Charles Stross and I build a Sword and Planet universe and Kurtzhau (12) breaks it

Steam Punk Kurtzhau

…a year away from his first convention, and already using Halloween to dabble in Steam Punk cosplay.

“But it’s Science Fiction,” insists Charlie. He’s just handed Kurtzhau (12) a signed copy of the Atrocity Archives.

“No,” I say with a laugh. “It’s Horror – or at least it is as far as the school is concerned.”

A few days ago, Kurtzhau came home from school seething.  “The teacher says it’s important  to read outside your ‘comfort zone’!” He made sarcastic finger quotes and the word “crucial” hung in the air between us unspoken (but I bet somebody thought it).

The English department is getting the kids to keep score of the books they’ve read, with prizes and other extrinsic rewards I don’t approve of. Having finally graduated to adult SF, Kurtzhau is already an avid reader and so pulling ahead. Now, however, binging on one genre (Science Fiction) and a handful of series (Vorkosigan Saga and the more military Star Wars) isn’t good enough.

“Bugger that,” I said. “How about some Horror – I bet you’re old enough for Charlie’s Cthulhu stuff.”

“It’s Horror – or at least it is as far as the school is concerned.”

So now we’re in the coffee shop with Charlie – Charles Stross.

Kurtzhau has always enjoyed hanging around while I have coffee with my creative mates – Charlie, animator Hugh Hancock, and sometimes Hannu Rajaneimi. Back when he was a pre-schooler, Kurtzhau loved our trips to the now defunct Blue Moon Cafe where he evolved from buggy-confined baby, to babyccino slurping toddler. Then school got in the way. However if we had a day off together, sometimes he’d say, “You could have coffee with your friends…if you like.” At first I thought he was after the epicurean hot chocolate (I’d like the Mexican WITH The Chilli please) . However, it soon became apparent that he liked listening to our conversations…

So now he’s an articulate junior geek, a year away from his first convention, and already using Halloween to dabble in Steam Punk cosplay.

The three of us – Charlie, me and Kurtzhau – sit amidst the hipsters and talk ideas and Science Fiction. At length we turn to the possible return of the Sword and Planet genre. I quite fancy designing  a universe with both spaceships and sword fights.

…to hell with blades, I’d go into battle with a basket of rabid ferrets and just throw them at people.

Kurtzhau treats us to his rant on how to kill a Jedi; shotgun and grenades, mostly – Parry that! Charlie – if I remember right – wants to use bio weapons. I throw in the idea of unlit fuel-air explosive – Go on, Jedi, switch on your light sabre. And Kurtzhau wonders why nobody uses force powers simply to switch off the other guy’s weapon…

Then we contemplate literary Sword and Planet settings like Dune and Deathstalker which use velocity-limiting fields. Charlie proposes a pneumatic rapid-fire arrow thrower based on Chinese repeating crossbows. I say to hell with blades, I’d go into battle with a basket of rabid ferrets and just throw them at people.

At this point we’re having  a lot of fun and the middle aged guys and the pre-teen are meeting somewhere in the middle…. well to be honest, more like somewhere near the lower end of the age range.

But how, we wonder, can you create a self-consistent setting where people with spaceships use swords?

“Ah,” says Charlie, “They don’t want to damage the spaceship when they fight.”

“Gas,” says Kurtzhau. “Darts. Stunners.”(At this point Charlie references the Evil Overlord Checklist.)

“Sod it,” I say. “I’ll just use some quasi-magic to do with life force.”

“You know me,” says Charlie. “I want to do it Mundane SF style.”

“But swords just don’t make sense without a cheat,” I say.

“They do!” exclaims Kurtzhau, now full of Mexican hot chocolate and possibly a little buzzed. “If the enemy spam you with Cheap Canon Fodder so you run out of  ammo then a chainsword is PERFECT.”

“If the enemy spam you with Cheap Canon Fodder so you run out of ammo then a chainsword is PERFECT.”

“Yes,” I say, “But we’re trying to do an adventure story universe, not emulate Warhammer 40K. We want heroic sword duels as standard.”

“Wait!” says Charlie. “You have point defense lasers to take out out the incoming bullets. But the lasers can’t penetrate the armour…”

“So then you have to use swords!” I cry. “Big swords driven by your powered armour. Bingo!”

“No,” says Kurtzhau, “You mount the lasers on a Really Big Tank with a fu–Massive Gun.”


We laugh.

Yes, we briefly built a heroic Sword and Planet universe, and Kurtzhau has gone and turned it into a dystopia dominated by marauding nuclear-powered mega tanks.

Then Charlie gets out his iPad and shows Kurtzhau pictures of German WWII mega tanks and we fall to discussing their utility or not. Kurtzhau would rather have some T34s, I think.

So it is that at an age where most kids break your computer or wreck your carpet, my 12-year-old son broke our story world.

