Monday, October 21, 2013

Why Another Galaxy Far, Far Away?

I'm putting on my reader's cap today to open up a discussion topic. Okay, it's regarding a pet peeve of mine. And this pet peeve is so monumental to this reader that it's causing me to have issues with some SFR books that I'd otherwise rate very high.

Most of us agree that Science Fiction Romance should have at least a basis in science, with a liberal amount of imagination applied. I'm all for the imagination part, even when it gets a bit beyond liberal. But I have to confess, I have a major issue with "suspension of disbelief" when the story has a non-logical/seemingly impossible setting.

A story set in another galaxy is an instant turn-off for me.


My question is: Why there?

Does setting a SFR in another galaxy make it seem "more" Sci-Fi? Do you think the story feels more exotic? Does it make the technology and the setting somehow more futuristic? Do you just love that line from Star Wars about the story happening "in another galaxy far, far away?"

I so disagree with these lines of thought, so let me present my case.

Here are my biggest problems with suspension of disbelief involving stories set in other galaxies:

First of all, let's take a closer look at our very nearest spiral galaxy neighbor--Andromeda--currently hurtling toward our galaxy on a collision course. Andromeda and The Milky Way are coming together at some 300,000 miles per hour. Even at that speed, the collision won't take place for some 3.75 billion (with a "b") years--give or take. That's because Andromeda is so very far away--even as our closest spiral neighbor--it's still going to take eons to get here.

So when I read a story about a human colony/space station/exploration vessel set in Andromeda in, say 3700 AD, my questioning mind says: "Wait! How can this be?"

Andromeda is about 2.54 million light years away--that means traveling at the speed of light (which we're not even sure is possible) for 2,540,000 years--longer than the existence of our species if you believe in evolution. Even if we could travel 10 times the speed of light, it would take 254,000 years to arrive. At one hundred times the speed of light it would take 25,400 years to reach Andromeda. So you can see my problems with having a colony/space station/exploration ship in Andromeda in the next 3,000-5,000 years. Sorry, we wouldn't even make it anywhere near the outer edge of the Milky Way in that amount of time.

Let's put some perspective on our current state of space travel. Voyager 1 and 2 are traveling at about 17,000 miles per hour, and have been traveling outbound for some 38 years. Yet Voyager 1--the farthest manmade object from Earth--is only about 17 light HOURS (not light years) away from our planet, and finally entering the region of interstellar space between our home solar system and the very nearest star. To reach that nearest star traveling at its current speed would require about 19,400 years, and it would take 130,877,700 years to reach the edge of the Milky Way! Even if we could somehow boost the Voyagers to light speed, it would still take approximately 29,000 light years to reach the edge of our galaxy. And even reaching the edge of our own galaxy, we haven't even made a minor dent in spanning the 2.54 million light years to Andromeda.

So why set a story outside the Milky Way? Our own galaxy is incredibly, inconceivably vast. If you use Newton's version of Keplar's Third Law of Planetary Motion, there are an estimated 200 billion (with a "b") suns in the Milky Way Galaxy. Other estimates put the total closer to 400 billion stars. It's about 26,000 light years to the Galactic core and, as mentioned, another 29,000 light years to the edge of the galaxy. Some estimates say there could be billions (with a "b") of Earth-like planets in our own galaxy.

That's a whole lot of real estate for a story setting!

In fact, when we look up at all those myriad stars in the night sky, we're actually only seeing about 2,500 to 5,000 stars on a clear, moonless night. If you could see all the stars in both the southern and northern hemispheres, the max would be about 9,000-10,000. Binoculars might allow you to see up to 200,000 stars. A good telescope, maybe 15 million. That sounds like a lot, but it's only about .000075 of the lower estimate (200 billion) of stars in our own galaxy.

What we call "The Milky Way"--that great band of stars and gas stretched out across the heavens we can see on very dark nights is actually only a very small part of our galaxy--the Sagittarius Arm. There are four main arms called the Norma and Cygnus, Sagittarius, Scutum-Crux, and Perseus. Our sun is located on what's called the "Orion Spur" or the "Local Arm." The galactic disk itself is some 100,000 light years across. It's not even possible to see the center of the Milky Way because of all the gas and dust. So when we look at "the Milky Way" we're actually only seeing a tiny fraction of one arm--which is just a percentage of all that our galaxy encompasses.

In other words, the Milky Way is freakin' huge!

What's that, you say? You still want to set your story in another galaxy because...well, it just sounds cool.

Okay, really stretch my "suspension of disbelief" and say you've developed some sort of Galactic Skip Drive--which you at least touch on in your story--and that it lets your characters span these impossible distances to get to another galaxy in the next 3,000-5,000 years.

