Episode VII: The Meta Awakens

meta: A term, especially in art, used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential.

– Urban Dictionary, 2005


WARNING: This entire post is a theory on The Force Awakens. If you have not seen the movie, close your browser right now.



If you’ve made it this far, you should already have seen The Force Awakens. Hopefully you’ve seen it more than once. If you’ve read anything on the Internet you may have encountered online theories about Rey’s parentage, the identity of Supreme Leader Snoke, or other pieces of the Star Wars mythos. This is not that kind of theory.

My theory is that The Force Awakens is actually JJ Abrams’ meta-commentary on geek fandom. To sum things up:

Han, Chewie, Leia, and Luke represent the Star Wars intellectual property.

R2D2 and C3PO represent the old-generation (40s and older) Star Wars fans who lived through the first three cinematic releases.

Poe and Kylo represent the mid-generation (late-20s to 30s) Star Wars fans who weren’t born during ANH/ESB, but were old enough to remember the Episode I disappointment.

Rey and Finn represent the young-adult Star Wars fans who are too young to have experienced prequel shock.

The Force represents the emotional impact of geek culture – mainstream culture in the past, Internet culture in the present.

The Dark Side represents the nitpicking, judgemental, gatekeeping side of geekdom, as in “Gamergate” and “Rabid Puppies” online movements.

The Light Side represents the inclusive, joyful, uplifting side of geekdom, as in celebrity authors such as Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin.

Supreme Leader Snoke represents the primeval force of fanbase hatred.

Once you view the new Star Wars lore through an allegorical lens, it not only makes sense, it shines a bright light on geek culture and science-fiction culture as a whole.

Star Wars ANH

Solo, Organa, Skywalker, Chewbacca
The Holy Trinity… and a walking carpet


So JJ Abrams’ Star Wars allegory begins by assigning the following roles to each Original Series character:
Luke = The Original Movies
Han = The Expanded Universe
Chewie = The Videogames
Leia = The Merchandising

Luke Skywalker is the most important man in the galaxy. He has the strongest command of The Force, just like how ANH/ESB/RotJ are the most loved by the fanbase. However, by the start of TFA, Luke has been missing for many years… ever since the Cataclysm that turned Kylo and the other young Jedi to the dark side.

Where Luke is powerful but somewhat one-dimensional, Han Solo is a complex character with a good heart but many bad habits. He represents the old Star Wars EU, ranging from the amazing Timothy Zahn novels to some downright putrid plotlines. His inseparable furry companion also has shades of greatness but also very bad breath.

While Leia (the merchandising) may share most of Luke’s DNA, she’s had a long and tempestuous relationship with Han (the Expanded Universe). Sometimes this relationship has seemed like true love, as in super pricey Boba Fetts. Other times things are a bit rocky, as demonstrated by testicle-headed Rebel aliens.

The two droids, R2D2 and C3PO, represent the old generation of Star Wars fans. These old-school fans were droids, so they don’t feel The Force – our allegory for the cultural impact of SF. These fans were blessed enough to live in the pre-Facebook, pre-Reddit era. They could be loyal and devoted fans without having to worry about whether fandom should be inclusive or judgemental.

And of course no mention of the Original Cast is complete without Darth Vader. In this allegory, Vader represents old school sci-fi, ranging from Wells to Clarke to Herbert. Just like Luke and Vader, “popular” SF is the son of “serious” SF but the two of them have fought bitterly since the beginning.

Vader was a staunch disciple of the Dark Side, with a judgemental fanbase that harassed Lucas for not knowing the definition of a parsec. However, in the end Vader went over to the light side and helped Luke overthrow stodgy, no-fun science fiction.

Unfortunately, Vader was mortally wounded in the battle, and Hollywood has been allergic to filming serious SF ever since. (with a few exceptions like “Moon”, “Interstellar”)



Star Wars: The Next Generation
Ren or Stimpy?

Poe Dameron and Ben Solo were both born around the time of Return of the Jedi. This makes them exactly the same age as the fan-groups that they are meant to symbolize. I was born a year after Return of the Jedi, but that didn’t stop me from seeing all three Star Wars movies all over TV and VHS.

Poe is an incredibly skilled pilot and yet he is not Force sensitive (as far as anyone knows). He represents the Star Wars fans that loved the Star Wars universe without ever being too involved in the fanbase culture wars – do the 12 parsecs make sense, is Leia’s Bikini sexist, why did Lucas have to include the Ewoks? The Poe-type fans may have read a smattering of Expanded Universe books and/or comics, but weren’t raised on them. The EU was never our father.

On the other hand, Ben Solo had no choice but to be emotionally involved. The Expanded Universe was his father. Together with Star Wars toys and merch, they were his introduction and his entire reason to love geek culture. From infancy, Ben was aware of his Force-sensitive emotional bond to geekdom. He was sent to train in Luke’s Jedi Academy, where the Original Movies taught him respect for Star Wars’ place in geek culture.

And then… something went very very wrong.



