Slower Than Light Imagination

Science fiction has always entertained the idea that travel between the stars would be no more arduous than travel between countries around the world today.  Because science fiction is basically adventure fiction, rocketing between Star A and Star B isn’t very exciting plotwise, so writers long ago imagined theoretical faster-than-light drives.  Anyone who has studied physics knows that these ideas are fantasies, and they contradict the notion that science fiction is based on science.  So as readers, should we accept science fiction as unscientific fun, or should we ask science fiction writers to be more scientific?

If travel between the stars was as slow as it took knowledge to evolve from Aristotle to Einstein would it still make for exciting fiction?  Science fiction has hinted at the immensity of generational ship travel, but it’s hard to write a novel that contains centuries of human activities.  I would think most novels would end up being about just the journey or jump to the destination and be just about the evolved world-building of starting a civilization on a new planet.  Interstellar war wouldn’t make any sense storywise, and neither would commerce between planets within a galactic empire, killing off two main sub-genres of SF.

Has any science fiction writer pictured a future where there are dozens of settled worlds and communication between them take years and decades?  Imagined if we had already colonized six other star systems, how would that feel to us people living on Earth?  Would it really feel any different than watching stories about China in the news?  Or imagine blogging with people from the six colonies – reading a steady stream of daily posts could be exciting – but commenting would be pointless.

There are hundreds of diverse countries around this globe that most people ignore in their daily life.  Sure, future people might watch an occasional documentary set on another world just like we watch a National Geographic show about an exotic Pacific island now.  Slower than light travel and speed of light communication will make an odd expansion of the human sphere of influence.  We could stay constantly in contact with generation ships and influence each other’s language and culture.  Just imagine new songs, television shows, books and movies coming from generation ships and colonies on distant planets.

A cool novel would be following two friends, one on Earth and one on a generation ship, staying in contact by a steady stream of messages where the time lag of replies grows ever longer.  Heinlein hinted as the possibilities of such a story with his novel Time for the Stars, but he cheated and used instantaneous telepathy as a form of communication.

Once I started thinking about STL travel to the stars I realize that science fiction hasn’t even begun to explore the idea.  Science fiction has fixated on space opera, military conflict and galactic civilizations, all from the realm of fantasy to the almost complete exclusion of how things might be.  Why is this?  Obviously, adventure fiction is built on conflict – where fighting nasty aliens is thrilling and the politics of interstellar empires offers far more intrigue.

It also shows a lack of imagination.  Two recent literary novels using fantasy and science fiction techniques, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, absolutely kicked our genre’s ass when it came to plotting outside of the traditional genre box.  Too often science fiction writers find their inspiration from science fiction tradition, like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, a book I had much fun reading and which felt like delicious SF nostalgia rather than Cirque du Soleil storytelling dazzle that I got out of The Life of Pi or The Time Traveler’s Wife

I’m guessing that future SF writers of the talent of Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke won’t use golden age giants for their models, but come out of left field with stories that surprise us.  And one area where I’d love to be surprised is by reading stories that make me think I might be reading real possible futures.  I used to think reading history was a way to know the past, and reading science fiction was a way to imagine possible futures.  I hate the idea of dying and not know the future of mankind, so I always loved science fiction as a way to speculate and sooth my existential sadness about the future, however the older I get the more I’m disappointed with the help I’m getting from science fiction.  Some science fiction stories do admirably work at what I want, but too often science fiction has become recursive, like standing between two mirrors, mesmerizing but limited.

I’m not saying that generation ships are the only way to envision mankind traveling to the stars.  What if travel could be speeded up to a significant fraction of the speed of light?  Then it’s possible to write about people who make the whole trip from one star to the next.  It is physically possible to travel such speeds but it is highly unlikely it will ever be done by humans, but I’m more than willing to explore the possibilities.  I don’t think science fiction has really explored the nature of relativity all that well.  There were some stellar examples like Tau Zero by Poul Anderson and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

One inherent barrier to what I’m talking about is SF novels are from the POV of the characters on the cutting edge of the action.  The reader gets to experience reaching another world but never understands what the rest of humanity feels about such a success for our species. 

Imagine a classroom of students adopting a young astronaut on the first near-light speed trip to another star.  To the astronaut, the trip will be a few years to him, but a lifetime to those kids.  What if Neil Armstrong’s whole trip to the Moon took our entire lifetime, and his story was one we followed avidly our whole life, sharing with friends.  Can you imagine a novel about thirty 13-year-old school kids meeting a 25-year old man before his trip, and then a group of 83-year-old grown-up kids meeting him again when he returned and was only 35? 

