Startravel and FTL (Books)






Hello, everyone. This week I’m exploring the idea of travelling to other stars, a staple of science fiction. There are many possible ways of doing this, and I’m going to try to take a quick look at each one.


FTL refers to faster-than-light, the idea that the speed of light is not the fastest anything can travel. Most authors are very dismissive of this concept, mostly because they don’t understand Einstein as well as they think they do. Einstein’s theories (not laws) suggest that the speed of light is absolute, through a given medium. We have been able to slow light down to a crawl in laboratory experiments. We observe distant galaxies moving faster than light, which we attribute to space expanding, which doesn’t violate any theories or laws. We have also seen things break the lightspeed barrier.

Cherenkov radiation. This is the radiation emitted when a charged particle, usually an electron, passes through a dialectic medium at a speed faster than the phase velocity of light through that medium. Basically the maximum speed of light is determined by the medium it is traveling through. Physics tells us light speed is the fastest anything can travel through a given medium. Cherenkov radiation occurs when something breaks that rule. This isn’t science fiction, folks; this is real. The blue glow in the picture above is caused by electrons moving faster than light through water.

Now, I’m not saying things can move faster than the absolute limit of light we’ve observed, but it should be pointed out that we have only ever observed light from inside a gravity well. We don’t know for certain that the speed of light through the interstellar medium is the same as it is here. We need to get outside the solar system and observe. Maybe then we’ll begin to understand our universe a little bit better.

I don’t know of any modern science fiction stories which ignore Einstein, although it was more common when he was still alive. The only ones I can think of offhand are the stories of E.E. “Doc” Smith, which were being written around the time Einstein was gaining acceptance.

The Lensman series, on the surface, ignores Einstein and gets a bit of ridicule because of that. But the stories don’t, not really. The Berganholm drive of Lensman is a drive that negates the inertia of the craft so that the engines can push it faster and faster. Einstein’s theory tell us that an object can never achieve the speed of light because mass and energy are the same thing, and as an object travels faster, it has more potential energy, so it has more mass, so it requires more energy to propel it faster, and so on. However, if it doesn’t gain energy from traveling faster (inertia-less) then it could travel as fast as the engines could push it. Right? Well, maybe not, but it does a better job of hand-waving (handwavium) than most science fiction. Not to mention that the stories are just damn fun.

Warp Drive

This was a convenient piece of handwavium in Star Trek until someone came along and said: “Why not?” Star Trek uses the warp drive to get from star system to star system. The drive bends space around the ship, technically sending it into warp space, which is kind of like hyperspace (I’ll get to that) but not really. Roddenberry wasn’t a scientist; he was just a really big fan who made it big. However, the idea of warp travel inspired a real scientist, Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre, to try and work out the physics behind a drive of this type. What he came up with is being called the Alcubierre drive. Basically it warps space by compressing the fabric of spacetime in front of the ship and pushing it away behind the ship. This means that the ship moves over a shorter distance through space and doesn’t violate any rules along the way. For example, if the drive works at 1:4 compression, then four light years could be compressed and traveled over like one light year. I’m sure you can see how this would be useful. The only problem is the math required the total energy annihilation of a Jupiter-sized planet to make it work. Not something very practical.

NASA’s Alcubierre

The scientists over at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) liked the idea but not the execution, so they spent a couple of decades trying to make it better. They did. They came up with a new version of the drive in simulations that only requires the mass energy of a Volkswagen Beetle. Much more practical. They are currently working on getting this thing into operation, and also to refine the engine to use less power. They came this far in two decades. What will we have in one or two more?

Spacefold, Fold, and Jump Drives

This idea is taken from our knowledge of space being wrinkled up and not the smooth sheet of classical physics. I’m not sure who first came up with the idea, but it is best described in the 1958 novel Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. I’m sure you’ve all heard his explanation, either in Interstellar, Stanger Things, or elsewhere, but I’ll go ahead and mention it for those who aren’t sure. Take a piece of paper and draw two points on it, the star where you are and the star where you want to go. The paper is spacetime.  Draw a line across it. It takes lightyears to travel between the two stars. Now fold the paper so the two points line up. Jab the pencil through the paper. The hole is the fastest way between the two points, not the line across spacetime.

There is nothing is modern physics that says this can’t be done, and a few things that suggest it can. A subset of this would be wormhole travel, which basically does the same thing. Some other books which make use of this are Foundation by Isaac Asimov, Falcon by Emma Bull, and my own stories, where I use several different drives. I have seven methods of interstellar travel in my stories, because I figure that if it works, someone will be using it.