The Tragedy at the Jedi Academy
The Power of the Dark Side

Over a decade before The Force Awakened, something horrible happened at the Jedi Academy. In the movie this caused Ben Solo’s transformation into Kylo Ren, it forced Rey to be hidden on Jakku, and it caused Han and Leia to go their separate ways.

Now the movies never quite explain how Supreme Leader Snoke managed to influence so many young Jedi right under Luke Skywalker’s nose. However, I have a pretty good idea.

In the new TFA continuity, The New Republic appears to have far less popular support than the Legends EU New Republic. That plus the fact that Leia abandoned the New Republic suggests that it wasn’t doing a good job of running the galaxy. The Republic may have been corrupt or incompetent or more likely both.

The Republic’s dysfunction must have been obvious to the teenage Jedi apprentices. That would serve as an easy lead for Snoke to seduce them to the dark side.

So over a decade ago, the Star Wars canon went in a really stupid and poorly executed direction. It’s obvious that The New New Republic represents the Prequel movies. Dislike of the Republic becomes so severe that it empowers Supreme Leader Snoke, the avatar of fan-hatred.

And under Snoke‘s influence, the young Star Wars fan Ben Solo is transformed into a bitterness and rage-filled creature, Kylo Ren. Even as he resents his parents, Kylo idolizes his grandfather Darth Vader – nitpicky old science fiction. He became convinced that Star Wars wasn’t pure enough, that real sci-fi should have logically consistent technology and no implausible superweapons… and as a follower of the Dark Side he believes that anyone who disagrees “isn’t a real SF fan”.

Kylo Ren believes himself powerful in the Force. He spends years practicing online warfare, trolling and harassing with a whole brigade of his Ren peers. Kylo’s creepy mind trick wrings secrets out of unwilling victims just like hacked documents and pictures can be used to blackmail people. The Dark Side is strong with this one.




Mary Sue Rey
Stronger than she knows

Rey is the young-adult geek fanbase, around ten years younger than Kylo Ren. She was no more than eight years old (maybe six or seven?) during the Tragedy of the Jedi Academy. Her memory was wiped – she probably never even saw Episode II/III. At the start of TFA, Rey believes that Han, Luke, the Jedi and the Force are all just myths. She practically doesn’t even realize that she lives in the Star Wars universe. As a real-world geek she knows more about Doctor Who, Tony Stark and Cloud Strife than she does about Star Wars.

Rey quickly runs into BB-8 and Finn. These two characters represent the small-child fanbase and the non-geek fanbase respectively. They are not Force sensitive; BB-8 because he is a child and Finn because he is not emotionally invested in geek culture.

In fact, Finn starts out as a stormtrooper. He is a servant of the dark side, but he’s the janitor, he’s not invested in the fight. Finn represents every non-geek who is exposed to Star Wars merchandising and has to suffer through his Dark Side geek friends complaining about how much Star Wars sucks. His first impression is that it’s all stupid and he doesn’t want anything to do with Star Wars. Finn frees Poe not because he loves the Resistance, but only because he needs a pilot.

Rey doesn’t want to be a Star Wars fan either, but she has no choice – she’s an integral part of the New Star Wars continuity. As the young-adult fan with a social media presence, Rey is the most valuable person in the galaxy both to the Light Side and the Dark. And so both sides will always try to win her to their cause – the Light Side through friendship, the Dark Side through anger and coercion. (possibly by accusing her of being a “Fake Geek”)

Kylo kidnaps Rey because he’s the embodiment of terrible Internet harassment, and this tends to target women of Rey’s age. Finn only agrees to attack the Starkiller Base because he wants to save Rey.

Of course, Rey doesn’t need much saving. Rey is keenly attuned to The Force of Internet culture wars, she just didn’t know how much power she really had. After Kylo attacks her mind, Rey immediately learns to use this power and she dominates a weak-minded stormtrooper. (ie some other internet kid) After this point, her power never stops growing.

Rey feels like an overpowered Mary Sue character because she is. The category of “20-year-old women who spend money on geeky stuff” is the single fastest-growing demographic in geek culture. Everyone in the geek-culture universe wants her on their side.


Crossing the Rubicon
Coming to an end

Right before the final mission on Starkiller Base, Leia tells Han that she really wants her son back. In our allegory, this represents Disney and JJ Abrams trying to bring back alienated Star Wars fans. These Kylo Ren fans used to be hardcore fans, their internet-Force could generate massive profits for Disney!

But Kylo is still badly conflicted over his relationship with Han. Han himself admits that he wasn’t always a good father. (selling crap like the Sun Crusher and Vong Invasion series)

Ultimately the alienated fan’s hatred is too strong to overcome, at least not with a single movie. Kylo Ren kills Han Solo and he falls into a bottomless pit, the same fate as the Legends Expanded Universe. Kylo remains on the dark side, although he is surprisingly unable to defend himself from Chewie (the videogames). Chewie’s bowcaster bolt leaves him badly injured for the final battle.

