What is the cost of space travel?
Disclaimer: I am completely biased when it comes to the presentation of space travel. I don’t like it if it is too easy. I think there needs to be some sort of challenge or trade off. Otherwise I just don’t by it. It doesn’t seem realistic and it relegates the work in question into the realm of science fantasy or space opera. (Not that there is anything wrong with that, I just like it when things are honest with their genre.) Please no magic minerals that haven’t been discovered yet that make FTL travel possible. Let’s be real here, there will still be some trade offs, like it is super expensive and only a few people have access to it or something. Or it has horrible environmental side effects.
Edit: Also apparently I am not explaining any of these? Assuming you know how they work, if not most of them have Wikipedia pages.
Now that that is out of the way, the method with probably the most trade offs is relative space travel. I first encountered it in Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and most recently in Robert W. Boyczuk’s Nexus: Ascension which I finished reading last week (review coming up – actually it is going to be a bulk review post of like 3 or 4 books I’ve read since my last post). (Interestingly enough Card was highly influenced by Le Guin in other regards, specifically in terms of tech he used her “ansible” so perhaps he was influenced by her here as well.) I really like this kind of space travel, I mean it seems the most realistic – or at the very least a good starting point for space travel tech – and it makes travel a real commitment. Just like international and continental travel before cars and planes and such, you have to be prepared not to return to the same place you left from due to the amount of time that has passed. Of course, this brings it a step further when you don’t age but your home does. It was a beautiful moment in The Left Hand of Darkness when he mentions that if he goes home none of his family will still be alive. But the way it was used in Nexus: Ascension was really cool, it was a big part of plot. The main characters all used it to escape their pasts by taking work away from the planet and returning when the people they knew had died.
Verdict? Relative space travel – high personal cost.
Probably the most common form of distance space travel, at least in my experience, is some sort of warp/jump/or hyperdrive. Which is understandable. Narrative-wise, relative space travel poses a few rather large issues. Resolving conflicts and battles become much more problematic when more time passes in one location, wars can get a little more anticlimatic. (That being said, some works have resolved that issue wonderfully.) But you want to get somewhere instantaneously for all parties? I’ve got a jump for that. This though can very easily enter the just flick a switch or press a button realm, which bothers me. In Star Wars and Star Trek they can engage their warp drives and such just a little too easily. Yes, Han Solo does calculations before he does, but those take what, 5 minutes? Tops? Eh not for me. It isn’t difficult enough. I prefer my jumps alá Asimov. In the Foundation novels to travel great distances you have to make several jumps. And you have to wait between jumps. Maybe it is less dramatic and cinematic, but the time they need to spend calculating and calibrating the jumps just seems a little more realistic. I feel like they are actually doing something. How much can Han really accomplish in those few minutes? Even if it is a super computer it creates a much more realistic feeling if it actually needs time to calculate the jump. The other thing is at some point I would like more people to address the availability of this kind of technology. Can everyone afford one? Is it even available to the public, or is it governmental? But this is just me being picky and sort of asking for a lot.
Verdict? Jump technology – high mental/time cost. Or at least it should be.
Along this vein is wormhole technology. My issue with wormhole tech? I guess it all boils down to one main question, is the tech creating or finding wormholes? If they’re merely finding them, then they need to address the issue of figuring out where the hole lets out. If they’re creating the wormhole then they get a free pass on that, begrudgingly. I think Farscape handled it well. They showed how it was difficult to control wormholes and they didn’t always come out when they meant to. I personally feel like wormholes are like wind and sea currents. They are just there, and you can learn how to manipulate them to your advantage, but you cannot control or create them. Unpopular opinion maybe, but there we go.
Verdict? Wormhole tech – trade off is controllability and reliability.
Now we get to what is probably my least favorite form of space travel, the introduced element. This can be a great plot device, but it is often so convenient that it strays into space fantasy territory. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Dune, although Star Trek can be guilty of it on occasion. (I’m sorry, but i have problems with how they handle dilithium crystals most of the time plot-wise.) Credit where credit is due, Dune addressed many of my issues with this trope (see disclaimer). It is only found on one planet, which explains how we didn’t discover it before, and if you can get control of the source you have control over the universe. That is actually a huge plot point. But that is my big problem with this sort of space travel, it usually seems so common and there is universal availability. But if it is that common, how did we not know about it before? People seem to have never ending supplies of this stuff. It is the perfect element, it isn’t expensive, it is readily available, and has no harmful effects on anything. Nope, too convenient for me. At least in the Day of the Triffids remake when they talk about how triffoil solves global warming it was from a potentially dangerous source. You gotta give me something here. Prone to break downs? Expensive? Can cause blindness or infertility? Bloating? Something.
Verdict – uhg. Too often it is the Mary Sue of space travel, perfect in every way. Avoid if possible.