A Little Light Reading: Travel in Sci-Fi Universes — Part 1

Einstein or Chewbacca: The First Big Choice in Space Opera

If you’re the sort of person who’s interested in this article, I probably don’t need to remind you that outer space is a huge asshole. It’s ice-cream-headache cold, McDonald’s-apple-pie hot, lung-poppingly empty, and Hulk-smashingly radioactive. Most of all though, space is big; it is unreasonably, irresponsibly, vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big. And if you’re planning on writing a space opera—or any breed of science fiction that spends a substantial amount of time in outer space—this fact is going to become very pertinent to your creative process very early on.

Einstein’s theory of special relativity tells us that no massive particle can exceed, or even match, the speed of light in a vacuum. This applies to objects as small as a proton and as large as a spaceship. Whether your story is intended to be a scientifically rigorous drama, or a campy, colourful spacetime romp, the first step in your world-building should be to ask how you’re going to deal with this speed limit. The initial decisions you make on how to handle interstellar travel can set the entire tone of your story, and open up a host of exciting new questions to ask yourself.

Slower Than Light Travel: A Primer

It is incredibly tempting to just ignore special relativity. Light speed lag is an inconvenience in almost every circumstance, and it closes a lot of creative doors. Even patron saints of hard sci-fi like Larry Niven and Arthur C. Clarke were known to drop in a stargate or a hyperspace drive here and there. But on the flip side, choosing to tell a story without faster than light travel actually hands you a set of very interesting tools; tools that nobody with a warp drive has access to.

For example, no matter how much we all love to put on our best Ricardo Montalban accent and scream “Ceti Alpha Five” at terrified Russian children, sometimes it can be very powerful to tell stories about planets a little closer to home. In most cases, slower than light vessels are going to be confined to a single solar system, so why not make it the one we live in? Everyone is familiar with names like Venus and Jupiter, and you shouldn’t underestimate the emotional cache that this sort of recognition carries. Mars may be months away by Hohmann Orbit, but it feels right next door, and any sort of action there is going to carry extra weight as a result.

Similarly, whereas a fictional Federation of Planets can feel very alien at times, a story set in our own solar system can be located culturally and temporally closer to what we’re familiar with. Spacecraft might be built by Mitsubishi, and haul cargo between the Nairobi space elevator, and Walmart’s warehouses in the Jovian Trojan points. Near-Earth stories really put the speculation into speculative fiction, and afford infinite opportunities for clever creativity based on real world ideas.

If you still have the itch to get out starhopping, however, sub-light travel doesn’t necessarily lock you out. There is a wealth of incredible literature dealing with spacecraft that ride just below light speed, and the strange crews that operate them. Although most forms of “galactic empire” are impossible without a faster than light option to adjudicate by, this can actually be a good thing in a narrative, since each new world your characters visit is truly its own world, developed independently without the common ethos or history that a central government brings. Traditionally, these stories are much more somber and solipsistic than other types of space opera. A spacecraft between stars is just about the most isolated place a person can be, and there is a bleak and terrible beauty to be found in this isolation.

Another consequence of special relativity is that the closer to light speed you travel, the slower time passes. In a round trip to Alpha Centauri and back at 95% of light speed, 9 years will pass on Earth, while less than 3 will pass for the passengers. This delay can be a fatal roadblock if you’re trying to tell a fast-paced thriller, but if instead you’re looking for something with emotional impact, there’s nothing quite so poignant as families and loved ones levered apart by this temporal disparity.

There are other useful techniques to use as well. In his Revelation Space series, Alastair Reynolds uses sub-light star travel to phenomenal effect by interweaving a number of stories from different worlds and time periods, and having them slowly come together as lightspeed lag brings them into synchronicity. In Ender’s Game and its sequels, Orson Scott Card combined faster than light communications with sub-light travel to create a sense of powerful inevitability, where characters become aware of events in real time, but their effects are not felt until decades later.

Even the actual mechanics of travelling between stars can be rich and flavourful writing fuel.  Is your ship is a huge cylinder like Clarke’s Rama, its inner surface full of parkland and sunlight, or is it a cold tomb carrying millions of frozen corpsesicles in stasis? Does it fly independently on a massive fusion flame, or does it rely on the charity of lasers beamed from home to inflate its light sail?

To Be Continued.

– Contributed by Matteo DiGiovanni


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