In that lightsaber fight, a wounded Kylo Ren takes on both of the younger-generation fans at once. Finn is easily defeated as he lacks the Force sensitivity (the ability to fight on the Internet). However, Rey is much stronger than Kylo as we all expected, especially since Kylo is badly hurt. His attacks are ineffective, his taunts only make Rey stronger, and Kylo is humiliated.

After the victorious battle, Rey (the young Star Wars fan) meets up with R2D2 (the old Star Wars fan) and together they find Luke Skywalker (the original joy and love of Star Wars). This neatly sums up JJ Abrams’ intent with the new series: he aimed to bring a whole new generation of fans to a love of Star Wars. Judging by the movie’s historic box office reciepts he has been successful.

On the other hand, JJ had no illusions about his ability to bring back the truly disillusioned and hateful Star Wars fans. Kylo Ren is the dyspeptic 30-something ex-fan. At the end of the movie he’s still on the Dark Side.



Lightsabers and Culture Wars
Trust your feelings

In conclusion, The Force Awakens is actually an allegory for the entire online geek-culture debate.

If we look at science fiction and fantasy geekdom in real life, we have a real problem with fans falling to the Dark Side. There’s an angry, exclusionary movement that accuses would-be geeks of being “fake geeks”, “social justice warriors” and worse… and it’s shockingly powerful. When the full firepower of the Dark Side is focused on one target, it can destroy an entire planet – or at least a SXSW panel.

The Dark Side of the Internet Force is tempting because it is an easy path to power. A fan can seem much more knowledgeable if he studies absolutely every detail of a small number of franchises, and declares that everything else is “not SF” or “not geek culture”. He can feel like an arbiter of geekness, a gatekeeper who can dismiss anyone he doesn’t like as being a simpering, speech code-loving, freedom-hating SJW. He can destroy entire gaming events with the power of bomb threats called in by a Reddit brigade.

The Light Side is a more difficult path to tread. Admitting that all geek culture is legitimate means that you can’t possibly be familiar with it all. There’s no adrenaline rush where you can feel like a powerful leader backed up by an army of Stormtrooper-like brigadiers. You are forced to admit that other geeks have every right to love franchises that you despise, and to love casting and plot decisions that you disagree with.

Yet the Dark Side is ultimately self-destructive because it’s not likable and people rebel against it. Dark Side governments are forced to destroy entire planets or stars just to maintain their grip on power… much like Dark Geekdom communities tend to be fractious and conspiracy-prone. Destroy enough planets and eventually there won’t be anyone left to rule. This is the problem with Dark Side fanbases; they can only shrink over time.

Back in 2012, Dark Siders attacked “girls pretending to be geeks” only to be shot down by Neil Gaiman among other high profile geek voices.

In 2014, Dark Siders created the “GamerGate movement” supposedly to protest bad journalism, but its highest-profile actions have resembled a hate group more than a journalism group. GamerGate has been loudly denounced by Intel, EA, SonyBlizzard, and almost every other major gaming company.

Earlier in 2015, Dark Siders created the “Sad Puppies movement” as a reaction against percieved political correctness in Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels. While they had a few good points at first, the Puppies’ online rhetoric quickly degenerated into hate brigades. In the end, George R R Martin pulled together a massive coalition of SFF fans to vote down the Puppies. The Puppies declared victory by claiming that they’d intended to lose all along – but everyone else knows that they lost.

For now, the Light Side is still winning most of its battles. That’s not to say there isn’t collateral damage, but at least the Dark Side is mostly confined to the “Outer Rim” of the Internet galaxy.

In the universe of “Star Wars”, we’re confident that the Light Side will eventually win in the end. I can only hope that the same holds true of real life geekdom.

May the Force be with you all.

On Interstellar Travel: Does the Warp Stare Back at You?

On Interstellar Travel
Part 3 of 3: Does the Warp Stare Back at You?

“When you stare into the Warp, the Warp stares back into you.”
– Warhammer 40k

As part of the 45th anniversary of the Moon landing, I’ve written a series of articles on interstellar travel. In the last two installments I covered slower-than-light interstellar travel and Star Trek’s warp drive. Slow travel is plagued with the problem of travel duration. After all, spending 150 years on a ship is not very appealing, and what happens if you run out of supplies? Warp drive sounds plausible, and even has a real-world mathematical analogue, but it has a high probability of causing space-time paradoxes.

So maybe we’re thinking too small. Maybe we don’t need interstellar travel schemes that are “plausible with existing physics”, after all they really aren’t all that plausible. Now we know that the Earth, Sun, and Interwebs are governed by Einsteinian physics. So if we want to break Einstein’s rules, we need to travel to a different dimension altogether! For maximum traveling comfort, this dimension should be immediately adjacent to normal space-time, and we should be able to bring along enough space-time to keep our physical bodies intact.

As it turns out, tons and tons of science fiction universes make use of a high-speed dimension immediately adjacent to regular space. This parallel dimension is called Hyperspace in most fictional universes, Slipspace in the Halo universe, and Ultraspace in Iain Banks’s Cultureverse. For the sake of convenience I’ve grouped them all under the umbrella of “Hyperspace”.

