NOTE: During this post I’m going to be mentioning plot points from number of books, films and television series, including Star Wars: The Force Awakens and New Battlestar Gallactica.
Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
In fact space is so big that trying to express it in any units of distance that you as an individual can have personal experience of, will rapidly result in a figure with an unworkable large number of zeros at the end. On a day to day basis this isn’t too much of a worry but if you are a science fiction writer or scriptwriter, then in presents something of a problem. Unless you’re prepared to limit the story to a single solar system or spend years or centuries getting between stars, you need to have some kind of Faster Than Light (FTL) travel system. While not completely impossible, trade, warfare or even exploration become a damn-sight more difficult without an FTL system. The problem however is that currently as far as we know traveling faster or even at light speed, is flat out impossible. While real world science has offered some small crumbs of comfort – wormholes, quantum tunneling, the recent EMDrive, etc – basically crossing interstellar distance in anything less than years is off the table. So FTL is often given a pass within stories that otherwise are attempting to be Hard Science Fiction, a fact that can often leaves the most dedicated Hard SF writers guilt-ridden.
There are basically two forms of FTL in science fiction, the Star Trek style, where ships fly through… something and can change course, speed and even potentially fight other vessels. The alternative is the Jump model, where a ship jumps from point A to point B, not interacting with the space in between the two points. Sometimes this is due to the engines carried by the ship, in other settings it is fixed ‘jump points’ through which the ship travels. The important thing to remember about both models is that scientifically they are both baloney, basically they run pure Handwavium – a substance obtained when the writer waves their hands and says ‘don’t ask awkward questions, just accept it and move on’.
Okay so if we’re willing to break the laws of reality once, we might as well not worry, the FTL drive will do whatever the plot needs it to do any any given moment. That’s okay right? No, no, it is not. Breaking internal consistency will break any story, even one outside the genre of science fiction or fantasy. Imagine watching a police drama where the lead character is established as overweight, over-the-hill, smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish. Where early in the episode he attempts to chase a suspect and wheezes to a halt after twenty yards. But when the plot requires can suddenly run like a cheetah. That lack of consistency will see the viewer reaching for the remote. Within fiction internal consistency is sacred, figure out what can and can not be done then once the rules are established keep to them!
But more insidiously, the writer needs to consider the implications of those rules.
Now viewers of New Battlestar Gallactica might well remember this scene from season three episode four. To get around the enemy ships guarding New Caprica, Galactica jumps into the upper atmosphere launching fighters during free fall to destroy the enemy positions, before jumping back into space.
Visually there is no doubt that this is really, really cool. However it also blasts a massive hole in the internal logic by making planets completely impossible defend. Think about it for a moment, if this is possible then why not strap an FTL drive onto a nuclear bomb or even a big rock? Orbiting starships can provide no defence when a projectile only appears a few hundred meters above the target. A few scenes later we see human ships jump out after lifting off only a few hundred meters from the surface, which begs the question why do these ships need space engines? Why not an interstellar helicopter, one that can take off from the ground, then jump into space, jump to where it wants to go, then jump into the atmosphere there and lower itself back to the ground.
Elsewhere in science fiction new Star Trek invented transporters capable of beaming an individual from one solar system to another, again rendering the central premise of the setting un-workable. While during the recent Force Awakens film we saw the Millennium Falcon being used to penetrate the shields of the Starkiller base by only emerging from FTL within the atmosphere of the planet. Which again begs the question if this is possible why not simply pound the target with nuclear ( or whatever ) weapons until the problem goes away? Sure a percentage, maybe even a large one, will fail but if one got through, then others will also manage it.
Now to a certain extent film and television has the advantage that the narrative keeps moving, the viewer doesn’t have the time stop and immediately think about what has been shown and the possible implications. Literature doesn’t have that advantage.
Those of you who have read my Nameless War Trilogy will be aware of something I called the Mass Shadow, an area of gravitational effect around planets or other large space bodies. Within a Mass Shadow a ship could neither jump in or out and would instead have to travel to the edge at sub-light speeds. Now I didn’t invent this just to torture my characters ( not just ) I did it to make it possible to have a war in space. Without it the basic setting would not work, because enemy ships would be able to appear above a planet and nuke it vigorously before anyone of the ground could say Whoops Apocalypses. With it ships were forced to jump well clear of a planet and with that I was able to explore all kinds of tactical difficulties and options. Most space based science fiction literature that I have come across makes use of similar mechanisms for the same reasons. The only one that I have come across without a limiting factor is John Scalzi‘s Old Man’s War setting; in this it is possible for space vessels and armed drones to jump in above a planet and immediately be able to fire on the surface. In essence it is possible for a planet nuked out of existence before it knows it is under attack. However Scalzi has made this workable, the life supporting planets are the prize being fought over, rendering weapons of mass destruction unusable.
Science Fiction allows us to break the rule if we are unwise but what we should seek to do is change them but only once and consider the implications. Whatever the rules, they offer both limitations and opportunity and we must consider both. If the question is asked ‘why don’t they simply do X’ then a solid answer has to be given, ‘because I say so’ is not going to cut it. There can be the great temptation break or bend the rules to get characters out of an difficult situation but to do so leaves a setting with no substance and if you find yourself writing you way into such a scene, then time to step back and be responsible in your use of FTL.