Tag Archives: writing science fiction

Q&A: Science Fiction Melee

Are there still advantages to bladed weapons in a futuristic setting? (Assuming sci-fi weapons like laser guns are commonly used in the setting) There are obviously uses of small blades like knives, but are swords still plausable? I’ve seen a few shows and books set in the future where energy swords or similar weapons are used

Without accounting for specific situational factors, no. Once you have ranged weapons that can be used to quickly neutralize multiple opponents in short succession, and remain viable at melee ranges, there’s no real place for a pure melee weapon.

Knives, axes, and hammers are something of an exception because they have value as utility tools, that can double as an emergency weapon. Though, I am reminded of the email in Doom 3 questioning a shipment of chainsaws to Mars. It’s probably worth remembering what those tools are used for before you simply drop them into your ship’s storage locker.

While we’re on the subject of using tools as emergency weapons and video games, I’m also reminded that most of the arsenal from the Dead Space were re-purposed mining and engineering tools. (At least in the first two games, anyway.)

So, that’s without specific settings that would justify the existence of a sword in your space opera. There’s, obviously, quite a few science fiction settings that do gleefully chuck a box of swords at the combatants and force them to sift through for various reasons.

The primary reason you’d be seeing swords in sci-fi is cultural. Lots of settings envision a distant future where culture has degraded to some prior point for whatever reason. Dune is probably the ur-example here, where human civilization has been reduced down to a feudal state, governed by noble houses. In a setting like that, you could easily see the sword used as a ceremonial weapon, in duels, or other specific circumstances. To be fair, Dune also replaces the sword with daggers for mostly aesthetic reasons, but the effect is still similar. Dune also challenges the use of ranged weapons with body shields. These, expensive, items block kinetic ranged weapons, and detonate in a nuclear blast when struck with lasgun fire. So, there’s an exemption to the ranged only rule above.

The lightsabers from Star Wars are another special case. In the hands of a trained force user they can (effectively) negate incoming blaster fire, meaning they do offer an exemption to the ranged rule.

Warhammer 40k finds a similar exemption by simply increasing the resilience of its inhabitants until you have a setting where fans sarcastically refer to energy rifles capable of reducing humans to red mist as “flashlights” because they do nothing to many of the setting’s inhabitants. To be fair, if something can survive direct lasgun fire (40k “borrows” the term directly from Dune), you’re probably not going to get very far swinging a mundane sword at it.

Because, sci-fi settings encompass such a massive range of potential environments, it’s probably important to point out that there are a lot of reasons you might see melee weapons on the loose. The above just a couple possible reasons, but let’s codify these without tying them to explicit examples.

Ceremonial usage is a big one. This means you probably wouldn’t see swords being used during boarding actions, but you would see them around, and people from the social classes who needed them could be reasonably expected to know how to use them should it be the most expedient option. This could be because civilization has degenerated into a kind of clan or great house structure. Generally speaking, ritualized dueling works in a system where you have disputes between individuals, but can’t politically afford to adjudicate punishment. This makes the most sense in feudal systems, or intra-faction conflicts in an unstable coalition. Again, Dune‘s Great Houses are an excellent example of this kind of situation.

Another big, potential, reason is if ranged weapons are rendered ineffective or risky in certain situations.

One of the classic examples is using high power kinetic weapons on a starship where you’re risking a hull breach with every gunshot. Depending on the nature of your energy weapons, (and the overall technologies used for maintaining structural integrity) this may be more or less of a consideration. If your setting’s ships can use force fields to maintain atmosphere punching a hole in the hull with a stray gunshot will be far less dangerous than if that means the ship is losing air, with no way to replace it. As your weapons become more powerful, this risk becomes more significant. That said, the hull breach situation comes with a mix of other considerations. If your setting has body armor that can resist small arms fire, it’s likely that your ships would share that construction. It’s also entirely possible that boarding teams would operate in sealed environmental suits, capable of exposure to hard vacuum, and more ruthless groups might intentionally trigger hull breaches during their boarding actions. The risks involved may also heavily depend on kind of ranged weapons your characters are using. Kinetic weapons with very high penetration may pose a much greater threat here than handheld particle beam weapons.

