure the other vessel, even if those troops are composed of robots or some other technological invasion. Those troops are going to need to deal with resistance from the other ship's crew and any internal defenses. There's a reason that tanks haven't been doing much in recent wars. That's because the narrow city fighting pretty much requires an infantry level combat force to do anything. A ship interior would be a similar proposition. And combat in such a place would be using limited firepower from both sides, since excessive force would cause damage to the ship and its valuables, if not a catastrophic hull breach that would just kill everyone.

    You'll need to keep in mind human nature. Aside from delusional lunatics who would be unlikely to get command of a spaceship, people don't randomly run around blowing stuff up for no reason. Conflict has an objective. Often this will involve resources of some kind. And a space-faring civilization will obviously need a ton of resources to maintain its ability to travel through space. Obviously conflict is going to involve capturing and maintaining control over those resources that are needed for space travel. Even if you're in an outright war, that war will be over something tangible that can be captured. At some level, occupation of a hostile area is going to be involved and will need to be accounted for.

    And there's always going to be cargo ships. And those ships are aways going to be targets for capture. Even if your tactic is to force the ship to surrender, there's always going to be that one ship that would rather go down fighting, or will just pretend to surrender so they can make a surprise attack.

    Honestly, as long as you give a reasonable explanation, believability isn't going to be a problem. You're apparently not going into a hard SF category anyway, so don't fret the small stuff. In fact, coming up with a good justification for something normally unbelievable is probably one of the best ways to create a suspension of disbelief in the first place, and it would earn you a lot of respect from readers who might say, "Wow, I never thought that would make any sense, but the way he/she used it totally worked!"

  6. #6
    Just Another Philistine Hereford Eye's Avatar
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    I can name at least three sf series that depict Marines boarding from one spacecraft to another:
    Tanya Huff's Valor series.
    Christopher Nuttall's Empire Corps series.
    Bruce Bretthauer's The Families War series.
    Having read all three, I believe each author makes it work.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Andrew Leon Hudson View Post
    To be honest, I'm not sure what the question is really asking. I don't understand how the realism/semi-realism issue impacts on what seems to me to be "Can I have boarding parties?" The answer to that is, Yes, you can. Part of my problem there is you haven't defined your problem very clearly, so in everything that follows I'm trying to cover general bases.

    To respond (negatively!) to Nila's hard-sf suspicion, I'm struggling to imagine a harder notion than conquering a vessel by putting your own people on it--assuming that it is happening in conventional space, that is. Then it's no more controversial than the (no doubt significant) difficulties of connecting one ship to another, or firing a boarding craft like a bullet at a target (and if you can already do that then having the crew survive the transit isn't a disastrous physics bend). It's just an extrapolation from naval ship boarding, with an extra dimension of movement to complicate matters. Ruling it out seems as logical as ruling punches out of a street-fight: there may be other, fancier ways to win, but you can always go back to the basics.

    On the other hand, if we're talking about boarding a ship that is currently travelling faster-than-light then, no, that sounds implausible to the point of broken. Even if the boarding ship can move faster than faster-than-light and catch up effectively, it would still be like chasing a photon. Just to find your target, you'd need to know its starting point, direction and speed (assuming these remain constant, maybe they don't)--and since all this happening in hyper space* (or your equivalent) you'd also need to know how long they were going to spend "jumping" to avoid them simply dropping back into conventional space without you ever knowing it and over-shooting by vast distances. AND, all of that is just to be able to get You close enough to the Target to even attempt to board it: it says nothing about the mechanics of attaching ships together, or how a boarding craft would be able to transition "left-to-right" between two vessels moving forward faster that light.

    Look at Star Wars, for example: the fleeing Millennium Falcon is in danger of being boarded right up until the point at which they "make the jump to light speed", but after that they are basically in Magic Space and Have Got Away.



    * presumably, since in conventional space you'd need to be dodging planets and space dust and all that sort of thing, some of it coming at you faster than your own speed (relativistically speaking), and if that IS what you're claiming then "boarding ships" is the least problematic issue your narrative realism has to deal with...
    Thanks so much for the responses, these are exactly what I was looking for, sorry if that was not exactly clear. I just needed to hear it from other people. At this point I plan on working them into the story while depicting the difficulties of space travel, though primarily limited to common astrophysics (I do not plan to get into the advanced stuff, I do not want to weigh my narrative down with jargon). Some research will be needed, but some of the ideas thrown around have really got me thinking.

