Oct 202013

A while back, I wrote a post about aesthetics vs. practicality in designing science fiction spaceships, which also extends to any sort of speculative design.

Recently, a discussion exploded on the same board over an initially small misunderstanding that went rampant really fast. You can read about it here, if you care to (it spans three pages). The short version is that I pointed out some conceptual flaws in this particular artist’s explanation for how the FTL1 drive works. After some back and forth, wherein the artist got increasingly hostile to having their idea poked at, they fired off a massive post/rant. I almost gave into the temptation to respond to it, but that little voice in the back of my head said, “Dude, get real. They’re not listening. They’re not going to listen. They’ve got too much baggage going into this for your points to get through. Just leave it.” So I did. I apologized for upsetting them, restated that my only goal was to share information/correct misconceptions, complimented them on their model, and wished them well on their worldbuilding. Then I bowed out.

This all played out from 10/17 to 10/18. Yet I’m still thinking about it. I don’t feel any better now than I did when it all played out; if anything, I might be feeling even worse. Enumerating all of the reasons why would take too long, but there’s one point that I wanted to home in on because I see it everywhere and it needs to die.

in case nobody told you…the FI in sci fi means Fiction!!! The concept of this system is based on an assumed understanding of physics that guess what? We don’t and may never have

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. The fiction in science fiction serves the exact same role as it does in fantasy fictioncrime fiction, literary fiction, romance fiction, and every other stripe of fiction out there: it serves to indicate that the story, characters, and setting are made-up. Period. Done.

The science in science fiction clarifies the broader genre: these are made-up stories, characters, and settings where science is the driver behind what is different. New technologies, alien species, and so on; just as magic–the truly fantastic–drives fantasy fiction. There can absolutely be overlap: technological magic, magical technology, whatever you like. But these are the distinguishing features of the genres that give them a unique place.

In any setting, your world’s rules need to be consistent. They don’t have to match our current understanding, but the differences they introduce have to be internally consistent. As far as we know, there’s no way to make an FTL drive of any sort2 . As far as we know, there’s no such thing as magic or dragons or unicorns. That’s fine; you can have those things anyway. You don’t even have to explain them! At this point in the history of the genre, it’s enough to say “Spaceman Jack hopped into his starship at breakfast time and flew to Alpha Centauri in time for lunch.” We get it; there’s some kind of FTL at play, somebody figured out how to bend the known laws of the universe to allow it, let’s go! But if you’re going to stop and explain it, it needs to work. Take Star Trek, for example. How does warp drive work? They create “subspace fields” that allow the ship to move faster than light. “Subspace fields” aren’t things we know to exist, or even really understand; they’re handwavium. That’s totally fine. It doesn’t have to actually exist, it just has to follow its own rules without breaking the rules we do know to exist. And if it breaks its own rules, then you’ve really screwed up.

The particular description that set off this discussion contained a completely wrong “mechanism” to bypass relativity and the c barrier. While it postulates new technology–and that part of it was actually really cool and I said as much–the new technology postulated doesn’t solve the problem. Specifically, reducing mass won’t ever allow you to travel faster than c; at best, negating mass will allow you to travel at c, just like a photon and with all the weird consequences thereof. But as long as you have any mass, that mass becomes infinite as your velocity approaches c. That’s the reason most fictional FTL bypasses normal relativity entirely. Star Trek has subspace fields that envelope the ship and distort space around it; the ship isn’t moving, the warp bubble is. Star Wars has hyperspace, whatever that is exactly. Babylon 5 had a different flavor of hyperspace. Battlestar Galactica had jump engines. Hell, FarScape had wormholes, Leviathan starburst, and hetch drive. None of them was ever really explained. All of these acknowledge the problem that relativity presents to anyone who wants to go from Earth to Alpha Centauri in time for lunch and then posit ways around it.

Let’s be clear here: this isn’t about hard science fiction. In hard science fiction, you don’t get FTL. At all. The softer you go, the more relaxed this gets. By simply including FTL, you’ve softened the science of your story. And that’s fine! That’s completely fine. I love galaxy-spanning adventures. I love multi-galaxy-spanning adventures. I hope we figure FTL out one day, despite everything we know now saying that’s really unlikely.

But if you’re going to write science fiction, you have to respect the existing science. That respect can be as minimal as, “We’re not going to explain how this thing that defies our modern understanding of science works.” That’s one of my favorites, actually, because it allows the cleverest members of the audience to figure it out for you, coming up with solutions you’d never have come to on your own. On the other side, the respect can be expansive as recruiting an actual astrophysicist to come up with a drive system for you, based on the narrative parameters you’ve defined. Whichever route you choose, it’s all good. As long as that respect exists.

Shitting on existing science is a hallmark of bad science fiction. Period.

  1. That’s “faster than light”…but if you’re not familiar with that term, then most of this post is going to seem even more ridiculous to you. []
  2. There are, of course, possibilities. Alcubierre’s warp drive is probably the most promising, followed closely by wormholes. But they’re all hypothetical and even those hypotheses have some pretty big caveats []

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