Monday, October 3, 2011

Why it Shouldn't Happen in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

I've noticed a trend in SFR where the setting is another galaxy. In spite of the poetic Star Wars opener, this disturbs me on many levels. The "fiction" in Science Fiction Romance allows for a universe of ideas and imaginative settings, but there's also that "science" part to consider.

Let me explain why this has become my #1 pet peeve with the subgenre:

Why go there?

The Milky Way Galaxy

Our home galaxy is made up of some 200,000,000,000 stars. That's 200 billion suns. Let me say that again. Two hundred billion. We can be pretty sure a good number of those 200 billion suns have multiple planets and moons and asteroids orbiting them. That's a whole lot of real estate. Why set a story outside those parameters?  Does it make it any more exotic? Or alien? I think not. If anything, it only makes it more implausible.

Why? Time. Distance. And Physics. 

Let's take it in increments.

Distance from the Earth to our Sun

The average distance between the Earth and the Sun is 93 million miles or roughly 149 million kilometers. Because the distances in space are so enormous, this is a standard of measurement refered to as an AU or International Astronomical Unit. Note that this is the "average" distance. Objects in space do not stay in one place so there is no constant point A to point B distance.

So looking down the street in our immediate solar neighborhood:

Distances within our solar system (the planetary system revolving around our single sun):
Earth to Mars:  0.5 AU or 48,600,000 miles
Earth to Jupiter:  4.2 AU or 390,500,000 miles
Earth to Saturn:  8.4 AU or 793,800,000 miles
Earth to Uranus: 18.4 AU or 1,689,800,000 miles
Earth to Nepture: 30.0 AU or 2,701,400,000 miles
Earth to Pluto: 38.53 AU or 3,573,200,000 miles
Earth to the Kiuper Belt:  5,000 to 100,000 AU or 465,000,000,000 to 9,300,000,000,000 mi.

Whew!  Okey-dokey. We're already covering a lot of ground and we've hardly made it off the block. Let's think about a trip to the "next town."

Distance to the Nearest Star

Proxima Centauri, the closest (actually part of a triple sun system called Alpha Centauri), is 39,900,000,000,000 km away or about 26,200,000,000,000 miles. That's about 4.22 light years. We're definitely going to have to pack a lunch.

How Long Would It Take to Get There?

The distance of 4.22 light years means it would take 4.22 years traveling at 186,282 miles per second (mps not mph) to reach it.

Let's get some real space/time perspective on that.

The Galileo probe currently holds the record as the fastest spacecraft to travel through space at 106,000 mph. Using Jupiter's gravity to create a slingshot effect, we might possibly have a spacecraft achieve a velocity of 150,000 mph. (And that's to the nth times slower than 186,000 miles per second.)

Our Voyager I spacecraft, launched in 1977, has been traveling outbound for almost 35 years. It reached Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in 1980 and flew beyond the orbit of Pluto in 1989. It has now been traveling for almost 35 years and hasn't yet reached the Kuiper Belt or the heliosphere that marks the outer bounds of our own solar system, much less interstellar space--the space between solar systems.

Some scientists believe Voyager 1 (and Voyager 2, which is traveling on a different trajectory) will leave our solar system sometime in 2016. Voyager is traveling at about at about 57,600 kph or 35,790 mph. If it took almost 40 years just to reach the edge of our own solar system, much less cover the space to the closest star, think how vast that distance truly is!

So let's pretend we could develop an ion drive that could approach light speed. Just getting to that speed takes time. In fact, it could take about 4,900 years to accelerate to half the speed of light and another 4,900 years to begin decelerating to normal speed when we reach the halfway point to Proxima Centauri. (It takes a lot of time to slow down, too.) That would be 9,800 years or more time than all of recorded human history to get to the nearest star.

Even if we could instantly accelerate to and from light speed, it would still take well over four years just to reach Proxima Centauri traveling at the rate of 186,282 miles per second.

There are about 26 stars that are considered near our own sun (neighboring towns, relatively speaking). Bernard's Star, at 6 light years distant, is the closest star that is thought to have planets of its own.  Procyan B, the farthest of the "near" stars is about 11.5 light years distant. One of the brightest stars, Vega, is about 27 light years away or 6.5 times further than Proxima Centauri.

