Planet-hopping might not be so silly

posted in: Science fact, Science fiction | 19

My science fiction book The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy includes a certain amount of planet-hopping. In fact, all my SF does. Now, I know that there will be some sneering and lip-curling over this. But don’t be in too much of a hurry to point a derisive finger.

Come with me on a cosmic journey. We’ll start here, on dear old Mother Earth, the only planet we know a huge amount about. Journey back in time, four hundred years… The world was beginning to open up. Intrepid explorers from Europe travelled to the other side of the Earth in search of trade and riches. Dutch merchant ships sailed from Amsterdam to what is now Jakarta in Indonesia to trade in spices. At the turn of the 17th century, they sailed down the west coast of Africa, re-provisioned at Table Bay and then set off past Madagascar and across the Indian Ocean up to Java. Makes sense, really, if you look at the journey on a map; down to the tip of Africa, then up at an angle to Indonesia. The journey took a year, sometimes as much as eighteen months if the winds were poor or the storms struck hard.

Then in 1610 Henrik Brouwer did something completely counter-intuitive and sailed south from Table Bay. Makes no sense, does it? Well, yes it does. The Earth is not a 2D Mercator’s projection on a tabletop, it’s a spheroid. The distance around the equator is greater than the distance around the lines we call ‘latitude’ to the north and south. Brouwer took advantage of that fact to shorten the distance he had to travel east and had the bonus of the reliable winds of the ‘roaring forties’ to push his ships along. All he had to do was remember to turn left when he reached the longitude for the Sunda Strait, sail up the coast of Western Australia and he was home. Taking this route shortened the journey by two thousand miles and more than halved the duration. The route was not without its dangers – as you’ll find in my book ‘To Die a Dry Death’ – but that’s another story.

Over the years, sea travel became faster and more reliable. Steam and then diesel replaced sail. When my family migrated to Australia from Amsterdam the sea journey took about a month. Apart from the improved mode of transport, the ship also avoided the long journey around the Cape of Good Hope by going through a short cut – the Suez Canal.

Eventually, the obstacles forced upon us by oceans and continents were removed, too, with the advent of air travel. These days you can get on a jet at Schiphol in Amsterdam and get off twenty four hours later at Perth International Airport. With airliners like the beautiful and now-departed Concord, you could do the journey in half the time. So in four hundred years we have shortened a journey that took about a year – let’s say 350 days – to one that routinely takes 1 day or (with the right aircraft) an awful lot less. Wow.

Still with me? Trust me, it’s all relevant to space travel. Imagine what reaction a person would have received if, in 1600, she’d said that in four hundred years, we’d be able to travel from Amsterdam to that southern continent we didn’t know anything about, in less than a day.

Yes, but that’s just the Earth, I hear you say. We’re talking inter-stellar distances. For Pete’s sake, the nearest star system from ours is over 4 light years away. Very true. We have no way of spanning these vast distances in anybody’s lifetime. Regardless, the notion of ‘hyperspace’ in science fiction to allow for the possibility of space travel has been around for a long time. I don’t think I ever saw an explanation of hyperspace – just that the ship entered another dimension, if you will, travelling externally to our normal, 3D + time. But hey ho; never let the facts get in the way of a good story. The Grand Master, Isaac Asimov, did rather a lot of planet-hopping. Have a look at his ‘Foundation’ series. Many of the more modern writers like Mc Devitt and Moon have FTL (faster than light) travel but show it as still a very time-consuming business with journeys taking weeks or months..

I don’t believe that restriction is cast in concrete. Even Mc Devitt in his book ‘A Talent for War’ postulated a quantum drive, where a ship moves from one place to another instantaneously. We don’t hear so much about worm holes these days, but they would also allow for an instantaneous transfer.

I refer to my version of hyperspace as ‘shift space’. I’ve done that deliberately because in my universe the ships use the geometry of extra dimensions to get around. Ships ‘shift’ to another dimension for the duration of a journey. It’s pretty much accepted that our 3D notion of the universe is just a perception, that there are many other dimensions we are not equipped to see. Such an understanding certainly helps to explain the apparent complexities of quantum physics and the anomalous behaviour of sub-atomic particles. Way back in the 1980’s Carl Sagan in his wonderful TV series ‘Cosmos’ showed us a tesseract  (, a four-dimensional object portrayed as best we could in a 3D world. To understand what you’re looking at, think about a standard, 2D drawing of a cube. According to mathematics, there are many, many more than four dimensions out there, not to mention parallel universes. The biggest limitation imposed upon us in reaching a real understanding of things like this is that we are constrained by our own world view and our ability to perceive. As far back as 1884 E.A. Abbott in his book ‘Flatland’ ( described the problems of seeing three dimensions in a 2D world. We are faced with the same thing, on a 3D scale, if we attempt to visualise four, five or six dimensions. Or many, many more.

