Friday, April 6, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: FTL


Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different  speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Faster-Than-Light Travel.

Superluminal propulsion is pretty much the holy grail of space travel. As such, it features heavily in science fiction, especially space opera, where the problem of interstellar travel must be addressed in some way.

Einstein's theory of relativity says that a particle with subluminal velocity would need infinite energy to accelerate to the speed of light. That probably means we won't be visiting Alpha Centauri anytime soon. However, some physicists have proposed hypothetical means of propulsion which bend the rules of relativity by manipulating spacetime in some way. Many sci fi works contain examples of these kinds of technologies.

Arguably the most eminent example of superluminal travel is Star Trek's warp drive. In Gene Roddenberry's iconic universe, starships are powered by matter/antimatter reactors, which are able to generate a "warp bubble" around the ship. In this way, the ship itself never actually exceeds the speed of light, resting inside the bubble as spacetime is warped around it, contracting in front and expanding behind. This effectively allows the U.S.S. Enterprise to travel several orders of magnitude greater than the FTL limit without violating relativity. As noted in the video above, Star Trek has been monumentally influential--not just to purveyors of fiction, but to real-world scientists working to subvert the limits of physics in the hope that we may be able to reach the stars one day.

Another word synonymous with FTL travel in sci fi is the hyperdrive. Portrayed most famously in Star Wars, it allows a vessel to enter "hyperspace," a region of spacetime that exists alongside our normal universe. Entering this alternate dimension allows the ship to reach its destination faster than light would in normal space, either because it provides a shortcut to the destination or because the physics of hyperspace are such that relativistic principles do not apply.

In Star Wars, hyperspace is a tangled web, requiring a navicomputer or an astromech droid to navigate.

Those are just a couple of examples of the many creative ways science fiction writers have tackled the FTL problem. I've only written one story that required the use of an FTL drive myself. I don't have anywhere near the knowledge of physics required to devise anything even remotely original, so the science in my story was pretty soft, essentially using a handwavy version of the Alcubierre drive. I'm a huge fan of space opera (when it's done right), so it's likely I'll end up needing to solve the FTL problem again one day. I'm content to wave my hand and fling my phlebotinum as much as I need to make the story work, but I'm glad there are smart people out there who aren't. They've given me some great stories and a glimpse of the impossible.

Recommended Reading:
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Dune by Frank Herbert
Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Recommended Viewing:
Event Horizon 
Star Wars
Space Balls

Recommended Gaming:
Freelancer
Mass Effect
Tachyon: The Fringe



18 comments:

  1. I can't tell you how appreciative I am that you mentioned Spaceballs as a must see... especially with the properties of ludicrous speed being so complex and all.

    This A to Z challenge is fun and informative. Looking forward to your next post!

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    1. Thanks, Randi! Space Balls is a classic. It's one of those movies I can watch over and over again!

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  2. *snickers* Space Balls... Still funny and I haven't seen it in years.

    I do mostly low-sci in my sci-fi story aspects (although I hand more towards the fantasy/science fantasy side anyway), so there's not too much call yet for FTL. Don't know how I'll deal with it when I run into it, but I'm sure physics will be willing to do a little yoga for me. Right, physics? Come on, just a little stretch...

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    1. For me, the more compelling the story, the more I'm willing to forgive any science stretching as a reader. I think there are definitely some people out there who can't forgive anything but hard science in their scifi, but you can't please everybody!

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  3. The writers that can wrap their minds around aspects of science enough to create these types of things in their worlds are amazing to me. In that secret place where doubts haunt me in my mind, I worry that my fantasy world will never live up to a portion of what some of my favorites do. But then I stomp that area back down into its locked box and continue trying. *grin* Great post, again.

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    1. There are some science fiction writers out there that just blow my mind! It's easy to think "I could never write something on the same level as this," but chances are that author had similar doubts when they were working on it. We all do! That part about continuing to try is the important part.

      Thanks, Sabrina!

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  4. informative! love sci fi explained! makes it believable and possible!

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  5. This is why I'll probably never write sci-fi.... I just don't know enough to make these things believable.

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    1. It can be intimidating, for sure! But remember, not all science fiction is starships and laser guns. And then there's always science fantasy for those writers who want to tell an out-of-this-world story without restricting themselves to the hard boundaries of science.

      Thanks for stopping by, Kate!

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  6. I couldn't put Hitchhikers Guide down and when I first saw the leap into hyperspace in that Star Wars scene, I was ready to book passage on the next space shuttle out of earth.

    Great post!

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    1. Thanks, cleemckenzie! That's what I love about speculative fiction. Who says we have to keep our feet on the ground when we can visit the stars?

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  7. I love sci-fi! Wish I could move that fast, I'd get a lot more done!

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    1. I think we could all benefit from a little lightspeed in our lives. Thanks for reading, Hope!

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  8. I used the "jump" variety of FTL in my current WiP, that is instantaneous jump from Point A to Point B (usually a "gravitational point" or "gate" or some sort) and then travel in real space. So while jumping from one planet to another or one star to then next may be immediate, transiting from the jump point to the planet below may take hours.

    Still rather "Soft" in the scale of sci-fi hardness but a nice compromise, I think.

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    1. Lots of great stories use that method, including the game "Freelancer" in my recommended gaming section. I agree, it's a nice compromise when you need to get over the FTL hump to facilitate the story!

      Thanks for the comment, Rafael!

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  9. Thank you. Your post prompted me to open a blog on Science and Engineering Fiction

    http://sciengfi.blogspot.com/2012/04/science-and-engineering-fiction.html

    Let me see what I can think of in this category.

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    1. That's great, Narayana! I'm glad I could be inspiring in some way. Good luck with the blog, I look forward to reading it.

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Thanks for reading!