The idea behind hyperdrives is that there is a layer (or layers) of reality  that are beyond and yet congruent with our spacetime. Imagine another spacetime that is smaller, or where the speed of light is different. You travel at normal speed in hyperspace for a light-month, pop out into realspace, and you have traveled ten lightyears. Cool concept, and not beyond current theoretical physics. Possibly the least likely drive, but real enough that it can be backed up with some physics from hyperspace theory (a real thing) and brane or m-theory (membrane theory) that uses real observation and a lot of math to explain what science fiction authors like to throw into stories because it is cool and convenient. Some notable examples are the Babylon 5 TV series, the Honor Harrington novels by David Weber, This Alien Shore (amazing story) by C.S. Friedman,  and my own stories, where hyperdrive is the most common type of drive.

There are many other types of drives in fiction. Asimov had a cool story where the AI pilot of the starship goes insane because, just for moment during the jump, the human crew and passengers are neither alive nor dead, causing some serious confliction with the Laws of Robotics.

For non-FTL solutions, there are generation ships, solar sails, cold sleep, stasis pods, Von Neumann devices… The list is endless. Ask me in the comments if you want to know more about any of these.

Book Review: Invader, Foreigner Book Two – by C. J. Cherryh

No Author’s Answers this week, so we’ll do something a little different.

As strange as it may seem, I have only just started reading this series. Weaver has been trying to get me read it for years, but I resisted because I had read some C. J. Cherryh books in the past that I didn’t care for.

This was a mistake.

So far, of the first trilogy, I have enjoyed this book the most. I feel this is where Cherryh really hit her stride. I’m looking forward to reading the others.

For anyone who loves anthropology and linguistics, they will love this book. A huge part of it tied up in the study of the Atevi people. The natives of the planet human has colonized. The plot is mostly political, which I usually don’t enjoy, but it works here. Cherryh really shows just alien a mind can be because of a different culture. This is something I encountered when I first began to study anthropology. If you truly learn about a culture enough to become a part of it, you will forever be an outsider in the culture of your birth.

I highly recommend the series, and this book in particular, to anyone with an interest in reading a truly well thought out alien race. Granted the Atevi aren’t really that different physically, but that just helps illustrate the differences in culture and psychology.

Powered Armor in Science Fiction (Books)

As some of you may have guessed from reading my stories, I’m a fan of advanced armor for soldiers in science fiction. I’m talking today about the types of armor, specifically strength-augmenting armor. There are four major types to be found in science fiction, specifically books. These have shown up in movies and video games, but I’m focusing on origins in fiction. Which is not to say I won’t mention a game, movie, or comic if it is appropriate.

Soft Armor. These are essentially tight fitting spacesuits that have some degree of strength augmentation, usually in the form of reflex plastics or, in older works, hydraulic exoskeletons. The skin of these suits is usually something like Kevlar, flexible metal mesh, or reflex plastics with piezo-electric sensors designed to harden the material under impact. The strength augmentation is usually very low, mainly just enough to compensate for the weight of the suit. These are mostly found in near-future science fiction.

Open-Air Powered Armor. These are essentially just a hydraulic exoskeleton worn over conventional ballistic armor or even just clothes or uniforms. While not really armor itself, it is still a staple of near future science fiction. I felt it warranted a mention here, because it does augment the wearer’s strength.

Piloted Suits (Mecha). Some authors have written about armor that is actually just a small walker talk instead of something worn. These are usually called mechs. The pilot sits in the torso of the vehicle and controls it in various ways, from mind-impulse to levers and pedals. The smallest of these stand only four or five meters, while the largest are sometimes as large as skyscrapers. Personally, I like the smaller ones. The larger ones just seem to vulnerable to heavy weapons, missiles, and nukes.

Cybernetic Powered Armor. These suits of armor are worn like a second skin by the user. Familiar to most people from the Iron Man movies, these have been a part of science fiction for far longer than people usually think. I use the term cybernetic because these suits are really just an extension of the of the soldier when worn. They augment the capabilities of the wearer with heightened strength, speed, protection, and senses.

If you’ll bear with me, I’ll now talk a little about the history of powered armor in books, at least as I was exposed to and inspired by them. I highly recommend all of the following books if you haven’t read them. If you have, read them again. You’ll get different things from them at different points in your life, trust me.

