Tuning the Universe (Vision 2)

Tuning the Universe

Time, Distance and Cost in Science Fiction

By Bob Billing

©2001, Bob Billing  


Fiction, of whatever kind,  is about people. And the art of writing fiction is the art of making life difficult for your characters. Specifically, science fiction - at least the kind that I write - is about the way a combination of high technology and low stupidity can drop the entire cast into the sort of pickle from which it takes 120,000 words of fast-paced action to extract them.


This means designing future technologies and giving them properties which make them useful - but not too useful - to the characters.


I specialise in the sort of SF that has space travel as a major theme, so I'm going to keep referring to that genre. But a lot of what I have to say applies to any imaginary world. 


The time things take to happen is the first useful property of your future technology. It's interesting to examine a few classic SF novels and note the times that the authors have picked for interstellar journeys. Isaac Asimov chose one of the fastest speeds for his ships - he placed nearby stars less than a second apart in journey time. This gave him a vast canvas on which to draw the rise and fall of galaxy-spanning civilisations. Other authors have gone slower - both Larry Niven and H Beam Piper set the time between adjacent stars to be days, and told stories of independent human colonies with widely differing customs and societies. Going even slower still as in Harry Harrison's "Captive Universe" or Niven's "A Gift from Earth", restricting interstellar ships to sublight speeds, leaves little islands of humanity almost completely cut off from one another. Niven incidentally twice wrote about the effect of accelerating interstellar travel - the discovery of FTL itself and then the "second quantum" - a big jump in speed. This let him examine the effect of opening up contact with a previously isolated society. 


Distance has the same sort of effect - but I think it's a mistake to take a story that works in one environment and simply try to scale it up to a larger frame. Different orders of magnitude of distance have different flavours of problems associated with them -  and simply changing the scale, but keeping the story the same, will ring false.


Let me illustrate. Let's say you are writing a story set in the 1930's, on an ocean liner. Someone falls off into the sea, wearing a lifejacket. The ship stops and goes back to look for him. The liner would have been travelling at a speed comparable to a car in traffic, and in the time it took to turn around it might be miles away. But the search area would be only a mile or so long, well within what a lookout with binoculars could scan, and our hapless character would have a decent chance of being picked up.


Now move the same story to an interstellar liner on passage between Earth and Alpha Centauri - a very local run in interstellar terms. A character in a spacesuit falls off. Let's pick a speed for the liner of one thousand times the speed of light, so that the passage time is about a day. Once again we know to a minute or so when our luckless friend fell off. He's floating along in his spacesuit, screaming blue murder on the radio - but now the search area is a thousand light minutes across - about twice the size of the solar system. If the lookout is in exactly the right place and looking in exactly the right direction it won't help because light and radio waves will take the best part of a day to get from our casualty to the ship. Without an outrageous stroke of luck, or some really clever technology, you're never going to see the character (or the space suit rental deposit) again.


Of course this can be used to advantage in plotting - one of my characters said, "There's no chance of my being rescued unless I do it myself." It's this shift towards being alone and out of contact with fellow humans, and thrown back on one's own resources, that's one of the advantages of this sort of SF. You can get characters more lost in less time, and with bigger problems getting home, than anywhere else in fiction.


I've been talking rather glibly about travelling faster than light, even though that's something we can't do at the moment. But interstellar distances are so big that some way of breaking the light barrier is going to be needed if we are going to be able to tell stories at all. I'm ignoring for the moment both multi-generation ships, where distant descendents of the original passengers arrive at the far end, and special tricks such as freezing the passengers. These have been done very well in several classic novels, and are a distinct sub-genre all to themselves.


To go faster than light we need a "black box" of some kind that will let us suspend or bypass some of the laws of physics for the duration of the story. And by choosing the properties of this box carefully, we can set up a whole series of problems for our characters.


There are three really important properties to the black box:


How easy is it to make?

How fast does it go?

What does it cost to run?


And by deciding these we can more or less set up any environment we want for our story.


If the box is really difficult to make, and requires a lot of specialised machinery, we'll only find a few factories that produce them. This would make the entire business of interstellar travel terribly vulnerable to an attack on one or more of these plants.  However, the people who owned them would be rich, powerful, sophisticated and worth kidnapping. This suggests half a dozen plots at once.


On the other hand, if anyone could make a black box in his garage, there would be a huge number of unlicenced interstellar spaceships in service, because space is so big that you'd never catch them. Doing it this way you have a largely anarchic society in which criminals can easily escape from one planet to another, young men get shanghaied as crew onto badly maintained ships, and Nice Young Ladies who go too close to spaceports are dragged off to the obligatory Fate Worse Than Death and never seen again.


Speed is the next important decision. It has huge effect on the sort of world our characters inhabit. And since we have no idea of how the black box might work, we can pick more or less any numbers we like. In general, choosing numbers towards the faster end, making the galaxy days to weeks across, will tend to create more cohesive societies - galactic empires if you like. On the other hand, this choice allows a character to disappear utterly into a populated area so large that finding her again could take lifetimes. This might make whoever was in power decree elaborate documentation and registration.


Going to the lower end, making even a very local interstellar trip take days would have the opposite effect. There would be huge differences between societies on different planets, and little chance of making an empire hold together. A rebellion could well be over and a colony independent before reinforcements for the garrison arrived, weeks or months later. But the relative isolation would tend to make the individual societies more colourful. If you want to write a "voyage among islands" in the old sense, a traveller's tale visiting lots of exotic locations with high adventure and a spot of swashbuckling, this is the sort of thing to go for. Here you'll find space pirates, shiploads of treasure, and people being forced out of the airlock at blaster point.


The cost of running the black box also has an effect on the type of world you create. At the most basic level, if you increase the cost, fewer journeys are made and less freight is shipped. But the cost will also control your characters' way of looking at interstellar travel. Make it very cheap to run, and they will go on interstellar jaunts as casually as we would drive to a supermarket. There would be little or no keeping of logbooks, and very little question of authorisation to use a spaceship or distinction between official and private use. Make it very expensive and the reverse applies.


The cost of running the box also puts a lower limit on the interstellar freight rates - the upper limit is defined by what the freighter firms can get away with charging. This then fixes the proportion of the price of imported goods which are down to interstellar carriage. Make the box cheap to run and commodities such as steel or wheat are only produced in a few places and exported to many destinations. The places where things are produced then become strategically significant. Make it a bit more expensive and only luxury goods are worth transporting. Make it a lot more expensive and we are left with a few urgent, life-and-death cargoes, such as vaccines, making the trip.


The cost of running the box will also influence the degree to which the economies of different planets interfere with one another. The cheaper interstellar freight rates are, the more commodities will be shipped between systems, and the greater the proportion of an industry's products will be exported off-planet. When one planet has an economic downturn, they'll stop importing, and the exporters on half a dozen other planets will see their profits shrinking. But if freight rates are high, only luxury goods will be shipped in small quantities and economic problems on one planet won't affect the others nearly as much.


Finally I'd like to look at a special case, one that I've used in my own worldbuilding.


This is a transitional state where one section of the human race has the technology to travel faster than light - but the majority does not. A secret like that couldn't be kept forever, but I think it could be kept for a very long time. If the society that had the technology located all its manufacturing on a group of planets which were closed to outsiders, it would be completely safe from spying - you couldn't get there to steal the technology unless you already had the technology you were trying to steal.


The society that had the technology would quickly gain economic and military ascendancy. It could be an evil empire, or a benign presence. And from time to time its officer class might be called upon to make the supreme sacrifice in defense of the technology.

And thereby hangs a novel...