Red Suns: Faster than Light

I’ve often said that scale is an important thing to think about, especially in science fiction settings. It should be no surprise then that I spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted faster than light travel to work in Red Suns.

For this setting I was aiming for a similar feel to the Forever War, where ships might be dozens or hundreds of light years from home and far from support. At the same time, I wanted star systems to be interconnected enough for interstellar trade and diplomacy to be practical.

Settlements end up clustered around major trade routes, even if the planets aren’t ideal.

Eventually I decided that ships in this universe will move between stars with something called the Bulgarin Drive. These drives work by warping space around a ship in such a way that the ship can move faster than light. Travel still takes time however, and in order to save myself from making any embarasing mistakes about distance I’ve decided that distances will be thought of mainly in the time it takes for a ship to reach its destination and that these travel times are partially determined by the skill of the ship’s navigator.

The effectiveness of Bulgarin Drives are strong affected by nearby gravity wells. Massive objects disrupt the bubble of warped space around a ship and so this determines what routes are possible. Before departure a ship may have to maneuver at sublight speeds for a signifigant amout of time before it reaches an adequate departure point, then it activated it’s Bulgarin Drive. Then months or even years later it arrives as close to it’s destination as local gravity conditions will allow.

This gravity-dependent behavior leads to three points that I am eager to exploit in worldbuilding and in story telling.

  • The limited number of acceptable arrival points in a star system creates opportunities to ambush ships as they drop out of FTL.
  • Smugglers and infiltrators can choose to take a longer route into a system if it means avoiding more well traveled areas of space.
  • In certain regions of space local gravity conditions align in just the right way to allow even faster FTL travel.

This third point is especially important for what I have planned in this setting and I’ve made a quick map of one of these Gravity Hyperlanes below.

Under normal conditions travelling from one end of this lane to the other might take a year for example, but because local conditions are just right the voyage can be accomplished in just six months.

My intention is for patterns of human settlement to be based around these hyperlanes. Easy travel will mean that colonies cluster around these lanes even if the systems are not ideal settlement sites, while the rare handful of Earth-like planets will be able to develop into self-sufficient units even if separated from these lanes.

After reading all that you might wonder how messages are transmitted. If a ship may take years to reach its destination then what about an email? Large amounts of data will still need to be carried by special courier ships, but short messages can be transmitted without needing to wait.

Bulgarin Transmitters, which work according to similar principles as the aformentioned FTL drive, are able to transmit short text-based messages nearly instantaneously with just two main limitations.

  • Messages have to be short. The transmitters require a lot of energy to work, so ships will have only have their transmitters active for short times. Receives can be kept on continuously however.
  • Messages need to be encoded. These transmitters suffer from a large amount interference so in order to receive messages intact they are transmitted in short bursts resembling old telegraph signals.

There are likely some flaws with this FTL concept that I’m not seeing, and it wouldn’t work for all settings, but I think it fits my rather well. It gives characters a way to communicate with some limitations, allows them ships to travel with reasonable speed. And most interesting to me, it will make spacers into a separate subculture of their own. Being gone from home for years and aging at different rates due to relativistic effects will quickly set them apart from their friends and family back home and I’m excited to explore this as I continue to build the setting.

FTL and Its Implications

Almost all space opera depends on relatively easy travel between the stars. Deciding on just how characters are able to do this has massive implications for the story being told and the society in which your characters live. FTL travel enables all of the other stories that happen in a setting, so it should be no surprise that deciding on how FTL is achieved is one of the hardest parts of scifi worldbuilding.

Disregarding portals, let’s look at four basic flavors of FTL.

  1. FTL is Impossible: Travel between stars takes a long time. If travel beyond the solar system is possible then it will be primarily through generational ships. Contact between solar systems will be rare if it occurs at all.
  2. FTL is Possible But Slow: As it turns out the speed of light is just a suggestion but spacers can still expect to find that many years have passed since they left. Relativistic effects may come into play.
  3. FTL is Possible and Fast: Travel between worlds still takes time but is not a life sentence.
  4. FTL is Instant: A ship disappears in one place and reappears in another. There may still be limits in how much distance can be covered in a single jump or how long the engines need to cool down.

The in-universe explanations will vary but the results are essentially the same. Some use extra dimensional spaces, others use alternate universes. Whatever the explanation is it will have huge repercussions for the story being told.

Two of my favorite examples in established fiction are John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. In both of these series the methods of FTL travel can be seen to shape the story. In Old Man’s War FTL is accomplished via Skip Drives that resemble Method 4 and we are treated to dialogue in which we see that they are limited by distance with fleets taking time to assemble as ships must first maneuver to systems within a more favorable range.

The Forever War takes a very different approach to FTL travel. For the most part travel between the stars is very, very slow. Soldiers sent off to fight the Taurans might return to Earth to find that while they might have only aged a few months or years, decades or even centuries have passed for everything. Something similar but less extreme is seen in Dan Simon’s Hyperion and we can see how this difference in how spacers experience time might create a group separate from the rest of civilization.

In the first example the limitations of space travel are a strategic challenged while in the second space travel is a societal issue. Although this would still be a massive advancement compared to what we have today it would mean that society would need to figure out how to deal with the spacers and soldiers who find themselves outside of their own time period.

Both of these methods and the rest of the four have their own implications and should explored at least in the world building stages so that a consistent and reasonable narrative can be presented to your audience. Science fiction is just that, fiction, but failing to be consistent about something as integral as travel times can quickly cause the audience to lose interest as the contradictions mount.

So which flavor of FTL is your favorite? Let me know on twitter @expedition_blog.

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