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[GUEST POST] Jason LaPier, Author of UNCLEAR SKIES, on Exploring the Vastness of Space in Fiction

Born and raised in upstate New York, Jason now lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and their long-haired dachshund. In past lives he has been a guitar player for a metal band, a drum-n-bass DJ, a record store owner, a game developer, and an IT consultant. These days he divides his time between writing fiction and developing software, and doing Oregonian things like gardening, hiking, and drinking microbrew. He can be found on Twitter @JasonWLaPier and his blog at http://jasonwlapier.com.

Space is Big

by Jason LaPier

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long walk down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

I follow NASA on Instagram, and they are constantly posting amazing pictures like this one:

Misbehaving Spiral Galaxy: Despite its unassuming appearance, the edge-on spiral galaxy captured in the left half of this Hubble Space Telescope image is actually quite remarkable. Located about one billion light-years away, this striking galaxy – known as LO95 0313-192 – has a spiral shape similar to that of the Milky Way. It has a large central bulge, and arms speckled with brightly glowing gas mottled by thick lanes of dark dust. Its companion, sitting in the right of the frame, is known rather unpoetically as [LOY2001] J031549.8-190623. Jets, outbursts of superheated gas moving at close to the speed of light, have long been associated with the cores of giant elliptical galaxies, and galaxies in the process of merging. However, in an unexpected discovery, astronomers found LO95 0313-192, even though it is a spiral galaxy, to have intense radio jets spewing out from its center. The galaxy appears to have two more regions that are also strongly emitting in the radio part of the spectrum, making it even rarer still. Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA; acknowledgement, Judy Schmidt #nasa #hubble #hst #space #nasabeyond #astronomy #galaxy #science

A photo posted by NASA (@nasa) on

A pair of galaxies, each of them tremendously vast, and here they are side by side. One billion light years away. Which means the image in this photo is one billion years old. It predates Earth’s dinosaurs by like eight hundred million years.

When we explore space in fiction, we have to account for its overwhelming size. If we’re going hard sci-fi, we have to recognize that even communication, which may be radio waves or even particles of light shot through the night as a laser, are still limited by the speed of light. It takes several minutes for light-speed communications to travel from Earth to one our nearby neighbors, Mars.

Even when we resort to using mythical FTL (faster-than-light) travel in our science fiction, communication is still an issue. Ursula K. LeGuin began using the term ansible for a device that is able to communicate across galaxies in real time in her Hainish Cycle novels, and a lot of fiction has adopted such a device in order to enable extremely long distance dialogue out of necessity for the story. In other cases, where FTL travel is possible only through special gates or wormholes, then interstellar communication sometimes passes through these; caught on the other side and redirected to its final destination; such as the inter-system communications that are found in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.

When it comes to science fiction and travelling vast distances, if the storyteller isn’t loading you up with hard science homework, then it’s likely they’re glossing over the details of how their fictional starships work. Most likely, they’ll only focus on limitations: because limitations are what make a story interesting. When Han Solo has to fix the Millennium Falcon, he’s going to blather a bunch of fictitious technobabble that almost sounds familiar. We know words like “compressor” and “motivator”, but in context, they are obscured. However, we also understand that Han is not a rocket scientist – he’s an improvising mechanic.

We also get that light speed travel is not a guaranteed function of the Millennium Falcon. Because what’s more important to the story is not how the FTL drive works or even how it is repaired and maintained, what’s important is that it works at times and doesn’t work other times, and that it has to be repaired and maintained. What matters to the average person is not how their computer or their car works, it’s that it does – and sometimes does not! – and what they can do with it.

A science fiction storyteller has to create rules for their universe, and the limits of space travel are often one of them. Sometimes the fun comes from breaking our known limitations – like introducing FTL travel – and then adding new ones. Because, hey: space is big. So when you start hopping between stars, you’re just opening up to the next level of bigness.

