ET phone home? Really?

picture of a telephoneReal time conversations are a problem in space opera if you’re planet hopping. Why? Think about it. If light can take years to go from one star to us, how long would it take any other type of signal? (We’ll leave out sound waves, which don’t move through a vacuum.) Answer – same as light. About 300,000km per second. Sure, that’s fast. But having a conversation with someone, say, four light years away is going to be a tad tedious.

“Hi, I’d like to order the peperoni, please. With anchovies, no pineapple.” (Wait eight years)

“Sure. Would you like garlic bread with that?”

I think your pizza might be cold before it was delivered.

And yet, so often space opera ignores this fact of physics and has folks chatting from spaceship to planet, or planet to planet, as though they were using Skype back in the 21st Century on jolly old Earth. A case in point is the famous scene in The Empire Strikes Back, where Darth Vader’s Executor is chasing the Millenium Falcon through an asteroid field. Admiral Piett was delighted to be able to tell Vader the Emperor was on the line, so the star destroyer could be moved out of the asteroid field in order to send a clear signal. And then they had the little chat, the Emperor’s ominous figure dwarfing Vader, down on one knee, while he plotted betrayal.

Now, let’s think about this. The Emperor is on Coruscant, Executor is down in the Imperial boondocks, messing around near Hoth. I’m not suggesting the exchange was impossible. No, let’s put that another way. It’s impossible without some sort of futuristic device. Even within our own solar system, it takes anywhere from 3.4 – 21 minutes (depending on how close the planets are to each other) for a a signal to go from Mars to Earth.

It’s a known problem, though. Ursula Le Guin was the first to dream up a device which could enable people on different planets to converse in real time. She called it the ansible. The name has wheedled its way into the genre, rather like ‘hyperspace’. Elizabeth Moon wrote a whole series of books (the Vatta saga) around a company which specialised in setting up ansibles in orbit around inhabited planets, and maintaining them. And the subsequent danger when the ansibles were sabotaged, a bit like taking down the telegraph line across America in the Old West.

I don’t call them ansibles, but since my books involve much planet-hopping, I had to come up with something, which I suppose is an ansible by any other name. A multi-dim transmitter is a device which uses one of the many dimensions of space, a dimension which is not available to physical entities like ships, to transmit a signal from one place to another. They’re fitted to ships and planets have receivers.

Needless to say, if you don’t have access to an ansible or its equivalent, you can’t have a real-time conversation over a long distance.

Care to share your thoughts?

19 thoughts on “ET phone home? Really?

  1. rinellegrey

    Yes! I always found it interesting that so much attention was given to travelling long distances in space, but not in communicating over them, since sound travels more slowly than light. Interesting to read about some of the possibilities.

    In my stories, since they aren’t that much more advanced that earth, they simply don’t have a way to communicate, and have to wait until they are close enough to relay messages. An important plot device really, since otherwise my stranded travellers would have been able to phone home for a lift!

  2. Veronica Sicoe

    Good points about interstellar communication, which is of course one of the most common weak spots of science-fiction movies. FTL communication and transportation are the grand pillars of science-fiction and they should always be given a lot of thought and care in worldbuilding so as to not ruin the plausibility of the entire story.
    In my WIP I have both, thought the technology used is not the same – FTL transportation is done through conversion of matter (like ship & crew) into energy, and FTL communication is done through quantum entanglement. Sort of an ansible, just much more commercial and unspectacular.

  3. Greta van der Rol

    WordPress doesn’t seem to like too much depth in replies. So Bryan and Richard, thanks for contributing to the fascinating quantum particle state. OK, at the moment the 2 particles must come from the same place but the faceless white coats will find a way around it, I’m sure.

  4. Michael Formichelli

    There are a few ways around this issue over long distances in SF- like the ansible and the QC mentioned earlier (which I also use in my Blood Siren series), but in addition to not considering transmission across stars, people often forget that light takes minutes to reach places within the same solar system (8 minutes from the sun to the Earth, for example). I wanted to bring this out in my writing as well. It makes things interesting for the characters when they have to wait 4, 8, or even 60 minutes for a response.

  5. Bill Kirton

    Fascinating, Greta, and proof of my restricted world view. It would never have occurred to me to see this as a real problem that needs to be solved in the interests of authenticity. An eye-opener.

  6. Richard Leonard

    I believe there is a lot of research going into quantum entanglement whereby a subatomic particle can essentially have its properties copied to another particle regardless of how far away that particle is. Once entangled, the setting of a property of one particle will instantaneously change that property on the other, which can then be measured, thus opening up the possibility of FTL communications over immense distances. Fascinating stuff. 🙂

      1. Richard Leonard

        One of the biggest problems at the moment is getting the entangled particles apart. What I said above was slightly incorrect. The two particle to be entangled must obviously be manipulated in the same machine first and one of them sent somewhere like a planet around Alpha Centauri, presumably by a craft using the new ion-drive technology. Once there, FTL communications can occur between here and there.

      2. Bryan Paul Sullo

        This opens up a whole new dimension (Pardon the pun) on the issue of communication. Since each particle represents a single “bit” of information, and can only be used once, and can only send a message to a pre-determined destination, there would have to be a physical supply chain of messaging particles, making FTL communication tremendously expensive, and open to interception (by stealing a set of destination particles) or tampering (by stealing a set of transmitter particles). The story possibilities are endless.

  7. MonaKarel

    Then there’s the time lag. Not as much of a problem with earth bound telephones as we once had but still…remember calling to another continent and having to wait wait wait for the answer to your question?

  8. juliabarrett

    Any communication, like people on a ship, would have to travel through time as well as space. Yes, it is an issue unless you all happen to be occupying the same space and time – Battlestar Galactica solved this problem, re the Cylons, in interesting ways. A transfer of consciousness.

    1. Greta van der Rol

      In which, I guess, we define consciousness. Jack McDevitt has aliens called Mutes who communicate non-verbally. I don’t recall if that worked over huge distances, though.

  9. ralfast

    In my WiP the gate system doubles as a FTL comm system. Still, spreading the word around the galaxy might take hours or even days, since connections between a gate and a planet is still at least a light second away (or less). So broadcasting takes time. Still much faster than what it should take at near light speeds.

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