I was going to start building my science-fiction setting looking at the economy of the universe… but I realised that there is something more fundamental. Travel. The universe is so huge that it defies description. Even just a galaxy is an immensely huge space beyond out comprehension. Our solar system is a tiny speck of nothing on a galactic scale (let alone a universal scale), and yet even that is bigger than most of us can properly envisage. A manned mission to Mars (a neighbouring planet) would involve a trip of nine months just to get there using our current technology (with a suitable launch window occurring only every 26 months). (1)
In a science fiction setting that is not limited to one planet, people need to travel between locations. I would very much like a setting that does allow for travel to other worlds and stars. But how?
Three possibilities for intergalactic…. or more reasonably intragalactic (i.e. taking place within the confines of a single galaxy – as in most big sci-fi franchises) are sublight travel, faster than light travel (FTL) and Einstein-Rosen bridges (i.e. wormholes or some sort of similar gate/tunnel/hyperspace system).
Sublight travel between the stars would involve (most sensibly) a constant acceleration method of travel – constantly accelerating at 1g (9.8 m/s²) in order to simulate earth’s gravity for the people on board the vessel – up to the half way point of your journey, and then decelerating at 1g for the second half. This way, you could reach, for example, Neptune in 15 day 8 hours (2) and the nearest star in 3.6 years, (3) giving the crew optimal conditions for onboard-life with simulated earth-like gravity. Some problems to overcome would include the propulsion system used (a futuristic engine/drive capable of extracting energy from the space it travels through) and the dangers of radiation and collision with matter en route (especially at around the halfway point, where specks of dust are potentially lethal. (4) But hey – this is science fiction – we can easily conjure up a suitable drive and some sort of energy shielding, or maybe some sort of navigators (like the guild navigators in the Dune series) who can see all possible futures and plot courses to avoid collisions and other problems.
There are other alternatives too – ships that can’t accelerate constantly at 1g. These however face the huge problem of how vast the universe is. Getting anywhere would take more than a human lifetime. There are ways to solve this; the crew could go into some sort of stasis (like the stasis chambers in the Alien franchise), or inhabit generation ships – huge artificial habitats that travel maybe even more slowly, requiring several generations on board to pass before the destination is reached. Artificial gravity is an issue here…. Maybe the ships are truly huge, and spin, creating centrifugal force to replace gravity. Such a generation ship could certainly provide a cool contained setting.
Lots of fun could be had with time dilation too – travellers zooming between the stars at close to the speed of light will perceive time as running much more slowly. They will age more slowly. How would the cultures on the planets change over time in between the visits from what is essentially a different culture – the culture of the travellers? (5)
Basically – all of these ideas can be, and have been, used in science fiction stories. They can be great fun – but don’t quite suit the style I am looking for. I would say that they exist/have existed in my ‘universe’. But they have been superseded.
Part 3 coming soon…
(5) The Forever War by Joe Haldeman looks at this, as do many other sci-fi novels such as Tau Zero by Poul Anderson, which takes time dilation to the utmost extreme.