I wasn't going to put this section in, but I have to. I wanted to keep the website as free from handwavium as possible. However, while Faster-Than-Light travel is about as handwavium as you can get, it is unfortunately the sine qua non of interstellar space opera. Space opera with no StarDrive is like chocolate cake without the chocolate. FTL is sometimes called "superluminal". In vintage SF, the propulsion was commonly termed "hyperdrive", since the starships evaded Einstein by entering a dimension called "hyperspace" where there was a higher speed limit. Star Trek has its "warp drive" that reduces the distance to be traveled by warping space. The RPG Traveller has its "jump" drive that teleports the ship from point A to point B. In his "Lucky Starr" novels, Isaac Asimov uses the term "Hyperatomic spaceships", presumably since the spacecraft had both a faster-than-light Hyperspace engine and a more conventional atomic engine. Go read the "Faster Than Light" entry in Wikipedia.
Fred Kiesche says that a faster than light starship should have a license plate that reads "ME = MC2"
The important point is to keep the fracture under control. Hack writers will assume that "if we have to break a few laws of physics for FTL, why not just throw all the laws out the window?" Don't give in. Omitting physics will degrade your novel to a pathetic lack of accuracy worse than an average Space Ghost cartoon.
What to do? Keep all the physics you can. And when you break the laws for your FTL drive, at least establish some limitations and rules. Then stick to them! Internal self-consistency is better than nothing.
The general rule is what physicists call the correspondence principle or the Classical limit. This states that any new theory must give the same answers as the old theory where the old theory has been confirmed by experiment. Newton's laws and Einstein's Relativity give the same answers in ordinary conditions, they only give different answers in extreme conditions such as near the speed of light, refining the accuracy of the GPS system, or calculating the orbit of Mercury (none of which Newton could confirm by experiment).
The point is: you, as a science fiction author inventing a FTL drive, have to explain why current scientific theory didn't discover FTL travel decades ago. Harry Turtledove turned the problem on its head and turned the explaination into the plot of the short story.
As a general rule, a given science fiction novel has one faster than light method. Two notable exceptions are The Halcyon Drift by Brian Stableford and Startide Rising by David Brin. Both of those novels have half a dozen stardrives used by various races and factions, each with different capabilities and limitations.
There are two main dodges. You may remember from Physics 101 that travel time = distance / rate of travel. For example, if you have to travel 100 miles, and you maintain a speed of 50 miles per hour in your automobile, the travel time will be two hours. The laws of physics forbids any rate of travel faster than the speed of light. Since the distances between stars are so astronomically huge, this means the travel time will be measured in decades or centuries. This is unacceptable in a fast-paced science fiction novel.
Dodge #1 is to handwave some technobabble way of increasing the starship's rate of travel to faster than light. From the equation you can see this will reduce the travel time. In Geoffrey Landis' Canonical List of StarDrives, this includes Continuous Drives and Modifying the Universe: Modify the speed of light.
Dodge #2 is to handwave some technobabble way of reducing the distance to the starship's destination. From the equation this also reduces the travel time. This includes stardrives that warp or fold space. Taken to extremes, the distance can be reduced to zero along with the travel time. These are "jump" or teleportation drives where the ship vanishes at point A and instantly appears at point B. In the Landis list, this includes Discontinuous Drives and Modifying the Universe: Modify distance in space. Sometimes a jump drive is a machine inside a starship, sometimes it is an external installation called a "jumpgate" or "stargate".
Why do these dodges violate the laws of physics? Well, that is complicated, but there are two main problems: the Light-speed barrier and Causality. This is explained with some depth at Jason Hinson's authoritative "Relativity and FTL" website, so I'm just going to give a short summary. Refer to Hinson for details.
It is unclear if reducing the distance is allowed or not, and nobody is sure how to warp space on a commercial level. Suggestions generally involve gravity fields of intensities only found around black holes and/or wormholes (aka Einstein-Rosen bridge). Warping the fabric of space would seem to require astronomical amounts of energy, and heaven help any solar systems that got wadded up in the warp.
That old spoil-sport Einstein ruined FTL travel when he created his theory of General and Special Relativity.
