Science and Swordplay

Bringing a Sword to a Blaster Fight

Since advanced weapons are available in much science fiction—the famous “ray gun” is iconic—it’s surprising how often a fight comes down to the humble, and archaic, sword.

You’d think this would be a classic case of “brings a knife to a gunfight.”  Why doesn’t the blade-wielding attacker get wiped out immediately by an opponent with, say, advanced automatic weapons?  How does a science fiction setting justify the continued usefulness of swords—and why?

Let’s look at some examples.

Swordsmen of Mars

A Princess of Mars coverEdgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom stories are full of noble heroes engaging in swashbuckling swordfights with the foul villains.  (Those who haven’t read the books may have seen the flawed, but underrated, movie adaptation “John Carter [of Mars]” a few years ago.)  This is despite the fact that most of these warriors are also equipped with guns firing explosive radium bullets.  Why don’t they use their guns?

As the Wikipedia article points out, on Barsoom (Mars) “it is considered unchivalrous to defend with any weapon but the one used in an attack (or a lesser one).”  This allows the good guys to stick to their swords, and also let the bad guys show their unchivalrous villainy by trying to use more advanced weapons.  Since Burroughs’ characters do tend to behave in ways that reflect what we think of as an archaic code of honor, there’s some plausibility to this explanation.  (The first book was published in 1912; there’s been a lot of cultural water under the bridge since then.)

Glory Road

Glory Road coverIn Robert A. Heinlein’s tongue-in-cheek Glory Road (1963), a recently-discharged veteran, whose expertise happens to include fencing, is recruited by “the most beautiful woman in any world” for a mission in one of the “Twenty Universes.”  In that particular universe, the laws of nature are different:  firearms and explosives don’t work.  But blades do.  This gives us a traditional sword-swinging hero (whom Heinlein can then merrily deconstruct throughout the story).

Heinlein also makes the point that a blade can be useful, no matter how advanced your technology, in close-quarters combat; which is (I assume) why today’s soldiers still occasionally use bayonets.

A similar gunpowder-won’t-work-in-this-universe situation is set up by Roger Zelazny in his Chronicles of Amber, where Zelazny’s immortal hero, Corwin, is among other things a master swordsman.  However, in The Guns of Avalon, Corwin solves the problem by finding a universe where there’s a gunpowder analogue that does work where regular firearms do not.  Both Glory Road and Amber make it hard to decide whether we’re reading science fiction or fantasy—which is par for the course where SF swordplay is involved.

Dune

Dune coverThe climax of Frank Herbert’s classic Dune (1965)—after atomic explosions, an attack by immense sandworms, and a clash of unbeatable armies—comes down to, you guessed it, a one-on-one fight with blades.  Herbert gives us a combination of reasons to work with.  His characters learn fencing because their personal force shields stop fast-moving projectiles, such as bullets, but are less effective against relatively slower attacks, such as a sword thrust.  This is a clever science-fictional reason to preserve the swordfighting trope.  Cultural factors also enter in.  The final duel specifically occurs because, as in Burroughs, there are formal rules of vendetta or kanly that allow for such single combat.

You can see the Dune swordfights in video adaptations:  the 1984 movie by David Lynch, or a 2000 mini-series on the Sci-Fi (now Syfy) Channel.

Star Wars

Luke and Vader, lightsabers crossedOf course the case with which most of us are familiar is the famous Jedi Knight “lightsaber” in the Star Wars stories.  Knights, of course, have to carry swords, and Lucas has made the lightsaber an iconic emblem of his universe.  What makes a sword-like weapon useful here is that the Jedi Knights can actually use them to deflect, or even redirect, gunfire (“blaster” bolts).  Personally, I’ve always felt that the only way this could possibly work is that precognition allows the Jedi a moment’s unconscious awareness of where and when the next bolt will come.  No one’s reflexes or muscles could possibly be fast enough to intercept something that fast without foreknowledge.

The Attractions of Swordplay

We’ve seen several ways to justify the use of swords in a high-tech science fiction environment.  It’s a separate question why authors and readers enjoy such scenes.

I think one reason is that sword-to-sword combat allows for a personal engagement more effectively than a gun duel.  Much has been said about the depersonalization inherent in the use of long-distance weapons.  In a genuine battle, we may pragmatically seek the most effective means to prevail, whether personal or impersonal.  But in a story, individual characters, and the drama of their interactions, are at the fore.  A person-to-person duel between hero and villain is more viscerally satisfying than wiping out the opponent at a distance.

The sword also has a long history of symbolic and evocative significance.  We noted above, for example, that the use of sword can call up in a reader’s or viewer’s mind a whole chivalric or feudal milieu.  This is merely one of the deliberately archaic tropes Lucas brought back in the original “Star Wars.”

Using a sword also requires more physical skill, strength, and endurance than using a gun. It’s been pointed out that one of the ways the development of firearms changed the nature of war was by enabling lightly-trained recruits to fight competently, without the lifetime’s training needed to make a good swordsman.  If a story wants to show off the physical excellence and expertise of the combatants, a swordfight will do this better than a gunfight.