Because hyperspace exists outside of normal space-time, it doesn’t have to follow any of the laws of physics. However, if you want to give hyperspace a pseudo-scientific veneer, you can always invoke string theory. Unproven variants of string theory suggest that there are many extra dimensions adjacent to our own, rolled up into incredibly small spaces that we can’t access. If you could somehow squeeze into these alternate dimensions, you could move just a tiny bit and find yourself halfway across the universe. Ta-da, realistic hyperspace!

There’s one big problem with string theory hyperspace: the extra dimensions are very, very small. Not just regular small, incomprehensibly small: on the order of a Planck length. This is so small that if a proton was enlarged to the size of the Earth’s orbit, a Planck length would be the size of a DNA double helix. Passing a camel through the eye of a needle is downright trivial compared to traveling through such a tiny dimension. Also, physicists aren’t sure that string theory is real, and the string theorists aren’t sure that the extra dimensions are real. So scientifically speaking, string-theory hyperspace seems much less plausible than warp bubbles or even time travel.

I guess the scientist with a comical lisp was right for once – it was never supposed to be “hyperspace”, it’s “hypothspace” – a hypothetical space.

So let’s forget reality, and get into some different fictional concepts of hyperspace.

A Taxonomy of Hyperspaces
Not to be confused with a Hyperspace Tax

At a very basic level, hyperspace concepts can be split into “safe” and “dangerous” versions. Let’s start with safe hyperspaces, as they are much more common. In safe-hyperspace universes, hyperspace is pretty darned boring. You could kill yourself by dropping out of hyperspace on top of a star, as alluded to by Han Solo, but you’re unlikely to die in hyperspace itself. Depending on how hyperspace works, it may not be possible to fight a battle in hyperspace.

Safe hyperspaces may be further divided based on method of hyperspace entry. In Star Wars and Halo, ships can enter and exit Hyperspace/Slipspace at arbitrary locations. Less advanced ships may suffer from restrictions on where they can jump, while high-tech ships can enter and exit Slipspace at will.

In terms of their narrative impact, these “go-anywhere” hyperspaces are really not much different from warp-bubble drive. You could replace every warp core in the Federation with Corellian Hyperdrives of equal speed and reliability, and no one would really notice. Of course, canonical Star Wars velocities are much higher than Trek velocities, but they’re probably the same now.

One big problem with the “go-anywhere” drive is that they tend to give space combat an offensive bias. With no spaceborne equivalent to terrain or chokepoints, the attacker will enjoy advantages in mobility, initiative and surprise. It’s no coincidence that Star Trek, Star Wars, and Halo all place some emphasis on the idea of “don’t let the enemy find our fleet / superweapon / homeworld.” Once they discover your point of vulnerability, it’s awfully hard to defend – even when you set a trap!

This leads to the next category: “restricted hyperspace”. Maybe unassisted interstellar travel is extremely slow, expensive, or dangerous, but most travel occurs with the help of jump points, wormholes, mass relays or other fixed devices. These “jump paths” make interstellar travel downright easy, but your movement becomes predictable. Babylon 5, Mass Effect, and Honor Harrington all use variants of this hyperjump concept.

The restricted-hyperspace concept is highly appealing to writers because from a plot perspective it behaves much like terrestrial geography. Well-charted jump lanes are like major roads, while low-quality jump lanes are like back-country roads. Governments, bandits, and invading baddies all want to seize control of the jump paths, as they are the most economically valuable part of the star system. On the other hand, unassisted hyperspace is like a spooky forest that you can hide in, diving into “uncharted jumps” to evade pursuit. Just watch your back; hyperspace may be dark and full of terrors.

Restricted hyperspace also allows military forces to set up strong defensive chokepoints, slagging invading forces as they funnel through a wormhole or mass relay.

In some universes, hyperjumps may be “hard-restricted”, making FTL utterly impossible outside of spacelanes. This “hyperspace on a rail” concept removes all possibilities of escaping into uncharted space. It is pretty unpopular in fiction, but very common in gaming. The Freespace, Master of Orion, and Sins of a Solar Empire series all use hard-restricted jump geometry, as does Every Space Board Game Ever. Games prefer hyperspace-on-a-rail for its simplicity, as true 3-dimensional movement is very difficult to pull off in videogames and frankly impossible in boardgames.

In a minority of hyperspace systems, it is impossible to stay in hyperspace for any measurable amount of time. Instead, ships rapidly jump in and out of hyperspace in “stutter warp”. This is a relatively rare form of warp drive, originally published in the tabletop RPG 2300 AD and popularized by the novel A Fire Upon the Deep. Because each stutter-jump is instantaneous, you don’t need to worry about how time flows while you’re traveling faster than light: it doesn’t. Otherwise it’s not too different from go-anywhere hyperdrive.

From a realism perspective, all of these hyperspace concepts are purely speculative. You could say that hyperspace is “further out there” than Trek warp because there’s not as much supporting math, but you could also argue that the math proves that Trek warp is impossible. Until the physicists discover radically new branches of physics, FTL travel will remain impossible in our existing scientific understanding.

