Part 1: Pirating, the universe and future tech

Bodacious. Adjective: Blatant, unmistakable, remarkable, outstanding, audacious, bold, brazen, sexy, voluptuous.

Space. Noun: Big. Really Big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is.

Pirates. Noun, plural: Persons who have been given written legal permission by a government to engage in the aquisition and seizure of property from others, which often includes providing entertainment for passengers aboard cruise ships.

Let’s take a trip into the distant future, to a time when humans have both colonized and terraformed other planets. We’ve been to Tau Ceti and beyond, through the usual steps of colony/sleeper ships and then developing faster-than-light travel. Even though it’s one of the closest planetary systems to Earth, expansion continued and left it behind as a quieter region of space. A few planets, such as Tau Ceti’s Sea of the Morning Star, formed a Colony Federation but were overseen by the Stellar Alliance.

As explained in the opening narration of various episodes of Bodacious Space Pirates, the Federation eventually got fed up with the way the Alliance was handling things and fought a War for Independence. Before either side could win, the much larger Galactic Empire swooped in and absorbed both sides, then kind of left all of them to govern themselves.

During the War of Independence, the Colony Federation bolstered its forces by issuing Letter of Marque to pirate ships, making them government-sanctioned extensions of their military. Once things settled down, the Letters of Marque continued to be renewed as long as at least one act of piracy was committed on a regular basis, changing over the next 120 years to an every 50 days requirement, with the involvement of contracts, insurance companies, staged takeovers of luxury liners and child labor laws.

The series parallels the events of the colonies in North America on Earth declaring their independence from Britain and becoming the United States of America. Letters of Marque were a big part of how they increased the size of their Navy, to the point where there were more pirate ships than official Navy vessels. The bonuses of being legal pirates were often better than what you got in the Navy.

This is the world Marika Kato suddenly finds herself in when she learns her father died and was a space pirate. Another rule with the Letter of Marque is it can only be passed down to direct descendants, so her mother, Ririka, is ineligible to take over the ship. Struggling to cope with everyone’s expectations that she already knows all about space pirates when her mother never bothered to tell her, Marika now has to balance these new responsibilities with her life as a high school student at Hakuoh Academy and a member of the Academy’s Yacht Club. To compound her struggle, space pirates are almost a myth by her time, despite how active they have to be to keep their Letter. Much of that activity seems to take place elsewhere.

The twenty-six episode series and the movie, Bodacious Space Pirates: Abyss of Hyperspace, show her journey as a trainee captain. She has a natural instinct for some tactics and decisions and the rest she figures out as she goes. She becomes more familiar with her crew and her ship, the Bentenmaru, to the point that during one battle, she remembers a maneuver that was executed recently, calls out with a vague “What about the thing from before?”, and the crew gets it and uses it to save the ship. In another battle on a different ship, she figures out how to use some of its equipment in a non-standard way to disable an enemy. As Bart Mancuso once said, “Combat tactics, Mr. Ryan.”

Unfortunately, this story ends at a point where it’s clear that there needs to be more adventures. As a young captain, Marika receives a lot of help from her own crew, including them enforcing rules about the hours a minor can work, help from other pirate crews, help from her yacht club and help from a clandestine treaty that protects her until she’s 18.

The movie takes place when she’s 17 and in her third year at the Academy, so it’s just a few more months before the gloves would come off. Her battles as the captain of a pirate ship would no doubt have been more fierce when her rivals stop holding back. The final episodes show her there’s a much bigger world out in space than she was aware of and the landscape of pirating is about to change. Abyss of Hyperspace digs deep into how hyperspace works and how the routes ships use in it can be cut off or expanded into new routes, shaking things up further, and gives her a chance to uphold a promise her father made years ago.

The potential for higher drama, tension and action is there, and a chance to learn more about her father. But outside of the light novels the series and movie are based on, we probably won’t get to see what happens next.

BSP is a fully-realized series with a lot of details worked into it and some very gorgeous images of space. If I lived on a world like Sea of the Morning Star with partial rings of cosmic dust that light up at night and there were clusters of stars in vivid shades of blues, purples, reds and more, I’d be looking to get out amongst it as often as I could, just like Marika did.