The Lensman Series by E. E. “Doc” Smith. While the series as a whole has armored space suits, it is actually not until the fourth book Grey Lensman (originally serialized in Astounding in 1939) that we see the first cybernetic powered armor in science fiction. While somewhat primitive by modern standards, the armor that Kinnison wears really is astounding. It heavily armored, no vulnerable faceplate, strength augmented, and carries energy shields and heavy weapons. It is direct ancestor of powered armor in fiction and pre-dates Iron Man (Tales of Suspense #39, 1963) by twenty-four years! The story has psionics, wormholes (hyperspatial tubes), and other dimensions.  It influenced Robert A. Heinlein and many others, including myself.

Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein. The APE suits in this book are described as somewhere between powered armor and a piloted suit. These are arguably the origin of mecha in science fiction as it predates the first appearance in Japanese anime by four years and had a profound impact on science fiction as a whole. The story follows a members of the mobile infantry through his life and several battles. The suits carry a frightening array of weapons, up to and including Davy Crocket scale tactical nuclear weapons. Planet fall is made through orbital drop pods (a first) and the suits have heads-up displays (another first), and jump jets. The story is nothing like the terrible movie and well-worth reading. It also has a few characters with low-level psionics. It is worth noting that the armor of the video game Fallout 4 is very close to the APE suits as described in Starship Troopers.

The Forever War (1974) by Joe Haldeman. This classic story is more about the effects of war on people and societies than about the war itself. That is not to say that it doesn’t have some very good combat sequences, it does. The powered armor of the novel is well thought out. In the novel it is not so much about armor, as strength amplification. The suits are armored plastic (plasteel), designed to be space suits that are more sturdy that the fabric ones today. The primary weapon is the laser finger, a built-in system that can be tuned to different levels of power and is used as both a weapon and a building tool. The story is unusual in that the ship are limited to light speed, but do use black holes (collapsars) to shortcut vast distances. Relativity is still a major problem, and the characters live thousands of objective years while only living through several subjective years. Drawing heavily on Haldeman’s experiences from the Vietnam War, The Forever War is an essential read for anyone who likes military science fiction for more than just war stories.

Armor (1984) by John Steakley. The author was asked if he had been inspired by Starship Troopers and responded “Borrowed hell, I outright stole it.” I don’t think that is a fair view of the novel. It owes much in the early part of the novel to Heinlein’s novel, but other then one scene, which I took as an homage, it is a brilliant war novel in its own right. The armor in the story is powerful, fusion-powered, with high strength augmentation. While the first half of the novel is non-stop action, it is more about the people fighting, than the war. It is a study on the effects of combat on people. The second half of the novel is really more about people who want to know about war stories. It is about how people try to live through other peoples memories. Granted, being science fiction, it is a little more literal than people asking inane questions like “how many people have you killed?” to soldiers. It also has a bit of the “be careful what you wish for” when asking questions. Also, I really love the original cover art.



Psionics in Science Fiction

Psionics, in my books, is the science of understanding how the brain interacts with the underlying quantum reality of the universe. Readers will sometimes confuse it with a belief in psychism, which is often just a load of nonsense.

Psionics in science fiction is most often represented by mental powers such as telepathy, empathy, and teleportation. Given what we know about how the mind interacts with quantum reality, it isn’t outside the realm of speculation to assume a better understanding in the future. I often have characters with psionic abilities in my stories. I find it an interesting literary device. It lets me play with additional information within a tight-focus viewpoint when writing.

For example: Commander Hrothgar Tebrey (from The Awakening Series) is a psionic commando. He has spent years training, honing his mind to be sensitive to the thoughts and emotions of others. I try to show useful and harmful sides to his abilities. Yes, he can read minds. He also is effected by the emotions of those around him, for better or worse.

As strange as it may seem, there is actually a slight scientific basis for the idea of psionics. It can be seen in experiments with the basic particle of light, the photon.

For most of the last century there were arguments about whether light was a particle or a wave. The math worked for both. Scientists on both sides of the argument conduced repeatable experiments that proved they were right. Words got heated. Then they conducted the experiments together and things really got strange.

You see, light is either a particle or a wave depending upon the desire of the experimenter.

Yes, you read that right. Somehow the minds of the scientists were able to alter the fundamental nature of a photon. It is a fun experiment, I’ve done it myself in the lab. What we don’t know, is how the mind is able to interact with the photon. We know that it has something to do with the mind changing the probability wave of the photon. To me, this is where psionics comes in.

So, on to influences in my work. Below is a by no means comprehensive list of psionics in science fiction. It is just a list of the books I felt influenced me the most when it came time to include psionics in my own stories.