Now according to common sense (and as codified by Isaac Newton), velocities will add to each other. If you are travelling at twenty kilometers per hour due north, and you add five kilometers per hour northward to your velocity, you should now be travelling at twenty-five kilometers per hour due north. Everybody (including Newton) knows that 20 + 5 = 25.
Unfortunately for us, Einstein is not everybody. In Special Relativity, no matter how fast you are moving, a beam of light appears to be moving at exactly the speed of light (the technical term is The Principle of Invariant Light Speed). One of the unobvious consequences is that velocities do NOT add. At least not when one gets close to the speed of light. Only a percentage of the new velocity is actually added.
What percentage? Well, the faster you go, the lower the percentage. And at the speed of light, the percentage is zero. So in theory, once you are at light speed, no matter how much velocity you try to add, the amount actually added is zero. Which means you can never exceed lightspeed.
Almost every single FTL drive you read about in science fiction is based on some clever way to avoid the light speed barrier.
However, very few SF novels deal with the second problem. The aphorism at rec.arts.sf.written goes "Causality, Relativity, FTL travel: chose any two."
Your average physicist holds Relativity quite strongly. It has been tested again and again with an accuracy of many decimal places. They hold onto Causality even tighter. Without Causality the entire structure of physics crumbles. Causes must preceed effects, or it becomes impossible to make predictions. If it is impossible to make predictions, it would be best to give up physics for a more profitable line of work.
Therefore, they chose to jettison FTL travel.
Please note that as far as Causality is concerned, FTL communication is every bit as bad as FTL travel.
Why only two? Relativity proves that FTL travel is identical to Time travel (to help your research, the technical term for time travel is "Closed timelike curve"). Time travel makes Causality impossible, since it can be used to create paradoxes. So if you have Relativity and FTL, Causality is impossible. If you do not have Relativity, FTL is not Time travel, so you can have Causality. Or more mundanely you can have Relativity and Causality, but no FTL/Time travel (the latter is the opinion of physicist Stephen Hawking, he calls it the chronology protection conjecture).
Clever readers will have already spotted a possible loop-hole. What if there was some law of physics that prevented Time travel from creating paradoxes?
The classic Time-travel paradox is the so-called "Grandfather paradox" (though it actually should be called the "Grandmother paradox"). Boris Badenov sneaks into Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine (actually the WABAC machine, but who cares?) and travels back in time to when Boris' grandfather was a baby. Boris then gives his infant grandfather a lit stick of dynamite then cackles evilly as his grandfather is blown to bits. Bah-hah-hah!
But wait! Boris' grandfather is now smithereens, he'll never grow up, beget Boris' father, who will beget Boris. In other words, Boris will never exist.
But if Boris never exists, then he will never travel back in time to assassinate his grandfather. In which case grandpop will beget Poppa Boris, who will beget Boris. Start back at the beginning and repeat.
Does Boris' grandfather get blown up? Both Yes and No! A paradox.
Hinson shows there are four ways of enforcing a "no-paradox" rule for time travel. Parallel Universes, Consistency Protection, Restricted Space-Time Areas, and Special Frames. In some ways Special Frames is the best, though it directly contradicts part of Relativity (the first postulate of special relativity is that there are no special frames, "no privileged inertial frames of reference"). Oh well. For details, you'd best read the Hinson article.
The latter three are examples of the Novikov self-consistency principle.
In some late-breaking news, physicists Daniel Greenberger and Karl Svozil have shown that the laws of quantum mechanics enforces Consistency Protection. You can read their paper here, but it makes my brain hurt. Translated into English, they maintain that time travellers going back into the past cannot alter the past (i.e., the past is deterministic). This is because quantum objects can act sometimes as a wave. When they go back in time, the various probabilities interfere destructively, thus preventing anything from happening differently from that which has already taken place.
As a side note, those interested in the various ways time-travel seems to work in SF novel should run to the Guide To SF CHRONOPHYSICS.
Why have you not read about this in any science fiction novel?
It is absent from some because the authors do not know enough relativity theory to spot the FTL equals Time Travel implication.