Another potential situation where you have technologies specifically designed to suppress the effect of specific weapon types. Personal shielding technology, or exosuit armor are potential examples. Of course, if it is armor, simply pulling out a sword probably isn’t going to do much, unless the sword circumvents the armor somehow. But, if you have a setting where body shields that can survive multiple plasma hits are semi-common, you might very well see people using swords, or similar weapons, to bypass them. To, be fair, you may also see the development of new weapons designed to bypass or overload those shields, so it’s not like this automatically means you’d see melee weapons.

Another possibility is when dealing with primitive cultures. If you’re dealing with a post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting, where some prior galactic civilization fell, leaving colonies cut off, you might come across planets where advanced technology fell completely out of use. I’ve argued against this in a strict context of post-apocalyptic settings before, but colonies introduce a new wrinkle, where you could potentially have a population base who knew how to use advanced energy weapons, did not have practical knowledge of  kinetic firearms, and lost access to the latter. This could result in a full on regression, over a long enough time frame (figure several thousand years, at a guess.) So it is, theoretically possible you might have lost colonies that have regressed back to spear and bow warfare. What happens if human ships visit one of these lost colonies is, of course, up to you.

There is one hard part when it comes to defining a state of existence for science fiction, and it does show in this question. I used a few examples. Star Wars is generally accepted as existing in its own timeline. It’s science fantasy, and that’s fine. Both of the video game examples, along with a lot of sci-fi settings like Star Trek are near future. They’re set within one thousand years of present day. Stuff like Dune or Warhammer 40k are a lot harder to pin down. Dune is set sometime in the 24th millennium, and 40k draws it’s name from being set in the 41st millennium. Both of those settings juggle their overall technology by technological dark ages, but it does start to peal the lid off questions of, “what will the technology look like?” Meaning you need to address those concepts in much more general terms.

So, in short, “probably not,” but you might be able to assemble a setting where swinging swords around like it’s the golden age of piracy does, in fact, make sense.

-Starke

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Q&A: Computer Logic is not Human Logic

Hi! A question inspired by the androids of Detroit: Become Human. If an otherwise human android (or gynoid) had only faster reflexes (and inability to feel pain), being able to compute the best possible approach in any hand-to-hand combat situation from move to move, how much of an advantage would that be? Is there an advantage to human unpredictability or can melee combat be optimized by artificial intelligence?

Have you ever played chess against a computer?

They cheat. They don’t even cheat intelligently, they just cheat. They go right for the jugular, and the “game” is over in one to maybe two moves. An android in combat is going to do the same thing, in that it will do precisely what you programmed it to do and that logical outcome is: to go directly to instant death every. single. time.

Total neutralization of the threat before they have time to react.

Well, that’d be after the AI realized that it couldn’t just not fight or put the world on pause forever. Or it might just shut itself down after activation like that Security Robot which committed suicide in a fountain. Not fighting is winning. You can achieve victory by never fighting or simply shutting down. However, if you must, immediate total obliteration is the most optimal approach when it comes to conventional ideas about violence. You cut your enemy off at the knees, act preemptively once you register the situation, act before the enemy has time to get their pants on, and knock them off the proverbial cliff via straight up murder.

The computer does not distinguish, the computer does not regulate, the computer does not care. The computer is doing exactly what you told it to do and subtle nuance like deciding whether one crime is worse than another is beyond it. You told it to deal with a threat, the threat has been dealt with in the most efficient way possible regardless of future consequences. The computer wasn’t programmed to consider those.

Now, I know that some of you are going, “but what if it was?”

Well, let’s be honest, this is a perfectly logical, reasonable, rational solution that plenty of real people have already come up with. Plenty of self-defense professionals will tell you that this is the best, least risky, and ultimately safest solution is recognizing the threat before the threat occurs and acting. The two sets of mores which will hold us back are moral and social. This is not a societally or socially acceptable method of dealing with other human combatants.

Let us remember, you asked for the most efficient hand to hand solution and not the most socially acceptable one.

That method is sudden, violent murder. The computer will then escalate from there into preemptive action… like murdering all humans everywhere because that will definitively end the threat humans pose to each other.

This is why Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics exist.

Computers have trouble with complex moral quandaries and subtle nuance when it comes to decision making. You just don’t want them to be able to hurt people.

