Cargoships, in Space

While I was at FantaSci I had a unique and very educational experience, and I wanted to take time to not only talk about all the writing sparks it threw off, but to thank Peter Gold. He had prepared a detailed presentation on the use of cargoships in the Honorverse (with references to the excellent Nathan Lowell’s traderverse), and I was the only one in the room. So he tailored it to me, let me derail it entirely asking questions pertinent to my own writing, and was gracious to let me pick his brains thoroughly for almost an hour and a half. My deepest thanks, sir, the next couple of books dealing with trade in space opera will be the better for your gracious instruction. 

When I was working on Tanager’s Fledglings, both in the run-up to writing it, and during, I was reading a lot of books and material on trade in the South Seas. Sailing ships are not a precise analogy for space trade, but the principles that logically follow align well enough I thought I could make it work. The differences, as Peter showed in his slides, are the sizes of ship involved. Waterborne craft have limitations – now, we know from the ship heard ’round the world as it got stuck in a canal, this can be bogglingly large – space-going vessels have none of those constraints. Peter did point out that you will want to account for shielding or armor of the ship and cargo containers. Space is empty, but not completely so. 

What I had opted to do with the Tanager was to create a route the ship would follow, a predictable circuit from planet to station to planetoid, in a more-or-less set schedule. Like the ships I was basing this pattern on, things happen and delays may occur. Peter validated this choice of mine, and we talked about cargoes, how they come to be, and how they are assigned to a ship. Very few captains would pick up cargo that wasn’t already waiting on them, and when they did, the passage was paid, they don’t ‘buy’ it and sell it on the other end. Which I believe I did have Jem and the crew doing on a small basis, that is fine, but honestly there wasn’t time for them to do much of this, so I will phase it out. 

The other story I’m working on, title tentatively Death Planet (ok, that is so cheesy! I’ll come up with something else), involves a specialized kind of cargo ship that never descends to the planet’s surface, but carries cargo containers which can be dropped. Peter, talking with me about the need to protect the cargo from damage from micro-meteorites and the like, pointed out that one way would be to have vast sliding bay doors. Slide them open, launch or drop pods, then slide them another way and repeat. Only… my brain lit up. This would explain why in the story the pods wind up scattered across the landscape, as they aren’t all going down in a cluster (which would have it’s own issues), but successive waves. It really helps me make the story better and reinforces the plotting I was hazy on. 

Like so many other aspects of a con, getting to talk to an SME far outside your own ken is a great thing. I came home with ideas bubbling… and of course, no time to write. Which is part of why I put them into this post, so I can find them again. 

Thank you Peter! 

5 thoughts on “Cargoships, in Space

  1. Peter’s good people. I got to know him a little bit on Facebook (before I gave up Facebook), and since he was a senior MSC Marine engineer, and I am an ex- merchant ship bosun and now a tugboater (and never the twain shall meet!), we tend to agree on fine points of opinion in our industry, of course, but for space-analogues, I bow to his superior logic.
    I’m assuming he talked about LASH ships? They’re a great analogue to what you were describing as far as dropping off cargo in near orbit. And being a tankerman, I can’t help but think of the ULCC’s, the ultralarge megatankers that deliver oil offshore at special floating anchor buoys that double as pipeline connections around the world, being too big to tie up close to land.

  2. It makes as much sense to operate space freighters that don’t land as it does to operate ocean freighters that don’t intentionally beach themselves. That’s what the delivery craft or dedicated stations are for. Unless you’re operating a relatively small vessel that specializes in low mass, high value goods that are best dealt with away from the harsh spotlight of government interest. (What would “night fishing” be called in space?)

    Don’t forget the teamsters and dockworkers unions. They are everywhere and forever. And never, ever forget that union = organized crime. The bosses always get their cut.

  3. Military contracts.

    I’m not thinking underway replenishment, I’m thinking that any fleet or base, needs consumables.
    I didn’t spend time thinking about keeping 5,000 sailors fed when I was deep in the engineering spaces, but it was mighty important when I was standing in the chow line.

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