Once more we’re flying fast as light. Dark Matter passing in the night…
-Unleash the Archers “Faster than light”
Faster than light travel has been a staple of Science Fiction for a long time. And for good reason. As an idea, the concept of Faster than Light (FTL) travel is pretty awesome.
It can be dramatic. I’m sure you all remember that triumphant scene at the end of The Empire Strikes Back when (Spoilers) the Millennium Falcon shoots off into Hyperspace, escaping at the last minute.
But it’s not just a place of safety. It can also be a place from which to launch an ambush–depending on how the rules of your world work – we’ll get to that later.
As a world-building tool, FTL travel expands your universe and gives you much more room to play with. Literally the only limit in this case is your imagination.
But it’s not all fun and games. FTL travel does come with its own problems, first and foremost is:
It’s theoretically impossible.
That’s a heck of a hurdle.
Realizing that, why would you want to include FTL travel in your work? For me, part of why I read and write Sci-Fi is for the locations. I want to see the mysteries that are out there. I want to visit other worlds. I want to see other species. FTL travel can provide that and I want it all.
There are other benefits and drawbacks that FTL travel can bring to your story and I’ll get into those later.
So what kind of FTL options do we have to work with? Again, your imagination is literally the only limit here. Let’s take a look at what’s gone on before.
- Ship-Board Engines: This is pretty self evident. Your ships have specialized equipment that either provide: Serious Propulsion or a way to enter a type of…
- Galactic Fast Lane: This is the idea that FTL speeds are reached by leaving your current dimension/reality and entering one where those kinds of speeds are possible, or distance or Time don’t work the same way. Sometimes this requires specialized equipment, sometimes it doesn’t.
- Jump Gates: These would be the “Stargates” that saw use in Buck Rogers, and in the Honor Harrington and Kylara Vatta stores among others. The idea here is that two points in space are connected by these gates providing the equivalent of FTL travel by getting rid of the intervening distance. For my Money, Wormholes fall into this category.
Regardless of what you call it or how it works, eventually, you’ll have to come to terms with the idea that you won’t be able to describe how it works. At some point the science is going to break down and it’ll get messy, and the story will experience some slight turbulence, and then explode. No one wants that.
So don’t bother with the explanation. It works and that’s that. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Move along. What you’re going to want to do here is give it a name, hint at the mechanics, and leave the rest to your reader.
Pretty cool eh?
Here’s where it gets pretty cool for you as a writer and…where it can be limiting.
Limiting you say? How can FTL travel be limiting?
Again, it comes to your imagination. You’ve got a method for it in your world. The next thing to consider is the rules under which this form of travel operates. What can you do with it? More importantly, what *Can’t* you do with it? That second question is much more interesting than the first one (Picard Maneuver, Anyone?)
In terms of technology, what kind of impact does FTL travel have on your world? Does it come with Faster than Light Communication? Can you move faster than your lines of communication?
However you work it out, the one thing that you’ve got to remember is that once you’ve established how it works, you’re locked into that. If your FTL drive works in a specific way in one place, it *Must* work that way everywhere.
Sidebar: Ok that *Must* is pretty harsh and doesn’t suggest much wiggle room, but realize that you break your own rules at your peril. You can do it, to be sure, but you’ve got to have a really good reason for it, or your reader will notice, and not in a good way.
But here’s where it gets good for you as a writer. You’d be overlooking an opportunity if you didn’t factor in some kind of cost for your FTL travel.
Does that Ship-Board Engine require fuel? Can it break? How readily available are fuel and parts? What happens if it breaks mid-Jump?
If you can’t make the jump to light-speed without precise calculations, what happens when you don’t have them or can’t get them? Can your “Navi-Computer” be hacked? Scrambled? Force Fed incorrect information, sending you where the Bad Guys want you to go?
Is that Jump Gate something that can be taken and held by hostile forces? Can they be blocked? Re-routed? Can one be partially disconnected, leaving you in a tunnel with no end?
FTL travel is huge. For all of its benefits, it should also present your characters with huge problems from time to time.
Thanks for reading.
Be safe out there. Be Excellent to Each other.
I’ll see you on Thursday.
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