No More Handwavium Drives
August 8, 2011 7:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm tired of suspending my disbelief regarding FTL travel. Suggest some good books, series, and authors.

To me, the most interesting thing about interstellar colonization is that each colonized star system would truly be an island--with an ocean of time separating them from Earth and each other. Faster than light travel is not going to happen, and I'm bored with wishful FTL thinking.

I recently enjoyed Ian Banks the Algebraist because of his fascinating aliens and the truly byzantine diversity of his human societies--a diversity largely resulting from the great distance between star systems. This was very close to what I am looking for, but then there were wormholes. Meh.

I'm familiar with the so-called Mundane SciFi non-movement, but I am not as pessimistic as those guys. I've got no problem with interstellar travel as long as it is slower than light and expensive. No problem with intelligent aliens as long as they are realistic.

I'm wishing for that perfect scifi author who sees the diverse societies of man like Ursula Le Guinn, meeting the plausible aliens of Ian Banks, built on the hard science of Ben Bova. Or maybe remind me of any fitting stories I might have missed by those authors.
posted by General Tonic to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
A Million Open Doors
Jack McDevitt
Kiln People, David Brin, for the alien in all of us.

Though... uh... Do you want ftl involed or not? You seem wishy washy. I is confused.
posted by Jacen at 7:04 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Alastair Reynolds writes a lot of sort-of-hard high-scale space opera in which, for the most part, FTL travel isn't possible (though damn-well everything else is.) His Revelation Space series is probably the most prominent, but I also liked House of Suns - also very-large-scale, big-events space-opera but with relativity providing a hard stop on travel. His characters sometimes lose hundreds or thousands of years due to time dilation, but they never get to wormhole around or activate warp drives.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:11 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, and Allen Steele's Coyote books
posted by Jacen at 7:24 PM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Joe Haldemann, The Forever War.
posted by wilful at 7:30 PM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You want Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky. Set in an universe where FTL is possible, but no one in the book actually have access to it. (It's a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, which is also really awesome but has FTL travel and communication.)
posted by thecaddy at 7:35 PM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm explicitly looking for stories without FTL.
posted by General Tonic at 7:35 PM on August 8, 2011

The Gold at the Starbow's End, a novella by Frederick Pohl, has a nice angle on the slower-than-light interstellar voyage.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:40 PM on August 8, 2011

There is no FTL in Deepness. No FTL, no strong AI, no... no lots of things.

There is FTL in A Fire Upon The Deep, but you can read Deepness without reading or knowing about Fire. All you really need to know ahead of time is that you care about Pham Nuwen.

Brin's Glory Season, but it's entirely set on one world.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:45 PM on August 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

enders's game series (not so much the first one though)
posted by pyro979 at 7:47 PM on August 8, 2011

A Door Into Ocean, by Joan Slonczewski, is built on hard science (biology, mainly, as the author has a PhD in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry) and deals with plausible aliens within a fairly diverse society. It's one of my favorite sci-fi books, partially because of how well Slonczewski builds the world and characters. If you like Ursula Le Guin, you'll probably like this book.

(And there's no FTL travel. At least, I'm pretty sure there's no FTL travel.)
posted by kethonna at 7:55 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

All of the following are IIRC and seem like they might scratch your itch:

I think the Ken MacLeod series starting with Cosmonaut Keep is purely STL, but the drive is still somewhat handwavy. I'm pretty sure Learning the World was similar.

I think the offscreen aliens in Varley's Ophiuchi Hotline stories have FTL, but the humans don't.

It's been a while, but I think Gene Wolfe's Long Sun and New Sun.

