Has today’s science fiction finally been tamed by physics? Did that pesky phrase, “scientific plausibility” grab ahold and rein in imagination? Well, perhaps that’s taking it half a parsec too far. But the moniker this literary sci-fi movement is saddled with, “mundane science fiction” does conjure up notions of flaccid creativity.
While there are numerous aspects of science fiction that sidestep reality, the one mundane science fictioner’s have their phasers locked on to is FTL, faster than light travel. They argue the possibility of traveling beyond the cosmic speed limit, the speed of light, is simply too far-fetched. Physics, and Einstein, dictate that an infinite amount of energy would be required to accelerate any object with mass to the speed of light, unless you’re a neutrino that is. There are also the issues of time dilation where time slows significantly for an object as it approaches such velocities. This means for a person in a ship traveling for a few days at, or near the speed of light, hundreds of years would pass for everyone else.
Essentially, FTL is impossible given the energy requirements. Even if one could travel faster than light, why would they, because once their destination is reached, there would be no one there who remembered they were even coming. And herein, lies the mundane sci-fier’s argument. Why can’t we create riveting stories within the bounds of the plausible? This was the question discussed in a recent Io9 article, “How to Write a Killer Space Adventure Without Breaking the Speed of Light”.
The article focused on space opera, the classic sci-fi subgenre that takes place on a grand scale across galaxies, over distances many of us cannot come close to honestly comprehending. Think, Flash Gordon, Dune, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Larry Niven’s Ringworld and his Known Space universe, Star Wars, Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica. The authors interviewed for that piece imagined space opera within the confines of a solar system with Charles Stross, a British science fiction and fantasy author, analogizing this new approach to Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series of novels. “If Patrick O’Brian could make his Earth feel vast, then the same sort of scale effect should be applicable in SF… Vast distances, isolated outposts, that sort of thing.”
And why not? Taken from that perspective, yes innumerable stories are awaiting birth from such a concept. Stories of a not-so-far-off era of exploration, groups of endeavoring souls settling new frontiers struggling at the edge of survival, or far-future human societies spread across near space populated by people who have evolved along unique lines determined by the environments on which they settled, humans but not quite the same as those originally born of Earth. The concept is enticing. Challenging to write and compelling to read. But should it take the place of scifi that dares to imagine a future where intelligent beings can shoot across the galaxy with their FTL drives firmly bolted to their starships’ chassis, taking the reader along for the ride?
While many who read science fiction demand a level of realism or plausibility, that level is fluid and relative to the reader. Speaking from a personal perspective, being educated in general scientific disciplines, my tastes range across the broad spectrum that sci-fi encompasses. I do dismiss the utterly improbable, or ridiculous. But I can suspend reality and immerse myself into a story that breaks one or two laws of physics, as they are currently understood, if there’s at least a toenail in grounded science or some invented loophole acknowledging those limits the author is circumventing. Heisenberg compensator, anyone?
Science fiction grew out of the fantastical, imagining what could be. Did it produce its fair share of absurdities that would never hold up to today’s science? Absolutely. But those stories also inspired. How many theoretical physicists, aerospace engineers or astronomers, were inspired by some piece of science fiction when they were a child? How many of them as children read about exploring the farthest reaches of space and said to themselves, “I want to do that,”?
At risk of playing a cliché card, inspiration does breed innovation. And it’s that inspiration which drives us to make the fantastical plausible, if not possible. While stories of gritty survival holding true to what is plausible today will make for great adventures into the human condition, they don’t invite one to push the boundaries of what could be. Are dreams of faster-than-light simply that, dreams never meant to come true? Perhaps. Are their exceptions to the laws, loopholes wide enough to be exploited? There might be. Hope is a wonderful thing to grab ahold of and maybe there’s still some breath out there to keep it alive.
In 1994, a Mexican scientist conceptualized the idea of a real-life warp drive, a form of propulsion made popular by Star Trek. Space is warped (constricted and expanded) around a vessel within a bubble of normal space allowing for travel faster than light. Unfortunately, calculations determined it would require unachievable amounts of energy, equivalent to the mass-energy on the order of Jupiter. Fast forward 18 years, with a change to the geometry of the original vessel, those energy requirements were reduced drastically, to a mass-energy equivalent of something the size of NASA’s Voyager 1. Does this prove a warp drive is possible in the very near future? No, but it does take us one step closer to plausible. It illustrates how new ideas and different perspectives can yield new possibilities.
We’ve all been inspired by the spectacular within the pages of a memorable scifi book or on the big screen. Yes, much of it isn’t possible, not now. But if we hold to what is only plausible, we’re limiting ourselves. If it wasn’t for classic science fiction unencumbered by 1930’s, 1940’s-50’s physical understandings would we have inspired the generations who found ways to take us to the Moon, to build reusable spacecrafts, to send rovers to Mars, to send the first Earth-borne probe beyond our own solar system? If we never imagined beyond the edge of impossibility would we have made the technological leaps we’ve made so far today? Yes, eventually, but where would the inspiration have come from?