Sunday, 3 February 2019

Really Very Much Faster Than Light

I am currently reading Jo Walton's What Makes This Book So Great?, a collection of her blog posts on Tor.com all about re-reading great SF and fantasy books. It was a pure impulse purchase - I had never read anything of hers before; apparently she's a Hugo and Nebula Award winner - and I can't say it's a great book. Its main virtue is that it is essentially a big list of things which you should be reading instead - classics of the field and some overlooked gems - and hence a way to populate your already way-too-long "to read" pile.

She does have the occasional interesting insight. this post, for instance, on FTL travel. Why is it, she reasonably asks, that FTL ships in SF books and films tend to all travel at roughly the same notional speed, i.e. taking about as long to get from one place to another as it does for a sailing ship to get from one place to another on Earth? Of course, SF spaceships do not move at realistic speeds - they move at the speed of plot. So why is it that "the speed of plot" tends to end up being about the same speed as seaborne travel?

(There are exceptions to this, of course: in JJ Abrams' awful Star Trek reboots, the "speed of plot" means "the speed at which JJ Abrams comes up with a shit new idea".)

She cites Nova by Sam Delaney as an interesting example in which notional FTL speed is much quicker - "the whole inhabited galaxy is about as far apart emotionally as New York and San Francisco". You can get from the Pleiades to Earth in three days, for instance. I haven't read Nova. But the idea of FTL travel which is actually really very much faster than light intrigues me.

It makes me think of a game I used to own for my Commodore Amiga in the early 90s. I don't remember even what it was called; somebody reading this may recognise it. Essentially it was a space-ship combat game, sort of in the vein of the X-Wing and Tie Fighter dogfight games from roughly the same era, but it had the (to me) fascinating conceit that it was billions of years in the future and the universe had begun to collapse in on itself, so that it was only a dozen or so light years across, so that everything, all the galaxies, planets, stars, etc., were all now crammed really close together. As a result, all of the many thousands of civilizations there were in the universe were now next door neighbours and literally having to fight for space.

Clearly this setting had no basis in science (I guess if the universe had already collapsed to that size it would disappear to nothing in, like, a picosecond or something?) but come on - "Why is everybody fighting each other?" "Because the universe literally isn't big enough for all of them" is a great concept for a space war game. Also wonderfully bleak, because even victory is pointless: you're all going to disappear pretty soon anyway, making vanquishing enemies the ultimate in sheer bloody-mindedness.

If FTL travel was really really fast and even something as vast as our galaxy could be crossed in just a couple of days or weeks, what would be the consequences? It would be a little bit like that game. The many alien civilizations within the galaxy would all be able to reach any part of it more or less instantly. This would mean: a) non-starfaring races would probably be contacted by starfaring races all the time; b) distance would be no real obstacle to the pursuit of warfare - Empire Zigzang from Alpha Centauri could just as well pursue a war against Earth, a relatively close neighbour, as it could pursue one against I dunno, the Kingdom of Blark from, well, some really far away star; c) the same would also be true of trade and communications, right?; and d) travel in general would not be limited by time or distance but really only by fuel, which would probably mean that fuel would be an extremely hard-fought-over resource.

Indeed, you could probably make a really interesting SF setting in which FTL travel was super-duper fast, allowing you to cross the galaxy in a week, but you need a very rare and special fuel in order to do it. So interstellar (even intergalactic) travel would be quick, but infrequent. Thinking through the implications of that could occupy an inquiring mind for some time.

25 comments:

  1. The setting you've very nearly described is Dune; though you've probably figured that out by now.

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    1. Is it? I've only read the first Dune book - I know they needed spice to navigate, but was FTL travel in it also really fast? I thought it was just bog-standard space travel of the sailing-ship variety, or even possibly rather slower. But it has been ages since I read it.

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    2. Herbert doesn't spend much time talking about it, but there is a line in Heretics of Dune describing it as "in this galaxy one instant, in a faraway galaxy the very next heartbeat," or so Google tells me. And for what it's worth, I think the Lynch film describes it similarly.

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    3. Interstellar travel in Dune is a very big deal that is dominated by a powerful guild. It's expensive and tricky as any but the shortest of trips needs a drugged-up mutant proffesional. In Dune interstellar travel is politics.

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    4. Interesting - I never got around to reading the other Dune books because everybody says they're dreadful.

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    5. Dune just takes a deep dive into areas a lot of sci-fi doesn't cover. The second book follows closely on the heels of the first and then things get strange.

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  2. In the Star Wars movies, it seems like ships can get to anywhere in under an hour or so. Strangely enough, this doesn't seem to be the case in much of the Expanded Universe.

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    1. You're right. I'd forgotten about that.

