transportation vs. communication


Whenever I encounter a new fictional universe, there is the inevitable moment where someone needs to know something or be somewhere, and if the technology or rules of the universe simply allowed a character to communicate or to reach a place by a given time, everything would be okay. The fact that there are these rules (be they rooted in politics or physics) that keep it from happening results in a story. One needs conflict, after all.

But I always find fascinating how it tends to boil down to these two things. Usually one or the other–not both. Which, then, ends up being more important?

In fantasy worlds, a lot of the time it seems like communication takes precedence, since if you could just inform sword-waving soldiers on a given battlefield that “hey, the orcs’ flanking force was washed away by a flash flood. Stop worrying about your backside and press hard!” that would eliminate the need for sudden, near-instantaneous transport. If you know you don’t have to worry about part Y of the battlefield, after all, you never have to flail from getting from part X to part Y. The need for transport has been eliminated.

But this is not always the case. Since if Frodo could just hop in a jet south to Mordor, that’d be a hell of a lot easier than slogging across the whole continent. And even had Gandalf had some whimsically swift way to contact him — “You’ve got mail, Mr. Baggins!” — there’d be no reason for him to believe it, or to react to such a message with the urgency it deserves. And in WoT, while at first it seems as though communication takes center stage above all else — everyone is so close-mouthed and/or clueless, the whole series, about what everyone else is doing! — when Egwene and her Aes Sedai harness the concept of Traveling (opening a portal between two points) to rain hell down on, essentially, hell’s armies, transportation suddenly becomes a much bigger deal. Without the mid-air portals it enabled, the forces of good would have lost.

What about in sci-fi worlds? In Pern it’s obsessively about transportation. Or so it seems. But since there the communication cannot occur without transportation — messages accompany dragons with riders, rather than being sent via telegraph etc. — that seems like it’s double-dipping rather a lot. What about in Mass Effect? In ME2 (the middle of which is as far as I’ve gotten; if I’m missing something huge later on don’t spoiler me!) FTL travel is old news, but the Normandy’s quantum entanglement communication setup is a big deal. It essentially enables one-to-one communication between two set points (i.e. the ship and its endpoint) no matter how far away you are. Nowadays that may come across initially as underwhelming — what, so it’s basically a bunch of new wireless towers for space? big deal — but of course you’re bridging millions of lightyears with these communicators, so it is a big deal. People take FTL transportation for granted, but FTL communication? That still requires enough money and finagling to inspire awe.

In Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, the communication shutdown necessitated by weeks-long FTL travel factors hugely into what crews are and aren’t willing to do during FTL transit, where no reports of goings-on can get out until the transit is over. Similarly, in Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta books, FTL travel invites mutinies, hacking and other sub rosa activities, precisely for the reason that no one can report it until you slow down, sometimes weeks or months away. Communication, usually so depended-upon in an age of holograms and brain-to-ship interface implants, becomes a commodity when the nature of the transportation causes it to drop out all of a sudden.

Of course, the increased perception of communication over transportation as a game-changer in these worlds may very well be the result of reading authors who are writing now, in this age where communication has become so different than when these authors grew up. The favoring of communication over transportation in sci-fi novels and games may just be a product of the times that gave rise to them. Will such views change in 5, 10, 20 years, when even the non-rich can pop across the globe in a few minutes in a low-orbit rocket bus? Who knows.

If people — not just individuals but vast groups of them — could move from point A to point B as swiftly as sending an email or a text message, you’d have to sort a few things out, as a species. There’d probably be a whole lot of death upon the initial adaptation of such technology, and maybe this is why the perennial assumption of the existence of bigger, badder, more ancient space civilizations serves sci-fi so well: only with such a threat, the logic goes, could humanity put off killing each other long enough to advance into space. (Even this seems rather optimistic.) That, or the forced assimilation of nearly all culture beneath some sort of totalitarian space dictatorship.

If you could instantaneously or near-instantaneously be anywhere, though (and this is assuming the eventual affordability of such technology to the common man, it’s true), what would you be losing? Fly-over territory would become more real than ever, and youngsters born there and seeking their fortune would have an easier way out than ever. Maybe we’d actually turn Ohio into the G.O.D. Maybe we’d take better (or worse) care of any planets under our purview, if we could leave them at the drop of a hat. It would be easy to invoke some notion of humanity as physical beings tied to place here, and start fearmongering in the way present-day luddites do about the Internet, smartphones, and tech in general. But the notion of humanity is adaptable and it seems foolish to assume the definition now will be the same some 200 years in the future.

With either communication or transportation, you’re trying to bring people and the minds of people together. To make what is far close, and what is known, unknown. If we were to develop, I don’t know, psionics like in XCOM, or intimately-knowledgable third-party relations like the familiars in the Philip Pullman books or the dragons in Pern, maybe we’d turn our unstinting attention to some other activities. That, or I guess turn into some sort of hive mind.

I’d prefer familiars, myself.



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