Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction…1…Charles Sheffield


The first few years of the Millennium were dark ones for fans of hard science fiction. In 2001, Poul Anderson died, followed a few months later by his frequent collaborator Gordon Dickson. Then in 2003, Hal Clement, who did more than any other writer to develop hard science fiction as an identifiable sub-genre by introducing a new degree of scientific rigor in writing and helped make world-building an art form, also passed away. Between these two massive losses came possibly the most tragic of them all, as physicist and writer Charles Sheffield lost a brief but brave battle with an aggressive brain tumor in 2002. Although he had begun writing quite late in life, Sheffield had nonetheless quickly developed a reputation as one of hard science fiction’s finest practitioners, a prolific and versatile writer whose diverse stories and series combined, as Spider Robinson (who would name the spaceship in his Heinlein paste-up Variable Star after his late colleague and friend) said, “the scientific grounding of Clarke, the storytelling skills of a Heinlein, the dry wit of a Pohl or Kornbluth, and the universe-building prowess of a Niven.” I would also add that he possessed Gregory Benford’s skill at realistic and believable depictions of scientists and science at work…even as practiced many centuries from now. As wondrous and exciting as his many novels and short stories were, there was still the feeling that the best was yet to come; alas, as had been the case with Stanley Weinbaum three quarters of a century earlier, the cruelties of cancer once again stole us of a promise yet to be fulfilled, and we can only surmise as to what might have been.

Although one would surmise based on the main topic of this series of essays that I would analyze Sheffield’s novel Godspeed, I have decided instead to look at the stories that make up the shared-universe collection One Man’s Universe. For obvious reasons, I am quite fond of the book’s hero, Scottish scientific genius of the far future Arthur Morton McAndrew, described as the greatest physicist since Newton and Einstein, and the first in many a century to be both a brilliant experimenter and theorist alike. It is highly interesting to compare Sheffield’s depiction of scientists and their work in these stories with that of Gregory Benford. Whereas Benford is primarily an experimental physicist by profession who does theoretical work as well as fiction writing on the side, * Sheffield was a theoretical physicist whose day job as a Chief Scientist for the Earth Satellite Corporation put him in the position of adviser on a variety of experimental work. There is a profound difference in the worlds of the theoretician and experimentalist in physics, although they both require each other in order to succeed, a fact that is reflected in the science fiction of both authors. Benford’s science fiction is based primarily in speculations and extrapolations on the nature of the universe derived from discoveries made through experimental work and observation; Sheffield, on the other hand, specialized in literal “thought experiments” that dealt with how we might credibly test our more extravagant theories and speculations and what applications might be derived from them. The scientific method continues to hold strong in Sheffield’s universe as his scientists continue to push and explore its boundaries, following Clarke’s Second Law to the letter.

Sheffield was frequently compared to Arthur C. Clarke as a master of hard science fiction that was also exciting and accessible, and the comparison I think is particularly apt, since Sheffield’s literary voice was also the most American-sounding for a British SF writer since that of Clarke himself, or maybe Eric Frank Russell. He was a writer for whom the New Wave that originated in his home country had  seemingly totally passed by, favoring instead to hark back to the American pulps and paperbacks of yore. Even as hard SF itself was given a distinct British voice in the Eighties and Nineties by such writers as Stephen Baxter, Peter Hamilton and Alistair Reynolds who owed more to an earlier generation of British SF writers that included Brian Aldiss and Ian Watson than American scribes, Sheffield, already a longtime resident of the United States by the time he began writing, worked firmly in the Analog tradition, demonstrating the strong influence of Asimov and Heinlein as well as Clarke in his prose style and plots. Interestingly enough, Sheffield himself stated, in his contribution to Yojo Kondo’s Requiem, that he had always thought of Heinlein as an archetypical British writer. Science fiction, like science itself, speaks a lingua franca understood and appreciated all over the world.

