Tag Archives: sci fi

Q&A: Basic Energy Weapons

If Sci-Fi laser guns existed, do you think the bolts would act more like bullets or laser pointers in relation to how the various variables affect their path?

The thing about lasers is, they actually exist now. Which wasn’t true (or, at least, wasn’t as true) back when science fiction first picked them up as a concept.

A laser is, basically by definition, going to travel at, or very close to C. (Roughly 300 million meters per second.) So, if you’re thinking of slow moving projectiles that your eye can see and track, that’s never going to happen.

The other thing about lasers is, they’re just focused light. This is the same, basic concept as a kid with a magnifying glass, weaponized. It’s still going to reflect off, or burn through, anything it hits. It will also be basically invisible.

The only time you can actually see a laser beam, in real life, is if there’s particulate matter in the air, reflecting the light back to you. Smoke, fog, and dust will all pick up the beam, and reflect some back to you so you can see it. This isn’t a problem when you’re talking about a targeter or pointer; the beam isn’t particularly destructive, so this kind of blowback is harmless. But, when you’re talking about a weaponized laser, that starts to become a real concern.

This is a general truth about seeing things, by the way. For your eye to see something, light needs to strike it and bounce off, hitting your eye. Your eye processes that light, and tells your brain, “hey, there’s a thing here.” Lasers, by definition, avoid that until contact with their target. Thing is with a weaponized laser, the produced light is the weapon. So, if you can see it, you’re getting hit. Even if it’s bouncing off water vapor in the air.

Of course, as with any other variety of light, you can bounce it off a reflective surface. This means, the greatest defense against future soldiers with laser weapons may just be polished chrome surfaces. Not only would it reflect the laser off of it, it would send it back in the general direction of the original user or their buddies. Best of all, you couldn’t see exactly where it was going, because you don’t want that light being reflected back to you.

Now, there is a possibility it would burn through any dust or other atmospheric contaminants on the way through, leaving a faint, singed, after image of where the laser was fired, but in general, you wouldn’t be able to see the beam. Which isn’t that different from bullets, for that matter. There’s another possibility where it would reflect off something like water vapor or any other atmospheric obstruction, (the way lasers actually do), and diffuse to the point of worthlessness almost immediately. (To be fair, I’m not sure which is more likely to occur.) Either way, you’ve got a weapon that will face all kinds of problems on a battlefield.

If you’re trying for a hard-sci-fi setting, (meaning the science underpinning your setting is sound), then all of these factors will make lasers less appealing. If your setting is aimed at a less grounded, soft sci-fi, then lasers are (somewhat) less appealing, simply because their fantastical value has worn off. Lasers sounded like weapons of the future, when you couldn’t pick one up as a cat toy for $5 in most department stores.

With that in mind, you can try to keep the same weapon concept, but selectively trim off the issues, for your softer settings. Things like Star Trek’s phasers and disruptors aren’t, technically lasers, while Star Wars’s Blasters are an entirely different technology that you probably interact with in a non-weaponized capacity on a regular basis.

As with a large amount of stuff in Star Trek, whatever technology keeps phasers from reflecting around randomly is never clearly explained. The term itself is a portmanteau of phased and laser. So, it’s some kind of laser variant that won’t normally reflect (though it is shown happening a couple times in the franchise).

Disruptors are even more nebulous, and it’s helpful to remember this is more of a catch all term, including things like sonic weapons, up through a variety of molecular disruption weapons.

Star Wars uses the molecular disruption idea for their disruptors, when the writers want one, but basic blasters aren’t laser weapons. Blasters fire bolts of ionized gas, meaning they’re actually plasma weapons.

As with lasers, plasma is a concept we’re familiar with in modern day. In the simplest terms, it’s a fourth state of matter. You have solids, liquids, and gasses, with plasma sitting above gasses. Plasma is heavily affected by magnetic fields, meaning it is possible to contain and eject it with directed energy weapons (though, that’s not possible with current technology.) It’s not a very energy efficient technology, but you don’t need to worry about it reflecting back and killing the shooter because it struck a mote of dust en route to the target.

If you absolutely need an energy weapon that behaves more like a modern gun, firing glowing bolts of energy, plasma is probably your best bet.

There are problems. Magnetic fields on the target’s armor could mess with the plasma delivery, (which may help you understand that line about the Death Star’s trash compactor being magnetically shielded.) Also, any magnetic field it passes through on the way.

Plasma is also an option for beam weapons. In fact, the most destructive form of plasma you’ve probably encountered is a lightning strike. The electrostatic discharge instantly ionizes the atmosphere between the points, and you get a visible flash of light, followed by the sonic shock of that air being instantly converted into plasma.

Before I move on, it’s probably worth noting, most current plasma research is focused on power generation. That is to say, using magnetic fields to contain plasma for the purposes of safe fusion reactions.

Long term, plasma weapons are probably going to fall by the wayside for sci-fi the way lasers have. Most people don’t think of fluorescent lights as plasma, so the term sounds more fantastic than the technology really is. With refinement of magnetic containment technology, and the use of fusion as a power source, plasma weapons will probably lose a lot of their shine.

The railgun is another weapon you’ll see referenced in near-future sci-fi. Sometimes called gauss weapons, or mass drivers, these are, quite simply, a gun. Instead of using a chemical propellant, they use magnetic fields to accelerate a ferrous slug to speed.

