November 30, 2023
Adventures in Impractical Science Fiction: Five Stories About Space Travel Using Constant Acceleration

Adventures in Impractical Science Fiction: Five Stories About Space Travel Using Constant Acceleration

I happened to be looking when my attention was caught by an essay: “The Myth of the Light Barrier” by Jim Baen. Could this be another example of what we will politely call “skepticism about relativity”, perhaps a first look at Petr Beckmann’s Galilean Electrodynamics? Instead, Baen celebrated the fact that a rocket capable of sustaining an acceleration of one gravity indefinitely can travel astonishing distances in a very short time, from the traveler’s perspective. Of course, staying at home will last much longer, but Baen sees this as an advantage:

And that’s the point. Given a single-gravity, constant-acceleration rover, plus a complete indifference to point of origin, you can go anywhere and do anything. You can even be free. Because anyone who might have the inclination to interfere with your freedom (unless you were foolish enough to bring them along) will have been dusted long before you reach your destination. Blue meanies included. Freedom!

This is entirely true. See the chart below (taken without credit from a 2018 essay by someone or other) for distances traveled in a gee.

Destiny Distance (light years) Shipping time (years) Earth time (years)
Alpha Centaur 4.3 3.6 5.9
Tau Ceti 11.9 5.1 13.7
40Eridani 16.3 5.7 18.1
The Pleiades 444 11.9 446
Crab Nebula 6,500 17.1 ~6,500
Galactic Core 28,000 19.9 ~28,000
Andromeda Galaxy 2,500,000 28.6 ~2,500,000

Thanks to inconsiderate details like practical engineering questions, the rocket equation, and the annoying fact that Bussard ramjets are nine orders of magnitude more efficient at dissipating power than at generating it, this table is completely irrelevant to any future that the humans can experience. . However, just because something is impractical or even impossible has never stopped science fiction authors from exploring an interesting idea in their fiction.

“A Momentary Taste of Being” by James Tiptree, Jr.

O Centaur seeks a world suitable for colonization. So far, there has been no good news for Earth’s tens of billions of inhabitants. Now, a promising world presents itself… but is the seemingly perfect world a trap?

Not being an idiot, the captain of the Centaur sends a research team to examine the world. Only Lory Kaye returns, bringing with her samples of the world below. Is the planet the paradise that Lory claims? Or is there some darker reason why the rest of the research team hasn’t returned?

Some readers may turn to science fiction for security and solace they don’t find in life. To these readers I say: “under no circumstances use Tiptree’s fiction for this purpose.” At least this story is more optimistic than The Screwfly Solution.

“Rammer” by Larry Niven (1971)

Jerome Corbett bet he could escape a terminal illness by undergoing suspended animation. He lost the bet. Freezing caused irreversible cellular damage. Corbett was as dead as he could be… but memories of him could be saved. The state of 2190 had a use for them.

Corbett’s memories were imprinted in the brain of a convicted criminal. Corbett was a loner, just like the new compound. This makes it a perfect candidate to fly Bussard ramjets on one-way missions in the future. Many people may refuse such a task. Corbett goes far beyond what his masters intended.

It’s possible that this story inspired Baen’s editorial, because the eventual resolution depends on the fact that a round trip to the center of the galaxy and back takes forty years for Corbett and seventy thousand for the state. Or so Corbett thinks, because it doesn’t occur to him that ramjets might not offer optimal performance. A world outside of timethe novel that grew out of “Rammer,” explores this notion.

Red Lightning by John Varley (2006)

Eccentric inventor Jubal Broussard provided humanity with infinite power thanks to Broussard’s super-scientific “squeezer.” The juicer, in turn, provided cheap, constantly accelerating space travel (without limits of mere mass proportions) to the other planets of the Solar System… and for those who wanted it, to the stars as well.

The downside of this arrangement is revealed when the malcontents send their starship on a long acceleration cycle that will end on Earth’s surface. The resulting impact will be on the scale of Chicxulub. Earthly governments, trapped as they are in a particularly bitter emulation of Heinlein’s late cynicism, are ill-equipped to deal with the crisis.

Bussard ramjets, tachyon-emitting rockets and the like would work very well as weapons of planetary destruction. See also Charles Stross Iron Sunrise. Good thing they are impossible.

The rescue crew by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne (2020)

Powered by cheap sub-light stellar travel, the United Nations (UN) and the rival Outer Reaches Colonial Association (ORCA) are in a race to see which can be the fastest to spread humanity and its creations across the outermost stars. nearby. It is a time-consuming and expensive competition, which encourages cost-saving measures.

Affordably priced Planetary Crusade Services sends AI supervisor AMBER ROSE 348 and her crew to investigate an old crash site. Hired because they were cheap and not remarkably competent, AMBER ROSE’s team finds itself at a loss. Not only have they landed in the wrong location on an alien world, and not only is the alien world alarmingly well stocked with apex predators, but ORCA has dispatched its own team to the planet. The heavily armed ORCA cyborgs may not be more competent than AMBER ROSE’s, but they are considerably more violent.

AMBER ROSE is always written in capital letters, as are all of her statements. , not to mention an impressive understanding of the Peter Principle, but the volume control technology has been lost. Either that or the poor AI figured out that the only way to get the meatbags’ full attention is to yell at them.

We are Legion (We are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor (2016)

After a close encounter with Truck-kun, Bob Johansson wakes up to find himself in the same situation as Niven’s Jerome Corbett. Bob’s body is already gone. Bob is now an AI, a simulation of the dead man. Bob was created to crew a relativistic ship. If it doesn’t meet the needs, it will be deleted.

To complicate things: the setting is a very, very disunified Earth. Tensions between the Independent Theocratic Hegemony of Free America and Brazil only need a small spark to trigger a catastrophic world war. Bob can be that spark. Unless he can launch safely, Bob will be trapped in a world outside of time.

The detail that caught my attention most in this novel is that when the multicopied Bob finds himself dealing with desperate survivors, Bob doesn’t immediately start muttering “lifeboat rules” as he searches for a convenient airlock through which the refugees can be guided. Bob’s equations are at least a little hot.


Although superluminal stellar flight is, for obvious reasons, much more popular than sublight, tales of thrilling adventures made possible by ships capable of ever greater speeds, ships that easily traverse interstellar distances, abound in science fiction. These five works constitute a very small sample. If your favorites were omitted for any reason, feel free to remind us of them in the comments below.

In the words of fanfic author Musty181four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book critic and perennial Darwin Award Nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a standard Mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and by Aurora Award 2021, 2022 and 2023 finalist Young people read old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). Your Patreon can be found here.

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