The warp-drive ship featured in the McAndrew Chronicles (also the original published title of One Man’s Universe), is very different from the ramjet in Anderson’s Tau Zero or Benford’s “Relativistic Effects,” but is no less based in solid science. The McAndrew Balanced Drive, as it is called, consists of a simple disc of curved, super-dense matter in front providing gravitational acceleration according to the rules of the equivalence principle in general relativity, propelled by an engine that taps the energy of the quantum fluctuations of the vacuum. Of course, as Sheffield takes care to point out in his explanatory notes, despite the actual science involved, it is still fiction, and there are problems that would arise with such a mechanism in the real world. Besides the fact that we still cannot produce stable masses sufficiently dense for the purposes of such a drive, there would still be the matter of tidal effects upon its passengers and cargo, and the energies of the vacuum, despite being a very real consequence of quantum electrodynamics, not only remain untapped, but may very well be forever inaccessible for any useful purpose. Nonetheless, hard science fiction does not need to restrict itself to only that which is probable; the improbable but possible according to physical laws is very much part of the genre as well. There may never be a McAndrew Balanced Drive in the real world, but it still works as science fiction because Sheffield went through the effort to demonstrate how such a device could conceivably work according to known physical laws. As if that were not enough, he provides some more detailed but no less elegantly-written explanations at the end of the book on the scientific basis for each individual story. Hard science fiction is as much a form of rhetoric as it is narrative, an attempt at argument as well as entertainment, one that tries to persuade the reader that its speculations are within the scope of both possibility and probability through appeals to scientific fact.

Although each Chronicle can be read and enjoyed in any order, I still recommend reading them in sequence, as not only do the stories build upon one another, but the science in each Chronicle builds upon that featured in the one that immediately precedes it. The McAndrew Drive may not be introduced until the Second Chronicle entitled “Moment of Inertia”, but not only is it featured in each successive one, but the scientific basis is already laid down in the First Chronicle, “Killing Vector” with the discussion of Kerr-Newman black holes, which McAndrew has figured out how to artificially create and contain in miniature forms called “Kernels” (not unlike the quantum black holes in Larry Niven’s “The Hole Man,” itself another exceptional portrayal of future scientists at work). The Drive leads to the topic of vacuum-point energy that figures in the third chronicle, “All the Colors of the Vacuum,” and its ability to travel great distances permits the exploration of the Oort Cloud in “Manna Hunt”. As the ship ventures beyond the gravitational halo of our own Solar System, this results in dark matter and the Big Bang Theory being the scientific focus of “Shadow World,” a culmination of the exposition on relativity and cosmology in the all the preceding Chronicles. Discussing the origins and unsolved mysteries of the universe necessitates a broader discussion of how science understands the laws governing its known workings, which is what “The Invariants of Nature” is all about, and “Rogueworld” brings all the key scientific themes together in its highly speculative ring of black holes and rogue planets, wandering through the universe. A key theme in the book is that not only is the scientific method the best means of learning and problem-solving we have, but that knowledge itself is not created within a vacuum but builds upon that which is previously known, (the principle of “radical conservatism” put forth by the great physicist John A. Wheeler), gradually culminating until an endpoint arrives where we can properly assume that we have a theory that explains it all. If Sheffield the Experimenter used the individual Chronicles to test speculations about the universe, Sheffield the Theorist puts them all together to demonstrate for his readers how science actually works. It is often mistakenly assumed that the purpose of science fiction is to make predictions, but that is actually the function of scientific theories themselves; science fiction just takes those predictions and makes them accessible to the layperson. And just as in science, a theory only emerges after individual predictions have been tested and found to be themselves invariant in all frames of reference, it is only after reading the book in its entirety that one can truly discern the themes across each individual story.

As I write this, scientists everywhere are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Einstein’s papers that laid out the Theory of General Relativity, and science fiction writers should be celebrating it as well; more than any other scientific discovery it has permitted the genre to go beyond Wells and Verne and expand its speculative horizons. Sheffield, Anderson and Benford are just three of the writers who have been able to use it to craft works of literature as well as entertainment, and even if the field is currently mired in literary faddishness (a polite way of saying bad writing) and under the yoke of far-left identity politics, the advances in scientific knowledge will continue enrich the possibilities for writers as surely they enrich our own lives as well.

*As Dr. Benford has politely corrected us below, he is actually primarily a theorist although he has done moonlighting as an experimenter on the side. However, we have left the paragraph unchanged as not only as the points about the differences between his work and Sheffield’s remains valid, but it helps illustrate how theory and experiment influence the writing of SF.

This entry was posted in Classic Science Fiction, Letters of Marque, Science, Science Fact, Science Fiction, space, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.