Kimball Kinnison and the Zwilniks of Doom
by Marcus L Rowland
Wargamers have always been fascinated by the clash of different technology levels. Zulus versus riflemen, Ewoks versus Imperial stormtroopers (eg. savages conned into fighting a war they don't understand), cavemen versus dinosaurs. Relatively little has been written about life at the high end of the technology curve; where science is almost indistinguishable from magic, and planets suns, and even galaxies are potential targets.
E.E. "Doc" Smith is probably the most widely gamed space opera author, but in this respect his Lensman Stories are a little disappointing. The clean-cut daring agents of Civilisation, in particular the Galactic Patrol (hurrah), fight the Zwilniks (dope dealers) of Boskone (boo, hiss), the drug barons from the stars, but their technology; is very similar. Both sides occasionally enjoy a temporary numerical or technological advantage, but it rarely takes more than a few months to even out. The Patrol also has several innate advantages; foremost is the Lens, a telepathic amplifier of considerable power, hut the nature of Boskone's government can often be used against the forces of evil; it is basically a vicious power struggle, with intrigue and assassination at all levels of authority, and underlings motivated by fear, not loyalty.
How would the Patrol fare against someone with very different goals and motives, and completely different science? Possibly the most interesting opponent is a more recent space-faring civilisation, described in Ian M. Banks' SF. For the benefit of the uninitiated, The Culture lives somewhere between Communism and anarchy; it's an economy of superabundance, which has discarded money as an inefficient form of rationing, despises all forms of authoritarianism, and has eliminated the drug problem forever - by supplying anyone who wants them with implanted drug glands, which manufacture an interesting range of pharmaceuticals on mental demand. There is every reason to believe that the Patrol would regard The Culture as an even bigger threat than Boskone.
What follows is a simple analysis of both sides, which can be adapted to most SF systems. It assumes that they are at the peak of their power; for Civilisation, the technology available is that seen in the novels up to and including Children of the Lens, plus The Vortex Blaster; for The Culture, Consider Phlebas and Use Of Weapons are the primary sources, with some concepts from The Player Of Games and The State Of The Art. It also assumes that they are both at the height of their power simultaneously, and ignores the fact that The Culture discovers Earth (a nasty primitive place) in 1977. Just pretend it didn't happen...
Civilisation - Motives
Spread Civilisation, end dictatorship everywhere, and wipe out the evil zwilniks (drug dealers) who threaten our precious bodily fluids... In most respects Civilisation seems to function as a reasonably benevolent (to its citizens) capitalist military dictatorship. Internally the Lensmen act as telepathic police, and it seems probable that some crimes are stopped before they even happen. Is there any opposition to the war? It is never mentioned, which suggests that an extremely effective propaganda department is at work. Behind the scenes, the Arisians are gradually steering humanity towards the production of a super-elite; the children of Kimball Kinnison, who will be powerful enough to destroy the evil mentalists of Eddore. The war with Boskone is probably holding Civilisation together; it's easy to imagine it falling apart without an external threat.
The Culture - Motives
Spread civilisation. and do away with outmoded concepts like "war", "government". "money", and "property". If you can have anything you want whenever you want it, there's no need to actually own anything; if you particularly want a fifty-room mansion, The Culture will build you one, but it isn't a status symbol because anyone else can have one for the asking. The Culture has hedonists and freeloaders, some of them raising inactivity to the status of an art-form, but most people work occasionally; simply because it's more interesting than the alternative. The Culture hates war, and will do anything it can to avoid it; "anything" routinely includes political destabilisation and assassination, courtesy of the Special Circumstances department. Planets and galactic empires that don't pose a threat are usually left alone; The Culture's reaction to Earth (circa 1977) is amused contempt and quarantine; see The State Of The Art.
Civilisation - Technology
Second Stage Lensman
"He used the whole damned solar system as a vacuum tube!"
Children of the Lens
"I've got enough super-atomic bombs aboard to blow this whole planet to hellangone and the boys'll drop 'em all the second you make a queer move...
Civilisation's technology is odd by our standards (GURPS Lensman suggests that the Arisians deliberately suppress some aspects, such as digital electronics and computers). The basic building block of circuitry is the vacuum tube; big, power hungry, but virtually immune to electromagnetic pulse effects and radiation. Computers only start to appear when the Baskone war is effectively over, and AIs are never built.
Manufacturing techniques are basically similar to those of 1940s Earth, although presumably using better material and tools; men work on production lines and interstellar trade is essential, anything which threatens that trade must be stopped. Most industry is based on planets; there appear to be no orbital factories, habitats, etc.
Transport is fast; it takes a few hours to travel from one solar system to another, a few days to cross between galaxies. Anything, up to and including planets, can be fitted with a space drive with FTL capabilities. Nuclear energy is still based on fission, but spaceships get most of their power from cosmic rays.
