Monday, August 17, 2015

Evading the Speed of LIght: Karl Schroeder's Lockstep

Just when you thought there was nothing new to be said about evading the speed limit imposed by relativity, science fiction comes up with a completely original possibility. I just finished reading Karl Schroeder's Lockstep, which proposes yet another way to get around Einstein's cosmic speed limit. Lockstep was serialized in Analog about a year ago and has recently been published as a novel.

Science fiction has long played with the idea that space explorers could simply go into hibernation on long interstellar voyages. But what happens when they get home and find all of their friends and relatives dead, and the civilization they left behind changed beyond recognition? Lockstep provides a clever "out". The civilization invented by Schroeder goes into periodic hibernation -- everyone does, awakening for only one month out of every thirty years. Space travelers can time their voyages to take place during this hibernation period, and interstellar travel becomes as simple as a cross-country drive. Schroeder's world-building is a bit more subtle than this -- his "lockstep" worlds are mostly icy bodies, like those in the Kuiper belt around our own solar system, and their civilizations rely on robots to gather the scarce resources from these barren worlds while their inhabitants sleep. Meanwhile, the residents of more congenial worlds (like the Earth) never hibernate -- Schroeder calls these the "fast worlds."

Schroeder's novel is centered on the lockstep civilizations, but I think the most interesting possibilities concern the interactions between the lockstep planets and the fast worlds.  Would the latter speed ahead of their hibernating counterparts technologically? The classic story of this kind is A.E. van Vogt's "Far Centaurus," in which astronauts on the first mission to Alpha Centauri come out of suspended animation only to discover that in the interim, humanity has developed faster-than-light travel and has already colonized the astronauts' destination!  And what about biological evolution on the lockstep worlds -- it would be a shock to to wake up and discover that the pigs have taken over the farm (and everything else on the planet!)  It will be interesting to see if Schroeder's idea becomes embedded in science fiction and used by other authors, much like Heinlein's generation ship.


Kathy said...

I recall a couple of quasi-similar situations. Not with the same cause, but leading to the similar effects.

In Niven's Known Space, now and then they find items or people who've spent anywhere from centuries to millions of years in "stasis," during which interval time does not pass for them, but it does for the rest of the universe.

In the Hechee series by Pohl (if I'm not getting the author wrong), a species living in a cold environment move at a glacial pace. So in the time it takes them to, say, get dinner ready, we on Earth went through an NFL season.

And of course, a whole species hibernating for an extended period of years, was part of the backstory of the Wraith in Stargate Atlantis.

Bobby Bodenheimer said...

Off topic, but these news articles:
cry out for a post on the physics of this venerable idea in SF. :)

Robert Scherrer said...

I think the space elevator has clearly moved from the world of science into the world of engineering...