Of course, pure bare-handed martial-arts combat, or fighting with other melee weapons like staves or maces, can accomplish the same things—which is why we frequently see these, too, making their appearance incongruously in SF contexts.

Flag in Exile swordfight sceneFinally, a swordfight may be more prolonged than a gunfight, because blades can do more gradual damage than bullets and thus allow for longer duels, intensifying the drama.  This isn’t always the case.  In the page on Single-Stroke Battle, TV Tropes observes that “[r]eal sword fights often take only a few seconds or even a fraction of a second, with one solid hit generally being enough to take a man out of the fight (contrast this with Flynning).”  One thinks of the powerful scene toward the end of David Weber’s Flag in Exile where Honor Harrington does in fact cut short a lengthy duel with one blow.  But this is precisely where an author can set up the desired situation to best advantage.

No matter how much futuristic SF may pervade our storytelling, then, we’re not likely to see the humble sword retired any time soon.

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Arabella of Mars

Arabella of Mars book coverArabella of Mars, by David D. Levine (New York:  Tor, 2016), may be described as a Regency steampunk planetary romance.  Better yet may be the flyleaf testimonial from Madeleine Robins:  “If Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, and Patrick O’Brian had sat down together to compose a tale to amuse Jane Austen, the result might be Arabella of Mars.”

Genres are getting complicated these days.  But sometimes that cross-fertilization produces some entertaining mixes.

Our young heroine’s British family maintains a plantation on Mars, as if it were the Caribbean islands or India at the dawn of the nineteenth century.  The native Martians, filling the role of the local population, are considered primitive by the British colonists.  In this respect the setup is faintly reminiscent of the Martian sequence in Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast.

Physically, however, Levine’s Martians are more reminiscent of the green Martians of Burroughs’ Barsoom:  large, nonhuman, living in a desert world.  In keeping with modern sensibilities, the “natives” actually possess a respectable culture and can be formidable opponents.  This accounts for the “planetary romance” aspect—“an extension of late 19th and early 20th century adventure novels and pulp romances to a planetary setting,” as Wikipedia describes the genre.

When tomboyish Arabella is removed with her mother and sister to Earth, the Austen angle takes over.  Arabella finds the Regency-era dinner parties and promenades boring; she’d rather be tinkering with mechanical piano-players and other automata.  The swiftly thickening plot, which involves period devices like entailed estates, forces our heroine to disguise herself as a boy and take a menial position on an East India, er, Mars Company vessel bound for Mars again.

At this point the Burroughs and O’Brian factors collide in an extraordinarily droll description of the Age of Space as an Age of Sail.  Captain Jack Aubrey would have been perfectly at home on the quarterdeck of this interplanetary ship crewed by rough sailors and featuring three masts, not in a row, but protruding from the top and sides of the boat at 120-degree angles.  The Diana is lifted by hot-air balloons (coal-fired, of course) into the extremely high-speed interplanetary air currents, which make travel to Mars a matter of a few months.  These vessels are reminiscent of Burroughs’ Barsoomian airships, bringing us back to the planetary romance theme.

Levine gives us with a straight face his depiction of a Solar System filled with breathable air, without deigning to worry about trivialities such as how the planets could maintain their orbits in such a resisting medium.  The absurdity of the premise simply makes the description more delightful.  As we deal with pirates on the (very) high seas, stop at a convenient asteroid to cut down trees for repairs, and make charcoal to fuel the balloons for the perilous descent to Mars, one can only ride along enjoying Levine’s inventive adaptation of one set of tropes into an entirely different world.

But it’s not just silliness.  The book isn’t a farce.  There’s a good sound story with believable characters strung through this cockeyed worldbuilding.  There’s even a real romance, in the love-story sense, though this plays a somewhat muted role.  Overall, the tale has more of the sea story than of the Regency romance about it.  But it might serve an aficionado of either genre as a cordial introduction to the other.

The novel is billed as “Book One” of “The Adventures of Arabella Ashby.”  One can only imagine what sort of eccentric scenarios might come next.  (For example, I don’t believe anything has yet been mentioned about Venus—which is bound to be a jungle world, perhaps with dinosaurs, if it’s based on the Burroughs-Heinlein model.)  I look forward to seeing where this whimsical tale may lead.

How to Stage an Alien Invasion

We love our alien invasions.  Since The War of the Worlds (1897), poor Earth has suffered a steady stream of hostile arrivals—frequently from Mars, but recently from farther afield, as the possibility of other intelligent life in our solar system wanes.

We have one coming up this month, with the June 24 movie premiere of Independence Day:  Resurgence, a sequel to one of the more successful invasions of the last twenty years.  It seems like a good time to look closely at our opponents.

Footfall, a 1985 novel by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle (still available in print), is not only a great yarn, but a textbook model of how to write a modern invasion story.  We can look at it as a test case, like an existence proof in mathematics:  What kinds of conditions have to be fulfilled for a believable alien invasion, given what we now know about other planets?