It is absent from the rest because of those who do know enough relativity, practically no author (who just wants a quick way to get their hero from star to star) wants to deal with the huge squirming can of worms opened by time travel.
This is why the time travel connection is the dirty little secret of science fictional FTL travel.
Since FTL drives are ruled more or less impossible by current science, you have to invent your own. In such cases, the best way to start is to focus on effects instead of causes. Many novice SF novelists and game designers make the mistake of inventing a cause first and may not even try designing the effects.
An example of an effect is "The star drive can move the ship at ten light-years per hour". An example of a cause is "The Mason Field is generated by the amplification of the interaction of the Alpha and Omega sub-particles contained in the Xanthe crystal when bombarded by pseudo electron valients in a charged hydrogen field."
Effects help you avoid unintended consequences, and define the implications of your drive. Causes are fluffy technobabble explanations that a good SF story might avoid all together. As Gene Roddenberry noted, in a police TV show a policeman does not explain to the viewers how the primer of the bullet ignites the main charge propelling the lead slug down the barrel every time he shoots his handgun. Neither should Captain Kirk explain the operating principles of his phaser weapon, the fact that it is some species of sidearm is enough for the viewers.
Causes can also get you into trouble if your explanation implies new effects that you did not intend. They also give more weak points that a scientifically minded reader can use to poke holes in your theory.
The important things are the effects. Here are a few examples: How big a ship can be moved? How much faster than light is the ship? Does it require large intricate starships, or can you just mount it in a submarine? Does it require huge amounts of energy? Does it require the ship to be outside any planetary or solar gravity wells? Can the ship only enter FTL flight at special locations ? ("jump points") Does each FTL "jump" require days of tedious mathematical calculations? Can a ship in FTL flight be detected by another ship also in FTL flight? Can a ship in FTL flight be detected by another ship not in FTL flight? Does FTL flight make the crew vomit, hallucinate, have epileptic fits? Is the supply of FTL drive units limited due to a tight monopoly on their manufacture, or due to the fact that they can no longer be manufactured at all? Does it require rare and hard to get materials? (the Traveller RPG required Lanthanum, H. Beam Pipers' ships required Gadolinium. Both of these are rare earth elements, emphasis on the "rare")
These are just off the top of my head, you can find more by reading SF novels, or from your imagination.
The effects have implications in the SF universe you are creating:
If the only ships that can be moved are ones smaller than a Greyhound Bus, one implication is that you will not have titanic ships the size of Star Wars Imperial Star Destroyers, much less any Death Stars.
If your ship is twice as fast as the speed of light, it can go 100 light years in a mere 50 years. Therefore most of the action in your universe will take place close to Sol, if the average interstellar journey is two years. On the other hand if your ship is 36,500,000 times as fast as the speed of light, your ship can cross the Galaxy the long way in about one single day. The action in this universe will therefore be galactic in scope.
If there are only large intricate starships, they will be few in number and crewed by the cream of the crop. If any fool can build an FTL drive from plans downloaded from the internet and convert a septic tank into a starship, there will be zillions of starships crewed by a wide range of eccentric people.
If ships require huge amounts of energy for their FTL drives, you have to decide upon the source of said energy. Antimatter fuel implies antimatter factories or antimatter "mining." There is also the unintended consequences of a given starship containing enough energy to, say, vaporize Greenland. The further implication is that starship captains will be on a very short leash (John's Law). If on the other hand a starship can run on one AAA battery, you start having problems with FTL missiles the size of bullets.
Ships that can only enter/exit FTL flight at special locations make those locations into military choke points. Ships that can exit FTL flight anywhere coupled with ships that cannot be detected while FTL will open the possibility to genocidal interstellar wars that last all of five minutes.
In John Maddox Roberts novels Space Angel and Spacer: Window of the Mind, the "Whoopee Drive" makes the crew suffer projectile vomiting, violent diarrhea, and hallucinations. Before each jump they have to attach a barf bag over their mouth, strap themselves on to a toilet, and try to ignore the paisley Peter Max metal termites eating the hull. Naturally this made troop ships a nightmare. In Gordon Dickson's The Genetic General, closely spaced FTL jumps made without a recovery period in between would rapidly incapacitate the crew.
