Relativist ship
Image from Steve Bowers
Conversion drive ships like the JBS Haldane were the first truly relativistic craft.

Relativist culture emerged during the First Federation when the first relativistic starships left Solsys to explore, colonise or trade with the new colonies. Earlier all trips had been one-way and any effects of time dilation and the more significant 'Rip Van Winkle' effect of from long periods of stasis were irrelevant given a new life on a new world with only beamed and time-delayed messages from a distant star of origin. With round trips, crews began to have the disconcerting experience of leaving for the stars and returning decades later, having themselves only experienced a few years or even months of life. It was as if they had stepped through a hole in time. Though the true time-dilation effects were actually quite small, especially given the small fraction of lightspeed that craft of the era were capable of achieving, the name Relativist was applied by the popular media of the day and ever since has been applied to these forward time-travellers.

With the development of wormholes the majority of interstellar traffic has shifted to the Wormhole Network since most beings who wish to return to their point of origin do not want to leave their time and culture behind when travelling. Nevertheless the need for 'relativistic' travel remains. The expansion of the Terragen Sphere has far outstripped the slower growth of the Wormhole network, and within the regions that wormholes have reached there are many systems that are isolationist or are simply not important enough to merit a wormhole connection. Relativist have crews, including a few ancient crews dating back to the First Federations, have continued working, first for the Megacorps, then for the Houses and later for the Empires as well as for a variety of independent clients. For them the centuries have just flowed past and their original worlds, perhaps fresh in their memories may be known only to historians. The Relativists have developed their own set of cultures out of necessity — their home cultures vanished while they were away, and the only true community could be found among themselves. Status in most Relativist circles comes both from being crew of a successful or famous ship and from the 'Delta', the subjective distance in time from one's birth era.

Modern Relativists are the only beings who normally experience relativity firsthand. To them time and space really are interchangeable, and it makes equal sense to measure any of them in light years. During the oldest eras the ships were still so slow that the crew had to remain in cryonic suspension, and that was the dominant effect, but today the fastest 'reactionless' drives allow 'shirtsleeve operation' most of the time. On a modern ship moving at 0.999c a 100 light year trip is experienced only as a month of time, despite that a century has passed for everyone else. Paradoxically, the 'Relativist' effect for crews of slower ships is even greater, since they simply wait out the majority of their trip in stasis, waking only for their maintenance and monitoring shifts.

Relativist crews hang together, often having a hard time relating to anyone else. Other crews might be just as alien as the outsiders, but at least they share the same sense of disconnection from the 'static frame' (their name for non-relativist society). To outsiders, they appear clannish and often atavistic (this is one of the few serious professions where baselines still can be found, especially in regions well away from the major centres of Terragen civilization). Crews belong to their ship, although in many cases the ship only exists as a name, as the actual vessel has been upgraded or replaced several times through the millennia.

Being adrift in time the relativists may care little for current politics, and interest themselves more in where to go next. Since relativistic travel is still dangerous and financial institutions can vanish, both parts of a deal have to settle for complex insurances and payments in order to guarantee the deal. Often relativists lavish their gains on their ships, although there are some who have gambled in long-range investments either becoming ultra-rich or losing it in some financial disaster or political reorganisation. Some trade in exotica and antiques in addition to their main business, making them great sources of unknown artefacts — or contraband.

There has been a bit of competition from automated or sentient but nonsapient ships, but Relativists still dominate the market of moving wormholes to new systems, exploration and long-range deliveries, and transport or travel among the newer or more isolated systems. Some relativists have also acted in war, helping other fleets to circumvent the wormhole nexus or attack it. Some say the Version War was largely supported by the Relativists as it made demand for their services astronomical and led to a whole new generation of crews, but by all accounts the relativists prefer to keep out of politics — it changes faster than they travel.

Related Articles
Appears in Topics
Development Notes
Text by Anders Sandberg
amended by Stephen Inniss
Initially published on 07 July 2000.

Altered from the original in July 2013 following discussions in the Worldbuilding group.