    On a side note, I have been exploring the forums recently and I believe they may prove a good source of information and inspiration in itself.

    Thank for the help! (And no, there will be no faster-than-light boarding parties in my story )

  8. #8
    KMTolan kmtolan's Avatar
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    One of the novels in my Dancer series featured a boarding party - a very "out of the box" answer for dealing with an orbiting ship not expecting such a thing. Yes, if the conditions are presented in a believable fashion (relative orbits/speeds and such) then it's not only doable, it could catch something like a cruiser by surprise when said warship is designed to fight other ships at a distance (hint - emergency airlocks work both ways).

    There is always a solution to any defense, some of them being way outside of practical.

    Kerry

  9. #9
    known as Noumenon no more Andrew Leon Hudson's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CZilla View Post
    And no, there will be no faster-than-light boarding parties in my story
    Sounds like you're on a stable footing!

  10. #10
    We Read for Light Window Bar's Avatar
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    Another twist: How about a Virtual Boarding Party? There would be several ways to play this game. Here are two: 1) Holographic projections of warriors; 2) Telepathic or psi projections of warriors.

  11. #11
    it could be worse Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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    Or - they could take over while the ship is docked somewhere or parked on a small planet or asteroid or something?

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    Quote Originally Posted by N. E. White View Post
    Or - they could take over while the ship is docked somewhere or parked on a small planet or asteroid or something?
    I had the same idea! This has already made its way into the story, mainly for piracy (such as the theft of goods from a docked ship, or even the theft of a ship from an orbital-station or way-station).

  13. #13
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    Quote Originally Posted by CZilla View Post

    So, to sum up the question; in a pseudo-realistic world where the laws of physics can bend slightly at the whims of the narrative, would the idea of having boarding parties be stretching the limits of realism, or is there a way to do it without impacting the factor of suspension of disbelief overmuch? Part of me says they're ridiculous (the risk/reward factors, the manpower required, and cost of such a venture must be close to that of an initial planetary invasion) but another part of me says not to overthink it. What do you guys and gals think?

    Thanks! (Hopefully I posted this in the right place, sorry if not.)
    If you're not afraid to go with convention, think that every large ship should have a way to dock with shuttles or other smaller craft, that can presumably also be used to connect two large ships.

    Tractor beam, forced docking, go. Tractor beam, forced docking + hacked transporters, there you go; pirate invasion.

    The thing about pirates/privateers is, they don't really want to destroy the ship until they've got their booty.

    As for the risk/reward factor, remember that the classic pirates we think of today (Capt Morgan et al) traveled with FLEETS of ships - it wasn't just one guy with a ragtag shanghai'd crew roaming around looking for foolishly unarmed merchant ships.

  14. #14
    We Read for Light Window Bar's Avatar
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    "Boarding Parties." Hmm, are those like English Spanking Clubs?"

  15. #15
    I agree with the majority here, definitely doable.

    I think in general, it's a hell of a lot easier to destroy than it is to protect, especially in naked space where there is nowhere to hide. Could you have an old timey boarding action similar to what would happen in the age of sail? Probably not that realistic for space. Often two naval sailing ships would board each other because their rigging would get tangled and caught in the other ship, and so they would have no choice. Also, the range and accuracy of cannons were terrible, so they would sometimes engage at point blank ranges.

    In modern times, an aggressive boarding acting doesn't really happen because combat ranges are at, or more, than a hundred times further than they were in the age of sail. It would only be worse in space. But...

    What do you do with a burned out ship? One that has lost power but still has a crew? Or as mentioned earlier a cargo ship with few defences? What if you had ion cannons like in star wars that disable a ships electronics? Even an aggressive boarding against an alert and undamaged ship could be feasible really. Think about asymmetric warfare. A small, fast ship, kind of like a little dart, packed to the gills with an aggressive, well armed force of Marines, launching a surprise attack on a much bigger ship. Perhaps the large ship is not equipped for such a small, fast ship, which normally would be harmless (snub fighters vs. the death star anyone?). The little dart could get close, cut through the superstructure and inject its 'poison'. Get a group a marines in or near the engine room of a ship and that ship is toast.

    It's a cheap, if risky, way to potentially knock out a much more powerful adversary. It can all be done with the right circumstances and motivations, IMHO.

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