Faster-than-light travel is one of the most revolutionary ideas science fiction has ever explored. This simple narrative device has made it possible for writers to explore distant worlds and expand human civilization out into the depths of space. In fact, it’s hard to image what the genre would be like if FTL had never been conceived all those decades ago. However, it’s worth noting that FTL is just that; a narrative device – a means to an end.
In some ways faster-than-light travel has also held science fiction back. It makes interstellar travel so easy that we no longer take the time to explore the practical realities involved in traveling to distant stars. We writers also overlook other modes of transportation far too often, tending to err on the side of convenience.
Many writers also feel compelled to include multiple planets and star systems in their story concepts, simply because FTL makes it easy to do so. This can keep them from exploring the subtle intricacies of the worlds they create, in the same way that Star Trek warps off into the horizon never to visit the same world again. This brings us to our first item…
Set Your Story on a Single Planet
Do you really need to include multiple planets? Within a single world lies the potential for an infinite number of stories.
Planets are huge! Just look at our own world; it supports countless ecosystems and is home to thousands of unique cultures. Writers of other genres (and many scifi writers) have found this to be a bottomless pit of possibilities. While science fiction is more conceptually demanding than other genres there’s still no reason why you can’t make do with just the one diverse world.
It’s worth considering that the entire Star Wars franchise could easily be set on the same world, or in the same solar system at least. Instead of creating an ice planet, a desert planet and a forest moon, create an earth-like planet with all of these ecosystems. Futuristic planes and hovercraft are just as cool as spaceships and this cuts out the need for fiddly old FTL drive entirely.
Of course, your characters will need to have travelled to this new world somehow (unless you want to use the ‘galaxy far, far away’ get-out clause) but this doesn’t necessarily require an explanation. Your readers can fill in the gap themselves.
Set Your Story in a Single Star System
If you really must insist on having multiple planets then why not eliminate the need for FTL travel by locating them in one densely packed star system. As shows like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly have demonstrated, multiple habitable planets can exist in the same star system, be it a single, binary or multiple-starred system.
Again, your colonists will have had to get there somehow but this doesn’t necessarily require an explanation. Once there they can use less convenient, more practical sub-light engines to journey between worlds.
How many planets can you fit into a single star system? You can read our article on the subject by clicking here.
Suspended animation can seep like a bit of an old-fashioned way to travel at times. In fact, ever since the Enterprise encountered a sleeping Khan Noonien Singh drifting through space it has seemed so 90s.
The problem with traveling in suspended animation is that it’s so damned inconvenient. You wake up hundreds of years later to find that the world you left behind has changed beyond all recognition, and to go back might mean the passage of yet more centuries. To me, this is what makes the idea so interesting. It’s a journey through both space and time, and it presents so many interesting challenges. You never know for sure exactly what kind of world you’re headed for. Even if the journey takes paltry ten years wars might have been fought and entire civilizations destroyed.
Hyperspace travel is probably the closest idea to FTL, with some writers/TV shows chosing to treat it as essentially the same idea. The major difference, of course, is that one doesn’t travel through space but rather through the space between space.
The most interesting approach to hyperspace travel I’ve encountered so far would have to be that taken by Babylon 5, in which hyperspace is represented as a huge extradimensional void essentially running parallel to normal space. This is an interesting narrative device in that it allows for the convenience of interstellar travel while creating new challenges of its own (such as the difficulties of navigating hyperspace) and without underestimating the vast nature of space.
If you’re looking for a no-frills point-to-point transportation system to take your characters out into the galaxy in the blink of an eye, no questions asked, a wormhole is pretty hard to beat. Wormholes work in pretty much the same way as hyperspace travel – cutting through the folds in spacetime.
Wormholes can be land-based (like those in the Stargate franchise) or space-based (like the “jump gates” seen in Babylon 5) and they can be natural or artificial in origin. They can also be stable (connecting two fixed points, like Star Trek’s Bajoran Wormhole), unstable (jumping about the galaxy unpredictably, like Star Trek’s Barzan Wormhole) or user-controlled, allowing freedom of travel (as in Stargete SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis). Science fiction writers have also used wormholes to travel through time and even as a means of interdimensional travel (as in Sliders). In fact, you can do just about anything with a wormhole without raising questioning eyebrows.
This is a really useful and incredibly simple narrative device, and it’s much older than you might think. It’s essentially just a magic doorway, of the kind that used to lurk in wardrobes transporting juvenile idiots to the land of Narnia. It’s had a science fiction revamp since then, providing us with the visual metaphor of freaky blue space tunnel and a complex scientific explanation that nobody will question. Lazy science fiction writers love the fact that using this one world will automatically release them from the need to provide any explanation, description or scientific justification.
I first became aware of this idea when reading Phillip K. Dick’s novel ‘Our Friends From Frollix 8’.
We’ve all seen teleporters used to send dimwitted and ill-prepared Star Trek characters on dangerous away missions, but the use of this technology as a means of inter-stellar travel is somewhat rare. It makes perfect sense when you think about it – it allows you to cut spaceships out of the equation altogether. A transporter pad would probably have to be built at your destination before you could teleport yourself there, but there’s no reason why this process couldn’t be automated. Send a few highly advanced space probes out into the galaxy now and in a few hundred years you could have your very own network of Iconian gateways.