I got to see the movie Battleship (2012) on TV the other week. I’d eschewed it on first release because it looked dumb on so many levels. And I wasn’t disappointed. The dumbness was monolithic.
I suppose any story that’s been squeezed out of a game is going to have problems. Add the inevitable studio requirements for box-office draw and the result was predictable – cliché characters and contrived character arcs strapped across a story about aliens attacking with what looked like dirigible buzz-saws and steroid-enhanced rifle grenades. The WW2-vintage battleship BB-63 Missouri – a museum ship at Pearl Harbor since 1998 – saved the day.
This involved some great special effects. But the aliens missed the obvious weapon – pointed out by Robert A. Heinlein in Time For The Stars (1956). You have (let’s say) a thousand metre long interstellar spaceship with motors capable of boosting its half-million tonne mass to light-speed. Want to destroy anything? Hover over it and turn the throttle up a tad. A ‘star drive weapon’ also featured in some of Larry Niven’s ‘Kzin’ stories, but Heinlein thought of it first.
Luckily the aliens in Battleship hadn’t thought of that. Nor had they thought to use their impenetrable (magic physics!) force-field to protect their own ships. This meant they were vulnerable to 16-inch shells. That, at least, was credible. I do ‘navy geek’ and can tell you that Missouri’s Mk 7 16″/50 cal guns were exceptional, the last word in big-gun ordinance, firing a Mk 8 2700 lb AP shell at 2,500 feet per second. At muzzle – essentially the range shown in the film, where Missouri engaged from about 1500 yards, which is point-blank for those guns – those shells could penetrate 32.62″ of face-hardened armour. Enough to give any alien a headache. To put that in perspective, these guns were designed to defeat battleship armour on a vessel over the horizon. The range-penetration tables I’ve seen start at 10,000 yards, where the 2700 lb shell could penetrate 26.26″ of armour.*
By the 1950s a shell with a nuclear bursting charge was also available for this gun – the 1900 lb Mk 23 ‘Katie’, with a yield of about 50 kilotons. These rendered the Missouri and her sister ships the most powerful battleships ever deployed in the history of the world. With a single salvo they could defeat entire enemy fleets, destroy small nations, and – doubtless – annihilate the intruding aliens of the decade who arrived to take Earth’s water and America’s women.
Using Earth tech to tackle intruding aliens has been portrayed before – H G Wells pioneered it in The War Of The Worlds. But he also underscored the real purpose of such tales. This story was an acerbic social commentary about the First Matabele War of 1893-94, where with Blackadderish zeal, Cecil Rhodes’ private army used four heavy machine guns to annihilate an indigenous force armed with sticks. It was out of line even by period standards, bringing down the opprobium of the western world on the ethics of late nineteenth century British colonial attitudes. ‘Whatever happens,’ Hilaire Belloc intoned in The Modern Traveller, ‘we have got/The Maxim Gun/and they have not’.
Wells contribution was to wonder what would happen if ‘minds immeasurably superior to ours’ descended upon London – a tale which, as Wells very well knew, was really a commentary on humanity’s dark side, and on its fears. So too have been many of the smarter aliens portrayed in entertainment since, including Gort. And especially Daleks which – explicitly and directly – were faceless Second World War era stormtroopers. To me, that’s what most of our ‘alien’ visions have always been about: creatures from elsewhere that either behave as we try not to. Or, alternatively, which behave as we idealise, and who are here to show us the error of our species-and-culture-specific ways. Even though they’re alien – as in, from an utterly different biological origin and evolution.
Uh – do they exist for real like that? Really? Go figure.
But let’s suppose that aliens turn up – the Googly Eyed Monsters from Squidgy 3 turn up, demanding the missing episode of I Love Lucy, or we die (something like this was a Futurama plot, as I recall). To me, the chance of the aliens’ tech matching us – or not being too much beyond – is the interesting question. It’s easy to imagine that aliens capable of interstellar travel would have technologies far more capable than our own. But is this true, given that we already understand the physics – and limits – of our everyday environment, thanks to Einstein, and have since hit some of the limits of materials physics?
Don’t forget, fifty years ago we confidently believed that by now we’d have flying cars, atomic Mars rockets, lunar colonies, a world where disease had been conquered forever, and all the rest. None of it came true. And yet nobody – except Sir Arthur C. Clarke – predicted the information revolution that actually happened. Part of this came about because we ran into the limits of materials physics – and, to some extent, funding. Would aliens have the same problems? I know what I think about this. Let’s discuss…
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015