I know, you can go the Star Wars/Star Trek "hand wave" route and make it seem like everything is a few minutes or hours away, but...

How do I implement a scenario where space travel is as common and casual as modern travel methods but won't distract me with its often bendy or non-existent rule-set? This type of writing inevitably reveals itself in fiction as writers put themselves and their readers through enough mental acrobatics to convince all of the writing device's rationality.

In other words, I want to be able to write about spacecraft in space as authors in the golden age of sailing would write on sea ships on the sea. Any of the best narratives of an adventure at sea does not (I hope) drop an esoteric description on the workings of why a sailboat should be able to sail.

Conditions: 1) Let's leave time travel alone. 2) Let's leave "sciencey-magic" alone if we can. Of course, that may be one of the only or best options, but that's what I'm here to inquire about. 3) If there's a way to approach this without the well established cryosleep and relativity writing devices, that would be nice, although I'm open to thoughts on these things and anything else.

If I could be any more clear or specific as to what I'm looking for, feel free to let me know.

Thanks, BBB

  • Is your question about what SF-nal devices are commonly used to explain space travel? Or is it how to explain the device you've chosen within the story, without it being a lengthy and obvious infodump?
    – Standback
    Nov 25, 2014 at 20:33
  • BTW, Orson Scott Card wrote several excellent pages about this topic in "How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy": books.google.co.il/… (happily available via Google Books preview).
    – Standback
    Nov 25, 2014 at 20:37
  • Yes, I've read some of Card's writing and he does handle space travel well. And yes, knowing how to not lose the reader by turning into anything close to a textbook (anyone who has read 20,000 Leagues knows this feeling) would be a good thing to include in an answer. Nov 25, 2014 at 23:57
  • Have you read any Alastair Reynolds, @blackboxbeing?
    – CLockeWork
    Nov 28, 2014 at 9:03
  • Not yet... According to a quick quick-search, he manages to combine good ol' fun space opera with hard(er) science. I'll have to look into it sometime. Dec 3, 2014 at 2:06

5 Answers 5


There is one fault with the previous answers by Dale Emery and Henry Taylor, and that is that the basic principles of sailing and combustion engines are a part of every school kid's education. And if something new is invented, as for example solar cells, it is extensively described and explained in popular media from newspapers to television.

Any educated person today understands that the air molecules press against the surface of the sails, and they also know that in a car some kind of fuel is burned and, burning, expands, thus somehow making parts in the engine move.

So if we lived in a future where space travel was common, we would all have learned the basics in physics at school, and even if we had not completely understood the finer details or forgotten much of it as adults, we would still always know and understand the very basic principles of space travel.

Therefore, if you want to write space travel SF, you have to be very careful to not make it appear like you are skirting around what would be a normal part of the traveller's experience, observations, and communication.

A novel taking place on an air plane might not mention any aspects of its propulsion system, but the propulsion system dictates the airport infrastructure (runway, not landing pad), the behavior of the vessel (circle above the air port and providing a view), the price of travelling (who can or cannot travel by plane and how often), and so on, so whatever you write in relation to space travel is in fact informed by your assumptions about the drive technology.

What I dislike and would not personally do is invent "hollow" names that have no concept to fill it. For example, I would not let my passengers "marvel at the ship's hyperspace-flux-capacitor", because invariably the lack of meaning will become apparent. The reader will not know what a capacitator does or what flux is, and the empty words will not make the reader feel the same involvement and satisfaction as if he read about sails flapping in the wind.

What I would do is work out a basic concept. It does not have to be technically feasible, because I'm not writing hard SF, but SF adventure. From this core concept I would develop some guiding principles (travel times, cost, availability, density, port placement, etc.) and with these guiding principles adapt current transportation (like air or ground travel) to my future.

Of course these guiding principles are not necessary, but because they limit what is possible in my fictional world, they will make the events that take place there more palpable and believable. And that is what writing is about. If the world and the events appear random, if everything is possible, then the story becomes boring and irrelevant. Obstacles and solutions have to be plausible and comprehensible to drive a story on, and travel is both an obstacle and a solution in a story, not just a backdrop whose exact form does not matter.

Despite these objections, I find the basic idea behind the other answers to be excellent (and have upvoted them both). You don't have to be a physicist to believably write about driving a car, and in fact the details of how fuel burns would distract from the story and bore the reader. Just make sure that if you want to let your protagonist rob the next gas station, the cars of your world actually burn fuel – and are not driven by inexhaustible solar power.

  • 2
    I love the idea of the writer having a working theory of how the propulsion works, how it plays into the larger systems of society and economy, and what its limits are. These facts never need to make it into the actual story, but they should be known by the writer so that they can be kept consistent across many long pages. What's reference to "sails flapping in the wind" also reminded me of something a writing teacher taught me long ago... Everything should have a presence, a texture, some aspect of itself which touches the pov character's worldview. Sails flap! What do your engines do? Nov 29, 2014 at 3:03
  • @HenryTaylor There is a short story by Stanislaw Lem in which a space pilot privately takes a passenger ship and notes from the changing hum of the engines that something is amiss. He goes to the bridge and saves everyone.
    – user5645
    Nov 29, 2014 at 5:35

If space travel is as common and casual as current methods, then treat it the way you would treat current methods. That is: Take it for granted. Ignore the physics and ignore how it is operated.

