We all know traveling faster than light is impossible, yet it is perhaps the most common conceit we allow a science fiction story. Fans love to quibble over minor physics infractions despite having already given warp speed a pass. And it makes sense! Traveling at 186,000 miles a second is still pig slow when the galaxy—hell, even just our solar system—is your story’s playground. To hammer that point home, go now and have a look at this amazing video on YouTube. It’s a real-time journey through our solar system at light speed—the fastest possible speed one could ever hope to go—starting from the Sun and heading straight out from there. Come back in 45 minutes when you’ve finally passed Jupiter. Have a long think about how that uneventful, languid journey is the best we can ever hope for.
From a storytelling standpoint, it’s hard to maintain tension when a simple trip from Earth to Mars takes six months (about the best we can achieve, currently).
All of which is really to say: I get it. As a reader, a gamer, a lover of film and TV, I get it. I’m okay with FTL. Most of us are, I suspect. And as a storyteller, I get it, too. When you’ve got a cast of great characters that you want to send off to explore the galaxy, it’s nice if they’re still alive when they get there.
That’s all fine, but what I really love is fiction that takes FTL to the next level. Authors and creators who take this sort of necessary evil and make it interesting. Put some limits on it, layer on some stakes, or even just a dash of general weirdness. I love it when, even though it’s all technobabble, it’s good technobabble that gives me as a reader some feeling that there was thought put into the method.
Here’s a few examples.
Infinite Improbability Drive
Douglas Adams famously concocted this method when he’d written himself into a corner in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His main characters were floating in the vacuum of space, and every solution he could come up with to rescue them seemed infinitely improbable. In classic Adams fashion, he turned this to his advantage, and so was born the Infinite Improbability Drive: A device that takes you to every possible position in every possible universe and eventually picks one to dump you at. Could be anywhere, and you could be anything when you emerge. Not only is an inventive idea, it fits perfectly with the fun and humorous nature of the Hitchhiker books.
Made famous in the Mass Effect games and novels, this is actually an FTFTL solution. This universe allows for FTL drives, but even using one of those it would still take you years or centuries to travel long distances. To go faster than faster-than-light, you must use the ancient and mysterious Mass Relay network. What I love about these is the limit they impose: You can only go from one relay to another, creating something like a railway-network on the galaxy. Because of this, the relays become choke points, things to fight over and control, and that generates incredible drama.
Scalzi, too, gives us a solution-with-limits in Old Man’s War. While the Skip Drive can get you across space in the blink of an eye, the range is limited and, what’s more, you can’t be near a significant source of gravity to use it. This means ships can appear anywhere around a star provided they’re far enough out, and once arriving they still must travel in-system at conventional speeds. It also means a ship can’t just skip away at the first sign of trouble. Best of both worlds!
The master of technobabble (and I mean that with the utmost respect), Iain M. Banks, deserves a mention here simply for how well he describes his hyperspace method. Details are spread out across the numerous (and wonderful) Culture novels, but I think the most tangible example is in Excession. Banks was second-to-none in his ability to describe something the reader knows is not possible or even based on actual science, and yet it rings true. Ships use exotic matter to dip into various levels of space-time energy fields, and push off against these hidden regions of space in order to gain momentum. The more exotic matter they have, the faster they can go. In Excession, in fact, a ship converts almost all its own mass into this exotic form of matter, in order to push its speed to staggering levels. I can scarcely do it justice here, you really owe it to yourself to go read the Culture books.
None? Yeah, none. Last but not least, I have to mention House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds, for the simple reason that there is no FTL here. Remember those reasons I mentioned earlier why authors and creators insert FTL? Well, to Reynolds’ endless credit, he embraces the FTL limit, weaving it into his worldbuilding and the story itself to amazing effect. Amazing because he doesn’t then constrain his story to our backyard. House of Suns still spans the entire galaxy. Yet it’s action packed, tense, and often frenetically paced. Better still, it never shies away from reminding us how much time is really passing. I love this book for many reasons, but as an author I love it because it takes a limitation we often immediately wave away and not only adheres to it but turns it to the story’s advantage. Masterful stuff from one of the best in the business.
Top image from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Jason M. Hough is the New York Times bestselling author of The Darwin Elevator, Mass Effect: Nexus Uprising, and Escape Velocity. He lives near Seattle, except when he’s lost in virtual reality.