The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

This collection is actually the three novels Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon. I read these first when I was ten, but have read them again most years since. I may have fallen in love with Lessa… The stories tell the tale of a colony of humans cut off from the rest of civilization and trying to survive on a planet that has some very unpleasant visitors sometimes… If you haven’t read these, I heartily suggest that you do, as they are excellently written, and a lot of fun. Psionics in the stories is low-key, mostly telepathy and empathy in a few rare individuals. The eponymous dragons of the stories are bioengineered from local wildlife and have the ability to teleport. There is also a thread (hah!)of archaeology in the stories as the descendants of the colonists attempt to rediscover their past. Most of that is in The White Dragon and All the Weyrs of Pern.

The Lensman Saga by E. E. “Doc” Smith

This series, which begins with Triplanetary, is simply epic in scale. It begins at the dawn of the galaxy and spans far into the future. Once you get to the third book, the timeline stops jumping forward by leaps and bounds and follows Kip Kinnison, a Lensman of the Galactic Patrol. Arguably space opera, these books nevertheless have many firsts. Atomic weapons (prior to WW2), huge space battles, psionics soldiers, the first powered armor I’ve ever come across in a story, and lots of aliens that aren’t really like humans at all, but are still treated as people. Robert A. Heinlein cited Smith as a direct influence, as have many authors since. You can see the influence of these books in many modern movies, such as Alien and Guardians of the Galaxy. Hell, Green Lantern is a (bad) comic book version of the story! You’ll see these stories come up again when I talk about powered armor in a future post. 🙂 I really want a Grey Lensman outfit for a convention…

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

This is an excellent story about teleportation and its impact on society. It is hard to talk about without giving away the plot, but imagine a world where people can teleport, and what that might mean… This is a great story with an unlikable character. It influenced Babylon 5 (Bester the psi cop?) and authors as far ranging as Roger Zelazny.


Falcon by Emma Bull

Falcon is about a lot of things, but at the core it is about a program to create pilots for starships where the pilot is also the engine. It has precognition, teleportation, empathy, and a few other abilities tastefully done. It is a great and under-read  novel. The story is told in two parts that seem unrelated at first. Keep reading. Like most stories by Emma Bull, the payoff is worth it.


The Foundation Series by Isaak Asimov

This series is a little dry by todays standards, but still a great piece of storytelling. It is the story of the long slow collapse of galactic civilization and the foundations that were established to try to bring it back after the fall. Truly epic in scale. This solid work of science fiction includes telepathy in the later books, and it is masterfully done.


Breed to Come by Andre Norton

This is a complex story (incidentally published in the year of my birth, 1972) of an earth where humans are extinct, and the ruins are populated by intelligent animals evolved from animals mutated by a plague that killed off humans. This theme is present in modern stories and movies. Some of the animals, those evolved from cats in particular, have slight psionic abilities. Besides being a great story, it has several themes that are very relevant today, such as worldwide ecological disaster. This book, along with The Beast Master were strong influences on my early stories. Also, I love this cover.

The Humanoid Touch by Jack Williamson

Psionics is a core part of this story, along with robots that smother life under kindness. Williamson took the idea of robots protecting humans from themselves to a scary place. This book is required reading at the MIT robotics lab. Really. In this story, psi phenomena is related to the rhodomagnetic triad, characterized by ruthenium, rhodium, and palladium. An energy spectra similar to the ferromagnetic triad, but having tachyonic properties. The story is cool, scary, and heartbreaking. It was important for me, because it was the first time I’d seen psionics treated like a science. The characters build devices that detect, effect, and enhance psionics as well.

There are hundreds of other great works I could write about, but these were strong influences. Thanks for reading!

Archaeology in Science Fiction, Part 2

Forbidden Planet

What can I say about this? If you haven’t seen this movie, what are you waiting for? It is the foundation that some of the best science fiction of the late 20th century was based on, from Star Trek to Babylon 5. How can you say no to Shakespeare’s Tempest in space?

The story follows a starship on a mission to Altair IV to discover the fate of a science vessel, the Bellerophon. Only an archaeologist and his daughter survived, and what they found is amazing. The effects are still great sixty years later, and the story and acting are fantastic.

Star Trek

Gene Roddenberry was definitely inspired by Forbidden Planet, and that is not a bad thing. Star Trek, from the original series through The Next Generation, has themes of ancient races and ruins on planets. “The City on the Edge of Forever” written by Harlan Ellison is one of the best of the series, and great science fiction also. Seriously, if you don’t like Star Trek, why are you reading my blog?

Babylon 5

Yes, I love Babylon 5 and Star Trek. I love Star Wars too, get over it. Babylon 5 owes a lot to Forbidden Planet (seeing a trend?) J. Michael Straczynski even wrote a planet very much like Altair IV into the story for his series.

