In search of: FTL taxonomy

I’ve been troping again. This time I found and repaired the TV Tropes page on Faster Than Light Travel. It had previously made a distinction between three subtypes of FTL drive: “jump”, “warp”, and “shortcut”. The “shortcut” category was confused and confusing, and I’ve renamed it to “portal” and fixed the definitions of both “portal” and “warp” subtropes.

I’m now looking for earliest occurrences and trope codifiers on these subtypes. I think I have one nailed down, but I can’t push the other two back very far. Instances and cites are solicited.

The easiest one is the portal drive. This is the newest of the three subtropes; I think it was codified in Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote In God’s Eye, 1975. Note that we want to be careful about distinguishing it from FTL involving fixed artificial stargates and/or naturally occurring wormholes. I’m interested in ur-examples.

The jump (or fold-space) drive goes back at least as far as Robert Heinlein’s 1953 “Starman Jones” Isaac Asimov’s earliest Foundation story in 1942. There may well be earlier examples.

The warp drive goes back at least as far as Murray Leinster’s first “Med Service” story in 1957. Again, I’m certain there are earlier examples. Let the digging begin!

39 thoughts on “In search of: FTL taxonomy

  1. asimov is full of hyperspace, which i assume is a type of warp. i have no idea if any of it predates leinster tho,

    ESR says: You’re right, and I should have remembered that a jump drive is described at the beginning of the “Foundation” sequence, but please cite stories and dates in claims like these. Otherwise the comment thread will fill up with useless handwaving.

  2. aah i have a web source with something for that… let me go looking…

    In trying to find the thing i’m looking for I came across which seems to be asking who the first people to look at FTL in sci fi were.

    OK… found it.

    According to that site, Pournelle and Niven came up with portal FTL by going to a Physicist and asking him to making something that was mostly scientifically plausible.

    Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle took the bull by the horns. Before they wrote their award-winning classic The Mote in God’s Eye, they went to physicist Dan Alderson. Niven and Pournelle gave Alderson a list of things they wanted the proposed FTL to allow, and things to forbid. Dr. Alderson then custom designed a mostly plausible FTL drive to spec, but with additional limits. Niven and Pournelle kept within those limits, and the novel was improved as a consequence.

  3. >by going to a Physicist

    That must have been Dan Alderson. It’s well known among SF fans that he gave Niven and Pournelle the idea for the Alderson Drive in the novel.

    It doesn’t follow that he invented the portal drive though. He could have just cleaned up an idea that was already in circulation in genre SF. Mind you, I don’t think it was — I’d almost certainly have known of it if it had been — but it’s possible.

    Relevant fact: in 1975, before the post-Star-Wars publishing boom, the volume of SF in existence was small enough that a dedicated fan could know the genre pretty completely. And I did.

  4. It doesn’t follow that he invented the portal drive though. He could have just cleaned up an idea that was already in circulation in genre SF.

    Very true I suppose. I’d like to argue that there would have been some muttering of where he hypothetically yoinked it from but again it doesn’t follow that it’s findable.

  5. I’m guessing that you’ll classify the “Bergenholm” intertialess drive, from E.E. Smith’s Lensman series, as a warp drive. According to , the first installments of this series were written in 1934.

    Likewise the “spindizzy” from James Blish’s Cities in Flight stories. See

    You may need another category for E.E. Smith’s Skylark series. In those stories, it was simply discovered that the speed of light was not a limit, after all, to the velocity of physical objects. This was in 1928.

  6. Lest I forget: portal drives were used in Joe Haldeman’s novel The Forever War, 1974.

    ESR says: I know. I’m excluding those because they used naturally-occuring wormholes.

  7. @brad r, re: _skylark_: i assume the same would be true of other things, like _a fire upon the deep_, or some of hogan’s odder novels, which simply dispense with relativity completely. (it’s either completely wrong, or a regional effect, or something along those lines.)

  8. A couple of variants occur to me:
    – Ursula Le Guin’s “ansible” – ftl transmission of information but not of matter
    – and Iain M. Banks’ *Algebraist* has a universe in which navigable synthetic wormhole portals exist, but the ends have to be dragged around by STL ships. Go off the ‘Net, and it’s a multi-year race between your enemies’ STL fleets and the ship bringing the end of your friends’ new wormhole to you.