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    2. Yeah, Abrhams annihilates distance in most sci fi movies he does. It was watching the collapse of perceived distance in his films that lead me down a similar road to Jo Walton, thinking about what in films and fictions creates a sense of distance, especially through unreal imagined spaces.

      The Enterprise is essentially a US carrier somewhere in the oceans of earth, sometimes it might take a while to get home, other times its off near the russian border, but it can always get an instant radio message.

      I've found most long D&D campaigns tend to take place in a geography with the cultural and environmental diversity of a continent, but the actual physical space of ancient Greece.

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  3. Ok, expanding on this idea; what if interestellar travel was uniform. So if it took a week to cross the Galaxy, it also takes a week to get from earth to alpha centauri. And if the fuel is expensive/rare, then the priorities of trade and war would not be based on distance or spatial geography, but on objectives/profits. So certain planets with no unique resources end up being isolated and not spacefaring at all. Only those planets with important resources become involved in the interstellar cultural exchange.

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    1. Sounds like a series of Stargates, or another similar technology.

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  4. Space travel feels like sea travel because humans have a tendency to use new materials in old ways, just like architects & builders started with wooden log posts and lintels, and then continued making posts & lintels out of stone, concrete, and steel as each in turn was invented.

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  5. FTL has to be very much faster then the speed of light or the story is going to be all about the journey. Even at 10 or 100 times the speed of light the galaxy is really darned large. (Something Abbrahms Trek totally fails to account for).

    It isn't just the spped of travel that impacts trade and war but also the speed and depth of observation. Can you see a planet when going a bajillion keldiclons a second?

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    1. Perception is influenced by relativity?

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    2. Yes. You see much more detail strolling down a street than you do at 80 mph. If you are crossing the galaxy in just a day you'd have to have a perceptive capacity several orders of magnitude higher than what would be required to spot a gnat on the side of the road while driving 80 mph.

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    3. You would have to handwave the science but let's not pretend most of SF isn't about handwaving the science!

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  6. So we're not including Traveller, the ur-Space Adventure RPG? There space travel takes a week. If your ship is Jump-1 you go 1 parsec, about 3.26 light years, in a week. If your ship has a Jump-6 Drive you go 6 parsecs in a week.

    How long does it take a Jump-6 ship to go 1 parsec? A week. Weren't you listening? I said space travel takes a week. ;)

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  7. Sean Robert Meaney3 February 2019 at 17:12

    You like the idea of FTL? How about the distance between two points is change in possibility via superposition. Only superpositional life can navigate the moment of change in possibility (singularity). So out there at ultimate FTL is a starship. And you cant get to your destination, but you can get to the ship. So you accelerate up to light speed and board the ship. And your transport leaves and then another transport arrives and you travel on it to its destination.

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    1. I think I sort of get what you are talking about. It actually makes me think of Event Horizon, in which, if I remember correctly, the ship itself doesn't "move" per se but just kind of folds reality?

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  8. I'm pretty sure Jo Walton wrote a billion GURPS setting books but it may be another author with the same name.

    The Amiga game seems familiar and it's annoying that I can't place it.

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    1. No, it's the same Jo Walton, wikipedia tells me. She has an annoying written voice, to me, but maybe it was a bit toned-down for GURPS books.

      The Amiga game in question was called Guardian. It came to me late last night!

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  9. "There is such a thing as a tesseract."

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  10. I think the default interstellar travel time in most classic SF was probably closer to steamship speeds, because that would have been the global frame of reference for most folks until air travel became truly common in the '60s. In the modern age it's much more fragmented -- movies tend to have it taking on the order of hours (like flying to Asia), because everything's necessarily more time-compressed in a movie.

    And of course there's a fair amount of SF that doesn't conform to the default, because the story's kind of about travel times, like The Forever War, or the Hyperion books.

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  11. The most original and interesting take I've come across on this is Gene Wolfe's in The Book of the New Sun. On the one hand, he makes the comparisons with sailing so direct that the reader initially assumes that Hethor, et al., are mariners. But on the other, he equates interstellar travel with time travel - so that 'star sailors' don't return to the Urth that they left, but to some different timeline.

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  12. I think the most interesting dichotomy is between FTL-as-steamship travel and instant travel -- which may explain why FTL-as-jet-plane travel is relatively scarce. When we fly nowadays the journey isn't exciting, it's just some bother to get where we're going. If we could teleport to our destination we'd cheerfully skip the airport entirely.

    And that points to at least one series I've read which does feature instant FTL travel: the "Hyperion" books by Dan Simmonds. FTL travel is so cheap and instantaneous that some of the wealthiest citizens have houses with rooms on different planets. It turns the entire sphere of human interstellar colonization into a single city.

    One reason for the popularity of slow-seeming FTL is that it allows autonomy. When you're off at the edge of civilization you're on your own. No way to dial 911. Your actions and their consequences are all your own.

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