I'm still not convinced.

Let's put aside the basic questions of why they'd even want to go there when there's so much to see, explore, discover, puzzle over and colonize right here. There are even more potential problems...

We don't even know for sure if the astrophysical mechanics work the same way in other galaxies that they do as we understand them here in the Milky Way. Andromeda is roughly double the size of the Milky Way but has about the same mass. Why is that? Because we don't think it has as much dark matter. Dark matter affects our galactic dynamics in ways we don't even fully understand yet, much less have the ability understand the implications for Andromeda or any other galaxy. In spite of the lower mass and less dark matter, Andromeda is believed to have a higher stellar density. Andromeda also has black holes (35 identified so far) that cluster differently than black holes in the Milky Way.

Though galaxies may look somewhat alike, that doesn't mean they are alike or even have close to the same properties or mechanics. The differences could be as far apart as the atmospheres of Earth and Jupiter. Assuming Jupiter is a planet so it's similar enough to Earth that you can set a story about a colony there would be a huge mistake. (Okay, touche'. I made this mistake once--but it was 40 years ago and I've educated myself since then.)

So there's my argument for not setting a SFR in another galaxy.

Now, I'd love to hear from you. Do you have or have you read a SFR set in another galaxy? Why did you choose or enjoy that setting? Did the setting affect the dynamics of the story? How did your characters get there? And why did they go there?

Video of Milky Way-Andromeda collision simulation:


  1. I think this depends on if you are looking for hard science or scifi fantasy/space opera. Space Opera often takes place in an unnamed galaxy far far away because, at its core, Space Opera is about the characters and the story, not the science. By leaving the location and science vague, the reader is able to focus on character development, plot, relationship etc. It also lets the imagination run free to build the universe as their brain sees fit. Now, when you look at the flipside for hard-science books and SFR involving Humans, then yes - it needs to be a plausible reason, like a wormhole or hyperspace experiment gone horrible wrong. But still - I prefer to ask the question "Why not another galaxy?"

  2. It really doesn't bother me either way, as long as the story is good. And it isn't something that factors into my stories either, although you'll probably remember the submission call for Misa Buckley's anthology that was set in another galaxy. Having written to her story bible, and then inheriting the idea, one of my stories IS set in another galaxy, and with no explanation. Probably because neither space travel nor the reason for them being in another galaxy in the first place feature or have a bearing on the story overall.
    My other stuff - well, in my mind it's all set in our own galaxy although I never specifically state it, and my characters ability to cross time and space would potentially allow travel to another. My current out-of-this-galaxy short will be getting a revamp next year as two more stories join the first, so I may well remove the 'other galaxy' factor. To be fair, so many things that were impossible a century ago are now possible - I'm not saying it's likely we'll suddenly develop the technology to not only reach other planets in another system but a whole nother galaxy as well, but that is a possibility.

  3. I'm pretty open to just about anything, having read a lot of speculative fiction in my teens. Andre Norton postulated humanity would eventually destroy Earth, then the local galaxy, and spread out. But for me it's more about characters than science...tell me we can get into space or travel through time using waste material (flux capacitor anyone?) I'm there with you.

  4. Totally agree on those books that are space opera/science fantasy, Corrine. I don't tend to read those often but when I do my approach is different.

    Generally, I prefer SFR that has at least a basis in science. For my tastes, SFR set in another galaxy is too far-fetched, unless there's some reason that the characters intentionally went there--rare resource, etc--or if there's some accidental blip in the laws of the universe that landed them there. We've got eons of time ahead of us just exploring our own neighborhood of stars, so I guess that's why my logical mind questions why we'd make this enormous leap, even if it became possible.

  5. Pippa, totally agree on the "nothing is impossible." I don't consider anything impossible--but there is still improbable. I guess in my mind (which granted can be a bit of a stickler), it's like flying to Australia to look for shells when you live on a seashore. Is that a good analogy? LOL You know me, I love my analogies.

  6. Hi, Mona, and thanks for stopping by.

    And yes to a forced evacuation, but again, the galaxy is so huge it would most likely take millions of years to destroy it.

    It's like the scene at the end of Supernova when one of the characters asks how long before the dimension-destroying properties reach Earth and destroy it, too. The answer: Fifty-seven years. And that took place in our own corner of the galaxy, or at least that part of space instantly accessible by dimensional shift. (Not that the science in Supernova was necessarily spot on.)

    I do so want me some FLUX CAPACITOR though! Woohoo! Recycling time machines are beyond cool.

