Science Fiction… in SPACE!

By Shamus
on Mar 25, 2012
Filed under:


Now that I’ve tossed a few stones through the windows of Mass Effect and BioWare, I need to get back inside my glass house and get back to work on my sci-fi story. I have no doubt that all of my shoot-from-the-hip literary criticisms will probably come back to bite me in the ass someday. My only comfort is that the ass-biting day isn’t today.

Any author who hopes to write a story about interstellar space travel must eventually deal with the fact that interstellar space travel is impossible. Or if not impossible, then so shockingly impractical that it’s probably not worth the trouble. We can’t go to the stars in real life, but we hunger to see them and discover what secrets are hidden behind all of those shimmering white dots. So we write stories about outer space. However, in our stories we can’t travel through space for all the same reasons we can’t travel through space in the real world. The only saving grace of fiction is that we can cheat.

I suppose you can write a story about a guy who decides to find out how a remote planet colony is doing, and so he spends most of his adult life travelling there. Then his daughter spends her life bringing back the reply, “We’re mostly okay here, but we’re fresh out of that orange cheese dust they put on chips and cheese doodles, and we don’t know how to synthesize it ourselves.” Then the man’s grandson takes them a shipment of cheese dust and his great-granddaughter brings back their reply of, “Thanks!” I’m not saying it can’t be done, but there are certain limits on what kind of story you can tell if it takes decades to go somewhere and your characters keep dropping dead of old age. It’s going to be murder on pacing.

The obvious solution is to just cheat around the physical limits of the universe by hand-waving the whole thing. Take all the unknown stuff about how a ship can move in space without needing to constantly shed mass, how it can get anywhere in a reasonable timeframe, how it can circumvent the unbelievably inconvenient law that say you can’t travel faster than light, and where all the required energy is going to come from. The author puts the solutions to all of these problems in a box, they write “magic” on the side, and then they strap it to the back of a spaceship and call it the engine. Then the author can stop worrying about all that crap and get on with their space adventure.

The other solution for the scientifically minded author is to try to B.S. their way past these problems by dropping in some ideas based on quantum tunneling, string theory, black holes, or whatever stuff is popular enough that readers will have heard of it yet complicated enough that they will have no idea what it really is. The author can cover up the word “magic” on the side of the box with jargon. The problem with this is that it takes a good bit of scientific knowledge to pull this off without making a fool of yourself, and unless you actually know how to travel faster than light, you’re still going to end up with a magic box. Worse, this can make the book kind of dense, and you run the risk of elevating the warp drive to the status of main character.

I’m dealing with these same issues in the story I’m writing now. In my story, I wanted technology that was at some kind of mid-point between the booster-rocket technology we have now and the magic “warp drive” technology common to sci-fi. I needed something that gets the job done in terms of narrative expediency, but that is also complicated, inconvenient, and a bit of a hack. This fixes my most frequent objection to fictional technology, which is that it’s usually not nearly enough of a pain in the ass. When I see a large-scale transportation technology that isn’t an expensive logistical and maintenance nightmare, it really pulls me out of the story.

I wonder if Star Trek has a technology for getting cheese dust off your hands? I mean, something more advanced than the technology we have now. Which is the pant-leg.

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  1. madflavius says:

    I’ve run into a similar problem with a sci-fi universe I’ve been working on for a long time now (I enjoy world-building almost as much as storytelling!). One fascinating possible solution is the work of the mathematician Miguel Alcubierre. The Wikipedia article provides a lot of the information about the math, but the main point of his research was developing a theoretical FTL system that 1) is based on a valid mathematical solution of the Einstein field equations, and 2) solves the massive problems of general relativity.

    His theory essentially creates a Trek-ian warp bubble which is then itself accelerated beyond the speed of light–well, that’s the layman’s version. Science folks would point out that nothing can be accelerated beyond the speed of light, so Alcubierre’s theory is all about expanding and contracting spacetime before and behind the bubble, thus “pushing” it along.

    The neatest part of the theory is that if you have a drive in your universe that utilizes this theory, 1) it’s grounded in real mathematics, and 2) because the bubble is moving, not the local space and spacecraft contained within it, the occupants of the spacecraft do not experience relativistic effects of very fast travel (aka, experiencing mere days while the universe experiences millenia).

    All in all, a fascinating theory that you could use in your handwaving: “And then some guy figured out how to actually use Alcubierre’s theory to make a drive. And then everything was awesome.”

    (An aside: In my universe, for instance, it’s called the Cosworthy Space Transit Drive, and it was only the first in a line of innovations that made space travel possible, but still rather dangerous and complex.)

    • Arex says:

      I’m not remotely qualified to evaluate Alcubierre’s ideas, but a friend who’s at least closer to being so claims that it has minor problems. For example, he tells me the energy required to turn it on ranges from “the rest mass of the visible universe” all the way down to “three solar masses”, which could make it sort of hard to gas up. :-)

      • Jay says:

        Yeah, in reality space warps in proportion to mass, and even planet-mass objects have a fairly mild effect on spacetime. This is my major reason for thinking that FTL and time travel devices will always be hugely impractical, if not outright impossible.

        • You’d pretty much need the ability to create pocket “big bang” events, new mini-universes from nothing, and suck the energy out of them.
          It’d make accidents pretty spectacular. “The whole geography of local space is shifting–our planet is suddenly light-years farther from earth and it’s getting more all the time. Looks like the Persephone’s containment field must have failed en route!”

          . . . maybe you could arrange it so the new universes calve off in a different dimension and we never notice except for a few odd localized gravitational effects . . .

      • Nathaniel says:

        If I remember correctly, it also has the minor problem that you can’t turn off your warp bubble from inside the bubble.

        • Jofarin says:

          That’s where Jumpgates or Stargates come in. You can start your travel at any point in space, but can jump only to prebuilt destinations.

          Or you build a bubble that pops by itself after some (precalculated) time.

    • decius says:

      How does the boundary of that bubble interact with matter, even just the odd subatomic particle or photon?

    • kjones says:

      Former physics major here, studied Alcubierre. Anyone wanting to use this for fiction needs to take into account the fact that an “Alcubierre drive” would require a material with negative energy density, and no such material exists.

      If you did have one, the implications for that material would go way beyond warp drives.

      • Dragomok says:


        This, and the whole article too, reminds me of Single-Fiction Science Fiction on A Maggids Musings. The author wanted to create a science fiction setting where there was only a single element that couldn’t be explained by contemporary science: portals. He created an elobarate set of rules to cover various paradoxes and zweihanders disguised as pocket knifes only.

        It took him only three posts to realise he needs to make life-support systems illegal and only five posts to decide he has to ‘turn off’ special relativity theory.

        So, yes, the implications of having something that actually has some connections to poorly researched areas of real-world physics would either blow up your mind or earn you a Nobel.

      • Sumanai says:

        I actually mention below that when designing a FTL drive for a sci-fi setting we chose against believable ones due to zeerust. The other reason was “we have most likely misunderstood the physics behind the device and it makes absolutely no sense to any actual physicists”.

        With the corollary “so we’re less likely to piss them off by using something that is obviously based on magic/complete nonsense”.

    • Soylent Dave says:

      The biggest problem I have with FTL travel isn’t so much that it’s impossible, but rather that you fly through things before you see them.

      Things like: planets.

      So you either need some pretty damn long-ranged sensing equipment, and computers fast enough to respond to and avoid obstacles in your path OR you need computers good enough to create a perfect simulation of the bit of space you’re flying through. Including all other spaceships.

      Ultimately you’re going to handwave everything – but I find if you’re handwaving too much (the engines, and the super-fast computers, and the awesome sensors… and so on) then you haven’t stepped far enough away from the ‘box with magic written on the side’ for me.

      • silver Harloe says:

        Sure, if the light had to come from you to reflect off the planet, you’d outpace your headlights and never see it. However, you don’t have to use headlights to see a planet. You can use the light reflected off the planet that is already headed towards you. I think?

        • Sumanai says:

          Yes, but it’s really really bright and therefore it might be impossible to tell the distance. However, it would be possible for the navigational computer to have a complete map with predicted orbital movements that is used to ensure you’re not going to hit anything.

          Assuming it’s possible to get good data on the position and orbit of all the planets, stars etc. in the region you’re traveling to.

          • Soylent Dave says:

            (Much as I hate to spoil the comments tag (404 – Number of comments not found))

            Even if complete and accurate stellar cartography were available – bearing in mind that it would have to include every single rock floating about in every single solar system (because you’re moving fast enough to turn particles into lethal, highly destructive weapons) – that would still prohibit FTL travel in unexplored (or partially explored) areas, which is a bit inconvenient.

            More importantly, it would make FTL travel ludicrously difficult to arrange (you’d need ‘space traffic controllers’) – collisions with other spacefarers would be catastrophic, after all.

            I think it would need a spectacular amount of processing power for the computers involved, if these sorts of models are even possible, and it always niggles at me (a bit) when ships are nipping all over heavily populated (and trafficked) space without ever bumping into each other!

            • Sumanai says:

              I would imagine that at the point of having an FTL drive you’d have ridiculously powerful computers as well, so I’m not certain that should be a big worry.

              Some sort of traffic control system would make sense, if there’s enough traffic to be controlled.

  2. Vextra says:

    As an amateur hack sci-fi writer wannabe myself, I frequently use the Project Rho website as a cheat-sheet for overcoming common Sci-fi trope problems. My favoured solution for the Transportation Problem is to use good ol’ fashioned Wormhole-Gates, usually conveniently placed in every star system by some convenient Forerunner race. However, for something ultra-hard-fi, A cyrogenic sleeper-ship who spend centuries travelling at 0.99C just to build a gate so the real colonists can come through, eventually, is one way of handling it.

    Other than Gates or Magical Warp Drives, there’s also changing the people who travel- living for millenia can help, for example.

    • aakibar says:

      I agree, the project RHO site is very good, it has all of the stuff to make your sci-fi story “hard sci-fi”. It also has a great list of things that you should remember about space. And good luck!

    • madflavius says:

      +1 for Project Rho; it’s a fantastic resource to use for a lot of the science of spaceflight, weaponry, terraforming, life support, and more!

      Project Rho’s Updated Page (Atomic Rockets)

    • Arex says:

      Just curious: why a sleeper ship rather than robots to build/drag the gates?

      • Tektotherriggen says:

        One problem is that once you’ve introduced robots advanced enough to build wormhole gates by themselves, there may not be much for the actual characters to do.

        • Sumanai says:

          I don’t see how constructing a wormhole gate from blueprints and ready pieces would be so complex that the robots would need to be fully sapient.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            Its a complex process where a bunch of things can go wrong.And if something does go wrong(which is almost a certainty),you need someone capable of radical thinking to make it work.

            • Sumanai says:

              Surely that depends on how the system works in the setting. After all, they could have “wormhole stabiliser” and the robots have bee/ant -like minds.

              • Daemian Lucifer says:

                You would have to be beyond genius in order to program a non-sapient robot capable of handling so many unpredictable situations.Having actual humans,or real ai is much more plausible.

                • daemon23 says:

                  If I may make a suggestion as to how to deal with the scenario:
                  (1) the ship itself is capable of setting up an instant microscopic wormhole (unless we’ve decided the technology is too vast for this)
                  (2) This pinhole begins transmitting a ping back to central
                  (3) Central communicates with the ship systems and control of construction of the actual true gate–whether the original pinhole can be expanded or another must be built in parallel–is handled directly instead of requiring either incredibly smart machines or sending colonists out with the ship.

                  • Daemian Lucifer says:

                    Sure,that can work.But its still less risky to have someone physically there to fix something that breaks,then to do it via telemetry.

                    • Sumanai says:

                      It might still be cheaper to send a full robot group with no humans. Removing the need for life support and food could very well pay back the additional risk.

      • hewhosaysfish says:

        If you find a horde of man-eating space bugs at your destination then a human sleeper crew could activate the self-destruct mechanism while a crew of robots might just build the wormhole gate and let all the gribblies loose in your space empire.

    • ngthagg says:

      I was going to suggest wormholes as a good intermediate step. They usually work like railroads did back in the pioneer days. Once a route is set up, travel is efficient. But stations are few and far between, except in very heavily developed areas, and there’s an immense amount of work involved in getting them to new destinations.

      Hmm . . . I actually really like the train parallel. By studying how people used trains back in the day, you could create a world with a lot of verisimilitude without much effort. Questions about transporting people vs. transporting goods, business vs. government backing, the culture of people with plentiful access to travel vs. those on the frontier, etc.

      • Mephane says:

        All I can say is that from a videogame perspective, I am so fed up with wormholes, jumpgates etc. I understand that they are very practical devices to limit where the player can actually go without breaking the 4th wall, but I think they are so over-used in games that they can become annoying, particularly the kind of gate network systems where to get A to B you have to pass through dozens of systems and gates because they are all connected only to a specific neighbouring gate.

        If you’re using portals (because a jump gate in fiction is not much different from a portal in fantasy, heh) at least make similar to Stargate, i.e. you select with which portal to connect and directly travel there.

        • False Prophet says:

          Your idea can still impose the same restrictions. Instead of having to travel to sector B to get to sector C from sector A, the player needs the coordinates/”phone number”/what-have-you to open a gate from sector A to sector C–except you need to complete a quest in sector B to get them.

          Although I was really intrigued by the Stargate concept at the time–and the similar Iconian portals from a Star Trek:TNG episode. The idea of a galaxy-spanning space opera that didn’t revolve around starships was pretty neat. From a story perspective, it’s a similar approach to Dune, Battletech, and maybe the Aliens universe. Those settings have interstellar travel by starship, but space combat is basically non-existent (for different reasons).

      • Kdansky says:

        Hamilton has a great version of this in his Commonwealth-Series (great read by the way), and he makes one astoundingly good point:

        If you can open wormholes, why bother doing so in space and using a ship? It’s so much more efficient to build train stations on the planet, accelerate the trains up to 300 km/h, coordinate them all with computers, and slam them through a wormhole network. And you only need one wormhole per destination, of the size of one rail-way-car-width. You can even do multi-jumps trivially easy, because you can just route the trains correctly. That way, you can get an incredibly good efficiency out of everything.

        It’s sensible systems like this which make the story much more believable, despite being based on magical wormholes.

        • mac says:

          If you can open wormholes, why bother doing so in space and using a ship?

          ‘Because you can’t open/maintain them in steep gravitational potential gradients’
          ‘Because it didn’t occur to the writers’

          The first one is fine, IMO, and a good example of what Shamus is talking about when he says transport should be a pain in the butt.

        • Atarlost says:

          Because warping space is dangerous and involves large quantities of energy and exotic matter and if you screw up you’ll make Chixchulub crater look like a pothole.

        • BlackBloc says:

          >>>If you can open wormholes, why bother doing so in space and using a ship?

          Because civilians frown on having what amount to tiny black holes opening in residential areas?

    • Jay says:

      That’s not exactly “ultra-hard”. A ship moving 0.99 c has about 50x its rest energy (in other words, for every pound of ship and cargo, there’s enough energy to generate 25 pounds each of matter and antimatter). Please don’t point that at my planet.

      That’s not taking into consideration conservation of momentum (you need fuel to stop, and that fuel needs to be over 50x more energy rich than matter/antimatter, or you can’t possibly have enough), heat sinking (how the hell do you fire that engine without melting the ship?), or debris (any pebble or micrometeorite you hit enroute will strike with energy of 50x its rest mass).

    • Frankly though, it seems to me the problems of getting a substantial spacecraft up to .99C are so massive as to need nearly as much handwaving as an actual FTL drive. Although relatively picky people often give that a pass, like “Oh, it’s not actually obviously breaking the fundamental laws of physics, so it must be OK” but actually a lot of the slower than light travel is about as hand-waved as the FTL stuff.

      My instincts tend to say just call it a warp drive and move on to the plot.

      Oh, here’s a cute drive: Time travel drive! Spaceship goes momentarily back in time to the early days of the universe when everything was much closer together, moves ten feet or something, and reverts to the present at its destination. Massive causality violations left and right!

      • Chuk says:

        It’s the ‘substantial’ that’s the problem. Charles Stross did some stories where the ship was just pure computronium loaded with virtual (AI) passengers, and only about the size of a Coke can. A lot easier to get it up near relativistic velocities, plus the environment on the ship’s a lot nicer (subjectively).

  3. Phoenix says:

    There’s also cryogenic sleep for travel, you don’t have necessarily to die of old age.

    • Jay says:

      Cryosleep is also a bit farfetched, unfortunately. The human body takes energy to maintain. When the metabolism stops, biological acids and gut bacteria start to eat their way out. Freezing would greatly slow the process, at the cost of rupturing all the cell walls (cells are full of water, which expands when it freezes).

      A human life is a continuous process, and evolution just didn’t include a pause feature.

      • LunaticFringe says:

        You could just pull a Peter Watts and base your ‘sleeping’ technology off of the natural hibernation cycles of certain animals. Being a marine biologist helps you come up with stuff like that. He also has an entire video on his Rifters site where he uses semi-scientific logic to justify vampires. He’s a weird fellow, awhile back he started posting about the flesh-eating disease he somehow got.

        • Ragnar says:

          That sounds interesting. I am a bit weary though that he has done a novelization of Crysis 2 (and was apparently writer and art consultant for Crysis 2).

          • Cineris says:

            Peter Watts’ Blindsight was pretty incredible.
            Richard K. Morgan also worked on Crysis 2 IIRC. His debut novel Altered Carbon was jaw-dropping.

          • LunaticFringe says:

            To give him a bit of credit I think he half-asses his video game work (not to mention that working with Crysis’ plot in general would just be dull). If they had just let him do whatever he wanted half of Crysis 2 would’ve just been a lecture on how the aliens function biologically. Watts only really shines when you let him have creative freedom, Blindsight is an amazingly depressing look at a First Contact scenario.

