Space Ships and Faster than Light Travel

This week its back to science fiction and what is one of the icons of the genre, the means by which people travel from one world to another, the space ship.  The fact that Einstein throws a spanner in the works by telling us that you can’t travel at the speed of light, or faster (you’ll have infinite mass if you do) doesn’t stop science fiction writers.Enterprise

So how do science fiction writers explain this ability to travel faster than the speed of light?  We don’t of course, at least not in detail, how can we?    But we have to have it, otherwise science fiction would stop at the edges of our own solar system.  Our imaginations go further than that and therefore so do our space ships.  So most ‘far distant’ science fiction uses some form of short cut to get from one world to another.   There have been some exceptions.  Ken Macleod in his ‘Engines of Light’ series includes time dilation as traders, travelling at a significant proportion of the speed of light appear back on worlds generations later.  Joe Halderman, I think, also used this in the 1970’s in the ‘Forever war’ (I’m sure some will correct me if I’m wrong) with soldiers returning to earth, effectively, centuries after they left .

But most of us use the ‘short cuts’.  Anyone growing up with Star Trek knows all about Warp drives.  I think I first came across a ‘jump’ drive in Asimov’s foundation and Empire series.  I seem to remember people spending hours calculating the ‘jump’, because, in those first three books there are no computers (they were written in the early 1950’s) to do the work for them.  You also have the much used term ‘hyperspace’.  It’s that transition into hyperspace for which Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect needed their towels.   I’ve also read of ‘wormholes’.  In the classic Larry Niven  and Jerry Pournelle book ‘The Mote in God’s Eye’ they have the Alderson drive.  Other authors simply ignore the issue.  Their ships and characters just ‘travel’.  I don’t think Iain M Banks in the culture books explains how his magnificent and somewhat eccentric huge ships travel faster than light, they just do.

What is interesting to me is that most of these methods of crossing interstellar space still take ‘time’.  In my book ‘Ancestral Dreams’  I go for the instantaneous jump.  However I speculate that they have to travel outside the influence of stars and planets to make these jumps.  This then gives them days worth of travel in and out of system.  As I suspect with those writers where the journey through ‘hyperpsace’ (or whatever you call it) takes days or weeks, we writers still feel the need for our characters to have some sense of travelling.  I think it is so ingrained in all of us that travelling  has to ‘take time’.   Also for me it allows ‘living’ on a space ship, which adds to that feel of space travel.  It adds ‘colour’ and depth to that alien environment.

Millenium falconAs I science fiction writer I firmly believe that at some point we will find a way to cheat the speed of light.  I understand NASA are even researching a ‘Warp’ drive.  From what I’ve read the warp creates a fold in the fabric of space and time that allows an object within to travel a much greater distance in a shorter time (not that that makes it much clearer to me).  Perhaps a bigger problem to the sci-fi writer are propulsion systems for getting around the solar system (a future blog perhaps) at acceptable speeds.

If this interest you and/or you write sci-fi I would advise reading Ben Bova’s book ‘Space Travel’ (see my resources page).

I would also be interested in other solutions people have come across.

Thanks for reading.

Ian Martyn

Author: Ian Martyn

Science Fiction Writer

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