Star Wars vs. Stark Trek, part 1: hyperdrive >> Warp Drive

I’ve now watched Star Wars episodes I to VI twice in the last year (with two different groups of people – it’s weird how often people say ‘ok’ when you suggest a Star Wars marathon). I’m a fan. I’m a big fan of Star Trek, too, and I sometimes get miffed when Star Wars fans make fun of their Trekkie brothers and sisters in arms. They’ll always trot out a slew of critiques, from “it’s too boring: all talk, no action” to “the Federation society is too unbelievably perfect. Who are these people who work for no monetary reward, and follow the Prime Directive religiously?”. Fair enough. But I’ve always secretly thought that the Star Trek universe is at least well-realized, with a great number of interlocking characteristics that make sense as a unified whole. In contrast, while I still think Star Wars is pretty cool as space opera, it’s narrative universe is full of glaring and obvious holes.

Today, in the first of a series of posts on the subject, we focus on Star Wars’ hyperdrive as a disruptive technology that should lead to some important characteristics that are lacking in the movies. In contrast, Star Trek’s Warp Drive is well-suited to the types of societies we see in that narrative universe.

Hyperdrive changes everything

In the Star Trek universe, there is a fundamental limit to how fast Warp Drive can take you. While there is a great deal of debate on the subject, Warp 10 seems to be the theoretical limit, at which speed it would take a ship about 70 years to go across two quadrants of the galaxy. That’s pretty slow compared to hyperdrive. If the screenplay for Star Wars: Episode II is to be taken seriously, then Yoda was able to go from Coruscant in the galactic core to the Outer Rim of the galaxy to pick up the clone army, and then back towards galactic center to fight in the first battle of the clone wars … all within mere hours – at least a short enough time to arrive just when the Jedi are in some serious trouble with the Droid Army. In general, because of distances in routes, it can take anywhere from mere hours to a day or so to travel across the galaxy on Hyperdrive in the Star Wars universe. Assuming 1 day for a trip half way across the galaxy in Star Wars and the 70 year figure from Star Trek, we can calculate that hyperdrive travel is 25,567 times faster than the fastest possible Warp engine can take you.

Potential political, economic, and social effects of hyperdrive

That’s a big different, and it should lead to huge differences in how the two universes are structured politically and economically because of differences in transportation costs, force projection capabilities, and the speed at which information can travel.

Star Trek seems to take these issues seriously. The Federation doesn’t control the whole galaxy. It doesn’t even control all of alpha quadrant. It’s reach is determined by how fast it takes a star ship to Warp out to the neutral zone. That leaves plenty of room for the Cardassians, the Klingons, and the Romulans to have their own empires, with plenty of uncharted space left over. Cool.

But in the Star Wars universe, the Republic and later the Empire are politically fragmented, as well. How can the Huts rule around Tatooine? It wouldn’t take too long for a troop of Jedi from Coruscant some time before Episode I to sort out the Hut problem, given how well Luke does on his own in Return of the Jedi. It would basically be an afternoon affair for the Jedi Order, before they get back to Coruscant for some well-earned R&R. Leaving the Huts in charge of the Outer Rim territories when they’re just a day’s drive away would be like DC letting gangsters take over southern Florida. Not very credible.

But hyperdrive doesn’t just make the galaxy’s political system seem silly, it also undermines the supposed economic system as well. Because of how slow Warp is in Star Trek, certain races and groups of people specialize as inter-stellar traders. There’s a a huge cost in time and risk going from planet to planet, so only a few people invest in it, and the result is trading associations. Hyperdrive really ought to do away with that in Star Wars. But Episode I opens up with the Trade Federation’s blockade of Naboo. We later learn from Queen Amidala that the Federation has a licensed trade franchise with some monopoly power – which they stand to lose if the Senate ever stands up to them. But how can such a monopoly be maintained, if trading between Naboo and Corscant is pretty much like trading between De Moisnes, Iowa, and Chicago, Illinois? There aren’t any real time or distance costs in a hyperdrive universe, so firm centralization doesn’t make much sense. Don’t you think some enterprising young people with a space ship would just start trading on their own? Clearly some do in the Star Wars universe – hence Han Solo. But we definitely get the impression that Solo is one of a small group of smugglers, and we really don’t see him smuggling much of anything during the movies. Which is really weird. Trade Federation? No way. Not with transport costs that low.

Finally, hyperdrive should be a very disruptive technology when it comes to preserving cultural heritage. If information can travel across the galaxy in a day, then it’s hard to see how the huge diversity of languages and cultures we see in Star Wars could have persisted for the thousands of years of the Republic and galactic political union before Episode I. Just look at the example of the Earth in our present day. The pressure to acculturate is simply huge. English has become a global language in the last 50 years. Each person on the planet stands to boost his or her earning potential and power by learning the language. Hence why we see hundreds of parochial languages dying these days. Incentives matter. In the Warp Drive universe of Star Trek, it makes sense for the various empires to maintain their distinct cultural heritages. After all, it takes days and weeks to travel to them, and years to travel beyond them. That tends to put a damper on integration. But in the Star Wars universe, with everyone whizzing around at hyperdrive speeds, why would anyone not speak the language of the seat of the Republic in Coruscant? They’ve had thousands of years of integration preceding Episode 1. What the hell were they doing with that time … not talking to each other?

