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Naval History… For Space?

When writing science fiction, some of the best inspiration you can find comes from history. Whether you’re looking for personalities, cultures, broad societal themes, or ideas about the relations between alien cultures, the history books are full of good ideas (and bad ones) that can help shape your story.

And if you happen to be assembling a collection of space-faring warships, naval history can be a fantastic place to start. I’ve already touched on this in my discussion of DCNS Sackville, and its origins with the Canadian corvette of the same name, but the connections don’t stop with individual ships.

If you want to know how real human states have dealt with the societal and security implications of a new technological epoch, you need only explore the nineteenth and twentieth centuries at sea. Within 150 years, humanity went from warships powered by wind to nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers. Wooden hulls gave way to metal, steam arrived (first through coal and then oil), gunnery range increased a hundred fold, radar made the horizon irrelevant, and aircraft took over the sky.

One of the most interesting examples of this evolution comes from Japan. The fleet that hit Pearl Harbor in 1941 was the culmination of decades of fast work; from a collection of Damiyo-controlled coasters in the 1840s, the Imperial Japanese Navy had to evolve through generations of naval tradition on a very compressed timeline, fighting a few wars along the way (interesting fact: during the First World War, IJN warships were occasionally responsible for protecting Canada’s Pacific coast).

Japan’s naval evolution was spectacular, and if you changed some names (Togo Heihachirō Togo Isoruku) and replaced some words (ocean cosmos), it could probably serve as the foundation for an exciting space opera –– complete with the tragic end where the fleet joins the wrong side of an epic war. I don’t think anyone’s been quite that specific… yet… but fortunately, there is an excellent book that tells the true story.

Kaigun, by David Evans and Mark Peattie, is probably the best single-volume history of a navy that I’ve ever read –– and after six years studying for two degrees, that’s a pretty high bar. If I recall correctly, Evans was a military historian, Peattie a Japanese cultural expert, and together they dove into Japanese sources without reservation. The resulting book is easy to read, and full of the sorts of political, doctrinal, and technical details that inevitably fuel a sci-fi world-builder’s imagination.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kaigun influenced the evolution of the Freetown Navy we saw in The Genesis Equation –– a force rapidly modernizing based on the best practices gleaned from surrounding fleets –– and the Martian Navy’s poor log-keeping practices in Defense Command. Those are just two examples; there are many more, from this book and others.

So if you plan to write stories about fleets of starships and the planets they defend, you can’t go wrong in studying history’s real navies. Whether you read a book like Kaigun, or visit a ship like Sackville, you’ll learn a lot… and something you discover might alter the fate of the galaxy.