I’m bringing them up for two reasons. First, it is one conceivable way to make a plasma weapon viable. Second, they actually exist.

Laser weapons are, at best, theoretical. Plasma containment and manipulation is an actively researched topic. Though the primary goal there is power generation, not weapons technology. Railguns do exist today.

Modern railguns are mounted weapons. You can stick these things on a naval vessel, or in a facility. They draw massive amounts of power to fire, but deliver a lot of destructive force on impact. Part of the reason is because they’re truly frictionless. You can accelerate their payload to speeds that would utterly destroy conventional firearms. You can also send payloads down range that are far harder than anything you’d ever load into a gun.

One of the mechanical limitations to modern firearms is, the bullet and barrel are in direct contact. When you fire a bullet, it, quite literally, scrapes the barrel on its way out. Part of the reason why we make bullets out of materials like lead and copper is because they are substantially softer than the steel barrel, and will result in significantly less wear.

When we do need to fire a round with something more solid as its payload, the harder core will be wrapped (called jacketed) by a softer metal. For example, a steel core round will have a copper or lead jacket, to protect the firearm. On impact, that coating will strip away fully, and the steel will (usually) punch through any light armor in its path. You’ll also see things like depleted uranium, or tungsten used as cores for armor piercing rounds.

With railguns, that’s not a consideration. Unless the material is magnetically inert, you can just drop it in, and fire it.

What we can’t do with a rail gun, is carry it around. Current technology is too energy intensive for that. But, if you’re looking at a future setting, where power generation is less of a consideration, then these may be an option. Ballistically speaking, they are guns, firing solid projectiles. The only difference is, they’re doing so at speeds that are impossible to achieve with conventional firearms.

I’m going through all of these, but all of them are built around the idea that we need something other than conventional firearms. That’s probably true, on a long enough timescale, but modern ballistic weapons are remarkably energy efficient, for their design. You have a cartridge which contains all of the necessary energy to propel a round at hyper sonic speeds. There are considerations like recoil, which can be minimized through mechanical developments. There’s also potential hybridization of other technologies into them, in order to make a more efficient design. But, if you’re working with a sci-fi setting, it’s worth considering that guns may stick around, simply because they work.

In a vacuum, lasers or plasma weapons are probably more desirable, because a mass projectile will continue traveling until it hits something, which could be in hundreds of thousands of years. But, a laser will eventually disperse to the point that it is too indistinct to cause damage.

In an atmosphere, a gun, or gauss rifle may be a much better option for the situation presented.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Sci-fi Firepower

For a sci-fi webcomic, I’ve been working on the specs of a class of power-armor clad enforcers (called Jotunns) and their weaponry; they have a specific handgun they use. For ammunition I was thinking of two types they carry: 12.7mm hollowpoint for soft targets and shorter range, and tungsten-tipped sabot rounds as ‘high-power’ rounds, for anti-armor/anti-giant-mutant and long-range use. Is this just me going way off the mark for firepower, or could this be justified for a man-scale tank?

So, 12.7mm is a real round (well, several different rounds), and it makes this entire question a little strange. We talked about the idiosyncrasies of firearms a couple weeks ago, and I had to check, but 12.7mm did come up as an example. 12.7mm is half an inch, so .50. Occasionally, you’ll see .50 BMG listed as 12.7x99mm instead of the imperial caliber.

I’ve seen 12.7 come up as a distinct round in, basically, two places. There’s a 12.7x108mm Chinese AM round, which is their answer to the .50 BMG, and, Fallout: New Vegas.

Ironically, the reason New Vegas calls it a 12.7mm is actually in the above paragraph. The game includes an Anti Materiel rifle patterned off the Barret which fires .50 BMG rounds. Because of how New Vegas formats ammunition names, this creates an immediate problem. There’s two different .50 rounds. The BMG and the AE. The AE is a handgun round (12.7x33mm), the BMG rifle round (again, 12.7x99mm). So, if you include a .50 pistol, and a .50 rifle, people who aren’t very firearms savvy are going to wonder why they don’t share ammunition. “I mean, it’s all .50, right?”

What Obsidian (I think this was specifically J.E. Sawyer’s call, but I’m not completely certain) chose to do was label one as 12.7mm, and the other one .50. Since the Barret has slightly more name recognition it got to keep the imperial name, and the pistol got the metric.

The other thing weighing on giving the pistol the metric name was, it’s a returning design from the first two Fallout games. They had something called a 14mm pistol (externally based on a SIG sporting pistol, if I’m remembering correctly), which was an upgrade from the .44 Desert Eagle, in game terms.

All of that said? .50AE isn’t a great round, and, while I could be wrong, I don’t see it having a real future. It fits with Fallout because it’s chromed steel excess meshes well with 1950s consumer design.

Hell, the Desert Eagle is an excellent example of that era’s design aesthetics. Big, heavy, more steel and chrome than is practical. It’s a four pound pistol. Even though it’s Israeli and didn’t actually enter production until the 1980s, it’s an excellent flash card for that era of Americana.

So, here’s the hard part. For someone who’s not wearing a powered exosuit, a .50 is an annoying round to control. In an exosuit, and against the kind of targets where you’d really need that kind of firepower, I’m inclined to think it would be kind of anemic. Why use a .50 round, when you could simply have a standardized 19mm or 25.4mm high explosive round? With varying payloads depending on what you’re shooting. Sure, no normal human could use it, but if you’re in powered armor, that’s not an issue.

