Star Flight Is A Problem Space Opera Has To Address
Earlier on this blog, I wrote about how Space Opera needs a sense of scale. Space opera is about being Big, with a Capital “B.” This goes back to the very origins of the genre. As I’ve said before, E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series eventually had entire planets being used as weapons. Edmund Hamilton’s Interstellar Patrol series also included stars, nebulae, and planets as weapons. (In fact, even Poul Anderson used the “weaponized planet,” in Ensign Flandry.) “Big” was never a problem. And “big” requires some form of star flight.
As more authors have tried to write “Hard SF Space Opera,” a challenge has arisen. Yes, space is big. Too big to get far with current understandings of physics.
The Lightspeed Barrier
Space is so huge, and the speed of light (being the theoretical absolute speed limit) so relatively sluggish (though calling 300,000 kilometers per second “sluggish” is a bit off), that getting anywhere even with theoretical tech that’s still way beyond our capabilities would take centuries. That’s a problem when you’re trying to tell an adventure story. If your cast, either aboard the ship or at the destination, will be centuries dead by the time the ship gets there, it makes it hard to tell a rip-roaring story.
Not impossible, mind you. Alistair Reynolds managed it with the Revelation Space series. His lighthuggers were gigantic starships, limited to just under the speed of light. He had to plot separate plot threads, moving forward and back decades, finally coming together at the culmination of each book. And he did a good job of it. It’s just complicated.
It’s also limited to a relatively small area of the galaxy, because of those same constraints. So what do you do if you want to let your space opera sprawl? What if you want the entire galaxy to be your playground, like in Star Wars?
Fast Star Flight
Well, the short version is cheat. Science fiction authors have used some form of hyperdrive/warp drive/wormholes since the ’20s. It’s nothing new. Some will complain that it’s theoretically impossible. For this kind of story, though, it’s simply a part of the tapestry that makes the story’s breadth possible. Space opera isn’t supposed to be a scientific treatise, after all. It’s supposed to be a story about adventure, heroics, vast wonder, and exotic places and beings. Star flight is simply an element to make that sort of story possible.
Now, some writers get wrapped around the axle explaining their hyperdrive. This can run from pages of technobabble to increasingly bizarre concepts, all in the name of being unique.
The Unity Wars won’t be featuring much of any detailed explanations of how the Bergenholm field works.
Suffice it to say that I’ve borrowed the name and the device from E.E. “Doc” Smith. He introduced the inertialess drive, called the “Bergenholm,” in Triplanetary, back in 1934. The Bergenholm fields in The Unity Wars can render a ship’s mass down to zero, allowing substantial fractions of light speed with no appreciable acceleration, or turn its mass negative, which allows for faster than light star flight.
That’s about all that’s ultimately necessary for the story. Until you get into the story itself.
Consequences Of Technology
It turns out that there are some consequences of the Bergenholm field that play directly into the way the story plays out. We don’t know how it works, we just know what it does. But we have to deal with the implications consistently.
For instance, like “Doc” Smith’s version, once the Bergenholm field is shut off, all the original inertia returns to the ship. That means that if the ship was moving at a high velocity relative to a planet, say, before the Bergenholm was switched on, it would still have that velocity when it was switched off, either sending the ship plummeting into the atmosphere, or racing away, unable to make orbit.
The field also has to have limits, which creates problems for launching anything from inside it (see the above mentioned inertia problem).
And none of it should intrude on the story in the process.
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