The Right Ships

AN-DCBS-MarkupYou know trouble is coming when Wes Prewer and I start talking about warship designs.

Admittedly, things went quiet on the Black Sun front some time ago –– another false start has come and gone, but in its wake there have been some very interesting developments… developments that I suspect will lead us where we need to go. And since I’m a lapsed naval quasi-historian, with friends who are no less enthusiastic about warship-related questions, that means a lot of talk about new ships.

Out of this brainstorming process has come one piece of advice that I don’t think I’ve articulated, but which really is vital for anyone preparing to create starships for their own stories: worry less about what they can do, and more about why they were designed to do it.

As tempting as it can be to get wrapped up in your ships’ cool technical abilities, remember they are essentially characters that grow out of the world you’re creating. If you miss this point, they can easily become heartless artifices of technology. However, if you take this point to heart, you can end up with ships that, in their subtle ways, actually help you find stories to tell.

History is full of pertinent examples. For instance, my beloved HMCS Sackville.

A little ship built to a whaling design, but adapted for war. From the day she was laid down, Sackville wasn’t a thoroughbred fighter; she was a wartime expedient built down to a price. Nevertheless, and against all odds, she carried boys to war on the Atlantic, and got them home again (sinking some u-boats along the way for good measure). If you were given an unlimited budget to design a Second World War convoy escort, and you came up with the most technically-appropriate ship you could imagine, you’d never find such a lady. An opportunity for great stories might be lost.

But that’s not to say every ship you create must be a plucky underdog; Sackville is perfect because she’s a manifestation of a fleet that came from nowhere to be the third-largest among the Allies. She exemplifies ‘Ready Aye Ready‘. What happens if the ship you’re inventing represents a big and powerful Empire? Can you just shop around for your favorite hi-tech starships, and then make yours a bit more awesome?

Maybe, but make sure the template you’re borrowing actually makes sense for the fleet you’ve created. Another historical example:

The Second World War at sea was all about the carriers… or so popular history, and the movies, will always tell us. The fact that German u-boats and American submarines might have done more to alter the course of history is general overlooked: we remember the Pacific War being started by Japanese carriers, and finished by titans with names like Enterprise, Yorktown, Hornet, Essex, Independence, and a great many more.

This isn’t wrong. I grew up watching (and loving) the film Midway. I think very highly of the USN and its flyers. It can well be argued that the Pacific Fleet came upon the perfect warship design for the war it was fighting: a carrier that could project force across the Earth’s largest ocean. Recognizing that absolute truth, every navy on the planet should just have copied the Essex-class blueprints… right?

Well, the Royal Navy didn’t. Admittedly, many people probably don’t realize that the Royal Navy finished the Second World War with a sizeable carrier fleet of its own, but it did… and its carriers were rather different: they possessed armoured flight decks (the Americans made their flight decks out of wood). This made the British ships more labor-intensive to build, and supposedly reduced the number of planes they could carry.

Stupid limeys. All that trouble for nothing, when the superior American design was right there to copy.

I recall one guest-lecturer (confusingly enough, an army Major) explaining to my undergraduate naval history class that, when kamikazes crashed into US carriers, it only took few hours to replace the broken wooden planks before they were back in the fight. If the same kamikazes hit Royal Navy carriers, the armoured metal flight deck could warp, requiring months to repair.

To my credit, I called bullshit on this argument immediately upon hearing it. I didn’t get anywhere — I was an undergrad, he was a Major — but I was right.

Just recently, I was reminded of this fact thanks to an excellent new site, The site’s author is going back to primary sources from the war, and discovering that RN carriers hit by kamikazes often just had to broom the wreckage off their armoured decks, while American carriers tended to experience greater casualties and more time out of action.

Now, that’s honestly quite an oversimplification, but check out the research… or just listen to your own common sense. Would you rather be standing under a bunch of wooden planks when a plane dives into you… or under a sheet of armour?

And yet, because the USN is rightly credited with winning the Pacific War, history has made their carriers the default template… even though they probably wouldn’t have been best-suited for most of the work the Royal Navy needed its carriers to do.

Think about the combat the British faced for most of the war. While the Americans were fighting across the vast Pacific, where it was relatively easy to avoid land-based air forces (and to avoid enemy carriers, for that matter), much of the Royal Navy’s action was within reach of the Luftwaffe.

I don’t believe anyone has imagined what might have become of Yorktown-class carriers if they’d been tasked with escorting Malta convoys… but I’d suggest that wooden flight decks mightn’t have been ideal against perpetual attacks by land-based bombers:

Indeed, little USS Wasp was awfully fortunate to twice ferry Spitfires to Malta without being noticed by the Axis…

Anyway, that’s just one historical example, but extrapolate it back to anything you’re trying to invent for a story. What fictional government is designing your fleet, and why? What experience do the designers possess, and what budget? Are the ships that you’re creating an extension of the story you’ve created… or are they just aiming to be cool in their own right?

It’s tempting to treat the ships you create as shiny artifices of technology — look what this can do! — but that’s not all they have to be. They’re extensions of the world you build, and the characters you fill it with. Indeed, it’s usually more fun if you think of them as characters themselves.

Of course, I’m incredibly biased because of my unrequited affection for a certain lady. She’s called Sackville, and I really do need to get back to Halifax soon…

By God that’s a well-dressed lady. She also seems to wear the same colors as Lady Alex.