This, of course, is predicated on the idea that the programming works and the android can actually predict “the best possible” solution in hand to hand combat at a speed rapid enough to keep up with the human. (Which is why I say “preemptive instant death”, the computer will figure out quickly that this is the least risky approach which requires minimal overall computing power.) Hand to hand combat has a myriad of complex permutations and approaches which would be extremely difficult for a computer to keep up with, and the android could only do this with what it was programmed to know.  With a learning algorithm of some sort it’d be a kludgy person, ultimately slower and less capable. It not being able to “feel pain” would actually be a detriment for it. Working through pain is what teaches humans to ignore it, to know when they’ve reached their limit, when they truly are injured, and discover which pain actually matters.

This quality is often ignored by popular media outside of sports films, war movies, and fighting anime, but pain is extremely important to a combatant’s development. Pushing past pain is necessary for your mental barriers in martial arts training, which are key to developing conviction, determination, courage, and general grit. You don’t just train your body, you train your mind and your spirit. By going through difficult and frustrating experiences you grow, and get strong. That mental and emotional strength is what we use to push past our limits, to achieve new heights, and keep going when we’re certain we’re spent.

During training, you push past pain, past exhaustion, past your own insecurities, your self-defeat. You stand up. You keep going.

This quality? This comes from facing and defeating yourself, your own internal expectations of yourself and your own strength. You get past the first hump, and every hump you get past after that is a little easier even when the trials you face are more difficult.

The “One More Lap” mentality is the Determinator.

This is the difference between the mediocre student who showed up every day and worked their butt off to get better versus the talented student who was content to coast on their genetically gifted laurels.

This inner quality, earned by blood, sweat, and tears, is the foundation of every single champion.

It’ll screw up an algorithm.

And that’s why the computer cheats.

Against an overwhelming threat, the computer will react to protect itself the way anyone else would. Like so many other humans before it, the computer reduces risk to the smallest possible margins by turning to other options. It ultimately settle on the safest solution: preemption, and if not preemption then rapid escalation into brutality and murder.

If at any point during this post you went, “but no, that’s wrong!”

Exactly.

That’s an error checking your computer can’t do.

More than that, you can’t program a computer to work off information you don’t have and it doesn’t know. You can’t program the computer to “find the best solution in any hand to hand scenario” because you can’t program it with all that information. You won’t have access to nearly all the necessary information, and the possibilities are too numerous. Even if you program your computer with a magical learning algorithm it will only have access to the information it has experienced. The computer does not have the ability to be prescient.

I mean just look at all the actual AI experiments out there. Computers are very good at some aspects and terrible at others. Check out this video where an AI plays Tetris, and in order not to lose pauses right at the end. It can’t lose now, it’s indefinitely paused. Computer problem solving is different from human problem solving in some very fascinating and, in some cases, extremely literal ways.

Violence is very simple in some ways, but extremely complex in others. There are the moral and ethical quandries, such as when is use of force necessary but also complex kinetic motions requiring supremely good coordination in order to perform. This is the kind of force generation that’s very difficult to program because there are a lot of moving pieces. Those pieces are several steps beyond just programming the android to pick up objects, walk, or run.

The Terminators are the way to go. They don’t fight in conventional hand to hand, they just throw, flick, and crush on their way to victory. They have that option. They’re durable, most modern damage won’t slow them down, and they’re choosing motions that aren’t that mechanically complex. After all, why program the android to perform a 540 kick when they can throw someone through a wall? Easy, effective, involves fewer moving parts, and there’s ultimately less risk of damage.

The problem with Detroit: Become Human is that the androids are in the hands of a human player. They’re being controlled by a person, so, of course, they’ll behave like people. Games where you play the android are a terrible exploration of whether or not a computer can feel empathy. Think instead about NPCs in all your other video games. How do they behave? What do they do? There are plenty of learning AI in strategy games, and a lot of them cheat.

So, could a human fight this potential android and win?

Yes, fairly easily, because humans not only also cheat but because our brains prioritize the accumulation of different data that a computer will ignore. Information about the environment, for example. Developing tactics in regards to utilizing that environment during combat are another. We call this the “Let Me Hit You With A Trash Can Lid” approach. You can look at your environment and see items in it that you can use as weapons. The computer? The computer is going to ignore those. A human can also anticipate secondary and tertiary consequences to their actions, which means their decision making is ultimately different. It is very difficult to anticipate an enemy you ultimately don’t understand. Programming a computer with martial arts techniques is one thing, programming the computer to understand what people might do with those techniques is actually a different process altogether, and programming the computer to perform all those techniques (if they can even gain access to the full spectrum) is going to give some poor robotics expert a real headache.

I got a headache just thinking about it.

-Michi

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