            For example, here’s some The Thing fanfiction he wrote for Clarkesworld:

      • Mephane says:

        I wouldn’t say it is impossible. There are species (e.g. some frogs) that are capable of being frozen solid in a block of ice and after melting that they awake and live on. Maybe that feature can somehow be put into humans (hint: genetic engineering), or your cryogegenic space-faring civilization might be entirely different from humans and naturally have capabilities like that frog.

        • Jay says:

          Vernor Vinge did that last one in “A Deepness in the Sky”, which is IMHO one of the best science fiction novels ever. Aliens evolved near a star that had periodic quiescent periods. When the sun periodically shut off, they went into cryogenic suspension in caves.

          He also had the handwaved variety of cryosleep for humans.

    • sab says:

      That doesn’t deal with the problem that time is still flowing. You might get to that other planet in your life, but by the time you get there your reasons for going in the first place might not be valid any more.

      • Well, they probably would be if the reason was “Because it is there!” which has to be the most common reason for slower than light star travel.
        I’ll admit it would be a bit annoying to bundle into a colony ship to flee political persecution only to find, upon waking up at the destination, radio transmissions saying “We had a revolution, all is forgiven, love & kisses come back soon!”

  4. brainbosh says:

    I’ve always loved the science of spaceflight in scifi books, especially reading the older ones from the mid 20th century. I’ve never thought about it that way before, how all of it is either a “magic box” or just “this sounds like it might work.”

    This really seems the same as creating a magic system for a fantasy game. Your making a set of rules in the universe that build the backbone of at least part of the story. You can make either of them act however you want as long as you work it in well enough. The only real difference is that science fiction normally is “possible” in the real world, while fantasy is much more open and is accepted to be very different from reality.

    I should ask if you are looking for in-system travel or if you’re looking to other stars. There is a big range there, and also a lot of science that is often ignored for the sake of narrative.

    • ngthagg says:

      Orson Scott Card refers to science fiction and fantasy collectively as speculative fiction, because it can be so difficult to put a hard line between the two that’s it’s often easier to just lump them together.

      • Arex says:

        Just for attribution’s sake: I *think* Heinlein was the first to introduce “speculative fiction” as a catch-all (in an article aimed at librarians published in the 50s, reprinted in “Expanded Universe”.)

        I think it can be useful to *generally* distinguish backgrounds that try not to be inconsistent with what we know about reality (even if it adds an extremely unlikely undiscovered aspect, like warp drive or time travel or– and this one is all John W. Campbell’s fault– psi), and backgrounds that don’t. That said, I know from long experience that trying to map the exact boundaries is an exercise in madness, even leaving aside deliberate mixes and intentionally ambiguous worlds. Let’s just say the border area falls somewhere east of Hal Clement, and somewhere west of Tolkien. :-)

        (And– given that Pern tends to be one of the flashpoints in the disputed zone– we can even label it with “Here Be Dragons”.)

        • Nick says:

          Pern probably starts Fantasy and progresses towards Science Fiction as the series progresses, at least as how the focus is viewed

          • Arex says:

            The first Pern short was published in Campbell’s Analog, and gave the whole lost colony background and orbital mechanics/biology explanation for Threadfall in the intro. McCaffery pretty clearly intended it as SF. (And it won a Hugo, at a time when those pretty much didn’t go to stories the Worldcon readership thought of as fantasy.)

            However, for some readers, dragons+low tech+sort of feudal culture=fantasy, and for others sufficiently soft SF (psionic teleportation and time travel, probably impossible orbital hijinks for the Red Star, etc.)=fantasy. (Probably other criteria too– this isn’t meant to be exhaustive.)

            I personally fall on the SF side for Pern, but it’s not something that can be productively debated in my experience: everyone draws their own lines.

        • Got your directions wrong. Tolkien is clearly in the West, so that must leave Clement with the East.

      • Actually most of the sci-fi/fantasy writers I know call it speculative fiction and havebeen for a long, long time– though Orson Scott Card is the one who pointed out (probably from someone else) that the only real difference between fantasy and sci-fi is that sci-fi has concrete and metal– and of course that is a horrible paraphrase and no where near the original quote which I listened to on a speech he made several years ago.

        • MichaelG says:

          The other difference was supposed to be that SF was based around an idea, not just an adventure with robots and space ships. The idea was a central part of the story, just as a murder was a central part of a mystery.

          Most SF is just adventure, and the only real difference between Star Wars and Harry Potter is the props.

          Something like 2001 might be considered a real SF story, and it’s hard to compare that to any fantasy.

          Fantasy author Ursula LeGuin said something to the effect that real fantasy is about character archetypes, but most fantasy is just adventure with elves.

        • Ian Miller says:

          I believe the OSC quote was “Science fiction has rivets, Fantasy has trees.”

          Is a good quote :-)

  5. Glenn says:

    Bussard ramjets — look ’em up. Niven used them for early colonization in his Known Space series before introducing “hyperspace” travel.

    Under continuous acceleration, they can achieve relativistic effects. It still takes years to travel between the stars at near-light-speed, but not generations. The technology is just a stretch beyond what is possible today, if you use light sails and huge lasers in solar orbit to boost the ramjet to speeds at which it begins to function.

    Check out Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand — the alien civilization there doesn’t use “magic” sci-fi technology to get around.

    • Arex says:

      Unfortunately (and to my great disappointment, since I liked the idea a lot), Bussard ramjets started unraveling pretty soon after the heyday when Niven and his contemporaries were using them. The interstellar medium is a lot thinner than Bussard hoped– and worse, unusually thin right around where we are– probably too thin for them to work at all. (And Niven was extremely overoptimistic about their top theoretical speed, even assuming that they could be made to work.)

      The aforementioned Project Rho site gives a few of the problems, with cross-references to articles.

    • silver Harloe says:

      “Check out Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand — the alien civilization there doesn’t use “magic” sci-fi technology to get around.”

      Um. Actually, the Big Deal in those books was the magic wormhole technology – the aliens were remote because their wormhole to the rest of the galaxy coincidentally led to the inside of a star. The humans relied both on magic wormholes and magic shields to visit the aliens. Sure, the aliens started it by visiting us with a non-magically flying ship, but it doesn’t meet several of Shamus’ other requirements (it took hundreds if not thousands of years to get to us).

      Awesome books – well, mostly the first one. The first one was life changing. They are just not examples of “no magic.”

    • Jonathan says:

      Don’t forget Tau Zero.

  6. Nathaniel says:

    Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert on Star Trek lore, but I do have some fuzzy recollections of stuff I’m pretty sure I read in a few of the novels, and that’s basically the same thing.

    Anyways. If I remember correctly, there is a Star Trek technology that takes place between booster rockets and warp drives: the impulse drives. Yeah, turns out that (if I’m not mis-remembering) it’s not just a unit of measure! I don’t really remember the had-wavy bits, but basically it’s an incredibly fast sub-lightspeed engine that (somehow) doesn’t cause inertial effects. Or maybe it was that the invention of inertial compensators that allowed the impulse drive to be used to their fullest extent? I’m not sure.

    I mean, this might not be what you were really looking for and you probably don’t want to just rip some technology from another source, but there is precedent for this sort of thing.

    • topazwolf says:

      I’m pretty sure whatever cancels out the inertia effects of the impulse drive is also what creates the gravity on board the ship. Though when you think about it two much, why does getting hit by photon torpedoes and lasers cause the ship to rock? Since the gravity is artificial, wouldn’t the force always be forcing down and thus not affect the people on board?

      • Arex says:

        Handwave… fluctuations… inertial compensators… TECH. :-)

        In a lot of ways, it’s easier to accept that (since it’s the unknown characteristics of a made-up technology) than the fact that they *know* this happens, and nobody straps in during combat. I don’t know how to build an impulse engine, but I have a fair idea how seat belts could be made to work.

      • Raygereio says:

        Though when you think about it two much, why does getting hit by photon torpedoes and lasers cause the ship to rock?
        Why are all Star Trek consoles packed with nitroglycerine that explodes the moment the ships shakes enough?
        Why are there extremely high voltage wires everywhere running towards sytems such as bridge consoles that shouldn’t require such high voltage that are extremely poorly contructed and release sparks the moment you so much as look at them wrong?

        That’s basically all just crap that doesn’t make any logical sense, but is just there to be “cool”.

        • decius says:

          The bridge consoles are clearly not designed to have high voltages- but they need DC power which is routed through the same conduits as high-voltage wires. Typically the shielded wires have little or no interference with each other, but when an energy weapon melts the low-voltage cables and the high-voltage cables together…

          • Raygereio says:

            To bad an energy weapon never does that. The sparks happen when weapon fire strikes the shields and not even touches the hull. Heck, they happen the moment a Star Trek ship encounters slight turbulance.

            Star Trek engineers are the crappiest engineers.

            • IFS says:

              Or the best practical jokers.
              “Stupid Kirk gets all the alien women, I know lets see how many cherry bombs we can fit in the bridge’s consoles before he notices!”

              • MichaelG says:

                No, the entire ship is powered with tubes of matter and antimatter meeting inside each device. Those sparks are not the worst of it — crew get zapped by hard radiation as well.

            • silver Harloe says:

              Yah, somewhere in the next 400 years, we completely forget how to make fuses. Weird.

              • Sumanai says:

                I expect people will just keep using nails instead of fuses.

                • Deoxy says:

                  THIS. There are websites devoted to this.

                  And they are FUNNY. Heh.

                  Example of nails used with electricity:

                  Fire Hazard? What’s That?

                  (sorry, first related thing I found… but I’ve seen lots of things used to replace fuses… favorite was the large kitchen knife.)

                • Greg says:

                  I’m playing in a game based on Farscape where the DM determiend that all non-human races have not come up with the concept of a “fuse” and that alien technology is being changed by us introducing such ideas. Her justification is that human engineering developed along lines that made it much much crappier than any other species and so we’re the only ones who needed to develop ideas like “failsafes” and “multiple redundancies”

                  • Sumanai says:

                    That makes sense, until you start to consider why exactly human inventions need them. It’s damn near impossible to build stuff so that they’re reliably identical and that they won’t break down on their own.

                    • Syal says:

                      They only break down because we don’t have a good enough source of superconductive elastic titanium like the aliens.

                    • Sumanai says:

                      So the aliens have had access to superconductive elastic titanium before or since the industrial age? Impressive.

      • modus0 says:

        The Physics of Star Trek comments on this.

        Inertial Dampeners were designed to minimize the effect of changes to direction, such as course changes, and to counteract Newton’s First Law when accelerating to even 1/4 impulse (which would turn the crew into a red paste on the back bulkheads otherwise).

        However, sudden shockwaves, or impacts can temporarily overwhelm the Inertial Dampeners, causing the ship rocking.

        • Chargone says:

          which is kind of odd when you realise star trek ships have, in addition to their shields, Deflectors.

          they Prevent Impacts.

          they allow the ship to not get owned when it runs into a paint fleck while traveling at who knows how many times the speed of light (or, for that matter, any meaningful impulse speed)

          when you add that and their anti-energy/anti-weapons shields, NOTHING should be getting through to overwhelm the inertial dampeners that isn’t also ripping large chunks out of the ship <_<

  7. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Asimov did a pretty good job there with his jumps,that required hours,and sometimes even days of work before a single jump could be executed.Plus,the jumps couldnt be too long,because that would introduce increasingly more data to consider.

    Wormholes are also a nice way to do this.Slap a few natural ones here and there,and youll have your space travel revolve around these points,but anything too far from them would still be impractical.

    Or,just play sword of the stars,and examine all the various ways in which different races travel through the galaxy.Its really fascinating.And that also reminds me to check how well the sequel has been fixed and if its worth getting now.

    • Dave B says:

      This book has a large part of its plot depend on a natural wormhole. The basis of the story is that one was discovered just outside the solar system, and connects to a system about 10 light-years away from Earth. It is unstable, and the book opens with an attempt to send a ship through it before it closes.

      • PAK says:

        Unfortunately, Star Trek and books like Empyrion notwithstanding, sci-fi authors rarely get the instability of wormholes “right.” Even if one happened to naturally form, the equations developed by Einstein and Rosen show it would collapse before anything could get through–they close so fast even of beam of light that was at the threshold as soon as the thing opened would get crushed in the collapse. Artificially-constructed wormholes are in sense more plausible because physicists like Kip Thorne have developed mathematics to “feasibly” hold a wormhole open intentionally–though like the Alcubierre drive mentioned above, doing so requires some source of negative energy or mass, which does still require a lot of suspension of disbelief.

    • An amusing way-back SF approach to this was an old Heinlein teen SF (uh, Starman Jones I think it was called) where star travel required massive calculations to be done flawlessly . . . on paper! Because there was no such thing as computers. The main character was a math whiz with an eidetic memory, who was lower ranked and so overruled when the boss made a mistake he spotted and they ended up who knows where.
      As the only guy who could remember just how all the calculations went down and just where the decimal point got missed, he was the only key to ever getting home again.
      One problem with the Asimov approach is the wait time goes away with the next generation of computers (just as it would have in the Heinlein if they had computers at all).

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        Yeah,but that was thousands of years in the future.

      • Thomas says:

        Poor Asimov never really got his around the idea of computers. Always expanding them to world sized things that still hadn’t even got an interface :D

        • Arex says:

          Though “The Last Question” is sort of interesting– they start out with Multivac, then advance to “Micro ACs” that are small enough to be carried on a ship… but then they increase in size again till you have the final, cosmic AC.

          Asimov also managed to have a hand-held calculator pad in the Foundation books, but that was tens of thousands of years in the future.

          Yet the giant Multivac stories overlapped the robot stories, in which a device with near-human (or sometimes superhuman) intelligence fit into a platinum-iridium device about the same size as a human brain. It’s odd how in classic SF, “robot” and “computer” fit into completely different boxes.

    • Ragnar says:

      Regarding the SotS sequel: From what I read somewhere (I think it was comments on Rock, Paper, Shotgun) there has been a good deal of fixes that make it playable. Don’t remember the details though.

  8. Chuck Henebry says:

    Have you read much Larry Niven? Especially the early stuff, up through, say, the first Ringworld book. He was famously an advocate of “hard” science fiction. He’s a great point of reference, if you’re looking for how authors solved this problem back in the early days, before Star Wars and Star Trek gave “hyperspace” and “warp space” the feel of widely accepted canon.

    Hard Sci Fi authors sometimes wind up embracing the cheet-o problem you describe as a fundamental narrative element. I remember back in the late 70s, as a kid, reading Colin Kapp’s Ion War, which imagines a war between two interstellar civilizations spread out over centuries. Troops traveling in stasis at near-lightspeed return from battles centuries out of synch with evolving Earth culture. It’s all the hardship of returning from Vietnam, but raised to a higher power by radical cultural changes. Freaked out, they re-up for the war, preferring to lose themselves still further in a military culture that still makes sense.

    • Tektotherriggen says:

      That sounds a LOT like Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War”.

      I’m not claiming plagiarism; just an illustration of how good the idea is (and how much the Vietnam War affected people).

      • Andy_Panthro says:

        That description would match The Forever War perfectly. It’s a great book too, I’d highly recommend it.

        As soon as I read this post I thought of it, and was going to mention it in the comments. It’s version of interstellar space travel was something I’d never seen used before.

    • silver Harloe says:

      Niven advocated “hard science fiction” in the sense of “make your rules and stick to them, even if you have to change your story to fit the rules” but he rarely wrote anything where the rules were what we would consider possible in 20th century physics. What Niven was an example of was not being Star Trek. In Star Trek your ship travels at plot speed, your shields protect exactly as much as the plot requires, and your weapons do no damage or All the Damage depending on the plot’s requirement. In Niven’s stories, if he tells you the ship can withstand X damage but not Y, then he sticks to that. That’s the kind of “hard” science fiction he exemplified.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        “make your rules and stick to them, even if you have to change your story to fit the rules”

        And thats what separates good sci fi from bad sci fi.You can have dragons and people throwing fireballs in a good sci fi,as long as you create rules that allow these,and stick to them.

        • But this rule applies to fantasy as well; internal consistency is a key to good fantasy. If magic works like this then it doesn’t work some other way, at least not without an explanation why there’s also a different way. Just one more reason they’re often lumped together as “speculative fiction”.
          I don’t call them that, mostly because it sounds clunky, but I can see why people would.

      • Mephane says:

        I second this. I highly appreciate it when a story (be it in a book, movie or game) has a certain set of rules and sticks to them. Consistency is king, your audience generally can forgive you any breaking of the laws of physics (or inventing new ones) as long as this happens in a consistent manner. Star Trek is a particularly bad apple in this regard, as basically nothing adheres to any sort of in-universe rules but is made up on the spot only for the convenience of the writer.

  9. Arkady says:

    I’ve been told about a short story about a ships captain travelling out to the nearest habitable planet. He leaves Earth fresh from University, and arrives an old man, hundreds of years later.

    As he gets out, he hears voices behind him:

    “Ooohh… he’s going to be so mad when he sees us!”

    Behind him are two University students who have figured out portal technology in their University lab, and beaten him there.

    • swenson says:

      Interesting note in that same vein–there’s some minor references in Mass Effect (or at least in the news posts) to an eccentric billionaire who, a hundred years before element zero or FTL drives were discovered, built a ship with a few hundred colonists in cryogenic suspension and sent it off to another planet. Everyone forgot about them, especially once FTL was discovered, but they ended up being found again by an asari scientific expedition. What was kind of cool was how it talked about the colonists basically going from a mid-2000s Earth where there were no aliens or FTL drives to the late 2100s galaxy where there’s plenty of aliens and FTL is common, and how most of them couldn’t deal with it.