Now the kicker, whose story would be more interesting?  The guy who got to go to another star, or the group that got to experience seventy years of life on Earth during a time when mankind was going to the stars?  The genre writer would pick the astronaut, but the literary writer would pick the kids.

Living in space is so much different from the dreams of science fiction.  It has been my theory that science and science fiction diverged back in the 1960s when space travel became a reality.  It is theoretically possible for mankind to live in space despite all the harsh realities of the dangers it poses.  Future space ships that travel between the stars will probably be large asteroids that are flung between the stars, to drift at speeds far below the speed of light.  They would have be self-contained worlds, with energy systems that could function for centuries.  The art of recycling would have to be near perfect.

Such space travel is a far cry from the adventures of Hans Solo and Captains Kirk and Picard.  Do science fiction readers have the patience for such stories?  Robert A. Heinlein imagined the fantastic tale of people forgetting they were the crew on such ship in Orphans of the Sky.   Brian Aldiss wrote a very similar story called Non-Stop/Starship.  In fact, most generation ship stories, including the more modern ones like Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo and The Book of the Long Son by Gene Wolfe can’t get past the idea that the inhabitants of such voyages will forgot their missions.  Wolfe goes go way beyond Heinlein by imagining a vastly complex society that is far more interesting than space travel itself.

Has any science fiction writer imagined such a generation ship society that remembers their purpose and creates a society that reflects what living between the stars would be like with the full knowledge of where they are and why they are there?  Like I said earlier, it’s probably easier to just skip the journey and create a new world for your characters to have their adventures.  But isn’t this just a way to set Lord of the Rings on another planet?

When does science fiction turn into fantasy?  Think about it.  Wherever we go in the universe, humans will all face the same problems.  Air, water, food and shelter.  After that comes community and civilization.  If we don’t forget like those characters in the Heinlein story, we’ll always have an ever-growing body of science and knowledge to work with and use.  In other words, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy.  It will be like on Earth, but somewhere else, but with a vastly different society and culture, but will it be that different?

Science fiction was born during a time when the knowledge about other planets could easily fit into a single volume.  In the 21st Century a SF writer needs to read dozens of books to scratch the surface about what astronomy now knows about outer space.  It seems when NASA probes starting sending back photos SF stopped trying to deal with space reality.  I find it amazing that when NASA started succeeding, Heinlein shifted his focus from outer space science fiction, to the inner space of sexual/social science fiction.  That was a brilliant career move, but unfortunately he stopped being speculative and entered a personal recursive mode, restating the same ideas over and over again in each new book.  If only he had been as inventive as he had been in his 1950s space books.

What if mankind never goes to the stars, or even to Mars?  That’s one area that science fiction has totally failed to explore.  Science fiction has always assumed the final frontier is outer space – what if that’s a bust?  What if our species is trapped on Earth for millions of years, what does that do to us psychologically?  What if robots get to conquer the galaxy but we don’t?

Has science fiction become a steady-state recursive universe because of faster-than-light travel fantasies?  Has science fiction become entrenched in a Ptolemaic world view and desperately in need of a Copernicus?  Has our faith in FTL stories kept us from understanding what modern day Galileos are telling us?

Science fiction will always be exciting to kids because all of its great ideas are still new to them.  However, as readers grow older and have several hundred stories under their belt, science fiction stops being novel.  It gets harder to find truly sense-of-wonder stories.  I’d like to think if science fiction tried to recapture its relationship with science it might find new realms of wonder.


15 thoughts on “Slower Than Light Imagination”

  1. Hello Jim.

    I come to your blog by way of Ghost of a Flea, and have been enjoying your provocative essays. I like the way you punctuate them with many questions. And we have many common interests–aside from sf, I also enjoy astronomy, storytelling, and thoughtful conversation. I’m also recently retired. Hope you keep reading the comments of your previous posts. I’ll tell you how to get free gasoline.

    What if our species is trapped on Earth for millions of years, what does that do to us psychologically?

    Well, they have been. It’s led to consciousness and escapism. I’m particularly concerned about the latter. I don’t like human space flight in general, and loathe the idea of wasting our time and resources to send people to Mars. Every year, I travel from Vermont to Pasadena to celebrate robotic exploration. Personally, I like living on Earth very much. I am frightened by people who promote the notion that there is some practical alternative to preserving the habitability of Earth. Because there isn’t. We are trapped here forever.