Weapon systems include energy beams, nuclear explosives (Duodec), planets (thrown at a large fraction of light speed), the sunbeam (which harnesses the total energy output of a star and can melt a planet in a few seconds), and the Negasphere, which appears to be an antimatter black hole. A nova-powered version of the sunbeam is being built, which implies that Civilisation may be able to trigger a nova. All these weapons rely on human operators and gunners; several battles are won by taking out the men, not the weapons. Force fields are used for defence. Hand guns are energy beamers or projectile weapons; the latter are used because they can often get through force fields that will stop a beam.
Medicine can cure most diseases, and injuries can be regenerated. Prolongation of human life hasn't advanced much.
The Culture - Technology
"The Culture craft was hiding in the surface layer of the system sun..."
The State of the Art
"I'm a fucking starship; I'm allowed to cheat."
The Culture is a cybernetic wet dream. Nobody needs to work. Behind the scenes nanotechnology and an immense number of drones (human-intelligence robots) and brains (supercomputers) controlling remote drones (brainless robots) manufacture anything that's needed, from a packet of crisps to a fifty-megaton starship; most Brains are much more intelligent than humans, but they share the same goals and usually cooperate reasonably well. Most are treated as citizens. Apparently trivial artifacts may have immense processing power; space suits often have human levels of intelligence to keep the wearer company, guns aim themselves, missiles are as bright as dogs. Interstellar trade isn't important; anything can be manufactured from elementary particles, and power supplies are effectively unlimited. Manufacturing (and almost everything else) is based aboard spacecraft, orbitals, ringworlds, and other megastructures. Only a small percentage of The Culture's citizens live on planets, and the proportion is continually falling.
Space travel is FTL but comparatively slow; it takes a few days to get from one solar system to the next. Travel from the Milky Way to one of the Magellanic Clouds takes two years. Spaceships can mass megatons, but moving planets is probably outside The Culture's capabilities.
Weapons include energy beams, CCAM projectiles (Collapsed Core Anti-Matter), and gridfire, which seems to lie a means of projecting cosmic strings or some other fundamental energy that isn't in 1990s physics texts. Gridfire can slice through several thousand kilometres of neutronium in a few seconds. Defence is based on force screens and a technique of dumping energy into the energy continuum which gridfire comes from; its possible to set off an H-bomb aboard a Culture spaceship without anyone (apart from the Mind controlling the ship) noticing. Hand weapons include a wide range of energy beams, but the Culture's most typical personal weapon is the knife missile, a tiny semi-intelligent supersonic flying drone with razor-sharp force field blades which cuts through anything which threatens its owner.
Medicine can cure most diseases, and injuries can be repaired by cloning. It's possible to keep a severed head alive while a new body is grown. Life span is greatly extended by genetic manipulation and nanotechnology.
Civilisation - Tactics
Think BIG. Send fleets of a thousand starships into enemy territory, and destroy anything that tries to stop them. Find your enemy's homeworld, and ram it with a mobile planet or a negasphere (anti-matter black hole). Peace (eventually) through superior firepower. Civilisation is good at large-scale military tactics, fair at espionage (telepathy is very useful in this respect), but poor at subtle tactics and guerrilla warfare. While several battles are won by indirect means (for example, by driving the personnel of a base insane, telepathically controlling key officers, or dumping lethally addictive drugs into the air supply) these aren't typical tactics.
Culture - Tactics
Think DIRTY . Assassination, kidnapping, and psychological warfare are greatly preferable to war. If possible, kill them with kindness. Special Circumstances, the Culture's dirty tricks department, is VERY good at placing agents with effective covers, and can easily make an alien look completely human (or vice versa). If war is unavoidable, keep retreating and tool up for wholesale slaughter, let the enemy seize all the territory they want (since you don't really need it) and wait for their overextended empire (or whatever) to collapse. Think of guerrilla war with megaton spaceships, gridfire, and CCAM bombs. Despite its immense strength, the Culture hates to fight; its Brains can probably out-think most opponents, and would prefer to do that before trying to out-fight them.
This would be a long and extremely bloody war. I think that The Culture would probably win, simply because Minds and Drones would be immune to telepathy, and are quite capable of running most operations on their own. Would the Arisians take a hand? I think that they might well decide that The Culture is actually nearer to their ideals, and let the outcome of a war decide who they will support. Consider Phlebas is set against the background of a roughly comparable conflict (minus Lenses and Arisians) which The Culture eventually wins, and should be a good starting point for anyone who actually wants to try gaming this.
Several ideas are derived from GURPS Lensman and from various talks by Ian M. Banks, who also gave his permission for me to write this article (and thinks that the whole idea is extremely silly). Many, many, thanks.
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