Saturday, November 11, 2006

Faster-Than-Light — Use It To Build Worlds

News first — I’ve released a new SF short story: Thief. Have you ever wondered what happens when the last galaxy burns out?

Spaceships — where would SF be without them? But so often, they are treated as an afterthought, especially when it comes to FTL or faster-than-light travel. We’ve all seen Star Trek with warp drives, or hyperdrives as in Star Wars, Stargate and a myriad of SF movies and novels, and which are essentially the same in that the passengers hop into their ship, flip a switch or press a button and hey presto! They’re suddenly traveling faster than light to amazing new worlds.

Except for the time it takes to travel from Zaccarus IV to Beligro Minor, say, the only other way they affect the plot of a story is if they run out of fuel or the engines break down. Other than that, little interest is given to how FTL flight can affect world building and thus the plot in general. Oh sure, you get the occasional TV plot where some genius modifies an engine, or a new experimental engine is tried out and something goes wrong so that the intrepid crew is stranded light-years in the middle of nowhere or in some strange dimensional space or a parallel universe and have to find some way to get back.

But these are all about the unexpected happening and the characters reacting to that. They are not the everyday experiences that one might expect.

Which brings us to me. I like to think up the technology and science behind the drives in the spaceships in my novels — both sub-light and supra-light drives. The reason I do that is because I want to know how the technology works and hence how it affects everyday life in the universe I’m building (and besides, I have nothing better do with this useless grey matter in my head.)

In The Rodan Trilogy, (back before it became a trilogy) when I first started thinking about writing a novel, I actually had the idea of a spaceship that transfers from one location to another before I had any idea of plot or characters. I was just letting my mind ramble and I had half an idea about a cop character chasing a terrorist/gun-runner type of bad guy who managed to smuggle weapons to restricted planets by using a side-effect of the drive to embed them in the ship’s structure so that it could pass checkpoints, and then extract them somehow at their destination. Note: this was before 9/11.

To have this work, I had to come with some kind of mechanism to allow this to happen and I came up with the idea of a ship that transfers from A to B via a dimensional transfer that requires the solution of a complex matrix of equations, but that a perfect solution wasn’t desirable and an approximate solution was needed. That way, the gun-runner could manipulate the solution so that the transfer could still take place, but some of the ship’s information was scrambled so that the weapons were embedded in its superstructure. And then — tada —! with a fiddle of the solution, another transfer would extract the weapons.

Well, as is often the case, the idea for the story got trashed, but the idea of the transfer engine stuck and the need for an approximate solution then affected how this society worked. Add to that the idea that the approximation of the solution affects how far a ship can transfer and how long it takes (relative to an observer in the normal universe) and suddenly, a whole new structure falls into place. So the three basic ideas I had were:

1) The interstellar ships could only transfer for a small range of approximate solutions, but that the closer a solution was to a perfect solution, the further a ship transferred, ie the farther it went.
2) The closer to a perfect solution that the approximate solution was, the longer the transfer appeared to take in normal space.
3) For a perfect solution, the ship transferred but never arrived anywhere because it was now in a stable configuration.

For the world I was building, I decided that the range of acceptable solutions allowed transfers over distances between 30 and 70 light years, with 50 being the optimal distance, and the times for transfer ranged from femtoseconds to about a minute. But since this wasn’t a linear relationship, as the approximate solution neared a perfect solution, the distances went up rapidly as did the time taken. For example, a distance of 200 light years would arrive several months in the future, while one of my short stories has it taking forty years to arrive at a distance of 4000 light years.

But what is this transfer solution, I keep talking about? How else can it affect my world building?

To transfer from Zaccarus IV to Beligro Minor, you really need to know the local conditions at both places, because the transfer equations are a real pain. The last time I counted, there were a million equations, each with up to a billion variables. Mind-boggling, I found. Now usually, to transfer to a brand new destination, it must first be studied with huge astronomical arrays before it is visited by special explorer ships that can collect additional data to refine the equations. Unlike normal ships, they, like warships, also have the extra computational power required to calculate a transfer solution.

The real problem with calculating an approximate solution is that it is so finicky. There is always a minute uncertainty in how approximate it is and this can result in a ship arriving anywhere up to several million kilometres from its expected arrival point. In any direction! Which means its destination must be far enough away from planets, asteroid and comet belts to be safe. Somewhere where there is lots of empty space.

To complete the scenario, I had to think up how a ship transferred — how its transfer engine worked. For this, I came up with the idea of combining the large with the small, after all why should an engine be small? In essence, I have three micro-black holes that need to pass each other for an instant so their event horizons graze each other, just as they are bathed in intense beams of subatomic particles and electric and magnetic fields.

Now even though they are micro-black holes they each have masses equivalent to a fair sized asteroid and as such need a large volume to move in. To make life easy, I set the engine shape and size as a one-kilometre diameter sphere. In this configuration, the black holes pass each other every six hours or so, which means that transfers need to be planned ahead. And since the calculation of the solution is so difficult and time consuming, normal interstellar ships don’t have the computational capability to calculate a transfer solution on their own, although they may be able to invert the solution to roughly go back to where they came from, provided the solution hasn't been interfered with.

Follow me so far? No one said space travel would be easy, so why make it?

So how does this affect the society?

For starters, it means that travel is restricted to destinations within a spherical layer around the departure point. You can’t just hop in your ship and shoot over to the next star system for your weekly spiritual enema with Zowlkon, Diarrhetic Master, Fourth Grade in the Church of the Dyspeptic Coming. To go from A to B, you need to travel via C, D and sometimes E.

Next, because the departure and destination conditions are known, transfers must be scheduled to minimize the uncertainty in the arrival location. This makes interstellar travel akin to mass transport systems in which schedules are strictly adhered to. Just imagine how that affects warfare. And because the interstellar ships must depart from and arrive at locations well off a star system’s ecliptic, there is travel time required by ion-or-some-such ships to ferry passengers and goods to and fro. I picked a couple of weeks for ion ships travelling a few billion kilometres at a constant acceleration around one gravity. That solved the problem of having to coast in zero gee for many months, but also required a unique refuelling strategy. It was quite clever, I thought.

So, what do you do on what is essentially a four week cruise? Why, have a party!

Or a really long quiz night. Speaking of which, here’s a question you could include if you’re setting one up:

Q: What do you call a cat that likes to eat pussy?

A: A cannibal.

(I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

Next time I’ll write about the FTL method used in my Zhivar trilogy, which I’ve finished the first draft of the first book last year and I’m dying to get back to. Or, what the hell, I might talk about my private life and the tragedy of Mandy, my inflatable doll. It’ll depend on the emotional state I’m in. It brings a tear to my eye just thinking about it....

And Remember check out my novels. Please, please, please...

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