A sabot round is, basically, a dart loaded into a shotgun shell. Now, that’s not completely accurate, but if you’re dead set on using one. I’d recommend just using solid darts, rather than having a distinct tip. For serious AP capability in a high power rifle, I’d actually be more inclined to point at man portable gauss weapons, rather than wasting space on a sabot.

All of this is going to be predicated on the technology your characters have access to. So, it’s possible your setting just doesn’t have portable gauss weapons. Also, feel free to ignore the bolter calibers I listed back up there. That is a Warhammer 40k reference. But, for ways to load out a suit of powered armor, 40k is a fantastic thing to look at.

Some quick primers for powered armor:

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein is probably the patient zero of SciFi space marines in powered armor. I deeply dislike the politics that Heinlein was advocating, but the book is worth reading. I’m much more partial to the film, but that’s a brutal takedown of the military jingoism that Heinlein was celebrating.

Armor by John Steakley is written as a rebuttal to Starship Troopers. I’m inclined to say it’s actually a better book, but that’s my bias seeping in. Either way, Steakley does some good worldbuilding.

If you haven’t, Warhammer 40k’s Space Marines are something you really should be looking at. You can check the Lexicanum to get a quick overview, and some basic statistical data; it will also work as a good quick litmus test to tell if the setting’s zealotry dialed to 11 and played for laughs is something you can actually get into and enjoy. For specific recommendations, first impulse here is to actually point at the THQ games. The generically titled Space Marine is a surprisingly good third person action title. Dawn of War was my first real introduction to the setting, and Dawn of War 2 specifically isn’t a bad starting point.

Generally speaking, when you’re looking at characters in powered armor, it can trace it’s lineage back through one of these sources. So it’s probably worth looking at them, if you’re working with this sub-genre.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Crossed Genres magazine Raises Rates to Pro-Rates for Sci-Fi Stories



Crossed Genres Publications, an independent publisher of spec fiction, is now paying fiction writers 6 cents/word, considered pro-rates for this genre.

Crossed Genres (est. 2008), the magazine, is still soliciting short fiction stories for the October 2014 issue. The theme is “Robots, Androids & Cyborgs”—fiction tales about these classic themes using dominant elements of sci-fi/fantasy to tell the story. 

Read More

Hello :) I asked this question of fuckyeahcharacterdevelopment, and they forwarded me to you, so I hope you can help me. Would you be able to point me in the direction of any resources regarding weapon recoil, specifically relating to laser weapons? I know they’re not a thing yet, but this is for a sci-fi novel in which they will be and i just wanted to know whether a laser gun might recoil like a normal one, particularly since said gun is also part of a robotic arm (much like Iron Man’s hands).

No. At least not unless the setting is getting creative with the term laser. Recoil is just Newtonian physics at work. Specifically Newton’s third law, that’s “for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.”

You have a chunk of metal you want to accelerate to hypersonic speeds, and an explosive package to do it. When you pull the trigger, the recoil you feel is the reaction to accelerating the mass of the bullet.

A laser is just a focused beam of light. Newton doesn’t apply (at least not to a degree that your character will be able to experience.) Just point and burn. You can experience this not happening personally with one of those impulse buy laser pointers… or a flashlight.

The only way you’d end up with recoil on a laser weapon is if it’s not actually a laser, or if there are some heavy moving parts in the weapon, which would be a serious design flaw.

Okay, a couple major caveat on the following. One, I’m not an expert on physics. Two, as you said, lasers don’t exist as anti-personnel weapons yet, so, some of this could be a little off:

If your characters are wanting to vaporize someone with lasers, the result is going to be messy. Just think of the last thing you exploded something in the microwave, and apply that to a person. (Star Trek’s Phasers use technobabble to avoid painting the walls in gore every time they shoot someone.)

Depending on the weapon’s power output, this could apply to all laser wounds. Ballistic firearms work by disrupting the victim with kinetic force; this is impossible with a laser weapon. Lasers can project radiation as heat, but they can’t create a physical impact, the beam itself is still just light. So the laser could, literally, cook the victim in their own juices. If the laser is heating the victim enough to cause steam to erupt (which is plausible) you could see massive tissue disruption from superheated organs exploding. Fallout and Fallout 2 used laser weapons as a cutting beam (with some of the in game text and the death animations), so that’s a slightly less gruesome option.

Finally, the biggest issue with lasers as weapons has been power. It takes a lot of juice to superheat an object using a laser. So, how your setting has solved that issue might affect a lot of this.

For future reference: any Roleplaying game that has an optional sci-fi component or a tech level system should have some info to get you started. GURPS Ultra Tech is a good quick source of information (it also has some information on wide array of future technology).

A lot of old sci-fi themed strategy games talked about the implications of advancing weapon technology. I want to say Alpha Centauri or the original X-Com was where I first came across the no-recoil bit about lasers.

If you can find it, White Wolf’s Trinity setting might have some useful ideas for you. Not about lasers, but, in creating a sci-fi setting in general.


I have a character who has cameras mounted on her motorbike helmet that give her full 360 vision, how much would this benefit her in a fight, especially in close quarters? (The cameras are connected directly to her brain, but due to damage to the controlling computer that happens in her backstory, they provide her with effectively all-round peripheral vision, but she can focus on any point around her.)

That’s…gotta be really confusing.

