Swords and Plowshares III

Speculative material culture, much of it designed for unfriendly purposes.
  • The advantage of digital is the ease with which it's stored and transmitted; its downside is that you lose quality as an unavoidable part of the process, although if you're careful you never lose any quality after the first digital encoding (because your jaggy MS Paint drawing of a sound-wave—which is what digital audio is—can be reproduced indefinitely, the same way as when you first rendered it as a jaggy MS Paint drawing of a sound-wave). Analog wears.

    But...what about optical-media analog storage? The chief downside currently is the sheer size necessary (compare LaserDiscs to DVDs), but, what if you use a very small-wavelength laser and some sort of nano-material storage medium? I wouldn't be surprised if a future society switched to something like tiny LaserDiscs, their surfaces marked on the nanometer scale and read by blue, violet, or even near UV lasers, for audio and video storage, at least for "master" copies. The future versions of hardcore "audio snobs" and photography (and cinematography) geeks would probably trade exclusively in analog.

    We can blow up old photographs, taken with ordinary commercially-available cameras, and read newspaper headlines reflected on people's shiny brass buttons; anyone who tells you that's within the capabilities of even the state-of-the-art, "professional" grade of digital cameras is a liar or a delusional idiot. And remember how, before the shift to all-digital, you could adjust your "rabbit ears" just so and get a serviceable TV picture? Well when you have bad reception with a digital signal, you get nothing, just jagged blocks of scrambled color and screeching noise.
  • A shift to analog optical-storage for audio and video would put copyright law back to before the days of file-sharing. Analog is much harder to transmit (although as I just mentioned it loses less when transmitted imperfectly). The digital copies that can be transmitted, with their layers of white noise to act as "dithering" for their MS Paint jaggy sound-waves, might come to be viewed the way we used to view bootleg records. Admittedly the widespread adoption of an analog optical storage medium would presumably involve the invention of efficient ways to record to that medium, which would allow some analog copying (as there always was), but since you'd still have to move physical objects (since you'd have to digitize to transmit over computer networks), it'd put things back on their "pirated tapes" footing rather than the file-sharing one we have now.
  • If you wonder why zled laser weapons are powered by springs, the answer, aside from "I thought it seemed cool", is "reliability"—there's a reason survival radios and emergency flashlights use them so often. Also, a mainspring might, conceivably, slice your head clean off if it pops out just right, but it's nothing like as volatile as a chemical battery. I had considered having the springs charge ultracapacitors, from which the lasers are then charged; I also discovered that the energy density of a normal metal mainspring may be prohibitively low, and is definitely hard to figure out. All the numbers I could find would seem to indicate that that "4 Watts for 25 minutes" windup radio would need a 20 kilo spring, if not 43, and we know that's not the case (I may be misconstruing something about the thing's power-output). But I found that, with the technology to make much longer polymer molecules than we currently can, you can make "molecular springs" out of polymers like polyacetylene (AKA polyethyne) and the helicenes, with energy densities from .1 megajoules/kilogram all the way up to 10. Apparently molecular springs can also release lots of energy at once, so this also solves another problem. And even the low end of that range gives us 100 kJ/kg, which comes to 64 grams per four shots, and 256 grams for all sixteen shots (decided not to bother with multiple springs). That's 17 grams lighter than the ammunition, alone, in a Glock 21 (13 rounds of 45 ACP, 21 g each), and that's not counting the mass for the Glock's magazine. 'Course, the casing on the spring adds a little weight, too—the total weight might well be about the same, since a spring is something you want a nice heavy-duty casing on.

    That's a civilian and police "hand laser". Their military "long laser" fires 10 kJ shots. Unfortunately at that 10 kJ a pop, 48-shot springs at 100 kJ/kg equal 5.5 kg per "magazine", which is way too big. Even the kind of elephant-gun cartridge that has comparable muzzle energy (laser wounds are basically bullet wounds with no bullet in them)—say .585 Nyati since I can find the stats for those rounds—weighs 3,034 grams when you get 48 of them together (most elephant guns are single-shot or double-barrel for a reason). Maybe have the military springs made of some different material, that can store more energy? ".1-10 MJ/kg" is a pretty wide range; if we say the military's springs have the energy density of, say, a typical rechargeable battery, we get 288 kJ/kg, which brings each spring to a kilo and two-thirds. I think I might actually at least have two springs in the long guns, that'd probably be a big disc otherwise. (Maybe they sell military-grade springs for the hand lasers, more expensive or more regulated or both, that give 46 shots for the same weight—SMG lasers, maybe?)
  • While the zledo are wandering around with spring-loaded lasers, the Peacekeepers have bullets propelled by octanitrocubane. This allows each round to require only 67.2% as much propellant as is used in the G11's caseless rounds (which use RDX), and 42% as much propellant as the equivalent nitrocellulose-propelled round.

    What that probably translates to is that the caseless rounds no longer have to be rectangular, the way the G11's are. A circle has 78.5% the area of a square whose side-length is its diameter, meaning that even with cylindrical rounds, the octanitrocubane propellant nets an 11.3% increase in power. If the length remains the same, after all, then the difference of volume between a cylinder and a rectangular prism is the difference between the area of a circle and that of a square.

