Worlds & Time

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


This is a sci-fi rant, so if you get easily bored by that sort of thing, be warned.

Realistic space travel is boring. I've been reading the Rama series by Clarke and Lee, which deals with very fast but not faster than light (hereafter referred to as FTL) travel. One of the consequences of this is that in order to fit the journey into the life of the main characters, the distances are relatively minor (less than twenty light years) and the characters tend to sleep large chunks of their lives away.

For a character that gets to experience the thrill of orbiting a star other than the sun, she gets to loose a good thirty years of her life to do it.

So, if I want my characters to experience that thrill but don't want to have them die of old age I really only have a couple of options. Make them immortal or introduce FTL travel.

There are three kinds of FTL. The first one is actually moving faster than light moves relative to a couple of stars or planets. The cultural reference for this is Star Trek's warp drive (or Star Wars' blissfully unexplainable hyperspace drive). The second one is wormholes or gateways, an Einstein-Rosen bridge, if you wish. Obviously Stargate (and Stargate SG-1, and Stargate Atlantis) are references for this kind of travel. The final type of FTL is d-jumping, ignoring the space between two points and moving from here to there instantaneously. This is actually more common in literary science-fiction, but the recent Battlestar Galactica uses this kind of device.

When I created my own science fiction world, I knew I wanted FTL, so I had to pick at least one of these types of travel. As a rabid fanboy of science fiction, the choice wasn't hard. I wanted all of them. Obviously, my versions aren't the same as in the shows that I point out above, but all of them have unique drawbacks and benefits, and if you're going to write the rules, you may as well write them to make yourself happy.

The first kind of drive I usually refer to as an FTL drive. Unfortunately, Einstein has proven that physical objects in our universe aren't going to travel this way unless you've got a spare universe lying around to power the drive.

That's not an insurmountable problem. It turns out that if you simply bend space-time around the outside of a spaceship, you can move as fast as you want without all that nasty relativity. No slowing down, no infinite energy, no speed limits . . . theoretically. That's the proposal of the Alcubierre metric, anyway.

In our real world, bending space-time is something of a problem. We don't know how to do it, especially without using large amounts of matter that tend to get in the way. In my fictional world, bending space-time is not really a problem (that's a plot point, so we'll just leave it at that for now. If you're interested in how it's accomplished in my work, help me get published and read it for yourself).

So, I have my first kind of space travel. I need to give it some properties though, to make it more useful to my series and to make it specific to me. The first thing I'm going to do is describe what it looks like: white, gray, and then black. If you're riding inside the bubble, light will be streaming from the front, which causes a bright light (and massive radiation). On the sides, the light is bouncing off of nothing, but is not getting any input so it appears gray. Behind, light is falling out of the bubble into your wake, so it will appear black. No blurred stars, no rainbows. Maybe a little bit of blue to account for the Doppler blueshift.

I'm also going to propose that the way these FTL drives work creates the imbalance in space-time creates an acceleration. So, as you start out from a specific point, each second you travel you are traveling faster than until they collapse the bubble and you find yourself stopped again. The practical upshot of this is as you near the end of any journey you'll be going many times faster than near the beginning.

I'm going to say that the edges of the field act as barriers. In Star Trek shields are a kind of projected forcefield. In my universe, your shields are a product of your engines. Ships with huge drives have more powerful shields. Since I know that I'm going to need radiation protection (see two paragraphs up), I'm going to pair everything so that most spaceships shield passengers from radiation while they travel. A captain could decide not to do this and his ship would be much faster, but his crew would roast from the radiation.

Fourth, I'm going to say that ships in this sort of field are essentially in their own universe. That means that a ship can sit in orbit around a planet without worrying about falling into the atmosphere because gravity flows around the edges of the space-time effect and not through it. That means that if a spaceship enters the Earth's atmosphere, it will be more affected by the wind than the gravity, and will be able to hover without countering the acceleration of gravity. On the other hand, ships will be able to merge these fields so that they can exist relative to each other (otherwise I wouldn't be able to have ships dock with each other).

Finally, I'm going to play with the way I describe the FTL field when it's not a bubble. There are some cool ideas involving the way a non-bubble space-time distortion can create acceleration directly that are basic to the way I work physics, which could lead to special kinds of weapons and artificial gravity. Most useful if I ever decide to have my books made into movies.

The second type of travel is the wormhole. Now, real Einstein-Rosen bridges use singularities, but I've already mentioned that bending and molding space-time are integral to my plot so we'll use the same device here.

My "gates" will be places where space-time have been bent so that two points of space touch each other. Now let me differentiate my gates from other fiction.

First, my gates would not be shiny, blue and two dimensional. Space is three dimensional, and my gates will be as well. In that respect, and open gate will be more like a big huge donut than a puddle. If you're looking directly at one, you can mistake it for a circle, but from the perspective of someone standing on the side watching someone pass through it, it will obviously be three dimensional.

Second, the power requirements for holding open a hole in the universe are going to be quite large. I'm going to pretend that this amount of power is significantly greater than is needed for a FTL drive, and it increases exponentially the farther that you go.

