With Or Without FTL?

Foundation by Isaac AsimovUnder our current understanding of physics, nothing travels faster than light. There are some who say, “But they said that about the sound barrier.” Two completely different animals. As an object approaches light speed, the relationship between time and space becomes more pronounced. A real world example of this is GPS. The satellites that have all but replaced folded maps move through time more slowly than we do on Earth because they are traveling at fantastic speeds to maintain their positions over a fixed spot on the ground. So they have to be adjusted to account for the fact that they move into the future more slowly than the people they guide. So faster-than-light travel is wrong, isn’t it?


Science fiction is loaded with theories on how to get around Einstein’s pesky speed limit. Einstein himself would have had a mathematical ball trying to figure out which ones, if any, would work and how. Asimov proposed the idea of hyperspace, a dimension so small that anyone traveling through it would end up light years away instantly. Star Trek proposed bending space and time. Several others suggested wormhole travel, finding shortcuts through time and space by taking advantage of its curved nature. There are some who claim that this no longer has a place in science fiction based on what we know today.


Wormhole from Interstellar

The wormhole from Interstellar – Paramount

Let’s look at wormholes. Interstellar suggested a plausible way for humans to travel through one and did not skimp on the time dilation effects. It gets a little weird toward the end, in a Contact sort of way that put off some movie goers, but the idea was tweaked and vouched for by a theoretical physicist who served as technical adviser. So, was Interstellar hard science fiction? Personally, I don’t care because getting to obsessed over “what we know now” makes for both bad science and bad fiction. Not really a fan. That said, it used an existing theory to great effect. So yes, it’s hard. And realistic. Despite the weak punchline near the end, it was very well done.

Over the past thirty years or so, wormholes have become the preferred FTL used in space opera, military SF, and related subgenres. It serves three purposes. For starters, the idea is based on a theory that looks more and more concrete as time goes by. As we fine tune and develop string theory, even if it ultimately proves to be bunk, we discover more and more about how the universe works. I’m inclined to believe that string theory is the question to the answer that is 42, but I also profess limited knowledge. Should it not pan out, it serves as a mathematical shortcut to whatever truth is actually out there. Like Newtonian physics prior to Einstein, we know more because of it than we would have without it. Second, wormholes and things like Battlestar Galactica‘s instant FTL or John Scalzi’s skip drive, spare writers and fans alike from enduring long, dull sequences where the ship is beyond light speed but still needs to spend time getting someplace. Physics has handed us a theoretical device to keep from bogging down our plots. And third, most writers since about 1969 wanted to avoid looking like…

Enterprise at warp


Star Trek. Yes, on Star Trek, the Enterprise gets around space by “warping” space around it so the ship is not affected by time dilation and can thumb its nose at Einstein’s speed limit. In the beginning, it was pure handwavium, something we were pretty sure we hadn’t figured out yet, but we might. Eventually, a whole fictitious set of physics was built around warp drive. So it’s not hard, right? I mean you can’t just go faster than light by calling down to Scotty and listening to him say the engine canna take th’ strain! Right?


Spaceballs One shifting to plaid

At last! We will achieve ludicrous speed! MGM

A Mexican physicist named Miguel Alcubierre, drawing inspiration from Star Trek, figured out the theoretical underpinnings of FTL. A crackpot? No, he’s done part of the work for NASA, which now considers some of the thornier parts of his theory to be engineering problems. It might not be what Zefram Cochrane envisioned, but it’s a lot closer to original handwavium than we once thought. So is it hard?

Star Trek has a few issues that make hard SF fans squirm – aliens that look too much like humans, the transporter – but, when properly written, its FTL is pretty hard, harder than originally imagined.

1 Comment to "With Or Without FTL?"

  1. June 14, 2016 - 10:15 pm | Permalink

    Cherryh’s universes are all probably one universe with very distantly separated stories. Her FTL is energy intensive and involves getting close enough to a large gravity well (usually a star) that the subjective distance between it and another gravity well is much shorter than the linear distance. How distant a star you can aim for depends on ship mass, condition and incoming speed, and a miscalculation or mechanical mishap means you are never seen again. Pilots re-re-recalculate to make sure, and ships have multiple backup systems.

    On-ship time is about a week per jump, but most sentient creatures are disoriented or completely comatose. Humans generally get doped up and wear diapers. A few of each race, who are generally mentally odd compared to their peers, are more lucid in jumps and can act while their shipmates can’t. Off-ship time is about 3 months per jump, and this means ship crews appear to age slower. This is an interesting aspect of some plots.

    Is her FTL more realistic….? Well, it isn’t free energy, and is a pain in the ass, like most technology.

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