The visuals are exactly the same as Forbidden Planet, as an homage. There are a lot of themes of archaeology in this series. It is also why I will not dig on Mars, and I will NOT go to Za’ha’dum!

Doctor Who has had archaeology as a theme many times of the last sixty-odd years. Of course, in recent years they had a archaeologist character, in the form of Dr. River Song.

What kind of archaeologist caries a gun?

Bad example.


Stargate: SG1

I’m going to make this about mainly about the series Stargate: SG1. Since the movie and series actually has an archaeologist, Dr. Daniel Jackson (who also carries a gun) as a primary character, I feel it is an important bit of science fiction for this list. There is a real effort throughout to keep the science in there. Ancient ruins and artifacts are key to the whole thing. The translation of ancient and alien languages an ongoing problem. I really love this show.

Right? Right!

Mass Effect: Andromeda

This is the only video game to make the list. It is a new beginning for the series and a lot of fun. The entire theme of this game revolves around archaeology. There is even a “Rogue Academic” character. How fun is that?

The game is a typical science fiction shooter in many ways, an action RPG as they are called nowadays. Much of the game is spent trying to figure out ancient alien technology and deal with alien races, not just with a gun either. There is a lot of science hidden in this game, and it looks amazing as you play.





Archaeology in Science Fiction, Part 1

Since I am an archaeologist and a science fiction author, I figured I’d write a little bit about archaeology in science fiction.

Sadly, it is rarely done correctly. For anyone who has ever dug in the real world (hush, Weaver!) it isn’t something that happens overnight. Planning can takes months or years. The dig itself (once you have permits, money, and a crew) can take weeks. It is possible to dig small sites in just a few days, I’ve done it, but it is hard work with grueling hours. I usually am at the site before the sun rises and leave in the afternoon, as it gets really hot in New Mexico in the summer.

Heat exhaustion is no fun at all.

Okay, so on to the bits about archaeology in science fiction! The list below has, in no particular order, a few books, movies, and television series with archaeology done right, or close enough for government work, wink.

The Remnant by some weirdo

I had to list this here, right? I tried to keep the science to a minimum in this book but also keep it correct. It has ancient technology, ancient cities, and ancient evils lurking in ruins. I think my favorite authors are showing a bit in this book.

The Remnant has archaeology as a central theme, along with a cast of scientists, some of whom are archaeologists.

At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

The novella follows an expedition to Antarctica where they discover an ancient city buried in the ice, and much more. Even though it is somewhat dated, this story is a fantastic read and a radical departure from some of Lovecraft’s other works.

The story is good, the science is pretty good for the time, and this is really the foundation for many later works by other authors. If you only read one book on this list (besides mine!) read this one.

The Beastmaster by Andre Norton

What can I say about Andre Norton? Read all of her books! Really. Okay, so some are better than others, but they are all interesting. It was hard to pick just one for this list, but The Beastmaster wins me over with ancient ruins, aliens, and psionic-linked animals (see why?).

It has a lot of anthropology and philosophy in it. Also, the last Navaho after the Earth is destroyed. It is an interesting and introspective book.

Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny

Kula rings in space! Also, ancient artifacts from long dead aliens. This is a fun book, and Fred Cassidy, the main character is very easy to like as he stumbles cluelessly through the problems in the plot trying not to die, or be turned inside out (as apposed to reversed).

Fred is an archaeologist (sort of) and a part of the book is spent on a dig in Australia. Don’t worry about the talking kangaroo and wombat…

The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt

I’m going to put this here despite it having some of the dumbest scientists ever to be in a novel. Really. *spoiler* they die and you’ll be glad by the end. The human race is improved by their passing. That aside, this book has some great archaeology and anthropology in it.

It is a really interesting take on the Fermi Paradox and worth reading. This is the first of the series, they get a little weird toward the end, but the first few are quite good.

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

This has a lot of themes, but archaeology is a main one. It is the interesting start of an interesting series that has some tropes you might have seen elsewhere, but given a new life with this book. The story begins with an archaeologist trying to discover why an alien race died.

I would say the book has its origins in Reynold’s science background, and also a bit of Warhammer 40k. Maybe not on the last, it just feels that way to me.

If you liked Interstellar, you should like this book.

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clark

If I was being mean, I would say this was the most original thing the man had ever written, but that would be unfair. I read this book first many years ago, I’ve read it a few times since. It is still interesting to me, and I still find new insights in it.

The story centers around the exploration of an alien derelict that enters the solar system. The team has only a short time to explore before it moves on. Very cool idea and story. Don’t bother with the later books.