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You may think you know how warp drive works.  It’s quite simple.  A controlled matter/antimatter reaction is focused through a crystal of pure dilithium, which allows a ship to generate a subspace bubble so that it doesn’t experience any time dilation, while the space ahead and behind the ship are warped allowing it to bypass, rather than technically exceed, the speed of light.  That’s the explanation, that’s how it works, but the problem is that’s all just fiction.  It’s the kind of technological description often called technobabble, a very real and important part of far future science fiction writing where both Star Trek and Doctor Who serve as master classes.

Here’s the thing, though.  While it might be made up technobabble, every time the warp drive is explained, it’s explained in those terms.  Occasionally the explanation is made more complicated (in the original series, there was dilithium, and matter/antimatter, but no subspace bubbling) but the explanation never contradicts itself or changes.  The warp core itself, that long tube pulsing with matter and antimatter, even largely looks the same from Next Generation onwards as a visual cue that, while perhaps the technology may be gradually improved on, this is the thing that will drive the ship.

Faster than light travel is, as far as we can tell, impossible.  But many of us can explain how it “works” because we saw it in a television show that maintained an internal consistency in its explanations.  Right now I’m writing a steampunk story that features automatons, and a few other bits of magical technology.  The book presents far less of a blueprint about how they work that Star Trek does its warp drive, but that’s because we’re dealing with a smaller amount of time.  Star Trek has had 726 episodes and 11 movies totaling nearly 550 hours to get everything right, we’ve just got 90k or so words to establish a world and tell an enjoyable adventure within it.  So we drop little details here and there, and strive for that one important thing: the internal consistency.

Science Fiction and Fantasy come from similar roots.  To oversimplify the two genres, fantasy deals with magic and fey, science fiction deals with science and aliens.  Yes, I know it’s more complicated than that, and that there are a lot of cross-over elements, but just to speak in broad terms I’m going to ask indulgence to use that definition.  And yes, that makes Vulcans the Elves.  Deal with it.  What they share in common are the unreal becoming real.  Where they differ is how they become real.  It’s why the science of science fiction is often called, as I did above, “magical science.”  Both require some sort of consistency, though.  In the Harry Potter series, magic works by reciting an incantation that sounds like Latin and waving a wand.  In other series, it works through the absorption of magic from the world around us.  Or in the gathering of components for an alchemical spell.  Magic in all these cases is a system.  In science fiction, there’s likewise a system.  In steampunk, the science happens in boilers and gears.  In Star Trek, it’s driven by 200-300 years of scientific advances in all fields.

But it’s all consistant.

Whenever the Enterprise finds a new space-faring species, they achieved faster than light speeds by discovering matter/antimatter reactions and subspace bubbles.  If they aren’t, then a lantern is hung on that aspect, and it becomes a central focus of the episode.  We, as an audience, aren’t asked to accept that the technology is suddenly different one week and that the Enterprise is now powered into warp drive by the good intentions of its crew.  Which, thank goodness the Enterprise isn’t powered by intentions, or Riker would just have it pointed at Risa all the time.

The title of this post comes from a conversation I had with my wife about the technology we’re creating in our world.  It’s not entirely the traditional Steampunk technology, because that always leaves us feeling a little flat.  There’s only so far you can go with coal furnaces, boilers, and gears…something that reality discovered, and that kept us from actually living the Steampunk fantasy.  (Did I say “Steampunk fantasy”?  Future post.)  But while we’re not explaining the technology as thoroughly as we’ve world built it, we have world built it, we do have our reasons, and it is powered all through a special form of handwavium that we’ve invented and will use and exploit going forward.  We’ve decided to discard portions of the standard rulebook and substitute in our own pages, but those are the pages we’ll always use going forward.  And when we don’t, trust us, we’ll put a huge lantern on it and make it central to the plot of a book.

So don’t worry too much about the rules other people have used.  But worry obsessively about your own rules.  Because we’re fantasy and science fiction authors, which means we’re catering to a very literate audience who will call us on anything we do that isn’t internally consistent.

Oh, and I promised a post on the protagonist and antagonist within The Prestige.  That will come later in the week, as we didn’t actually have time for a rewatching this weekend.

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