How can civilian spacecraft be so heavily armed in most sci-fi settings?

Originally published at: How can civilian spacecraft be so heavily armed in most sci-fi settings? | Boing Boing

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Because it’s fiction? :man_shrugging:


Space. The New Wild West.


In the original version of the Star Tours ride at Disneyland they included a bit of dialogue in the queue to explain why a civilian shuttle was equipped with blaster cannons; C3-PO told R2-D2 that the ship had to be ready in case they encountered asteroids or space debris. Always seemed a little sketchy to me, it would be like putting a turret gun on a tour bus in case they came across a toppled tree in the road.

One of the little details that made Firefly so unique is that the titular ship didn’t have any offensive or defensive capabilities whatsoever even though the crew was basically running a smuggling business.


The meta reason is because it would be boring otherwise. Stories require conflict. Easy access to weapons allows for lots of conflict and an endless supply of bad guys to fight and allows the good guys to compete if the bad guys are formidably armed themselves.


Lots of writers have found ways to create conflict in stories involving unarmed space ships; Firefly, Lost in Space, Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, etc. Adding weapons to the mix is just a quick way to enable stories that involve a very specific and literal kind of conflict.


the unpoliceable vastness of space

Stephen R. Donaldson wrote some great writing about this, including the complete inability of human politicians to comprehend the sheer scale of territorial space they “claim” – especially once you incorporate the idea of ships traveling at or near the speed of light. When you’re traveling near the speed of light, it’s hard enough to see what’s in front of you in time to react, let alone monitoring the space around you. Have you ever blown by a parked police car at 80 and just hoped it wouldn’t even try to catch you? Imagine that experience at 0.9 c


The Old Republic had strong 2A rights?


Silly question.
The 4th amendment guarantees the right to a well-regulated militia.
And you can’t be well-regulated without Jewish Space Lasers.


Many merchant ships are exceptionally lightly crewed, and it would cost too much in terms of manpower, lost cargo space and insurance premiums to install a proper gun deck .Additionally, various port authorities and canal zones frown on the carrying of weaponry.

I suspect that many of the legal issues were rehashed out when the waters off Somalia became newly risky.


I did like their welded-on throwback improvisation in Serenity.


Also the scene in the series where they had to shoot something from the ship and Jayne had to stand in the open cargo bay with his gun wedged into a spare spacesuit since it was a firearm designed to be used in an oxygenated atmosphere.


Am I the only one that watches fictional movies about fictional worlds in a fictional future without wondering why a thing doesn’t behave like a real thing?


As an explanation, I guess I would have gone with: “Because these ‘science-fiction’ stories are actually thinly-veiled historical fantasies. Specifically ones set in the ‘frontiers’ of the 18th/19th centuries.”

They don’t really make sense as science fiction. The initial problem here is, as Douglas Adams put it:

“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

We’re talking about interstellar travel at faster-than-light speeds in space measured in light years. Piracy? Suuuure. Even if we’re just talking about the space between two adjacent star systems, that means there’s a spacecraft somewhere in the 45 trillion km space between the stars, assuming they’re traveling along a given straight line from one planet to the other, and you’re going to find this tiny speck in an ocean, much less intercept it when it’s anywhere but when it slowed down to enter planetary orbit?

Lazy fiction, even. They’re just filing the serial numbers off Horatio Hornblower/some Western and pretending like setting it in space makes sense, when it doesn’t.

This whole trope has really led to a bunch of people having extremely weird ideas about space, including the idea that “settling” space would be exactly like the Europeans moving West in North America.

Given that movement in space is 3-dimensional, asteroids are extremely far apart and don’t actually move relative to each other, it’s like having a turret on a bus in case they came across a tree next to the road.

The meta reason is that the writers wanted to use a bunch of familiar tropes from historic fiction, and didn’t want to actually think through the ramifications of the technology they introduced at all, nor did they want to risk alienating audiences with unfamiliar elements.

So many film/tv writers just thought they could stick Horatio Hornblower, or “Wagon Train” in space, and if they made their space-sloops/wagons fast enough, it works, not considering that the radically different scale of everything prevents it from making any sense.

Also, the odds of running into a Somali pirate in the million square miles they might be found in is quite different than running into a space pirate in the 10^30 cubic kilometers, or whatever, between two stars, which rather changes the calculations…


I am so angry at Joss Whedon and Adam Baldwin for spoiling my enjoyment of that show :angry:


Since most of these sci-fi scenarios involve faster than light travel that would require a lot of energy to do, so i high power weapon on the ship would be easy to do.

The navy recently scrapped their railgun project, they have the excess energy from nuclear reactors, just not the material strength yet to keep the gun from destroying itself from use.
they will get there eventually.

The real question is will there ever be any conflicts in space?
Space is big
Space is dark
it’s hard to find
a place to park


Suppose your ship is moving at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Do you have enough reaction mass to change your trajectory, and still have enough to decelerate to your destination?


Honestly, what (usually, there are exceptions in some either harder or grimmer sci-fi) tends to get ignored is how difficult it would be to not do in the context of travelling at or above a significant fraction of lightspeed.

Even with the best will in the world that’s a situation where human or system errors can turn workaday transport vehicles into K-T event class disasters(presumably most commonly in areas of dense population or economic significance since that’s where the traffic density would be highest). And, obviously, in cases of less goodwill you’ve got all the stability of a situation where anyone with the futuristic equivalent of the budget to buy a container ship or similar has the keys to a planetary-scale kinetic kill vehicle; even if strict enforcement keeps pew-pew lasers restricted to authorized users.


“Like installing a 12” naval gun on your Toyota Hilux or whatever"

That’d be silly.