In David Lynch's movie adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel DUNE, mutated Guild Steersmen move starships between stars with their psychic abilities. Thus the spacing guild has a monopoly on starships. In John Brunnner's Interstellar Empire and Frederik Pohl's Heechee novels (Gateway et al) the starships are artifacts from some long lost alien race, humans can fly them but cannot construct them. In SPI's game Freedom in the Galaxy all stardrives are manufactured by the Empire, and contain thermonuclear self-destruct devices to discourage hackers from attempting to engage in reverse-engineering.
If you want to do the job right, work backwards. Decide what type of universe you want for your book, figure out what implications it must have, then figure what constraints on the FTL will create the desired implications. Finally add a bit of colorful technobabble to describe the cause.
If you want to explore uncharted terrain, work forwards. Create a few unusual constraints, spend some time deducing some implications from the constraints, and see what sort of SF universe flows from the implications. You might stumble over an interesting universe for your next novel and/or game.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle took the bull by the horns. Before they wrote their award-winning classic The Mote in God's Eye, they went to physicist Dan Alderson. Niven and Pournelle gave Alderson a list of things they wanted the proposed FTL to allow, and things to forbid. Dr. Alderson then custom designed a mostly plausible FTL drive to spec, but with additional limits. Niven and Pournelle kept within those limits, and the novel was improved as a consequence.
The Alderson Drive or "jump point" drive has been used in many SF starship combat games, for the same reason Niven and Pournelle used it: unlike most other FTL, it allows the possibility of interstellar battles. Most other FTL is a "fly anywhere" kind of propulsion, which generally does not allow battles to occur except by mutual consent. Often a planet cannot even detect an enemy invasion fleet until it suddenly pops out of hyperspace. Interstellar wars only last long enough for your hyperspace bombers to fly to the enemy's planets, then a brief emergence to spit out a hellburner, a planet-wrecker nuclear bomb, a planet-sterilizing torch warhead, a planet-cracker antimatter warhead, or a planet-buster neutronium-antimatter warhead. Then they fly home, only to discover that the enemy's bombers were on a similar mission. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entry "SLAG"
Please note that there is a second FTL situation that can allow interstellar combat. Ships travel faster-than-light taking some time to travel the distance (i.e, travel is NOT instantaneous). But there must also exists some kind of faster-than-light radar that can detect the invading ships far enough in advance that the defenders have time to do something about it. Something like wet navy combat in the Pacific ocean in the period after the time the navy was equipped with radar, but before the advent of orbital spy satellites that can see every ship on the ocean. This is more or less the situation in the Star Trek TV show(s).
(As a side note, SF Author Colin Kapp often had ships armed with "Diffract Meson" warheads, presumably based on an as-yet undiscovered scientific principle. I always thought that there was some room for a warhead type in between the 10% efficient thermonuclear warhead and the 100% efficient antimatter warhead. Say Diffract Meson warheads are 50% efficient.)
With jump points, you have choke points that can be defended. Battles occur because the enemy has no choice but to invade though the jump point. Though it does become difficult and fuel intensive for the defenders, since Alderson points do not orbit their primary star, while planets, orbital fortresses, anti-ship mines and blockading tasks forces have to. The defending forces must constantly be thrusting for the entire tour of duty just to maintain their position. In The Gripping Hand, sequel to The Mote in God's Eye, there is some mention of a constant stream of tanker ships travelling between the defending forces and the gas giant fuel sources. And there are only blockading spacecraft, orbital fortresses and mines are impractical.
Well, maybe not totally impractical. For mines a possibility is Dr. Robert Forward's statite concept. This uses a carefully angled solar sail to generate the constant thrust required to keep the mine stationary. I haven't done the math, but my gut feeling is that if the jump point is too far from the primary star the solar flux will be so low that even for low mass miles the sails will have to be huge. However, I am quite proud of making the jump point/statite connection, since this is actually an original idea by me (unlike almost all of the rest of this website).
While I haven't done the math on statites, David Harris did! Here is his analysis:
ClaysGhost's points out that the magnitude of the constant thrust problem depends upon how far the jump points are from the primary star.
