Mark A. Carter

the need for faster-than-light speed

World famous Canadian Science Fiction writer Mark A. Carter rants about the positive influence of Science Fiction on technological innovation in the past and the present, and the need for a new conceptual breakthrough in propulsion to get off this world if we are to have a future.

Nicolls, Peter ed. Science Fiction Encyclopedia. Garden City, NY: Dolphin, 1979.
This early 16th Century woodcut creates a startling symbol of Conceptual Breakthrough, as a monk plunges his head through the sphere of the stars to find the complex machinery behind the scenes creating the movements of the heavens.


Whether a story ends with a vicious solar flare toasting the Earth as in Knowing (2009) or a rogue planet colliding with the Earth as in Melancholia (2011) or some other unforeseen Cosmopoetic event obliterating the Earth, Science Fiction warns us of a need to get off our planet if we want to survive. It's good advice. There is only one small glitch. We are still playing with sky rockets.

Science Fiction shows us surviving planetary disaster of our own making. Although Skynet's Judgment Day in The Terminator (1984) vaporizes three billion human beings, the survivors fight the robots in their post-apocalyptic present and past, in an attempt to subvert the machines. In the 1979 film Mad Max, which also occurs in the wake of global thermonuclear war, an Australian Highway Patrol officer is confronted with a lawless new dark age controlled by devolved war lords driving cannibalized vehicles in a fight between good and evil.

Based on my own theory that Science Fiction is predictive, I am confident that global thermonuclear war, and the horrific aftermath, as foreseen in Terminator and Mad Max are likely. Unless we dismantle entirely, it will happen because it's in our nature. We hate to have toys we can't play with. And like the simpletons we are, we enjoy a good light show. We stare at fireworks like mindless idiots. So, why wouldn't we blow up the whole shebang just to put an end to our miseries?

All that will be required will be two US Air Force ICBM missileers of like mind, sitting behind the locked blast door of their underground capsule, in charge of ten Minuteman 3 missiles, in Montana, or North Dakota, or Wyoming, who suddenly wake up from the mass delusion we all suffer from, and actually see things as they are. They will see, like schizophrenics and writers, that reality is hideous beyond belief. They will see the broken, dead, and radioactive Pacific Ocean, the oil-polluted Gulf of Mexico, the global warming, increased desertification, violent hurricanes and typhoons, the ozone hole over Antarctica, the glucose-fructose and gluten in our food, and the bacteria in the baby milk they bought on-line for their newborns because their wives both have breast cancer and cannot milk. And in disgust, they will put an end to the planet. They will turn their keys at the same time and launch the missiles under their command. And to quote Sara Connor in the 1991 film Terminator 2: "Anybody not wearing two million sunblock is gonna have a real bad day. Get it?"

That being said, to avoid utter disaster of the Cosmopoetic kind at an unimaginable scale, like that seen in Knowing and Melancholia, as opposed to the meteor impacts and the ensuing Extinction Level Events as seen in Armageddon (1998) and in Deep Impact (1998) that we are able to survive by using our nukes to diminish the encroaching threat, we have to get out of Dodge. But, to be practical, that means we need to develop a whole new means of propulsion. Rockets just don't cut it. They aren't efficient. And they're too slow.

I fully believe that the next step in human evolution is to get off this planet and to colonize other worlds. We owe it to ourselves to graduate from Mother Earth and go elsewhere as soon as possible not merely when danger is imminent.

"Man is an artifact designed for space travel.

He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state

any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole."

- William S. Burroughs

Thinking about leaving only when danger presents itself is shortsighted and will be too late. We should be getting off this planet as a matter of course for years, decades, and perhaps centuries in advance of anything untoward happening. It would increase our chances of survival as a species because to remain on this ball of wax is putting all of our eggs in one basket. Put plainly, it's just asking for it. And, as everyone now says: "It's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when."

I constantly mention that Science Fiction is predictive. But it's a double edged sword. If you want to be negative, there are plenty of stories to read and movies to watch catering to disaster junkies. I have already mentioned a few. Disaster movies bring in big box office revenues. But, yes Virginia, there are actually stories in print that spin a positive view of our future. And they do indeed show us out there amid the stars.

