Faster than the Speed of Light

In the last blog I wrote, as promised a little while ago, I offered a detailed mathematical explanation of the principles of faster than light space travel, and added an appendix containing blueprints for an FTL vessel that can be built out of computer components, and a 3D map of the hyperburrows of space, including directions to the planet where sexy aliens can be found in abundance. (You see! I really am a man of my word!)

However, in an appalling breach of professional etiquette, my editor DongWon Song intercepted my blog and proceeded to build and then use his own spaceship. He has now departed New York for the Planet of the Sexy Aliens, leaving behind him a virtual avatar who (via a doppelganger connection) will continue to perform his editorial duties for Orbit.

The avatar is indistinguishable from the real DongWon save for one telling feature; when it rains, he does not get wet.

Chastened by this experience, I am now writing a much more general blog, without any maths or blueprints, to explain how you (or rather HE!!!) can travel through space.

The impossibility of FTL travel is, of course, a perennial bugbear for science fiction writers.  As all SF fans know, the theory of special relativity does not rule out the possibility of faster than light travel; it merely renders it impossible to travel AT the speed of light.  For at this very fast speed, one’s mass will be infinite (i.e. even greater, so the equations prove, than my mass and the dimensions of my arse on Boxing Day) and this makes travel of any kind difficult.

But who, some readers might exclaim, gives a damn?  After all, science fiction is full of all sorts of preposterous nonsense – why balk at this  particular bit of preposterous nonsense?  Why not just have spaceships travelling ‘very fast’ and getting to their destination ‘very quickly’?  Our hero might board a plane in New York and be in Alpha Centauri in half an hour, assuming that the pilot uses a ‘lot of acceleration’.  Is that really so outrageous and unforgivable?

Well yes it is. If you want to write science fiction featuring spaceships – ‘hard’ SF – then this is the law that can’t be ignored.  You can cheat, lie, bend the rules, but you can’t just pretend that FTL travel isn’t prohibited by special relativity.

Because to ignore it is to flout the principle that science fiction must be about the unlikely but possible.

Luckily, the rule is easily bent.  Tachyons, for instance, are postulated particles that travel faster than light. So give your spaceship a ‘tachyon drive’ and you’re quids in.  The fact that your hero – who presumably exists in a ‘tachyon-like’ state – is incorporeal and non-existent is a small price to pay.

Even better – give your ship a ‘warp drive’.  Or, as in Battlestar Galactica, allow your ship to ‘jump’.  Because there is a vast amount of scientific theory based on the concepts of ‘hyperspace’, and ‘wormholes’, which allow trans-dimensional travel through outer space  So,  rather than walking down the stairs to the floor below, you drill a hole in the floor and fall through.

The two most familiar ways of travelling through hyperspace (familiar to the SF fan, I mean – I take it for granted that no ‘normal’ person will be reading this blog) are the Alcubierre Drive and the traversable wormhole.

The Alcubierre Drive was invented in 1994 by a Mexican scientist called, um, Alcubierre. And it’s a way of stretching and contracting space-time around the flying spaceship.  The spaceship doesn’t travel faster than light, but space itself gets shrunk,  so the journey time is reduced.  For a pretty picture that makes visual sense of this, see below:

But if that seems too slow a method of locomotion, then it’s easier to use the multiple helter skelter system of wormholes in space – you simply enter the wormhole in one place, and pop out in another.  Niven and Pournelle use this principle with their concept of the Alderson points; Peter Hamilton has them in his Commonwealth books; and in Star Trek, they’re always popping in and out of wormholes.

Many SF  writers,  and indeed scientists, have  postulated that black holes are natural wormholes – and since no-one has ever survived falling into a black hole, it’s a hard theory to falsify. However, artificially created Morris-Thorne wormholes, supported by exotic matter, are more convenient, if you have limitless resources, and enough exotic matter.

Here’s a wormhole:

Easy, isn’t it? Just drive your spaceship into the top bit, and you fall out of the bottom bit, in another region of the universe.

Or there’s quantum teleportation.  Here’s how Charles Stross handles this in his novel Glasshouse:

I stumble to the exit – an A-gate – and tell it to rebuild my leg before returning me to the bar. It switches me off, and a subjective instant later, I wake up in the kiosk in the washroom at the back of the bar, my body remade as new.

The A-gate is a teleportation booth, which uses the scientifically valid and experimentally confirmed concept of quantum teleportation and combines it with the concept of the fax machine. In other words, the human enters the booth (or gate), his/her body is copied then destroyed, and a perfect copy is printed/constructed at the other end.

