FTL Flavors: Wormholes

artsywormholeThis is the fourth in my series on various flavors of Faster Than Light (FTL) travel, and today I’m dropping into wormholes. The basic idea of a wormhole is that it’s a shortcut between two points. Usually they are fixed points, but there’s some variation on that. Sometimes they are done as predefined shortcuts through some alternate parallel space, and other times they are special tunnels through our own space.

In most cases, they are fairly permanent and independent of the ships traversing them. Thus, ships that have only sublight capabilities are now about to cross vast interstellar distances just by popping through these wormholes, just like a pedestrian can cross town quickly by taking the subway.

FTL-to-FTL interactions: These are almost nonexistent. The only interactions you might have are with other ships (or beings) that are in the same wormhole with you. Plus, wormhole trips are usually presented as being fairly short, so the opportunities for interaction would be fleeting.

FTL-to-sublight interactions: There are none. At least, that’s how I typically see it done. The wormhole is completely cut off from the rest of the universe. At best, there might be some communication with stations near either end of the wormhole.

Relativistic effects: Typically, there are none. Sometimes the transits are essentially instant, like walking through a doorway. Other times, they last seconds to hours, but it’s generally presented as time flowing tick by tick along with a stationary timeframe.

However, I know of one wormhole setup where the wormhole is a tubular region of space where time flows thousands of times faster than normal, thus making the speed of light in that region thousands of times faster. Ships passing through this make up for the time-scale by travelling at relativistic speeds, thus slowing their internal time by a similar factor to the external speed increase. Thus, they make a multi-year journey in a few minutes according to their own clocks and quite possibly a few minutes according to our clocks as well. In that setup, however, there is no guarantee of an absolute matchup between the ship clocks and the stationary clocks, so there would be some variation from one wormhole to another, and sometimes even from one trip to another on the same wormhole.

In-FTL Navigation: Nope, sorry. You don’t get to steer the train. You can’t even pull the emergency brake. And no hopping out the back either. You stay on it until it dumps you out the other end. Do not pass Rigel. Do not collect two hundred quatloos. Your best bet is to hope that there are other wormholes near the end of this one so that you can exercise at least a little choice.

Speed Differential: In all the wormhole systems I’ve seen, the ships within the wormhole all travelled through it at the same speed. Or if there was any speed variation, it was not under the control of the ships themselves. They were merely being swept along by currents of different speed. Of course, there’s no guarantee that all wormholes move you along at the same speed.

Malfunctions: All the breakdowns I’ve seen with wormholes have been with the wormholes themselves. Either they collapsed or became untethered at one end. Typically, the worst that happens to you is that you’re stuck at the wrong end of a wormhole. Then again, I’d hate to be inside one when it collapsed.

Special traits: Wormholes have several interesting traits in the story-telling sense. The first is that they are often pre-existing objects outside the control of the characters using them. Maybe they’re naturally occurring phenomena, or maybe they were built by “the ancients”. Or maybe, like the subways, they were built by the government, and we peons have to live with them as they are. They key here is that it’s no longer a space travel system where we get to pick out our destination and sail on through the night. Instead, there are a handful of destinations to pick from, and if that’s not where we want to go, that’s just too bad.

The second interesting thing about wormholes is what they do to the Euclidean topology of space. I’m not referring to some freaky space warping around the wormhole entrance. Rather, I mean that Rigel is now 500 million kilometers away rather than 900 light years, because there’s a wormhole to take us there. Meanwhile, our next door neighbor Proxima is still 4.24 light years away because it has no wormhole. Yet another nearby star Sirius is now only 2.1 billion kilometers away (rather than 8.6 light years) because we can get to it via a series of wormholes, i.e. first Rigel, then to Polaris, Antares, Deneb, and finally Sirius. (Don’t get lost at Deneb – it’s a bad neighborhood.)

And finally, if the wormholes are not strictly ignorant carriers of traffic, but instead, intelligent agents of control, then those first two factors can make for some very interesting situations. Imagine being able to control all commerce, traffic, even information flow between these distant stellar islands, simply by deciding which ships will complete their journey, which worlds to cut off, or which radio transmissions to shunt aside. Now start thinking about it from the point of view of we peons not realizing that the wormholes are under intelligent control, and let your space-opera paranoia turn all the way up to Eleven.

technicalwormholeBut one last bit on wormholes. Like the warp drive, these might be possible if not actually feasible. What we call a wormhole is remarkably similar to a prediction of General Relativity, known more properly as a Einstein-Rosen Bridge. However, since our best theoretical examples of such wormholes are tied up with black holes, this still has a long way to go to before we can turn it into the green-line express from Sol to Rigel.

Tune in next week when we go Jumping.

The whole series: Intro, Warp Drive, Hyperspace, Wormholes, Jumping, Summary

FTL Flavors

I don’t know which came first, the fictional accomplishment of travelling faster than light or Einstein’s prohibition against it, but one thing is certain, fictional FTL travel is here to stay. The genre of space opera almost requires it, and it has become a convenient cheat for telling stories over vast distances while still keeping them within our grasp.