Whew! And that's only to reach the closest stars. We're nowhere near talking about other galaxies yet.

Distance across the Milky Way Galaxy

Our own galaxy is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 km (or about 100,000 light years) across.

Our Sun, which is on one of the arms of our spiral galaxy, takes over 200 million years to circle the Milky Way Galaxy just once

So, if we could instantly achieve light speed coming and going, it would take over four years just to reach the closest star and 100,000 years (5,000 generations!) to fly across our own galaxy.

And we're supposed to go where?

Distance to the Nearest Galaxy--Hello, Andromeda

The distance to the nearest galaxy, Andromeda (also called Messier 31 or M31), is estimated to be between 2 to 2.2 million light years away.

What? You want mile markers?

2.2 million light years
= 186,000 miles per second (rounded)
x 60 seconds/minute x 60 minutes/hour x 24 hours/day
x 365 days/year
= 12,904,531,200,000,000,000 miles distant

By the time we get there--provided we can even attain that proverbial "instant" light speed--chances are we've evolved into something that isn't even human. After all, how old is the human species--scientifically speaking? And that's assuming there are no mechanical failures or accidents along those 2.2 million years since we're beyond the help of the nearest spacecraft repair shop. In fact, since we're aiming for light generated over 2 million years ago and then adding the time for our trip, the galaxy may not even be there when we arrive over 4 million years after the light was generated. Sobering, yes?

And once we arrive, how do we let anyone know? Even sending messages via light, it will take 2.2 million years to reach the folks back home--who have by then probably also evolved or gone extinct.

Other Implausibles

In addition to the problem of spanning unfathomable time and distance, there's also problems with the fabric of intergalactic space.

Galaxies are connected by a denser plasma than the empty spaces of the universe. Galactic medium is mostly composed of ionized hydrogen. It may be up to 100 times denser than that of intergalactic space. Atoms may not behave the same way in intergalactic space due to the absence of energy in the void.

There could also be mysterious forces at play, such as dark matter and dark energy, that work differently outside the influence of a galaxy. No one is sure if propulsion systems, or matter in general (such as that making up the hull of the spacecraft), would behave in the same way if intergalactic space doesn't have the same physical laws.

Wait, What About Warp Drive?

Clearly, if we're going to jaunt about space, we're going to need some sort of Warp Drive (Star Trek), space bending (Dune), or jump gates (Dock Five series--Linnea Sinclair). Even so, the distances we'd have to bridge within our own galaxy are so incredibly vast, why oh why would we ever need or want to cross eternity to another galaxy? What could there possibly be over there that we don't have right here? (Right here, give or take 50,000 light years, that is.)

So why go there indeed? It seems staying within the bounds of our own galaxy makes the science in the Science Fiction Romance much more within the realm of "suspension of disbelief." 

Me? Believe I'll stick around the ol' hometown.


  1. THANK YOU for this post. Relativistic issues aside, the sheer distance to other galaxies is so staggering, the time required to travel among them so absurd... Truly, thank you for injecting this bit of realism into the admittedly sometimes less than realistic world of SFR.

  2. Ah, glad I have an ally in the debate, Jeanette. :) Thanks for your comment.

    Even Star Trek has an episode about not going there when they were thrown out of the Milky Way Galaxy by a mysterious force. (Donna, our resident ST expert could probably chime in on that.)

    While I agree SFR writers don't have to have a degree in physics to write a great SFR story, I do sometimes wonder if the definitions of 'solar system' and 'galaxy' are getting confused.

  3. Wonderful post. Thanks for listing all of the figures.

    In defense of LUST IN SPACE, their technology allows them to bend together any two points in space, making distance a non-issue. ;-)

  4. That's a great point, Lisa. If the story involves some sort of exotic way of moving around space, and there's a specific reason for linking two galaxies, then suspending disbelief becomes a whole lot easier for me than it does for a story set in another galaxy "just because." :)

    Thanks for stopping by to comment.

  5. Great post!

    I wonder if there's a perception that simply because we live in the Milky Way, there's a feeling of "been there, done that."

    STAR WARS certainly made a big impact with its romanticized view of the universe. It set the tone for many stories to come, for good or for bad.

