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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