When I was a student of physics I remember having to answer a question about what faster-than-light travel would look like, from the windows of a spaceship. I think it was in Mathematical Methods and Classical Field Theory[1], though it may have been Relativistic Field Theory[7], and I vaguely recall the answer involved stars from behind the spaceship (that you couldn’t see from the windscreen) slowly moving into the front view; as the ship got further from the lightspeed limit, more of these stars would come into the front and if you got fast enough you would eventually see all the stars visible to the eye in a kind of field in front of you, surrounded by darkness (or something). This, of course, would be when the gibbering madness set in, and one of your crew decided to torch the ship in honour of an unnamed god[9]. Note that this is very different to the Star Wars image, where all the stars blur. In fact, I think our solutions explicitly stated that at faster than the speed of light, stars can’t  blur (I can’t remember why).

It’s a mark of how far we had come by the time we got to MM&CFT (3rd year, I seem to recall) to compare that question and its solution to the question we got in first year Newtonian Mechanics: do you get less wet if you run through rain?

Currently I’m reading China Mieville’s Embassytown, and he’s writing about hyperspace quite a bit – he calls it the immer – which got me to thinking about different visions of hyperspace and how it can be represented in science fiction. It’s a topic of enduring interest to sci-fi authors, and there’s a lot of different ways of representing it. I can only remember four now, but here goes:

  • Mieville’s strange ocean: The immer is a kind of ocean of darkness and chaos, with its own predators that may or may not be life-forms, and strange beings that sometimes hitch into the realm of the living. There are tides, currents, and deeps, and it is navigated by humans who learn to work their way through these precarious shoals. It also makes humans sick to be in it, and it is conceived as running through or between the material of the universe. The universe we are in is the third universe, with two previous ones having grown and then collapsed; but the immer was there through all of them. This immer is dark and dangerous, rich in its own life and history.
  • Iain M. Banks’s strange geometry: in contrast, Banks’s Culture novels have a representation of hyperspace as a barren, mathematical substrate underlying physical reality; ships travel at hyperspeed through this substrate, and as far as I can remember there are no dangers or risks to them, except when they emerge too close to a gravitational source, which warps the substrate and increases the risk that the ship will be torn apart by entering or leaving the substrate. While Mieville’s hyperspace speaks of a mysterious and wild universe that humans explore at their peril, Banks’s vision speaks of a universe subjugated to human will, reduced to a toll-road with a few tricky interchanges. These different visions are very suited to the cultural backdrops of the novel, I think – an interesting pairing of the cosmological and the sociological.
  • Stephen Baxter’s Bubble: In Ark (the sequel to Flood) we get a description of an early attempt at inerstellar FTL flight. This time it’s a fragile bubble surrounding a spaceship, held together with huge amounts of energy, which draws the ship forward into a kind of gap in the space-time continuum. Anything touching the bubble from the inside is instantly torn apart, and once the bubble is set on its path it can’t be diverted or its direction changed. It’s very “realistic” sci-fi (he even gives a reference) and the whole story, both inside the Ark and in the science guiding its use, is based primarily around the constraints the science poses on action. The opposite of the Culture in every way.
  • Gateway Catapults: The staple of shows like Babylon 5, these present us with hyperspace as a kind of insoluble problem. Instead of navigating it, you get chucked through it by a massive catapult. Some ships (usually military) can open their own gateways into the swirling mystery of hyperspace, but others just hurl themselves at the gate and hope for the best. This is a vision of high science fiction where one of the fundamental mechanisms of the social order is actually quite primitive. We also see this in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, where the decision to close the gates destroys whole societies – and is driven by the realization that the human “masters” of the gates never understood them or their real purpose at all.

Hyperspace in its many forms seems like it plays a more important role in the universes of its setting than mere substance. It’s not just a scientific backdrop or a constraint on action; it takes a form which often reinforces or complements the style and cultural background of the novel. It’s a very good example of how the best sci-fi is not about the science at all, but about what it can be used to tell us about ourselves.

fn1:literally the most evil subject you can take. This subject ate Electromagnetism and Advanced Quantum Mechanics[2] for breakfast and shat them out as a tensor problem you couldn’t solve by graduation, then laughed at your poor mortal brain and ate your soul for lunch. It was an evil subject, worth a paltry 2 credit points (out of 24 in my year), but which consisted of 6 assignments and an exam, and each assignment took – this is not an exaggeration – at least 50 pages of scrap paper, and at least 12 hours of our time. My friends and I had a shift system going in Lab (which, by comparison, was 9 hours a week and worth 8 credit points). One of us would work on the experiment while the other three used up copious amounts of paper trying to solve impossible problems in gravitational dipoles[3]. Then after lab we would charge off to our tutor’s room and he would infuriatingly refuse to give us the answers[4], even though it meant we would pester him again. Finally we would get a breakthrough, and off we would go to reduce the romantic image of moonlight and the gentle slap of waves on the beach to a series of Bessel Functions[5].

fn2: for which I got 94%, yay![6]

fn3: seriously, who knew the tides were soooo fucking complex?

fn4: what can I say, we weren’t really paying fees at this university, we got in on merit and we survived by luck, effort and the regular application of sleepless nights and cask wine to every problem. No one thought we had any right to pass anything, and everybody forced us to study.

fn5: Which, also, can I say, you guys suck.

fn6: Which reminds me that the pure maths subject Lie Algebras – which apparently, people who understand it tell me, has some relationship to Advanced Quantum Mechanics – may have been harder than CFT&MM; but that subject was taught by a Mind Flayer, so I’m not sure if my memory of it is correct

fn7: I’m pretty sure we had a subject called this. It had a lot of Tensor equations in it, and when me and my buddies arrived in our Honours Year[8] there was an equation pinned to the door of our room (from the previous poor bastard to study there) which consisted entirely of Tensor expressions, and took up a whole page of A4 paper (in a not-very-large font). We all stood looking at it, and said “fuck. What have we done?”

fn8: Honours is an Australian idea, I think: because Australians are smarter than you lot, we do our undergraduate degree in three years, then our masters degree (and thesis) is compressed into one year with two extra subjects and called “honours” even though there’s nothing honourable about brutalizing young people in this way. In addition to having the kind of discipline and brains and educational background required to survive this kind of nasty, Australia also has one of the best rugby teams in the world. Dwell on that, Northern Hemisphere Losers!

fn9: This part wasn’t in the official solutions, but I should think it’s pretty obvious.

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