Thus, to travel faster than light, you have to die a thousand deaths…

Or you can do what the Silfen do.  You can just…walk from one end of the galaxy to the other.

The Silfen, of course, feature in Peter F. Hamilton’s novel Pandora’s Star. This begins with a wonderful sequence in which astronaut Wilson Kime travels to Mars on a spaceship, after years of preparation and months of travel…only to find that two college kids have beaten him to it, using a quantum teleportation device  they just invented.

The two kids are Nigel Sheldon and Ozzie Isaacs, and later in the same novel Ozzie explains how the Silfen – an elf-like race who are basically, um, elves – travel through space, based on a story a man once told him:

He claimed he’d been living with the Silfen for a few years. Really living with them, down at the end of those paths at the end of their forests which we all know about and never see.  Well he said he’d walked through their forests with them. Start out one fine morning on a path in the heart of some Silverglade wood, and finish up hiking across Mount Finnan on Dublin, like all the rumours have it. Three hundred light-years in a single stride.  But he’d actually done it and come back. He’d been to planets far outside the Commonwealth, so he claimed; sat on the blasted desert of a dead planet to watch the remnants of its sun fall into a black hole, swum in a sea on a planet where the only light comes from the galactic core.

This, of course, strictly speaking, is Not SF. 

For in a single stride, Hamilton has stepped outside the sane logical universe of science fiction (bounded by the laws of physics, ruthlessly policed by the Hard SF Police), into the wacky universe of fantasy where anything goes,  and your characters can do anything you want them to do, provided you call it “magic”.

And yet, Hamilton’s stuff about the Silfen is just great.  It’s not just great it’s




In other words, it’s hard to praise this concept without using the words that actually embody the fantasy genre itself – the realm of fable, magic and, er, fantasy.

Hamilton plays a similar trick, in a much more complex way, in his Dreaming Void trilogy (of which I’ve read the first two.) It’s an SF novel, which contains as its major strand a fantasy tale about the Waterwalker – a human being with astonishing psychic (magic) powers.  (Superman, of course, is SF not magic – because there’s supporting baloney to explain he has his powers because he comes from another planet. The Waterwalker’s powers are more magical than that; though admittedly the plot does thicken by the end of Book 2).

But back to the Silfen.  Isn’t that speech of Ozzie’s wonderful? Isn’t the concept of walking through the woods and on to other planets just unbeatable? By contrast, wormholes and exotic matter feel ever so prosaic.  And that’s because wormholes are extrapolatively real; but Silfen paths are mythic.

Bear with me here, because I’m falling through the paper on which this blog isn’t written, via a traversable metaphorical wormhole, and into the very middle of a previous blog I wrote, called Is this the Golden Age of SF?

And the answer to my question  – this time round, in this universe -  is  Probably Not.  Or maybe: Not Yet.  For SF is a genre with huge yet-to-be-fully-tapped potential, which in my view has lost its underlying myth.  The “Golden Age” myth of the Campbell/Clarke/Asimov/Heinlein generation was one of optimism, expansion, hope for mankind.  No one believes in all that any more.  And – despite the wonderfully high calibre of SF being written today – I’d argue that the great Golden Age myth has never been replaced.

Fantasy, of course, has its own myths – and indeed the myth of a ‘Golden Age’ ,  without technology but WITH magic and higher spiritual values, is grist to the mill of many a fantasy epic. 

Hamilton’s Waterwalker story feeds off this myth too – in a far future world where because of technology no-one need ever die, human beings still yearn to be in the universe of the Waterwalker, where magic is possible.

But, I would argue,  ”Golden Age” is just one among many possible myths.

And science fiction, in my view, works best when it’s not just scientifically credible, but also mythic.

And that’s why Star Wars is such a powerful movie, a film which tapped into the zeitgeist of a whole generation – and in effect, created a zeitgeist.  Because of course, despite the spaceships and technology, this is a mythic story, a fairy tale with light sabres.

And – tracking this river back to its source – one of the reasons for the film’s success is that George Lucas very deliberately tapped into one of the greatest resources for students of myth: the Joseph W. Campbell book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This essentially is an encyclopedia of ancient myths and legends from around the world.

And it is also the basis for the Christopher Vogler book The Writer’s Journey, which breaks down stories into stages based on the structures of ancient legend – the Call  to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, the Threshold Guardian etc etc.