  7. Lol, I would totally grab the chance to go to Australia because I've never been. :P
    I suppose one aspect is, although we're supposedly discovering loads of potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way, we won't know if they really are until we get there. And while we are more likely to have the terraforming technology, or perhaps the ability to change OURSELVES to match the PLANET rather than making the planet suitable for us in order to live on them rather than the tech to reach another galaxy, I suppose it comes down to wouldn't we try to reach another galaxy if we got the chance? We haven't yet explored the depths of our own oceans, yet we've been reaching for the stars - humanity is just ornery enough to do it.
    But I do agree that if the ability to travel to another galaxy is essential to the story but isn't adequately explained, that would jar. I don't see the need to do it just to make an extraterrestrial setting more exotic (although I suppose it's like setting a romance on a tropical island when for most people it happens at work or out with friends etc), and perhaps there are some authors who feel it's necessary to make their stories more scifi in some respect. An alien planet can be as exotic and outlandish as you like and still be just a relative hop across the Milky Way. I can't think of any reason I would deliberately do it in any of my stories.

  8. You raise some excellent points, Pippa. Yeah, I'd go to Australia too, and there is something to be said for the "because it's there" mindset. But, on the other hand, if we only had canoes to get there, my answer would definitely change. LOL

    My concern is that other galaxies are being chosen as settings simply because it seems more exotic and that just "stops" me as a reader. Will I read on? Well...sometimes. Depending on the other aspects of the story. The bad thing is the book will never get a five star rating from me. That may seem unfair, but it just seems like a big black hole if the whole "Why is this set in [insert other galaxy name here]" isn't addressed.

    I had a discussion along these lines with another writer once. When I asked "Why did you decide to have your aliens hail from another galaxy?" The writer answered, "Well, we're pretty sure there's no intelligent life in our solar system, so if it exists, it has to be from another galaxy, right?"

    Um. No. There's a huge difference between another solar system and another galaxy (which can be made up of billions of solar systems). Such misconceptions can really hurt the realism of a setting.

  9. No, I wouldn't agree with that reasoning. On statistics alone, if there's no intelligent life in our galaxy, then surely it's just as unlikely in other galaxies.

  10. I have to agree, Pippa, that there just doesn't seem to be a good reason to set anything in another galaxy, much less posit that we're moving from one galaxy to another. Then there's that pesky Great Galactic Barrier to deal with at the "edge" of our Milky Way, if you believe the writers of STAR TREK, TOS!

    Even if you're writing Space Opera, with an emphasis on action and romance, with only a passing glance at the science involved, the stage of our own galaxy is plenty big enough to set your play. I think it's just plain laziness. God knows it makes my feeble little brain hurt to stay consistent with my made-up jump node (wormhole) system of getting around just this little corner of the galaxy.

  11. I guess the only answer I have is that I wanted to. LOL My expedition is called Project Enterprise. They pretty much had to try for another galaxy. (grin)

  12. LOL Pauline. Well, there is that. Writer's poetic license and all. :)

    And yes, Donna, the GGB! Something akin to that may very well exist. There is a theorized escape velocity for our galaxy--some 557 kilometers per second. In comparison, the escape velocity for a rocket to leave Earth is only 11.2 kilometers per second. Even our current "high tech" ion engines only max out at about 15 kilometers per second.

    Clearly we have a long way to go with our rocketry systems before we even think about leaving the Milky Way nest.

  13. Come to Australia. We have great sea shells, flat whites and Tim Tams. :)

    Other galaxies? I think I'd be a bit like you and wonder WHY given we have this vast neighbourhood and the distances are simply incomprehensible. I do write space opera and I have an amazing shift drive in my spaceships which enables them to cover vast distances in a very short time. If you consider something like a quantum drive (Jack McDevitt uses this concept), you can actually move from one place to another in an instant (dual states of matter). But I still think you'd have to be wondering WHY you'd go to another galaxy without having a very good look around in our own celestial backyard.

  14. This discussion just makes me realize how much I don't know!!! In my new Sci fi romance - I have vast distances - not specified - travelled in a fairly short time scale - not specified - and I don't say how they do it either. Are you going to tear me to shreds, Laurie? Mind you, I don't have it in a different galaxy. I don't even mention the word!

  15. Greta, I dream about seeing Australia someday. My parents made the trip many times, but without me in tow. Getting Down Under is on my bucket list.

    And I'm totally onboard with you on sticking around the ol' Milky Way.

    Barb, not to fear. You're good. [The novel formerly known as] P2PC didn't really specify which galaxy it took place in either. The actual location is more fully fleshed out in later novels, but yes, it's the Milky Way, just a Goldilocks-planet-rich part of it. Far, far away.

    Thanks for commenting!


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