And here we must leave Kurtzhau, not quite come of age, but ready to control and project his own image.

I started dad-blogging back on LJ because I wanted everybody to know that parenting was not some Buffy-esque black hole from which people emerged after decades, grey and dried out, but rather a fun choice if you were up for it. I’ve also loved chronicling Kurtzhau’s joy in discovering books and history and gaming, and – to be honest – what proud parent doesn’t like talking about their child?

I may reminisce and he will feature in stories about my life. There will be stories about raising Morgenstern, his geeky rough-tough little sister. But this is chronologically the Last Ever Kurtzhau Entry. If you want to hear what happens next, then you’ll have to catch him at a con or over a gaming table and ask him yourself.

(I can, however, tell you that Kurtzhau read and enjoyed the first Laundry book and is now blitzing through Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel. Next up is the first of Simon Scarrow’s Eagle series.  Perhaps the school was right after all…)


Writer. Swordsman. CLICK TO SEE MY BOOKS !

Posted in Blog Post
11 comments on “Charles Stross and I build a Sword and Planet universe and Kurtzhau (12) breaks it
  1. Geoff Hart says:

    Actually, manually powered weapons make great sense whenever the combat will be in close quarters. If you’re fighting in the narrow (barely head-height and shoulder-width) and twisty corridors of a typical TV spaceship, the guy with the Fairbairn knife has the advantage. Think of tunnel warfare in Vietnam against the Viet Cong.

    Short spears would be even better because they give you a reach advantage without becoming unwieldy: they’re great for poking things because you don’t have to swing them to achieve penetration. In fact, a guy with such a weapon can almost certainly control a right-angle bend because as soon as the guy with a gun sticks out his head or hand, off it comes.

    Open up the space a bit, and swords become practical: you need enough room to swing them, otherwise guns (which have no “swing” to speak of) have the advantage: a minimal pivot lets you cover the full field of fire with a gun, whereas a sword requires some freedom of motion. Stabbing swords are probably usable, but offer no advantage over a spear if you can’t swing them. And unlike a spear, you can’t really throw them if you’re outside stabbing/cutting range.

    In really large spaces (rooms and hangars, say), the guys with the edged weapons are at a severe disadvantage unless they’re jedi or mystical Chinese warriors of some sort who instinctively know which direction to dodge. That’s the whole point of ranged fire: to eliminate the enemy before they come within stabby range.

    • mharoldpage says:

      But if you have space ships then you probably also have blade drones etc.

    • Robert Sneddon says:

      American troops tasked to go into the Vietcong tunnels were issued an SPQR, Special Purpose Quiet Revolver. It used a modified cartridge somewhat like a captive bolt where the bullet was accelerated by a powder charge that didn’t vent explosively via the barrel.

      As for knife-fighting in confined spaces, it’s a difficult skill to learn to start with and even the most expertly trained practitioner is going to lose eventually simply because they will get cut or stabbed even if they win.

      As for defence in confined spaces, the phrase “reactive body armour” just popped into my head…

    • This may be why a rifle with bayonet is still useful. Any time somebody says “short spear” it’s a rather obvious option.

      I am not sure it’s entirely about the physical effects either. A couple of hundred years ago you could expect a close range volley, with a whole battalion of screaming redcoats coming charging out of the smoke with fixed bayonets.

      Like the fabled French column, it was about scaring the enemy.

      • mharoldpage says:

        Yes. I believe the French were rarely there when the bayonet charge arrived. There’s certainly reputed to be a morale effect when bayonets are fixed.

        In Swords Versus Tanks, I gave the modern protagonist a Stormgun, basically a stupidly wide bore shotgun based on the Roadblocker, but with a muzzle brake and pnuematics to reduce recoil, plus a snap out sword bayonet for just the reasons you describe.

  2. We’re assuming hand to hand combat as a given for the sake of entertainment. But in practice, by the time we have interplanetary or interstellar ships worth fighting over, we’ll be long past the stage of human combat. Robots and drones will be cheaper, faster, and easier to replace than humans.

    We’re already nearly there. No need for fragile and sleepy sentries when you have automated sentry guns; no need for pilots when aircraft already outperform their pilots by a considerable margin.

  3. I’m curious about Sprague de Camp’s Krishna series. He set out to create a viable sword & planet setting.

  4. rdi says:

    Introduce K to Laumer’s Bolo series, if he’s not already encountered it.

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "Charles Stross and I build a Sword and Planet universe and Kurtzhau (12) breaks it"
  1. […] Spend time with a 12-year-old tabletop gamer and you quickly realize that — in this light — Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K universe is one of the best sandboxes around. You can could dump just about any Space Opera SF story into it, and it would still feel like 40K. To do Firefly, just plug in Orcs, Inquisitors and Space Marines and Imperial Guards. To do Starship Troopers tell a story about the Imperial Guard. To do Star Trek, just follow a Tau captain on their five year mission. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.