    • Raygereio says:

      That reminds of Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga.

      That books starts with humanity’s first expedition to mars. It’s a monumental moment. Like the moon expedition was. After landing, the expedition leader steps out of the craft and stands proudly – being the first human on mars and all. He looks around… and sees behind him a guy dressed in barely space-worthy diving gear waving at him and a wormhole with behind the even horizon a black hippy with an afro in a basement laughing his ass of.

    • Jonathan says:

      Heinlein had a story somewhat like that. *checks bookshelf* Time For The Stars.

    • Peter H. Coffin says:

      Hmmm… I’d think the time dilation would make him arrive considerably younger than the students. (:

      • Chargone says:

        only if they had been his class mates.

        if it took him hundreds of years to get there, the students with the portal probably built that hundreds of years (minus however long it took to actually sort the portal out, i guess) after he left, taking no time at all to get there.

        also, the World War/Colonization/Homeward Bound (the last is a single book, but it’s not part of the previous two sub-series) series ends with pretty much this happening. humanity sneaks a Race-esque ship out of the Solar system and sends it off to Home. it takes about as long as the Race took to get to earth to get there (don’t remember exactly. decades, i think…) … they arrive at Home maybe a day ahead of an FTL ship from earth. the resulting political mess is quite interesting (especially as earth STILL hasn’t unified and multiple entities there have FTL starship capacity, apparently) and the Race pretty much freaks out. the sub-light ship was… problematic… but within what they could understand. the FTL ship? the Race on Home had barely begun to grasp that their tech advantage on earth was measured in decades (and low single digits, at that) rather than centuries (or, from their perspective, millennia) and suddenly that happens?

        it’s pretty cool. though to be fair the FTL is never explained beyond ‘humans change a hell of a lot faster than the Race and the Race gave them a serious tech (and more significantly) motivation boost with their invasion.

  10. swenson says:

    For my NaNo last year, I ran into the exact same problem. I ended up not really focusing on how it worked (although what little I put in implied it was some form of a Alcubierre drive, assuming that it’s actually possible, and borrowing a little from Krasinov’s theory about setting up the “paths” in advance by saying that some ancient aliens did the hard part for us). I found that as long as I set definite limits on it (you could travel at a maximum of X ly/hr, you can’t access communications arrays or the internet-in-space while going FTL, etc.), it worked out just fine. You’ve got to have rules, of course, but you don’t necessarily need to explain them or why they work that way.

  11. Spammy says:

    When it comes to sci-fi travel I always preferred not going into too much detail about how it works. Doing so runs into all those problems you mentioned, Shamus. Personally I don’t mind the magic handwaving so long as it make some kind of sense and always stays consistent. Otherwise, you have to do research to come up with something, which from experience reading Arthur C. Clarke novels means you have great concepts but flat plots. And then you hire co-writers and the co-writers are… calling them weird doesn’t do it justice.

    Don’t get weird co-authors, Shamus.

  12. Michael says:

    More advanced than the pant-leg? Earth has this magnificent solvent ‘dihydrogen monoxide’, more commonly referred to as ‘water’.

    I’ve heard it’s pretty swell.

    • ngthagg says:

      The tricky part is deriving the dihydrogen monoxide from the cola, since that is the most common form of water when cheetos are present.

    • evileeyore says:

      Don’t fall for this Dihydrogen Monoxide apologist’s warning!

      Dihydro is the most pernicious killer on the Earth! Just two spoonfuls can cause a man to drown to death and over 70% of the earth is covered in it!

      I accounts for the erosion of almost all natural and man-made landmarks!

      It must be banned now before we are doomed!

    • MichaelG says:

      A joke:

      A man goes to the doctor and says “Doctor, you have to help me! My penis has turned orange!” The doctor takes a look, and sure enough, it’s orange.

      He asks the man “Have you been eating anything unusual lately, or gone to some new place?”

      The man says, “No. Actually, I lost my job and I’ve gotten kind of depressed. All I do now is sit at home, watching porn and eating Cheetos.”

    • krellen says:

      Star Trek actually has what they call the “sonic shower” – it’s waterless and gets stuff off, but I don’t think they ever actually explain how.

      • Michael says:

        Sonic shower? They send in a little blue hedgehog to lick you clean?

        I think that’s actually worse than the pant-leg.

      • Sumanai says:

        I suspect they were thinking that the vibration from the sounds the shower makes is supposed to shake dirt off.

        But I’ll rather imagine a shower where when you turn it on a sound of a high-pitched screaming is emitted. One knob for intensity, other for pitch? Maybe a third one for timbre.

      • Mephane says:

        But Star Trek also has conventional showers and bathtubs. I vividly remember Neelix taking a bath in Tuvok’s bathroom, explaining what kind of luxury it is to him just to have that much water around. The scene was as stupid as it was hilarious, because water is so common in the universe that it can be considered one of the least scarce resources ever. In the solar system there are millions, if not billions of comets and other pieces of ice waiting to be harvested, and there is nothing to suggest the solar system is exceptional in this (or any) regard.

        • Suburbanbanshee says:

          Water is everywhere, but tanks for storing it on your spaceship are not everywhere.

          Of course, this trope was invented for a lot smaller spaceships than the Enterprise. You might argue that Kirk’s ship was stripped down for wartime speed, but Voyager took place on a lot bigger ship that immediately got a lot of people killed and not replaced.

          And of course the trope was originally, originally invented for US Navy submarines, because taking a full shower instead of a spongebath is still a special reward.

    • Syal says:

      I always figured they had a Napkin setting on their phasers.

  13. ccesarano says:

    I like good, hard sci-fi for its more realistic feel, but I’m no scientist. I don’t have a head for all that logic and physics and stuff. I’ll find the cliff’s notes version interesting (the Dyson Sphere stuff described in Ringworld), but the deeper you go, the faster I’ll fall asleep.

    If we insisted on sci-fi being realistic, then we wouldn’t have Star Wars, Star Trek, Farscape, Stargate, Leperchaun in Space or Space Godzilla. So screw your science! Ships can travel faster than light because it’s the future (or a long time ago in a galaxy far away), and that’s good enough for me!

  14. X2Eliah says:

    It is a real shame you don’t actually read books, Shamus. For example, Alastair Reynolds has his sf universe be completely bound by laws of physics (lightspeed cannot be breached nor completely reached, space travel takes decades at least, humans have various methods of dealing with this, space travellers are seclusive and isolated). And not only he, but many other authors have dealt with this issue.

    • Aulayan says:

      Tell me more of this gentleman and what he has written. I need new things to read now that I’ve finished Witch Watch.

      • X2Eliah says:

        A. Reynolds is a hard sci-fi author, often dealing with the grand space opera themes. His books are usually very weighty (expect around 800 pages per book on average, iirc), the characters are VERY interesting, the science sticks to an acceptable level of approximation, and he was an actual space scientist guy before turning to writing – so he does know what he’s writing in the part where other authors make up technobabble.

        Some notes..
        -humans. There are various factions, separated by mostly how they have adapted to a world where travel between points of interest takes so long a time. Implanted augmentations, artificial skeletons/limbs/bodyparts, genetic modification to adapt to space-environments better.. Most factions are fairly insular, especially the ones operating the lighthuggers (massive needle-shaped ships that accelerate up to very near lightspeed to travel between systems, they conduct trade between worlds, basically. Privately owned. Crew are mostly in cryosuspension, with one or two people awake for monitoring on shifts that rotate on month/year basis.)
        -ship combat. All relativistic, sensible, and quite interesting. In one of the books, a battle takes place as two ships are racing towards the same destination at high velocities (one is kind of fleeing, the other chasing). VERY interesting methods of warfare. I won’t spoil anything, but imo it is pretty ingenious.
        -scale. Yeah, he’s pretty much doing it on the definition of space opera, the events that happen just ramp up more and more. It’s a bit amazing how he can even pull it off (I guess the pure length of the books helps with this).
        -Style. It is a rather noir-flavoured sci-fi. Serious, with persistent themes and stylings. Easy to read, despite the “hard sci-fi” badge. Lengthy. Deeply-developed charaters and universe. Most questions worth asking answered (not your ME3 ending here). All the relativistic implications that near-lightspeed-travel suggests are considered and acknowledged.

        What to read…
        Well. I’d strongly suggest the “revelation space” books.
        You can go with the one-off “Chasm City”, which admittedly is more of a noir detective story set in this universe, or you can go with the main trilogy of “Revelation Space”->”Redemption Ark”->”Absolution Gap”. (Despite the names, nothing to do with religion, don’t worry about that. If you don’t feel like picking up a whole trilogy, just take the Revelation Space book, it is a self-contained story in and of itself, so you *can* treat it as a standalone and see if it works for you or not.)

        • Agamo says:

          “not your ME3 ending here”

          While perhaps not as bad as ME3’s ending, Absolution Gap’s ending, or epilogue, or whatever you want to call it, was pretty damn bad. It’s almost completely detached from the events of most of the story. You could take it out and nothing would change. It’s almost like Reynolds just stuck it in because he couldn’t stand to end the book on even a mildly positive note.

          Also, the Inhibitors’ ridiculous raison d’etre is almost on par with that of the Reapers. I mean, exterminating sufficiently-advanced species in order to…protect them from being killed when the Milky Way collides with the Andromeda galaxy in a few billion years? An event that would probably not have an effect on most life anyway? Come on, Reynolds, you have a freaking PhD in astronomy, you should know better. Fortunately, this isn’t a terribly huge plot point.

          That said, for the most part Reynolds is a fantastic, imaginative writer. Just make sure you have something to counterbalance the depression you’re likely to get from his books, because they are dark.

      • Jan says:

        I very much enjoy Reynolds’ books. The one to start with is “Revelation Space” which starts a series of books in the Revelation Space setting. It is very bleak, very hard sci-fi, at times being very Lovecraft-esque (unknowable horrors, that sort of thing), where humanity is spreading across the stars, finding remnants of alien civilizations, but never advanced alien life itself.

        I find them very enjoyable books, but after one of them (except maybe “Absolution Gap”, which I found the weakest of the series), I need to watch some Spongebob to cheer up, they are really bleak.

        Similarly bleak (though slightly more optimistic), hard sci-fi (FTL not allowed) is Benfords “Galactic Center” series, starting with “In the Ocean of the Night”. I suggest skipping the last one (Sailing Bright Eternity) if you can live with not wrapping up a series, it is rather weak.

        Both authors have PhD’s in astrophysics by the way. If you’re into real hardcore sci-fi (as in: certain aspects of current theoretical physics are integral to the story) you could also try Greg Egan, though in some of his novels the story suffers from the science.

      • Piflik says:

        I read just about all of Reynolds works but the Revelation Space Universe is by far the best of them in my opinion. The main series consists of three giant volumes (Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap), but there are some stand-alone novels and novellas set in the same universe. For example Chasm City and The Prefect (both are set on and around the planet of Yellowstone, pre and post Melting Plague), or Diamond Dogs, Torquoise Days (two books in one, the first focusing on a group of adventurers trying to get behind the secrets of a mysterious tower, modifying their brains and bodies to be more efficient in problem solving, the latter is about a semi-sentient species of ocean-dwelling algae called Pattern Jugglers, who can store and imprint the personality patters from one individual to another).

        The Revelation Space universe is mostly hard scifi, but there are local singularities of ‘magic’, for example the Exordium, a device that can gather information from the future, or Cryo-Arithmetic-Engines, computational devices that violate thermodynamics by eliminating heat. There also is ftl-communication (via a device similar to Exordium), but everything ftl tends to eliminate the species using it completely by wiping them from history…

    • Probably my favourite recent slower-than-light star travel, fairly-hard SF was “Permanence” by Karl Schroeder.
      It has good characterization, some interesting ideas, and a fairly barbed, satirical look at extrapolating current trends in draconic “intellectual property rights” enforcement.

  15. topazwolf says:

    The way I see it there are but a handful of possible space travel techniques that are both quick and somewhat based in reality. I will list a few off the top of my head, not a comprehensive list, but decent enough for our purpose.

    1. The “warp tunnel” which is a device (or natural phenomenon) that creates a paradox of connecting two points in space. As mentioned above the common way to have warp gates be usable from a narrative perspective is to have an ancient race seed the galaxy with these gates. This can range from the small planetary gates such as those seen in Stargate to the massive space versions that are essentially the same as Mass Effect’s Mass Relays.

    2. See madflavius’s comment on the bubble theory.

    3. The most ridiculous one that I’ve ever heard of creating an unstable black hole behind the ship and riding its event horizon (I have doubts about the feasibility of such a device.)

    4. Eclipse Phase’s take on trans-humanity “farcasting.” Since in that setting practically all humans have had their brains digitized and now merely control bodies, they are capable of emailing their sentience across the solar system. An intriguing idea but one that would only work if your setting is appropriate for it.

    5. Then we have the higher dimensional travel. To my shame I have actually taken a knot theory class and was introduced to this concept. In essence, the ship posses some form of device that is capable of manipulating a higher spacial dimension and pulling the ship into this dimension briefly before placing it back into the third dimension. This works by eliminating the need for trekking across unnecessary space. As a simplified example, consider a piece of curved paper. To get to one end of the paper from another in two dimensions you must travel the full length of the paper, yet in the third dimension you can merely “jump” from one end to the other in a very small distance. Their is a lot of hypothetical variables involved in this theory and it is much more complex than what I have displayed, but highly interesting.

    Aside from the quick and easy methods you have:

    1. The near light speed relativistic journeys. As a ship approaches the speed of light, the relativistic time inside of the ship becomes slower the the time outside of the ship. A moment inside the ship can be years outside. This is a fairly decent narrative device if you wish to explore how things change since the universe will progress quicker than the character.

    2. I am sure there are other methods, but they are not even close to what you are looking for.

    As a random note, I find Orson Scott Card’s ships in the Ender’s series to be fascinating. They work by having a “egg” device create a quantum field around the ship. Whenever the ship hits a particle (there are lots of things in space to hit) the resulting energy release is funneled around the ship and released behind it to propel it forward. An idea I like because it solves both the fuel constraints of a ship and the question of what if a ship hits a space pebble.

    • That last Ender one sounds suspiciously like perpetual motion–how does the thingie impart more momentum being released than it subtracts being caught? With a Bussard Ramjet at least they make the hydrogen release extra energy through fusion.

      • topazwolf says:

        I think the “field” is suppose to destroy the particle and thus take all its energy (kinetic in all its forms, rest, and even potential if it has any) and turn it into kinetic energy for the ship. All kinds of problems with the logic, but if you are going to hand wave it away, it may as well be spectacular.

  16. Ravens Cry says:

    There’s always time dilation. The characters at the destination will still get old and die, but not the character traveling.
    I had an idea for a fictional but fun way to cross those depths was basically going to a smaller universe, traveling so far there and then coming back, having traveled much farther in the regular universe.

    FTL beyond a courier service is impossible in this universe except as a network of micro-wormholes only big enough to send a laser beam, and these have to be sent the slow way as Metric Jumps ‘break’ a wormhole’s connection. Even wormhole messages can still take hours or even days as only the very, very richest systems have more than one and messages still travel by light speed in-system.

    As another fun development is Deep Taps, developed from Metric Jump technology. A normal Metric Jump only keeps the gate between universes open for the microsecond, and can only go to so small and therefore so young universes, but Deep Tap opens a gate to very young universe, just after their Big Bang, and holds the gate open.

    That billions of degrees Big Bang plasma is used as an energy source.

    It’s pretty much the highest tech available in the universe, but can only be used in system, a Metric Jump gate will close another gate, so Metric Jump ships use fusion and fission reactors.

  17. Irridium says:

    Well, why can’t it be magic? Like, a sci-fi setting, but magic exists. Would be interesting to see how it interacts with all the technology, how it influenced it, and all that fun stuff.

    Well, I’d think it would be interesting…

    Just throw science and fantasy at the wall, see what sticks, and make something out of it. It might be one of the most horrible abominations created by man, or the greatest thing ever made. We won’t know until we try!

    • JPH says:

      It’s been tried at least thirteen times.

      Final Fantasy.

      • Sumanai says:

        Several Final Fantasy games are in a pure fantasy setting. I think eight of them have “high” tech and magic. Well, magic that looks technological, and something that is best described as magic no matter what the justification is.

        Unless you’re counting the spinoffs. That’s at least four more.

        • Sumanai says:

          Thinking about it, I suspect all the new ones (FF6 and after) have technology.

        • Syal says:

          Every single one of them had an airship (up to X at least).

          Most of them had robots.

          • MaxFF says:

            I’m in agreement here. I know the original Final fantasy had a robot and a flying fortress built by an advanced ancient civilization.

            And I know Final Fantasy 4 had a freaking space ship to the moon built by an ancient advanced civilization.

            My memory’s a little fuzzy on some of the older FF’s since its been awhile since I played them, but I think most of them had a similar thing, where you would be in what seems to be a generic euro-medieval fantasy setting, and then you’d randomly find a bunch of advanced tech left behind by some lost civilization.

            • Sumanai says:

              Thinking back, yeah. I stand corrected.

              • Sumanai says:

                Thinking about it some more, it’s kind of annoying. Shoving technology and magic in a superficially medieval setting starts looking like a cop-out when you use it often.

                We want spells? You got it! We want tanks? You got it!

                It’s like the writers are afraid of working with any kind of limits.