We need a Conceptual Breakthrough.

In Isaac Asimov's novel length collection of short stories (1951) entitled Foundation, we witness the extropy of humans spreading out into the Milky Way. Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel Starship Troopers and its film version (1997) directed by Paul Verhoeven depicts us out there fighting a galactic war with alien insects. Harry Harrison with his Bill, the Galactic Hero (1965) shows us out there among the planets of our system and beyond. Alien (1979) written by Dan O'Bannon and directed by Ridley Scott also shows us out there mining asteroids and smelting in space rather than continuing to pollute the Earth despite alien encounters of an unsavory kind. Even Pitch Black (2000) directed by David Twohy shows Riddick and human beings out there getting down and dirty in their fight for survival on a desert planet scorched by three suns during the perpetual day and plagued by hammer-headed carnivores during the prolonged solar eclipse; and in Chronicles of Riddick (2004) also directed by Twohy, by extradimensional Necromongers who want to possess us body and soul. Despite the challenges, despite the odds, and despite the risks, Science Fiction indeed shows us out there like nobody's business. And that is a positive thing.

The problem is, given the inadequacy of rocket propulsion and the need to travel faster than light, how do we get out there? It defies the current laws of physics to travel faster than light. Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity puts a cosmic stop sign at the speed of light. So, how have some Science Fiction writers worked their way around it?

Frank Herbert in his 1965 novel Dune sees Guild Navigators folding space and enabling ships to travel without moving between the stars. This rapid movement between two regions of space has since been named a worm hole, and has been used by many authors including American astronomer, astrophysicist, and cosmologist Carl Sagan in his 1985 novel Contact and in the 1997 film based on it. And for his Star Trek TV Series which ran from 1966-69, Gene Roddenberry developed the idea of Warp Drive that allowed the Enterprise to travel faster than light through a parallel region of space called hyperspace.

But Science Fiction is merely fanciful dreaming, as most people see it. Or is it? My theory is that we create what we dream. Science Fiction provides the inspiration for innovation. But don't take my word for it.

"Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real." - Jules Verne

As I mentioned, physicists currently believe that faster than light speed is impossible. But when I hear the shouts of scientific absolutism, I also hear a shoe drop because every time physics has thrown down its gauntlet, we have rolled up our sleeves, put our minds to the problem, and found a way to prove it wrong. Barriers are meant to be broken.

There was once a time when travelling thirty miles per hour by horse was considered as fast as it gets. But the steam locomotive proved that theory wrong.

People were wont to say things like: "If man was meant to fly, God would have given him wings." But in lieu of that, the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903.

People believed that Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) was fanciful. But Captain Nemo's Nautilus indeed provided the inspiration for the first actual submarine, the Turtle, a hand-powered acorn-shaped device designed by the American David Bushnell to accommodate a single person. It saw battle in 1775 during the American Revolutionary War. And nuclear powered submarines, inspired by Verne, currently ply the world's oceans.

And the ray guns imagined in the comic strips of Buck Rogers (1929) and Flash Gordon (1934) were made real by Theodore H. Maiman in 1960 with the first working LASER, which is an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. At first we didn't even know if it had any practical applications. Now we bar code scan everything. Our communication systems rely on miniature laser LEDs. The speed of the internet would be impossible without them. Powerful carbon dioxide lasers are used in engraving, surgery, and welding. And with the recent developments of Yuriy Stepanenko at IPC PAS, who developed the desktop size 10 terawatt laser, we are indeed on the threshold of the powerful hand held ray gun.

Sound barrier ... broken in 1947 by Chuck Yeager in the Bell X-1.

"The moon is out of reach." Yet in 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong placed his boot print in the dust of the Sea of Tranquility. Need I say more?

The Ancient Greeks talked themselves to death because philosophical argument can only take you so far. They needed more inventions like the screw attributed to Archimedes and less wars.

Despite aqueducts, plumbing, and cement, the Roman Empire failed too because they were in desperate need of a new means of communication and transportation to connect and to service their vast territory. But it never came. And their Empire crumbled due to complacency, futility, and war too.