Let’s just conclude that George Lucas should have spent some extra time thinking through the very basic components of his universe before writing his screen plays. A key component driving the makeup of any society is transportation. Star Trek managers to fit Warp Drive into its narrative universe nearly seamlessly. The same cannot be said of Star Wars’ hyperdrive.

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10 Responses to “Star Wars vs. Stark Trek, part 1: hyperdrive >> Warp Drive”


  1. 1 sartenada December 18, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Very good.

    Nowadays I am fan of Stargate SG1 and Stargate Atlantis. I have all the DVD:S.

  2. 2 thelocalguide December 18, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    hehe nice post indeed.
    Both are great universes anyway, I had never seen it in terms of travel speed.

  3. 3 Knipper December 19, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    I’m glad to see you’re applying your mind to things that matter. Keep writing columns like these and you’ll have thousands of zombie-nerd sherpa slaves in no time!
    I liked the bit, but saw one flaw in the analysis, Lieutenant data. In calculating the relative speeds of Warp vs Hyper-drive you are assuming the Universe is the Same Size in both Star Wars and Star Trek! Even if one assumes we are dealing with the same universe, we know that Star Wars takes place “A Long Time Ago” and hence the universe should be smaller, right? The Universe expands as time wears on, at an exponential rate, so therefore a ‘quadrant’ in Star Trek time could be vastly larger than a quadrant in Star Wars time.

    your monkey

  4. 4 freakidz December 21, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    After reading only the first paragraph I found it imperative to point you toward an article I read in the anthro class Alien Homeworlds. I don’t remember the name of the article, nor it’s author, but I have the course pack at home. If I remember I will post again to give details. The thesis of the article is simple: There are Star Wars people and Star Trek people; generally these groups are mutually exclusive. Sure you can like both, but everyone knows which one they favor. The article argues that this preference says something about you (being a Star Wars person I ignored the trekie bit). If you’re a Star Wars person you are in love with the idea of the ‘hero.’

    This is a horrifyingly simplified rendition of the ideas in the article. I must find it and repost.

    Now I will read the rest of your post.

  5. 5 freakidz December 21, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    Having read your post in its entirety…

    I’m going to pick on your point about languages.

    Perhaps the existence of many different languages within the Star Wars diegesis is due to the many aliens which inhabit it. Perhaps most aliens cannot speak a ‘galactic standard.’

    In the only three Star Wars movies that exist (yes, I’m a purist), there is relatively high demand for C3P0, a translator droid which (\who?) is fluent in over 6 million languages. This isn’t necessitated by the difficulty of travel, but in the organismic differences in ability to make a universal set of sounds.

    Take Chewbacca for example. Han and Chewie converse just fine because they both understand each other’s language, but they don’t speak to each other in the same language because, let’s face it, if I tried to speak wookie all day my voice would give out and I don’t think Chewie is capable of speaking English.

    You might say, “Ok, so some species can’t speak other species’ languages, but why don’t we see drift toward some easily-reproducible-by-many-species language?” Every human depicted in the SW diegesis speaks the same language, so I’m going to assume they all do. Further I’m going to assume that every different species only speaks one language, because we don’t see any aliens of the same species using a translator. Now, if this sort of standardization is possible within species, why not across species? Genetic differences in how different species think and how that would affect language aside, there are 6 MILLION different languages/species to consider. How the hell would you tackle a standardization problem of that magnitude? The earth currently holds on the order of hundreds of languages (http://www.loc.gov/standards/iso639-2/php/code_list.php is a pretty comprehensive code set). It is undoubtedly easier to use translator droids than tackle a standardization problem of such exorbitant magnitude especially when it is compounded by species specific variance in aptitude for phoneme creation.

    Perhaps these many species can explain some of the other problems you brought up as well.

    I’m not fluent enough in the Star Trek universe to speak to how this problem is handled there.

    This all said, George Lucas should/could have spent a lot more time thinking this stuff through and as far as I’m concerned he may go ahead and stick his head in a very strong base solution.

  6. 6 lycanthrope July 6, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    Now I am ready to do my breakfast, once having
    my breakfast coming over again to read other news.


  1. 1 Star Wars vs. Star Trek: hyperdrive, take 2 « Joint Stock Company Trackback on December 18, 2009 at 6:11 pm
  2. 2 Star Wars vs. Star Trek, part 2: you and what army? « Joint Stock Company Trackback on February 16, 2010 at 7:45 pm
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