    So as readers, should we accept science fiction as unscientific fun, or should we ask science fiction writers to be more scientific?

    All the above and more. Unlike other literary genre, sf has no boundaries. I think it’s proper and useful to explore classical dramas in fantasy settings. To me, it helps to refocus the emphasis on the drama. That is the best opportunity to painlessly learn about our ourselves and our humanity. Even the Neanderthals understood this.

    Maintaining our mythology with contemporary storytelling is a big enough job for our writers. That’s why we get space opera: That’s what we need from them. Let the scientists do the science. Looking back to Robert Goddard and his Moment of Clarity in the tree, we have to be grateful that the sf writers of his age didn’t get too bogged down in the mechanics or ethics of interplanetary travel. Seriously, where would we be if they pretended to have it all figured out?

    I find it amazing that when NASA started succeeding, Heinlein shifted his focus from outer space science fiction, to the inner space …

    You’ll have that. When more of Nature was able to be explained scientifically, religion got a lot more spiritual. And with the death of Pamela Bone, we are reminded that the successes of feminism have driven most feminists into inanity.

  2. Helen, it is interesting that you want science fiction to be free to explore all the possible avenues, but you are against humans exploring space. There is a good chance human living won’t be viable off Earth, but I think we should keep trying until we know that for sure.

    We waste time, money and resources in endless ways, so why stop with manned space exploration? Think about two examples, video games and professional sports. Everyone could take the money they spend on these fun but essentially unneeded activities and devote it to healthcare for the poor around the world and millions of lives would be improved.

    I’m not saying your case against spending money on manned space exploration can’t be made, but the same case could be made against many of the ways we spend our money now.

    It’s very fascinating you bring up feminism. That’s a concept I’m very interested in – and I’m sorry that it essentially died as a topical subject. I’ve been disappointed for years that women have given up on feminism. There is more opportunity for women today, but I don’t think they are any freer. I’ve concluded that the burdens of biology have been heavier on women than men. A classic example is Albert and Mileva Einstein. I’m jumping back over a hundred years, but how far could Mileva have gone with physics if some of her genes could have been switched off? Or if some of her male friends had been more enlightened?

    There are way more female scientists today and our society gives them more opportunity, but are they competing with men equally? I still think society and biology hold them back with tethers most people ignore or can’t see.

    Actually, I think both sexes are held back from their full potential, and that’s a topic that’s not explored by science fiction either.

    It’s my feeling that SF is spending too much time on fully explored topics and not enough on unexplored ideas.

    Helen, I think you and I could probably have some very long conversations.


  3. Fun and provocative, but I must disagree with your assessment of “scientifically literate” science fiction. You write: “Has any science fiction writer pictured a future where there are dozens of settled worlds and communication between them take years and decades?” Indeed, and there are plenty of them. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish universe stories take place in such a world. For an example of a newer writer, check out Alastair Reynolds: massive baroque space operas, and not an FTL ship in sight (well, not quite, but I’ll leave you to find out what and how for yourself). Gregory Benford’s Galactic center novels (not only is it strictly STL, but they even get to the above center of the Galazy using nothing but!). Greg Egan has never, to my knowlege, used an FTL story device, and his newest novel, Incandescence, takes place on a scale of tens of thousands of years and all across our Galaxy. And the above writers are certainly the cream of science fiction writing, if one is interested in solid speculation and fascinating ideas, both sociological and naturalistic, but they certainly are not the only ones.

  4. Jorg, I was hoping someone would write with some great examples of what I wanted. I’ve always meant to read the Benford Galactic Center novels. Do you have specific novels from each author to try out first. I’ve read some Greg Egan before, but maybe only a short story by Reynolds. I’ve read a number of LeGuin books, but they seem less about getting there than the wonderful worlds she creates.

    I loved Benford’s Timescape and I meant to read more of his books, but you know how it is, there are thousands of great SF books to read.

    I read a Greg Egan novel a long time ago that I can barely remember and have forgotten the title. It had a marvelous idea to work with – our knowledge of the universe changed the universe as we discovered it. I’ll have to get Incandescence. (Just checked Amazon and it’s on pre-order – you are on top of things!)


  5. Only glad to!

    Egan’s Diaspora, Schild’s Ladder and the upcoming novel all are “space operas” for lack of a better word that take place in an STL universe.

