The biggest SF trope there is — interstellar transportation — comes in many different forms, each with its own predicaments. The most common of all, are:
- Wormholes (Stargate)
- Warp Drives (Star Trek)
- Hyperdrives (Star Wars)
- Jump Drives (Battlestar Galactica)
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?
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.
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.
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? 🙂