The other day I stumbled across a fan-site description of the warships portrayed in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2004-09). And something struck me.
Sci-fi ships usually derive from an ocean-going ‘conceptual model’ – ‘space dreadnoughts’, ‘space battlecruisers’, ‘destroyers’ and the rest. The ‘conceptual model’ for Galactica was apparently the hybrid carrier-battleship of the kind contemplated in the 1930s to get around treaty limitations. None were built, largely because such a ship could neither carry enough guns to be a useful surface combatant, or enough aircraft to be a useful carrier. Worse, the requirements for a flight deck to run fixed-wing operations were incompatible with good arcs of fire. But as the Pacific war turned against Japan, the IJN rebuilt two older battleships as hybrids; and post-war the British converted their Tiger class cruisers into helicopter carriers. In the 1980s the US Navy planned to rebuild their four Iowa class battleships the same way.
Galactica was portrayed as uncompromised. I suppose being 1.4 km long and 0.5 km wide helps. But there was a twist to the analogy. Where most seagoing battleships of the early twentieth century carried 6-12 main battery guns, Galactica and the other battlestars were bristling with them. The series’ developers presented Galactica with a main armament of 48 anti-ship cannons in 24 twin mountings, backed with variously stated numbers of lighter weapons for suppressing incoming attacks.
This was closer to eighteenth century ‘line of battle ships’ (from which the modern word derives). These ‘wooden walled’ vessels had anything from 50 to 100 guns and the British, particularly, pursued tactics based on those numbers, favouring a ‘hail of fire’ that could smother an enemy.
As the nineteenth century progressed and warship design became radically different, the number of heavy guns mounted on any battleship dropped to as few as four or even two. But that ‘hail of fire’ was still around, and the British worked it into some of their cruiser designs. These were equipped with a dozen or more six-inch guns – criticised when foreign cruisers had heavier weapons – but fitting British ideas about naval combat.
That same ‘hail of fire’ was applied in the First World War, even on board ships with fewer guns, where sweating gun-crews pumped shells into them as fast as the mechanisms could be worked, blowing off huge quantities of ammunition.
But it’s the original ‘wooden walled’ line-of-battle ships that the re-imagined battlestars hark to. And that was carried through in some of the space battle scenes, where the battlestar was put alongside the enemy and pounded it, just like the old line-of-battle ships in the days of fighting sail.
Thoughts? And meanwhile, if you want to see how I’ve applied science and a dollop of nineteenth century society to my own sci-fi in practise, check out my novella ‘Missionary’ – one of seven stories by seven great authors in the first Endless Worlds compilation. Out on Kindle and in paperback.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017