But today, if the countries of the world would stop fighting their stupid wars long enough to turn their most brilliant scientific and technical minds toward matter replication, teleportation, time travel, and warp drive, as seen in Science Fiction, perhaps we might not go the way of the Greeks and the Romans and all of the other civilizations around the world that have come and gone.

Work has already begun with matter replication. They called it the replicator in Star Trek. We call it the 3D printer. An object is scanned. The code is saved. Then when you want to copy it, the information is sent to the printer. And by using powdered molecules instead of ink like a usual printer, the object will be constructed one layer at a time. The 3D printer will create everything from soup to nuts. The US Navy will be deploying them on Carriers to recreate parts and perhaps entire aircraft. And soon a small 3D printer will be in every home. And when you want that oh so special slice of thin crust pizza with green peppers, mushrooms, onions, and pepperoni, it will be printed for you, on demand, out of thin air.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." - Arthur C. Clarke

Ray Bradbury, a Science Fiction writer who I respected greatly for his 1950 collection of short stories: The Martian Chronicles; his 1951 collection entitled The Illustrated Man; and his 1953 novel: Fahrenheit 451 was dismissive when I queried him about Star Trek and matter transport. He said teleportation was impossible. Yet Professor Eugene Polzik and his team in Copenhagen have successfully teleported an object about 18 inches using light, quantum mechanics, magnetism and a concept they call entanglement. And so, it begins.

Bradbury sadly disappointed me also when I asked him about time travel. He said that it was impossible to travel in time. But Theoretical Physicist Brian Greene, author of the 1999 book The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory and others, for all of their proofs, cannot show that time travel is impossible. So, hold onto your hats for the development of that too in the not too distant future.

Now what we need is work on warp drive. We need this technology more desperately than the others. Our need is not the need of a single country or people. This need is global. It concerns us all. I'm talking about the survival of the human race. What we need is a paradigm shift, a new perspective, an examination of science on the fringe. What we need is a new way of thinking about propulsion. What we need is a conceptual breakthrough.

Unlike the simplistic fable of Archimedes told in Physics classes, enlightenment does not occur like a light bulb going on suddenly in our minds. There is no Eureka moment. Rather it is the unexpected result, the fly in the ointment, the experiment that goes wrong that takes our thinking in a new direction.

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science,

the one that heralds new discoveries,

is not Eureka! but That's funny..."

  - Isaac Asimov

Thus far, we have been jettisoning ourselves into space using rocket technology invented by the Chinese in the early thirteenth century. But without a doubt, travelling to the stars needs a faster and more efficient means of propulsion. So I call on the fresh minds out there to suggest a new approach. Don't let the system crush you or dissuade you with its tried and true concepts. Dare to think differently, to take risks, to go out on the ledge, because that is where the next breakthrough lies.


'A Possible Eureka' by Stevenson

Copyright © New Yorker Magazine.

What encourages me about Science Fiction and a positive future for us is that, with this genre more than others, life imitates art. What is imagined becomes reality, as Verne suggested long ago. Prediction becomes innovation. So, whereas many people think that traveling to the stars is for dreamers, I think otherwise. I believe that if we put our best minds to the problem, a new propulsion system will be developed, and Science Fiction will once again inspire technical reality. And, in turn, the new technology will be our salvation.

"Science Fiction ... has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all." - Isaac Asimov

NASA takes its Science Fiction and its science seriously. Read:  How NASA might build its very first warp drive.

I have every confidence that we will think up something completely different and wonderful and indeed will break the light barrier one day and will be able to travel back and forth between the suns as easily as we jet between cities today. But unlike Pal's 1960 film version of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, where Filby reminds George: "You've all the time in the world," we do not. For us, the clock is ticking.

Read: Can a machine think?
Anatomy of The Machine
Artificial Super-Intelligence
Doomsday Revisited
Future War
IBM Builds Brain
Killer Robots
Robot Takeover
We May Exist in a Simulation

Now you know.

from the imagination of Mark A. Carter - writer

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