Storyworld Design: Transportation Technologies


The biggest SF trope there is — interstellar transportation — comes in many different forms, each with its own predicaments. The most common of all, are:


The different principles behind these technologies inevitably presuppose different storyworld designs, as the worlds that would develop these technologies, and the ways in which these worlds would evolve after their existence, can vary greatly.

There are plenty of detailed articles online about all of these FTL technologies, so I won’t get redundant here. In creating a three-dimensional, realistic story setting, I always ask myself a handful of questions about transportation that go beyond the choice of an FTL tech. Because FTL ships satisfy only one storyworld necessity, that of Far-Distance Transportation. But what about the rest?

Near-Distance Transportation

All’s good and fine if you have FTL ships, but how do you get from one part of the country to another? From one continent to another? From the surface of a planet into orbit? Or from one space station to another?

Do the people use smaller air- and spacecraft? What kind of engines do these have?

Or do they teleport?

The use of teleportation technology in a storyworld comes with it’s own set of potential pitfalls. Can something (or someone) be transported to any given coordinates? Then there would no longer be a need for short distance vehicles. Is the teleportation device compact? Then anyone can have one, and the security needs would drastically increase. If you don’t want teleportation to be at the center of your storyworld, or become its greatest flaw, then plausible limitations are a must.

Cargo Transportation

Sure, you can haul cargo in specifically designed FTL ships, but is it feasible and cost effective? There is a very real need in large settings for far-distance transportation that does not involve FTL. Why not haul cargo in sub-light ships with a fully automated, mechanical crew such as androids and robots, or no crew at all (AI autopilot)?

And in near-distance situations, like inside a single solar system, hauling cargo from an asteroid belt to the inner planets would also likely be cheaper in a sort of automated system. Can there be something like a space train? A continuous flow of smaller cargo ships automated to travel on predetermined vectors, perhaps even within visual distance of each other?

Escape Pods and Ship-to-Ship Transportation

What kind of drives do your escape pods have? None? A fossil fuel burning engine? An ion thruster fed by solar panels? How big is it, and how fast does it run out of fuel—if it ever does?

There needs to be a correlation between the technology used to propel escape pods or ship-to-ship pods, and other short-distance transportation technologies in a given setting. There would be quite a logical conflict if all big ships all use some form of space-time manipulating tech, while their escape pods still burn kerosene. In a society that has learned to manipulate space-time itself, the need to consume fossil fuels would have long been surpassed. Just something to keep an eye on.

Terrestrial Transportation

Even if there are all sorts of ships and shuttles around, people will still use wheeled vehicles while on solid ground, if not for the nostalgia, for the fact that they’re cheaper and easier to maintain. What kind of wheeled vehicles does your storyworld have? Do people use “cars” only on planets and moons, or also to travel greater distances inside a ship, such as to traverse huge cargo hangars?

And what about trains, wheeled or not? What about skijets, ships and submarines?

So many things to wonder about. I always have to remember to only develop as much as my story needs, as much as to be well-informed about the world. Otherwise I’d spend months researching tech, instead of getting any writing done. 🙂

A word about Ark Ships…

Okay, a bunch of words.

Ark ships generally come in two different types: Generation Ships, and Human Cargo Carriers.

Generation Ships are giant interstellar ships with an own biosphere to sustain a full society of people, who live and work their entire lives aboard the ship. Several generations of ship-dwellers will come and go as the ark crosses the ginormous distances between solar systems. Generation ships are full storyworlds in and of themselves, and as such, need quite some consideration to be realistic and fully formed.

Human Cargo Carriers are interstellar ships carrying cryogenic containers with human adults and/or embryos, intended to colonize a far away planet upon arrival. Usually, such ships are highly automated and only have a limited crew to oversee the journey. The crew will either awaken from cryo-storage on predetermined schedules to do maintenance, or live their entire lives awake in a small community. They are gradually replaced by other crew in storage, or by their own descendants.

Ark ships can make awesome storyworlds for a great variety of plot types, and also quite plausible as migration vessels for nomadic alien species, or peoples fleeing no longer habitable planets. They are also the likeliest ships to get us measly bipeds across interstellar distances, because—with all love for SF—FTL ships are still a thing of fantastic speculation, and not actual engineering probability.

