Alastair Reynolds on FTL and STL travel in science fiction

At the moment I am working on a ten page feature article on the speed of light for the Dutch popular science magazine KIJK. Being an avid fan of SF writer Alastair Reynolds (perhaps best known for his Revelation Space series), I thought it would be a nice idea to ask him how he handles the speed of light in his novels. The reason being, Mr. Reynolds, who used to work as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency, is known for respecting the speed of light as a speed limit in his novels, whereas a lot of his colleagues use all kinds of speculative faster-than-light means of transportation to, well, speed things up.

So I sent Mr. Reynolds an email with a couple of questions, not knowing whether he would even receive or read my message, let alone reply to it soon enough for me to be able to use his responses in my article. Luckily, he replied promptly and extensively – which brought a huge smile to my face. It’s always good to find out someone you admire is a friendly person who is willing to spend some time on you.

Anyway, since I thought Mr. Reynolds’ responses were very interesting, I decided to share them in their entirety here. Some of them will appear in my article in KIJK 4/2013, which will hit the stores on March 8.

Could you perhaps tell me a little on how you decided to handle the speed of light in your work? Is it a matter of principle to you to respect it as a speed limit?

When I started writing SF seriously, I was heavily influenced by a previous generation of SF writers, as well as media SF such as Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and so on. My favorite writer when I was 16 was Larry Niven, so I naturally took his works as a kind of template for the two novels I wrote in my teens. These featured a human civilisation spread across many different solar systems, linked by quick FTL travel [faster-than-light travel; JPK]

By the time I’d finished the second book, though, I’d started picking up on some other writers (such as – for instance – Gregory Benford) and it seemed to me that it was actually kind of interesting to keep the physics as real as possible. It may have been a matter of principle then but now I prefer to think of it as an aesthetic choice that simply opens up a different set of story possibilities. It’s not better or worse, and not necessarily any more “realistic”, since one could argue that any kind of fast interstellar ravel is very nearly as impossible as FTL! (I don’t entirely hold to that view, but there is some merit in it.) Anyway, by the time I came to start trying to sell my fiction, it was mostly based around STL travel [slower-than-light travel; JPK]

Do you think other writers should respect the speed of light as a speed limit as well?

No, not at all – I’m much more interested in the texture of the invented worlds, not the nuts and bolts of the science. And if everyone started doing that, I’d have to find another way to make my work distinctive. So in fact I’m perfectly happy with the way things are now, and one day I might even do my own FTL space opera.

Does not using FTL sometimes get in the way of stories you want to write, or do you feel that cryonics, time dilation, high continued acceleration etc. give a science fiction writer all the elements he/she needs to explore the universe in their books without ignoring the constraints posed by special relativity?

As I said above, it’s more about opening up different story possibilities. Obviously, there is a type of story that’s very hard to write if you eschew FTL travel in a realistic universe – you can’t, for instance, tell a story like The Empire Strikes Back, in which Luke dashes to another solar system to complete his Jedi training, and then is back almost in time for tea!

But once you accept STL, it opens other doors. You can explore ideas about time dilation, about being displaced from the time and civilisation where you might have been born, and so on. You can think about the way STL travel might shape the psychology of future spacefarers compared to the people who live on planets. A good example of this type of story might be Stanislaw Lem’s Return from the Stars, or even (though it has a sort of FTL travel via black holes) Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.

Do you think exploring the galaxy without FTL technology is a possible future for the actual human race?

Well, it’s a possible future for someone, although whether that is us, our distant robot descendants, or some weird posthuman hybrid of the machine and the organic, I have no idea! Hopefully, though, SF can give us some pointers.

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