I spoke in an earlier blog about the real life science that inspired some of the world-building for Universe Gun, covering nanotechnology and AI. Today I’ll cover space travel.

If you’re writing a story set in the future, I guess this is one of the basic questions you have to answer. How far has humankind spread? Is there a moon-base, or a colony on Mars? What about other planets? Fantasy authors will often make a map of their world like Tolkien did for Middle earth. For science fiction authors the equivalent would be a star map, or at the least a list of planets with cultural and environmental notes. In a fantasy setting the map matters (and is often published in the front of the book) because the characters walk or ride between destinations, crossing mountains, desert, forests or whatever environment lies between. In a star system map, the relative layout is far less important. Characters get into a spaceship at A and get out at B with less sense of place in between. The closest terrestrial experience is the London Tube.

I decided to set Universe Gun within the solar system, mostly just on Earth and Mars.

Space is Big…

Relativity tells us that the speed of light is a hugely limiting factor on space travel. As you approach lightspeed, the energy required to accelerate further increases to infinite at actual light speed. This means that no matter what engineering problems you solve, physics will drag you down to the point where it takes 4 years to reach the nearest star. The Sun is 8 minutes away, Mars-Earth distance varies between 4 and 20 light-minutes, and Saturn is 40 minutes away at lightspeed. If you’re trying to be remotely realistic, you’ll have to further increase these travel times due to the acceleration that the human body can withstand.

You can sidestep this as a science fiction writer by invoking hyperspace, of course, and there are some decent explanations of how to do this. Even so, the story effect of a long space journey is just a pause. In Star Wars, for example, the trip from Tattooine to the Death Star was a space for a nice set of character moments (R2D2 vs Chewie on the chess board, Ben teaching Luke how to use his saber) that may as well have taken place in a cave or an elevator.

The appeal of space travel is best summed up by Star Trek’s tagline – Space, The Final Frontier.

Space is lawless, like the Wild West. It’s got that romantic wanderlust feel, to be cruising through the stars encountering whatever you might find. There is no wind in your hair, but it feels like there is. What could be bigger, grander, and full of more possibility than space?

One of our most inspiring and staggering achievements in the 20th C was to put a man on the moon, and bring him back.  It may not have been the most practical exercise (compared to, say, eradicating smallpox or inventing the internet), but it really gripped the public imagination. Fearless modernised cowboys or explorers boldly going to new places. We’re currently in the grip of Mars fever, having landed a remote probe there last year, as if going somewhere much further away and with a bigger gravity well would be even more exciting. I can’t help but feel that a trip to Mars wouldn’t take us anywhere new, but just further along the same axis of distance.

That’s the kind of science fiction I’d rather get away from in Universe Gun. I’d rather explore phase space, specifically the phase space of possible human experiences.

Phase Space is the mathematical term for an n-dimensional space that maps out a number of unrelated variables. What other axes besides distance does the human experience have to explore? There’s the relationship between our minds and bodies, and the possibilities of stretching and distorting that with machinery. The first few steps take us to telepresence and online avatars, then to immersive virtual reality as promised by the Occulus Rift headset. Off in the distance, we have human-machine nervous system interfaces (already underway today), and in the far distance, upload of our consciousness into non-organic computational substrate.

Any practical space travel system would have to involve a method of warping space, such as the Albucierre Drive, that bends space around the ship to break the lightspeed barrier. We’ve maybe taken our first half-step along this axis, but are still a huge distance away from any practical engineering system for doing this. When we get there, will we want to use this tech to travel to the stars, or would it open up other possibilities, to parallel universes with different laws of physics perhaps? Is there something much more strange and interesting than another planet right next to us, only in a direction that we can’t yet point to?

What about a miniaturised universe right on our doorstep?

Looking back, I wrote my manifesto here, in this promo art panel.

I’m going to go inwards rather than outwards, and build a dense universe of nested worlds rather than a sprawling galaxy. Star Trek showed a crew that were all too human, travelling through vast reaches of space. The aliens they encountered were generally human-ish. Their captain stuck to a set of principles that never deviated too far from basic instincts of punching and shagging. (I’m talking about Kirk here, in case anyone thinks otherwise!) I’d like to do the opposite, and create a bunch of characters who stretch the bounds of what it means to be alive and human without ever  leaving the house. And by house, I mean the little goldilocks zone around our sun that makes the Earth habitable.

Maybe I’ve read too much about the practicalities of space travel, and studied the physics behind it too hard, but I can’t really suspend my disbelief with it as easily as I used to. The jet engines and pilot model of Star Wars and Star Trek seem very 20th C and obsolete already, and the idea of lugging  a human body through space, with all its frailties, looks a bit clumsy once you’ve imagined methods of installing a mind into an artificial body.

Space warping technology, on the other hand, is quite commonplace in the 37th C that I’ve portrayed. Tesseract technology as invented by The Great Database is mentioned only 3 pages in. Low grade housing uses tesseract technology to provide cheap affordable city living, as we saw later in #1. In Issue #2, teleportation plays a role, and looks to be about as common as helicopters are today, ie used by governments, police and large corporations.  I’ve got a number of ideas on the pseudo-science behind tesseracts – how they work, how much energy they require, and whether teleportation can breach lightspeed. I’ll develop these more thoroughly as I go, and may well write them up once they’ve been revealed more in the comic. For now, all I’ll say is that they open up a few possibilities, but long distance interplanetary travel is not one of them.

And time travel? That’s right out, barring a few very special cases. There’s human technology, and then there’s Life Star technology.

If these choices seem arbitrary, its because they are. It would be ridiculous of me to say that space travel is silly and then draw a slum full of 4-dimensional boxes and expect you to all swallow it as a practical idea. But, they feel like the right choices to make for this strip. I want it to feel like its inspired by new science, by 21st C ideas rather than 20th C ones. The next strip I write may take a more classic space opera approach. It also means that if I do invoke interplanetary distances in this story, they will be grand and daunting rather than commonplace. And I may just do that.

See you in something like seven cycles around the sun, citizens of the solar system!

Dr Mike 2000, 16 April 2014