This is the third post in a ten-part series about my ongoing workshop “Creating Consistent SF-Worlds” for the Game Design department at the Mediadesign Hochschule in Düsseldorf, Germany.
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Part I | Part II | Part IV | Part V | Part VI
For this session of the workshop, focusing on starflight technology, we first had to modify our definition of “consistent” to a certain extent. Then, we went through established, projected, and imaginary means of slower-than-light starflight. Finally, we examined a variety of means for superluminal, i. e., faster-than-light travel, and their respective strengths and weaknesses for storytelling purposes.
The “Objective Consistency” Paradigm
While our general attempt at subjective consistency and narrative consistency should remain unaffected when it comes to designing starflight technology, we have to backpedal quite a bit in terms of objective consistency. To put it bluntly: any means of interstellar transport beyond what’s actually been tested out there is imaginary science. But science can help, nevertheless: we can at least try and design means of transportation, conventional or FTL, which haven’t been firmly ruled out by theoretical physics. Trade-offs are associated with this strategy, certainly, and even some drawbacks. We’ll come to that.
First, we made a rough inventory of actual starflight technology, namely chemical propulsion on the one hand and electric propulsion, especially ion thrusters, on the other. We talked about their respective use (thrusters for take-off vs. probe and satellite control) and their respective drawbacks (energy vs. power limitations). Next, we went through some concept drives, among them thermonuclear propulsion and Project Orion as well as two kinds of sail technology, namely solar sails driven by radiation pressure and differential sails driven by quantum fluctuations relating to the Casimir Effect. Finally, we looked at the Starwisp concept, an interstellar probe propelled by microwaves transmitted from an orbital power station. While Starwisp was proposed more than 35 years ago, it was never realized due to substantial engineering problems we can’t solve with today’s technology.
Where would we need STL drives in sf storytelling? Actually, basically everywhere. For certain reasons, FTL drives are not normally suited for traveling short distances, especially for interplanetary travel within star systems. Besides that, one should always check whether FTL travel really suits one’s purpose. There are terrific sf scenarios out there that work fantastically well without FTL, from strictly interplanetary settings like the High Colonies game (great setting, mediocre sourcebook) to epic space opera settings like Greg Bear’s Anvil of Stars. Also, non-FTL drives are great if you want to enrich your setting with relativistic effects, and the impact it has on the life of your characters.
Advanced (i. e., fictional) concepts of cryonics are used in most cases, both for FTL and non-FTL settings, to cut down on subjective travel times. The problem is that it has become an off-the-shelf solution, and I strongly recommend tweaking it in ways that support not only the plot, but the overall theme of the story. The second most-used concept for settings without FTL drives are generation ships. The problem with generation ships is not so much that they have already been used quite a lot, often to great effect; the problem is that the complexity any generation ship scenario engenders “eats up” your plot in no time. You can use cryos to facilitate travel and support plot & theme but keep “them old freezerinos” in the background (except you let them malfunction to give your characters something to do), but there’s no way you can keep a generation ship setting’s demands quietly in the background like that.
For FTL drives, we considered two basic types of drives: Warp drives and non-Warp drives. Warp drives, including wormholes with which they are closely related, have become all the rage because they don’t violate Einstein’s limit for c, and because they’re based on real physics. But it creates the need to postulate some kind of exotic matter or negative energy to either create a warp field or keep a wormhole open long enough to send anything through it. With known matter/energy, there’s this small problem:
Early calculations indicated that superluminal propulsion for a ship of volume 1000m3 could be achieved at an estimated energy cost of 1045J, or roughly the total mass-energy contained within the planet Jupiter after using the famous relation E = mc2. Although this number may appear enormous, it is certainly an improvement on earlier calculations, which indicated that the warp drive would require more mass-energy than is contained in the entire observable universe.
That’s quite a lot of energy travelers would have to schlep around. And if we postulate exotic matter or dark energy indeed, we can be sure it would influence both our setting and plot in more ways than we might be prepared to think of.
But there’s another problem involved, and that’s what I like to call the “Monoculture of Warp.” Warp technology is convenient, everybody uses it, and everybody feels slick not violating basic physics. But look at the history of science fiction and the ways in which imaginative means of starflight have contributed to great storytelling! Again, my advice would be to at least “tweak” warp/wormhole solutions in such ways that they appear fresh, further the plot, and support the story’s overall theme. As an example, we had a closer look at the Stutter Warp drive from the game 2300 AD. Not only was this drive fresh, it played a crucial role for both setting and story lines, as the drive’s maximum distance—before maintenance in a gravity field becomes, like, urgent —creates “dead ends” for travel lines and attack routes controlled by the respective dominant powers (realistically mapped, to great effect, on nearby star systems within a radius of 50 lightyears from the solar system). And the drive makes for great visual effects, too. [Note: originally, I linked to an excellent “Stutter Warp” reference website, but it’s gone offline.]
For examples of non-Warp FTL drives, we looked at Jump Drives, Hyperspace, Slipstream, and Inertialess FTL as it was used in E. E. Doc Smith’s Lensman series (other flavors were mentioned). Although we couldn’t go into great detail, we touched upon many examples where imaginative means of starflight enhanced and enriched storytelling considerably.
Honorable Mentions & Exotic Starflight Drives
Concepts we could only mention in passing were Hall Effect thrusters as a reality-based non-FTL type of ion drives, and the Alcubierre FTL drive as a warp drive variant. Among the really exotic means of starflight we mentioned the “Spice Pilots” from Frank Herbert’s Dune, the artificial black hole created by the Gravity Drive in Event Horizon, and, of course, Douglas Adams’s Infinite Improbability Drive from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But there’s another exotic drive Douglas Adams created, not known by many, from Life, the Universe, and Everything: the Bisthromatic Drive, maybe the most hilarious drive ever invented.
Here’s a taste. Enjoy!
Read all of it here: The complete Kindle Edition of the The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is available for incredible $15 or 10 Euros at the Amazon store.