The Problem With Most Science Fiction

In our popular literature genre of Science Fiction, we love to experience space drama that involves extrapolations of our past social conflicts. Some of the most dramatic moments in our historical wartime conflicts have involved mighty ships and fast fighter craft. Based on this, our Sci-Fi presents us with great ships in space and dogfight style combat among small nimble craft. Because the distances involved with living in space are incomprehensibly large compared to our past life on the surface of a planet, the mighty ships must have some form of faster than light transport. Most often, this is portrayed as some variation of a warp drive where space is folded over on itself and the ship can somehow jump across the fold without incurring a commensurate expense of time. As audience consumers, it is incumbent upon us to censure ideas that are not practical, silly, or even downright impossible. We seem to fail at this responsibility.

LARGE SHIPS: First our ships were made from wood and used sails to catch the wind for their propulsion. Then we learned to make them from metal and use a variety of furnaces to drive propelling screws. All of these craft floated on the surface of the ocean and crews walked upright on the decks. Most were surface craft limited to the two dimensional plane separating ocean from atmosphere. The era of great missile carrying submarines has changed that. Our Sci-Fi “ships” are often a composite of those two forms, combining three dimensional movement and the need to contain a breathable airspace with the large size and form of an aircraft carrier that can launch waves of attacking smaller craft.

There is often no explanation for how crew members can walk upright on decks that may or may not be aligned with any acceleration from a propulsion unit which far too often is some form of rocket engine. Rocket engines are not a viable form of space propulsion in spite of the fact that they have been our primary means of reaching orbit from a gravity well. The large amounts of fuel needed to overcome gravity and reach escape velocity are exhausted within a few minutes. Once out of the gravity well, the primary objective changes to focus on constant acceleration and that most likely means some form of electric thruster like ion drives or plasma drives. With any variation in either thrust or direction of thrust, crew would need to be strapped down in acceleration safe couches or exoskeletons. Audiences and authors collectively agree to accept that some mysterious form of inertial field or artificial gravity solves this problem so our characters can walk around normally as though they were still on the surface of a planet with a gravity well.

FIGHTER CRAFT: The history of fighting aircraft involves a steady progression of airflow streamlining and increases in propulsion capacity and therefore speed. Our Sci-Fi fighter craft rarely if at all have any need to go into a planetary atmosphere and yet they are designed to be aerodynamic, if only in a visual sense. They usually maneuver in a manner identical to craft using air thrust for propulsion, air foils (wings) for lift, and air diverting control surfaces to turn. A fighting craft designed for one-on-one combat in space would not use any of those things and might be an altogether obsolete consideration.

WARP DRIVE: One of the most fantastic of all Sci-Fi inventions has to be the warp drive or faster than light drive. At the same time as being wholly unbelievable, it seems to be just as widely accepted and almost taken for granted by audiences. It is difficult to write about interstellar battles between fleets of ships when the huge gulf of space between them means it can take decades or longer to stage such a conflict. The warp drive allows an attacking fleet to drop in from hyperspace with little or no notice and stage a battlefield anywhere at any time. Of course, the problem with a warp drive is that we not only have no idea how space might be “folded” in order to make the drive work, but we can’t even really define what space is yet.

SCIENCE NEEDED: Let’s take a look at the science needed in the background in order to create these Sci-Fi mechanisms.

Faster Drives – we can currently make constant impulse thrusters as Ion drives. We can improve upon them by varying degrees as Plasma drives, but significant advances seem to require huge amounts of electric power. This is not an unsolvable problem.

Energy Weapons – almost all of our existing weaponry (such as bullets, missiles, bombs) will become either completely obsolete or very ineffective in space. While that doesn’t mean we can’t improve upon them and make some new versions that do work in space, it seems likely that energy beam weapons are the area to concentrate in. Once again, we can’t currently use energy beams as weapons, but that is mostly because we haven’t concentrated much effort on them because of the limiting factor of using them inside an atmosphere that dilutes their impact. Out in space, they will be more effective and with some improvement, might become very dangerous.

Artificial Gravity/Inertia Field – we have no idea what gravity is, how to distinguish it from inertia, or how to manipulate either to create the magic field that keeps boots on the decks. This is pure fiction at the moment, but also nearly essential for most Sci-Fi and widely accepted by audiences.

Warp Drive – the granddaddy of science “Fiction”, as mentioned above, we have no current real concept of how this can work. It’s purely made up fiction and yet widely accepted.

THE PROGRESSION OF SCIENCE: The real problem with most of these Sci-Fi mechanisms is not that they are impossible, but that they wildly unlikely considering the lack of progression in everything else in the stories. If a Sci-Fi story presented us with an alternative time-line story where a nuclear reactor was developed during the Renaissance and the energy released by a fission process was used to shoot arrows at the enemy, we would reject that as ludicrous.

In a study of cosmology (the creation of the universe) it seems there is a logical progression of the creation of TIME, then SPACE, then ENERGY, then MATTER. Each step is a new and different form of the step before it and is wholly dependent upon the preceding step. The progression of our science and technology is a reverse path of understanding first MATTER as simple tools, then ENERGY from simple fire to steam power to electric power to electronics to energy beams, then SPACE, then TIME. Our current level of science is still learning how to manipulate MATTER and just beginning to understand ENERGY.

The warp drive belongs somewhere on the scale near SPACE and TIME and we have a long ways to go to reach any of that zone. While it is possible to imagine a rapid increase in our science, that has been described as an intelligence singularity and will encompass more breakthroughs in science and technology than all of our previous history combined. That type of jump forward might actually produce a real warp drive someday, but it would also produce massive change in every other aspect of our lives and our culture. Using a warp drive to jump across galactic distances, then firing a chemical rocket at an enemy is as ludicrous as the nuclear powered arrow.

It is also possible to postulate that any further advances in our science will require some commensurate advances in our ethical thinking in order to avoid self destruction. We have already tempted fate with our nuclear weapons and barely survived. If our science jumps forward by orders of magnitude, but our ethics remain primitive, our chances of species survival dwindle steadily.

CONCLUSION: All of these fantastic Sci-Fi inventions are possible but only in the correct framework and only with improved ethics. One step at a time. If an singularity style explosion in intelligence does take place, we had better hope that we have already put into place the foundation that will allow our ethics to grow with it. If our ethics can expand rapidly to new heights, everything else we do or even imagine will also be different.

Ethics and the Singularity
“Star of Epiphany”

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