Vogler was working for Walt Disney as a story analyst when he read the Campbell book, and he wrote and circulated a 7-page memo to the studio execs explaining Campbell’s ideas – a memo which changed the way Disney commissioned and developed movies  from that moment on.

And thus Vogler’s book has – for almost twenty years – been the Bible for a large number of Hollywood executives and creatives who strive to create a mythic inner arc for their movie stories – whether they are sci-fi, action, thriller, or drama. Blockbuster movie stories are based on mythic stories, in a totally conscious and deliberate way. (In The Matrix the Wachowski Brothers use the Hero’s Journey template quite consciously, and yet also in a tongue-in-cheek way.  When the Hero Refuses the Call early on in the story, it’s a phone call.)

And Joseph Campbell was, by the way, a friend and confidant of George Lucas.  And that’s the intellectual smoking gun of this argument – the proof of the deep and abiding link between the theory of myth, and the practice of science fiction storytelling.

So the question I’m left with is: how to make technology mythic? How can wormholes be mythic? How can exotic matter be mythic?  This doesn’t mean abandoning the rigour of the science fiction enterprise – yes, you can chuck magic into an SF novel, as indeed I do in my next book Version 43. But you can’t have Wrong Science.

However, assuming that the science is Right Science – it needs to be part of a mythic story structure that adds up to more than the sum of the parts.

It’s the distinction between Tech-Fi and Mythic Sci-Fi. Or the difference between Engineer Fiction – all geek stuff, no mythic underpinning -  versus bona fide Science Fiction, that stirs and exalts the imagination.

All of which is not the blog I started with: time to join up the two bits of the argument.

1) How can we as SF writers get our characters to credibly travel faster than light to experience stories in cool locations?  Because it matters! We can’t just make it up as we go along; we have to use real science or we are damned.

2) How can we write SF that is as richly mythic as the best fantasy writing?

In the tension between 1) and 2) is created, in my view, the fertile territory for the New Golden Age of SF.  We have to be faithful to the constraints of science, yet inspired by the boundless imaginative reaches of myth.

Here’s a concrete example of one writer who does  just that – (Professor) Adam Roberts, whose novel Stone is a witty and noirish thriller about a mass murderer which has, in my view,  one of the coolest ever methods of FTL travel.  Roberts refuses to accept an off the peg solution; he invents his own method of faster-than-light travel, based on his detailed readings of quantum physics.  Here, in his own words, is the narrator (female), explaining how it works:

Around each atom, several electrons exist, like planets in their orbits around the star, like points at the end of clock hands swinging round on their pivot…And sometimes, when the energy injected into the system changes, then these electrons may hop from a lower orbit to a higher one…and this movement, over miniscule distances though it be, is instantaneous. ..And by co-ordinating this motion over a whole body, it is possible to flick forward through space instantaneously.

This is a completely adorable concept!  If the famous ‘quantum leap’ of electrons is instantaneous,  oblivious to the no-FTL rule,  then many quantum leaps can take you vast distances in an almost infinitesimal amount of time.  But the greater joy of this concept is that (arbitrarily) Roberts declares that large objects like spaceships can’t travel by this method; so each individual space traveller has to be covered in impregnable foam, and sent spiralling out into space like an Egyptian Mummy on a funeral barge being conveyed to its final resting place.

This is hard SF at its best – a dazzling concept, that honours the science, yet takes us into the realm of mythic imagery.

But what is myth?  Myth is more than ‘an ancient story about the gods’.  Myth is the very substance of the imagination. In the words of Joseph Campbell – the ‘go-to’ guy of modern Hollywood, master collater of the myths of the world:

Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo-jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-Tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument from Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will be always the one, shape-shifting yet marvellously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.

I have no idea what that means: yet I feel its truth intensely.  And when Campbell talks about the ‘basic, magic ring of myth’ he is evoking a sense of Story as something primal, deep, profound.  And fantasy writers tap the waters of this deep well as a matter of course – for why would you not, if myths are the very fabric of your storytelling?

But SF can be mythic too, in this deep and felt sense; our scientifically valid FTL drives can take the reader into a world of wild imagination, haunted by a suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.

Which is all very well of course – but even so! This digressive afterthought of an argument doesn’t excuse my editor’s shocking behaviour.

How dare he travel to an alien planet without me!

I am, however, finding his incorporeal avatar to be a delightful collaborator – apart from the fact that he never, ever, gets wet when it rains.

Enough on FTL travel.  In my next blog, I will talk, in lingering and seductive detail, about sexy aliens.

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