Space Travel, the Science-Fiction-Film Way

Remember how last week I noted that I was on a book tour? Well, I'm still on tour -- I'm in city number eleven of the tour at the moment (hello, New York!) and have one more stop before it's all done. It's exhausting, but it's paid off, since my new novel, Fuzzy Nation, managed to claw its way onto the New York Times' hardcover fiction list. So hooray for touring.

But all the touring -- and all the attendant travel, not to mention the delays, the screwups, and the wondering when and how I'm going to do laundry whilst on the road -- put me in mind to think about travel in science-fiction movies and how easy or difficult it is to do in each of them. There are definitely some movie universes in which travel seems to be more congenial than in others. Let's look at some of them, in no particular order.

Star Trek
The universe of the most recent Star Trek movie is clearly the easiest to navigate that has ever existed. In the movie, the Enterprise appears to get from the Earth to Vulcan in about the same amount of time it takes me to walk from my front door to my mailbox and back again. It's true that in the movie just about all travel ends with something either blowing up or sucked into a black hole, but that's an element of the plot, not a general consequence of travel.

Star Wars
The Star Wars universe runs a close second in terms of ease of travel. Yes, depending on the film, it's run by either a corrupt, collapsing republic or a dictatorial empire, but on the other hand the movies suggest it's possible to get around a huge chunk of the galaxy in the space of a few days -- or, at the very least, from Hoth to Dagobah in such a short time that a guy using an X-wing to get there doesn't need to take a bathroom break. As with Star Trek, lots of this film travel ends poorly, with exploding planets or ships dodging asteroids, but that's not the fault of the travel. 2001: A Space Odyssey
As with many things, space travel here is shown with what appears to be a reasonable amount of accuracy, considering what we know of space travel: no warp speed, no artificial gravity, relatively small crew space, and so on. Plus it takes quite a long time to get from the Earth to Jupiter, two planets within the same solar system. As a consequence, this movie introduces the concept of human hibernation, so people can sleep most of the way to their destinations (presumably, without aging terribly).

It seems like a great idea, but statistically speaking science-fiction-film travel via human hibernation is indisputably the best way to get yourself killed or worse. It certainly was here, when HAL killed off the sleeping spaceship crew in that delightfully polite yet homicidal way of his.

The universe of Alien is the best evidence we have that human-hibernation travel kills: three times, Ripley goes into deep sleep in order to travel, mostly to unpleasant places; three times, she wakes up to aliens chewing their way through everyone else in the film. After a certain point you'd think she'd just say, "To hell with this. I think I'll stay up."

Pitch Black
The crew and passengers sleep their way across space when their spaceship malfunctions and crashes into a planet where they are consumed by large nasty aliens. Stay awake, people! Stay awake!

One of the few films where human-hibernation travel does not inherently appear to kill off those who use it. Jake Sully sleeps for six years and seems to be not all that much worse for wear, aside from feeling like he has a hangover. From a technical point of view, space travel in this film does seem to be based more on physics as we know it than most science-fiction films. It takes a long time, and it appears to be done with at least a respectful nod toward the theory of relativity. At least at the end of it you have pretty and/or hunky blue-skinned aliens to enjoy.

Travel is easy in this universe (at the end of the film, a spaceship makes it across a galaxy to the Earth in apparently about ten minutes), but the spaceships aren't really designed to travel so much as they're designed to offer hover lounges and cupcakes in a cup; i.e., getting somewhere in particular is not a strong suit of travel in WALL-E. This is actually a somewhat revolutionary idea in science-fiction-film travel (as is, to be fair, the cupcake in a cup).

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