You’re working really hard to give your character an advantage that most fighters develop naturally during their training. Close to or slightly better than 180 degree peripheral vision (mine was 172 when we measured it in middle school) and what amounts to a sixth sense for someone coming in behind you? Got it. It doesn’t really even take specialized training, just a fair amount of practice. There are exercises you can do to develop your peripheral vision on your own, I just don’t remember what they are.

Comparatively, the problem with electronics equipment is that it breaks. A motorcycle helmet isn’t a great option for fighting because it’s designed to take one high force impact, not someone taking someone else by the collar and slamming their head into the concrete wall fifty times. When electronics break – and they will – whether it’s on your characters end or on the controlling computer’s, they’ll send some nasty electronic signals directly into her brain that could short things out or fuck your character up long term. At the moment, our brains are more advanced hardware than a computer so the signals won’t be as compatible or as natural as your character’s eyes. If your character is still using their eyes, then they’re going to experience double vision. Cameras are also slower at processing data than the brain, so your character is also going to experience a time delay when they’re fighting. There’s also the time it takes for the cameras to send the data to the “controlling computer”. Fights happen in a matter of seconds, even a split second time delay in hand to hand or a gun fight is going to be fatal.

This sort of thing works with powered armor because it’s powered armor, it can afford to be a little slow. Your hand to hand fighter really can’t because they don’t have the protection several inches of hardened plate provides.

These are just some things to think about. I recommend watching Strange Days. It’s not exactly what you’re talking about, but it’s an interesting example of working with videos getting jacked into the brain. It’s also really good.


mimitcs said: May I add a huge trigger warning for Strange Days? It’s a great movie, but I remember there were a couple of scenes (maybe just one?) about rape. Better be prepared

Good point. There are actually several sequences where the main character is experiencing (and reacting appropriately to) the visual memory of a rapist and murderer. It’s sick and it’s meant to be. The narrative never treats it as it being okay (quite the opposite) but it is disturbing. So, be careful.

This might be weird, and I’m not sure if it’s anything you can answer, but do you have any tips on space fights? Like with ships and stuff? How to make them realistic (or semi-realistic)? I wonder how good of a study Star Trek and Star Wars may be (though in the Star Wars galaxy space might just work like that, who knows?). If you can’t help I understand, and thanks.

Babylon 5 is your friend, watch Babylon 5. It uses some hard science and the human technology (ships, space stations) use rotating sections to generate artificial gravity. The fighters have thrusters that allow them to move in all four directions. The show is pretty great, it’s writing is top notch and one of my all time favorites. The first season is a kinda rough, but it really finds it’s feet in the second one and the whole series is great for the way it ties everything together.

Star Trek isn’t so great because it’s working under the physics of submarine warfare, not space. I have no idea about Star Wars.

I remember Ender’s Game doing some fun stuff with the ability to move in all three directions. C.J. Cherry’s Downbelow Station series is nice to get some ideas for sci-fi, though not necessarily combat.

The Dead Space games are also good, especially if you want to start playing around with movement in four directions and transitioning between gravity and no gravity. It’s a really great sandbox for trying to simulate fighting in space, less with the ships, but you might get some nice ideas. Dead Space 2 is really good for that, so is Dead Space 3 in the early space sections.

Does anyone have any other suggestions that might help?


I have a human character who is being hunted by an alien race aboard a star ship. At one point, I have her jumping from the moving lift onto a deck that it didn’t stop at. Is that feasible? (The lift door has been jammed open, but the lift still works.)

It depends on a couple things, how fast the lift is going, what safety features it has, is it going up or down?

But, yeah, depending on those answers it should be feasible. It could also produce the most revolting episode of Will it Blend? ever. If you’re really asking, “how fast can it go before it shears my character in half?” I’m honestly not sure.

Also, given that it’s aboard a starship, then artificial gravity becomes a wonderful physics cheat. Depending on how that works, things like fall momentum, might not work quite right. If jumping suddenly releases someone into micrograv, then it should be viable, assuming that contact with the wall doesn’t restore gravity, but it’ll be a very different scene.


Q&A: Sci-fi Warfare

Sorry, I didn’t want to be specific because I tried to keep it short and to the point. However, I can think of a lot of reasons why guns might fall out of favor. Mostly, it’d come as armor. Kevlar is fantastic against bullets, but has a weakness stabbing. Just take that to 11. Another might be like Dune, a sort of energy shield that stops high velocity impacts, but doesn’t stop low velocity. Anyways, I’m mostly curious what could be modern sword technology, (nano-tech and cryoforge, apparently).

With the caveat that it’s been a few years since I read Dune, a few things stand out: I wouldn’t call the year 10,000 the near future. Dune is, very much, a post apocalyptic setting; humanity is in the process of recovering from domination by autonomous AIs. I’m not sure if this was a jab at Asimov, but, regardless.

And, personal shields are very rare, very expensive, and extremely fragile pieces of equipment. House Atredies is able to afford a few of them. This is one of the most powerful members of the LANSRAD, and an incredibly wealthy family.

So, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the combat we see might not be completely representative of warfare in the setting. That said, when actual battles occur, the great houses and the Sardukar have no qualms in breaking out lasguns.

The personal shields can’t handle fire from lasguns, so ranged weapons remain preferable on the whole, and really only work against sword strikes. Hence the whole, “a slow blade penetrates,” because a normal blade strike will reflect off. I can’t remember if the shields could survive normal firearms in the setting, but they certainly didn’t change the nature of war in Dune.

