Between being recommended for Best New Writer Award and this mini-review from Rocket Stack Rank, Flashpoint: Titan is the most high-profile story I’ve written to date. As I look back, I realised that very few writers I know talk in-depth about their writing processes, worldbuilding, characterisation and the stories behind the stories they write.
With Behind the Story, I intend to elaborate on my personal writing process, with an eye to discussing what went into the stories the wrote. With any luck, some passing writer will find inspiration from this series and learn the lessons I did along the way.
Flashpoint: Titan began as a self-imposed challenge: I wanted to write a hard science fiction space battle, significant enough to shape the history of a science fictional universe I am building, without violating the laws of physics as far as possible. It should be rock-hard science fiction while still leaving room for future technology. Most importantly, it should be fun.
The concept of the story began as a novella concept, based on a few lines of dialogue from a supporting character in a work-in-progress. It would have an epic orbital battle, followed by a lengthy siege on the surface of Titan. Then I pared it down, slowly but surely, until it was lean and focused.
The Saturnian system, especially Titan, was a natural fit for the setting. In an age where space travel and fusion power is commonplace, fusion fuel would be the keystone of the interplanetary economy, much like oil is the keystone of the present global economy. In the story universe, helium-3 is the fusion fuel of choice; fusing one molecule of deuterium with one molecule of helium-3 yields one helium-4 molecule, one proton and 18.3 MeV of released energy. To put things in perspective, you could drive a car for twenty years with one gram of D-He3 fuel. Even better, the reaction is mostly aneutronic, so there would be far reduced radiation hazard than other fusion reactions (there would still be neutrons from stray D-D reactions). Rockets would find this extremely useful, as the fusion byproducts can be directed as thrust using a magnetic field. Being a gas giant with a high density of He-3, Saturn is a target for He-3 mining missions. Titan would be a natural base of operations, and with oceans of hydrocarbons the moon is itself a prime resource mining candidate.
He who controls the Saturnian system controls the Solar System. And it is this struggle that the story encapsulates.
Characterisation was an interesting affair. I am neither Japanese nor a native Japanese speaker, and research into Japanese culture was fascinating. I wanted to create a believably Japanese crew, and it had to show in the small details: how they talk, act and think. Fortunately, I could consult an actual Japanese speaker at second-hand, and it paid off.
The crew of the Takao are military men, and it has to show in their brusque, businesslike manner. Unlike civilians, they never use honorifics with each other — which, in Japanese culture, is also a sign of trust and intimacy, as expected of men who live and work together in a very close space for weeks on end.
When talking to each other, they rarely if ever use ‘you’, using instead rank and/or name. This reflects actual Japanese speaking patterns. Likewise, they use male-only Japanese ending particles, like ka, na and zo. I also had the men use ‘ryoukai‘ in place of ‘roger’ and ‘sentou youii‘ instead of ‘General Quarters’ to further differentiate them from Westerners.
LIkewise, I wanted the American to sound quintessentially Midwestern through expressions and slang, to further differentiate him from the other characters. For that I have my proofreaders to thank.
As for Commander Hoshi Tenzen, the viewpoint character, I wanted to create a solid Japanese military professional, someone who embodies the value of giri. He is compelled, by his own sense of honour, to do his duty with self-sacrificing loyalty. It is this sense of giri that propels him to make the choices he does. Likewise, it is this sense of giri that compels the crew to obey his orders in the face of impossible odds. There is also a brief conflict between giri and its counterpart, ninjo, or ‘human feelings’, creating further drama. Everything about Hoshi should scream bushido, and in a sense, he is a modern day samurai.
For all that, Rocket Stack noted that the story lacked character development. It’s a valid criticism, and it’s something I need to work on for future stories.
Hard science fiction is hard. Designing the ships of the story required long hours of number crunching, fiddling, conceptualisations and comparisons with wet navy equivalents. But to make the story convincing, the maths and the physics had to stand up. For that reason, I shied away from traditional depictions of ultra-high-gee accelerations. While tempting, there is no need to have such accelerations in space; a mere six milligees would be quite sufficient to propel a ship to any orbit in the Solar system, and at the stupendous speeds afforded by fusion engines, only a slight nudge would take a ship safely clear of an incoming kinetic munition.
I also made a deliberate decision to stay away from the traditional wet Navy ship classification types. I felt that they didn’t accurately reflect the roles and capabilities of what an actual space warship could do. That meant I had to find my own designations.
The star of the story, the JS Takao, is a torchship. That is, a ship with an unreasonably powerful drive. My target was an acceleration of 1/3 Earth gravity and a delta-v budget of 1000 km/s. To hit that figure, I had to cut away every excess gram from the original design proposal and postulate an advanced fusion engine. Takao masses 5000 tons, with a payload fraction of 88% — that is, 88% of the ship’s total mass is its payload.
In terrestrial terms, Takao is a guided missile frigate. Her mission is to rapidly project force anywhere in the Solar System, representing Japanese interests and responding to crises. Unlike a frigate, she can operate independently and still carry enough firepower to win a small war all by herself. She provides an option for policymakers to respond to crises quickly without escalating a situation by sending a full squadron, to secure an inhabited world ahead of a larger and more powerful task force, or screen a squadron.
To make the most of her modest payload, I made her primarily a laser ship, with her main laser capable of reaching out and touching a target over tens of thousands of kilometers. Takao also carries 80 missiles, which gives her the throw weight of a contemporary destroyer. Finally, I gave her a trio of railguns to round things off.