However, I can give you some sort of idea of where I’m coming from. Take a piece of A4 paper. Let’s label two diagonally opposite corners as A and B. Starting from B, we can reach A by going straight up one side then along the top to A. Hang on, you say, wouldn’t you just go across the diagonal, thereby reducing the distance and time taken? Sure you would. Now curl the paper over into a cylinder. All you have to do to get from B to A is move along a straight line. The length of the line will depend on how you make the roll (short edges together or long edges together).

Now take point A in one hand and point B in the other and bring them together so they meet. Getting from B to A in this instance is like walking from one room into another.

That’s my notion of ‘shift drive’. I have included some duration in the journey in the book because I found it useful. Don’t ask me how the shift drive (the engine that makes it possible to take advantage of the geometry) works. I’m speculating a fusion drive to do something or other. When I work it out, I’ll let you know.


Since I wrote this article, I’ve come across the Sabre engine, which can operate in both atmosphere and vacuum, and can travel at 5 times the speed of sound. Such an aircraft could make the trip from Sydney to London in 4 hours. That’s four (4) hours. So a trip from Amsterdam to Perth would probably be a little bit less. Say 3.5 hours? So we’ve come down from 350 days, to 1 month, to 1 day, to 3.5 hours. Rams the point home, doesn’t it?

27 Jan 2013 And now there’s this. A spaceliner which will do the trip in 90 minutes!!! Wow. Just wow.

19 Responses

  1. The one Rule of Writing you should never break (IMO) | Greta van der Rol

    […] People who read science fiction tend to be interested in science. Authors should at least do their readers the courtesy of trying to get it right. I grew up on Asimov and Clarke, who made sure their science was plausible, and basic facts of physics were either adhered to, or if not then explained. Jack McDevitt does the same. Somebody is going to say, but what about faster than light travel (FTL)? That’s impossible. Sure. But that’s a recognised trope in SF, commonly used in space opera to move the story forward. And as I explained here, planet hopping might not be as silly as it sounds. […]

  2. akismet-774b0267bf2250d929a1867a09aedfd9

    HI Greta, now I understand. When we spoke on twitter and you mentioned shift dimensions, I imagined you were talking about paralell universes.

    I’m gonna have to take a peak at your novel to see how you do it. (cheeky grin)



    • Greta van der Rol

      Yes, I thought you thought I meant parallel universes. Sorry, but (much as I’d like you to read my books) I don’t actually go into the mechanics of ‘shift space’

  3. Pauline Baird Jones

    Readers accept time travel through such devices as jewelry, closets, caves and portraits. Why wouldn’t they accept planet hopping? Oh wait, most do. For the cranky few who don’t, “Move along, there’s nothing to see here.” (grin)

  4. Pat Brown

    The biggest obstacle right now is establishing a permanent presence off the Earth. If we can do that, all our energy problems would be done with and there’d never be a shortage of any material. To do that we need to find a more efficient way of moving around in our solar system. The fuels used now are just not able to do it, plus they have mass and that mass means you need more fuel to move the extra mass of the mass.

    There is a way to use almost no fuel, and it is being tested, but I’m not sure how much backing it gets, but it might very well work. Solar sails could let us really settle our solar system. Then we look at the stars, which will be a lot easier from space. Launching things from Earth takes massive amounts of energy to escape the gravity well of Earth.

    I really hope we do get into space and colonize it. It might very well be the difference between us surviving or not. And the longer we wait, the more expensive it will get, as the resources needed will be more costly and short sighted people will look at space programs as a waste of money (which they’ve actually been saying since the Apollo program)

    • Greta van der Rol

      Thanks for your comment. It saddens me to watch prgrams about the outer solar system, knowing that the best information they STILL have comes from Voyager, launched way back in the 1970’s. Hubble and Cassini have helped but there is so much to learn. I truly hope space exploration is not canned.

  5. claudia celestial girl

    Wonderful blog! The distances between stars in space is so immense that travel is problematic. If the travel is by conventional sub-light travel, then there has to be hibernation and/or (as you get close to lightspeed), some mass bending (uncomfortable), and time-shortening. Space-farers won’t like to do it because of the physical strain. I haven’t figured it all out yet! .

    So your thoughts here are really helpful. Sounds a lot like A Wrinkle in Time.

    • Greta van der Rol

      I don’t think anybody has figured it out yet. Fortunately, all we’re trying to do is write believable stories. I hope this helped. 🙂

  6. mandyeward

    I think I need to read those two books… IA is next on my reading list!

  7. Heikki Hietala

    You rascal you.

    I am working on a short story / novella based on a generation ship, but your planet-hopping begins to sound more lucrative for future work. I have Sagan’s book, and I have read Flatland (my favorite was the fact that you could not have a digestive tract since it’d split you in half, hence no need to eat there), and I am quite happy to believe we will get a technology that enables near-instant travel.

    • Greta van der Rol

      It isn’t going to happen tomorrow, and I know I put an over-simple argument but I think we’ll get there – if we have the will in the future. After all, it IS science FICTION

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