Slower than Light


by Raymond M. Coulombe

Most Science Fiction writers rely pretty heavily on faster than light travel. Some writers make a stab at a scientific sounding explanation for it, often using wormholes. These days most writers have the captain engage the magic faster than light engines and leave it at that.

What if a writer accepts the speed of light limitation? Many early S/F writers did. In the early days the solar system provided more than enough room for adventure. Mars was thought to have canals. Venus could have been some sort of cloudy tropical jungle world. Chemical rockets can get humans to those places in a reasonable amount of time.

Better telescopes, and later, robotic space probes, revealed how inhospitable those place were to human life. They still are good places for a S/F story; The Martian comes to mind. However, we aren’t going to have colonies on earth-like planets.

-or will we?

There are ways around the faster than light limitation. One way is to have craft that can approach the speed of light. The time dilation effect slows down the aging process for those on the craft. They get to visit distant stars in their lifetime. The cost is that hundreds or thousands of years pass back on earth. Even if they go back to earth, it won’t be the same place.

Getting a ship to near light speed is still a pretty massive technological feat. There are ways to make it happen with slower ships. The crew could be put into a hibernation state. They go to sleep and wake up light years from home. Real world scientists are working on the problem and progress is being made. It looks like a possibility.

Another popular solution is the generational ship. A huge ship full of people is sent to the stars. The launch crew will never see the destination. The hope is that their descendants will be able to fulfill the mission. There’s a lot that can go wrong with such an approach and it makes for some interesting story telling. For example, will the descendants even want to fulfill the mission? All they’ve known is living in space. Why settle a planet?

Then there are some outlier solutions. One author had his crew’s life functions dramatically slowed down, but not put in total hibernation. They still went about doing their duties on the ship, but in super slow motion. However, to the crew it didn’t feel like slow motion. Another author had space ships manned by people who had the ability to go back in time. That allowed them to travel in space without aging too much.

One of the big attractions of writing Science Fiction is it’s wide open nature and lack of limits. However, accepting limits, like the speed of light, can help focus the story and provide problems and tensions.

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