Tuesday, November 29, 2005


A Question of Gravity

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about starships lately. I have three different projects in varying stages of completion that each involve manned spacecraft capable of interstellar travel--the Underspace Ship Phonix, The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, and the good ship Further. One is a slowboat, sublight generational starship, with a fission drive and a rotating section to provide simulated gravity for the crew; in other words, a pure hard-sf vessel, of which the Mundane crowd could be proud, without any "handwavium" (well, there is a weakly super-intelligent A.I. running the show, but nobody's perfect). The other two each use different variations on the same magic FTL drive. I'm not crazy about injecting such a large degree of fantasy (which FTL remains, no matter how much theory underpins it) into what are otherwise fairly rigorous hard-sf, but star-spanning adventures don't work so well if each leg of the trip can be measured in centuries, so faster-than-light drives are a necessary evil.

What I've been wrestling with the last few weeks (and, arguably, on-and-off since March) is the question of gravity. One of these ships, the Further, is central to a Big Time Space Opera. It's far future, post-Singularity, all kinds of wackiness abounding. And it'll have an FTL drive ("underspace impellers," to be precise), which already means that I've stepped off of the beam as far as rigorous science goes. But I keep coming back to the question of gravity. In other stories, I've gone to great lengths to be as realistic about space travel as possible, so no "gravity generators," no "gravitic plating," none of that. If spacefarers want gravity, they have to make their own through the magic of centrifugal force.

In my more "mundane" stories (or Mundane, if you prefer), this works just fine. In fact, it's part of what makes the environment work. But in this big, wacky, galaxy-hopping post-Singularity Space Opera, I can't help thinking that it might be easier to bend, just a bit further, and allow for some sort of magic technology to generate gravitation fields in the crew sections of the ship. Then I wouldn't have to worry about angular momentums, and precession, and rotational velocity, and Coriolis effects, or any of that business. I can just say, "The gravity in the crew quarters was kept at a steady .8 g's at all times, Captain's orders, so long as the power supply held out." Or something like that, at any rate.

I don't know. This is honestly keeping me up nights. How sad does that make me, honestly? I really want to just bite the bullet and include magic gravity on the Further, but I can't help feeling that it'd be some sort of betrayal to do so.

Honestly, I often think there's something wrong with me.

I've almost decided I can't write SF because of this type of thing: I worry myself to death over getting the particulars perfect!

I may give it a try again, though. I remind myself that many bestselling books have science far less rigorous than what I demand of myself. I think it may be more a matter of what you don't say than what you do.
I always admired the way Babylon 5 kept the humans in "Mundane" ships without gravity generators or jump drives and gave the various alien civilizations increasingly "magical" technology given their age relative to us.
Deanna, you may be right about the trick being what you choose to say, and what you leave unspoken. Perhaps its the illusion of reality that we're after, and not reality itself, and if that can be accomplished with a bit of slight of hand (if perhaps not hand-waving) so much the better.
Lou, that's true, but towards the end of the series the humans ended up with all of the magic technology, too. Of course, if you want to get picky about it, the mere fact that magic gravity was possible in the B5 universe tended to undercut the care taken to make the human ships scientifically rigorous in the first place.
Greg Bear's used volumetric fields to simulate gravity and compensate for angular momentum and nasty changes in Delta-V. And Bear's not exactly a namby-pamby elf-and-fairy fantasy writer.
Yeah, I really do think it's true, Chris. I think the danger comes when you try to explain something that doesn't make sense when explained. Because otherwise we can just write it off in our minds as unexplainable. :-)
Yeah, Jayme, I've been reading a lot of hard sf space opera, in preparation for this project, and I'm finding a lot of that kind of thing, in some unexpected places. I guess what sets hard SF writers apart is that they treat the made-up science with the same rigor as the real stuff.
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