The blade fighting in the novels is, almost exclusively, the purview of dueling, and while houses have “swordmasters”, the actual weapon of choice is long knives.

I will say; Warhammer 40k, Dune, and Star Wars all make for fairly reasonable uses of melee weapons in a sci fi context. Lightsabers have ways to stay effective against ranged foes (so long as they’re backed up with superpowers), 40k is loaded to the gills with things that won’t die from sustained bolter fire and ludicrously lethal melee weapons, finally; Dune has a fairly rich dueling tradition. But, I wouldn’t hold any of those up as justifications for a near future setting.

On the subject of Kevlar, it’s actually been improving at a fairly steady pace. Used to be, 9mm rounds posed a serious threat to someone, and now we’ve gotten to the point where a vest can take an intermediate rifle round at medium range.

The problem with Kevlar is one of the basic constants of the universe, entropy. While a modern Kevlar vest will stop a 5.56mm rifle round, at 50m, when you start getting closer, or taking more fire, the vest will fail.

I’ll add a primer on modern body armor, because this one can get a bit complicated, though fair warning, I’ll probably do that after I’ve done most of my firearms primers. If you want to do some research now, I’d recommend looking into Kevlar, and ceramic inserts. Also if you start feeling too cocky about body armor, look up the history of the 10mm handgun round, and steel core ammunition. If you want a setting where you can use a sword in a gunfight and live, I’d suggest Warhammer 40k. It’s comically over the top, but there’s some coherent world building, and it does present you with the kinds of things you’d need to be dealing with to see swords really return to the battlefield.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

On Writing: Child Soldiers in Sci-Fi

This is the last anon, and thanks so much for your answer! I left a couple things out that I shouldn’t have – for one, the world is a dystopia, and the soldiers actually enlist around 12, and start their training after pushing a lot of different things to accelerate growth. So even though he’s only 24, he’s actually been involved in the military for half of his life, which I’m assuming is enough time for a specialty? I don’t know what that specialty is yet, but thanks so much for your help!


This is going to be a sensitive topic for a lot of people and as such, we requested for the sake of our followers and all of you out there who’d like to avoid this very traumatic topic that we could put it in a regular post so we could have the “read more” option, beyond just the ability to list it with trigger warnings for child abuse, abuse, and child soldiers. This will be a disturbing topic to go through and we are by no means experts on the subject, we’ll answer this question as best we can and give some help to those of you out there looking to write dystopias dealing with kids. In this post, we’ll be some basic developmental psychology, the technical limitations of messing with human biology in regards to creating human weapons, child soldiers, and with some helpful suggestions for what a writer can do instead, if this topic proves to be a bit too much to handle.

Child soldiers, while very dramatic, are one theme that can go off the rails very quickly. It’s important to remember when dealing with dystopia that the limitations of human nature, psychology, and the world today are very important to the novel’s dramatic elements. A dystopia isn’t a potentially bad future with a totalitarian government. It’s a society characterized by human misery, disease, and overcrowding and living within that society with no hope of escape. Dystopias are not, despite what the current climate may lead us to believe, happy stories.

Some good Dystopias to turn to for reference are: A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, 1984 by George Orwell, Native Son by Richard Wright (A rare non sci-fi version), and The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (slightly lighter than the rest on the list).

Warning: These are all ridiculously depressing books, so prepare accordingly.

The rest is under the cut. It’s pretty long.

Take it away, Starke!



Well… this was not what I wanted to write when yesterday started.

So, I’m going to start with a few caveats: I’m not doing a lot of research on this one, it’s going to be mostly off the top of my head, from memory. The reason is; the phenomena of child soldiers can be really fucking depressing to look at in any depth. Again, it’s important to remind everyone that I’m not an expert on the subject. So, research on your own will still be required (like it usually is). I took a few classes in college that required I learn more than I’d like on the subject, most of which dealt with politics in third world countries, and I’ve tried not to think about it too much since.

Finally, once again, I’m not a psychologist, developmental or otherwise, I’ve had some psych classes, but I’m a political analyst by education, which means I’ve had to learn more about this than I’d like, but I’m by no means an expert.

Let’s start with the easy stuff, the sci-fi setting and working with growth acceleration. We’ll start with talking about some basic economics surrounding growth acceleration, how this technology gets funded and some reasons why real scientists today are studying it. Then, we’ll get into some basic world building questions and discuss some of the weaknesses of this particular technology, before moving on.

Growth acceleration as it exists today is based around the idea of creating meat more rapidly by introducing hormones into livestock at earlier ages, so that they grow faster and thus be slaughtered more quickly. Growth acceleration is studied and tested for two very basic but different reasons:

1)    The Capitalist Reason: by reducing the amount of time it takes for an animal to mature into adulthood, means that there will be more meat available to sell and more money ranchers and slaughterhouses can make. Before it sounds like I’m being unfair, let me remind you that both farming and ranching are both incredibly difficult jobs. Much of what they make relies on the climate of the markets they sell to (whether or not people want to eat meat and the amount of meat they are eating), weather (to provide grass and grain for the cows), and disease. Growth acceleration is a way for them to make up the difference and feed their families when they’ve been left to the vagaries of fate. It’s an idea that sounds appealing to most of them. So, this is one way this sort of research gets funded.

