Considerations for a Space Opera Setting: FTL Travel

23:37 Mon 04 Oct 2010. Updated: 00:47 05 Oct 2010
[, , , ]

I recently had a chunk of inspiration hit me, and am considering a fairly large-scale science fiction project. It’s in a far-future, large-scale, “big SF” vein, also known as “space opera” (although that genre is rather loosely defined). I don’t think it’s in the same universe as my science fiction novel, although I might change my mind on that. In any case, I do want to go over the major factors that I think define a setting of that kind. The first one of these is the presence/absence/nature of faster-than-light travel.

FTL in some form is essentially necessary for the genre to exist: no far-flung collection of planets with travel between them, no space opera. The characteristics of that travel, thus, influence almost everything else about how the setting works.

Here are a number of options for how it can work:

  • Ship-based drives: hyperspace, warp, foldspace, improbability—whatever the conceit, some kind of drive that allows ships to travel at speeds far in excess of light. Having it be ship-based gives starships a place of huge importance in the setting, which in turn makes those who run the ships quite central. It also makes space battles and space piloting quite important, all of which tend to be significant in the genre. I strongly suspect that this will be the predominant FTL form in my setting.
  • Space-based gates: “wormholes” allowing FTL travel, which must be set up in space for some reason (usually because they can’t function near a gravity well). Their location means that, again, starships are absolutely critical to the setting, but gates are obviously more amenable to central control, and hence they make for a more constrained setting. Some variations here include whether the gates are always-on or not, and whether they’re constructed by the current civilization or either “natural” or are discovered artifacts. I’m not sure whether these are in my setting, although they might be present as relatively rare “shortcuts” that allow for longer/faster “jumps” than unassisted ship drives.
  • Planetary gates: As above, but these can be placed on planets. This alters the setting significantly, as the importance of starships recedes, and they’re again amenable to central control. I don’t think these are present in my setting.
  • Teleportation: Generally not used as an interstellar transport mechanism in most science fiction, it nevertheless represents FTL travel. I think it’s even more implausible than the other methods, and I also think it leads to various plot problems and way too many easy outs for writers, so I’m going to exclude it.

Other factors include the speed and expense (or other restrictions) of the travel.

I need to do some actual research before deciding the first, because I want the travel to have some constraints but still cover vast distances. Generally I want habitable planets to be close enough so that it doesn’t take more than a week to travel between them, possibly less. (Of course, this is also a function of the map I use/create for the setting.)

As for expense, this is going to be comparatively low—more like the depiction of interstellar travel in Star Wars, where ships can be hired for relatively little, and where it’s economically viable for relatively small ships to make reasonably money doing freight runs, than the depiction of travel in Dune, where it’s hugely expensive because of the restrictions on engaging in it. Interstellar commerce will be colossal, and both people and cargo can be transported at prodigious rates.

In this setting, that fact plus the relatively easy availability of ships will create the perceived need for authorities to protect shipping routes, leading more or less inexorably to the presence of naval authorities—but the social and political organization of the setting is a topic for another post.

Leave a Reply