Thursday, July 1, 2010

To FTL or not to FTL?

So this is somewhat a continuation of Tuesday's post on the speed of light. It's also moderately related to a post I read recently on the League of Extraordinary Writer's*. The post inspired this one, though if it read it you may wonder why. It's basically about hard science fiction against soft science fiction. I don't know if I agree 100% with what was said - I have a love of hard science (I am an engineer) - but I agree with most of what was said. Characterization is very very very important. However, this post has nothing to do with that. It has to do with a small offhand comment. The writer states that in the Firefly universe as created by Joss Whedon, there exists FTL travel.

That caused me to stop reading the article right there. All thoughts of characterization and hard scifi vs. soft scifi flew from my mind.

And I would like to note this is the problem with soft science fiction being too soft. If the writer says something scientifically wrong its going to take an engineer like me out of the story. It's going to make me roll my eyes and think "this person didn't do their research". And let's face it - who reads science fiction? Engineers and nerds like me.

Anyway, back to FTL. So what is wrong with this sentence? Nothing exactly. For all I know the Serenity has FTL capabilities. For all I know, Joss Whedon has written in his story Bible somewhere "and they have faster than light travel". This could all very well be true.

But I have seen no proof in the show or the movie that it is true. It takes the Serenity at least hours to travel between planets - which as far as I know are all in one solar system. Sometimes it takes days. This indicates that they cannot travel faster than the speed of light.

For you see, it takes the sun's light eight minutes to get to the Earth. That's right eight minutes. It takes the sun's light a little over 5 hours to reach Pluto. So unless the Firefly solar system is ginormously large - with FTL travel they should be able to fly from their system's sun to the reaver's planet Miranda in like 6 or 7 hours, not the days they normally take.

So if your science fiction writer, you can see that you may not even need faster than light travel. If your science fiction society only lives within the Earth's solar system, why would you need to travel faster than five hours from the sun to the outermost planet (err...or not planet. What is Pluto these days? Planetoid?). How much of a hurry are you in?

Faster than light travel is only needed if you want to travel fast between our solar system and a more distant one. Or if you want to travel between galaxy's. So before you assume that your universe needs FTL, just remember Firefly. It takes Malcolm Reynold's days to get anywhere, and it never hurt the story line. Maybe it won't hurt yours either.

*If you don't read the League, you really should. I love their blog. I don't even write dystopian fiction, and yet I find their blog to be thought provoking and interesting. I suggest you go by there and read some.


  1. Thanks for the plug for the League! I love your comments there & they make me think - a lot!

    I hope that (as a soft sci-fi writer) I have not put impossible scenarios in my writing! O_o

  2. Thanks for coming by Julia! Now I can say a "real" author has commented on my blog! hehe

    I love the League and will probably shamelessly plug it in the future. :)

    And I would be more than willing to read over your stuff for impossible science if you would like. I do this for a couple of my friends who write SF. An engineering degree does come in use for something! Of course, my degree is Aerospace Engineering, so I'm better at the actual space stuff than any bio-engineering stuff. But I have friends who are biomedical engineers (and who love to read) if you ever need help with that!

  3. Thank you! I came across this post accidentally, and it's given me a lot of food for thoughts. :)

  4. It's my hope that my posts will help inspire thought - especially my posts on engineering.

    Thanks for dropping by, Sandy! Please come back! Every Tuesday is an engineering topic. Fridays and Thursdays are random. :)

  5. Thanks for the offer! I will, indeed, take you up on it!

  6. Thanks -- I will definitely come back weekly! I'm reading through your posts tagged "sci-fi," and I'm learning so much. As a Biochem major, I tend to shy away from hard science and engineering. But I find them fascinating. And as I'm writing a YA sci-fi, I'm finding them very, very helpful! :)