Here There be Dragons
Go ahead and take that Step, just remember to Walk Without Rhythm

Back in the Age of Sail, exploration was so dangerous that many explorers never returned. Human imagination concluded that there must be an endless number of monsters in the sea, from seductive sirens to terrifying dragons. Of course, the deep seas of Earth never contained any sirens or dragons, but the danger was real and the body count high.

Just as the ocean was terribly hostile to flimsy ancient ships, hyperspace may be a very hostile place for future starships. Perhaps hyperspace is simply so bizarre that people go crazy by staring into it, as in the Ringworld series. Or maybe foldspace is filled with subtle hazards that can only be percieved by highly specialized individuals, such as the Spice-addicted Guild Navigators in the Dune series.

Or maybe the sirens and dragons aren’t just figurative…  The Trope NamerWarhammer 40k, describes starships traveling through The Warp, a dimension full of immeasurably horrific Daemons and Chaos Gods. This is similar to the dimensional gates used by H.P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods, and is probably inspired by Lovecraft to some vague extent.

In a universe where FTL travel is extremely dangerous, interstellar trade and travel would be difficult and expensive. Anyone willing to travel a long distance through Chaos would have to be desperate, crazy, or seeking a large payoff. Any substance that makes travel safer would be incredibly valuable, sought after and hoarded by every military force in the galaxy.

Hazardous-FTL universes tend to be more violent and militaristic than gentler universes. Part of this is narrative bias; someone who would write a completely peaceful story is unlikely to make hyperspace a violent place. However, it’s also a logical consequence. If hyperspace is highly dangerous, only highly dangerous people would feel comfortable with it. The hazards of space travel would discourage merchants and schoolchildren to a much larger extent than pirates, mercenaries, terrorists or madmen.

Now it’s interesting to speculate what might happen if a hazardous-FTL society became much less hazardous. Intercontinental travel was near-suicidally dangerous in the 16th century, but routine in the 21st. If the same thing happened in a WH40k-esque setting, would the galaxy become more peaceful? Probably (although not in WH40k, that’s just ridiculous).

How much of the violence in pre-industrial human civilization was caused by the fact that everyday life was so deadly that there was less of a taboo on killing? I’ll leave that question to the anthropologists, historians and philosophers, but it seems to me that it’d be responsible for some of human violence. I think it would be very interesting to set a sci-fi novel in the midst of a cultural transition between an ultraviolent “Warhammer” setting and a peaceful “Star Trek” galaxy.

* * *

So that’s it for my semi-systematic ramblings on interstellar travel. The fact is that with our current understanding of physics and outer space, mankind is not going to take any small steps under an alien star. Someone will need to discover the next domain of physics, whether he’s a brilliant academic mind or a half-crazy drunk. And on the day that his work is publicized, all of us sci-fi enthusiasts will cry. Half of our tears will be shed in joy at the advancement of mankind and space travel, and the other half will be shed in mourning over all the pseudoscience that’s suddenly as dated as Jules Verne’s moon cannon.

Post your comments if you got any!

On Interstellar Travel: Can we Break the Light Barrier?

On Interstellar Travel
Part 2 of 3: Can we Break the Light Barrier?

Zefram Cochrane, Is That You?
Protoss Corsair

This is Part 2 of the three-part series “On Interstellar Travel”, written to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Moon landing. In the previous installation I discussed slower-than-light interstellar flight. Today we make the faster-than-light (FTL) plunge!

Under Einsteinian physics, nothing can move faster than light with respect to spacetime. However, spacetime itself can move as fast as it wants to. Shortly after the Big Bang, the universe expanded much faster than light. Therefore, even with “realistic” physics, FTL travel is at least somewhat plausible.

The Star Trek style “warp bubble” is one of the most enduring faster-than-light concepts in science fiction. A starship doesn’t move inside its warp bubble, so it doesn’t need to worry about time dilation or other relativistic effects. The warp bubble itself moves at speeds much faster than the speed of light.

In the 1990s, Miguel Alcubierre developed a mathematical theory that supports faster-than-light bubbles in Einsteinian space-time. Dr. Alcubierre’s academic paper refers to “the warp drive of science fiction” as inspiration. In fact, it’s directly based on Star Trek. Interestingly enough, ever since Alcubierre’s rise to fame, many modern sci-fi authors have equipped their starships with “Alcubierre drives”. This places the Alcubierre drive in the same hallowed position as cyberspace, a science fiction concept that inspires a real-world concept that inspires more science fiction. This image may be the ultimate circular reference: NASA’s concept art of a “USS Enterprise” powered by Alcubierre drives based on warp drives based on Star Trek.

Now, Alcubierre’s original theory was explicitly impossible. Generating the warp field required obscene quantities of “exotic matter” and “negative energy”, and there was no way to steer the warp field. However, since the Alcubierre drive is purely theroetical, it’s possible that tweaks to the math could greatly decrease its energy requiements.

