Replacing the hated “warp drive”


It’s been a pet peeve of mine for years.  I researched for years to find a way around it, and wrote two books based on my solution.  It’s one of the things that threatens to turn a perfectly good science fiction story to fantasy in an instant.  It’s warp drive.  And I hate it.

Warp drive was a concept created by writers of science fiction who knew that the distances between stars were too immense to allow humans to travel about and actually live to reach the other side.  It provided for romantic stories about traveling from star to star as easily as we sail from shore to shore, in great and powerful ships run by military discipline much like their seafaring ancestors.  It gave us Forbidden Planet, which begat Star Trek, and the “new planet every week” television show.

And yes, I’ve done it myself.  One of my most popular series, The Kestral Voyages, applies a warp drive system much like that featured on Star Trek, giving me a Galarchy of planets and a commercial network for my heroes to ply the stars.  Lots of room for romantic adventure.  Easy.  Familiar.  Understandable.

The problem is, it’s a crock.  It won’t work.  Why?  Because, however you plan to do it, it would require more power than any human-built construct could ever hold, or any engine could ever process.  We’re talking on the order of stellar energy outputs every second… except that, wait, even that’s not enough.  And you wouldn’t be able to see ahead of you… or detect and move unexpected obstacles before you run right into them.  It’s suicidal as well as impossible.

Most SF writers know this… or they choose to ignore it.  Some of them may believe that, like the sound barrier, we just have to push hard enough to “break through” it and the rest is cake.  Others like to believe that yes, we can commandeer the power required to move faster than light, once we figure out how to control anti-matter or zero-point energy.  Some think we can gain the ability to control time, or to insert our ships into “hyperspace,” another dimension that allows you to travel to other planets but by a shorter route (because, in hyperspace, everything is apparently much closer together).  Some delight in filling pages with jargon that pretends to solve the inherent impossibilities of the task.  And some just like to say “Ah, what the hell… warp speed, Scotty!” and ignore the contradictions and impossibilities inherent in what they’re doing.  (In terms of the Kestral books, that last writer is me.)

It’s a cheap literary shortcut, as cliché as the cavalry coming over the hill in the nick of time and the detective who never gets hit by a fusillade of bullets, but hits his mark and downs his crook with one shot every time.  And readers who wouldn’t accept elves and unicorns in their stories open wide and swallow warp drives whole, then mumble “Thank you sir, may I have another?” through jargon-stuffed mouths.

So why do we do it?  Is it impossible to write science fiction without resorting to that stereotypically-impossible trope?  And is it impossible for readers to appreciate a story without it?  I don’t think so; it’s just that it’s been with us for so long, we don’t really see it anymore.  It’s become a sort of blind spot, the ever-present cowboy hat on the hero’s head, part of the landscape.

And it self-supports a certain type of story, like a tree on a hill that can threaten the hero with a hanging—how can you threaten to hang the hero if there are no trees?  If we want to write a story in which the hero is threatened with hanging, it’s just too easy to write in some trees somewhere.

When I decided to write Verdant Skies, a realistic SF story taking place in space, I researched possibilities of traveling among the stars that didn’t involved fictional alternate dimensions and impossible amounts of power; something that actually seemed plausible.

As a long-time reader of Scientific American, I struggle my way through most of the articles involving one aspect or another of quantum physics on a regular basis.  To be honest, not a few of them left me in the dust, and many others left as many questions as they answered (assuming I even knew what the questions were!).  But I managed to slog through most every article that tied quantum physics into the makeup of our universe… and suddenly, certain things started to add up.  I went back through my magazines, re-read articles, started taking notes, and Lo and Behold, a possible method of intergalactic travel suitable for believable science fiction began to suggest itself!

The concept that the universe has a “quantum frequency,” unique at every distance from the center of the universe, is borrowed from the Scientific American June 2005 article entitled “Inconstant Constants.”  It identifies a Fine Structure Constant (alpha), which defines the strengths of the interactions of elementary particles, and which suggests different interactions at different degrees of alpha… in other words, a unique frequency at any specific radius from universal center.  This is a function (one among many) of the expanding universe around us.

This detail meshes well with the Hubble constant, which indicates that the universe is expanding faster where it is further away from universal center than it is closer in.  The differing expansion rates cause measurable changes in light frequencies, creating a seeming paradox of objects that, from our point of view, can travel “faster than light.”  These observations are described in the Scientific American March 2005 article “Misconceptions About the Big Bang.”

These, and lesser articles in SciAm and other sources, were my basis for the “quantum frequency” that a signal-broadcasting system could manipulate on a local level, essentially altering the frequency of anything within its influence.

Couple this with many experiments in accelerating quantum particles, resulting in their “disappearance” from one position and “reappearance” in another position.  In these experiments, the quantum particles seem to traverse a distance faster than light could travel.  Don’t ask me how any scientist manages to tell one quantum particle from another, but they are certain these particles are one and the same… meaning that they are covering a distance faster than light.  Most scientists believe they are traveling through another dimension, in an effect they call “quantum tunneling.”