So while we remove some limitations, we create new ones. In the earlier example of FTL communications, the real-time ansible has its own set of rules: both the transmitting and receiving ends of the device have to be set up and ready to communicate, and due to the limited bandwidth of the device, only short text messages are possible. In terms of communication, it’s barely a step above Morse code, and yet it’s able to cross any distance instantaneously. In Ancillary Justice, even though the interstellar gates allow communications to be passed through, there is still a significant delay, because the signal still has to travel some time through regular space at the sluggish ol’ speed of light. The receiving and the relaying needs to be in place, and any lag can cause cascading delays. The awesome thing is that in both of these cases, these limitations significantly affect the story.

[Image: Sol and her Neighbors, with established xarp routes (as imagined in The Dome Trilogy]

[Image: Sol and her Neighbors, with established xarp routes (as imagined in The Dome Trilogy]

I made this map purely for fun, not scientific accuracy, but it’s based on a much more accurate image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nearby_Stars_(14ly_Radius).svg. If I may take a detour for a moment: in my books, I make an offhanded reference to a planet called Betelgeuse-3. You see, I needed another star, but not one that would ever make it into the story, and this was a nice homage to Douglas Adams (if you’re not familiar with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of the main characters, Ford Prefect, comes from “a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse”). On a “night sky” chart, Betelgeuse is not far from Sirius, so it must be in our neighborhood, right?

No, of course not. Betelgeuse is actually over 400 light years from our solar system. Also, this supergiant is estimated to be 600 times the size of our own sun – which means that if our sun were the size of Betelgeuse, then Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars would be well inside it. More mind-boggling bigness!

So Betelgeuse didn’t make it into my star map, but the reference stayed in the story. I like to think of it as a symbol, and for example, to say that “Dava is from Earth but grew up on Betelgeuse-3” is a euphemism for “there is a part of Dava’s life that is so dark she won’t talk about it”. The people of my future don’t really like to talk about Earth either (it’s still there, but it’s not a fun place), so it works.

So why is it I had no problems using stars that are around ten light years distant, but not four hundred? In the universe of “The Dome Trilogy”, FTL is possible but never really explained. There are some hints that it works the old-fashioned way: a ridiculously high-energy fuel has been discovered and there are warp engines that can process it, propelling ships to near light speeds. But even at light speed, the closest stars in the vicinity of Earth would take years or decades to reach. So technology marches on, and the xarp drive is created as the successor to the warp drive. Unlike a wormhole or a space-folding style of travel, these xarp drives do not wink out of one star system and wink into another. They’re more akin to the Millennium Falcon or Starship Enterprise, with everyone holding on tight and stars blurring past. Except they’re not nearly so fast. In fact, not all xarp drives are created equal, and their speeds vary quite a bit. So where the Falcon could traverse two systems ten light years distant in a matter of minutes, a xarp drive can take anywhere from several days to a few weeks.

This means along with the star-hopping ability I’ve enabled the human race with, I’ve introduced a whole new limitation. By spreading the story between three different star systems, I introduce levels of separation that are not prevalent on present-day Earth, as planes, trains, automobiles, and globally-connected networks have made our planet quite small. In my story-world, if a character needs to get from one place to another, they have to find a ship that’s capable first, then they have to make the trip, which is not instantaneous in the least. And there are no ansible devices. The most efficient form of communication between star systems happens with drones that are equipped with a dangerous-to-organic-matter zarp drive. These drones have to be loaded with data and launched, and so there is built-in queuing and lag time associated with this form of communication. In effect, they are a bit like sending a “snail mail” letter across the globe in today’s world.

The fun thing about this is that now communication challenges affect the plot, as in the examples I gave earlier. There are times when you really wish a character could pick up a phone or a radio and reach another character, but they may be on the opposite end of the solar system, or in an entirely different solar system a dozen light years away. It almost becomes a throwback to old western stories, where you’re lucky if you have The Pony Express or a train to deliver those messages, and even then it’s going to take some time.

We love science fiction because it’s an escape. We love to imagine what it would be like to cross such vast distances, and what kind of adventures would be born of such voyages. But I think the other side of that escape is to seek space, in a more general sense: space for our lives, space for our thoughts. A break from this too-close world where all of our communications fit in our pocket. For those times when we want to say, take me out to the black, I’m thankful for science fiction and the limitless imagination of space.

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