This will make stealth difficult for a minefield. Even such low thrust from a rocket will be readily detectable, and a statite sail will be large enough to be hard to hide.
A very common limit is that the FTL drive can only be entered if the ship is "not too deep in a gravity well", that is, farther than a certain distance from either a planet or the primary star. Again keep in mind that if ships can only enter or leave FTL at about Pluto's orbit, the ships will either require unreasonably powerful normal-space rocket drives that run afoul of Jon's Law, or the ships will take years to travel between Earth and the FTL take-off point.
Another FTL system that was carefully crafted in order to force a specific situation was the one created by Redmond Simonsen for the wargame StarForce: Alpha Centauri (keep in mind this is a paper-and cardboard tabletop game, not a computer game). In the game, starships or "TeleShips" are jumped or "shifted" instantaneously from one location to another several light-years away by teams of women with psionic powers. Shifting cannot be done by a machine, it has to be done by a person. The supply of psionic or "telesthetic" women is limited. There is no way to genetically engineer them, they naturally occur at the rate of one First Order Telesthetic per million females. Energy is cheap, any ore or element can be synthesized, any material good can be manufactured. So the only valuable interstellar commodity are telesthetic women.
This has several implications. In interstellar warfare, there are no carpet bombings of planetary populations with mass destruction weapons. This would destroy the only valuable item the planet has: a population that can produce more telesthetic women. Obviously, there are no restrictions placed on population growth, and large families are encouraged by the planetary governments.
Since the population of telesthetics is so limited, they sort of know each other. They are also all members of the same Telesthetics Guild. Therefore, in ship-to-ship combat, weapons are not designed to kill.
Instead, the anti-ship weapon is sort of a telepathic command to the enemy teleship to make an uncontrolled interstellar shift into a random location. Such a shift can be up to five times the distance of a safe shift, so a teleship will take a while to crawl back to the battle. And in any event, a teleship that can jump between the stars is not going to have any difficulty avoiding something as sluggish as a laser beam.
Against planetary populations, teams of telesthetics can create the so-called Heissen Effect. This sedates the inhabitants, sending them to sleep. The ships then land squads of StarSoldiers in gravity sleds to take control. The inhabitants later wake up with migraine headaches.
Teleships have a maximum safe shift limit of five light years. If a friendly teleship does nothing but sit stationary and telesthetically "enhance" its location, another friendly can do a safe shift to that enhanced location from up to ten light years.
Attempting to shift a distance greater than the safe limit is called "over-shifting." There is a small chance that the shift will go as planned. There is a greater chance that the shift will malfunction. A bad shift will be either a "mirror shift" where the teleship moves in the exact opposite vector, or a "randomization" where the teleship appears in a random location within twenty light-years of Sol.
A "Star Gate" is a nine kilometer ring of chanplastic, crammed with telesthetics intimately familiar with the fabric of local space. A teleship starting at a star gate and shifting to an unenhanced location has a safe range of ten light-years, fifteen light-years to an enhanced location. Shifting from one star gate to another has a safe range of twenty light-years.
Since telesthetics are at a premium, there are no warships or orbital fortresses. Instead, merchant ships and star gates are modified for warfare.
You see the basic effect that flows from the FTL drive is that wars are relatively bloodless. The secondary effect is that pressures were created that caused wars. The latter effect is desirable, since a wargame simulation requires wars to simulate.
We must not forget the masterful selection of FTL limitations which created the fascinating tactical situation in the wargame Web and Starship (keep in mind this is a paper-and cardboard tabletop game, not a computer game). The game designer (the legendary Greg Costikyan) wanted to create the world's first balanced three-player game. Up until now, all three player games in practice tend to devolve into two players ganging up on the third player (i.e., they are unbalanced). Mr. Costikyan wanted to design a game that avoided this. The mechanism depended upon the constraints of the FTL system.
The situation starts with two alien races: the Gwynhyfarr (hereafter referred to as "Birds") and the Pereen (hereafter referred to as "Moles"). Each has a totally different type of FTL transport system. And, as will become an important point later, neither can use or even comprehend the others FTL system.