    Benford: the first ‘real” Galactic Center novel is The Great Sky River. There are two “prequels”, though (written before the book in question but only connected into the same narrative framework later): In the Ocean of Night, and Across the Sea of Suns, the latter dealing with the early stages of the first human journey towards the Center.

    Reynolds: his main opus are the stories of the Inhibitor Universe. The main trilogy starts with Revelation Space and continues in Redemption Arc and Absolution Gap; there are some stand-alone tales: Chasm City, The Prefect, Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, and a number of short stories.

    LeGuin; most of her early writing takes place in that universe: Rocannon’s World, City of Illusions, Planet of Exile, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, The Dispossessed, and, among the newer books, Four Ways to Forgiving, and The Telling. Although she cheats a little bit: there is “ansible”–an FTL communication device, but no ships travel FTL. LeGuin though is far from space opera and her use of alien planets is more of a backdrop to incredibly intense sociological speculations. (There is a handful of Hugos and Nebulas in the above list for a reason).

    Hope this helps and keeps you busy for some time!;)

    (I also must say re: an earlier commenter, that I see absolutely no contradiction between space travel and feminism (in a classical sense) and/or love of this planet and wholeheartedly embrace all of the above).

  6. I ordered Revelation Space, Diaspora and In the Ocean of Night. This should keep me busy and tell me a lot about the state of STL science fiction. I picked In the Ocean of Night because you said it dealt with the early days.

  7. In the Ocean… does not have any interstellar travel at all, actually, taking place mostly in Earth-Moon space, and was incorporated into the story line later. Oooh, I think we can have some great conversations here! But I am at work right now, sadly, and cannot spend as much time discussing this as I want to. One thing: in order to incorporate STL into a space-opera setting serious violence has to be done to the concept of what it is to be human. Reynolds, in a very cyberpunky way, has different clades of humanity occupying different niches. And Egan, in Diaspora, goes a step further: almost all of the characters are pieces of self-aware software that can be sent to other places at lightspeed (and in multiple copies, to be reincorporated later!).

    In any case, enjoy! I hope we’ll have a chance to discuss them once you are done!

  8. You’re certainly right about Time Traveler’s Wife. Whoa, what a book!

    You asked, “Has any science fiction writer pictured a future where there are dozens of settled worlds and communication between them take years and decades? ”

    I certainly think Ender’s Game touched on that in some ways as did Speaker for the Dead. It may not have been very scientific, I am admittedly not up on my space travel science, but I think it was somewhat non-traditional in the way it handled space travel and communication…it was at least different from most adventure sci fi I’ve read.

    I certainly think there are talented enough authors out there to make any story exciting, even one focused on realistic space travel. Now whether or not they will do that is beyond me.

    I personally don’t have any issue with current sci fi being written in the tradition of the old masters. First and foremost I am a fan of Scalzi and the more fun, exciting, slightly nostalgic sci fi that I can find like that the better. It is great adventure reading. Also I always find the ‘logic’ that fiction should be always progressing forward as somewhat flawed in the sense that as new readers emerge there is a need for some of the ‘been there, done that’ fiction to come from contemporary writers. It is presumptuous to think that newer and newer readers will go back to the classics for their ‘classic’ science fiction. Rare is the classic sci fi book that holds up today and rare is the person like me who actually loves that about them.

    Kids and grown ups today need to have newly written, somewhat fresh takes on the old classic stories. That is and always will be true. The homage novels of today will be some of the classics of tomorrow as will new and innovative fiction ideas.

    I think there is room for both and both should be equally praised for what they do and for what they are as they both fill a need for the greater majority of readers out there.

  9. Carl, Science fiction and fantasy can be anything, and I think readers love that. Look at all the steampunk, retro-science stories about the 19th century, or even the 20th century. Writers still crank out stories that ape Jane Austen because readers love her fictional world. I think Scalzi fast success is partly due to him tapping into the kind of old fashion science fiction people like me grew up loving to read. Isn’t it interesting that Scalzi’s first book is about an old man, rather than a young man like himself.

    I wonder what Audrey Niffenegger’s reading background is based? Was she a science fiction reader? Her time travel book was fresh, exciting, and very intimate. Probably the best time travel book since Jack Finney’s Time and Again. It was amazing that she could write a best-selling science fiction novel and the public could just ignore it was science fiction. We do have to be honest and admit that most of the general public looks down on science fiction as kid’s stuff.

    I don’t know if the homage novels will be tomorrow’s classics. How many people know about Rafael Sabatini’s work? Couldn’t he be used as an example of a writer who reprocessed gold of olden days?