When you get in a car to drive, you barely even think about how you operate it, much less the physics of internal combustion engines, or the mechanics of universal joints, or lubrication. And when you're a passenger in a car, you don't think about how it operates at all.

You think about the operation or the physics or the mechanics only when something goes wrong.

So write space travel the way you would write modern travel in a car. If it's just getting from here to there, you might say nothing more than, "Chas drove to the police station."

Similarly, almost everyone in your story will treat space travel the same way. If they don't, that means it's either not common or not casual. Or something has gone wrong with this particular craft or journey.

You will need more details if:

  • Something goes wrong that matters to the story.
  • Your viewpoint character is a spacecraft engineer doing spacecrafty engineery things.
  • Your viewpoint character operates some key aspect of the travel (pilot, for example) and the operation matters to the story.
  • The story hinges on a special feature of the physics or the operation.
  • (Maybe some other considerations that I haven't thought of.)

The key is in whether your viewpoint characters have a reason in the story to care about the details. If the physics or operation don't matter to your viewpoint characters, then treat them the way you'd treat a journey in a car.

  • 2
    "If they don't, that means it's either not common or not casual. Or something has gone wrong with this particular craft or journey" Or they happen to be a spaceship mechanic or engineer, or even a tuning junkie. The kind of people who will rant and rave about the engines in their cars, argue what kind of injection has a better kick, and turn all snotty if you happen e.g. to prefer automatic transmission to manual. You might drop a background character like this to give the reader a taste that the physics is 'hidden under the hood' and not just handwaved away.
    – SF.
    Nov 28, 2014 at 9:12

I agree totally with Dale Emery, but would perhaps use a long train/boat ride as the metaphor. Not only should the average passenger (a.k.a. the reader's point of view) be uninformed of how the vehicles operate, or the physical principles behind their locomotion, such passengers should not even recognize that their ignorance is unusual. Their attention should be consumed with fighting the tedium and boredom that has challenged travellers across all time. When they sneak out of the passenger's lounge to find the engine room, it shouldn't be to marvel at the ship's hyperspace-flux-capacitor, it should be to find that cute ensign from last night in the dinner-car, to ask her out for a drink. The ship is your stage. Let your characters play on it.

  1. As another example, Asimov's Foundation series does a good job of this.

  2. You say, "I want to be able to write about spacecraft in space as authors in the golden age of sailing would write [about] sea ships on the sea." In that case, you cannot ignore the technology of spacefaring. Those ships in the golden age of sailing were the technological marvels of their era. They required many highly trained people to run them, from the captain down to the deckhands. Even common maneuvers like changing tack were quite complicated. We really don't have a modern transportation equivalent.

  3. I don't know why you don't like the Star Trek "universe" as an example. If you ignore the episodes with pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo, it seems to be exactly what you want. It has massive, complicated starships with 500 people on board: a captain, bridge officers, engineers, and "swabbies" (not to mention red-shirted crewmen and family members). And Star Trek ALSO has small ships, piloted by fairly ordinary people (mostly for "local" travel). And ST also has everything in between. Why is this not what you want?

  4. Again, the Star Wars Extended Universe (SWEU) has many of the attributes you seem to want, with ships ranging from single-person to single-family to "vans" to "buses" to small transport to large transport to ... fighters to ... super star destroyers to death stars.

  5. In all cases of semi-casual interstellar travel, the "science" is explained in a hand-waving fashion for the obvious reason that the real science to enable it doesn't exist yet. (And even worse, what we DO know seems to tell us it's impossible!) So it is functionally equivalent, for a writer, to having magic in fantasy stories. If you want a 21st century reader to take the magic in a story seriously, it needs some "sciency" explanation. Therefore, I suggest you also read some good modern fantasy writers to get ideas for how to explain the "science" in your sci-fi stories without boring your readers. You could post variations of your question on stackexchange's sci-fi and fantasy forums to get suggestions of authors who are good at this.

  • Ah, I can clarify on why I don't take the ST universe as a good example of this. Space travel is casual, but the hand-waving with pseudoscience feels like cheating (nothing nefarious of course). I was interested in the ramifications of casual spacefaring, which is addressed in part 5 of your reply. Perhaps a future question will concern that topic in detail... Nov 30, 2014 at 5:46

I would suggest reading stories by hard science fiction authors, especially ones where they discuss how space-travel (or teleportation) limitations determine what is possible in the world. For example:

  • Larry Niven's Rammer series of short stories explores relativity.
  • Larry Niven's "Theory and Practice of Teleportation".
  • Jerry Pournelle's Mote In God's Eye.
  • Lois McMaster Bujold's Komarr explores how conservation of energy affects wormholes.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.