I haven’t used an ark ship yet, but I intend to, particularly a generation ship. It’s just too perfect a closed setting, with so many potential problems.

Until then, I’ll stick to FTL ships, and hope we get to warp space sometime soon. Please? 🙂

Published by Veronica Sicoe

Science Fiction Author — I deliver the aliens.

10 thoughts on “Storyworld Design: Transportation Technologies

  1. Hello Vero: I just published A World Too Far that tells a story about a convoy of Ark ships. I really enjoyed writing about the world enclosed in a ship and all the things that happened. Envisioning the science and dealing with the tight focus on personalities was fun.


  2. Random thoughts about cargo and economics of space travelling…

    Re automated cargo ships: I see them working well (all too well maybe) if the starting and ending points are themselves highly automated — for instance, a completely robotic mining colony can use automated ships to send out minerals and get back spare or replacement equipments. OTOH, if not two cargos are alike, if the starting and ending points are never the same, if you’re not even sure what your next stop will be like or even will be at all, or that they’ll still be interested in your cargo when you get there, or what they will have to offer as far as outgoing cargo is concerned… automation might not be adaptable enough.

    In any case, I think space travel should never be commonplace in a story — it must cost a lot of time or money, or present high risks, or require scarce resources, or a mixture of all this — because if it was easy and safe and guaranteed, then the farthest planet would become just the house across the street, and there would be not much point in it being a planet…

    Oh, BTW — Larry Niven’s Flash Crowd is an interesting story revolving around displacement booths, which are basically planet-surface equivalents to jump ship tech: instant transportation start- and endpoints. Niven does a good job of both giving them “physics credibility” and exploring what could possibly go wrong with them. 🙂


    1. You’re absolutely right, Albert. Cargo transportation can only be automated on steady streams, not for the less predictable demand-based runs. You’re also right about space travel not being commonplace – it’s definitely that needs a huge time, money, and work efforts, and would be difficult to manage. Trivializing it would only damage the believably of a storyworld.

      I haven’t read Niven’s Flash Crowd, but Dan Simmons had a very complex and extensive wormhole/portal tech network set up in his Hyperion Cantos, and I remember the grandness of the concept and execution taking my breath away. It’s not something I’d venture into building without a lot of premeditation.


  3. On ‘space-trains’ … the gravitational pull of celestial bodies could be used to power these ‘trains’ with little energy expenditure other than making small course corrections. Imagine bouncing cargo around Jupiter’s moons in order to build up enough velocity to slingshot around the sun and come to a perfect stop right above the cargo terminal on the dark side of the moon. 🙂


    1. Awesome idea, Widdershins!

      Automated cargo transports and space trains are definitely a concept I’d love to work with one day. Who knows, perhaps I’ll fit it into my new series, as I’ll have several advanced alien races further into the story… 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by to comment!


      1. BTW, I’m just back from Utopiales and out of the many captivating panels, there were two there on spaceships, one of which was specifically about what may or may not be doable today or in the near future, and slingshots around the Sun and solar system bodies are what is actually used to send probes within the system — or beyond — because it is the most economical.


      2. I use both jump and warp drives. Of course I have to give them limitations to make them worth the trouble of using two different systems for travel. For example, the jump drive can transmit a wormhole opening at light speed wherever it’s pointed. Then it would make an entry hole up ahead and enter and pop the other side. This would be great for solar system travel. Interstellar travel? Not so much. There is where warp drives kick in. Mine look fairly simple to visualize since it warps space through the warp ring like a needle eye does fabric. Interstellar gases flow past the ring like a constant aurora. The warp drive can travel at FTL speeds. And those speed limits can be whatever I like. Personally I favor a lightyear per hour, since it gets you to close star systems in record time (Proxima Centauri would only take about four minutes).


      3. I use a similar trope in some of my stories (1 hour = 1 lightyear). But I think you might have your math is a bit off. If you travel one lightyear for every hour of time, and Proxima Centauri is four lightyears away then it should take you 4 hours to get there (not 4 minutes).


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