        • Chargone says:

          of the one’s i’ve played (7+ basically, discounting the MMOs and giving up on 13… as a game that one makes a brilliant movie.) I’d have to say 8 had about the most…err… non ridiculous? setting. (ignore the massive scaling issues with the world map, obviously)

          heck, even the magic the players use wasn’t actually magic, as Such. only the sorceresses actually had magic. SEED was using GFs (which are interesting entites which basically amount to artificially created gods, or at least, most of them are…) in order to use Para-magic… which is basically tech-hacking the hell out of various bits of reality in order to artificially (and scientifically) reproduce the magical effects. or something like that. (the GFs are capable of being stored in computer consoles as pure data. when in use but not summoned forth they occupy a significant chunk of their user’s memory… )

          at least if you read the background information.

          no explaination is given for how the (green) Galbadian soldiers manage to use magic though, nor for Quistis’s Blue Magic… nor Selphie’s random casting… (limit breaks in both cases. Selphie is capable of casting magic she Doesn’t Have, including two that otherwise Don’t Exist, while Quistis skips the para-magic entirely and just straight out uses the monsters’ abilities, dispite not actually having the biology for it. both of them are capable of this without GFs despite not being sorceresses)


          there’s a lot of stuff that just isn’t explained, but what Is explained is consistent and makes sense. (well, except the green galbadians’ magic… and, allowing for the fact that the whole thing takes place inside a stable time loop…. hehe.)

    • Arvind says:

      I’m guessing full scale magic is not done because it risks making the elements very complex, and the author risks opening a can of worms with practically any action a character does. For example, spaceships become kinda superfluous if you have teleport magic, and it raises all sorts of weird questions like “Can you teleport into a black hole? What happens if you do?”

      That being said, the force is pretty much magic anyway (for eg), so it has been done before, though by restricting the things magic can do.

    • Deadyawn says:

      It’s funny because mass effect, while it didn’t have magic per say, had element zero which basically functioned like magic.
      It not only allowed FTL travel but it also allowed people to throw each other around and…perform super flying headbuts.
      The whole concept always seemed a little silly. Admittedly, I never read the codex or anything but it does seem an incredible waste of resources just so you can make people fly away. They should still be able to shoot when you do that.

    • krellen says:

      The old World of Darkness did this with the Mage setting. Everything is magic – including technology. Technology is just magic that the bulk of humanity accepts, and thus it doesn’t have the same drawbacks as other forms of magic.

      • HiEv says:

        There is a sci-fi book called “Quarantine” (by Greg Egan) where something like this is the case. Major spoilers from my vague memory of it: Basically as humans peer deeper and deeper into the universe with their telescopes, they begin to unwittingly impose their reality on the rest of the universe. The rest of the universe isn’t happy about this, so they cut the Earth off from the rest of the universe in 2034, so (other than the moon) the night sky has gone dark from Earth’s perspective.

        • CTrees! says:

          Huh… I had thought of that as a fun premise (well, war starting, as each side tried to impose its reality on the other, as opposed to a quarantine). Didn’t realize anyone actually wrote it!

          • There’s tons of it. In a way the entire Steampunk sub-genre is like that. Some of Andre Norton’s old Witch World novels were like that–the main character, gated from Earth to a mostly-medieval-tech world with magic, is helping this society dominated by matriarchal witches against evil invaders from another plane who use some kind of techno-magic, with guns, flying machines, ecological destruction and so on, but also magic/psi effects of some sort.
            And let’s not even get into Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series, which includes alternate earth, time travel, magic, villains who are literally half demon with names like Acheron Hades, the occasional vampire, smuggling of dangerous cheese, the ability to project oneself into fiction and interact with the characters, and much much more. The first book indeed revolves around the villain’s theft of the original manuscript of “Jane Eyre”, and his attempt to hold the nation to ransom by threatening to go into the manuscript and change what happens, spoiling the book forever. Since it’s the original manuscript, all subsequent copies based on it would change as well. At one point in one book there is a defence spending boondoggle in which the prime minister plans to safeguard against the possibility of God smiting their country down for its sins using “Anti-Smote technology”; it all relates to wicked plans by the Goliath Corporation and their scheming representative, Jack Schitt.
            OK, I guess I did get into them. But Jasper Fforde’s stuff is so much fun I couldn’t resist.
            So yeah, there’s a fair amount of tech + magic fiction out there, plus some roleplaying games (Shadowrun springs to mind).

    • Valthek says:

      It’s also been tried more or less succesfully, depending on who you ask: Shadowrun. While the sci-fi isn’t all that advanced, the mix is actually pretty interesting.
      If I’m not mistaken there’s even a few novels and all that available for the setting.

    • LunaticFringe says:

      It’s called Warhammer 40k.

      • Mephane says:

        Indeed. Warhammer 40k merges tech with magic (relabelled as “psi” and “chaos”), some species (humans for example) have constructed a “warp drive” not by warping space, but but travelling the through the parallel realm called “warp” (similar to hyperspace in other settings), where chaos and thus magic also originates from. Doing so even requires so-called “astrogators” who have the psychic (i.e. magic) ability to sense the warp and thus navigate a ship through it.

        On the other hand psi (magic) cannot be used as an everyday device to solve all your problems because it is directly connected to the warp the the chaos gods that lurk there and are attracted by it. One species (the Eldar aka space elves) even managed to unwillingly create a new chaos god from reckless use of these powers, heh.

        Fascinating but grim stuff.

        • Deoxy says:

          Fascinating but grim stuff.

          Grim doesn’t BEGIN to cover it. Essentially, take the worst dystopia you could imagine, then imagine the whole universe is like that.

          I’ve read some of the game setting stuff and bits and pieces from a few of the novels… it seems like great writing, on the whole, but DEPRESSING.

          • 4th Dimension says:

            Depressing but AWESOME. :D

            On serious note: It’s basically exploration asking the question, what kind of situation must humanity be stuck in to justify calling, a fascistic/militaristic/Church Militant/genocidal/despotic/and plain ugly society called the Empire, the Good Guys. And than make it even more GRIM.

            • Chargone says:

              except, of course, that the Tau keep stealing the ‘good guy’ role, despite the best efforts of the creators :D

              that said, the Imperium of Man is actually apparently a pretty good place to live, all up. provided you’re human and your world doesn’t get invaded by orcs/have some psycho decided worshiping Chaos is a good thing and manage to open a portal to the warp (or whatever the proper term for that stunt is) before the inquisition get him.

              though it does have it’s issues. side effect of being Excesively Large, among other things. local conditions obviously vary.

    • ACman says:

      So Star Wars then?

  18. RN says:

    If you are looking for a sort of in between sort of technology I would suggest reading Vernor Vinge’s series Zones of Thought, particularly A Deepness in the Sky. If you want to see an example of an interstellar novel with technology that makes the travel a huge pain in the ass I suggest reading Peter F. Hamilton’s Fallen Dragon.

    • X2Eliah says:

      Yeah, zones of thought was pretty neat. Though not very explicit on the technology behind the technology, if you get what I mean. Still, another very good series, yes.

    • Paul Spooner says:

      Yeah, pretty much anything by Vinge is great. Definitely look him up if you haven’t read any of his space books. I just finished “The Witling” which is short (It’s short Shamus! Won’t be too hard to finish!) and covers a number of space travel type ideas without delving too deeply.

  19. Tektotherriggen says:

    I’d be interested to know what kind of limitations you’re thinking of. An FTL drive could be dangerous, hideously expensive (to build and/or to maintain and/or to fuel), only work point-to-point like wormholes, only work very far from stars and other masses (so you have to crawl out to Pluto-distances before engaging), or have weird psychological effects (your body travels FTL, but the soul only travels at the speed of a camel. A Centauri SPACE-camel.).

    I guess a writer needs to decide on the kind of story they’re writing, and then slap limits on the technology to enforce it.

  20. Veloxyll says:

    The Transporter in Star Trek was actually originally designed to remove cheese-dust from pant legs. It was only when a technician was out by a factor of 1000 that they realised they could move other things via the transporter too! This is why no character in the series’ has dust on their pants.

  21. Thomas says:

    EDIT: Arghhh another wall of text, what is wrong with my ability to communicate in less than an essay??

    The problem with hard possible sci-fi, is that it’s not science fiction, it’s just science. The minute you come up with an actual solution to the problem, well done you’re rich! Sell it.

    I figure magic box is fine. The Star Wars way is good because they don’t even try to explain it. I watch TV without having a clue how liquid crystal displays work, instead I just know what it is and what it does and I’m happy knowing that yes, it’s a magic energy sword and what it does is cut everything and deflect bullets.

    Star Trek tries too hard. If we aren’t going to go down the ‘yay magic swords’ route then what you don’t need is a scientific explanation instead you need an X-technology explanation where x allows people to go faster than light. Then it’s important we understand enough about x that we can pose a problem which the audience could solve. (Like ‘X functions on the colour yellow. Oh no! The enermy Splerg have painted our ship green! What do we do? We’re stranded. Ah okay we’ll sandpaper the colour off!)

    And bonuses if you’ve done it in a way that allows you to show how the tech has affected society too. I thought Mass Effect was pretty good at that with it’s mass effect technology, until they just started throwing it into everything.

    But in general I personally prefer the Star Wars approach. Every read that current day sci-fi story thats on the internet somewhere? ‘Anne quickly entered the combination into the static computing device and navigated the screen, diseminating the information through cables strung under every street, accessing the distributed network and interfacing with it using the manipulation of the flow of electrons… and took her £20 note from the cash machine’

    Most of the stuff now we use without thinking about how it works and that’s how we’ll look at the future when we finally get there.

    • Arex says:

      “The problem with hard possible sci-fi, is that it’s not science fiction, it’s just science. The minute you come up with an actual solution to the problem, well done you’re rich! Sell it.”

      That’s an argument that’s been going on since Verne (all physically possible stuff, if dodgy engineeringwise, like shooting people to the Moon with a huge gun and long-range submarines) vs. Wells (unlikely/impossible plot devices like antigravity materials and time machines).

      Obviously, both produced great stories, so it’s not a question of which way is right. But they’re different storytelling routes, and it’s fair for a given author to prefer one or the other.

      That said, SF on the harder end generally isn’t “just science”, because it’s usually things where you know (or more likely, reasonably believe) something is physically possible, but have no idea how to do it. Fusion power plants, nuclear rockets, space elevators– all of these are plausibly possible (they fit the physics we know and the trends of our technological development… eventually). But no one can currently build any of them, or even say when we’ll be able to. (The nuclear rocket is probably the closest– we had those planned out in the 60s. But as the Apollo guys found, there’s a difference between “this can be done” and knowing how to do it; one that’s a matter of billions of dollars and often some lives.)

      Time travel, ftl, etc. are things that if anything, science points away from being possible at all. They’re still perfectly good story devices. There are just stories they don’t belong in.

      How much infodumping the story does is separate, though sometimes related. Harder SF authors may be more likely to give into the temptation to show their work, but sometimes the same thing happens when someone comes up with a really nifty ftl system that they want to explain in detail.

      (And, to be fair, some readers *like* reading the Encyclopedia Galactica articles that explain how everything works. Just like some of us like reading Tolkien’s appendices of fictional history. :-) )

    • Hitch says:

      Farscape is another example of getting it right with regards to technobabble. John Crichton, engineer and astronaut, build the probe that carries him through a wormhole to another part of the galaxy. Basically explains his own work and all the alien technology that shouldn’t work according to current terrestrial understanding of physics as basically just “magic boxes” that power spaceships and weapons. The story works, so no one cares about the details.

      Star Trek, on the other hand, tried so hard to make it sound like they could explain it, then just solved every problem by “reversing the polarity” until it became laughable.

  22. MichaelG says:

    Well, if you want to be realistic about this, first you’d stop assuming the galaxy is full of technological species. Fermi paradox: if the galaxy has been popping out techie species at any reasonable rate for the last billion years, they’d be here by now.

    So you don’t worry about other stars. Instead, you have a future where our solar system has been thoroughly colonized by humans, genetically modified branch species, all combined with some level of AI, either standalone or integrated with the biology. Give them some reasonable level of nanotech (not “build anything” magic) and you’ve got as bizarre a world as you need.

    Plenty of strange cultures there, and best of all, since they are all derived from humans, they can have some chance of talking to one another. Realistic aliens would spend most of their time trying to figure out what the other is saying.

    They would also be more or less at the same level of technology, leading to interesting conflicts. The other big problem with aliens is that there should be some million-year-old technologies out there that humans can’t even begin to understand, and which could kill us all if we became a nuisance. Not much drama when you are a gnat next to a super-intelligence!

    So yes, the real world can be quite entertaining. So I’ve read, anyway.

    • Arex says:

      “Well, if you want to be realistic about this, first you’d stop assuming the galaxy is full of technological species. Fermi paradox: if the galaxy has been popping out techie species at any reasonable rate for the last billion years, they’d be here by now.”

      That’s actually one thing I liked about Mass Effect: they had an answer for why the galaxy wasn’t overrun a billion years ago, and why all contemporary species are at roughly the same tech level, give or take a couple millennia.

      (“Giant monsters kill every starfaring species every 50k years” may not be a *likely* answer, but it does solve the problem.)

      • MichaelG says:

        I forget the author, but I’ve read a natural explanation too. The galaxy has a black hole in the center, and at irregular intervals, large numbers of stars fall into it. The resulting gamma ray pulse sterilizes the galaxy.

        • Gorkomatic says:

          Wasn’t that Baxter’s “Manifold: Space“?

          It also had the space faring races slowly create shield-like superstructure around the black hole, with each generation adding a bit to it. Quite similar to the whole Crucible thing, actually.

      • CTrees! says:

        Peter F. Hamilton reasonably answered this in the Night’s Dawn “trilogy.” At a certain point of technological advancement, things start going non-linear. Most civilizations are wiped out by the revelation that forms the conflict in the books (the ghost of space Al Capone), and the ones that aren’t reach a sort of philosophical enlightenment, and don’t greatly interfere with the developing races.

        Also: Peter F. Hamilton? Lots of magic boxes, but the universe is incredibly consistent, the rules of physics work like our universe except when stated otherwise*, and space combat actually really, really makes sense**. Then, you know, things get a little awkward with the ghost of space Al Capone forming a galaxy-threatening fleet of spaceships and an interstellar empire. But other than that!

        *ex., space travel basically teleports from one location to another, but velocity remains unchanged. So, travelling to a different arm of the galaxy means you will be moving at a MASSIVELY different velocity than the people you want to see, so much fuel must be burned to correct your delta-v. It WORKS.
        **ex., combat generally takes place at ultra-long ranges (making keeping lasers/masers on target for long enough to do real damage difficult), generally via drone/missiles, armed with their own submunitions/countermeasures. Also, nuclear and anti-matter weapons are devestating over massive ranges, largely due to EMP.

    • Hitch says:

      Or, like Asimov, just create an all-human Galaxy and don’t explain it. For decades all he did was hang a lampshade on it by having in-universe scientist wonder about the “Origin Question” and why humans were the only intelligent species in the Galaxy.

      Then late in life he decided to tie his Robot novels in with his Foundation novels and provided an explanation that was far less satisfying than the mystery.

    • Piflik says:

      Fermi’s paradox is actually bullshit. It is insanely unlikely that the circumstances that allowed ‘intelligent’ life to develop on earth can’t be found anywhere else in the universe. Even our galaxy has hundreds of billions of stars; if only 0.01% had planets and 0.01% of these offered conditions like on earth, there would still be thousands of civilizations. Then we assume that 90% of these don’t live past fission energy (or similar) and we still have hundreds of civilizations right now. The reason why they aren’t here is not that they don’t exist, they just have the same difficulties with interstellar travel that we have and the galaxy is huge.

      • mac says:

        Yes, but we can’t assume that 0.000001% of stars have planets with earthlike conditions and that 10% of these civilisations (wait… what civilisations? did we skip a few steps? are we assuming that earthlike conditions = technological civilisation? because it took a couple of billion years here…) survive their nuclear age.

        Conversely, we can’t assume that Fermi’s paradox means there’s nobody out there, only that there’s nobody we can detect. We wouldn’t be able to detect present day humanity on a planet around a nearby star, and we’re still in our ‘shouting out on every radio frequency’ phase.

        TL;DR: Fermi’s paradox is good for discussion, it doesn’t give us any of the solid conclusions that people like to think it does.

      • krellen says:

        I find your claims of 1/10000 to be ridiculously optimistic. I prefer far more conservative claims – closer to one in a million. At that ratio, it no longer becomes odd to think of ourselves alone in the galaxy.

    • Another interesting approach to the Fermi paradox thing (note I say interesting, not necessarily plausible) was David Brin’s Uplift series. There, there are tons of aliens in a massive galaxy-spanning highly traditional civilization. They never came to Earth because they have a tradition of leaving planets “fallow” for periods of time for life to redevelop after the last time around, and Earth got sort of mischaracterized gajillions of years ago in some kind of bureaucratic error. As a result, we’re the only known example of a planet that was left alone so long that intelligent life apparently evolved all by itself instead of being “uplifted” from presentience by another advanced alien race. Earth is naturally extremely controversial once rediscovered.

    • Dasick says:

      “Fermi paradox: if the galaxy has been popping out techie species at any reasonable rate for the last billion years, they’d be here by now.”

      Sergei Lukianenko in his “Competitors” novel addresses that. It was less of a “there’s something that wipes out advanced species” but rather his explanation is more philosophical – species that reach a certain technological level just stop progressing since their technology has already solved all the problems, and there is nothing to encourage further progress. So these species just enjoy the spoils of their tech and then slowly die out.

      The only exception are a bug-like species that set up interstellar war for their children to fight. They contact a developing species and offer technological trade in exchange for skilled opposition (people sign up for an EVE-like MMO and control their ships through an identical clone). And yes, the Earth is their current merc hub. They are quite unconcerned about uplifting Terrans, stating that our civilization will die out soon anyway, and we hold no competition for them.