2) The Altruist Reason: Meat is expensive to produce, it’s expensive to ship (it’s expensive to flash freeze and by the time it ships overseas it’s usually rotting), and most of the major buyers and sellers are limited to first world countries such as those in Europe and America. This cuts the vast majority of meat being bought and sold out from those starving in Third World countries. Growth acceleration through hormone treatments would be a way, once spread widely, to substantially cheapen meat on the global market and to allow smaller farmers who only have a capacity to maintain a limited stock to produce more meat to make more money, and feed more people in the places where meat is too expensive and the locals too poor for meat to be a regular part of their diet. Feeding people is generally a pretty good, understandable goal.

Sounds pretty reasonable (Michi Note: if you’re not a vegan), for the most part right? Remember, when setting up a sci-fi society, it’s important to look at things like economics, politics, and sociology, so that it is clear for the reader where the tech came from. Sci-fi is often (though it doesn’t need to be) Earth future. So, there has to be a clear line for how we got from here (using growth acceleration on livestock and crops) to there (using it to artificially accelerate the growth of children into adult-sized soldiers). You’re also going to have to be able to answer some basic questions for your reader, such as why are they using children when they could be using adults? If they have the tech to artificially age soldiers, then why aren’t they just using clones? We’ll deal with this below. Whose children are they using in this endeavor? People generally take issue with their children being taken from them, though there are some easy ways to get around this such as using slaves, the socially disenfranchised, the fiscally indebted, and orphans. There are other more basic questions also like how did this happen and who is in charge? Remember, you can’t just say how it happened. You have to present it in a manner that is easy for the reader to grasp and see when looking at the world around them.

Secondly, there are some serious problems with growth acceleration and the indications of what that could mean for using it on people. First: the skeletal system has a tendency to rapidly harden instead of growing to adult size. This wouldn’t be as large a problem for an adult force, but since you’re talking about 12 year olds, this has some very serious implications for how useful your society’s combat forces will be overall.

Now, this flaw can be overcome with extensive surgery, but this is expensive. More than that, soldiers need to be relatively cheap and easy to mass produce. An expensive solution is just that and every government, (Michi Note: even corrupt ones!) must weigh their decisions based on overall effectiveness at producing the desired result versus whether or not it’s economically viable. No government is going to get very far by running out of money in the middle of a war and even if they put the majority of the budget towards military expenditures there’s a lot more important things than soldiers to spend money on. Ordinance, new technologies, etc, are all considerations. If you take a look at modern American military spending, you’ll notice that the vast amount of their resources are put towards R&D projects, developing new and better ordinance, and even some of the weird stuff that comes out of D.A.R.P.A. pulls down more money than what goes towards taking care of America’s current standing forces and retired soldiers. So, here’s the question: why spend money on creating better soldiers when you can take normal humans and just give them better weapons?

Find a realistic answer to that question and you may have the basis for your book.

The second consideration on growth acceleration is that it’s designed around causing musculature to overdevelop, (Michi Note: More meat from fewer cows) meaning you’d end up with people who look like bodybuilders and they’d end up with some fairly substantial heart issues. For a modern combat force, this isn’t really desirable. You want your soldiers strong enough to carry their gear, and be able to operate it, but you don’t want musclemen, because muscles are freaking heavy.

Extra muscle means extra weight your vehicles have to account for and designed around supporting, you’ll need more downtime for your troops to keep their muscles from atrophying during the extended periods of required travel, they’ll need more food, and (to an extent) too much muscle means less mobility in the field.

The growth hormones we use have the side effect of increasing aggressiveness, at least in males. This is good if the society in question is looking to create suicide bombers, but over-aggressive responses are undesirable in a disciplined military force. You don’t want your soldiers beating up each other in the barracks before they get on the battlefield, too much testosterone and you end up dealing with too many soldiers in the Medical Tent who could be serving on the battlefield. Remember, the reason soldiers are created in the most basic and cruel sense is to spend them against the enemy. If they’re ignoring orders and attacking each other then why bother using them in the first place? Their usefulness to the society must outweigh their detriment, even if the intention is just for them to die on the battlefield.

The third consideration involves cell replication: because the process is massively accelerating cell replication, you’re going to end up looking at a much higher risk of mutations, including cancer. Basically, we’re talking about “replication errors”, whenever a strand of DNA copies itself, it will create a strand to verify that the copy is accurate. Obviously, even in nature this isn’t 100%, if you speed up the process, more errors will occur.

The only reason this isn’t an issue with modern growth hormone technology, is because we’re not really accelerating the replication process. It’s the difference between saying “don’t stop”, and “go faster”.

Finally, and I could be wrong here, but you can’t really artificially stimulate the brain to develop into adulthood. Even if you can get the brain and body to adult size, some fairly simple concepts like risk vs. reward, critical thinking, and threat assessment are simply not going to be there. And because of the accelerated growth, those traits probably never will be. (Michi Note: Those are essential traits to have in any soldier other than a shock trooper.)

Now, here’s some of the good news. Depending on your setting, you can pretty easily wave off the skeletal/muscular issues, and, with the way the technology has evolved for use on the farmyard, we’ll probably actually have those dealt with before your story’s set.

The bad news is that the neurological issues are harder to overlook. First off, because the primary application for the technology right now isn’t humans. Since, the development revolves around spurring growth to create more meat on the bones of cows with the intention of them not surviving long after, there’s little attention being paid to the neural problems that come with acceleration and there’s little interest in dealing with it because, frankly, it’s not a concern.