I tied “quantum frequency” and “quantum tunneling” together by suggesting that quantum particles, having a new quantum frequency forced upon them, will automatically “tunnel” to the distance from universal center that corresponds to that quantum frequency.  The demonstrated effect of “quantum entanglement” suggests that, if the particles all “tunnel” at the same time, they will maintain position and state with each other, resulting in a collection of particles arriving in the same overall state as when they departed.

The concept of a “jump drive” creates a very different dynamic for a space story: No longer do the characters sail a vast, black ocean between stars, like their ancestors did back on Earth; they now set some equipment, flip a switch and they’re there.  The tropes of long isolated voyages and vast distances common to stories in our past no longer apply.  The old romance is gone.

But that’s okay: We know how to make new romances. Science fiction is about investigating and revealing the differences in our lives that science will one day bring upon us.  In the same ways that we interact, communicate, work, play, learn and maintain ourselves differently with the help of scientific discoveries, so we can expect to travel differently through space.  The rebooted Battlestar Galactica showed us a jump drive, and a way of life built around it, and it was not sterile or boring.  It was different… the essence of science fiction.

We can stop treating space stories as extensions of Horatio Hornblower, and imagine them in a new way, a world that doesn’t depend on the old notions of travel, and invents brand new ones.  It’s time to leave the old centuries’ notions behind, and see where the new centuries will take us.

If you want to see how I applied this jump drive concept, you can read Verdant Skies, available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

4 thoughts on “Replacing the hated “warp drive”

  1. Alexis Gervais

    It still sounds and looks and quacks like a crock.

    You appear to describe quantum teleportation: regular teleportation (e.g. Star Trek) but using quantum processes such as entanglement to cause stuff to disappear here and reappear there, or a copy to start existing over there while the original is unaffected, etc. I’d say it’s been done before, even when applied to moving a spaceship. Even then, why stop at sending a spaceship? Send an entire complex that, upon instant arrival into orbit, decomposes into modules that land on an habitable planet (after the viable exoplanet has been spotted in advance, of course). No need to “go anywhere”, just teleport into another planet’s orbit, then deorbit. Voila.

    Greg Bear had similar technology in Moving Mars, if you recall.

    There’s also been fiction about using gravity to tunnel through spacetime, as there are suggestions that gravity ignores our three-dimensional space and might propagate through those extra rolled-up dimensions – the hyperspace you mentioned – that stem from string theory, thus affect objects far away from a gravitational source.

    That last one was explored in Eifelheim by Michael Flynn, if you’ve ever read it.

    Personally I think the future of such propulsion concepts in fiction is to have ships go very near light speed, with various technologies preventing the destruction of your ship from grains of interstellar dust or even blue-shifted high-energy particles.

    Of that last idea there is a certain trend towards it. Think Revelation Space, Encounter with Tiber, House of Suns, Anvil of Stars, and a hundred others.

    Kudos for the subject matter, Steven!


  2. Alexis,
    I tried not to make it sound like I’d “invented” something no other writer had developed; but I did work from scratch to find a method that sounded workable in SF boundaries, and that worked for me as a writer. I’ve actually not read Moving Mars, and I hadn’t heard of the others… but then, there’s a lot of SF I haven’t read, so no surprise there.

    My major points here are twofold: That the notion of flying to the stars in essentially the way we sail from continent to continent needs to be re-examined, as it’s simply not as practical as we’d like to think it is; and that, if we find a workable way to travel among the stars, it will likely be so different from our current travel experiences that we will develop brand new practices, traditions and romantic notions.


  3. Donn

    I look at all interstellar travel stories more as “Science Fantasy” than Science Fiction. That doesn’t really diminish my enjoyment, and other novel (as in unique) methods of spinning that fantasy, and the implications of that method, itself can make for a compelling allegory.

    I, if required to, would consider Science Fiction to be something that has a higher probability of actually happening. I really treasure the more near future stories, almost always happening within our solar system. The golden age writers hold many examples, and so do modern SF writers. And so do you Steven. I particularly enjoyed “Factory Orbit”. Allen Steele did his Near Earth series. Ben Bova has lately done almost exclusively these type of stories.

    The Science Fantasy stories give a platform for very exotic stories, but the SF near future stories are ones I can imagine actually happening, and more easily put myself in.

    Again, I go back to our icon representations of what the story was, “Phaser” “Rocket” “UFO”… You did a great job in categorizing what expectations, and how much suspension of disbelief was required.


  4. Donn, I think we’re in agreement on considering FTL stories Science Fantasy… and that it doesn’t necessarily detract from the story itself, as long as the reader understands the implications of that fantasy science. It was pointed out (on another thread) that authors have been known to use FTL without actually trying to describe it… it was just there, the future equivalent of a bus trip, of minimal influence to the story itself (Solaris comes to mind). Maybe such a story could be considered “closer” to SF than fantasy by some, but I would still consider it a tacit assumption of fantasy tech; so even Solaris becomes Science Fantasy. But does it matter to the enjoyment of Solaris? Not at all.

    And thanks for reminding me about Factory Orbit, I keep meaning to put it back on the market after a suitable updating.


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