      And you know what? Look at birth rates for the entire world, for example. Compare how well developed countries do against developing ones. It’s just one aspect of technological advancement, but you know what? Lukianenko’s theory makes scary amount of sense.

  23. Anachronist says:

    I recommend buying a copy of The Starflight Handbook, A Pioneer’s Guide to Interstellar Travel by Eugene Mallove. It’s a good reference about all the possible ways one could travel interstellar distances, with discussions on actual feasibility, scientific hurdles, etc. I originally bought the book because I wanted to come up with a reasonably plausible method for my characters to travel without having to explain too much or make the ‘star drive’ the main character of my story. I settled on a combination of solar sails and Bussard ramjets with hibernation for the characters. There are plenty of other possibilities though.

    The nice thing about this book is, if you write yourself into a corner where you have to expound a bit on the technology, the book helps you be smart about it so you don’t come off seeming like an idiot to those who know better than you.

  24. Volatar says:

    I personally prefer the static, limited distance warp jump points, or naturally occurring, frequent wormholes for FTL, and conventional propulsion for in-system travel myself. I read mostly military SciFi though, and these systems make for the most interesting strategic situations.

  25. noahpocalypse says:

    Cheese… Pant… Leg?

    I knew I wasn’t the only one!

  26. Valthek says:

    In my opinion, both ‘magic box’ and hard science explanation work equally well, depending on what kind of story you want to tell. What you do need to look out for are serious ‘Fridge Logic’ moments.
    Why do you ask?

    Example time: Take Dune for example. It’s firmly established that the Spacing guild are pretty much the only guys capable of moving interstellar distances at any reasonable pace. Explained also is that they need the Spice Melange to do this. And then we get to the tricky bit. Dune (Arakis) is the only place in the universe where you can find this stuff. How did they get there? The universe is REALLY big, the odds of anyone finding that planet are astronomical.

    Thing such as these can put the logic of your universe in question and the last thing you want is for readers to start questioning your universe. Because once they start analysing, you’ve lost them.

    • Hitch says:

      That’s when you leave it to your son to write a series of increasingly unsatisfying prequels to try to explain away all the loopholes you left in your story.

    • Jonathan says:

      Pretty sure I remember the answer to this one: The Butlerian Jihad wiped out all AIs and high tech. The Guild navigators are, like the Mentats, an organic replacement for the type of AI required to navigate through hyperspace (or whatever they use).

      The later books (5-6) also have the weird women (don’t recall name) show up and conquer things, and they are not dependent on the Guild as such…

  27. Raygereio says:

    I have to say, I don’t see any problem with inventing magic-science for your setting.

    Just ensure your settings makes sense with the new magic-science and keep things consistant.

  28. Astor says:

    Well going lightspeed can allow you to travel to several star systems within 10-15 years or less, including acceleration-deceleration times. Hack in some form of “stasis” – which is biologically feasible – and you are set. The stasis chamber could also provide some “jelly” medium to dampen the mega-acceleration-deceleration involved.

    What truly troubles me when imaging these stories has not so much lightspeed limitations in consideration, but the fact that society, everyday appliances and even humanity, will most probably be incredibly different from today in whatever time frame you choose (unless you choose a ridiculously near future for lightspeed or FTL space travel).

    Also, stay hard Shamus, stay hard… No aliens (specially humanoids!), no ancient and lost civilizations, no pseudoscience, no magic mumbo-jumbo. Just cold, dead facts as according to painstakingly acquired current human knowledge.

    • CTrees! says:

      I don’t know… I always liked the idea of a book starting as ultra-hard sci-fi, then gradually letting the reader realize it’s actually a Lovecraft-style, cosmic horror story. Surprise! It’s a shoggoth.

      Of course I also love the idea of a police procedural that’s strictly by-the-books for the first season and a half, before jumping into the typical second season serial killer. Slowly turns out, the “serial killer” is the start of the zombie apocalypse, which OF COURSE no one will believe for several episodes. Then the genre shift finally hits and BOOM, Walking Dead.

      • BlackBloc says:

        I don’t know. I still have PTSD from when my cynical, mostly realistic noir books about a serial killer working for Miami police turned into a supernatural romp where evil people are possessed by a being that predates humanity (those would be the Dexter novels, BTW).

  29. factoid says:

    I have been working on the setting details for my own sci-fi universe for a while now. Without giving away too many of my “proprietary secrets”, I have gone down the route you described of using real science that goes so far over most peoples’ heads that people don’t question it, and the ones that do will not immediately string my up by my toes because I don’t dare describe it in enough detail to get myself in trouble. It’s only there to service the story, after all.

    Basically the hand-waive that I do is to take advantage of the very real fact that under certain conditions (i.e. the first fraction of an instant of the universe) the laws of physics break down. New forces show up. If you can recreate these forces on a very tiny scale you can create a localized bleed-through effect and use those new forces in interesting ways.

    A lot of sci-fi writers have gone down the route that only very large craft can contain the massive engines needed to power an FTL drive. I’ve gone the other way. That bleed through effect has a very limited range so your ships need to be pretty small.

    And I’m with you about the maintenance aspect of FTL travel. In my universe these ships are far too small to contain the power generation needed to operate. So a larger vessel or space station is needed to charge it up. Return-trips are only possible by having another mothership built on the other end, or maybe by sending a bunch of pre-charged batteries…I haven’t quite worked that out yet.

    • X2Eliah says:

      Minor tip, please don’t use the batteries. It automatically makes an association with the AA sticks we know from our world, and.. it doesn’t sound plausible, when that image in in the back of your mind.

      Automated solar-powered recharge nodes might be worthwhile.

      • Adam Fuller says:

        Supercapacitators all the way

        • Or you could go the self-assembling route. Only go to places with raw materials, and bring a robot capable of processing them on a small scale, building a minifactory/fabber which will build solar panels to power it and more robots, yadda yadda. End up with either a big time SF power generator thing (fusion, antimatter, exploit-those-peculiar-early-universe-rules-for-power, whatever) OR just lots and lots of solar panels. And a small industrial base at the new place; now you can send back and forth on an ongoing basis.

          • factoid says:

            The solar thing did come up in my original outline. I came up with an unmanned solar docking station that would unfold into a MASSIVE solar panel. So large you have to take solar wind into acount because it acts like a sail. You could then plug into it and spend hours or days charging up for a jump

      • factoid says:

        Thanks for the tip. I haven’t decided if I’m even goign to make that part of the lore yet. If I do I’ll absolutely come up with a better word than “battery”

        They would be quite large…probably as large as the ship itself, and it would probably take several of them to power the drive. So for every ship you want to bring back this method, you have to go to the expense of sending many additional craft either ahead or behind the first.

  30. decius says:

    If the characters don’t know how the technology works, there’s no need to explain the underlying principles. Explain the interfaces.

    You don’t need a principle of operation for your engines any more than you need to explain how to make a CPU. What you DO need is a firm grasp of how expensive and available space travel is, and a reason why your space drive hasn’t been used as an antiplanet weapon.

  31. Glenn says:

    Should have mentioned this earlier — you can always go the Arthur C. Clarke route: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Don’t bother to try to explain it — it just is, ala Star Wars before midichlorians.

    Or, you can cheat twice. The characters don’t violate the laws of physics, because they aren’t physically experiencing anything. They’re actually jacked in to a massive virtual universe where instantaneous travel and other violations of physical laws can happen routinely. The character’s just don’t know that the universe they are experiencing isn’t the real one …

    • Arex says:

      “This story takes place in VR” creates a bigger hurdle to get the reader to care, though. Usually at some point you need to bring the stakes back to the real world. (The Matrix being the obvious example– including the problem that once you are in the real world, some of the audience will object to things like the thermodynamically unlikely prospect of using humans as batteries.)

      There’s been a flurry of books in the last year or so where a lot of the action takes place in an MMO writ large. But there are always consequences in reality backing things up.

      (There was a book some years back in which the characters learn they’re in a VR environment halfway through. Naming it would be a spoiler, but a *lot* its of readers vocally called it a cheat.)

      • Raygereio says:

        This story takes place in VR” creates a bigger hurdle to get the reader to care, thoug
        Why? The book itself is already taking place in a world that’s not real. Why would the story taking place in a setting that no real in-universe make any difference?

        • Ravens Cry says:

          Because then what happens to the character does not matter even form an Watsonian perspective. There is no tension, no feeling of “Will they succeed or won’t they?” if the world can, say, just restore from a saved game until they get it right.

          • Raygereio says:

            But if the possibillity of a future deus ex machina / reset button, is enough to ruin your enjoyment of a story, then why would you enjoy any story? I mean one can shove an ending like that in any sort of setting.

            • Arex says:

              VR is pretty much the exact tech equivalent to making a story a dream. It’s not that it absolutely can’t be done: see Lewis Carroll, Winsor McCay, and Neil Gaiman. But one tool in storytelling is getting the reader to buy in, and making the story a fiction within a fiction has an opposite, distancing effect.

              This also varies across cultures and time. It used to be that authors would very commonly use devices to try to persuade the reader that their story actually happened: having the beginning of the story be a letter explaining how a diary was found in an attic, or describing how the author spoke to a wizened old man who survived the events, or constructing the story entirely from letters that were written by the principals and asserting that the originals were on file.

              (One late example a lot of people here will have seen is Tolkien, and the conceit he maintains in the intro and appendices that the whole thing comes from the Red Book of Westmarch, with explanations of who wrote what and how it came to be preserved.)

              And you still get scandals where someone will write an “autobiographical” piece, or an expose of someone in a desperate situation, only for it to be discovered that they made it all up. Why did they do it? Because the closer something feels to reality, the easier it is to grab people’s attention, and that creates the temptation to cheat.

              Adding layers of unreality pushes the story in the opposite direction. It’s not an absolute dealbreaker, but there pretty much needs to be a storytelling reason to justify it, and a hook to keep the typical reader from not caring.

            • Ravens Cry says:

              Yes, but in that universe it is integral to the setting.

          • Kian says:

            Not necessarily. You could do much as in the Matrix, where dying in the simulation kills you in the real world. The question then is, are you there against your will, or a willing participant? Can you unplug at any time, or are you stuck there? Are the wardens friendly, or hostile?

            There are plenty of ways to set up the situation so it’s interesting.

            • Sumanai says:

              I’m pulled out of the story when anyone mentions dying in the real world if they die in the simulation. It makes sense in way, but on the other hand it doesn’t.

      • MichaelG says:

        I seem to remember that in Ubik, by Philip K. Dick, some of the novel occurs to characters in cryogenic storage — after they are dead, in other words.

      • tengokujin says:

        There are games.
        .hack// comes to mind. :p
        “Yo, dawg, I hear you like games, so I made a game where you’re playing a game in a game with people in the game.”

    • Yeah, well, Clarke knew plenty about technology, but very little about magic. Magic doesn’t normally look like advanced technology; it depends on symbolism, hard mental effort, sacrifice, things like that. Practitioners of magic as a rule don’t just snap their fingers. Maybe sufficiently advanced magic might look like sufficiently advanced technology.

      • Arex says:

        There’s lots of magic that doesn’t look like operating technology. But the Cargo Cults suggest that technology can look to the untrained eye like reproducible magic.

  32. zacaj says:

    I think the best way to make FTL travel inconvenient is to apply a game designer’s outlook to it. Make up some rule seems to make sense like having to move in a straight line an exact multiple of a parsec (or something) distance, so they have to find a cris-cross path that jumps in straight lines. For example jumping 3 units 23 degrees to the right then back to the left side 4 units, then to the destination another 3 units. And of course there are space pirates with gravity wells that might stop you from jumping at any of these points you come out at


    Just use the old idea that your superfast/instantanious travel still is affected by gravity so that you need to do lengthy calculations about how to do the ‘jump’ which conveniently take an unelaborated amount of time that just happens to coincide with the optimal time needed for tension and cliffhangers, etc

  33. Tizzy says:

    Shamus: Since you seem to be fishing for nitpicking with this post, I thout I’d mention that the “constantly shedding mass to move through space” is not a very accurate statement. The amount of mass it takes to get into space is staggering, but once you’re there, you can move around for comparatively very cheap.

    • Bryan says:

      Well, not really, no, since you still have a limited total delta-v.

      Also the escape velocity of this planet is *tiny* compared to the speed you’d need to move at to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time (i.e. less than today’s average human lifespan).

      • Tizzy says:

        My original point though is that you would not be constantly shedding mass if when traveling in the middle of nowhere. Most of space is still empty, and it’s only at the origin and destination that the energy expense / mass change would be significant.

    • ACman says:

      You still need reaction mass be it chemical rockets, mass drivers, ion drivers, fission fuel.

      • Tizzy says:

        What portion of “comparatively cheap” now means: “for nothing at all”?

        Seriously: given the really short post, I make extra-sure that what I wrote could not be misconstrued as saying that space travel doesn’t cost anything at all, but never mind, reading comprehension is not at an all time high these days…

        • ACman says:

          Yeah but if you want to get anywhere, even just in this solar system, in a sensible amount of time you still need a lot of fuel.

          Stories lose some of their impact if it take years to travel anywhere.

          Say I wanted to write a story about a war for Martian independence that involved blockades. A pissy ion drive would take forever so of course you might turn to fission or fusion drive.

  34. Johan says:

    I file “how do they fly around the galaxy” right next to “does everyone still go to the bathroom if I never read about it?” in my mind. I really don’t care about the technical aspects of how we’re bending the laws of physics today, any more than I care about the underlying physics of magic in a fantasy setting. It can be intriguing when the author comes up with something clever to explain it, but I never miss it when it’s left unexplained.

    • Michael says:

      Really? It doesn’t bother you? What if it’s brought up explicitly?

      I one ragequit a game because the opening narration contained the phrase “We traveled through a black-hole.”

      • Syal says:

        “We relieved ourselves in the janitor’s closet before we left.”

        …yeah, sometimes having an explanation is worse.

      • Vect says:

        Well, I guess it’s how it’s done. You could have a really crusty engineer guy who doesn’t bother giving a detailed explanation since he knows that explaining the intricacies of physics is going to be lost on the other characters so he’ll just say something like “You let me worry about that” or say something like “Well, according to the Cartman Theory, we can-You’re not even listening are you? *sigh* When that big blue thing glows, we go really fast. Now get lost.”

        I once thought of a scientist character who dodges explaining how his inventions work by saying something about how he’s keeping the details under wraps in case someone tries to steal them or something. Probably not the best way, but it’s a way.

        • Thomas says:

          The thing is, there are so few actual occasions in day to day life where someone asks someone else for the technical explanation of things and it happens. I’ve got a friend who does like to throw science in, but it’s just worse, because he likes long words and to understand chemistry there isn’t actually a shortcut for studying it in Uni for 3 years. There doesn’t actually exist a reasonable explanation he could give in a normal conversation and so whoever he speaks to is left no better off than the start.

    • monkeyboy says:

      As long at it’s consistent, I don’t really care either. If the technology is well accepted in the culture, people probably wouldn’t even notice it. People today don’t say “Ah an internal combusion engine, how exactly does that work?” or “We are flying to Miami? What physics theories support heavier than air travel?”

      We got on the bus, it took us where we wanted to go, we got off the bus.

  35. Blake says:

    One thing that bothers me more than the travel itself is that communications seem to be instantaneous.
    Even on Star Trek, it could take the Defiant 4 days to get from DS9 to Earth, using every single physics defying law they have, and yet magic communicators.

    I feel like their ships are going the maximum possible speed humanity can manage, which (short of possible quantum entangled communication), should be the fastest their communications can go.

    High bandwidth, but very high latency.

    • Sumanai says:

      Aside from Quantum Entanglement there’s tachyons, which by definition move faster than light.

      Of course it still needs to be explained. If nothing else just have someone call it a “tachyon radio”.

      • Astor says:

        Then again, tachyons are largely discredited now.

      • ACman says:

        Error E30029: You have caused a causality violation. Please restart your universe now.

        • Sumanai says:

          No I haven’t. Just because your data collection happens at the speed of light doesn’t mean that there’s time travel happening.

          • Sumanai says:

            I feel the need to expand: If there’s FTL having a particle that travels faster than light is hardly a problem.

            • ACman says:

              It actually does. Tachyons could be used to send signals faster than light, and (according to special relativity) this leads to violations of causality.

              The problem can be understood in terms of the relativity of simultaneity in special relativity, which says that different inertial reference frames will disagree on whether two events at different locations happened “at the same time” or not, and they can also disagree on the order of the two events (technically, these disagreements occur when spacetime interval between the events is ‘space-like’, meaning that neither event lies in the future light cone of the other).

              If one of the two events represents the sending of a signal from one location and the second event represents the reception of the same signal at another location, then as long as the signal is moving at the speed of light or slower, the mathematics of simultaneity ensures that all reference frames agree that the transmission-event happened before the reception-event.

              However, in the case of a hypothetical signal moving faster than light, there would always be some frames in which the signal was received before it was sent, so that the signal could be said to have moved backwards in time. Because one of the two fundamental postulates of special relativity says that the laws of physics should work the same way in every inertial frame, if it is possible for signals to move backwards in time in any one frame, it must be possible in all frames. This means that if observer A sends a signal to observer B which moves faster than light in A’s frame but backwards in time in B’s frame, and then B sends a reply which moves faster than light in B’s frame but backwards in time in A’s frame, it could work out that A receives the reply before sending the original signal, challenging causality in every frame and opening the door to severe logical paradoxes.

    • krellen says:

      Our current communications run significantly faster than our transportation; why wouldn’t this be true in the future?

