Remember when I said I’d explore a few of the world-building assumptions of my Sikander North stories? Well, here’s a big one: In the 31st century, humans have a FTL (faster-than-light) drive, so we can zip from one star system to another in a matter of days or weeks.
Let’s be clear: As far as we know right now, this is impossible. The speed of light is a hard rule of the universe that probably can’t be broken or even bent without running into weird problems of causality. But I wanted to tell a story about starfaring battle fleets visiting strange new worlds and fighting awesome battles in a variety of stunning settings, so I decided that this is a rule I was willing to break. The question is how to break a rule like “FTL really shouldn’t work” in such a way that you’re A) consistent about how it works in your universe, and B) able to explore interesting and logical implications that would follow once you decided how to break the rule.
The basic method I settled on is something called the Alcubierre drive, after physicist Miguel Alcubierre. He suggested that while you can’t necessarily go faster than the speed of light, you might encase your ship in a bubble of altered space, and that bubble might give you an apparent speed faster than light. We sometimes refer to this as “the NASA warp drive” because NASA’s rocket scientists occasionally speculate about ways to get to the stars that might be somehow not completely impossible, and the Alcubierre drive is one of the at-least-marginally-plausible approaches out there. While I knew full well I intended to play with fantastic FTL travel, I figured I might as well clothe it in some faint wisp of plausibility.
With that settled, I came up with a number of implications based on what a fantastic working model of the Alcubierre drive might mean for my setting:
- Ships travel in straight lines. Your warp bubble is moving through the universe; no ordinary maneuvering you do within your bubble can possibly change the course or speed of the bubble.
- Ships are blind while in transit. You’re not really part of the normal universe, and you can’t see out of your own warp bubble.
- You use a warp drive by setting a very precise course in normal space, building up acceleration, and turning on your warp generator. You time your transit down to the second, and at the right moment cut your warp generator and see if you’re where you thought you were going.
- Generating an Alcubierre warp bubble requires negative mass–something that you just can’t generate with ordinary matter. There’s a guess or two out there that some form of exotic matter might do the job. My starships generate their warp bubbles by energizing a ring structure containing pentaquark matter–a hypothetical form of matter made of five quarks instead of the customary three. (The trick is that one is an antimatter quark, so you still net out at three.)
- Creating exotic matter requires an immense amount of energy–say, fusion power plants of a size and scale possible only on the most heavily industrialized worlds.
- Exotic matter is expended during warp transits, so that starships are tethered to base infrastructure to some degree. (In my mind, I likened this requirement to the “coaling stations” of the 19th and 20th century navies.)
- When a ship cuts off its warp generator, its collapsing warp bubble unleashes a “terminal cascade” of energetic and destructive radiation. Anybody paying attention in a star system notices your arrival, and you really don’t want to risk arriving anywhere in the inner portion of a star system or in close company with other ships in your fleet.
There are a few other implications I could explore at length, but I think that’s plenty for now. I know that parts of this sound like simple technobabble, but a little technobabble is okay . . . just so long as you apply it consistently, and follow through on its logical implications for the setting.
On a completely unrelated note, I received my author copies for Valiant Dust today. It’s a standard part of the publishing contract–your publisher agrees to send you a case of your own book so that you can give some to your friends and family, or stash a few for special events or inscriptions. I know you might be getting sick of seeing this cover splashed all over my website, but still . . . I think it’s pretty neat!