Starships and Old Cruisers

Written by Richard Baker

The most important ship in Valiant Dust is USS Olympia.

You might think I’m referring to a starship that appears in my novel, but I’m not. I mean the old cruiser commissioned in 1895 and preserved as a museum ship in 1957. Olympia served as Commodore Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay, and you can see it today at the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia.

Olympia doesn’t appear even once in my book. But my long-ago visits to the museum ship inspired much of the world-building behind Valiant Dust, including elements of naval technology, culture, and the strategic challenges Sikander North’s star navy faces.

Let’s start with the technology. From the get-go, my Sikander North books were intended to be naval-themed military sci-fi. I’m a former naval officer and a serious history buff, and it’s important to me to write what I know. Several other writers are engaged in universes that do an excellent job of bringing the “missile age” of naval warfare to space. (As someone who earned a Surface Warfare qualification, I appreciate the thought that writers like David Weber or Jack Campbell put into missile tactics.) But I want to create battles that feel distinctive in this subgenre. Olympia suggests a different era of naval combat as an inspiration: the era of steam and iron, big guns and short-ranged torpedoes. In the Sikander North universe, point-defense fire is so effective that missiles can’t get through to score hits. The primary shipboard weapons are powerful rail guns (or kinetic cannons) and warp torpedoes that exit normal space for self-protection during their attack runs.

The cultural inspiration provided by Olympia is a little harder to explain, but I’ll give it a try. If you spend any time walking around a modern warship, you’re struck by how plain things are. The interior decks are covered by linoleum, the weather decks by something that looks like roofing material. The wardroom—the space where officers gather to eat, relax, or entertain, presumably the nicest part of the ship—is fitted with furniture that frankly wouldn’t cut it in a cheap motel. But Olympia is a relic of a different age; the wardroom is finished with beautiful paneling and china cabinets, the decks are (or at least were) real teak, and brilliant brass fittings gleam at every turn. Olympia exudes an atmosphere of gentility and elegance that modern ships lack. The officers of the Age of Steam were expected to be gentlemen and observe social niceties that had fallen out of use by the time I served in the Navy. I’m not saying that Olympia’s time was better, mind you; I’m just saying that it was different, and I wanted to capture that feeling in my depiction of a starfaring navy of the far future.

Finally, Olympia’s moment in history pointed me toward a complex and changing era of “geopolitics” to serve as the backdrop for Valiant Dust. A multipolar galaxy with Great Powers fighting over prized colonial possessions provides a wealth of rivalries and crises to explore. Sikander North and his shipmates live in a universe where rising powers are challenging established powers and imperial systems are being tested by restive subject populations. A military sci-fi story needs sources of conflict, and those conflicts need plausible driving causes. Valiant Dust isn’t the Spanish-American War in space, but I definitely drew inspiration from a different near-conflict in the same era (the Second Moroccan Crisis, if you’re curious). I find that borrowing a bit from history helps a story to feel “real,” simply because if it happened in our own world it’s not crazy for a writer to suggest that something similar could happen in the future.

USS Olympia isn’t mentioned once in Valiant Dust. But you can sense its presence in dinner parties and military formalities, k-cannon salvos and torpedo runs, and exotic worlds where imperial powers shamelessly engage in the Great Game. Throughout months of worldbuilding, I found myself closing my eyes from time to time to recall how it felt to walk Olympia’s decks or imagine what it would have been like to be a naval officer in the 1890s instead of the 1990s. Maybe I’m the only person who would ever notice or care about that hidden influence in Valiant Dust, but it’s there. If you’re anywhere near Philadelphia and you’re interested in military history, I’d encourage you to make the visit—Olympia’s a national treasure.

Oh, and there’s one other thing. Take a moment to Google USS Olympia, and check out the paint scheme: the gleaming white hull, the red waterline, the buff superstructure and black funnel caps. I borrowed the same white, buff, and red colors for the Aquilan Commonwealth Navy in Valiant Dust. I didn’t even tell my editor why I chose those colors, but now you know.

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2 thoughts on “Starships and Old Cruisers

  1. The USS Olympia also has the distinction of being the vessel to bring home the unknown soldier from the First World War. As a ship representing the transition from sail to steam, she is a treasure. She is moored right next to the USS Belacuna, a WWII era sub and just across the river on the Camden waterfront is the USS New Jersey. Bookends to our navel heritage that launched us into being a first class sea power. Unfortunately, she is in dire need of funds to keep her from the scrap yard. Her hull is getting thin in spots and there are other items that the museum has to spend funds on. Please check her out on line and if you can donate to her preservation.

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