      (Star Trek does define an infrastructure of “sub-space relays” to explain their hyper-communication, and it doesn’t work in truly unexplored and remote areas (see Voyager).)

    • Ragnar says:

      I would very much like to play a game (probably a strategy game, but RPG:s etc. might work too) where the driving force is the latency of communication. Also it would be fun to introduce mis-communication (intentional and unintentional) so that you can spread false information (that then takes awhile to check the accuracy of).

      • Kian says:

        I always thought that a setting where your communications are slower than your travel methods would be pretty interesting. You could look into how empires thrived in the age of sail and replicate that in space, basically.

        Since our communications are at most at light speed, and travel in such a setting would be ftl, it could be fun.

      • Jonathan says:

        Protector, by Larry Niven, deals with this.

        Alas, Phssthpok.

  36. silver Harloe says:

    Greg Egan’s books usually start with the physically possible before they delve into some very theoretic (but still possibly possible maybe?) result of quantum physics as we currently misunderstand it. Typically, the people get around space at light speed by encoding the information in their brains into information and communicating that information to the destination, where a new body is built for you and reprogrammed to include your consciousness. Of course, this is based on a very materialistic interpretation of consciousness – that it is just information, which also leads inevitably to immortality via backups, duplication of people, and being able to choose your own body. So not for everyone :)

    • Simon Buchan says:

      I only remember Schild’s Ladder doing that: Diaspora certainly had the tech, it didn’t have anywhere to send it (they were only just starting galactic exploration), and most of his other stories don’t involve star travel. Schild’s Ladder then broke his hardness a little later with it’s 0.5c research platform, though.

      The Orthogonal series (only The Clockwork Rocket published so far) has space travel, but it is set in an incredibly interesting and insanely well-founded cosmology/physics that swaps basically all the problems with space travel in our universe with completely different and bizarre ones. As a teaser, a constant amount of acceleration will give you infinite velocity: but make sure there’s no dust in the way or you’ll be set on fire. Also? Room temperature is hotter than infinitely hot. Or less than absolute zero, it’s the same thing.

  37. Hyrum says:

    I like how the Ender’s game series covered interstellar travel…

    • Kdansky says:

      Just sad that those books are an abomination in all other regards:

      I have seen an even more scathing review, which had a ton of quotes that are a real pain to read. Card is a horrible bigot, and should not be given money, ever.

      • Dasick says:

        Hmm. I haven’t really noticed that when I read Ender’s Game. Sure Ender is gifted, but it’s hardly Mary Sue mode, since his giftedness causes tension in the story. Everyone wants something from him. Plus, he’s obviously unstable/socially inept, like any proper genius – which causes half of the conflict in the book. I think it’s one of those cases where it looks like a Mary Sue protagonist, but actually isn’t.

        Ender also ended an entire species because he was a selfish prick and just wanted the whole training to end. Once he realised that, he did his best to make up for the whole xenocide thing, essentially going into self-imposed exile. That’s not so much self-pity as it is taking responsibility for your actions. Well, that’s how I remember it at least.

        The Jesus allegory is a bit too subtle for me. As with Mary Sues, any character has the potential to be a Jesus allegory, so I only call foul when it’s an obvious in your face “saviour of humanity” this and “son of God” that.

        As for the bigotry… sorry I don’t get that either reading the book. In the opening the author of the essay says that Ender’s Game is akin to pornography in it’s narrative structure, then at the end he mentions how the prose is written very well. An example he states is Ender’s authentic reactions and feelings, which, as far as I am concerned, falls under the “Believable Characters” heading of good stuff. Which is not a pornographic trait at all.

        What I’m guessing happened was that the author of the essay read Ender’s Game, liked it, looked up the author to see if he has written more stuff, and learned of Card’s controversial views, which then coloured his own opinion of the book’s quality. The “reviewer’s” opinion of Christ himself is very critical, and it looks like he is prepared to do whatever it takes to validate his opinion, even if it means Ad Hominem attacks.

        • silver Harloe says:

          “Ender also ended an entire species because he was a selfish prick and just wanted the whole training to end. … Well, that’s how I remember it at least.”

          He ended an entire species because no one told him he was fighting a real war. He didn’t selfishly pick the end date, and he didn’t say “hey, let’s make this my final mission.” The instructors told him it was the final mission, and the timing was handed to him because that’s when our ships happened to get to the alien home world. There was very little selfish or prickish about his decision. He did exactly what the instructors wanted him to do. They were the pricks. I found his self-imposed exile to be a little self-pitying because everyone conspired to hide from him that he was committing xenocide – precisely because they feared that if they did training and THEN sent him after real aliens, he might hold back the final blow. IMHO, the instructors committed xenocide and Ender was just their weapon.

          • Dasick says:

            Selfish prick might be too harsh a word but I don’t know how to describe it better. The only reason his superiors were able to use him like that is because he was treating the whole affair as a game, rather than preparing to face the Buggers. When he used the Lil’ Doctor on the entire planet, he was hoping that the generals will get mad and send him back home because he was treating war as a game.

            Instead of thinking like a general he was thinking like a… like a.. a meta-troll! Yes, that’s it – Andrew Wiggum is a meta-troll. And his superiors out-trolled him.

            EDIT: He was being selfish, but that’s his tragic flaw – what made him excel was that he treated the entire affair as a game, and that is also what caused his downfall. He just wanted to go home (not realising it was no longer the place he imagined it to be), which meant winning. No matter the cost.

  38. Kaeltik says:

    You can fine tune travel times without stretching physics too much by picking the right setting.

    A great deal of hard sci-fi misses an opportunity: each star system can amazingly complex and varied. We now know that many star systems have multiple planets, probably packed more closely than in our own (HD 10180, Gliese 581, Kepler-11, Kepler-20, 55 Cancri, etc.). Even propulsion systems in testing today could make trips between planets in-system faster then sixteenth century transatlantic trips. That’s just between planets: throw in a couple of gas giants or ice giants with dozens moons for an immense amount of variety with little travel. For somewhat longer travel times, try planet-bearing multi-star systems where interstellar distances are still large, but much less than in our neighborhood: binaries on the low end (Kepler-16, maybe CM Draconis and HW Vir); globular clusters on the high end. Do you want many rare types of stars and stellar phenomena in a relatively compact volume? Try a super star cluster (Westerlund 1).

  39. HiEv says:

    Well, I’ll mention two things I’ve seen touched on above, but not quite explored:

    1) If you need a source of “infinite” energy that you don’t need to carry around with you, I’ve read one story where the starships were powered by triggering a mini-big bang event in the engines, and turning that into the power needed to drive the ship. Basically, you just need the (rather large) power to jump-start the process, but after that it’s essentially a rather powerful (if somewhat dangerous) free energy source. (I may be misremembering this, but I think the initial discovery/testing entailed the destruction of the space station where it was done. I have no idea where I read this idea from though.)

    2) This is an idea that I’ve had for a novel myself, but since I’ll never write it, I hope someone steals this idea (assuming someone else hasn’t come up with it already.) Aliens arrive in our solar system and begin setting up shop in the asteroid belt (making factories and whatnot) while sending some scout ships to observe Earth. After a while (once the aliens figure out how to communicate with us) they finally make first contact. We discover that their race basically uploaded their brains into computers, and then travel through space at sub-light speeds while entertaining themselves in virtual environments. Once at the destination they can reassemble bodies for themselves out of local materials using their nanoassemblers. (This not only does away with the need for FTL drives, but, as you’ll see below, actually exploits that method.) The aliens (mostly) appear as humans simply because they figure that we’d react to them best that way, however they could make themselves look however they’d like. Of course, after being in a virtual environment that has few rules (they can control the rate that speed time passes for themselves, create and destroy objects freely, are immortal and “killing” others is only temporary because of backups, new memories and skills can be instantly learned from other uploaded minds, etc.) for centuries gives them a rather “alien” view on what is acceptable behavior. So, imagine visiting aliens who not only have to figure out how to deal with first contact with a new species, but they also have to learn to remember not to treat the whole experience like it’s just another video game. Since they’re basically unstoppable, killing them doesn’t even bother them since they have real-time updated backups, and they can make any time imprisoned pass in an instant from their perspective if they choose to, how does humanity deal with their occasionally atrocious (from a human perspective) behavior? (Somebody please write this!)

    Long story short: upload your consciousness to a computer, and traveling long distances without FTL isn’t as much of a big deal. Heck, you can send one copy out into space while the other copy stays home. If technology is good enough, you can even merge those separate memories later if those two copies ever meet back up.

    • topazwolf says:

      Most of the premise of the eclipse phase rpg background is that humanity has learned to digitize consciousness. As such humans have begun sending out minds instead of space travel, using multiple bodies, and even living in virtual realities. All there books can be obtained for free from the developers so you should definitely check it out.

    • Simon Buchan says:

      Read Greg Egan’s Diaspora: swap aliens for future humanity post-utopian-collapse-of-physical-society and with a bit more book learning on acceptable behavior, and you have the first half or so of it pretty much exactly. And then the back half breaks your brain with how 5-dimensional solar systems work….

  40. Vect says:

    And then there’s Warhammer 40K, where you’re traveling through space with the help of a psychic hooked up like that guy from the Overlord DLC of Mass Effect 2 to use shortcuts through space hell where you’ll either make it out or get tortured by demons.

  41. zootie says:

    Hmm, sounds like you’re looking for something like this. It’s plausible in terms of science (fiction), it’s limited enough in application due to the science (fiction) involved to avoid the “why don’t they just go to warp!?” factor, and it’s neither easy nor safe but if you have the resources it can be done well enough to support an intersteallar civilization.

    Plus, aside from some of the grammatical styling, I really like those books and enjoy an opportunity to promote them :)

    • ACman says:

      This is what I was going to say before I saw your post.

      CJ Cherryh does quite well in the Alliance-Union novels. I recommend the ‘Chanur’ Novels, ‘Downbelow Station’ and probably ‘Rimmrunners’. ‘Cyteen’ and ‘40,000 in Geheanna’ are good too but there isn’t much travel in those.

      She does handwave in the general direction of Non-Einsteinian space interfacing with so the science a fair bit but it’s written convincingly.

      Interstellar Travel still takes months of time in “hyperspace” and you have to fly normally to get away from habitation before jumping and jumps can only be made between mass points with certain “dark mass” points serving as havens for pirates and occasionally convenient short cuts for travel.

      It causes time dilation and humans have to anaesthetise themselves to deal with the experience psychologically.

      • The Chanur series’ jump drive is fairly normal as these things go, right down to the “Can’t come in too close to a big mass”, but Cherryh handles the feel of time lag in real-space approach due to distances being in the many-light-hours range, and the tactical problems this lack of real-time information leads to, better than anyone else I’ve ever read. Gives that “Das Boot” paranoid feeling.

        • ACman says:

          YES! It’s the combination of tranking down for jump, time dilation, g-forces when not inertial, and info lag.

          there are long parts of the narrative about the dreams one gets while in hyperspace and long parts where everybody is crushed in their bunks by acceleration in quiet anxiety while they wait for information from their possibly hostile destination.

          Also there’s the interesting idea that hyperspace will dump you out at a significant fraction of the speed of light bringing the possibility that people can bring relativistic weapons into play.

          • Mmm, yes, it brings together elements pretty well. And come to think of it, the “homing in on large masses” thing combined with range limits is rare and gives a nice feeling of localization–there are limits to where you can go that take away the arbitrariness of it, create a geographic neighbourhood and, again, give a certain claustrophobic feel due to the existence, but narrowness, of choices in terms of where to run away and so on.

            Another nice minor detail about the Chanur series–unlike the Star Trek civilizations they have apparently invented seatbelts; everyone straps in good.

            • ACman says:

              Yes. Crash webbing is your friend.

            • ACman says:

              Check out Downbelow Station, Cyteen, Rimmrunners, and Tripoint if you like the Chanur novels.

              Basically American War for independence in the stars if the English fleet turned Pirate and American slaves were birthlab-grown, hypno-programmed, gene-tailored examples of human perfection.

              • Arex says:

                The Union-Alliance novels and the Chanur novels take place in the same universe (though in different directions from Earth), so things like the jump drive work the same in both.

                I’d say Cyteen is the best of the U-A books, but I’d read Downbelow Station first to have a sense of the setting. (And because it makes the direction Cyteen comes from more surprising.) I also quite like Merchanter’s Luck, set just after Downbelow Station.

                • ACman says:

                  Of the shorter novels ‘Rimrunners’ is my favourite. It’s got very good “crew-member on a submarine” style tension. I also like its description of a failing star-station.

                  ‘Cyteen’ and ‘Regenisis’ are great but they’re planetary/political science fiction. Out of the Merchanter novels ‘Tripoint’ is probably my favorite. All of the Merchanter novels have a very similar theme though — a family ship interacts with an outsider.

  42. Sumanai says:

    When I was designing a sci-fi setting with a friend, we decided that a hard sci-fi explanation for FTL would end up turning into zeerust quickly and decided to go soft. The basis was the hyperspace in Star Control 2. It’s more complicated, but I don’t think by much. Also we were able to include wormholes into the system.

    I’ll have to ask him if I can share it, just in case he intends to do something with it and wants to keep it secret.

    • Sumanai says:

      Okay so (and I’m aware this sounds stupid. Last time we even looked at the designs was in 2006 and I’m writing from memory):

      Parts in hyperspace are thicker or thinner. Generally it’s thicker the stronger gravity there is in the same spot in the realspace, but there’s some variety. So 0.2 G doesn’t always mean the exact same amount of thickness.

      It’s easier to shift into hyperspace from low gravity areas and it happens through anti-gravity. Shifting while on a planet is technically possible, but requires way too powerful anti-gravity generators to actually pull off.

      Thinner hyperspace is faster to travel. This means that if there’s thinner hyperspace to the starboard side and thicker to the port, your ship is going to be slowly ripped to pieces. To prevent this, ships “flatten” the thickness as they move. The maximum speed is therefore partly dependent on the power of the “plough” as well as the thickness. However, no “plough” is perfect, so there’s constant minor stress to the ship when traveling through hyperspace.

      It’s also possible to trace you trough hyperspace, because the thickness is more even than normally. There are devices that mix it back up.

      Wormholes are points where the hyperspace is exceptionally thin and in the hyperspace there goes a line between the wormholes that has thin hyperspace in it. Because of this the travel between them is very quick.

      Artificial wormholes can be created, but they take time and require maintenance.

  43. Scott Richmond says:

    I think Peter F Hamilton is the master at this. His books are what you’d call a ‘hard scifi’ and are often very detailed in its explanations on how his various ships work in his universe. He’s amazing at making it sound interesting, maybe you can draw some inspiration from him?

    • X2Eliah says:

      Hamilton is decidedly NOT hard-scifi. At least, not in the commonwealth saga nor the dreaming void trilogy. It is a little bit of “magical technology” with a heavy dose of “just plain do not explain anything at all”.

      He is a good writer, I will give him that, but the explanations that are there are little more than set dressing with no meaning.

      • Kdansky says:

        I think what Scott Richmond means is that Hamilton is good at the “How would society look if we had a magical doodad that does X?” and “How would doodad X be used?”

        Both questions are way more important than “How does X actually work?”

        If we live for 200 years and can take a magical serum that avoids becoming senile and inflexible, our current systems don’t work any more: You can’t get a job at 20, because there are thousands of people more qualified than you, with no age to slow them down. Pension systems are completely kaput. Who sells the drug? Is it mandatory? Is it a monolopy? Is it safe? Do some people deny it?

        These are the interesting questions, and Hamilton is exceptionally good at them. How does the drug work? Well, magic. Doesn’t matter.

  44. Blanko2 says:

    I’m quite surprised that there are only two Arthur C Clark references in the comments (that i saw, anyway.) If you read or have read Rama and its sequels (thought the sequels are not by Clark) you’d have an example of a really good story written with near-light-speed engines, rather than galaxy hopping warp-speed drives and such.
    I believe the Nostromo in Alien was not traveling at FTL, but, looking it up there is some misunderstanding on this point…
    One other possibility is warp drives being like the absolute BEAST that was the Even horizon’s one, which is a massively powerful engine but also a hellhound to actually use (even discounting the fact that it would take you, literally, to hell) but it was not an FTL drive but a proper warp drive, itd teleport you to another universe and warp you back in at a point closer to where you wanted to be in the original universe.

    I seem to recall there was also a sci-fi ship somewhere that was steered by constantly manufacturing miniature black holes in front of it and that allowed it to achieve relativistic speeds with “ease”. The energy required would be vast, of course, since youre physically manufacturing a black hole and then destroying it somehow.

    • zootie says:

      I think you’re talking about one of the types of drives used by the ships in David Weber’s Dahak series – Mutineer’s Moon, etc. I can’t name the names, but IIRC, there was a true hyperdrive and a black-holy pseudo-FTL drive which was discovered in the second book of the series.

    • Rendezvous with Rama was boring. It was like Ringworld or something, except with all plot and nearly all characterization subtracted. All that kept it going was that SF “sense of wonder” as you explored the Big Dumb Object. Clarke could get away with it because it was early SF and hardly anyone had done as good a job at that part of things as he did, but you can’t get away with it any more. The bar is way higher now.

      • Blanko2 says:

        I liked it and I read it for the first time relatively recently (7 years ago or so) I believe it’s more a question of taste, since it’s a somewhat distinct nice of scifi.

  45. General Karthos says:

    As Ravens Cry said above, there’s time dilation as a possibility. When you’re traveling at 99.99% of the speed of light (and assume you have artificial gravity which allows you to accelerate to that speed fairly quickly) a few weeks would pass in the time it takes you to travel a fairly long distance. (I don’t know the math on this, but I’m sure it’s out there. I’m just too freaking tired to look it up right now.)