    That's assuming all other things being equal, which they aren't—the PK rounds in my book are 6.8 mm compared to the G11's 4.7, and have muzzle energies of around 2,300 J, comparable to, well, 6.8 mm Remington SPC, as opposed to the G11's 1,406 J, comparable to the 5.45×39 mm round used in the AK-74.
  • Peacekeeper sidearms, meanwhile, are probably in the equivalent of 10 mm Auto, which is much stronger than 9 mm Parabellum but not on par with the 1.6 kJ lasers zledo use for a sidearm, which is the equivalent of .44 Magnum. I'm not sure if the Peacekeeper pistol round is 9 or 10 mm; I vacillate back and forth. If it's 9 mm (which I lean toward), I might have it be 9×22, like .357 SIG, rather than 9×19. Of course, "caseless"—that second number is the overall length of the caseless round, including the cylinder of propellant, rather than the length of the casing.

    I imagine that 24th-century CIP/SAAMI/NATO EPVAT or their successors ("Peacekeeper Small Arms Proofing", maybe, to translate the full name of CIP literally?) might designate caseless rounds with a C, or maybe with an E to indicate electronic firing, the way they indicate rimmed cartridges with an R. Actually, more likely, late-21st- or early 22nd-century CIP/SAAMI/NATO EPVAT successors would designate caseless rounds with a C, and later ones would stop. The "Nitro Express" seen in some cartridge names refers to nitrocellulose ("express" because of the higher muzzle-velocity it can produce)—those rounds were first made in the early days of smokeless powder. Nowadays nobody bothers to mention their round uses smokeless powder.
  • It occurs to me that the spring-cartridges would occasion a difference of design, for zled weapons. Rather than looking like Tanegashima matchlocks, they would probably—since they have a big, probably disk-shaped, spring somewhere on the weapon—look like wheellocks. Like this pistol, from this Finnish antique site:
    Or this hunting musket (actually a combination matchlock-wheellock—your guess is as good as mine how that works), from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
    Of course, the zled ones don't have the actual hammers and their triggers are on the back—also lasers do not need ramrods—but it's a good starting point. They go with actually-long "long lasers" because they never got that memo about how nobody uses bayonets anymore (it's been a whole 28 months!).
  • People sticking the genes for bioluminescence into just about every organism they can get into a laboratory, plus various other plans for ways to make plants glow, makes me think, what if an alien species came from a planet with plants (or, well, "vegetative autotrophs", but same difference) that were already bioluminescent? Maybe instead of the UV "landing strips" on our flowers, that help pollinators, they glow at night, to guide some similar symbiotic species. And what if the sapient inhabitants of such a planet bred those plants selectively, the way we've bred food crops? Bet they could get some very respectable light out of 'em after 25,000 years.

    I realize that everybody in fantasy from the drow to the people of Quarmall to the Falmer (who are blind...) grows glowing mushrooms, but you don't see it much in science fiction. Why shouldn't some alien species' streetside trees become streetlights, at night? I'm giving it to the khângây, they're crepuscular (the zledo are too), and I haven't written enough about them for this small amount of rewriting to be a hassle (which is why I can't use this idea for the zledo). Each khângây clan has its own breed of lighting-plants, and the precise shade of the light will tell you whose territory you're in. (Since they also have a fourth color-receptor, for near-UV, they can distinguish ten times as many shades as species with only three.)
  • It seems unlikely to me that anyone would ever use particle beam weapons, except in space. The least likely use is the anti-personnel small arms one. First off, they use far more power than a laser with the same applicability. Second, and I hope more importantly, they pretty much always give you radiation-poisoning—whether it's a lethal or only "most likely lethal, eventually" dose is determined by whether it's a direct hit or not. Aside from the moral considerations, there are heaps of treaties that'd get in the way.

    No, I know, "science fiction is about the 'Enlightenment' worldview"—the worldview that debated giving the Indians smallpox-laced blankets (though there is no evidence they ever actually did it), and also gave the world mustard gas, Zyklon-B, and sarin, and firebombed Dresden and nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But unless you are going to write a story about callousness and inhumanity of that caliber, and give us a believably amoral setting to back it up—when the whole trend of war in the last 50 years has been away from that kind of thing, especially since the end of the Cold War (where the amorality was limited to nukes, and the whole point of those was having them but never using them)—I'm not buying it. Particle beams can punch through very large quantities of most matter, letting them penetrate armor (at least if it's not protected against ionizing radiation—which a spacefaring civilization's armor might be), and thus might be thought of like depleted uranium. But you still mostly die from the actual impact of depleted uranium (and the fact it catches fire on impact), and are quite unlikely to die from the radiation. You always die from particle beam radiation, or very nearly always. Poisoned bullets are illegal for a reason.

    As for particle beam artillery, the power issue goes away, since vehicle-scale weapons don't need their power systems to be man-portable. But on the other hand, the backscatter from a large particle beam is as deadly as the fallout from a nuke. You'd have to completely radiation-suit all your personnel, and still couldn't use the particle artillery anywhere near a friendly population. While particle-beam weapons might see some use in space, on a planet they'd be too power-intensive and morally fraught to be good for an anti-personnel role, and too dangerous to friendly personnel for an artillery role.