Secondly, the brain is unlike every other organ in your body.

Still with me?


This is where we get into the idea of genetics. One of the basics of genetics is that your DNA produces the basic template for your body. The same is not completely true for your brain. You can blame your DNA for it’s warm butter consistency, it’s color, and the basic structure, but the content, and even the way it works are apparently very customizable.

This is where we get into the importance of developmental psychology.

Here’s what some research on nature vs. nurture has left us with: the brain is incredibly good at picking up new skills, new information, and new ways of processing data. These traits are especially strong in childhood. In this field, we’ve begun to find that a lot of those old boys vs. girls debates have more grounding in how these children were socialized in early childhood. Many behaviors we express are not inborn and natural, but gained as we develop, there are even some studies that state that there’s very significant neural architecture acquired by the child as they age. Some stuff about us is hardcoded into our DNA, but a lot of what’s been chalked up as predetermined by nature, actually isn’t.

This is why studying developmental psychology, even without the child soldier context, is extremely important to look at. I strongly advise you study up on at least some of the research that’s come out of developmental psychology in the last 10 years. Honestly, there’s some really fascinating stuff to be had there for any writer, with a lot of implications for writing any type of character you want. It’ll also help you sidestep some common stereotypes.

Okay, now that we’ve dealt with growth acceleration, let’s look at some alternate options for sci-fi before we get to the child soldier aspects.

Let’s start with neural control chips. I’m not sure on a timescale of how soon something like this will be possible, but it has some really scary implications for your characters, if it can simply override the soldier’s brain. (If you want to keep some of the child soldier themes, while getting rid of the actual child soldiers, this could still be a good option for you to work with.)

Second is direct neural encoding. That is to say, using drugs, technology, whatever, you actually imprint a lot of information into your soldier. Depending on the technology, this could give you a way around the development issue, and it doesn’t have quite as much the control chips. I would strongly caution you against pushing it into actual mind control serum, as that wouldn’t really fix the basic problems, and it would leave your soldiers much more vulnerable to manipulation by enemies. Even basic intelligence could yield methods of disrupting any force using mind controlled troops. An intelligent and aware soldier can distinguish falsified orders a lot more effectively than a brainwashed one.

Okay, take a step back and let your brain think about the last stuff.  Good, now, let’s get into the child soldier discussion.

The honest truth is that child soldiers don’t make for good combatants and they’re not supposed to. They make for convenient shock troops. But the point of a shock trooper is that they are expected to die in combat, not that they are expected to fight. A shock trooper is not given any real training and they are considered to be completely expendable by the force that’s using them. So, why would someone want to use child soldiers? Well, unfortunately, the assholes that use them have recognized that giving children guns comes with some convenient perks. The major advantages to child soldiers are these: adult combatants have a harder time killing them, thus giving them more opportunity to kill the enemy before dying themselves; they’re cheap to obtain in most warzones with a convenient unprotected supply already in place, and securing their loyalty is much easier than with adult combatants, who are better able to critically think and process information in the world around them.

The indoctrination process with child soldiers is one that’s designed to shift their loyalties from their parents to the warlord who is using them. Unlike adults, they’re not going to have conflicting loyalties based in ideology or nationalism, so if a warlord can remove their parents, the child has nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to for guidance but the warlord and other, already indoctrinated children.

In Africa, the warlord’s lieutenants will force the child, at gunpoint, to kill their parents. If the child refuses, they’ll be executed with their parents and another child will be selected. The child will be renamed something suitably aggressive sounding (most of these names are drawn from comic books or other media, so things like Psychokilla and Superboy are common). They’ll be placed in a community with other child soldiers and before battle they’ll be dosed with something called BamBam, (a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder) which they’re told makes them immune to bullets, immune to harm, and or immortal.

Then, they’re sent out to die. When they do, they’re replaced with new conscripts, and the cycle begins again.

A few do survive into adulthood. But those who make it are left, understandably, with serious psychological issues. Severe PTSD is practically automatic, they commonly have issues with human empathy that’s probably best described as psychopathic and have a general inability to interact with other human beings as, well, human beings, rather than something to be shot and killed. This isn’t beyond the range of psychological therapy, but without it, survivors are a real mess.

Survivors wouldn’t be able to train other characters, really, at all. Their own training would have covered using their weapon, and nothing else. They don’t receive training in leadership, or command, those are handled by less expendable adults. They couldn’t receive training on a lot of more advanced hardware (artillery, aircraft (helicopters or other VETOLs especially, but fixed wings are also out), any naval craft larger than a launch or (maybe) a soft bottom PT boat).

We’ve seen a rise in recent years of the use of child soldiers in South America, they’ve been used in southeast Asia, and (arguably) in some places, young gang members in the United States may actually qualify. The methods aren’t always as extreme as in some African nations, but the long term damage is.

It’s important to remember that current international law regards child soldiers as a form of slavery, because of the coercive control over the children. There have been many, mostly unsuccessful efforts to curb the practice by various international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in the last 30 to 40 years.

Child Soldiers, as adult characters, aren’t really suited to war stories. I’m sorry. If you want to handle the material in a serious way, this is probably an element that should be jettisoned. If you want to write about a child soldier dealing with their experiences, you can certainly do that, and you could develop something very interesting and compelling, even within the scenario you presented. But the focus would need to be on the internal emotional state of the character.