While the Stellar Alliance and corporations with their own space fleets often have ships built to look like Bowie knives and swords, the pirate ships range from rugged and compact to long and sleek with deployable solar panels like aboard the Odette II, one of the Original Seven pirate ships from the war that the Yacht Club gets to use for their practice runs, though most of the club members don’t know its history. Luxury liners have paint schemes that look like filigree and are gorgeous as well.

Other technology is a mix of the familiar and the futuristic. Sea of the Morning Star has futuristic-looking public transportation, but private vehicles look a lot like the cars and trucks we have now. For instance, Ririka drives a car that could pass for a mid-60s Chevy El Camino. Marika rides a bike to school every day, even though her planet isn’t so crowded that bikes would be a necessity, but while the design shows it’s made from advanced materials, it’s got the same basic layout your average bike has now. Houses and buildings for businesses can be made out of brick or stone, yet have the same kind of doors you’d see on a spaceship where two halves close together in the middle to create a safety barrier.

There’s definite physics involved in how spaceships move. Whereas starships in Star Trek and Star Wars swoop and bank, usually with no indication of how they change direction, pirate ships use visible thrusters for steering. Trek does have maneuvering thrusters, but they’re typically used at a near standstill for getting into position next to a docking port and the like. The rest of the time, impulse engines steer the ship, again with no visible means of doing so. Ships in BSP have main engines for forward momentum and all horizontal and vertical changes are done with thrusters. Since this is a series about pirates, steering is done with the same kind of ship’s wheel as water-bound pirate ships from centuries ago, with the ability to push and pull on the wheel to change vertical direction.

In another difference with Trek, et al, entering and leaving hyperspace is shown as having physical resistance. It takes several seconds of effort for ships to get through the barrier between hyperspace and normal space. Hyperspace is treated much like Earth’s oceans are. There are currents and routes you travel in and if you want to dive to a lower level, it takes even more effort to get there and it’s harder on the ship to run at that depth.

When was the last time you saw a spaceship where the area around the bridge retracted during combat? The Bentenmaru’s bridge does that. The hull over the bridge descends, covering the windows, and the sensor/warfare array below the ship can be deployed and retracted as needed. During combat, additional technology comes into play that I’m calling “U&U tech”, for “ubiquitous and unobtrusive”.

We’re working towards “ubiquitous” with the Internet of things, but instead of devices that talk to each other to share data, BSP’s U&U tech comes in the form of holograms that can be displayed against any surface or in the air. You’ve seen this in some of the Marvel movies, but it feels different here. When the Bentenmaru’s hull retracts to protect the bridge, the ceiling becomes a full-length image of the outside, with small graphics that momentarily appear to remind you you’re looking at a display and not a window. Luxury liners use this, too. When you want to someone you a message, you grab ahold of an envelope in the air and toss or push it to them. Some tactical displays mimic greenbar or pinkbar paper.

Homes have this same tech and the holograms used for video conference calls can stretch and change shape as people move, like the time when the former Yacht Club president called to talk to them. She leans forward and rests her arms on the table, which made the hologram shift to a 3-D image so it looked like she’s leaning through a window. I call this tech unobtrusive because it’s used in a way that feels natural instead of overt, like what you saw in the live-action version of Ghost in the Shell.

They have FTL communications between planets and to ships, with a choice of using a simple telephone for voice calls if they want, and because the ships are registered with the government, you can look up a pirate ship in an online phone book and give them a call even while they’re in hyperspace. All ships have energy-based and matter-based weapons (lasers, missiles) but much of combat occurs through electronic warfare, which uses graphics to track progress that are wooden sailing vessel-based with masts and the hull.

It’s typical in series that involve spaceships to have some kind of gravity control. What you see in BSP is a kind of “sticky” gravity system. If you get out of your chair, you’ll begin floating, but if you come near a surface, the gravity system will pull you towards it, like if you’re floating down a corridor and you move your foot closer to the deck, you’ll touch the deck and can start walking or push off again. Once you contact a surface, the gravity system will flow around you and your hair will stop floating around. Marika figured out how to use this to her advantage when she needed to take out some trash.

That concludes part one. Continue on to part two to learn about one of the best soundtracks I've heard in a long time.

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