Reaching for the Stars
Writing the Infinity Trap made me realise that science fiction is all about travel.
Jules Verne fired astronauts out of a gigantic cannon. And HG Wells used anti-gravity paint to hurl men at the Moon. Neither idea materialised in real life, but they had a point. Radical new kinds of transport are required to achieve our dreams of space conquest. SF has been inspiring scientists ever since. But why? As I realised writing my first SF novel, outer space is all about travel. At every turn of the plot I needed a vehicle to get my characters around. Whether from planet to planet or crater to crater, the more groundbreaking the concept the more interesting the story. Well, the number six bus was hardly going to crack it!
I began to look at SF ideas capturing the imagination today.
Sometimes, old ideas come back into fashion. Take the space elevator, an earthbound tower rising above the stratosphere. First suggested in 1895, Arthur C Clarke famously employed one in The Fountains Of Paradise. I invented my own version called The Televator for The Infinity Trap, as a way for my teenage heroes to launch their journey to Mars. Far-fetched? NASA are working on a real version even as we speak: a cable tethered to a low-orbit asteroid. Cargo will be simply hoisted into the heavens for next to nothing cost-wise.
But this is just the beginning.
Once we've left the world behind, how do we reach the stars? Space is mind-bogglingly big. Our current technology would take decades to arrive at our stellar neighbours. Something of a huge block for any SF writer pounding out that thrilling blockbuster. So we came up with faster-than-light (FTL) spaceships. A journey lasting centuries crammed into a few hours, think the Millennium Falcon or the Starship Enterprise.
Wait a minute—Einstein said it was impossible to accelerate beyond the speed of light. What kind of engines are these rockets using? Well, a warp drive is the most common fictional solution, a matter/antimatter reactor using plasma bubbles to warp the fabric of space-time. Have the scriptwriters outmanoeuvred Einstein? Maybe, again NASA eggheads are researching it. Named after the physicist who came up with the idea, an Alcubierre Warp Drive causes the fabric of space to contract and expand. A starship could, theoretically, ride this wave at FTL speeds. The only problem being, as Dr Alcubierre admits, based on our current know-how it's impossible to build!
Another popular fantasy is the Wormhole. According to Einstein, a wormhole is a tunnel-like shortcut through space. Carl Sagan's aliens use one to visit Earth in his novel Contact. Anthony Horowitz uses one in The Power of Five, and, arguably, Phillip Pullman in the series His Dark Materials, when Will slips between worlds. And of course, let's not forget Stargate. So far nobody has ever discovered one, but Einstein can't be wrong, can he?
So that's getting there. But what about while we're en route?
Ok, imagine we're hurtling through the galaxy at twice the speed of light. How long will a round journey take to the closest habitable planets, say Gliese 667C? Twenty-two years! If the deadly radiation didn't get you, the boredom probably would. This is why SF writers introduced suspended animation. At first they invented deep freeze pods, putting people into icy comas. One small hitch, in reality this would prove fatal. Author Larry Niven got around this in his Known Space novels, by dreaming up stasis chambers. Time is brought to a complete standstill inside the chamber, while years, even eons, pass by outside. It's the same device that saves intergalactic slacker Dave Lister in Red Dwarf.
And it doesn't stop there.
Right, SF has enabled us to leave planet Earth, cruise through the Milky Way, and even do so in relative comfort. Does the journey end there? Maybe not. Iain M Banks, in his novel The Hydrogen Sonata, proposes the ultimate voyage. Leave the known universe behind and enter a higher dimension. One where all restraints of matter, time, and mortality no longer apply. A realm where we become gods. That, surely, must be the final frontier.
Ian C Douglas