There's also plenty of good stuff set entirely within the (or a) solar system with no FTL: Sheffield's Cold as Ice/Dark as Day; Sterling's Schismatrix stuff; except for a detail, Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers; KSR's Mars trilogy; Banks' Against a Dark Background.
posted by hattifattener at 8:16 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nancy Kress does this better in Crossfire than anyone else I've read, and probably in the sequel Crucible, too, but I haven't read that one.
posted by jamjam at 8:45 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's no FTL in Charles Stross' Accelerando. Plus it's awesome. Lots of strong AI though.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:52 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Online SF comic: Freefall

There are two main characters. Sam Starfall is an alien. A human exploration ship visited his home system and found his race -- which turns out to be a bunch of crooks. Think "Ferengi without the honor". Sam stowed away on the ship and was discovered once it returned to a human world. He wears an exoskeleton which makes him seem bipedal with a face. He is actually some sort of squid-like being. (My guess is that if we ever see him, he'll look like Cthulhu.)

The other main character is Florence Ambrose. She's a Bowman's Wolf. They're the result of a pilot project in genetic engineering. Dr. Bowman created a brain-construct which was intended to be used to augment an animal in order to make it have human-level intelligence. To test the design, 18 wolves were agmented. Florence is one of them.

The story takes place on a planet which is in the midst of terraforming. Most of the work is being done by robots; the human population of the planet is relatively small. (The numbers are something like 30,000 humans and 180 million robots.)

There's a lot of story here, and there have been a lot of reveals. The story isn't over, and I won't tell you any of the reveals.

But the main point is that star travel is being done with STL ships.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:26 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might have read all of these already, but just in case: Le Guin's Rocannon's World, City of Illusions, Planet of Exile and The Dispossessed are all set prior to the invention of the ansible, so the difficulty of communicating across long spans of space and time is a major plot factor.

I'll recommend Greg Egan's work. Most of it is grounded firmly in real physics, or at least doesn't obviously contradict it. Bonus points for having some stories posted freely online: I suggest starting with "Glory" (PDF) and "Singleton" to get an idea of his style.

You might also like Spin by Robert Charles Wilson; it does feature some space-time shenanigans, but aside from the last few pages, not in a way that allows any cheating as far as interstellar travel goes.

Aside from that, I'll second the Mars trilogy and A Deepness in the Sky. Accelerando is a solid novel but it has wormholes that show up near the end.
posted by teraflop at 9:43 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Alastair Reynolds. In addition to the Revelation Space universe, I'd also suggest the stand-alone Pushing Ice, which has a pretty awesome take on STL travel. I really liked House of Suns, too, but depending on how purist you want to be about STL, the ending might piss you off. (I won't say any more.)

Seconding Deepness in the Sky. Truly awesome. Almost exactly what you're looking for in terms of "truly island"-type universes.

I would add John C. Wright's Golden Age series. He is damn serious about STL there — in fact, it's a crucial theme that underlies the books' main struggle.

Also tentatively adding Karl Schroeder's Permanence. There is FTL, but it's only available to some. Many live in places accessible only by STL, and the disintegration of the network that's kept these locales together is a key theme.

Finally, you might like Robert Reed's Marrow.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:45 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Some good leads so far. Much thanks.

I loved A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, even with his fantastical physics and FTL concept. I somehow thought I had read A Deepness in the Sky, but looking at a synopsis I realize I hadn't. So thanks very much for that one!

Also thanks for reminding me of Alastair Reynolds. I started Revelation Space years ago but didn't get very far. He seems to write the kind of social complexity I find appealing, and knowing he remains true to relativity puts that whole universe on the short list. Great!

Love Charlie Stross and Ken MacLeod.

Clearly I've got no problem with AI. If meat can think, I don't see why it should be impossible for electronics to think.

And I misspelled Iain M. Banks above.
posted by General Tonic at 9:53 PM on August 8, 2011

And I misspelled Iain M. Banks above.

Only the science fiction has the M, his other books are just Ian Banks.

He also wrote Against a Dark Background which has no FTL.
posted by atrazine at 10:23 PM on August 8, 2011

enders's game series (not so much the first one though)

Later books feature FTL by wishing.

There's no FTL in Charles Stross' Accelerando.

Pretty sure there are wormholes towards the end.

Oh --

I completely forgot Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs books that started with Altered Carbon. No FTL that I recall. Not even much physical interstellar transportation -- you squirt your downloaded mentality to a body at your destination world. Good stuff.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:13 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think there is any FTL in Blindsight by Peter Watts.
posted by Pendragon at 4:38 AM on August 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Many of my choices have been mentioned so far: the MacLeod, Reynolds, and Morgan.