The Birds have FTL starships that can travel anywhere in the universe at will. No special launch or landing sites are required. The trouble is that the starships are expensive to build (i.e., there are not many of them), and each has a limited cargo capacity.
The Moles have FTL teleportation devices. A teleporter unit must be present both at the start and at the destination. Teleportation is instantaneous. Unfortunately in order to teleport to a new planet, a teleporter unit must by shipped to the planet by a Slower-than-light robot ship. This of course takes years. The advantage of teleporter units is that they have huge cargo capacities. The Moles can move entire armies through a teleporter in a matter of hours.
When the Bird Empire and the Mole Empire expanded to the point where their borders contacted each other, war was inevitable, but futile. Both empires wanted to destroy the other and take over the enemy's habitable planets. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of their respective FTL, war was impossible.
Say the Birds want to invade a Mole planet. The Bird starships can go anywhere, so the Birds load up their limited number of starships with the few numbers of solders each ship can carry, and invade the Mole planet. Whereupon the Moles use their teleporters to instantly transport in the planetary armies of all the other Mole planets, and the combined Mole armies turn the pathetically small Bird invasion force into a smoking crater.
Say the Moles want to invade a Bird planet. The Moles load a teleport unit into a STL robot ship, aim it at the Bird planet to invade, and wait a few years for it to arrive. Years later, as it approaches the Bird planet, it is noticed by Bird space patrols, who promptly shoot it to pieces.
Until one fine day both the Birds and the Moles notice radio waves being emitted by a small planet set right in between the two empires. A planet called Earth.
Naturally both empires want to conquer Earth. It is in a very strategic position and it has an industrial base that can produce war material once the population has been enslaved. And since Earth has no empire (or even FTL capability of any kind), it should be an easy conquest.
However, Earth has a few things in its favor. For one, it knows that one empire cannot attempt to conquer it without the other empire trying to prevent it. Earth has limited diplomatic contact with both empires, so it can make deals and otherwise try to keep the two empires off balance. And in the long term, Earth has a wild card. Unlike the two empires, Earth can comprehend and eventually produce both types of FTL system. In fact, they can eventually produce the game-changing "Web Starship". This is a Bird style starship which ferries a Mole style teleport unit to strategic locations.
So as you can see, careful selection of the limits on ones FTL drive can force the desired situation to come to pass.
There are a few semi-plausible FTL methods out there. One of the most famous is Dr. Miguel Alcubierre "Warp Drive", along with Chris Van Den Broeck's improvement. Dr. Alcubierre specifically set out to make a warp drive similar to the one in Star Trek, but obeying the laws of physics. The ship is enclosed in a highly distorted bubble of spacetime. The ship technically is not moving faster than light, the warp bubble is and the ship is carried along for the ride. Problems include: it requires more energy than is contained in the entire universe to set it up, the ship inside cannot see where it is going, the ship inside cannot release the warp bubble and is thus permanently trapped without outside help, quantum mechanics says the bubble will rapidly fill up with deadly Hawking radiation and will otherwise be very unstable, and when the bubble is stopped all the interstellar particles swept up will be emitted as a planet-destroying burst of gamma-rays and high energy particles in the direction of travel.
There are others at Dr. John Cramer's Alternate View archives, Edward Halerewicz, Jr.'s Warp Physics site, Marcelo B. Ribeiro's Warp Drive Theory site, Lawrence H. Ford and Thomas A. Roman's Scientific American article Negative Energy, Wormholes and Warp Drive, David Waite's Modern Relativity site (if you can understand the math), and NASA's Warp Drive When?
More on the fringe is Burkhard Heim and his theory of everything. If the theory describes reality, it could give a form of FTL travel with an artifical gravity propulsion system at no extra charge. You can read a PDF file of the research paper here and the expanded version here.
If you want to roll your own, you might find the following useful. Noted physicist and Hugo & Nebula award-winning SF author Geoffrey A. Landis has created a catalog of every kind of StarDrive that has ever existed in science fiction. It appears here with Dr. Landis' permission.
The EMF (Erik Max Francis) classification