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Friday, 1 June 2012

What would subspace look like?

Something that has always intrigued me since growing up watching Star Trek is subspace. According to the pundits this is either TV chicanery to avoid the problems of communication across light years of distance, or else it has some credibility from a quantum physics perspective, and might exist either as a dimension or an intra-dimensional realm (fitting beneath our physical reality). Related concepts are wormholes, warp (faster-than-light or FTL) travel, and hyperspace. Since the galaxy is very big, any Scifi TV series, film, or book inevitably has to decide how to tackle the problems of travelling or communicating over vast distances whilst maintaining a comprehensible narrative. If only Einstein had penned some science fiction…

In the cult series Babylon Five, hyperspace is visualized as a place of shifting oranges and blacks (nice visuals, actually), and in the Stargate TV series a similar approach is used (vortex-like visuals). In books it is often less clear. Orson Scott Card’s Ender series made use of an Ansible, whereby communication could take place without any time dilation effects. Stephen Baxter in his book Timelike Infinity describes what it looks like to enter a wormhole. There have also been plenty of attempts at visualising what it would be like to approach a black hole, with time dilation and distortion effects on the way in to the event horizon or the ‘accretion disk’. Star Trek Deep Space Nine had aliens living inside a wormhole, which I thought was pretty interesting, although I personally found the visualization of the wormhole interior completely unconvincing.

I remember asking someone what you would see if flying at fast than-light-speed, and he replied that you would see nothing as there would be no perceptible time at that speed, you would just emerge at the other end of your trip or wormhole. But I’m a visual writer, so I like to imagine that something could be seen, even if not by us. Would it be like Star Trek with stars whizzing past, or should they be at least blue and red-shifted as according to Einstein? In my first book, The Eden Paradox, I cheated a bit and waxed lyrical, so that the pilot, Zack, saw

‘pin pricks of ice cold light sliding past with a glacial grace’.  

Later in the book, when humans discover FTL by stealing an alien ship, this is what it feels like to enter it:

Vince strode back to the main console and slammed the ankh key into the recess. As he did so, everything froze and became mercurial. Shades of silver tinged every facet of the equipment, every line and crack of every face, the eyes, the pores, all their clothes and every surface. He had the feeling that they were outside of time while the universe moved beneath them, or rather moved outside the ship.
He didn’t breathe – it wasn’t that he didn’t want to, but his brain told him it would be a very bad idea.

And (a later chapter) this is what it feels like to exit:          

Jennifer sucked air into her aching lungs. The fear of breathing in liquid vanished, or, rather, was overcome by the desperate need to inhale anything. Despite a faint sensation of vapour entering her lungs, which she decided was probably psychosomatic, the dread of drowning in liquid mercury proved erroneous. Even so, she bent forward to regain her breath. She heard coughing down below.
            Within two minutes Dimitri swept into the control room along with several other technicians, half of them still dressed in their sleepwear.
            ‘How long?’ she croaked in Dimitri’s direction. He looked at his chronometer, and shook his head. ‘According to my watch, no time has passed, but we cannot rely on anything mechanical, since all movement froze. I had the definite sense of suspension of time, like being encased in glass. My thoughts simply paused. A fascinating sensation!’


In my second book, Eden’s Trial, which is more ‘space opera’, I used the concept of Transpace for FTL travel, and true to my advisors, there is no perception of time by humans or most aliens in Transpace. However, I bend this rule for the Hohash, an alien artefact left behind by a super-race millions of years ago. It can move and think during Transpatial journeys, even while everything around it is frozen. Incidentally, humans normally puke after such journeys. Like some good wines, we don’t always travel well.

In my upcoming third book Eden’s Revenge the possibility of inhabiting subspace is hinted at more strongly, with an alien race called the Shrell who can shift into subspace. These are creatures who tend subspace, because too many jaunts through Transpace can bruise or tear the fabric of space, resulting in rifts where FTL becomes impossible or hazardous. China Mieville’s book Embassytown is the most fascinating I have read on FTL, with its completely novel concept of the ‘immer’, which few can tolerate if conscious.

In Eden’s Revenge the Shrell are blackmailed into poisoning a large sector of space around a human-inhabited planet, which will prevent the human refugees from escaping. But it will cost the Shrell dear to do so:

The Shrell leader Genaspa, at the front of six phalanxes of her most trusted warriors, stared ahead with all six eyes through the eddies of Transpace to the Quintara sector, where the spider world lay. She already knew all the details, but wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to train her protégé, Nasjana.
            She thought-directed “Tell, what you see, what you propose.”
            Nasjana shifted up a gear, flapping her long wings faster, and moved forward from her phalanx of fifty, her Second taking her place. She drew alongside and slightly behind Genaspa. “I see the one-mooned Katha-class planet whose natives call Ourshiwann and the humans call Esperia. I see two other planets, one closer in to its Giver and so too hot to sustain life, the other further out and so too cold, a thin asteroid belt from a former planet, and the ice-scratch of a past comet with a return cycle of two thousand years. I propose standard treatment: three opposing pairs at right angles to the Giver, twenty light minutes apart before we commence the cross-run.”
            Genaspa sent a sinusoidal frisson down her right wing, a sign of approval.
            Nasjana did not return to her team.
            “You have a question?”
            Nasjana dropped slightly behind. “I have a doubt.”
            Genaspa’s wings took on a more rigid motion. She’d been expecting this from at least one of her team leaders, though not Nasjana, her Second. Or maybe, she reflected, that was why she had chosen her as Second.
“Tell.”
“Where you lead I follow. What you tell, I do, we all do. But this… We only poison space when absolutely necessary, to avoid rift expansion.”
Nasjana’s thought stream had come out fast, urgent, and Genaspa realised Nasjana was worried. But they were short on time. They must be ready, in formation, in every sense of that word.
“Tell true, Second.” She had to wait a full flap-beat for the response.
“Why do we follow the orders of Qorall? He has brought … the Xenshra inside the galaxy, those despicable worms. I fear we will never get them out. And Qorall has caused more space damage than in recorded Grid history.”
It was a good question, but not the whole reason Nasjana must be daring to doubt her First’s judgement.
“Tell deeper. All.”
Nasjana wings trembled, slowing her slightly until with an effort she caught up. “My husbands. I fear many will perish today.”
Genaspa forced herself to concentrate on the flight, to keep it steady. A First must always be sure, never wavering. Tell true, she had instructed, and yet she had not told her team leaders the whole truth. None of the husbands would survive the day. She and three hundred Shrell would enter the system, she and fifty would return, all female...


The Eden Paradox is available (paperback and ebook) on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ampichellis and Waterstones.

Eden’s Trial is available (ebook) on Amazon with a paperback version due out later this year.

Eden’s Revenge will be coming out Xmas 2012.

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