Kage Baker was not a hard science person; not unless you include hands-on disciplines like carpentry or blacksmithing, anyway. Truly complicated and diamond-level hard science tended to dazzle and entertain her: it was a marvel and she could never see the strings, so she enjoyed it.
Force fields, magnetism, energy patterns; as good as fireworks, for Kage. The electromagnetic maps that show the intricate coils of the Earth’s own magnetic field fascinated her with their intricacy and beauty. The very idea of magnetic envelopes intrigued her -like the Klein bottle, described as a closed, non-orientable, boundary-free manifold: a container both immaterial and yet impenetrable. And, of course, available from Acme Products in more mundane glass (www. kleinbottle.com). Along with rocket skates, pocket holes, and death rays …
Kage was confident humanity would develop space flight: just as soon as it could make someone lots of money. She watched the growth of companies like Space X with glee, and wouldn’t be at all surprised that they have now almost taken over travel to and from the International Space Station. The Luna Consortium and the Mars Corporation are only a matter of time. The military has pretty much dropped the space ball, as she always suspected they would. But she believed that because she also believed in the inevitability of heroes and homesteaders.
She researched such scientific topics as her stories required with determination, but she wasn’t interested in most of the basic concepts. As she observed, a lack of talent in a field can be compensated for by dogged study – but nothing would fill in the gaps left by boredom.
However, Kage always made a genuine effort to comprehend anything she thought she needed for a story. Even if the concept was not explicitly explained in her text, she felt it was necessary to at least have a painted savage’s idea of what was going on.
“Why aren’t there Cliff Notes for FTL drives? Or at least thuribles*?” she’d moan.
“You mean an ansible,” I would snicker. “Unless you want to send smoke signals.”
“Oh, screw you. Find me whatever the hell will let people on Mars talk to Earth without a half hour hole in the conversation!”
In the end, she decided to leave the gap in, for dramatic purposes. But first, she researched the concept of ansibles so she at least understood how they were supposed to work, and what it meant when they didn’t. The actual mechanics of either the problem or its theoretical solution were irrelevant, except in supplying the plot with dramatic tension and a time line.
Conversely, it’s an ansible using the energy of time travel itself that allows the 24/7, real-time connection of Operatives to the Bases through their ubiquitous credenzas. The Company needed the device, for the exact same reasons that Kage decided Mars I and II did not. Not to mention Alex and Captain Morgan en route to their disastrous rendezvous with the MAC …
Luckily, it’s also been obvious throughout the history of science fiction that some devices are as universal as they are imaginary – and FTL drives and ansibles are pretty much the top of the list. (“Ansible”, in fact, was coined from Prospero’s thin air by Ursula K. Le Guin, and has now become a common use-word: like Kleenex, or Xerox. But it owes its birth to Madame Le Guin, who is seldom credited sufficiently for the vital word. Thank you, Lady!) They can be used in genre plots without invoking the attendant physics that make them work, and in fact most authors don’t bother to explain them.
However, each writer probably does have some private concept of how the machinery of their Universe works. It may not be explicable – which is why it hasn’t been included in the text. Or it may be based on some private line of reasoning that the writer is loath to share: either because they know it’s arrant nonsense or because they fear the Men In Black will come steal the idea. Frequently, though, it’s based on the projection of developments in some field of inquiry that does indeed exist – magnetism, ion production, fission, fusion, or layers of oysters on the hull* …
Kage not being terribly interested in interstellar flight, she simply didn’t get into superluminal engines at all. Antigravity, artificial gravity, and improved attitude jets gave her interplanetary shuttles all they needed to wend their ways between Earth and the rest of the Solar System. But she did have an idea of how it all worked. There was a process in her mind, because otherwise – how could she have written about it? She had to know how it worked.
She declined to discuss it much (especially with readers who wanted to know precisely how Time Travel and Antigravity worked) but she figured they tied in with Newton’s Third Law of Motion. The special circumstances that allowed them to work were in the source of the original movement, and in the substance being acted upon. Those, per Kage, were Clarkian Magic: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
That combination was enough to her to form a working model in her mind; one solid enough to be written about. A few more details occurred to her as time went on, and as her research continued. But those were enough to start the whole thing in the first place.
All this is at least one answer to that deadly question: where do you get your ideas? From the fabled Post Office Box in New Jersey. From a scribbled note in a Klein bottle washed up on Pismo Beach. From somewhere in a nest of snakes …
And all of them biting their tails.
* Look it up, kids, as my own teachers always told me.