    I'm fine with either a "local" setting or one that's far away, but I agree there's plenty of story fodder in our own solar system and galaxy (alien artifacts, anyone?).

    As Lisa pointed out, many stories feature ships with the technology to travel such vast distances relatively quickly. It's a shortcut, yes, but it helps many authors get on with the story and explore exotic settings, which frankly have high appeal.

    I'm also wondering if by using far away settings, authors are simply raising the stakes. I did that deliberately for my book Once Upon a Time in Space. Somehow, the idea of traveling to an inhabitable planet in the Milky Way seemed too easy, even while I was familiar with the actual distances involved. It *seemed* more exciting to have my characters travel farther away, and ultimately my goal was to write the most entertaining story I knew how.

    I'm also wondering if the fact that we haven't discovered a ton of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way makes it seem like there's nothing here of interest--never mind the fact that we're at a limited point in terms of technology. I'm focusing more on the *perception* that the Milky Way is kind of "empty." It's up to authors to show how exciting our galaxy can be.

    Still, I absolutely agree there's more than enough room for "hometown" Milky Way stories. As long as the story is exciting, readers will embrace the local flavor.

    Come to think of it, Carina Press authors Anah Crow and Dianne Fox have a forthcoming SFR--RUNAWAY STAR--that's set on or around Earth's moon, if memory serves.

  6. Oh, duh is me--Gini Koch's Alien series also takes place locally--right here on Earth! There's nothing like mixing up SFR and 'gators!

  7. Thanks, Heather. Great insights. I think you may be right that the Milky Way might seem "too tame" for some writers who may not understand how dynamic and expansive our galaxy really is. (Hmmm...follow up article?)

    Thanks for your thoughts. :)

  8. Yes, I believe it was the many-tentacled Kelvins--who somehow were able to stuff themselves into human bodies (but not for long once Kirk and crew got hold of them!) that came over from the Andromeda galaxy and had to cross the great GALACTIC BARRIER!!! to do so. The Enterprise was almost destroyed trying to make the return trip. The fact that the distances are so vast is the very reason writers have come up with warp drive and jump gates and bent space and so on. Otherwise we are stuck here, gazing up at the unreachable stars. And empty? New planets are being discovered every day in our own little galaxy! For every one we find, there are millions more out there. Or as Carl Sagan would say, MILLIONS AND MILLIONS! Welcome back, Laurie--we missed you!

  9. I knew you'd have the info on that episode, Donna! :)

    And thanks for the welcome back.

  10. Good point, Laurie! Plenty of real estate indeed!

  11. Thanks for stopping by, Bella.

    I really need to write that follow-up article.

  12. I fully understand your point, Laurie, and can't fault your logic. However ...
    I'm going to stick my neck out and say I don't much care if it is set in a galaxy far, far away, as long as the story itself and the characters are compelling. Whether the author chooses to include a feasible way for the human race to have reached that distant galaxy depends on the story and how big a part it plays overall.
    When I wrote as a teenager I had a huge library of astronomy books, books on planetary formation and the solar system. I spent weeks researching stars that could potentially support life like ours, drew up my own solar systems, noted distances in light-years etc. The result? I never, ever finished a single damn one of those stories. Ever.
    Perhaps that's why it now doesn't matter to me where it's set. Kudos to those who do the research and make it 'work' for their chosen universe. And I will confess that my own stuff is set in our home galaxy even though I never state it outright (I think I referred to the star Algol somewhere).
    Now, who wants to shoot me first? :-P

  13. LOL Pippa, no shots fired here.

    I confess if it's a really great story, I'd read it (begrudgingly) regardless of the setting. In fact, I'm considering submitting to an anthology with a setting in another galaxy (begrudgingly, again).

    What I'm having a hard time getting my head around is why authors think a setting in another galaxy is any more attractive--or necessary--than a local galaxy setting. I think in many cases it only hurts the story's plausibility. Especially when the Milky Way is such a dynamic, amazing, expansive place.

    Oh, I sense another blog article coming on. :)

  14. Lol, hmmm, I have a suspicion I may also be submitting to that anthology!

    Maybe some writers just feel that being out in space in our galaxy just isn't 'far out' enough?

    Personally I agree that there is more than enough scope within our own corner of the universe. But as they say, each to their own.


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