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Let’s stop trying to screw relativity

Why are we still writing 1950ish space operas?

Photo by elvia chanita yuwono on Unsplash

By Mike Meyer

I’m upset. Again. It seems I spend a lot of time upset. But this is not about the collapse of the national political and economic systems. It’s a good bit more important than that.

If you are going to write a space opera with heroes, villains, amazing female engineers, funny aliens and starships, please, please don’t ignore relativity. I realize that blasting your way across the galaxy at warp factor 15 and losing 200 years at your point of origin presents narrative problems. Deal with it. It’s not like this is new or some sort of fringe phenomenon. Einstein figured this out well over one hundred years ago.

I know there are authors writing in the genre who do handle this. I really appreciate that. It’s the others that are getting old. It takes more than a perfunctory reference to a warp or worm hole or something and then you get right on writing a World War II dog fight in space. And then you pop ten light years back home and it’s the next month. Folks it doesn’t work that way. It is totally the wrong way time wise. Our smart phones have to deal with relativity in processing our communications through geostationary satellites. I trust everyone knows that. The GPS things wouldn’t work if they didn’t adjust for the time difference from that short hop up to approximately 35,786 km (22,236 miles) above mean sea level.

From the literary side you can, of course, claim your building a fantasy world where instantaneous interstellar travel is totally normal. And if you are writing space operas or military SF, a related genre, you need to give people want they want or they are not going to read you, let alone buy your stuff. But I think there is a bigger issue.

We have enough trouble in the real world with people being dumb as owl shit. Add ignorance on to that and you have a real mess. People, some at least, take this stuff to heart. They may know better but if they spend their spare time flying around in a universe that can’t possibly exist while pretending it’s the same universe we live in, they are being done a disservice. Then when something comes up that require a decision based in reality what are they going to do?

If you’re going to build it in a different universe than, fine, do it but build the logic of the place into your story line. Is that too much to ask? Well, that is actually very hard work and if your not getting paid why do it? Credibility and pride. If your writing a fantasy and every living creature can zap itself around at light speed and backward and forward in time, that’s fine. But if it looks and acts as if it is this universe the laws of relativity are the laws we live with.

Now the more you know about this stuff the more depressing it gets. I think we’ve reached the growing up part of our species life when we learn that we have a lot of things we just can’t pretend anymore. Like many people now I grew up with science fiction and it shaped my life. I took it to heart from Asimov, Clark, and Heinlein, to Harry Harrison, and Clifford D. Simak. The early ones will still in a pristine universe where we really hadn’t internalized Einstein. We were proud to understand classical Newtonian physics. But fifty years is a long time. We have internalized Einstein and Schrödinger’s cat.

The fact that we still don’t have a completely unified theory of everything to replace the standard model is worrisome. We have internalized the current physics enough to begin to feel very uncomfortable with the sheer size of the galaxy and the odds that leaving, if we do, will mean not coming back. Space-time is unrelenting in its reality. The Fermi Paradox is getting ever more scary.

Maybe this is just because I’m getting old but I don’t really think so. Even if we are just a very small and barren corner of our galaxy the thought that we will be hard pressed just to get around the solar system is depressing. But let’s figure out how we can do these things, for real. Well, if not for real, after all this is about imagination and story telling, then at least be honest to the reality of our universe.

What I’m really saying is that things are moving very, very fast now for us in a full paradigm shift. Our life expectancy is accelerating in the right direction except for those people going backwards. But that is a local phenomenon tied to stupid politics. And we should be able to build large space habitats in this system that would move us well up to the next level of intelligent life. That means that we will be able to manage the full energy potential of our planet or level I on the Kardashev scale. There are good authors playing with these things in a way that incites serious thought. But we need to get the whole literary form closer to that kind of reality. That’s what I’m saying.

I don’t think we can do that without getting much better at ensuring our survival to do it. We have a huge amount of stupidity to eliminate before we can stop being scared shitless. I think there is a serious responsibility to give people the best scientific information available if you are going to build a future world of any kind. The problems that are then dealt with begin to give people who read it some idea of what we will all be facing and how it may affect us in many ways. Adding sloppy ignorance to that lack of knowledge is unforgiveable.

Let’s lead the way and imagine the problems we need to solve and then suggest ways to solve them. Then I won’t be so upset.




where the future is written

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Mike Meyer

Mike Meyer

Educator, CIO, retired entrepreneur, grandfather with occasional fits of humor in the midst of disaster. . .

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