Relativity and Story: Five Strategies

It’s a fairly well-known fact that “relativity” presents problems for science fiction authors—those who want to write stories about human beings on a scale larger than the solar system without “playing fast and loose” with the laws of nature, anyway. Because Einstein’s theories rule out faster-than-light travel (including faster-than-light transmission of information), and make getting anywhere near that “speed limit” both very expensive and an undertaking with unexpected side effects. But while science fiction is about fiction that speculates about what could be given what (we think) we know about the universe (i.e. science), science fiction can also speculate about ways that “science” might be wrong. Lots of authors have invented ways of “getting around” the problem of relativity, the speed of light, and interstellar distances; here’s a look at some of them, and whether or not I think they can work for my needs as I develop my Shine Cycle.

The first is wormholes. To understand what a wormhole (supposedly) is, think of the universe as a piece of paper. The shortest distance between two distant points is a line drawn on the paper … unless we fold the paper over so that the points are touching. A wormhole is a connection, along the same lines, between two possibly-distant points in a universe of more dimensions than just two. Most stories that use wormholes assume that everything we think we know about science still applies, except that there are these shortcuts that can be taken.

How wormholes behave depends on the story. Does anyone who stumbles onto one end up where it leads, or is it just a potential shortcut that has to be activated using special equipment? Can a wormhole occur anywhere, or only out in space? (In the CoDominium series by Niven and Pournelle, including the perhaps best-known The Mote in God’s Eye, every system has one, which is always at the same place relative to the star and its planets.) Does a wormhole behave like a “body” (orbiting a planet or star, for example), or is it a fixed point? (And if so, fixed relative to what?)

A second idea goes by many different names, but is often called hyperspace. The idea is that a ship (or perhaps a message) is “translated” into a “dimension” or parallel universe where the physical “speed limits” are less troublesome, or for some other reason getting to the equivalent of the destination takes less time and effort, and then it is “translated” back. The “techno-babble” by which it is explained varies significantly (Star Wars calls it “lightspeed” fairly often, for example), as do the limitations (a common one is that a ship either can’t go into or is forced out of hyperspace, or whatever it’s called, too near a “gravity well”).

A third strategy is what I’ll call warp. While that name is often used for technologies that I would put in the “hyperspace” category, it’s the best description I can find for this distinct category. A “warp drive” uses some of the same explanations or principles behind both wormholes and what I’ve called hyperspace. The idea here is very similar to that of a wormhole: the shortest distance between two points not being a line. But instead of an existing (naturally occurring or otherwise) pair of points (essentially-)permanently connected over a long distance, a ship makes such a “shorter path” and “jumps” through it.

The fourth idea is absolutely useless for interstellar travel, but interesting for interstellar communication. I think it’s usually called the ansible. It’s described as a device that somehow transmits a message to all receivers, everywhere in the universe, simultaneously. (And there’s an interesting twist on this in the James Blish story “Beep,” later expanded into the short novel The Quincunx of Time.)

And lastly, an idea that I’ve only seen (explicitly) used in one science fiction story (and one that never seems to have been reprinted, at that). It’s the idea that relativity—no “absolute time and space,” a constant speed of light, and all that—is a “local effect.” The “principle of mediocrity,” that there’s nothing special about our location (the particular lab, the particular country, Earth, the Solar System …) that would make experimental results not equally applicable elsewhere, is generally not merely a wise and good but a necessary working assumption. But it can only be a working assumption, and as such it is more than reasonable to speculate that it might not actually be true.

Now, after this brief tour of the five approaches to working around the problems relativity presents to the science fiction author, I’d like to talk about what I’m planning on doing in my Shine Cycle, and in particular for the parts set in our universe.

My main approach is, as you might have guessed, going to be the last of the ones I outlined above. For the universe in which the Shine Cycle is primarily set, Einsteinian relativity is simply “not quite right” throughout. But for the parts set in this universe, it can’t be merely set aside. Instead, I posit that it’s a “local effect” in the area surrounding our solar system, a fact that is discovered by scientists aboard the first “generation ship” in the twenty-fifth century or so.

But I’m not going to stop there. In addition to this, and the possibilities opened up by my choice to make the Shine Cycle explicitly fantasy as well as science fiction (which includes the equivalent of an ansible), I’m taking a very nearly “all of the above” approach to interstellar travel: in my outlined “future history” of our universe that I’m preparing for use in the Shine Cycle, for example, a hyperdrive is invented in the twenty-sixth century, wormholes are discovered on the order of a century after that, and a sort of warp drive is developed in the thirtieth century. And so on.

Now, if I were coming up with a science fiction story ex nihilo, restricting myself to what relativity says is possible could be a useful constraint. (I know that as a reader, I’m sometimes annoyed when an author simply talks about ships going speeds many times the speed of light without even mentioning the difficulties.) But the Shine Cycle has, to some extent despite my efforts, grown in conception to the point where it requires a scope relativity doesn’t easily permit.

Do you have any thoughts on the issues, or these approaches?


2 thoughts on “Relativity and Story: Five Strategies

  1. You should check out Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep ( He proposes a local effect for speed limits and intelligence, both inversely proportional to the distance from the center of the galaxy. It’s not until you get outside of the galaxy that FTL and superintelligence are possible.

    There’s a lot more going on in that book, so I’d recommend it anyway. I liked A Deepness in the Sky—a prequel of sorts—a bit less; perhaps because it’s stuck in the Slow Zone the whole time.

    It’s also worth noting that Vinge is a Computer Scientist. His short story “True Names” is one of the most interesting and realistic views of future cyberspace and transhumanism that I’ve ever read.

    • Vinge, and that series specifically, have been on my (quite long) list of authors and books I want to read one of these days for a while now. I think I’d even read a description of the premise at some point, but I’d long since forgotten it by the time I was writing this post.

      The notion of intelligence being similarly variable reminds me of a story my dad has told me about (but that I haven’t read), Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave.

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