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