Science isn’t for the faint hearted, not when it comes to stuffing it into a scifi novel. It’s easy to be cavalier and find ways to disregard the laws of nature, but credibility is often the lingua franca of this genre and if you take too many liberties you may struggle to be taken seriously (unless you’re writing a comedy, of course, in which case go nuts).
When writing Control: Bleak Pass I like to think I exercised a reasonable amount of scientific vigor, leading to a better story, but one area I sidestepped as delicately as I could was possibly the biggest concern for all science fiction – galactic space travel.
Our present understanding of galactic travel is that it is all but impossible to do so within a useful time scale, some theories notwithstanding (more on those momentarily), which makes much science fiction utterly incredible. Joe Haldeman’s Forever War was one of the few titles to address this subject realistically, by using the gulf of time that separates destinations to great dramatic effect, rather than deftly sweeping it under the carpet.
In light of this I am slightly ashamed to admit that I took the easier road to make room for other aspects of the story and fell back on the ubiquitous ‘warp drive’. The saving grace of most of the science applied to traveling such great distances is that it is theoretical, which gives the writer some wiggle room, but it is a weakness that is exploited almost shamelessly in most circumstances.
I was put in mind of this most recently when reading an article on wormholes. The theory goes that there are two types – the tiny, transient ones that appear and disappear rapidly, part of the quantum foam, not much use for the space traveller, and the primordial wormholes that have been around since the beginning of time, stretching across the universe. The problem with either of these, theoretically of course, is that they are so delicate that they would collapse the moment you introduced any significant amount of matter (significant being on a quantum level), rendering them useless for space travel.
So, what of warp travel?
The crazy thing is, recent research would indicate that it’s entirely feasible. If you could generate enough power you could, theoretically, bend space. Dr Harold G White is already experimenting to see if he can fold time and space around a proton, allowing it to travel a greater distance than it otherwise would at the same speed. We’re still a long – very long – time away from any practical application for this research, but for scifi writers it’s an open door. Extend that hypothetical timeline a few centuries into the future and you can have your characters bending space and zipping across the universe like it was nothing.
So, should we stick to the rules (theoretical or otherwise) when telling a scifi tale?
Perhaps not. Without a little imagination we would struggle to move forward at all. Take the mobile phone, for example, which has been famously cited as the direct result of the Star Trek communicator inspiring scientists to develop a portable communication device.
Science will always be with us as we travel across the stars in our minds, but I’d rather think of it as a passenger than a driver. Good to have around, but nothing without an imagination.