Alcubierre and Star Trek disagree in one major respect: what happens to matter (or light) entering and exiting the warp field? Trekkie ships routinely engage in warp-speed combat, slinging phasers, disrupters, and photon torpedoes without dropping out of warp. That wouldn’t work with a “realistic” Alcubierre field – the edge of the warp bubble is an area of severely distorted space, much like the event horizon of a black hole. Any energy or matter passing through the edge would be severely distorted if not destroyed. This should affect communications as well, unless your communications signals exist in a parallel dimension (ie subspace communicators).

The characteristics of a warp-based interstellar civilization would depend on just how fast their ships, and their communications signals, could travel. In pre-JJ Abrams Star Trek, ships took days to weeks to travel around Federation or Klingon space, and much longer than that to cross the galaxy. However, you could have a real-time conversation with a Starfleet admiral from very far away. This allowed the major Trek powers (Feds, Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians etc) to build well-coordinated interstellar empires, while still preserving a sense of distance. Isolated backwater worlds could exist in pre-Abrams Trek because distance was actually meaningful. Unfortunately, in the post-Abrams universe the Moon appears to be in low Earth orbit, and Qo’noS is just a few miles further. Most illogical.

Does a Warp Drill Pierce the Heavens?
When does the fantasy stop making sense?

“Hard science fiction sticklers” are very intelligent people who rank higher on the evolutionary tree than the rest of us. You know this is true because they have highly sophisticated brainstem reflexes. After all, they roll their eyes as soon as they hear “faster than light travel”.

So why is FTL such nonsense? Well it contradicts our current understanding of science, but that shouldn’t be a game-breaker. After all, the whole point of sci-fi is to show speculative technologies. However, one of the persistent complaints about FTL travel is that it seems to require the existence of time travel. Hard sci-fi fans recoil in horror at the thought of time travel, as it inevitably leads to silly logical inconsistencies.

Actually, indiscriminate use of FTL travel could cause logical problems even worse than time travel. Let’s try out some science-fanfiction: a thought experiment in the setting of Star Trek (The Original Series).

*   *   *

Warning: Physics Ahead!

* * *

Captain Bob of the USS Paradox leaves the Earth at 8:00AM traveling on maximum impulse power, a speed of 99.5%c. At 8:20AM, Captain Bob suddenly realizes that he forgot to lock his space-car door. So he orders Commander Spock to turn around and head back to Earth at Warp 9.

Traveling at 99.5%c causes 10-fold time dilation, so when Captain Bob turns the starship around at 8:20AM, only 2 minutes have passed by on Earth. Since it takes time for Earth’s light to reach Bob, if he looks at an Earth clock it will show “8:01AM”.

“We have re-oriented and are ready to engage warp drive,” says Spock.


Warp 9 is around a thousand times lightspeed so it takes just over a second for Captain Bob to get back to Earth. The Earth clock now reads “8:02AM”.

“That’s funny,” says Captain Bob, “If only two minutes have elapsed, then I can’t possibly have traveled further than 2 light-minutes.”

Commander Spock points at something behind Captain Bob’s back. “Look behind you.”

Captain Bob looks back in the direction he came from. Sure enough, the USS Paradox appears just one light-minute away. “That’s odd. If my ship is out there, and I’m also right here, that means we’ve duplicated ourselves.”

Spock nods. He knows the feeling.

“But if that’s so, then at some point in warp flight we must have gone straight through a past version of ourselves.”

Spock slowly raises a single eyebrow. “That is most illogical. Two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.”

“Oh, you’re rig…” The Captain faces the camera with the wide eyes of a cartoon coyote who’s just realized he’s standing on thin air. Then his entire starship explodes in a glorious blast of illogic.

Less than three millparsecs later, the Millennium Falcon sails gracefully out of the still-glowing fireball. “Whew, that was a close one Chewie!”


This paradox is illustrated below:


Solving the FTL Paradox
Cutting the Einsteinian knot

So from a naive perspective, FTL seems completely impossible. The existence of a warp drive would cause collisions throughout space and time, logic-eating paradoxes that could fundamentally alter the rules of the universe in crazy and unpredictable ways. For example, the travel time between Earth and Qo’noS could inexplicably decrease from several weeks to a few minutes. Oh wait, I already mentioned that one.

That said, there is one easy way to immediately banish all FTL paradoxes: Do away with Einsteinian relativity.

Relativistic paradoxes only occur because there is no “correct” (aka “absolute”) frame of reference. If an absolute frame of reference exists on some cosmic level, then you can easily prevent any time travel or paradoxes. Let’s go back to our previous example, using a cosmic background frame that is stationary with respect to the Earth.

* * *

Since Captain Bob is moving with respect to the cosmic background, he experiences time dilation and the background does not. So when Bob’s clock reads 8:20 AM, the cosmic clock has advanced by 200 minutes and reads 11:20AM. Bob has traveled 199 light-minutes in the cosmic reference frame, but due to time and length contraction this is only 19.9 light-minutes in Bob’s reference frame. In Bob’s reference frame, the Earth clock only reads 8:01AM, the same as in the first example.

Bob slaps himself in the forehead. “Oh crap, I forgot to lock my space-car door.” He reaches for the space-fob on his space-keys. “Commander Spock, turn this thing around. Maximum warp, engage.”