  9. I’m excluding those because they used naturally-occuring wormholes.

    But Alderson (Crazy Eddie) Points occur naturally too.

    ESR says: The difference is, you don’t need an FTL drive to use wormholes. You just fall through ’em.

  10. >>I’m excluding those because they used naturally-occuring wormholes.

    >But Alderson (Crazy Eddie) Points occur naturally too.

    And what about the jumps/portals in Heinlein’s “Starman Jones” (1953), they were also fixed points that dumped you out light years from where you entered.

    ,b>ESR says: I don’t think the jump locations were fixed in “Starman Jones”. That’s why I had listed it as a jump drive.

  11. the Last Spaceship by Murray Leinster is a collection of three short stories published in 1946 and 1947. He uses two kinds of FTL drives: a warp drive (unspecified type) and later the protagonist invents a jump drive.

    In the story’s universe portal-based matter transmission is commonplace but a new transmitter/receiver portal has to be built on site. FTL ships were used to travel to new planets to install the first MT portal. The jump drive that is invented in story is based on the existing MT technology but allows a ship to emerge from an existing MT portal or transmit itself to itself at immense speed (1,000,000x light speed or more).

    I still have my father’s hardback copy of the book at home and have read it many times.

  12. Hmm. What’s the first instance of quantum teleportation? I only know of modern (this century) examples.

    ESR says: The earliest QT I remember is in Gordon Dickson’s “Mission to Universe”, 1965.

  13. >I’m guessing that you’ll classify the “Bergenholm” intertialess drive, from E.E. Smith’s Lensman series, as a warp drive. According to , the first installments of this series were written in 1934.

    Yes, but were there Bergenholms in the original 1934 version of Triplanetary, before Smith retconned it to connect it to the Lensman books? If not, that would push first occurrence of the Bergenholm to 1937.

  14. It’s certainly outside the domain of your specific query, but it’s interesting to contemplate this example also, and what the mechanism of it might be:

    “From Ida’s crests [Hera] flashed to high Olympos quick as a thought in a man’s mind. Far and wide a journeying man may know the earth and with his many desires may dream, ‘Now let me be in that place or that other!’ Even so instantaneously Queen Hera passed to steep Olympus. She appeared in the long hall of Zeus amid the immortals, who rose, lifting their cups to her.”

    —Iliad, ca. 700BC

  15. The Witches of Karres also feature something called the “egger route” which has fairly severe physical side effects. Sort of a portal without any machinery.

    Off topic, there is also the “Sheem Spider” – one of the nastiest robot villians ever.

  16. Unfortunately my library is not currently accessible. I seem to recall several variants in some of Edmond Hamilton’s early works in the late 1920’s, ie: The Star Stealers.

    Also Leigh Brackett The Stellar Legion 1940

  17. OT (but not entirely): I see you are happily contributing to TV Tropes but you are on record lambasting Wikipedia. Care to explain why, maybe in a separate essay? that would be interesting …

  18. the OED SF project seems relevant. it tells us that the current earliest known date for hyperdrive is 1949, jump is 1952, and gate is 1931, among many other words related to the question.

    should any of you come up with any antedatings, please contribute them back!

  19. it has occurred to me that the encompassing fourth category (for skylark, hogan, etc.) might be described as “pure authorial fiat”; it would also include things like the stars my destination.

  20. Then there’s A E van Vogt’s “similarization” drive which appeared in The World of Null-A (1948). I guess it’s a form of jump drive. If two points in the universe were similar at the quantum level to 20 decimal places then the smaller would move to the larger. Starships had recordings of quantum states of various locations in the universe so they could flit about.

  21. To elaborate on what Hunt Johnson pointed out: the Sheewash Drive was a classic go-really-fast warp drive, first published in 1949. You activate it, and you go really fast.

    The egger route was a jump drive (not a portal drive) which shoved the cargo — usually a single person — through some rather disturbing hyperspace type of place, appearing at their destination shortly afterward. Larger objects take more time to send. Nobody remembers what the egger route is like, because it causes amnesia, but they all remember it being absolutely terrifying.

    That was an amazing book.

  22. The Sheewash Drive was a superfast “warp drive”, but there was also an “ordinary” warp drive in service; otherwise the interstellar travel evident throughout the book would be impossible.

    BTW, the Sheewash Drive cranked at about 43,000 C (two light-weeks in 28 seconds).