If you’re setting needs to use child soldiers, there needs to be a pretty solid reason.

As I’ve said earlier, children do not make good soldiers, and they aren’t really more readily available than adults. They do make more fanatical soldiers, but if that’s all you want, then I’d actually suggest looking at the concept of youth programs such as the Hitler Youth (Michi Note: Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans J. Massaquoi is an intense and interesting biography to read for anyone interested in fascism and how it takes root in a culture’s psyche) that seek to indoctrinate their members with an ideology. There needs to be a credible and tangible reason why parents would accept their children being taken away from them and sent to war. Remember, in the real world, this is done by killing them, but African warlords aren’t looking to maintain a stable government. Any credible government, totalitarian or otherwise, would need to do something, to keep resentment from boiling over into outright rebellion. (Michi Note: This would also happen very quickly, that sort of government would probably be overthrown within the first few years.)

I’ll go into the politics of revolutions in more detail at some point, if I remember, but for now: the government you’re presenting has to have a real concrete reason it’s taking the children and this reason must be convincing to the parents. The government cannot credibly intimidate the parents into this, because that would lead to insurrections and all smart politicians know that they need belief just as much as they need fear. These reasons don’t need to actually be true, but they must be believable enough for the civilian population to turn over their most precious asset: the continuation of their society. (Michi Note: You’ve also got a problem with how this society self-replicates, if most of the kids are going to war.)

Now, what you want isn’t actually impossible, even if it feels like that right now, especially since you seemed more focused on the war story itself, with your protagonist as a functional leader. So, I’m going to make a couple suggestions on how you can do that and tie those themes back into the ones that come with child soldiers, while at the same time avoiding the problems and baggage that need come with them if you’re playing it straight.

The first is clones.

Star Wars: Episode II, of all things, can give you some pretty good ideas on this front. Clones that have been grown to adulthood in 8 years, with intensive training can get around the neural issues, and because their growth rate is accelerated by around 2 to 2.5 times rather than forcing them to go from 12 years to adult in the course of 8 weeks to 6 months, the risks associated with growth acceleration are a lot lower.

You still get to keep a couple things you probably want, clones could be trained in command. You still get the idea of characters with very limited life experience outside of warfare. You can keep the idea of someone’s life, and or childhood, being stolen. The idea that your character was raised as a disposable shock trooper, to live and die at the whim of a system they were excluded from. You can keep a lot of the slavery elements without actually getting into a direct discussion on slavery.

You also have the society creating a stable base to convince their population on the merits of going to war, without their people having to make sacrifices on their own. Clones aren’t just a convenient source of labor, for most people, they’d be a convenient moral hand wave. Sure, you’d have some members of your society who are (minimally) outspoken against it. It would even be to the government’s credit to allow some small dissension that allowed them to claim they were keeping free speech while simultaneously making a mockery out of those people to sway the general population to their side. Look at modern American society and some of the general attitudes against minorities, a vast majority of people will not care so long as their lives go on unaffected. This is the true terror of a dystopian novel. It is not that people were forced. It’s that they were willing. There really is some merit to “the trains running on time” philosophy. Remember, anon, people will accept a lot, so long as they are not inconvenienced by surrounding events. Sometimes, the cultural acceptability of atrocities is all about framing. (Michi Note: We leave it up to each author to decide whether or not indifference is the same as evil.)

The best part about clones is that you can still push the idea of your character as towering over the local population. This kind of cloning leaves the door open to various levels of genetic modification. I’d say, look at Warhammer 40k’s Space Marines, and Star Trek: Deep Space 9’s Jem’hadar for ideas you can incorporate into how to handle your troops. The Jem’hadar have the element of using drugs to keep characters in line, through simple addiction. 40k’s Marines play with the idea of massive cybernetic and biotech enhancement to the point where characters cease to be human at all.

If you can find it, White Wolf’s Exalted setting, particularly the two Dreams of the First Age books have a fair amount on the idea of genetically engineered slave races that could also provide some good fodder to play with.

If you want to scale back the sci-fi elements and keep the overall realism, then I’d suggest looking at the idea of indoctrinating kids with an ideology over actually putting them on the front line. Toss the growth acceleration technology and have children, who are conscripted from school at 12, spend the next four years being trained in warfare, before being sent out at 16 as actual combatants. There are plenty of societal incentives a government can provide (and even provides today) that will encourage parents to give up their children into the system. You’ll keep a lot of what you want and ditch some of the most egregious problems that come with using child soldiers in your story because you gave them the time they needed to grow up.

Finally, and I know this isn’t what you were looking for initially, but, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon deals with the idea of bodies being little more than clothes for people (the actual personality is simply uploaded into an implant in the body’s brain). The material has a couple ideas worth thinking about.

First, because soldiers are jumping between bodies fairly frequently, the bodies themselves are equipped with “reflex packages”, which take a lot of elements out of physical control, but also limit the amount of control someone has over their body in a fight.

Second, the concept of moving minds around between bodies is actually very interesting. This could be useful for you, if you’re setting has similar technology, but is engineering and altering the minds they’re uploading. Morgan already addresses the idea of duplicating minds, and bodies, using the technology, so you can poke around at that in more depth.

If you got this far, I’m impressed. I hope this information will be of some use to you and maybe even help get you started. There’s also the ask we posted earlier from KickassFanfic, who also provided some helpful reading material.

Again, if you need anything, our askbox is always open.