Origin Stories: The Hype About Hyperspace

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?

19 thoughts on “Origin Stories: The Hype About Hyperspace

  1. I have always disliked “other universes where the laws of physics are different” on the grounds that humans could not exist in those universes because, well, the laws of physics are different.

    Faster-than-light travel within normal space is equally problematic, as it breaks relativity theory.

    Travel via singularities is equally treacherous, since nothing can escape from a singularity.

    But of all the FTL ideas, hyperspace seems to me the least problematic. Our heroes “make the jump into hyperspace” recognising that FTL travel within normal space is impossible, and avoiding the problem of falling into a wormhole or exiting the universe entirely, or consuming half the energy of the observable universe. Instead, a new layer of physics is added, with rules as yet unknown, in which perils may be introduced by the author to satisfy the need for FTL travel not to be a free lunch. For example, in Dune, FTL travel is extremely dangerous without a Guild Navigator to prevent a ship from ending up in the middle of a star. Doctor Who’s Tardis travels through a kind of hyperspace, and often ends up blowing off-course. Hence, it is a suitable method of travel for an adventurer, and that makes it cool.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In Doctor Who, it seems to me like the time vortex is extremely dangerous. If you’re not protected by the near god-like technology of the Time Lords, you’re likely to go insane, or at least come out of it in very bad shape. I also think Dune handles it well. But again, the Guild Navigators seem to have almost god-like powers.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When I was a kid, I would look out at the snow while driving in the car at night with my folks, snow flakes streaking past like stars, and pretend I was Hans Solo in the Millennium Falcon so I do have a soft spot for the old hyper drive. I always appreciated that they had to stop and calculate their hyperspeed trajectory rather than warping on a whim like Star Trek, plus it made for a sweet plot device in the newer films.
    As a writer, stories do run into some pretty serious pacing problems if it takes five to fifty years to get anywhere but we did get over-fixated on speed alone. Author Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya universe uses an alternate idea of “deep space” wherein the laws of physics dissolve into something like cosmic goo, bringing ships across large distances in a shorter time span, but the human psyche cannot survive the trip without being heavily drugged. I like seeing new ideas and theories for moving through space popping up in SF.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You know, I hadn’t thought about that: that part in Star Wars where they say they have to calculate their hyperspace trajectory. That does imply some risk. I guess Star Wars deserves a little more credit than I was giving them.

      But I really like the idea that the human psyche can’t survive the trip. I’ve seen variations of that in a few books now, and I think it’s a good way to handle it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Having been raised with warp drives, hyperspace, and wormhole transit in scifi, I guess I simply accept them. I do enjoy stories where the limits of our known universe are tackled. European authors have lost Africa as a place to set any fantasy story or “alien” society. Mars has pretty much been taken away too. Space would be a perfect substitute if it weren’t so darn big. Then – magic! With hyperspace, distance vanishes. On with the story.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Sure, we do need to get on with the story, and not all Sci-Fi stories need to tackle this issue explicitly. But I do appreciate it when hyperspace (or whatever FTL system we’re using) seems like it’s dangerous or risky in some way.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I actually kind of liked hyperspace when I first heard about it, but only because I thought it was based on some kind of science. Which caused confusion when I encountered all its various forms in stories.

    As I learned more, I increasingly saw it for what it is, a plot gimmick, handwavium for inconvenient physics. If you read any of “Islands of Space”, the first story I know of that it has something like its modern form, you’ll read a story of inventors inventing all kinds of stuff as needed, one of them being a device to create and put themselves in hyperspace.

    That said, if your story is going to have an FTL mechanism in it, and you’re not doing something new and unique with it, I think there’s much to be said for just calling it “hyperspace”. It saves both you and the reader time. Handwavium is best kept brief.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Brave New Words does cite “Islands of Space” as one of the earliest uses. So I think you’re right about that.

      And I agree: if you really don’t want to get into the science of FTL, maybe just call it hyperspace and move on. The less said, the better.

      I kind of give Star Wars a pass for that reason, though as was mentioned in another comment, even Star Wars talked about needing to do the proper calculations first, or your hyperspace jump will end real quick.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s the thing about hyperspace. If you want to have the characters be in jeopardy, you have to come up with reasons why they don’t just jump into it to get away, such as needing to make calculations, or finding new reasons for the hyperdrive to be busted.

        The thing is, in the original movie, why didn’t Han Solo, a savvy smuggler who always needed to be ready to get away quick, not have a set of calculations sitting in the computer at all times, just in case? I know, I know, don’t analyze Star Wars. Down that path lies madness.

        But it shows one of the biggest problems with introducing these kinds of things. It’s very difficult to stop it from infecting a lot of your other technological speculation that you might prefer to keep more rigorous.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You’re right, it can infect the rest of your story. If they just threw the word hyperspace into Star Wars and/or Babylon 5, I’d probably be okay with it. But once they started explaining that it’s alternate universe where the laws of physics are different, that raised a whole lot of new questions that I hadn’t been thinking about before.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. A good example is any FTL mechanism inevitably affects the dynamics of whatever space battles happen in the story. Limiting FTL to certain “gates” at the edge of solar systems can mostly preserve interplanetary dynamics, which was the solution the Expanse authors went for. But they couldn’t prevent the gate network from becoming a major strategic issue. (Not that they were probably interested in trying.)

    Liked by 1 person

      1. No worries! I’m still very new to the Expanse series, but I feel like they’ve put real thought into their science. Nothing feels like a cheap plot device to me, at least not at this point.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly right: Hyperspace is kids’ stuff. Modern, adult SF must be more realistic (or at least seem that way). Sublight travel, time manipulation drives, sleeper ships, even jump drives, are better than hyperspace.

        Liked by 1 person

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