    Of course, if you cover say… 30 lightyears in 30 days to YOU, it would still be more than 30 years to everyone else. Which would create problems if you’re trying to write a story about people who are on different planets or who aren’t aboard the same ship/traveling thingamajig from the get-go.

  46. Dovius says:

    Crap, this makes me realize a problem about my own sci-fi idea that I hadn’t considered: How the balls do the engines work.
    Then again, Magitek is actually a valid option for me.

  47. Arctem says:

    My favorite kind of FTL has always been the jump drives seen in stuff like Battlestar Galactica. They’re hardly realistic, but they create fun situations where the crew has to wait for their jump drives to warm up, fighting off enemies to the last moment. Or when they start warming them up and then realize they didn’t want to actually go somewhere, causing a panic and more hilarity. Plus, there’s always the problem of jumping too close to someone else causing massive damage due to tearing a hole in space-time. Jump drives can be pretty fun, if done right. (unfortunately, only one of these actually occurs in BSG, where their jump drives are nearly instant activation).

    • Mephane says:

      Yeah, there is some fun to be had with jump drives. My idea of a fictional jump drive would actually be a bit different than what most are used to, however: the amount of energy needed for a jump would only be a function of both mass and volume of the ship, allowing for theoretically unlimited jump distances. However, the difficulty would lie in precision, and the further you jump the more likely you are to end up off. Try to jump to a nearby galaxy and hope that you’re not end up in empty intergalactic space in the opposite direction.

      Ships would then have to perform a set of consecutive jumps, asymptotically closing in on their destination, and ship captains would probably be satisfied if at least they reach the outer fringes of the destination system, and travel the remaining distance conventionally.

      Also a fun plot device: emergency random jump.

      • X2Eliah says:

        What is it with the emergency random jumps? How is a “random” jump to literally anywhere in space considered anything else than a completely, utterly terrible thing? Why not have a safe-default home-coordinate set for emergency jumps, or maybe hardwired into mechanisms or something. So instead of emergency jump taking you to an unknown galaxy TYZ024-GA on the arse end of the universe, it just takes you to a predefined home planet / shipyard.

        • Dovius says:

          Or maybe include a database of several safe regions that you can jump to, so that if your attackers can track jumps, you won’t lead them right to Earth/[Insert homeworld here].

          You make a good point though. The galaxy has a lot of empty space, but what if you make a random jump into an asteroid? into a planet? A star? A friggin’ black hole? I’m still waiting for a Sci-fi story where a guy goes “Why don’t we just make a random jump to get away from these guys?”, only for a crewmate to go “That’s what Bill said, before he ended up in the upper layers of Betelgeuse”

          And who keeps building a Randomizer function into these highly dangerous machines that WARP SPACE-TIME LIKE A BLOWTORCH WARPS BUTTER.

          • Mephane says:

            As far as I have experienced, emergency random jumps are done in works of fiction where performing a jump requires a considerable amount of computing in order to derive whatever data has to be fed into the jump drive based on the ship’s current position and the intended destination. Just like from two coordinates you can calculate a vector from one to the other, but more complicated.

            I always assumed that you couldn’t have that data in real-time because it is often even emphasized at some point right before a jump that the calculations would take some time.

            In case of an emergency jump, you’re jumping right away from a sudden terminal threat (example: in the new BSG series they once jumped right away from a nuclear missile about to hit them). Since the amount of actual volume in the universe that is not empty is such a tiny fraction of it all, in that situations it indeed is safer to be *anywhere* except *here*.

            However, if you have a scenario where the ship could track their relative position to some “home” coordinate and always keep the required “jump drive input data” accurate, emergency jumps would not have to be random. But that does not seem to be the case in most works of fiction containing jump drives, heh.

            P.S.: “Random” does not necessarily mean as in truely randomized data; it could just as well be some guy hacking in whatever numbers come to his mind and press “engage” (this actually happens in BSG), or that the jump is intentionally random to make it more difficult for an attacker to deduce the ship’s new position. If emergency jumps were always like “one light-year forward” then that would defeat the purpose of shaking off an attacker…

        • SolkaTruesilver says:

          Because a jump is calculated from your starting location and thus except for regularly travelled jump lanes, there are no hard-coded jump coordinates.

          Hell, Gaeta even mentionned once that there exists a “star drifts” that you have to take into account when you calculate jump coordinates, so the parameters to arrive at coordinate jump X,Y,Z from A,B,C will be different wheter you are at time T or time T+t

          The storytelling element of the Jump Drive was that it was complicated as hell and you couldn’t just press the button

      • Gordon R. Dickson once introduced a jump drive that worked so fast you could use it to hover, without noticing any motion. Just activate it multiple times a second transporting you to the same location.

  48. Neery says:

    As far as Science Fiction transport technology goes, I really like the TARDIS, which does not always go where one would like it to go, tends towards inconvenient crash landings, and frequently needs a good smack with a screwdriver to get it operational again. I mean, it makes no pretense that the engine box says anything but “magic” on it, but it feels like lived in technology, you know?

  49. Dmatix says:

    Hyperion did this sort of midway solution quite well with the entire “Time Debt” concept: FTL travel is cumbersome and slow, and while people can use it without experiencing aging themselves, they get to wherever they were going a few years or more later than when they leaved. Not perfect, but pretty good.

  50. Rodyle says:

    For one of my GURPS campaign, I sort of used the idea of the Mass Relays, but with less space-mumbojumbo. FTL was not feasible, but you could achieve relativistic speeds using huge mass drivers orbiting planets. It’d still take a long time to actually reach other places, and it was somewhat dangerous (it’d be quite impossible to change your direction if, for example, a meteor happened to be in the way), but it is a cheap and easy way to transport goods and/or colonists to other planets.

  51. Mephane says:

    For anyone who wants to create fiction with interstellar space travel, I highly recommend playing around with Space Engine. It’s a program probably as close as you can get to simulating real space, it uses as much real data as possible (but, Shamus might like this, also procedurally generates stars and planets) and you can fly around, enjoy the sights etc.

    But the most important thing:

    I have not seen anything that manages to so completely and overwhelmingly convey the actual vastness of space. There is no better way to experience for yourself how incredibly slow the speed of light is out there until you attempt a virtual flight from Earth to Mars at 1.0c. Then you set your speed to 1000c and zip through the solar system, only to find that you’re going to have to wait some time until you reach the closest stars.

    Then set your speed at a few parsecs per second (wow that is fast) and see stars fly past you in a real Star Trek fashion until you realize just how many stars there are in a single galaxy.

    People always say space if vast and empty etc., but most of them have no idea how big an understatement that actually is.

  52. Kdansky says:

    How to do the slow version correctly: Accelerando, by Charles Stross. It’s a story that takes a few hundred years to unfold, with about four generations total. Naturally, the oldest people are still “alive” at the end due to advancements in cyborg-technology, and mind-uploading. One of them is a swarm of pigeons for a while. It’s a book not about technology, but about what society becomes due to technology.

    I think it’s important to get FTL at least not completely wrong: I mean, why doesn’t Star Trek just use the Teleporters to beam bombs around or people into pieces (except when they do because it’s a great plot twist)? It’s much easier than firing lasers, but it looks more boring. In a book, I expect such prevalent technology to be used by the characters. Firefly for example does it right: It never explains how their FTL works, and the drive is never a relevant part of the story (except for “it’s broken, we have to fix it” which is trivially possible and realistic for all technology). Star Wars does the same: FTL is just like magic.

    Star Trek fucks it up all the time, when how the technology works becomes a major plot point (if you warp through a sun you get time-travel? I call bullshit!), despite nothing making any sense to begin with.

    • monkeyboy says:

      You touched on something I was thinking about. secondary necessary technologies are rarely widely used outside space travel. Like a world with supersomputers running starships but no home gaming systems. This technology should have a heavy impact on culture.

      Things like artificial gravity, cryo-sleep, and force fields have some pretty mundane uses, to include recreation.

      Larry Niven used repulsion fields for zero-G sleep, and I remember one story where a time distortion machine allowed people to get in a heavy workout in a fraction of the time. Other than that though…

      • Kdansky says:

        I can’t recommend Hamilton and Charles Stross enough. Those two guys are incredibly good at this, from different angles.

        This is also a problem that plagues most Fantasy: If you can create food out of thin air by means of magic, why would anyone bother to become a farmer? What do we need doctors for if Cure Minor Wounds is a matter of seconds?

        Some games and books are good at this: Terry Pratchet (magic is rare and unsafe), JRR Tolkien (magic is exceptionally rare), GRR Martin (magic is even rarer)
        Most are really bad: Eberron (nothing makes sense), Forgotten Realms (even worse than Eberron), Rowling (99% of humanity is less intelligent than bread), Jim Butcher (my Mary Sue can explain everything!).

        • zootie says:

          heh i just finished rereading OOTS, adn for some reason I found myself weighing the possibilities of the Teleport spell for (dun dun DUHN!!) mining. Yep, plain old mining. Wizards can teleport things other than themselves, and theoretically (fantastically?) the wizard chooses what goes with them, so why not walk one down into a mineshaft and have them TP out with as much of the desired elements as they can move? It’d fall to the ground around them on arrival, ready for pickup. I’m sure that since they require large amounts of rare materials for research, it wouldn’t be difficult at all to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement with them :)

        • Forgotten Realms etc. doesn’t count; start from a roleplaying game and get silliness. But actually, most fantasy has a kind of built-in brake on magic changing things very much, usually left pretty much implicit: It’s hard to learn. Nobody has time and few have the opportunity, especially in a mainly illiterate society where the wizards aren’t interested in public education that would make them ordinary dudes instead of respected sages. Often it also requires some kind of innate talent which is relatively rare.

          That’s why elves live so much better than everyone else and never seem to have to worry about working for a living: They all have the talent and they live forever so they all have time to learn. So elves get to run their society by magic and to heck with sweat of the brow.

          I’ve sometimes thought it would be fun to write a fantasy book about revolutionary class struggle, where something like the printing press causes an underground explosion of the masses trying to learn magic while the existing elites try to stop anyone but the Right People from getting it. Peasants getting together in the winter for clandestine reading-and-spell-casting lessons, getting busted up by the authorities and eventually plotting to overthrow the wizards and the nobility in the name of Enlightenment Rationalism and magic for all.

      • Mephane says:

        Banks’ “Culture” Series actually depicts in great detail the protagonists’ personal lives in light of all the technology they possess.

        For example, someone had in her private rooms the bedroom below the living room and with no conventional door. It was accessible only through a hole between its ceiling and the living room above. To get into the bedroom you jumped down; to get out again you jumped up and the ship detected this and automatically locally reduced gravity to something very low so that your jump would bring you through the ceiling and just the right height to land safely in the upper room.

        And that bed was rather simple, with cushions and blankets and all. Others are described as being mere force fields keeping the sleeping person afloat, with no physical bed whatsoever.

        Or showers. Showers there kept you afloat in zero G while water was being sprayed from all directions, and the way it is described there makes it clear that this is everyday stuff for these people.

        Oh and they had video games, which you basically entered through some form of neural interface, and in which time was heavily compressed; you could play a session that in the game took weeks, and when you’re done and back out in the real world you’d find only a few hours have passed.

        • zootie says:

          If only we could work that way. “Honey, I’m linking into work for the day!” “Ok sweetheart, see you in an hour!”.

          • Syal says:

            The opposite would probably happen. Eight hours of time-compressed work, so now a work week lasts for months.

            • Cineris says:

              Banks’ world is generally run by expontentially intelligent AIs that are perfectly capable of doing all work, ever. So there’s no real need for organic life to do anything other than whatever they want, certainly not pushing papers around or any other boring cubicle work. (Most of the AIs spend the majority of their time & consciousness consumed with virtual realities too.)

              It’s really hard to write good stories when your level of technology, as in Banks’ stories, is so advanced that there are literally no needs or desires fathomable to the reader that can’t be instantly met.

    • silver Harloe says:

      “Firefly for example does it right: It never explains how their FTL works, and the drive is never a relevant part of the story (except for “it’s broken, we have to fix it” which is trivially possible and realistic for all technology).”

      technically, they never go anywhere FTL. the magical aspects of Firefly’s universe are these:
      1) artificial gravity
      2) somehow we terraformed planets and moons at all kinds of sizes and all kinds of distances from the new star we settled to have Earth-like gravity and heat
      3) not enough room on the ship set aside for fuel
      and, while not technically science fiction related, the show relies heavily on the following common magic trope
      4) you can render people safely and harmlessly unconscious with a knock to the head

      The important aspect is #2: the entire setting is a single solar system, so all the travel is sublight. This is explained better at the beginning of the movie.

      But, yes, they totally got the technobabble level just right for their drives.

      • Chuk says:

        Ha, now you have me thinking that the people in the ‘verse have been genetically engineered to be resistant to long term trauma from head injuries but also have an ‘off switch’ in their skull that’s activated by impact.

  53. Venalitor says:

    They have napkins

  54. The Bard says:

    I pray to the heavens if you ever write this thing that I never read it, Shamus. Knowing how infinitesimally critical you can be, you would get nary a millimeter of leeway in my evisceration of every little anything.

    I will write a 10 page review on Amazon tearing this thing a new one if so much as your spacing margins are too large.

    You have been forewarned! XD

  55. Epharian says:

    I like David Weber’s solution to space travel in the Honor Harrington books. Yes, it’s hand-wavy, but ultimately since FTL travel is impossible by what we know today, it’s all hand-wavy at some point.

    Weber’s solution is a sort of step-up to higher dimensions method, but still means that getting places quickly is either impossible or *very* dangerous (wormholes) AND limited. The wormholes provide shortcuts, but they are limited utility and we can’t manufacture them (natural phenomena) and we have a hard time even *finding* them. He also deals heavily with space combat and why combat spread over the size of the solar system involves a *lot* of waiting.

    Enjoyable stuff, though some object to various aspects of his books, I don’t really see most of the objections (some, but not all).

  56. SolkaTruesilver says:

    Regarding Sci-Fi writing, there is always been a single element that pissed me off to no end. It’s not a matter of technological nitpicking, but more of a sociological:

    “Sci-Fi writers have no sense of scale”. Treating a planet, a WHOLE FREAKING PLANET, like it’s a city or just a different country. Saying that “oh, your come from Planet YX, you have Stereotype Gusbo”, not acknowledging that Planet YX might be

    – Inhabited by either indigenous people (like Earth), meaning that a multitude of cultures and nations have developped on their own

    – Colonized by different cultures (like Canada), so you have diversity right there, even if there happens to be a dissassociation from the mother cultures.

    – Colonized in multiple phases by the same culture (like the US), which means people in different colonisation locations will most likely develop different cultural or perks based on whatever history they’ll have.

    Also, it’s very doubtful 10 colonies spreaded at 10 different places on a planet will have immediately a unified global government. There might be coalitions, cooperation pacts, etc.. but a unified government system that has executive power? I doubt it. At best, it would be like a simplified UN, probably called the “Cooperation Council” aimed at coordinating resource exploitation.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      True,but you can find such generalizations even in todays world.The people living in the north of my country are much closer in culture to people living in the neighboring country than to those in the south of my country.Heck,even in my city alone you can find different slangs,styles of clothing and music just by going from one area to the other.And yet,youll rarely see someone portrayed as “from the city of xyz”,but youll often see them as a german,or a french,or an american,or a russian.

      • SolkaTruesilver says:

        Maybe, but even most of the world know the difference between a Californian, a Texan and a New Yorker. Just because of the type of environment and economy each have developped and the population exposure they all lived through.

        You still end up with rather different people between Australia, Canada and the US, even if all three countries have been settled by England.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          “Maybe, but even most of the world know the difference between a Californian, a Texan and a New Yorker.”

          But can you say the same for people from different parts of china,india or russia?

          Besides,we are enjoying only a few decades of easy world connectivity,and some things,like txt speak,are becoming quite universal.There may be different slangs in my country,but every teenager here now knows what lol,wtf and omg stand for,even children that havent started learning english yet.

        • ACman says:

          Yes but there wasn’t any television or internet in the 1600s.

          Unless you have no telecommunications or air travel between colonies the culture is going to be pretty similar discounting differences in recreation or economy depending on resources unless you have multiple separate monocultures colonising the same planet.

          So unless you have space China, space America and space Germany (Or corporate equivalents) all grabbing chunks of the same planet and being somewhat isolationist from each other then societies are going to be pretty similar.

    • Arex says:

      Poul Anderson was always great about this, continually having his charcters reflect on the fact that a planet was a whole world, and that any generalizations about a local situation or population were just that. In a genre full of Galactic Empires, he made sure to note just how simultaneously *huge* and tiny his Terran Empire was: a 400 light year bubble, basically invisible on a map of the galaxy, but containing a million worlds, of which only a fraction had been visited, and only a fraction of those actually knew and acknowledged the Empire existed, with most of those just sending an annual tribute and otherwise going on their way.

      • SolkaTruesilver says:

        Poul Anderson? Damn, I need to read this then!

        Funny how a 1000-light year Federation only had 150 member planets XD

        • krellen says:

          Not when you consider most worlds are probably uninhabitable, and only a fraction of the habitable ones will evolve their own sapience.

        • Arex says:

          Baen’s rereleased a more or less complete collection as The Technic Civilization Saga. They basically break down into two main series, plus a bunch of extras set between or after the main ones. The primary groupings are: Polesotechnic League era, focused primarily around merchant prince Nick van Rijn and trade pioneer David Falkayn (expansion/exploration phase, a few centuries in the future); and the Dominic Flandry stories (the League broke down, and there was an anarchic period that ended with the founding of a Terran Empire. Flandry lives in the waning days of the Empire circa 3000 AD, and acts as a general espionage agent trying to extend its imperfect and occasionally brutal order, because he believes that the chaos that will follow will be much, much worse).

