Science fiction is fascinating genre, and space is one of its most popular settings. As in most genres, the tales we hear about in these speculative stories are meant to tie back to our lives, to help us explore the issues and concerns that we struggle with through the lense of a setting and environment larger and more exciting than our own individual existences. The stories they tell are important, and relevant, and evoke in us emotions we might not otherwise have a chance to experience under such controlled circumstances.
Science fiction is a unique genre, though, in that it has a second charter: to help us explore the real human consequences of being a species that actively tries to expand its own understanding of the universe, and creates tools and technologies both to improve that understanding and improve its own existence. Almost every story told in science fiction contains elements both exploring what is different from our world in the setting the author has created, and what is the same.
One of the most common tropes of science fiction set in space is that of the Faster-Than-Light (FTL) engine. To cross the unimaginable distances between the stars on a timescale we can relate to at all, we need a way around Einstein’s theory of relativity. Warp drives, jump drives, hyperdrives, and their kin serve as plot devices of convenience that let us tell stories on a galactic scale in which planets can stand in for countries or cities. The stories we’ve been telling each other for thousands of years can be told again with these new set pieces.
Science fiction has a tremendous impact on the research being done in the real world. The contributions of Star Trek to the research priorities of the late 20th century are well-documented, as is the surge of interest in asteroid detection and defense in the aftermath of a number of movies revolving around that threat in the last 1990’s. It is unsurprising, therefore, that considerable work was and is being done on FTL travel. Every few years, a new journal article comes out touting a way to cheat the speed of light, and it is picked up by the mainstream media and renews interest in space travel. When the disappointing follow-up experiments rule out our dreams of flying to Alpha Centauri in weeks or months, not a drop of ink or a darkened pixel reporting the harsh reality can be found.
I think it is time to start telling new stories.
Stories that aren’t about the fantasy futures of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, of Mass Effect and Halo, or of Star Wars and Alien. Space is a beautiful and complex environment, with no analogue in our terrestrial experience. We move through it in different ways, its hazards and boons are far more subtle than the air’s, its variations more myriad than the sea’s, and its complexities deeper and more intricate than the mountains. Yet for all the fascination it holds for us in principle, its representation is so often stark and empty, a plot device to separate the cities and towns and sets of a story that is told just as easily on Earth.
I think there are a lot of fans of science fiction out there who want more from their experiences. I understand there are readers and gamers and viewers who want to be really engaged by the sheer experience of space, not as it is flattened to make storytelling easier, but as we understand it today. To not be treated as if they can’t understand something just because it is different than their everyday experiences. To see and interact with a future not built around a story, but to see stories emerge from a future built of what we, as a civilization, think we’ve figured out.
To that end, I’ve been building Slower Than Light, a game that takes superluminal travel and communications off the table, and invites the player to bring humanity into the starfaring age using what we think we’ll have access to in the next few centuries and millennia. Rather than glossing over the challenges of interstellar travel as we understand it today, Slower Than Light embraces those difficulties to create an experience that is both entertaining and informative. The defining attribute of the game, though, is the pace of communications. Orders go out and reports come back at lightspeed; the view the player sees isn’t necessarily the true state of the game world, but the best information they have on it. Anticipating difficulties is strongly rewarded, while a robust interface ensures you have the information you need to make the decisions that will guide you to success. Slower Than Light provides a unique play experience, and I encourage you to look into it further at http://www.slowerthanlightgame.com/ and back our Kickstarter Project.
This interactive medium allows players to really explore this speculative future. They can develop a feel for what the future really holds if we, as a species, develop the will to colonize beyond our solar system. With the tools of science and technology laid out before them, they can experiment with different combinations of strategies to not only place humans among the stars, but to cope with the challenges that threaten a race beginning its spread into the cosmos. Actively assembling solutions to the problems of scale, time, and communications provides a subtle and complex understanding of the issues at hand, and promotes a deeper appreciation both for the obstacles involved, and how they can be overcome.
I believe that if we are to see humans living across the Milky Way, they will get there using subluminal starships. I also believe that without the cultural backing of good, high-quality science fiction created with that assumption in mind, we will never find the resolve to build those ships and to fling ourselves into the unknown. Humanity will perish a single-world species, a monument to wasted potential.
I can think of no more terrifying possible end to our story.
John Brewer is a former sales engineer who left his job to pursue his dream of creating a game that portrayed a realistic expansion of humanity into the galaxy. Read more about his project at http://www.slowerthanlightgame.com/ and back his Kickstarter Project.