May 27, 2024


Science It Works

Five Strategies for Sneaking Stealthy Space Hijinks Into SF

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona)

To quote a multiple Hugo finalist whose name escapes me at this moment,

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any (online forum) thread that begins by pointing out why stealth in space is impossible will rapidly turn into a thread focusing on schemes whereby stealth in space might be achieved.

No doubt you are all so familiar with the reasons why stealth in space is very difficult to carry off that I need not explain… but just in case, here’s a link to Atomic Rocket’s entry on the matter. Nevertheless, sometimes SF authors envision plots that demand stealth, which requires that they find some way around the issues raised in the link above. Here are five methods authors have used.


1: Ignore the science

This is perhaps the most popular solution, occasionally venturing into vigorous denial. After all, in a genre where such fundamentals such as relativity can be handwaved away for narrative convenience, why not simply handwave stealth in space and go full speed ahead?


An example that comes to mind is Chris Roberson’s 2008 novel The Dragon’s Nine Sons which sets a China that never suffered the Century of Humiliation against a malevolent Mexic Empire. The rivalry extends into the Solar System, which provides the pretext for a reprise of The Dirty Dozen…IN SPACE! Also, IN AN ALTERNATE HISTORY! Stealth being a key part of sneaking up on an enemy base, Roberson deals with the issue by ignoring it. Indeed, detecting other space craft, even ones at very short range, appears so difficult that


2. Misunderstand

Seeing is not comprehending. Just because one’s telescopes are sufficiently discerning does not necessarily mean the people looking at the data will understand the data’s significance.

Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 story “Jupiter V”, for example, features , which was first noticed by E. E. Barnard in 1892. In Clarke’s short story, it is not until the era of crewed spaceflight that explorers determine that Amalthea is no moon—that’s a catchy phrase…someone should use it in a movie—but rather a giant spacecraft, a relic of an advanced and presumably extinct alien civilization. Having presented his characters with a cultural treasure beyond compare, Clarke then proceeds to deliver to his readers what they all secretly want: a pointed lesson in orbital dynamics.


3. Hack

This approach abandons any attempt to obscure the emissions from vehicles. Instead, it targets the means by which the emissions are flagged for human attention. Computers are very powerful tools, but they can be hacked. Anyone depending entirely on an all-powerful algorithm is vulnerable to having that algorithm subverted.

Jay Posey’s Outriders (2016) takes that route. Aware that deep space Veryn-Hakakuri Station YN-773—code-named LOCKSTEP—is a United American Federation intelligence asset, the novel’s antagonists target it for destruction. While the formidable array of sensors on the station would seem an insurmountable barrier to a sneak attack, an intelligence-gathering station is limited by its software. Step one: subvert said software so that it cannot recognize an obvious attack for what it is. Step two: redirect a convenient asteroid towards the target. Step three: total destruction!


4. Disguise

As Q-ship architects would attest, sometimes one does not have to conceal one’s presence. Sometimes simply actively misleading observers about the nature of one’s vessel is sufficient to get past their defenses.

Beltane, the world featured in Andre Norton’s 1968’s Dark Piper, was too insignificant to be targeted in the recent war. Despite its low population, it has the means to deter obviously hostile forces. Accordingly, the would-be invaders who arrive on the planet’s doorstep claim to be harmless refugees, a plausible claim in a region of space in which so many worlds have been burned off. It’s not until the ships are down and the visitors inside the defensive perimeter that they reveal their dark and bloody purpose: taking Beltane for their own, having first eliminated the current inhabitants.


5. Alternate universe

Finally, if this universe is uncooperative, relocate to another universe whose behavior better suits your needs.

Glen Cook’s 1985 Passage at Arms is a perfect example. Hyperspace gave the alien Ulant and the human Confederation faster-than-light travel. Null provides the Confederation with an edge in their war with the Ulant. “Climbers” that retreat into null are virtually undetectable by ships in space or hyperspace. This stealth comes with several catches; no only are Climbers by their nature quite vulnerable should they be spotted, but the same factors that make them hard to spot make radiating heat next to impossible, and each crewperson provides a hundred watts of heat. Thus, Climber crews may face a choice between emerging from null to face immediate death from Ulant weapons or remaining concealed and being slowly boiled alive.



As our initial quote—

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any (online forum) thread that begins by pointing out why stealth in space is impossible will rapidly turn into a thread focusing on schemes whereby stealth in space might be achieved.

—makes clear, this is a subject on which people hold firm opinions. No doubt you have your own favorite means through which stealth in space can be facilitated. Or perhaps you just want to go over points addressed in the Atomic Rockets’ link. Comments are, as ever, below.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.