          One word of warning– Baen graced the Flandry books in particular with covers that seem keyed to make one not necessarily want to read them in public. (They were probably meant to evoke James Bond– though Flandry actually predates Bond by a year or two– but somehow shot past that into “Cinemax movie video sleeve” territory.) Definitely books where I was grateful to be able to read them on the Kindle instead.

          (I strongly recommend buying any ebooks directly from Baen. They were early into the field, and have consistently refrained from putting any sort of DRM on, something I emphatically support encouraging with one’s wallet. Once you’ve bought from them, you can download the books in any format, including Kindle, epub, HTML, plain text, etc.)

          • Mephane says:

            Another nice perk of Baen is the free library. That thing actually got me to buy the complete Giants Series there after reading the entire first book which (among others) they give out for free. :D

    • Agreed, and it’s not a new criticism. SF writers have been pointing this out since at least the seventies, but they still keep doing it–I guess it’s just too easy to do.

  57. SolkaTruesilver says:

    (since it’s another perk, and may be worth a different discussion)

    Another HUGE perk I have is the apparent blatant lack of desire to explain WHY there would be a colonial surge to outer worlds. You don’t finance billion-dollar enterprise to send people elsewhere just so they can live there (except for the token national pride thingy).

    You need to have either economic or political reasons to settle colonies, at least at first. England used the opportunity of the New England colonies to get rid of troublesome religious minority.

    Otherwise, there has to be something to be gained to justify the extreme expense of a colonisation process that goes beyond a token military/scientific outpost.

    • Mephane says:

      Well that depends on the actual setting. It might be that the civilization does not deal in money any more (e.g. Star Trek) and thus those considerations are moot, if there is free room and people willing to go they will expand. Or that there is profit to be had, and space travel rather cheap and mundane anyway (e.g. Star Wars).

      Also, if a new colony succeeds and flourishes, it can launch more colonization efforts of its own, and thus spread the civilization even further, so thinking long-term the initial investment might be dirt cheap compared to the eventual outcome.

      And spreading your civilization over as many planets, asteroids, space stations, ships, star systems, galaxies is *the* recipe for survival. A single planet can be hit by one of a number of disasters which, though not wiping out life, can utterly destroy an entire civilization (an asteroid like the one to kill off the dinosaurs might not kill every human being on Earth, but probably send us all back to the stone age).
      But if you’re spread across half the universe, your civilization as a whole is immune to such threats except for the end of the universe itself.

      • SolkaTruesilver says:

        Even in a moneyless economy like Star Trek, you need an economy. Ressource allocation is still important, and why spend a rather large amount of your ressources just for the thrill of sending people and be dependant on you for a hundred years? The ressources could be better employed for buildings more Starships, scientific research or even improving the standard of living of your civilisation.

        I am not sure how a colony could support colonisation on their own, except if they reach the level of a fully developped world. If you are settling and building a new society in a world, why sent precious labor power away? What is the advantage in that?

        Only properly developped worlds with geopolitical (astropolitical?) interests or population surplus would have the cost/benefit balance favoring a colonisation effort. But you still need a reason to get there in the first place, be it gold, spices, unobtainamium, fur or even timber (for the first New England colonies).

        As for the argument that “we need to spread or risk to die as a whole”, while very valid, is also an utterly abstract one. I doubt governement/industry leaders would care for the possibility of “all eggs in the same basket” problem that could strike us only in a thousand years. They need a reason here and now to spend the rather daunting amount of ressource necessary to support an economic/civilian colonisation effort that goes beyond military or scientific outpost. Mining, most probably.

        Time to raid Pandora!!!

    • monkeyboy says:

      Good point, it’s not like terrestrial migration where you could buy a wagon or chip in for a ship.
      You might have the same process in-solar system, with rare earth prospectors leading to colonists.
      Of course equitorial countries would make a killing in the rocket trade.

      • SolkaTruesilver says:

        Even then, you need a government support of these projects, even if it
        s civilians who have to find a way to get there on their own. The puritans who chipped in to buy their own ships still needed protection by the English Military, and industrialized support (at first) to procure industrialized supplies for their settlement.

        If you think of settling a 100% undevelopped WORLD, things look even more daunting.

        • Arex says:

          It depends a lot on the ground rules. Polynesia was settled without any centralized government effort, because it could be done with the resources of relatively small groups of people, and the islands were habitable with the technology they had. Older SF tended to have planets comparably habitable, so if you had cheap enough transport anyone could colonize without too much support. Franchises like Trek tend to continue that, not least because it’s easier on the effects department and the scriptwriters.

          More recently, there tends to be at least token recognition of how vanishingly unlikely this is given the contingencies of evolution. So there’ll at least be a handwave towards a precursor group doing advance terraforming work. See Stargate: SG-1, where humans and human-friendly environments were spread across the galaxy long before we came along. They even hung a lampshade on the “terraforming pines” that showed up on so surprisingly many planets. (Because they were ubiquitous in the filming location of Vancouver.)

          If you’re basically starting from planets that make Antarctica look friendly (certainly everyplace in the solar system, and maybe everyplace period), then yeah, you’re going to need some serious resources to make a colony work, and some serious benefits to motivate it.

    • I suspect that after the relatively short term semi-collapse we’re headed for, civilization is likely to get to post-scarcity, and may significantly reduce inequality. If there’s enough for everyone, and if you don’t have trillionaires grabbing all the surplus, you can start having a conversation about what you want to do with your extra, stuff that would be just “nice to do” even if it’s not necessary.
      At that point, space travel is certainly one of the things that will come up.

      • Mephane says:

        Just think about how many resources and people are literally wasted in wars all the time. Combine all these people, the technical expertise, the resources, time, energy e.g. that go into military and you’d easily have enough to start building cities on the moon and colonizing mars.

        The problem is not that the resources are not there, the problem is what is being done with them. This is why I assume that the one thing required for mankind to actually start becoming at least an interplanetary civilization is to stop producing ever more and deadlier tools of destruction and using them on each other.

        This is not just required for some idealistic idea of “world peace”, but it is probably the only way to economically be able to make the transition to the next phase.

        • SolkaTruesilver says:

          I sadly do no share your optimisim regarding the future of human nature. It is my belief mankind is inherently violent and competitionist, and these tendencies often led to both tragedy and innovation.

          The colonisation of the New World mostly came out of a desire by Western European countries to gain an edge in the European politic game. Was there no warfare in Europe, there might have not been a desire for colonisation.

          • silver Harloe says:

            I agree – man is inherently war prone.

            Here’s the thing. Technology always gets smaller and cheaper. Bells don’t get unrung, they get commoditized.

            Currently, it is possible technologically for a medium nation or large corporation to destroy all human life. It used to take a large nation. The way technology inevitably progresses, it will get to the point where a terrorist group or even a single insane person could destroy all human life on Earth. Once it gets that cheap and easy, it’s just a matter of time before it happens. And it’s not just about nukes – a good disease could accomplish this, or misuse of a sufficiently impressive not-intended-as-a-weapon device like a spaceship or energy plant, or something else we haven’t thought of yet. Human life is resilient, but it does have a breaking point, and technology just keeps better and cheaper and smaller.

            Before then, we must have done something to survive as a species:
            1) got all our eggs out of the Earth basket
            2) changed human nature to no longer go mad and/or desire to kill others.
            3) ?possibly a periodic tech reversion is desirable?
            4) what am I not thinking of?

            Option one is of limited use unless we keep spreading out fast enough to outpace the casualties of our ever-more-destructive wars.

            Some argue option two is impossible, some argue it is undesirable – that’s all fine and dandy, but if faced with extinction, I imagine I would prefer post-humanism.

            Option three strikes me as difficult to really pull off. As I said, I don’t believe bells get unrung just because we want them to.

            I don’t have an answer. I just know we need to find one.

            • SolkaTruesilver says:

              Thing is, you cannot just ask governments or corporation to commits what is arguably colossal sums of ressources (either money, labor or invested capital) for the sole reason of: “We shouldn’t keep ours eggs in the same basket”.

              I agree it’s a laudable goal, I just don’t think idealism or super-futuristic foresight has much weight in high-level decision making. Hell, many of our leaders have trouble seeing 5, 10 years ahead.

              Technological reversal is self-defeating, I’d think.

              Seriously, beside SERIOUS resource craving in outer worlds, I’d wager the only reason we would start a costly colonisation process is if we discover proof of intelligent alien life and thu start seeking a defensive posture against them so as not to be at too much of a disadvantage on the astropolitical frame.

              As we develop colonies, side-effects will happens and will re-orient the colonising mentality for good or bad, until the very colonisation process will produce its own justification as time go on.

              But you still need the initial spark to justify sending 3,000 people in another world and keep sending them.

              • silver Harloe says:

                Yah, I think colonization for its own sake isn’t going to happen. It’ll start when the space flight technology gets cheap enough that the asteroids become inviting sources of metals. But I don’t think option one is the answer. I’m of the opinion, despite my love of Mal’s big speech near the end of the movie Serenity, that we need to fix people if we want to still have people.

          • Mephane says:

            I never said that I am optimistic about this, I merely stated that stopping war altogether is required to have the resources for such an endeavour available. It did not intend to imply that I expect mankind to achieve such a goal in the forseeable future.

            • SolkaTruesilver says:

              Oh, point taken.

              But you could argue that, in the event there is a strategic advantage to be gained by colonising outer colonies, military funds will be diverted from the current accounts of spending toward colonization effort?

  58. Akhier says:

    How about instead of letting this magic box worry you instead try to make it just there? Most people don’t know the intimate details of their cars engine and just assume it works so what would be different about a space ships engine? When you read a book if its any good you get sucked in at least a little and if you can make the people in the story just know that it works but not really remember how, after all it was taught in high-school and they didn’t really pay attention and it was hard or something then the reader will just fall into the belief that we did figure it all out and the less you actually say the more they assume about how it works but at least it will all be believable to them. After all do you go around commenting how your cars engine works to every random stranger you pass by on the off chance some person is watching in who doesn’t know how a car works and thinks it is impossible?

  59. Gahrer says:

    I checked up the Forever War and it made me think: Has anyone heard of a story that is the inverse of Forever Wars story? Something like aliens attack, soldiers are trained and sent off to fight. The war goes on for years, maybe decades, without possibility to contact earth. Military culture change and weapons improve but only a day or two passes on earth. The returning soldiers must then face a society that is incapable of understanding why they are so changed. After all, the war was really short, right?

    The premise is quite obvious so I’m sure something along that line is out there.

    • Syal says:

      It would have to be the other way around, wouldn’t it? Where all the civilians are evacuated until the war ends, and when they get back they’ve only aged a few days?

  60. 4th Dimension says:

    No matter what system you choose you must do the following. When you finally make a system, STICK TO IT! I don’t care what kind of unobtanium you use for your ships, but they all must stick to unobtanoium rules and conventional physics rules.

    Some other stuff:
    Space is huge and big. That means ships will fight at great distances from about light second max in distance for directed energy weapons, to several seconds and up to light minutes for missiles. Do not have ships at pissing distances. If they can see each other with regular unaided human eyes, they are WAAAY close to each other.
    Colary of the previous, even with low acceleration due to size of a normal star system, ships can accumulate enormous speeds, that means, ships can discover ambushes, and know they are dead for hours, and not able to escape. If you don’t have time to deaccelerate (kill all speed) and reaccelerate away from the enemy you will die.
    There is no stealth in space, if you are detecting enemies via EM emissions. If you are using some other way that’s more effective than EM detection (say detecting gravity waves given off by their engines accelerating ships) you can get away with couple of ambushes, simply because nobody might be looking for obsolete reaction engines.
    Fighters are USELESS. The space taken by pilot, his support systems, and fuel for return to carrier, would be much better used for more sensors, targetting computers and more weapons. Missiles or AI directed drones are better. Alltough how are AI drones better than missiles, I’m not excatly sure.

    Anyway Project Rho (atomic Rockets) has the answers. Also in my opinion some people that do it okay (especially warfare part), tough might be a bit less hard are: David Weber (Honor Harrington saga) and I’ve read Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series and it was awesome.

  61. You know, maybe what we really need for “space travel” is to abandon the concept of a “ship” altogether, and instead of fighting gravity, make use of it. If you can figure a way to nudge your star to a slightly different energy potential relative to the rest of the galaxy, won’t you gradually move through the galaxy itself?

    Not to mention what else you could do with a proper understanding and control of gravity. Cause dust clouds to accrete into planets or stars. Perhaps replenish an existing star to prevent it from going nova. Or create a manufactured “star” that is more efficient.

    It would take a long, long time, but on the other hand it may not take as much in the way of resources and physics-defiance as trying to find some kind of “ship” solution. And you’d have what you’d need to sustain and expand life, which is kind of the overall point of this business, yes?

    Imagine busting up the gas giants and using that mass to make more earth-type planets. (Or not even earth-type, it might be vastly more efficient to manufacture other kinds of “planets” or habitable zones.)

    Who needs to visit other stars when you can have a “solar system” with a hundred or more habitable planets?

    That’s actually kind of a neat idea. I’ll have to throw that in the bin as something to maybe write up later.

  62. Peter Sturdee says:

    Shamus, I’d actually advise you to step back and figure out what your story needs before settling in on a technology. Moving from place to place is a matter of plot; it’s an avenue to build tension. For example, in a more terrestrial story, if our hero needs to get from his office to the villain’s warehouse to save his partner, he runs outside to jump in his car. This is normal, and if no tension is required, he gets to the villain’s place without incident. However, you can build tension by giving his car a flat, an empty tank of gas, inflict a traffic jam, or even take his car away. These all trigger on the technology of the car he is expected to have to get around. See?

    If you want to move from planet to planet in the story, then those moves are a matter of plot, and the means to make those moves becomes a device to make your character’s lives easy or difficult. You’ll probably be wanting to pick a means of getting about that can go wrong in interesting ways.

    But, if you you just want to set you story on another planet — how the characters got there is a minor setting detail. Until you need that explanation to create tension in the story.

    Set your rules, stick to them. And then use those rule to make your characters’ lives difficult.

    • ACman says:

      It think he’s definately moving in the direction of hard(ish) Space Opera with hyperdrive rather than planetary Scifi. And even if he just wanted planetary scifi then it still raises the question of how people got to the planet?

      Setting up what is possible in a universe is important to help what is possible in the plot. Do interstellar ships arrive constantly suggesting hyperdrives? Or yearly suggesting costly hyperdrive? Or every decade/century/millennium suggesting sublight travel?

      • Peter Sturdee says:

        Ah, I haven’t been clear enough, then. I’m suggesting that he look at the story he wants to tell, first, then decide on the technology. This is science fiction. Living on another planet is magical, no matter how you slice it. Being up-to-date with current scientific theory is a great way to keep the willing suspension of disbelief shored up, but, as a writer, Shamus is still going to have to make stuff up.

        It’s one thing to suggest a means to overcome the enormous engineering feats required just to move a human (or bunch of humans) to another star system. But what happens when they get there? How is it even possible to have all the required technology to make that planet habitable to humans and the whole ecosystem required to support human life? An author can spend his novel just explaining how everything works. But that tends to make for a lousy reading experience. Sci fi is built on magic. And that’s okay, because the magic serves the story.

        The author sits down and figures out the story she wants to tell, looks for the devices to support that story, then the technology flows from that. For example, if the author wants to tell a swashbuckling story of the heroes rushing to head the villains off before they unleash their dastardly plot, you are going to need faster-than-light travel and faster-than-light communication — unless the story takes place inside a stellar system, and even then you’re going to need pretty damn fast ships, because it would take astronauts using current technology years to move from planet to planet. See? If the author proposes a setting where no FTL exists, then the best that can happen is a chase through space, or a chance encounter. If the author doesn’t need chases, then sub-FTL is okay.

        Even if the story takes place on a colony, knowing how the colonists got there and founded the colony is only a minor setting detail — unless it fits into the plot. Take Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. The story can almost entirely exist without knowing how the colonists got to Lusitania, and it glosses completely over the steps to establish the colony, other than the effort required to overcome the effects of the Descolada. The near-light-speed travel and instantaneous interstellar communications employed is used by the plot to make Ender’s arrival a point of tension (and to provide a sense of urgency in case the Starways Congress decides to get involoved). The book is basically a mystery story, the setting of the planet is far more important to the story than how the people in the story got there.

        Now, in a setting like Star Trek, it’s important that the heroes are able to rush to the aid of some outpost or friendly ship, to fight interstellar enemies, and basically wander from planet to planet as they move from story to story. Therefore, FTL is a must.

        See? The magic is necessary in sci fi. The important thing, in my opinion, is that the systems stay consistent — whatever those systems are.

  63. ACman says:

    I’ll leave this here:

    In fact the whole of the Project Rocket website is great for thinking about SciFi and how much you want to obey what is sensible scientifically and what is convenient to your fiction.

    They really don’t like FTL though.

    You ARE going to have to hand-wave so just establish your rules and try to avoid technobabble.

    My rules are:

    *Separate Einsteinian Space/Hyperspace.
    *HyperDrive engines must be scaled for different ship sizes.
    *Requires lots of “fuel” in proportion to distance traveled and mass.
    *Time passes in in Einsteinian space while in Hyperspace in proportion to distance travelled.
    *Has to be done in microgravity and into another gravity well.
    *Creates a cosmic ray burst on entrance and exit so everybody sees you enter and exit a system.

  64. Cain says:

    Probably easier if everyone’s immortal. Then you get to do stories about decades or centuries of cabin fever.

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