First off, I'm a long time fan of some of your books, and remember a reading you did in Rochester about, oh, 32 years ago or so!

I am excited to find this Q & A forum and I've read almost all of the questions and answers and have been fascinated.

Surprisingly, the question I am asking is somewhat mundane/technical though.

I have been quite taken with the societal effects of a universe with near instant communication but slower than lightspeed travel. I encountered this primarily in your Ender series, but I've run into it in Ursula LeGuin's books as well.

In an early answer of yours on this site, you wrote, 'many stories have needed to take place in a universe where travel is limited by lightspeed, but communication is not. '

I have actually not found a great many such stories (I have two questions about this on the SF&F StackExchange forum). Are you referring to any specific stories, earlier than LeGuin, or was this just a general though?


I ran into the faster-than-light communications in Urula K. LeGuin's Hainish novels, too -- and that's why I call my fictional FTL communicator the "ansible," the name she used. In fact, in the original novelet "Ender's Game," I included a footnote crediting her with originating the word, but Ben Bova, then the editor of Analog, told me not to do that.

He said, "Anybody who would care already knows that Ursula K. LeGuin used the word; anybody who doesn't know, doesn't care." I also realized, when reading some of Jack Vance's work, it was quite disruptive when a footnote intruded into the narrative, tossing the reader out of the story and forcing them to read some quotidian information from the author. It's better to work the information into the text, or not mention it at all; so I never tried the footnoting thing again, though I have thought of it a few times.

You asked if I got the FTL communication and lightspeed-limited travel from earlier stories, from my reading before science fiction novels were published in book form (rather than serialized in the magazines). I remember one story in particular, where the FTL communicator had a quirk -- after (or before?) every transmission, there was a beep. In the process of the story, it was discovered that if you slowed that beep down -- a lot -- it contained every FTL message ever transmitted -- in the past and in the future.

In other words, the beep gave a huge dose of future information; but it isn't always pleasant or helpful to know so much. I have no memory of the author or title of the story, but it was in one of the science fiction anthologies I would have found in the Santa Clara Public Library in California about 1960 or so. Those books weren't new, but they were my introduction to adult-oriented sci-fi -- that's where I read Poul Anderson's "Call Me Joe" and "Tunesmith" by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. Groff Conklin edited several of these anthologies, but there were other books with other editors, so I've had no luck finding that story again.

I once heard (or read) a comment on travel/communication systems in science fiction. The analogy was with transAtlantic travel and communication. Early interplanetary and interstellar flight would be slow and dangerous. Sending a letter took exactly the same time as traveling in a ship. When a sci-fi writer chooses this system -- nothing faster-than-light and nothing at relativistic speed -- that's when you need generation ships or arks carrying embryos and/or genomes of every kind of animal, as well as racks and racks of sleeping people.

But advance a few more years, and ships got faster. The steam paddlewheel was replaced by ocean-going vessels propelled by steam-driven screws. The voyages became faster and safer. The comparison with sci-fi would still respect the lightspeed barrier, but the voyage might be "faster" because the ships flew at a speed so close to the speed of light that relativistic effects would come into play, and a twenty-year voyage might seem to take only ten years, or six years, or two years to the people on the ship.

At the beginning of Ender's Game, human ships were only interplanetary because near-lightspeed travel was not invented until we learned how from the Formic ships. (It's worth remembering that when Einstein dreamed up relativistic time-dilation, all his analogies were with train travel -- the fastest practical mode of transportation at the time.)

In Ender's Game, the humans' fleet also learned that the formics had some method of instantaneous communication, not limited by lightspeed; knowing that, physicists invented the ansible, so that by the time the fleet left to attack the formic home worlds, all the ships had ansibles, along with relativistic time dilation.

The analogy here was that time between laying the transatlantic cables and getting practical air transport across the Atlantic. It still took ships a week or so to make the voyage from Britain to the U.S. east coast -- but messages could be telegraphed and, later, telephoned in mere seconds or minutes. Not quite an ansible, but close enough.

Of course, now we don't use the transatlantic cable at all (do we?) and satellites handle our long-distant, near-instantaneous communication. Our airplanes also take us anywhere in the world in less than a day, in most cases. That's the situation you find in "stagecoach" sci-fi, where it's relatively trivial to travel from one planet to the next, the way stagecoaches could carry people from town to town in the Old West.

This means that we already know something about how our civilization operated with various combinations of communication and travel speeds. We know that before the age of flight, steamships made voyages that lasted days -- but you could conduct your business in the destination country and then take a ship back to home. You could expect to do this several times in your life, if you had money enough; the voyage was nontrivial, but it did not mean leaving everyone you knew and loved behind. It took decades before air travel could supervene over ocean voyages and trains -- but there was a tipping point when cost and risk became acceptable to large numbers of people.

For a science fiction writer, knowing history is part of how you can create a plausible and well-developed future.