Where Physics and Fiction part ways.

I did some research for this blog but bear with me because I am not a physicist. As you will know (because I reference it, repeatedly) my speculative Sci-fi trilogy Camelot 2050 has come to an end (and will be available on the 5th of April 2019 if you’re interested) so I’m moving on to writing a more traditional, space-based Sci-fi adventure. The problem with setting a story in space is that space is. So. Damn. Big.

We’re all aware that it takes a beam of light 8 minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth but what does that really mean to us? I can tell you that the speed of light is 671 million mph but, again that’s a huge number and hard to put into terms we can relate to. I can tell you that the Voyager 1 probe, launched in September 1977 and travelling at a top speed of 38,612 mph only left our Solar System (the border line being approximately 9 billion, with 9 zero’s, miles from Earth) in November 2018. That’s 36 years traveling at approximately 50 times faster than Thrust SSC and 150 times faster than a Bugatti Veyron!

Recently there have been some popular Sci-fi properties that have dealt with this particular problem in reasonably scientific way. they don’t leave the Solar System. The Expanse is a good one, with gritty thriller overtones it’s almost Space-Noir in some places but I’m not here to critique the show. The Expanse is set very firmly in the Sol system so all the the traffic and travel if inter-system. Firefly was set in a system with a central solar system that had four other suns in close (relatively speaking) orbit, so a multiple star system but still within the confines of a single system. Job done, no need for ‘Light-Speed’ plenty of room for thruster-accelerated travel, space-stations and lots of inter human conflicts, but. What if you want more? What if you long to write your own alien cultures species and vast, sweeping star systems? Maybe something more like Star Trek?

More problems there. Star Trek (believe it or not) is, or was rapidly accepted to be, set within the confines of the Milky Way Galaxy, more than that most of what is known in that Galaxy in the first 2 series is confined to the Alpha Quadrant (that is, one quarter containing the Sol system and its neighbors). Now, remembering that light travels at 671 mil mph it takes light 101,000 years to traverse the Galaxy. In the series ST Voyager (I know, I know) a vessel capable of travelling 9,000 times the speed of light was thrown to the opposite side of the Galaxy (the Delta Quadrant) and it’s predicted travel time to return to known space was 75 years! Or course (before we really get into theoretical propulsion systems) another thing to think about is relativism (physics is a dynamic subject and this may or may not be current thinking when you read this).

Again I state, not a physicist but, Einsteins theory of relativity as it applies to space travel breaks down like this. The faster an object travels the slower time passes for it. Going back to the ‘light across the galaxy’ example, if a ship could travel at 99% of the speed of light it could cross the galaxy in a similar time-frame but, depending upon whether you are a passenger on the ship or just an observer from a static point the journey would take either 14,000 or the expected 101,000 years. That’s right, taking a standard ‘Generation’ as 25 years, 560 generations would have passed on board but 4,040 generations would have gone by planet-side. This is why relativism is largely ignored in Sci-Fi, because it’s depressing. You don’t want your MC to go off on a rollicking space adventure if, by the time they return triumphant, everyone they knew who stayed behind is not only dead but the reason for the adventure itself is not only redundant but long-forgotten (I have seen it, have read it, it was depressing).

So, if we forget relativity for a bit, how do we ‘speed-up space travel’? There are ways, first and most common, the FTL (Faster Than Light) Drive. Whatever you call it if it goes faster than light it’s an FTL drive. (Star Trek gets around it by putting a bracket above, so-called ‘Warp’ speed, and declaring that their drive is aimed at reaching that velocity). Do with that what you will.

Then there are Wormholes, a wormhole is a rift that links two, or more, points without traversing the space between, ST DS9 had a stable one and Farscape was built around the concept. The problem (and it may not be a problem in your universe) is that, as a naturally occurring phenomena many writers perceive them as being random. The ‘stable’ examples in fiction are somewhat rarer (or said to be) than the more frequently encountered ‘unstable’ ones. So what do you do? Well, some of the shows and properties that employ these theoretical loopholes in space put forward the idea of artificially created wormholes. The ‘Gates’ in Stargate or Babylon 5 (some may bandy around the term ‘Hyperspace’ as a convenient and somehow smaller sub-dimension that a vessel can travel through to condense time and distance but we’re in the realms of theoretical possibility here baby!) are essentially artificial wormhole generators. In Lost in Space (1998) the goal of the Robinson family (forgotten in among all the terrible ’90’s action sequences) was to travel in suspended animation to a new system and a new planet (Alpha Prime) that would host humanity as it fled from a failing Earth and, upon awaking, build a ‘Jump Gate’ to allow instantaneous travel between the two so, wormhole!

Another type of drive that is referenced from time to time is ‘Space-Folding’. Now, don’t get too excited, it’s worm-hole theory all over again but, in the above style of worm-holing across the galaxy, the static points or ‘Gates’ allow for political tension. Have a gate in your system? It’s yours so, if you want to charge for passage, go ahead. Don’t have a gate? Want to take your neighbors? Instant Conflict! The Space-Folding style of getting about allows for a single ship to generate its own worm-hole and determine its points of departure and arrival which makes for narrative convenience for the writer (not to mention all those ‘Event Horizon’ style shenanigans).

The theoretical mechanics of interstellar travel aside I heard a story about a well-known author taking questions at a panel and a fan put forward a question, citing existing references to ship-speeds and time vs distance traveled that had been established in the series and ‘How could the ship get from A to B in the new book so quickly?’. As it’s told the author had the good-grace to look somewhat char grinned and replied ‘Because it actually moves at the speed of plot.’ so there you go. Science is full of deep and fascinating subjects and, sometimes, you can find a little science to flavor your fantasy with but you should in no way justify limiting your imagination by citing science. In some ways fantasy informs science itself, the first flip-phones din’t come from Nokia or Samsung but where held by Captain Kirk, Spock and Uhura on the Enterprise. So much of what is worked on in modern science found its base in the ‘What if?’ of a work of fiction.

Write the future. Maybe, one day, someone will make the Science Fiction, Science Fact.

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