Future Echoes: or, Faster-Than-Light Travel

Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel in science fiction literature seems to be a thing of the past, in most cases. Many of the “new wave” of science fiction writers who are intent on using known scientific knowledge in their stories seem to consider FTL too fraught with fallacies of logic to be of any real scientific value. Robert Reed, one of the most prolific of the new SF writers, had this to say on the subject: “Mostly, though, science fiction is still a very logical, cause-and-effect, mechanistic universe – which I don’t believe in. I made a decision long before I sold anything: I’m not going to have faster-than-light travel…”[1]

But why is FTL a thing of the past? For years, it was a staple of the grossly mislabeled “science fiction” story: heroes travelling from planet to planet, not experiencing any of the effects that FTL would have on their bodies or on the inhabitants of said planets. Even Star Wars had FTL! Well, for one thing, Star Wars is not science fiction – it’s a fantasy story (some say western) with merely the trappings of a science fiction story.

Star Wars is in the same vein as those early sci-fi (most writers view sci-fi as a derogatory term, too closely associated with the early stories that earned SF a bad reputation, and is generally pronounced as “skiffy”) stories as those that had alien monsters on distant planets, most of whom were either pure evil or purely religious and had some sort of leader who either made Hitler look like Jesus or Jesus look like Hitler. In many of these stories, there were generally several things that were common in the real world, but given fantastic names so as to make the reader think they were from some distant planet. In the Turkey City Lexicon, it’s described as

Call a Rabbit a Smeerp

“A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.)”[2]

But do not misunderstand – there was an amazing amount of superlative fiction in those early years, but unfortunately science fiction is and has always been defined by its worst examples. Anyway, now I’ve strayed from the main point.

The real reason why FTL is rarely used (and when it is, the consequences are generally thought out in an imaginative way) is because of Einstein. Einstein formulated the Theory of Relativity, which generally put a stop to FTL travel in most fiction. Does this restrict the scope and imagination of science fiction? Absolutely not. If anything, the creative and artistic level of science fiction in recent years has greatly increased, for the simple reason that in order to have some sort of scientific credibility, it forces the writers to think of new and ingenious ways of circumventing those laws.

Which leads us neatly into Future Echoes.

Rob Grant and Doug Naylor had obviously done their homework, both in terms of science fact and the history of science fiction; they knew of Einstein’s work, and they knew of some of the fiction that had preceded them. They probably knew that FTL is generally considered to be unscientific, but without FTL there is no story. Grant and Naylor (who will be called Grant Naylor from now on, both to spite them for splitting their partnership and simply because I’m too lazy to type the “and” every time) had before them a widely used staple of early science fiction, but they knew they could not use it as it had been used before.

So, they obviously recognized both FTL’s past history as well as its faults, and so they knew that there must be some sort of consequence – or more accurately, some sort of cause-and-effect reaction – if the ship were to travel at speeds greater than that of light. Scientific speculation can lead to many great things, and future echoes was clearly one of them. Holly’s line…

HOLLY: Look, we’re travelling faster than the speed of light. That means, by the time we see something, we’ve already passed through it. Even with an IQ of 6000, it’s still brown trousers time.

…not only sets up his later explanation of what future echoes are, it’s funny. It fulfills both requirements – one without the other, and it would be a wasted opportunity. Grant Naylor realized that if they were to capture their audience and hold their attention, the script would need to be scientifically accurate (in a general sense, there’s no need for equations or anything like that), and funny so it can appeal to as many demographics as possible without insulting the intelligence of any of them – and the addition of a knowing wink directed at the past history of FTL in SF literature would only strengthen the show’s appeal. If they overdid the science, the people with no interest in that would quickly grow bored and lose interest, but if they overdid the humor then it would lose much of its intellectual appeal (which is Series VII and VIII’s problem, but that’s a later article). It’s a delicate balancing act, and one that is very successful here.

There’s a segment later on in the episode:

RIMMER: What are future echoes?
HOLLY: How simple do you want this?
RIMMER: Ah, so Lister can understand it.
HOLLY: Oh, dear.
It’s difficult, I know.
HOLLY: Well, we’re travelling faster than LS, right?
LISTER: What’s LS?
TOASTER: Lightspeed.
LISTER: Smartarse.
HOLLY: Consequently, you’re catching up with things you’re about to do before you’ve actually done them.

One of the hard-and-fast rules of any writer’s workshop (or any writer worth his salt, really) is that research is so important to one’s work. It gives it an air of authority, and helps tremendously with the willing suspension of disbelief. Grant Naylor obviously researched the subject of light speed and FTL, and they use certain key details here, presenting a vague sketch of the science involved – not enough to drive anyone away, but it shows that they know something about what they’re talking about. Holly’s earlier line about passing through objects before they see them leads to a fairly logical conclusion – if it would work with a planet, why couldn’t it work with a grandfatherly, bearded Lister with a bottle opener?

In conclusion, the ending, with Lister photographing his future self, is sufficiently paradoxical to satisfy those who enjoy paradoxes and intriguing scientific puzzles, but also funny enough to keep the interest of others who might not be as interested in that sort of thing. It takes talent to pull off that sort of literary hat trick, and Grant Naylor certainly shows that they have enough of that to pull it off.

References

1. , April 1998
2.
Turkey City Lexicon, compiled by Bruce Sterling

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