Faster-than-light travel makes the science-fiction world go round. Especially space opera, with its galaxy wide empires, space wars and alien civilizations. FTL travel has many faces, though, depending on the technology of its world (and the writer’s creativity), and with those many faces come many perils. It has undoubtedly more advantages than disadvantages in fiction, but let’s talk about the flipside of it for a change.
The most common downside of FTL travel in fiction is caused by good old relativity. According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, any object flying at or above the speed of light suffers a time dilation proportional to its speed. That means that for people on a ship traveling faster than light, time flows “slower” than for the people on a planet. You can imagine it this way: the tremendous speed at which the space ship moves, rips the ship and those aboard it from the normal space-time continuum and ‘envelops’ them in a temporal bubble.
That means that for a ship traveling at FTL speeds, a trip from A to B might take a month, but when it arrives, the time that passed on A and B can be much greater, from a couple of years to decades and even centuries, depending on the distance between them and the speed of the ship.
This creates awesome story potential, of course. You couldn’t just visit your parents on another colony every month, or you’d see them age by decades every time. Or arrive to find their world already centuries ahead of yours.
A group of soldiers are sent out to fight a war against an alien force, flying from one stage of battle to the next, each time losing centuries in ‘normal time’. The story’s main conflict is based around the fact that time dilation causes these soldiers to be completely removed from human society, suffering of enormous cultural clashes each time they have “shore leave”. Also, the technological development that takes place while they are in transit to their destinations creates big differences between their weapons and defenses, and those of the aliens they clash with.
FTL travel mustn’t follow Einstein’s rule at all. That’s one of the awesome things about science-fiction. So if you ignore relativity and assume time always flows the same for everyone all the time (heh), there are still plenty of dangers you can envision for FTL travelers. One of these is physical damage.
The acceleration needed to propel a ship at faster-than-light speeds is enormous. Gigantic. Humongosaurian! The forces acting upon the tender flesh of the humans aboard such a ship are equally fantastic. Ever seen a pilot’s face in G training? Yeah. And that’s at 7 Gs. Imagine how the human body reacts to hundreds, even thousands of Gs. Welcome to hell.
FTL travelers need technology to prevent them from turning into pulp the instant someone says “Engage!”. In Haldeman’s Forever War, they had man-sized bubble-suits filled with a special gelatinous substance that flooded all their bodily cavities (even their lungs), and that prevented them from massive compression. These bubbles could, of course, malfunction. You can create awesome story conflicts around the technology necessary to keep FTL travelers intact, or at least alive.
But the most ingenious use of the physical damage potential in FTL travel I’ve read so far, was in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos.
FTL ships accelerated so fast, that light-year distances were covered almost instantaneously. The humans aboard these ships, however, were destroyed by the forces acting upon them. They died horribly, and upon arrival of the ship at destination and decelerating to normal speeds, they were reassembled and resurrected by a Resurrection Cache, in a long and painful process that diminished their physical and mental abilities with each time and left them deeply ‘scarred’. Also, to be eligible for resurrection, they had to be wearing a cruciform—a parasitic alien organism that attached itself permanently to their chests, copied their DNA, and granted them immortality by not allowing them to die. An apparent gift, but in fact a terrible curse.
Humans are fairly frail in terms of mental stability when they are exposed to situations of extreme physical strain, high risk and responsibility. FTL flight bears all of these, and then some. Just like airplane pilots are under a lot of stress (even despite automatic flight control), space ship pilots will be stressed too, even if their ships have AIs to help them fly.
But apart from stress—which is kiddie stuff, right?—FTL flight might harbor additional psychological dangers, depending on what type of FTL travel you develop for your storyworld. Maybe extreme acceleration causes hallucinations; maybe an artificial suspension during flight causes amnesia; maybe it even causes people to have dreams about past lives, or suffer outer body experiences; maybe the disintegration and reassembly involved in FTL travel changes their personality, or severely traumatizes them.
Actually, I’ve chosen the latter effect for my novel The Deeplink. In my version of FTL flight, ships and their crews are dissolved on a subatomic level and propagated through space in the form of information (quark spin), then reassembled upon arrival. Because this process is extremely fast, people’s brains are reassembled almost instantaneously and ‘fire up’ violently, resuming life. This causes the characters to suffer from traumatic seizures accompanied by fugue states and temporary insanity, in a calculated timeframe upon arrival. Time in which the ships are entirely under the control of AIs. I won’t say more, lest I spill out spoilers, but that’s the gist of it.
Fuel and material costs
Think our good old gasoline costs much? How about antimatter? Zero-point modules? Tylium ore? Infinite improbability drive batteries (or whatever the hell that contraption works with)?
Fictional fuels for fictional drives are pretty damn expensive, as they should be. Characters might have to do a lot of dangerous things to get them. Risk their ships and their lives. Fight wars. Destroy entire worlds, or suffer from destruction.
Also, you probably can’t roam the heavens in a tin can. The materials needed to construct ship hulls that can withstand FTL flight, radiation, and stardust with speeds that render it deadly, won’t be easy to get by. Expensive, rare materials may be needed to construct FTL engines, shields, life support, recycling units, computer systems and AI cores, etc.
And last but not least, strategic meaning
FTL capacity can make THE difference for a civilization’s survival and thriving in the future. Thus, if there are means to strangle the access to FTL for your competitors, you have yourself an awesome story conflict potential right there.
You can fight over fuel, or special materials needed to build ships, or alien parasites that resurrect you. Or you can fight over particular territories, Mass Relays, or access to wormholes as they do in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Vor Game.
The strategic position or possession of a means of FTL travel will be very coveted, and thus it can mean competition and war, betrayal and death. Plenty conflict potential!
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This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2014.
In 2012, my F post was — Feasibility Matters