Going back a bit, a lot of earlier Niven is no-FTL. Later Niven, post-Ringworld has FTL drives all over the place, but his early "known space" are a pretty decent fit. Protector comes to mind particularly. The climax of the book is a fight between relativistic rockets. A Gift from Earth similarly is about a colony isolated from the rest of humanity because FTL doesn't exist.

Also, it's been a while, but I'm pretty certain that the Cordwainer Smith "Instrumentality of Man" books are all sub-light too (and the cause of delightfully weird uplifts). If you look at his wikipedia page, many of his shorts, his best work, are on-line too.
posted by bonehead at 6:34 AM on August 9, 2011

I haven't finished it, but so far The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi has no FTL. It all takes place (so far) in the solar system. Plenty of other crazy scifi stuff with quantum computing, AIs, etc. but no FTL.

One of his short stories was on the blue before. Take a look, see if you like it.
posted by Hactar at 7:10 AM on August 9, 2011

General Tonic: "I've got no problem with interstellar travel as long as it is slower than light and expensive. No problem with intelligent aliens as long as they are realistic.

I'm wishing for that perfect scifi author who sees the diverse societies of man like Ursula Le Guinn

Worth noting that, although Le Guin's Hainish stories do not have FTL, they do have instantaneous communication over interstellar distances via the ansible. Which seems at least as implausible as FTL.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:44 PM on August 9, 2011

Cosmonaut's Keep has been mentioned in passing above, but it comes really close to your requirements. The star drive is nearly instantaneous for the passengers, but not so for the outside universe. Pretty much what you'd expect... this plays an interesting part in the story, as travellers age slowly while for everyone else hundreds of years pass. Pretty interesting imho.
posted by aeighty at 3:42 PM on August 9, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I'll eventually check out every one of your suggestions. I'm most pleased about the reminders of familiar authors that I had overlooked.

Le Guinn's stories are wonderful and should be read by everyone, but her panhuman domain that predates Olduvai Gorge is more unrealistic than the ansible.

The Mars Trilogy by KSR is a masterpiece which I've practically memorized, with an interstellar colonization ship leaving during the third book. I wonder if Robinson ever considered exploring what happened to that expedition.

I've started A Deepness in the Sky, and it is exactly the sort of thing I am looking for.
posted by General Tonic at 7:30 PM on August 9, 2011

If you like reading about diverse, isolated societies, you might like "Geta", by Donald Kingsbury. It was published in the US as "Courtship Rite"
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:30 PM on August 9, 2011

Response by poster: I read and absolutely loved Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky. I think it may now be my favorite single SciFi novel. After a little more digging, I found The Outcasts of Heaven Belt by his ex-wife Joan D. Vinge, which is set in Pham Nuwen's universe (several centuries and many light-years from him). Also very enjoyable and bound by relativity.

Then I read Allen Steele's Coyote trilogy. The setting and premise are great, and the writing gets better as it goes on. Unlike many of the others mentioned, these stories start only 60 years in our future, and the protagonists are imaginable as our grandchildren. Unfortunately, Steele can't ultimately resist just a little FTL, and wormholes are invented in the third book. An unfortunately unrealistic choice which, in my opinion, removes an important dramatic element from the stories. But the world is interesting enough for me to check out some of the peripheral books set in the Coyote Universe.
posted by General Tonic at 7:47 AM on September 9, 2011

I'll second Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix stories, collected in Schismatrix Plus, one of my current fave scifi books. They're set in a near-future, this-solar-system, realistic and delicate mechanized/genetically-manipulated colonization universe, with just a bit of unrealistic alien intervention to make things abnormally weird. I could've done without the aliens, to be honest (they seem unnecessary and easily replaced with more realistic factors) but other than that the Schismatrix stuff is the best non-handwavium scifi I've read in ages.
posted by mediareport at 8:04 PM on May 2, 2012

« Older Flying to Korea on my first international trip....   |   What is this photo of? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.