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Wait, Faster Than Light Travel Isn’t Hip in Science Fiction Anymore?

Posted by KingShamus on May 29, 2012

Dustbury alerts me–and thus all of you–to this very unexpected trend.

You might think that science fiction that disallows such counterfactual stuff as faster-than-light travel is more scientifically rigorous, therefore better for us, in basically the same sense that wheat germ is better for us than a Wendy’s Double. Lynn has a problem with that — the SF convention, I mean:

One thing I have a problem with is the “no hyperspace” rule. I don’t think science fiction necessarily needs to be 100 percent plausible. Was Star Trek 100 percent plausible? Hardly. But it inspired a generation to support space exploration and invent things like cell phones. FTL ships are vehicles for the imagination and it saddens me that many writers have abandoned them and consider themselves smarter for doing so. To me that’s just another brand of pessimism.

I can appreciate Neal Stephenson’s objections to this sort of thing — rigid adherence to stock SF tropes is a really effective way to produce stiff-sounding stories that no one likes — but I’m not about to declare myself unalterably opposed to FTL.

There are a lot of different sorts of science fiction, so having a story where faster than light travel is impossible can make sense in the right context.  Much of the bleak paranoid atmosphere in “2001″ (both the book and movie for that matter) was grounded in the idea that the astronauts couldn’t just warp over to Jupiter.  Because the Discovery was basically a conventional rocket-propelled ship, it took a long time for the crew to reach the alien monolith.

The sense of isolation and dread would’ve been lost if Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke opted to make their vessel travel beyond the speed of light.  In the movie, the distances the astronauts travelled would be considered immense if taken at rocket speeds, but miniscule if the Discovery were able to go faster than light.  It could be argued that in the film version of “2001″, the most memorable character was all those millions of miles that separated Dave Bowman and Franke Poole from the safety of Earth.  That huge distance, which required such long periods of time to cross, was a wordless but constant presence within the film.

There are all kinds of speculative fiction stories–even ones that involve space travel–that can be made without faster than light travel.  As “2001″ shows, a space travel tale that uses slower than light speeds can be ground-breaking and very effective.  But if you’re doing Star Wars/Star Trek type of stuff, I dunno how you can make that work if the characters don’t have access to some kind of faster than light travel.  If you’re a writer and you’re sending your character across the galaxy, what kind of distances are we dealing with about here?

The Power Of Tens–made back in the 70′s–gives us a pretty good idea.

Tha Milky Way is approximately 120,000 light years across.  That means that a beam of light that starts at one end of the galaxy would take about 120,000 years to cross over to the opposite side.  A ship that even came close to the speed of light would still take over four years just to reach a relatively close star like Proxima Centauri.  Getting much beyond our stellar neighborhood would take decades or even centuries.  That doesn’t even take into account things like cosmic radiation, bone loss and a lot of the serious negative effects that happen when the human body is in space for extended periods of time.

Not allowing faster than light travel in a piece of science fiction might be more realistic, but then again its science fiction we’re talking about here.  Lightsabers, the weirding way and Daleks are all really cool.  None of them exist in the real world.  In fact, most of those things are theoretically impossible except within the confines of the most exotic scientific theories.

We tend to put up with the trappings and tropes of the genre–pulse rifles, flying cars, powered armor exoskeletons and yes, faster than light travel–because the creators of speculative fiction have made them plausible in the context of the particular fictional universe they’ve created.  When done well, audiences and readers will  fill in the blanks with some handy-dandy suspension of disbelief.  Mix it all together and presto–a totally unrealistic chunk of the story is basically accepted by the folks reading the book or watching the show.  Why faster than light travel is doesn’t make sense when people put up with all the other whacked-out goofy and just plain stupid crap in science fiction is a mystery to me.

More:  Just for shits and giggles, here’s the Power of Tens, set to music.

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7 Responses to “Wait, Faster Than Light Travel Isn’t Hip in Science Fiction Anymore?”

  1. What the hell do you mean Daleks don’t exist in the real world? TAKE IT BACK!! TAKE IT BACK!!

  2. [...] but I’m glad to hear I’m not alone. Here’s an article on the trend toward obeying the light-speed barrier in SF. Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Novel Updates, [...]

  3. [...] off this post from last month, KingShamus defends faster-than-light travel in SF and related genres, starting with a story that doesn’t have it at all: It could be argued that in the film [...]

  4. bunkerville said

    Always something new to worry about!

  5. Starless said

    I’m hoping this is backlash against the fantasy intrusion into science fiction (so-called “crossover” fiction), not a rejection of imaginative ideas.

    Ever since I started to see fantasy crossover crap in Asimov’s mag in the ’80s it’s been downhill since then. Seriously–when Amazon’s list of “Best Selling Science Fiction” is dominated by George RR Martin’s fantasy series, I want to send the ghost of Doc Smith over to beat some sense into them. And he’d do it, too.

  6. [...] Wait, Faster Than Light Travel Isn’t Hip in Science Fiction Anymore? [...]

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