Hello, friends! Welcome to another episode of Origin Stories, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we trace the origins of popular concepts in science fiction. Today on Origin Stories, we’re making the jump into:
As you know, nothing can travel faster than light. Or it least, not in our universe. But what if there were another universe next door to our own where the laws of physics were different, where faster-than-light travel were possible. Wouldn’t that be convenient?
At least that’s how the concept of hyperspace was first explained to me. I can’t remember if I picked that up from a Star Wars novel or an episode of Babylon 5. Either way, I remember having an instant dislike for this idea. It’s always seemed to me to be a little too convenient.
But then I started researching this post and learned that hyperspace is—or at least used to be—a much more interesting concept. Let me explain by telling you a story:
Once upon a time, there was a happy little square living in a two-dimensional world with all his two-dimensional friends. Then one day, this square met a rather extraordinary circle, a circle that had strange and mysterious powers. The circle could grow larger or smaller at will, expanding out to a certain radius or shrinking down until it completely disappeared!
“What are you?” the square asked in awe.
In a booming, god-like voice, the circle answered: “I am a sphere. As I pass through the two-dimensional plane of your realm, you perceive two-dimensional cross sections of my three dimensional form.”
This is the story of Flatland, by Edwin Abbott, published in 1884. Or at least that’s part of the story of Flatland. Our protagonist square also encounters one-dimensional beings living in a one-dimensional world (Lineland) before learning about the world of three dimensions (Spaceland) from the sphere.
Flatland was one of many books published in the late 1800’s toying with other dimensions. Another is, of course, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, which postulates that time might be the fourth dimension. But other writers assumed the fourth dimension would simply be another spatial dimension. And just as the protagonist of Flatland struggled to understand the third dimension, we humans, as three-dimensional beings, can never fully comprehend the fourth dimension.
A linguistic convention soon emerged. If you wanted to talk about a four-dimensional sphere, you’d call it a hyper-sphere. If you wanted to talk about a four-dimensional pyramid, that would be a hyper-pyramid, and a four-dimensional cube would be a hyper-cube (or a tesseract, as Charles Howard Higgins proposed calling hyper-cubes in 1888). And where would all these hyper-shapes exist? Why, in hyper-space! Where else?
According to Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, it would still take a while for hyperspace to make the jump from mathematics and philosophy into the pages of science fiction. Initially, the term seems to have retained its esoteric, philosophical sense of a world beyond our limited human perception.
Are we not justified in supposing, […] that the boundary lines of space and hyper-space may not be so rigidly drawn as we have supposed?“Invisible Bubble” by K. Meadowcraft, 1928.
But Sci-Fi writers quickly started exploiting hyperspace as a plot device to allow faster-than-light travel.
Well, in this hyperspace we are creating, matter cannot exist at a velocity lower than a certain quantity […].“Islands of Space” by J.W. Campbell, 1931.
Speeds, a mathematician would hasten to add, as measured in the ordinary space that the vessel went around; both acceleration and velocity being quite moderate in the hyperspace it really went through.“Legion of Space” by J. Williamson, 1934.
I’m still not a big fan of hyperspace, or at least I’m not a fan of consequence-free hyperspace. If you’re going to pop out of normal space—whether you’re entering another universe where the laws of physics are different or you’re taking some sort of four-dimensional shortcut—I feel like there should be some side effects, either for you or your spacecraft (or both). Otherwise, hyperspace just seems a little too easy, a little too convenient.
At least that’s how I feel about it. But what do you think? Am I being too picky? Am I overthinking things? Or do you also roll your eyes whenever hyperspace comes up in science fiction?