In my post Questions to Ask When World-Building, I wrote:
If you are writing science fiction, what physical settings or laws are different or exaggerated? Is there space travel? If so, how does it work? Warp speed in Star Trek gets you to a distant planet at a different speed than a Star Wars hyperdrive. These decisions make the difference between going from “one end of the galaxy to the other,” as Han Solo once bragged, and the entire Voyager series, in which the plot was centered on a near-hopeless trip across the galaxy back to Earth.
Well, now I’ve started writing a science fiction series that takes place beyond our world and it’s my turn to make some decisions regarding space travel. Will there be hyperspace? Will they use wormholes? Will they have some other folding of space/time?
There was recently a flurry of excitement regarding the possibility of Warp Speed. It lasted about one month before the same site renounced the EM Drive because it would “produce more energy than is put into it, violating the law of conservation of energy, which (simply put) says that energy cannot be destroyed or created” (Elizabeth Howell, Space.com).
I also played with space travel through Quantum Entanglement, which is the idea that linked particles remain linked once they are separated regardless of distance. There are some great ideas in the areas of using Quantum Entanglement for communication, but not for travel. Decoherence, the decay of unity between once-linked particles, happens even at the atomic level.
I discounted light speed immediately. In order to go that fast, you would need an infinite amount of energy. It is, by testimony of all articles and peer-reviewed science, impossible. Every forum conversation turns sour when somebody mentions moving at light speed, so I had a sour taste right away.
Then I started thinking about Near Light Speed. After some consideration, I decided that this was the way I was going to go.
Are We There Yet?
According to Time Dilation, Yes! A person traveling at near light speed won’t notice a long wait time between their departure and destination. They could be en route for hundreds or thousands of years, but their trip will feel like hours or seconds if they are moving at 99.99% of light speed. This is great for your main character, who will be the same age no matter where he or she ends up. They are free to move about the universe, but what about those they leave behind? They’re already dead.
Every Goodbye is Forever
While your characters are accelerating to near light speed, the rest of the universe goes about their business at their own rate. Time passes for everyone differently depending on a myriad of factors: gravity, speed, etc. This poses problems for cultural interconnectivity between different star systems, but I prefer that writing challenge to some mystical and unexplained system of travel.
Why Bother Explaining At All?
For some, research is silly. One of my friends said, “Just use hyperspace and call it a day.” I can’t do that. I need to know (at least to a layman’s approximation) how things work. The Star Wars type of hyperspace is too convenient for my characters. I need limits in order to work well. Not only that, but I think Star Wars when I hear “hyperspace,” just like I think Stargate or Babylon 5 when I hear “wormholes.” I’d like to carve my own path and cynically go where no massive property has gone before.
One of my reasons for writing this post is to put my ideas out to the world for fact-checking. There are many who know more about this topic than I do, so please comment below if you feel I have made any great errors in my understanding or if you feel I am on the right path. I’ll repost with corrections, if need be.