Science fiction has the very real problem of having to deal with… well, the real world. Even if you’re writing a “soft” space opera, if you set it in the tropical jungles of Venus only to have it revealed there ain’t such a thing… well, it’s hard to ignore.
But each of these problems can also be an opportunity.
Let’s ignore for the moment how incomplete (at best) science reporting in popular media can be, and also ignore the anti-geek-cred of articles that confuse Star Trek and Star Wars terminology in the title, and instead reference the actual content1 of this Daily Mail article: “Bad news Scotty: Star Trek-style ‘warp drive’ systems could turn spacecraft into Death Stars which destroy planets on arrival“. It starts with this paragraph:
Should scientists make the dreams of a million Star Trek fans come true by designing a spacecraft capable of travelling faster than the speed of light, it would be pretty frustrating to discover such a ship would obliterate any planet it landed on.
But that is exactly what NASA researchers suspect could happen after new analysis revealed a flaw in designs for a so-called ‘warp drive’ – the theoretical technology that would propel spaceships to speeds faster than light – could cause catastrophic explosions the moment intrepid space explorers reached their destination.
Okay, sounds pretty dire. But that’s up until you read past the pretty keen image of such a drive:
But the Australian research indicates that the high-energy particles that are constantly shooting around space could get swept up in the ship’s warp field and become trapped in the ‘bubble’, with more and more of the particles filling the stable pocket the longer the journey lasts.
While this would no affect the drive’s ability to achieve warp speed, the instant it is disengaged that space-time gradient allowing it to move faster than light – and creating the bubble that holds the dangerous build-up of trapped particles – is gone. Researchers now believe those particles would be blasted out in front of the ship, destroying anything around it.
Suddenly, not only do you have a way around the problem, but you’ve got a reasonable explanation for the plot-device limitations of FTL travel, even if this genre-clueless writer can’t see it. Why can’t ships just pop into orbit around a planet (or even better, at its surface)? Because they’d blow holes in it. Why does your ship have to make multiple jumps? Because otherwise the particle count in the “bubble” would get too high.
Think about the way FTL travel was handled in the Battlestar Galactica reboot – the technology limitations of FTL travel are huge elements of shaping the plot. Would it have been anything like the same series if Adama simply said “Warp Five, thataway” and they all sat back? Heck no. And when any freighter can itself become a planetkilling weapon by simply changing its vector… well, think on the consequences of that for a while.
Even the softest, most character-driven science fiction story benefits from the writer knowing real science, even if it’s not a focus of the story. And knowing the limitations (and capabilities) of your technology can fundamentally change the plot and tone of your story.
You can read more about these kinds of worldbuilding tips and tricks in Eighth Day Genesis, available from Alliteration Ink ($4.99 digital, $14.99 print).
1 Obviously, this is not the actual content of the research paper, which may actually say something quite a bit different. I’m pointing out the possibilities here.