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? Continue reading