This is the first of a six part series on the various flavors of FTL travel. Specifically, I’ll be breaking down the various forms of FTL travel and looking at how they work. I won’t be digging into the technobabble of fictional engineering manuals. Instead, I’ll be taking a look at how they work it story terms, i.e. what they allow, what problems they present, and so on.

Specifically, I’ll be examining each of them under these criteria:

Does it allow for FTL-to-FTL interactions? When you’re on your way from Earth to Rigel-4, can you run into another ship? Can you talk with them? Can you get into a fight with them? Or does this particular brand of FTL prevent those FTL ships from passing in the night?

Does it allow for FTL-to-sublight interactions? This is similar to but distinct from the first question. If you pass some planet along the way, can you see it? Can you make an FTL strafing run against some unsuspecting target? Or can they somehow see you coming?

Do you still have any relativistic effects? We might be mooning Einstein as we blow past at warp 5, but it might be possible to have some strange time dilation effects in place. Maybe you still age a little slower? Or faster? Or is it random?

Does it allow for in-FTL navigation? Do you set your destination and then trust to luck, or are you keeping one hand on the wheel at all times? If you find out that you’ve made a wrong turn, can you fix it, or do you simply have to wait until you get to other side?

Is all FTL the same speed? Does this particular FTL allow for some ships to be faster than others? Can you chase someone and catch up? Can you outdistance your pursuer? Or are we all on the same train?

What goes wrong? No mode of travel is without the occasional flat tire or torn wing. When your FTL engine breaks, what is the fallout? Are you left in space sticking your thumb out, hoping for a ride, or did you disappear into an alternate dimension, never to be heard from again? Or do things simply go boom?

And finally, is there anything that makes this particularly special? What makes it distinct from all the other go-go-go gadgets in the spacelanes? Is it man-made, a natural phenomena, or a gift from the ancients?

So, I hope you’ll tune in over the coming few weeks as I pop the hood on various starships and take a look at the story mechanics inside.

The whole series: Intro, Warp Drive, Hyperspace, Wormholes, Jumping, Summary

Review: The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

I always felt badly that I had never read this classic book, that I was somehow not really an SF fan because of it. Eventually, guilt or shame brought it to the top of my in-pile, and I dove in. Now part of me wishes I had simply left it there.

The premise is that humanity of early 21st century is at war with a far-flung alien race. We’re not quite sure how it started, but it looks like they shot first. The only FTL is via some kind of wormhole, but there is plenty of slower-than-light travel to and from, and much of that travel is at relativistic speeds.

So, rather than leaving it as a pure space-navy war, we decide we need some boots on the ground. So who do we recruit as our cannon-fodder? Only the best and brightest will do. So we skim off the cream of our intellectual crop and send them off to battle. If only their commanding officers were as smart.

Which is leads me to the main complaint about this book. The people in charge were always extremely short-sighted and downright stupid. I recognize that to some extent this is a screed against the U.S. political/military leadership from the U.S.-Vietnam war, but it got really annoying as to just how stupid they were making these folks.

How stupid? Well, they planned their training with the expectation that half of the trainees would be killed or permanently maimed during the training. They also sent them on missions over the years (in fact, centuries) where the expectation was an average of 66% casualties per mission. But it’s not like we were stuck in the jungles, trying not to kill too many civilians. Nope, we were fighting over deserted rocks. What part of orbital bombardment did they miss?

And then there was the whole Malthusian situation back on Earth. I know there was a lot of concern about the rapid rise of population back in the 1970’s, but even growing up with that, I was never all that worried. The concern, as originally laid out by Thomas Malthus in the late 1700’s, was that our population would outstrip our food production, and that the only ways to combat this were draconian birth control of the less desirable or poorer populations or outright war and starvation to bring the population back down to a manageable level.

Some of offshoots of this back on Earth during the Forever War were an economy based entirely on calories. Then there were some civil wars and lawlessness that brought the population down. And then we had enforced and universal homosexuality. Maybe it’s because I now live in a world where most demographers realize we are not headed towards a Malthusian catastrophe, but frankly, I found most of this to be ridiculous.

Perhaps it’s unfair of me to lay these criticisms on Haldeman’s 1970’s book, but its repetitive message that our leaders are stupid and we are all doomed was very tiring. I prefer more optimistic futurists because instead of complaining about all the insurmountable problems facing us, they tend to propose the solutions that actually solve those problems.

And my final complaint about the book was that the resolution of the war was very much deus ex machina. After centuries, humanity transformed into another form that was able to communicate with the warmongering aliens. No, we can’t explain to you how the communication works, but now that it does, everything is just fine. The war was a silly misunderstanding, and now everyone can live happily ever after. We thank you for your centuries of pointless sacrifice.

About the only thing I did find worthwhile in the book was the realities of relativistic travel, of skipping forward into the future. Friends and family age and die. Technology and society march on in unexpected directions. The realities of life, death, and injury change from one trip to the next. That, at least, was interesting.

But by and large, I did not enjoy the book.