  23. Erm, hey, what about Infinite Improbability Drive? That doesn’t seem neatly into any of the three categories. (If I have to provide a link, you need to turn in your geek card. )

  24. The webcomic Schlock Mercenary has an interesting take on the portal aspect: they have wormgates, which are big, artificially created portals that have to be STL-hauled to their destinations. The interesting part is that the proprietors of the gates can and do duplicate people as they pass through, and interrogate/kill the clones unbeknownst to their originals. (No, these are not nice people.) Some interesting implications, too: once a character is cloned 950 million times going through a mini-wormgate keyed to deliver food simultaneously to a bunch of different space habitats.

  25. > Erm, hey, what about Infinite Improbability Drive? That doesn’t seem neatly into any of the three categories. (If I have to provide a link, you need to turn in your geek card. )

    That one always seemed like the most feasible one. Don’t mathematicians manipulate infinities with reckless abandon? The Heechee Drive, which worked by taking your mass down to zero and back impressed me as a big dodge. How is it less impossible to remove and restore a spaceship’s mass than it is to go FTL?


  26. That one always seemed like the most feasible one.

    I’m no physicist but I’ve always thought that warp technology as described in the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual as being the most feasible. Of course, the TNGTM is only quasi-canonical.

  27. The Infinite Improbability Drive can clearly cause phenomena which fits into all three, with the most likely scenario in the series being much like a “jump” drive.

    Bistromathics, on the other hand, seems to be a sort of “fold” method.

  28. someone or other had a drive which swapped all particles for equivalent tachyons, swapping them back at the other end of the trip. that always seemed cute to me.

  29. The interesting part is that the proprietors of the gates can and do duplicate people as they pass through

    Another use for such a technology would be medicine, which would reduce to cleaning up the data before reproducing the fixed up original. Hey, you could even gain new organs to fit the destination.

    ESR says: A possibility memorably explored in William Barton’s bleak space opera, “Dark Sky Legion”.

  30. The interesting part is that the proprietors of the gates can and do duplicate people as they pass through.

    “Rogue Moon” by Algys Budrys (1960) gave a rather haunting variation on that, as a deadly alien artifact on the moon is explored by sending the same person through over and over via a matter transmitter that makes a copy of the person. The person back on earth listens in on each attempt and so his next copy knows how to get farther into the artifact. Truly a classic story.

    Likewise, there was an SF short-short story that used the same idea (and may even predate Budrys). In this case, citizens on Earth were encouraged to ‘do their part’ in supporting our side in an interstellar war by stepping into booths, punching a button, and walking out again. What the ‘volunteer’ didn’t realize (or care about) was that an exact duplicate appeared on a spaceship or alien world on the battlefront, who basically thought, “Wait! I just walked into the booth! What am I doing here? Take me home!”, etc. Heh. ..bruce..

  31. 1) a) Hyperspace occurs in EE Doc Smith’s Skylark of Valeron. I’ve forgotten all the details of how it works though
    b) Hyperspace is mentioned as a method of travel in Asimov’s short story “Black Friar of the Flame” published in 1941 and reprinted in “The Early Asimov vol 1”

    2) Crass Commercial point following up from the Karres comments
    a) The original is available as en ebook from Baen
    b) Flint & Freer & Lackey have written 2 sequels – I think the first sequel (Wizard) is better than the second (Sorceress) but both are good.

  32. (a) What about the Bloater Drive, from Harry Harrison’s classic “Bill, The Galactic Hero” (1965)? How would you classify that?

    (b) What about A. Bertram Chandler’s “Manschenn Drive” (I’m not sure of first publication, but sometime in the 1950’s) which seems to be a constrained form of time travel?

    (c) The “congruencies” (“wormholes”) in Heinlein’s “Starman Jones” were naturally occurring and quasi-fixed: they had to be “surveyed” and ships had to hit them exactly.

  33. The earliest use of hyperspace that I’ve personally encountered in SF was “Islands Of Space” by John Campbell, in Amazing Stories. 1930 or ’31, if I’m not remembering poorly.

  34. Bergenholms aren’t FTL drives, they just allow the ships to immediately accelerate to the speed where their reaction drive’s thrust equals the resistance of the interstellar medium. This obviously save time and fuel, but as the author ignores relativity there’s no special FTL drives needed in the Lensman universe; sufficiently powerful explosions seem to expand FTL for instance.

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