Fun Scifi Tropes: Faster-than-Light Travel

Oh, squiders. I love Faster-than-Light (FTL) travel. I love it a lot. It opens up the universe for exploration, gives us the chance to meet new species every week and touch down on a new planet.

Of course, it also breaks the laws of physics, which has made it a bit of a black sheep in science fiction circles recently. Relativistically, nothing can go faster than the speed of light, and then there’s time dilation and other things you technically need to worry about.

And there’s some really excellent science fiction out there that deals with interstellar travel in a way that’s scientifically plausible (The Forever War comes to mind, which made the engineer in me positively giddy). But I don’t mind it when we invent made up things to hand wave it away either for the sake of story.

TVTropes breaks FTL travel into three main categories:

These categories seem fairly sufficient to me–they cover everything from Star Trek to Star Wars to Stargate (although that is people moving and not a spaceship, but ehhhh, I’ll allow it). The portal/wormhole version of this trope seems to be most popular right now, which can either fall into jump drives or hyperdrives depending on what happens once you go through the portal. That’s probably because no one understands wormholes well enough to know how they work (or if they even exist) which allows better leverage for writers playing around with cool things.

I will admit to be rather partial to the warp drive version of this trope, probably because I was raised on nothing but books and Star Trek. Yes, I have two engineering degrees. Yes, I have taken more physics courses than most people can name. And, actually, I am better at quantum physics than some more mundane versions (::shakes fist:: Right hand rule!). But I love it undyingly anyway. How can you not?

Well, I mean, I suppose you can take it too far. I’ve certainly read books where I’ve shaken my head at the FTL mechanism. But I think the issue there tends to be that they’re trying to take themselves too seriously, focusing too much on technology which isn’t realistic or working.

Another way writers get around FTL travel (and its physics-breakage) is by shrinking space (i.e., making everything closer together than it really is). If everything is closer together, then it (obviously) takes less time to get places. This has its own problems of course (such as the fact that the universe is expanding) but hey, you do what works for the story.

How do you feel about FTL travel, squiders? Do you mind some types more than others? Do you avoid it? Do you love it? What’s your favorite FTL mechanism/series?

7 responses to this post.

  1. I thought the warp drive was still theoretically possible, just requiring godly amounts of energy in order to bend space. I find it interesting that few works besides Forever War even mention time dilation.


    • I read a novel last year which I really enjoyed, but was super pissed when the character finally traveled off Earth on a light-speed ship to go fifty-light years away, with the trip only taking him … fifty years!
      Vernor Vinge’s works make use of time dilation.


    • That’s what I’m remembering too–that it’s still theoretically possible, though a long way off.

      Time dilation is inconvenient for storytelling purposes. 😛


    • The “theoretically possible” warp drive requires negative mass, which is something that hasn’t been shown to exist at all. And yes, planet-sized amounts of it.


  2. “Waves hands very fast”? 😛 I thought the logic was that it created a bubble of space and moves inside it, as the “can’t go faster than light” thing applied to objects in space, but not space itself?
    I’m partial to hyperdrives, with the caveat being that entry into that parallel universe has its own perils.


    • That is the general idea behind the warp drive, yes, but that’s been applied retroactively.

      I read a book a year or two ago–I think it was called Avalon, YA scifi–that had a very interesting take on hyperdrive technology. Unfortunately the story itself wasn’t too great.


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