Each weapon plays different roles in a space engagement. The laser would degrade a target’s capabilities, taking out sensors, radiators and other critical systems. It would also defend the ship against long-range missile and kinetic attack. However, lasers generate huge amounts of heat, overheating in mere seconds. The calculations indicated that the laser could only fire just under 1200 pulses before overheating.
Missiles, on the other hand, generate very little heat in comparison. After taking out the enemy’s key systems with her laser, Takao would follow through with a mass missile launch to finish off the targets. To handle enemy counter kinetic fire, and force close-in threats to fly into missile vectors, her railguns would begin firing. During a high-speed encounter, the ship’s generator and radiators would be running at max capacity; the railguns needed to operate independently of the generator and radiator as far as possible. That meant the railguns would have a separate coolant reservoir and employ explosive power generators — which, in the real world, would likely be called explosively pumped flux compression generators.
As for the rationale behind the name Takao, I will simply say this: Tsundere heavy cruiser.
The guard ships in the story serve a similar function to antiaircraft missile destroyers. The term ‘guard ship’ comes from the Russian navy term for small ships designated for escort duties. At 10000 tons, though, the guard ships are closer to cruisers. They are tasked with intercepting enemy kinetics and saturating enemy lasers with more kinetics to allow other combatants to close the distance. That made missiles their principal offensive and defensive weapon. For these ships, lasers are best employed as area defense weapons, taking out kinetics that come too close. For their kinetic component, I chose a spinal railgun specifically to counter laser ships: laser-armed ships would have to either burn through a screen of incoming kinetics (and force their lasers into thermal shutdown) or burn away from the battlespace. Working as a wolfpack, a group of guard ships can swarm and take down other targets using missiles and railgun shells. With a payload fraction of 77%, a guard ship can carry a truly ludicrous number of missiles (400!), perfect for her role.
It’s tempting to think of assault carriers as aircraft carrier analogues, but in truth they are closer to amphibious assault ships. They ferry troops from place to place, and hold a number of drones to support the troops or friendly forces. They don’t need to be fast; they just have to be fast enough to keep up with the regular forces and burn to their objective at a reasonable pace.
If there is one thing I could change about the ship designs, it would be to incorporate afterburners for their fusion engines. I would give the ships an option to dump reaction mass into the fusion burn chamber, increasing their thrust (and acceleration) in exchange for lower exhaust velocity and prodigious propellant expenditure. But after a battle that proves the utility of ships capable of stupendous accelerations, you can bet that afterburners would become standard issue pretty quickly.
Atomic Rockets and Rocketpunk Manifesto were invaluable resources for ship design, and a must-read for anyone interested in creating believable future spaceships.
These calculators proved invaluable in determining what weapons could really do. Armed with these numbers, I had an idea of what space weapons would do to a target. However, real-life space combat in deep space would likely be very boring. Thermodynamics renders all notion of stealth impossible. You’d probably see two waves of spaceships rushing towards each other, flinging everything they have at hand. He who can launch more missiles, fire more lasers and dodge more kinetics wins. It could very likely be boiled down to mathematical formulae. And readers don’t want boring stuff.
That means an intense focus on drama and tension, while keeping hard sci fi tropes in mind. Space combat, as research and speculation suggests, would force captains to juggle power, coolant and munitions. Heat is the Achilles heel of any space warship, followed by electricity. An overheated ship would melt down in very short order, while an unpowered ship cannot do anything.
Space combat is also fundamentally asymmetrical. Lasers and kinetics offer vastly different capabilities, each with pros and cons. Different weapons would be suited for different missions, and I wanted the ships to carry different weapon mixes to reflect different missions. The space engagements in the story reflected this asymmetry, giving readers more to look at than a large wave of missiles approaching a tsunami of missiles.
I also elected to focus on Commander Hoshi Tenzen’s thoughts and emotions as he deals with the situation, using science to drive the story. Stories are about humans, and readers want to read about other people I incorporated thermodynamics, forcing Hoshi to deal with a steadily creeping heat load in the face of a missile massacre, and losing his longest-range weapons. While the capabilities of every laser, shell and missile had to be calculated (if only ballpark figures), I created room for deception. I won’t spoil the story, but I will say that the principle here is to disguise one’s capabilities, allowing the enemy to underestimate you.
Looking back, I would have made a couple of changes to the combat scenes. I would have had Hoshi target sensors instead of blowing away threats where practical; sensors are far more vulnerable, and sensor-kills would be nearly as good as a mission-kills.
I would also have Takao turning and burning more often, presenting her missiles to the enemy while disguising her motion as a vector change. Looking up the figures again, I realized that Takao could possibly outrun her own missiles. Takao is a fusion-powered torchship, and any lesser engine simply cannot match her exhaust velocity or thrust power. To effectively deploy broadside-mounted missiles, especially missiles with engines less powerful that her own, a spaceship would have to present the missiles to the threat before launching. It’s a minor detail, but a crucial one to ensure greater immersion.
Flashpoint: Titan was my first foray into very hard sci fi, and it appears to be highly regarded. It only means that the bar has been set very high, and I hope to exceed expectations with my following stories.
If there is one thing I learned from this story, it’s that science supports the plot, but characters drive the story. Science tells you what is possible and what is impossible in the story, and a character’s choices based on these constraints become the story. There is always a temptation to dump hard-won research material on the page, but readers are ultimately interested in reading about humans. They want to know what drives characters, what they choose, the outcomes of their choices, and how they can relate to the characters and the events of the story.
Stories are ultimately about people. The tropes of hard science fiction are simply tools to build certain kinds of stories about special people living in in imagined time and place, creating an experience for readers unlike anything they can find in this world.