Space travel across vast distances is a common element in science fiction worlds. It allows for the exploration of strange new planets and for a fictional narrative to span galaxies. However, space is big. Really, really big. And getting anywhere in space in a reasonable timeframe is a problem that worldbuilders have solved in a number of different ways. Below are the most commonly used modes of space travel in fictional worlds.
Primary Fictional Modes of Space Travel
- Faster-than-Light Engines
- Teleportation Gates
- Generation Ships
- Extradimensional Travel
Faster-than-light engines (FTL, warp speed, hyperspace travel, hyperdrive engagement) relies on a fictional propulsion system capable of allowing space vessels to undergo interstellar travel within a convenient timeframe. This propulsion system may generate stable wormholes, fold space-time, be able to enter a different type of space (such as subspace or hyperspace), create specialized energy fields that allow for faster travel through normal space, or accomplish other spectacular feats all in the service of going faster than the speed of light.
Faster-than-light travel may be instantaneous or may require some amount of time spent in transit. It may be able to connect any two points regardless of pathway, or may require a defined route that avoids planets, blackholes, and other celestial objects and anomalies. In worlds where the latter is true, there may be hyperlane routes. Faster-than-light travel may require fuel, generating a special type of energy field, or detailed plotting of the path to be taken.
When designing faster-than-light engines, worldbuilders may wish to keep the following equation in mind:
Engine Capability = Distance / Time in Transit
While this equation does not account for acceleration during flight, it does give worldbuilders a general sense of how fast their engines may be and once that is established, can be used to get a general sense of how far apart interesting locations may be. All of which helps avoid internal inconsistency.
Fictional propulsion systems capable of FTL travel are a worldbuilding opportunity to explore fictional corporations, early explorers, and genius scientists.
There may be alien species or space-faring creatures that can naturally undergo faster-than-light travel through some unique biological ability.
Teleportation gates are science fiction portals connecting two locations across vast distances. Often travel through a gate is instantaneous or near-instantaneous. Worldbuilders using these elements should consider how common such gates are. Gates could be large structures requiring immense resources to construct and maintain or could be ‘doors’ small enough to fit inside a home and connect rooms across the galaxy. Gates may be fixed and only connect two places or could be loose and be able to connect to a network of gates in many different locations. Teleportation gates may require a code to use. The positions of gates in space are likely critical during space warfare. Colony ships may carry a gate or the necessary components to build one.
Teleportation gates may transport a person to a different location or may generate a copy at the new location and destroy the original version.
In general, teleportation gates are created using some future technology while wormholes are naturally occurring space phenomena (though these distinctions are often blurred for example with man-made wormholes).
Wormholes are naturally occurring portals that connect two locations or time periods across vast distances. Worldbuilders using these elements should consider how common these wormholes are (there may be areas of space without wormholes and areas riddled with them). If rare, these sites are likely of great strategic importance and may be sites of great conflict. During peacetime they may be hubs of trade. Also consider how stable wormholes may be (collapsing wormholes could have deadly or unusual effects for those trapped inside). Future technologies or fantastic abilities may help to stabilize wormholes. If wormholes can be generated at will or by design they may function more similarly to teleportation gates.
Generation ships are large interstellar space vessels that house a stable population of humans or aliens enroute to a destination. These ships may be colony ships. Generation ships are elements found in fictional worlds where faster-than-light travel is not possible or has not yet been discovered. The central idea of a generation ship is to house a stable population, many of which will be born, live their lives, and die aboard the vessel, all while the ship traverses the vast distance between its’ origin and its’ destination. This trip may take centuries or more to complete.
A generation ship must be either self-sustaining or must contain materials and energy sources that will not break or deplete during the voyage.
Generation ships offer worldbuilders the chance to explore what may be a rigid society. To avoid interbreeding, mate selection of the crew may be pre-arranged. If specific jobs are required to maintain the ship, then career paths may be compulsory to ensure the needs of the ship are met. The former problem may be solved by genetic manipulation or a large enough base population while the second may be solved by a robotic workforce serving a largely leisure population.
Vessels with no faster-than-light capabilities may also use cryochambers to preserve a crew during the voyage. Generation ships allow workers to be constantly maintaining the ship which a crew in cryosleep does not allow for. Of course, there no reason generation ships and cryochambers would be mutually exclusive on a single vessel.
Cryochambers (suspended animation pods) allow for those that enter them to become cryogenically frozen or be placed in suspended animation. In this manner crew members remain in stasis as their vessel makes the long voyage between locations. Malfunctioning or sabotaged cryochambers are a frequent narrative element in worlds with cryochambers. Crewmembers frequently using cryochambers may have different ‘ages’ as their biological age and their true age may be drastically different. While biologically a crew member may be twenty years old, it’s possible they have spent thousands of years asleep. What dreams they may have had.
Extradimensional travel in fictional worlds uses the presence of parallel universes, pocket dimensions, or alternate realities to shorten the length of time a vessel needs to move from one location to another. By temporarily entering another dimension and moving through it, the distance a ship moves through space or time has been magnified once it returns to its’ original dimension. Worldbuilders using extradimensional travel should consider exactly what dimensions are being traveled through. While it may simply be another plane of space of no consequence, it may also be a realm of unimaginable horror, unimaginable possibilities, or pure energy. Things, creatures, or strange beings may be encountered here.