So, gates will be primarily be limited to a planetary surface, and used by people to travel. Big spaceship and industrial uses will be much too expensive to be feasible. It also means that most people will ride trams of some kind through gates because holding them open longer than necessary will be wasteful. No forty minutes for my gates, the average open time will be around ten seconds.

So it will be convenient for traveling twenty light years for a business lunch, but not for moving or colonizing another planet. Further, if you want to travel far, going through multiple gates will be less power intensive than going the whole way at once, so these trams will run like trains stopping at train stations.

Ah, right, final thing, you don't need equipment at both ends. It helps if you do have equipment at both ends, but it's not required. No one way trips either. Everything is back and forth, although normally they won't be open long enough for this to be an issue.

The final kind of traveling is teleporting. Instead of disintegrating someone and reassembling them somewhere else, I'm going to say that my final method of travel bundles all the particles together in their current configuration and construction through another kind of space, which I'll call hyperspace for all sorts of nostalgic reasons rather than actual semblance to the majority of depictions of hyperspace.

Once again, the fundamental physics of my universe have to do with bending space, so here's how were going to describe making a hyperspace jump. First, you'll need a static FTL bubble. Normally, these retain a connection of some kind to the regular universe, but now you'll ramp up the power and give the edges a kick. Instead of just bending space-time, you're going to break it. Now, you'll really be in a universe of your own, and the hyperspace drive will give you a kick along a half dozen dimensions that we normally can't access from our fixed 3-D + time perspective.

Now, to plan a course along six completely new dimensions and end up where you want is going to be monstrously complicated. Right now I'll skip over my idea about how you'll need multiple calculations for different paths through equally likely but randomly differentiated dimensions and just say that to calculate one path will be insane enough. This will allow me to limit the people I want from hyperspace travel because so few will be able to figure out the calculations.

There are a couple of good points to this sort of travel. The first is that it doesn't take any time to someone observing you. You disappear from one place and the same moment you appear in your new position. The second is that you can transport entire ships this way. In fact, you must have a ship to travel this way, to create an FTL bubble around you before you kick into hyperspace. The third is that you can go any distance at all in any direction. Normally this will be bounded to known space so that you don't end your trip in the middle of a star, but this will also allow humans to travel as far as they wish, even to the ends of the universe as long as they are careful.

This method has drawbacks as well. The first is the problem with the math mentioned above. The second is that once again, you're going to need a great deal of power. Also, I think that as it is, it's too cheesy, so I'm going to add the limitations that if you use it too close to a star or planet you have to account for gravity somehow or you'll get spattered over a trillion miles and that you can't hyperspace jump into any solid object or you blow up. That means that you'll have to spend some time getting out of the solar system before you can use it, and you'll have to be careful where you go.

For a second, let's consider what this looks like. At the beginning from the outside, you'll see a bubble form, but it will quickly disappear. When it appears, the bubble will re-enter from hyperspace. The bubble will be traveling very quickly, faster than light, and it will accelerate any random particles out in a perfectly spherical shockwave from where you end up. So you'll get a bright flash at the destination when your ship shows up.

I'm also going to say that even though it doesn't appear to take time, to the people on the ship time will still pass while you'll traveling along these other dimensions. So, if you hyperspace jump from Earth to . . . anywhere else, it will seem like it takes an hour, even if though it really doesn't. To be nice, I'll say that if you calculate it correctly, you can shorten or lengthen the time you spend in hyperspace which can be very helpful.

Since this is all so complicated, I'm going to say that in my universe it's still complicated and then make the hyperspace drive insanely, prohibitively expensive to all but the richest people.

Most other created universes primarily use one of these systems, but most of them incorporate a secondary system as secondary. Star Trek uses a warp drive, but they also have transporters which function as a kind of teleporter. Stargate introduced a warp drive and a teleportation system in addition to the gates in later seasons. Simmons' Hyperion universe moved from gates and FTL drives to teleportation. The game Homeworld has a FTL system that functions as a cross between a gateway and a teleporter.

For those that use just one method of FTL, there are dozens and dozens of examples. Card's later Ender books eventually include teleportation. May's Galactic Milieu, Asimov's Norby series, and Brin's Earthclan use teleportation as well, if I recall correctly. Niven's known space uses FTL. Cowboy Bebop uses gateways. Herbert's Dune universe uses teleportation, although the mechanism described is closer to my description of gates.

Why would I go for all three of these instead of just one or two? Because there is a certain elegance in the interplay between all of those different kinds of drives. My book isn't about how space travel affects humans, that topic has been done to death. My book is about the way humans deal with the intrinsic human nature when that nature has become unrecognizable. Man vs. Self.

Humans have reached this amazing state where we are pushing the limits of our universe, but where our questions of self have become nearly impossible to answer. If the boundaries of your self are pushed further, by giving you god-like abilities and by removing the essentials of your personality and by breaking down individuality and without a shred more self control, what happens to you?

And, as a sci-fi geek, I get to put this in the middle of a space battle, weapons blazing as ships drop out of FTL. Cool.

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