 

Let’s define the target.  We’re talking about the good old classic invasion story, where the bad guys show up in person, make a direct assault, and we beat them.  That isn’t the only possibility.  There are other variants, such as infiltration, or scenarios where the Earthlings lose and end up a subject species.  But let’s look at what premises make a triumphant Independence Day-style plot viable.

 

It was easy for Wells.  His relatively nearby Martians could fire off a series of cannon shells, more or less, to land on Earth, break out their tripods, and mount their campaign.  Wells’ tour de force ending, of course, has the Martians beaten not by human opposition, but by humble bacteria.  (Arguably the best moment in the original Independence Day is when Jeff Goldblum realizes we can best the enemy by using a contemporary analogue of the Wellsian microbes—a computer virus.)

But modern invaders have to come from a greater distance.  Regrettably, none of the plausible abodes of life in the solar system have panned out.  Gone are old-time SF’s sweltering jungles of Venus, the canal-crossed deserts of John Carter’s Mars.  Until we’re ready for an attack by potential microbes from Europa, or hypothetical floating denizens of Jupiter’s atmosphere—neither of which, if they exist, have shown any signs of capability for interplanetary excursions—we have to look to interstellar sparring partners for a really good invasion.

This intensifies a long-standing problem with invasion stories.  If they got here, and across the interstellar gulfs at that, their technology must be literally light-years ahead of ours.  How can we expect to beat critters with such vastly advanced technology?  The balance of power is inherently skewed against us.

Paired with this is the question of motivation.  Why are they here?  What do the invaders want that would drive them to come all the way to Earth for it?

This is the easiest place for invasion stories that aren’t built on sound science to go astray.  We need only mention the 1983 TV mini-series “V,” which, though it had many admirable aspects, fell sadly short on the science side.  V gives not one, but two, implausible motives for the seemingly-benevolent Visitors.  They’re here to steal Earth’s water—as if there weren’t vast amounts of ice scattered around our solar system, and probably most other systems, for the taking.  And they’re here to eat us; apparently not only are humans compatible with a completely alien biology, but we’re a tastier treat than more edible and obtainable animals.  Sensible extraterrestrials need a better reason to traipse across the light-years than a local hamburger shortage.

 

Niven & Pournelle’s epic adventure handles both these questions so beautifully that it might have been plotted specifically to answer them.

Our not-quite-friendly visitors, the fithp (the singular is fi’), arrive in a large interstellar vessel, which launches smaller ships to conduct the attack.  Why are they here?  They’re looking for Lebensraum — living space.  The fithp have been exiled from their homeworld as the result of a conflict among factions—like the Protectors in Niven’s novel Protector.  They need a new place to live.  Among other things, this means “defeat is not an option”:  they can’t go back.  That ups the stakes.

But this exile premise also solves some of the balance-of-power problems.  The fithp’s resources are strictly limited.  There won’t be any reinforcements.  They can’t bring anything more from their homeworld.  All we have to do is defeat this batch of opponents, and we win.

Niven & Pournelle strengthen this limitation on the aliens, and incidentally increase scientific plausibility, by making their mother ship Message Bearer a slower-than-light vessel — a Bussard ramjet.  Their journey takes decades.  This distances the fithp even further from any potential homeworld support.  The authors also use it to introduce another twist:  there’s dissension between the space-born fithp, on one hand, and those who lived on their homeworld and are now awakened from suspended animation, on the other.  This division becomes important as the plot develops.

Without having to account for faster-than-light travel, Niven & Pournelle can give the fithp technology that isn’t too far ahead of our own.  Human numbers—and political, psychological, social characteristics—can make up for the technological imbalance.

In addition, the fithp don’t fully understand their own technology.  They’ve learned a lot of it from records left by their Predecessors, rather than developing the science themselves. This makes them less able to innovate.  By contrast, the humans’ response is a masterpiece of improvisation.  We make the best of what we have.  This, too, helps even the scales.  (Lesson for humans:  Continue fostering that STEM education.)

 

In the course of this worldbuilding, Niven & Pournelle give us fully fleshed-out aliens, with a coherent culture and society, understandable but different from our own — not an easy task.  Among other things, the fithp are sympathetic characters.  They are people, not just faceless attackers.  We see events from their viewpoints as well as our own.  This makes the story not only more believable, but more interesting.

 

The original Independence Day scores modestly on these two plausibility counts.  Motivation:  The aliens travel the stars like locusts, stripping planets of their resources.  No details are given, but the basic idea is not unreasonable, particularly in light of contemporary environmental concerns.  Balance of power:  We’re hopelessly behind in technology—but the aliens’ laziness (using our own satellites for signaling), Goldblum’s bright idea, and a captured alien ship get us (barely) over the hump of the willing suspension of disbelief.

We’ll see shortly how these premises play out in the Independence Day sequel—applying the Niven & Pournelle standard.