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Telling It Like It Is… Sci-Fi and Alastair Reynolds

Revelation SpaceIn general I find there are two types of space travel in sci-fi:

  1. There is the Star Trek kind of space travel where the captain says, “Make it so.” or “Engage.” (in a deep commanding voice) and the ship takes off at warp 9 or hyper-space or something like that and it arrives a couple hours or days later. No problem. A quick jaunt to another system. We’ll drink cocktails and eat hors d’oeuvres and lounge on the deck.
  2. Then there is the “step through a door” kind of space travel. This usually involves wormholes or far-gates or something like that. Basically there is some kind of portal that you step through and viola! you are magically transported to another planet. How convenient.

There are many other kinds of space travel that are included in sci-fi (I like the one used in Altered Carbon) I’m not saying these things are bad. Some of these ideas make for great stories (Pandora’s Star), it just seems too convenient. If we ever make it to space (really make it, not just toss tin cans into the sky) I have the feeling that space travel is going to be hard.

In walks Alastair Reynolds. Alastair Reynolds is the the Author of the Revelation Space series of books (Revelations Space1 , Chasm City, Absolution Gap, Redemption Ark, Diamond Dogs; Turquoise Days, Galactic North) as well as several other great novels (Pushing Ice2 , Century Rain and Zima Blue and Other Stories). Reynolds universe is a vast, cold, desolate place. It’s not necessarily antagonistic toward humans so much as it doesn’t really care. Humanity is just another blip of intelligence waiting to be wiped out.

Space travel in Revelation Space universe is not easy. Here Reynolds follows closely the laws of physics. You are at point A and you want to go to point B. First you accelerate. Acceleration can’t be done too fast or the passengers will be pasted all over the floors of the ship. Acceleration has to be slow and steady. It’ll take a while to reach a decent speed so sit back and do nothing for awhile. The top speed is just a couple of points (tenths of a percent) below the speed of light. (There is no breaking the light barrier in Reynolds novels (mostly).) Once you reach your top speed then you just coast. Remember, it’s light years (10’s to 100’s) between star systems so you’re going to be coasting for awhile not to mention time dilation. Near the speed of light, time on the ship slows down, so what may seem like a 10 year flight is actually 100 years (I’m guessing the time difference) for everybody else in the universe. By the time you get back home (if you ever make a return journey) your friends and family are probably dead (unless they are using some kind of medical treatments to prolong their life). So your coasting along for 50 years and you start getting close to your destination, now you’ve got to stop. In order to stop you need to decelerate. You have to flip the ship around and then start slowly and steadily decelerating (remember, not too fast or you’ll squash everyone on board). Finally you arrive at your destination. Quite some time has passed. What did you do on board all that time, play chess? In Reynolds books people usually elect to freeze themselves.

It’s not a nice place and nothing comes easy. If we ever make it to space I have the feeling that this is what it’s really going to be like. Cold, dull, long and meticulous. Not very exciting and something we probably won’t want to do a lot of.

  1. Cover of Revelation space by Alastair Reynolds. []
  2. Highly Recommended! []

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