When the USS Paradox engages warp drive, it travels 199 cosmic light-minutes in 12 cosmic seconds. Since Bob is still under 1:10 time dilation, his clock only advances 1.2 seconds. It reads 8:20:01 by the time he reaches Earth. However, the Earth clock says 11:20:12AM – 12 seconds later than when Bob entered warp.

“Look behind you,” says Spock.

Bob looks over his shoulder and sees an image of the USS Paradox 100 light-minutes away. “Wait a second,” he says. “I’m still seeing a duplicate image of our ship. I thought that meant we could collide with ourselves?”

Spock shakes his head. “No, Captain. 201 minutes have elapsed here on Earth, and our trip only took 200 Earth minutes. It will take another 198 minutes for our light to catch up to us, but it’s only light. There is no duplicate of our ship out there.”

Bob visibly relaxes. “So there’s no way that we could run into our past selves?”

“Of course not, Captain. That would just be ridiculous.” Spock keeps a straight Vulcan face, but his human half is laughing on the inside.

* * *

As long as faster-than-light travel exists within an absolute frame of reference, individual people and ships can experience all the time dilation they want, but the universe will never see two copies of the same object in the same place at the same time.

There’s one big obstacle to getting rid of relativity: if an absolute frame of reference exists, it should be fairly easy to observe. Whatever direction the Earth is moving during the spring, it’s moving the opposite direction in autumn. If there is a fundamental cosmic background frame, we should be able to detect our motion relative to this background. In fact, the absence of a seasonal difference in physics is exactly what drove Einstein to invent the theory of relativity in the first place.

This non-observation can be “solved” by assuming that the absolute frame of reference only applies to objects in warp space. After all, if Bob returned to Earth under impulse drive, he’d experience the “normal” time dilation effects described by Einstein.

Of course, if a FTL starship has to follow totally weird laws of physics just to exist, it may require a more fundamental change in space-time than an Alcubierran warp bubble. Instead of trying to create a bubble of exotic space in the ocean of realspace, it may make more sense to throw your entire starship into a different dimension.

This concept is best described as Hyperspace, and will be the subject of Part 3 of this article. (Thanks for reading!)

On Interstellar Travel: Can We Reach For The Stars?

On Interstellar Travel
Part 1 of 3: Can we Reach for the Stars?

“You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone. Only you’re not.”

45 years ago, Neil Armstrong took one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind. Over the intervening decades, it’s interesting to see the progress that mankind has made in outer space. As a species we have continued to leap forward, placing thousands of satellites into Earth orbit and sending probes all over our Solar System. Yet we have not taken any more small steps for man, or woman. There are no more bootprints on the Moon or any other celestial body than there were in 1972.

Manned space travel is difficult and perilous, and at the moment low-reward. Earth is the only Earth-like world in the Solar System; any colony we put on the Moon or Mars would require supplies from Earth just to survive. If you’re looking for a comfortable extraterrestrial world to live on, you’ll have to go interstellar. There’s a lot of ideas for how mankind could one day walk on an exoplanet – some realistic, some less so.

As part of the celebration of the 45th anniversary of the Moon landing, I’ve written up a series of three articles on interstellar travel. Today’s article will stick to (mostly) realistic slower-than-light travel options, while the next two pieces will delve into increasingly (but not infinitely) improbable modes of propulsion.

When I’ve Been There Ten Thousand Years
Traveling Much Slower than Light

Einsteinian space-time has three space-like dimensions, one time-like dimension, and an absolute speed limit of c, approximately 300,000 kilometers per second (kps). Nothing can move faster than c without also traveling backward in time. And since arbitrary time travel causes all sorts of logic-destroying stupidity, most scientists assume that time travel is impossible. Therefore, nothing can go faster than the speed of light.

In a realistic universe, it takes an awfully long time to get anywhere. The Apollo moon missions maxed out at around 11 kps relative to the Earth. Traveling to the nearest star would take 115,000 years at this pace. Actually, you’d never get that far. Starting from the Earth, the escape velocity of the Solar System is ~42kps. You’d need a considerably faster craft to ever exit the Solar System.

In the 1960s, the Orion nuclear pulse-rocket was “designed” as a deep space exploration concept. This starship would have used repeated thermonuclear explosions to push it at extremely high velocities (compared to conventional rockets). Such a craft could accelerate up to velocities of around 3%c. This would get you to Proxima Centauri in 142 years.

With much-slower-than-light travel, a journey between the stars will either require many lifetimes, or prolonged cryogenic freezing. Either way, all of your friends at home will be long dead by the time you reach your destination. And if people live on a starship for too many generations, they may eventually forget that they are on a starship.

*   *   *

Very-slow interstellar travel faces one major problem: Resource consumption. Where do you get fuel, water, and other materials while spending centuries between the stars? Every ecosystem requires light and heat, which means you have to generate energy, and energy is in short supply in interstellar space. Even nuclear reactors will run out of fuel during a thousand-year journey.

