Telling Different Stories

FogConAt FogCon last weekend, I moderated a panel entitled “Getting Around the Speed of Light,” which discussed the various ways we could travel to the stars without violating the laws of physics.

We were lucky to have two people on the panel who knew their tech: Jim Pekarek, an engineer, and Alfred Nash, a physicist and engineer who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But, of course, their knowledge of the current state of physics poured cold water onto pretty much every idea anyone has ever had for interstellar travel.

Professor Miguel Alcubierre’s ideas for a drive that works by contracting space in front of a ship and expanding space behind it may not violate general relativity, but it requires a large amount of negative mass, something we don’t know how to make, but are pretty sure would take an enormous amount of energy.

A lot of physicists find wormholes attractive, but making them would also require incredible energy and no one has ever seen one in the wild. Even traveling at close to, but under, the speed of light requires way more energy than we can possibly expend.

After about a half hour of running into the laws of physics and the limits of available energy, someone in the audience asked why, given that under our current understanding of physics interstellar travel is impossible, anyone would want to use one of these unworkable ideas in a story.

And both Michelle Murrain, a biologist and science fiction writer, and I had a similar reaction: Because of the kind of stories we want to tell.

There are lots of reasons to write science fiction. It’s amenable to a wide variety of stories. Classically, a lot of those stories were based on very improbable – if not impossible – changes in science.

Take, for example, The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells. Time travel has been a major feature of science fiction from the early days, but I doubt seriously that any physicist – or any reader or writer – believes that travel back to historical periods or forward to the future is remotely possible.

But I don’t think anyone would deny that The Time Machine is a very important story. Wells’s speculation on what might happen in the human future provoked debate in his time and still has a major place in our culture.

The same might be said of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In fact, it might be an important story to consider these days, when creation of life (both biological and digital) is not beyond the scientific pale as it was in Shelley’s day.

Of course, some people want to play with the outer edges of what current science will do and others want to write predictive stories. Those are important stories as well. And there are those who want to look at the actual travel through space, and so focus on such things as generation ships and cold sleep, which might be somewhat more possible.

But a lot of us are, like Wells, more interested in telling a story that illuminates a principle or a cultural ideal or politics. Or in writing a fast-paced action story.

We don’t want to completely ignore the realities out there. There are obvious things writers want to avoid, such as hearing explosions in space or ignoring what moons do to the planets they orbit.

But many of us do want to set the story in another part of the universe or speculate on what might happen if humans meet other life forms capable of communication. And I suspect there are a lot of science fiction writers who think exploration of the universe is the next step for a species that has always wanted to see what’s over the next hill.

Which is to say: there are times in story telling when making something up is important to the story. In science fiction, many writers have made up ways to travel faster than light.

I do it in my forthcoming novel, The Weave, because I’m interested in what happens once my characters arrive in a new solar system and because I want them to be in communication with Earth and our Solar System while they’re doing it. Other people do it because they want to have galactic civilizations or to explore what happens when human beings are spread out among more planets.

The truth is, if humans ever do find a way to travel to far off places at speeds faster than light, it’s probably not going to happen in any way we can conceive of right now. It will likely require some discoveries in physics that upend everything we think we know.

So I don’t think readers should worry overly about how the various forms of science fictional interstellar travel work, because the real thing won’t happen like that. They should look at what those stories have to say about human relations and how we approach exploring the rest of the universe.

Likewise, I doubt any other intelligent life forms we meet will look like the aliens in our science fiction. But I also doubt we’re alone in the universe. Thinking about what might happen is good for us, but we shouldn’t assume science fiction is going to give us a how-to manual.

The essence of science fiction begins with “What if ….” That’s what makes it so much fun. And so intellectually rewarding.

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