    I think science fiction works best when writers base their inspiration on older non-SF novels and add new science fictional ideas – the example that comes to mind is William Gibson’s Neuromancer. He put Raymond Chandler in a startling new world.

    I love a good story, so if someone writes a FTL tale, and it’s a great story I’m not going to care if it’s a sci-fantasy. But what I love best about science fiction is when a writer speculates about the future in an exciting visionary way – and sure that’s extremely hard to do. It’s understandable that most writers just want to tell a story and entertain people and not knock themselves out trying to be visionary.

  10. Jorg, I’m often at work and itching to blog.

    I was wondering if that’s how those writers you suggested balanced the equation by speculating that humans will change to make them more adaptable to long space flights.

    That’s another area of science fiction story telling I love. Can humans evolve – and how far? If we live in low gravity with more radiation, will we adapt and evolve to thrive in the harsher environment of space?

    The other issue is whether we can create our own successors – artificial intelligence. We’re at the technological point now where we could build robotic craft that could be flung out to the stars far faster than Pioneer and Voyager. I have a vague memory that says it would take Pioneer 30,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri if it was heading that way. Of course it won’t survive the trip. But if we could build something that goes 100 times faster and is capable of working for 300 years, then we’ve really got a foothold on interstellar travel.

  11. James:

    You mentioned sabatini, and I am a great fan, of course. But pastiches of Sabatini (and dumas, and others) have been done by a loose group of authors who call themselves PJF: Pre-Joycean Fellowship. One of the most prominent is steven Brust, whose Dragaera books are wonderful (albeit fantasy, and not SF), and the trilogy tht starts with The Phoenix Guards and continues in 500 Years Later and The Viscount of Adrilankha is a direct tribute to guess who?;)

  12. “I think Scalzi fast success is partly due to him tapping into the kind of old fashion science fiction people like me grew up loving to read.” You are exactly right, a fact that he talks about in his blog posts on writing that were compiled into the “You’re not fooling anyone” book. He not only has some writing talent but has the business and marketing sense to look at what kind of fiction was selling and write to that market.

    Glad you mentioned Time and Again. That was a powerful reading experience for me as well.

    I certainly would like to learn more about Audrey N. and wish she would write some more fiction soon (and not the odd picture books that she has published). The general public does look down on science fiction and fantasy and it is a strange illogical viewpoint that I just cannot account for. I guess I can with the general public because movies and television shows shape their view of sci fi and sci fi readers. However literary critics and so-called enlightened book lovers should have the brain cells firing in a way that allows them to look at the history of fantasy and science fiction to see how innovative, ground-breaking, etc is has been, is, and can be.

    These two genres and all their subgenres encompass the basis of storytelling as old as time itself and are arguably the most powerful and effective venues in which to examine the world around us.

    I have to learn to be okay with the idea that some ‘educated’ people are still cretins.

  13. Jim,

    Interesting post.

    One thing I’ll point out. In physics, there is a theoretical basis for instantaneous communication. Check out the research of Dr. Ronald Mallett, a physics professor at the University of Connecticut. His work is described in a good book for lay people, Time Traveler.

    As you point out, it is theoretically possible for individuals to make interstellar trips if they’re moving close enough to the speed of light. Of course very little time would pass for such travelers, years and years would pass for everyone not making the trip.

    I’ve always thought that if generations of people lived somewhere other than Earth, they’d cease to be human. That is, new environmental conditions would force them to adapt and evolve, making returning to Earth impossible.

  14. Hi jim,I just wanted to say what a joy it is to find you on the net,I did’nt think other people thought along my lines,but you do. For quite some time now I have wondered about the question “is this as good as it gets”.What if the human race has reached the end of the technological road?What if the ideas of people like Michio Kaku turn out to be just economically’and politically none-viable?Surely,in the end the only way our civilisation can go is to leave space,largely to the robots,and for mankind,permenantly stuck here on earth, to hopefully try to work out a future in which the species can survive and prosper in the very long term. In other words to work out some system of thought and ethics that really means we live in peace,without trying to severe the heads of our fellow men and women just because they are different.In the end,despite being fifty and having seen so much of youths nievete,vanish,I do believe that the human species is in it for the long run,and in that,I think there is a kind of magic.

    1. I’d give anything if I could go into cold sleep and wake for a year every fifty years. If I could use my remaining twenty years I’d be able to cover a thousand years.

      I’d loved to see what happens with the human race. It’s frustrating to think I’ll die and not know how the story turns out.

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