A Bussard ramscoop could gather interstellar gas for fusion power, but there’s not a lot of gas out there and it would be plain H-1. This is a much dirtier fusion fuel than He-3, and over the years would cause radiation damage to your fusion drive. You’ll burn most of the hydrogen that you collect just to create enough thrust to offset the ramscoop’s drag. And the ramscoop won’t collect any metals – if anything on your starship breaks, you can only hope that your ancestors brought a spare.

Some slow-starship designs completely bypass the energy problem by relying on laser energy beamed from Earth. This energy could be used both to propel the ship and to power its ecosystem. It’s certainly an elegant solution, as you could rely on an extremely large energy-producing infrastructure that doesn’t have to travel with your starship. But what happens when your benefactors run out of funding, are killed in a war, are destroyed by climate change or natural disasters?

The fact is that based on a present-day understanding of physics and engineering, a slower-than-light “generation ship” is really not much more realistic than faster-than-light travel. If we ignore the difficulties of energy generation and resource collection in interstellar space, we might as well ignore the rest of physics.

And let’s say someone develops a technology that allows a civilization to live forever without an external energy source – why would you even want to live on a planet at that point? Just stay in interstellar space.

In a universe where human civilization is limited to much-slower-than-light travel, there would be no such thing as an interstellar civilization. Humanity might eventually spread out to a bunch of stars, but each solar system would have its own unique way of life. The human colonies might communicate with each other, but they really couldn’t trade effectively, and no one could travel back and forth between different stars. There could be countless alien civilizations in the galaxy, but we might never encounter them because they are too far away.

Oh my God, it’s full of stars!
Traveling at near the speed of light

According to Einstein, funny things happen when you get near the speed of light. Time slows down. Distances get shorter. Mass gets more massive. A traveller moving at 99.5%c will experience 10-fold time dilation, length contraction, and mass increase. That means he experiences time passing 10 times slower than someone at rest. Relativity may sound funny, but it isn’t just empty theory – our entire telecom and GPS system is programmed with relativity in mind. If Einstein was wrong, then none of the technology you’re using to read this blog article would work.

Science fiction authors have played with the concept of time dilation for many decades, because it’s fun. An interstellar traveller may live for a normal human lifespan but witness thousands of years of galactic civilization in fast-forwards.

There’s one massive problem with near-lightspeed travel, and it’s mass. Well, it’s really energy, but we all know that’s the same thing. If you’re using time dilation to age 10x slower, that means you are also 10x as massive as you were at rest. If you were to stop moving, you’d need to shed kinetic energy equal to 9x your rest mass, a truly absurd amount. In order to get moving again, you need to gain an equally ridiculous amount of kinetic energy.

How ridiculous is this? Well, the rest mass of a 70-kg (154#) human is 6.3 exajoules. That’s equivalent to 1,500 megatons of TNT, or 3 times the total energy of every nuclear bomb ever detonated. Now imagine spending nine times that energy just to accelerate a single person to near-lightspeed. We haven’t even considered the mass of the starship yet!

Even with antimatter or black holes, it is very difficult (and highly dangerous) to come up with this kind of energy. Science fiction writers have either ignored the energy problem, or circumvented it with handwaving pseudophysics. (“It’s an inertialess drive!”) In Speaker for the Dead, Ender Wiggin wondered if a star winked out every time a starship started moving. (since the ship picked up a vast amount of energy without spending any energy)

Astute readers might wonder, if a starship can pick up energy ex nihilo, could it harness that energy to some other cause? At the very least, with enough energy you could completely destroy any planet you crashed into. Of course, if you had the technology to generate “free” energy, you may already have much more efficient ways to destroy a planet.

In a universe where travel occurs at near-lightspeed, there could be something resembling interstellar trade and travel, it would just be very difficult. If faster-than-light communication exists, it’s plausible that far-flung human colonies would stay in touch with each other, sharing the same Internet and the same entertainment and a similar culture. However, travelling to see another star system for yourself would require a major time commitment. Anyone you left behind at home would be much older by the time you reached your destination, or dead if your journey was too long.

Unless, of course, your interstellar civilization managed to dramatically extend their lifespans. Simple anti-aging and regenerative medicine techniques could keep human-like bodies alive for many hundreds of years, long enough to reach nearby stars.

However, if you wanted to tour the hundreds of billions of stars in the Galaxy, at 4 years per star you’d have to live a trillion years. Neither medicine nor mechanical prowess could keep a physical body functioning for that long. You could repeatedly switch bodies, but it’s better to transsubstantiate into an energy being. An energy being might think and act on a totally different timescale compared to biologicals. If your consciousness was slow enough, or your memory long enough, you could hold a conversation with your friends across the galaxy despite a 20,000 year lightspeed delay. At that point, you would definitely not resemble a human in any meaningful way.

Oh, what was that sound? I guess it was the rumbling boom that happens when you break the plausibility barrier. I believe that brings today’s episode to a close!

*   *   *

Come back later for Parts 2 and 3, where I will delve into interstellar propulsion ideas less constrained by reality.