The Milky Way Is the Only Way
In Speculative Fiction
featuring faster-than-light interstellar travel
, reaching other galaxies from the Milky Way (or fictional local equivalent, like the galaxy far, far away
) is often shown to be impossible or infeasible, regardless of how fast FTL
Now, in Real Life
, this is pretty realistic
. The Milky Way is about 100,000 lightyears across... but the nearest other spiral galaxy, Andromeda, is about 2.5 million
lightyears away, which is 24 times more for all you math-challenged types. If your FTL drive takes 100 years from one edge of our galaxy to the opposite one while going full tilt, or your hyperspace
shortcuts are limited by the need to return to realspace and assess your position after making a relatively short jump, then it is perfectly reasonable that you shouldn't be able to travel to another galaxy in a casual manner. Obviously this also extends to long-distance teleporters like Stargates, and the time is even longer should the gates be a sizeable distance from each other.
However, if your ship is capable of crossing the Milky Way in a single day (after all, if we're ignoring the speed-of-light limit, then any other author-imposed speed limit is completely arbitrary), or your hyperdrive can simply open a shortcut between any two known locations anywhere in the universe
, then there really is no excuse for this. Bonus points if there is some unconvincing Hand Wave
as to why they don't go to other galaxies.
When done right (the "FTL takes 100 years to cross the Milky Way" version), it's an aversion of Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale
. Contrast to Small Universe After All
and What Other Galaxies?
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Anime and Manga
- Space Battleship Yamato 2199 is one of the relatively few anime that averts this. The protagonists plan on making a trip to the Large Magellanic Cloud and back to Earth in under a year. They initially assume that this trope applies to the Gamilas Empire but get a rude surprise when they learn that the Large Magellanic Cloud is actually their home territory. The audience are also treated to a brief snapshot of a second opponent Gamilas is fighting in the Small Magellanic Cloud.
- Averted in the Marvel Universe. The Kree dominate the Large Magellanic Cloud, the Shi'ar dominate the "Shi'ar Galaxy," and the Skrulls come from the Andromeda Galaxy.
- The Chronicles of Riddick franchise. The films don't mention galaxies but the novelizations contradict each other. The novelization to Pitch Black by Frank Lauria implies that humans have colonised several galaxies. It says that Riddick worked in the Sigma Galaxy and that Johns chased him across 3 galaxies. But the novelisation to The Chronicles of Riddick by Alan Dean Foster implies that everything takes place within one galaxy.
- In the Star Wars Expanded Universe there are 'hyperspace routes' that ships go through, but they are only mapped through one galaxy: one could in theory travel to another galaxy, but it would take millennia without the routes. For most of the Star Wars mythos it's stated that there's no life outside of the galaxy; the Yuuzhan Vong eventually prove this wrong by invading.
- The galaxy is home to more than one group of extra-galactic droid refugees that were running away from the Yuuzhan Vong (namely, the Abominor and the Silentium).
- Star Wars also used the "barrier on the edge" excuse like Star Trek, calling it a "hyperspace disturbance" — and, like Star Trek, immediately dropped it. Particularly since it made no sense in a galaxy which had planned to send an extragalactic expedition years ago and had a serious scientific society dedicated to searching for extragalactic life...
- As alluded to above, there WAS at least one attempt to leave their home galaxy. It was called the Outbound Flight Project, and consisted simply of a group of volunteers willing to take the many years necessary to travel between galaxies in hyperspace, and a gigantic ship with enough supplies to keep them alive through it. It was an unmitigated disaster, though for completely unrelated reasons (it was ambushed and destroyed before leaving the galaxy at all, on orders of The Emperor).
- Although it apparently required a large number of Force users to allow them to breach the hyperspace disturbance.
- There are also seven dwarf satellite galaxies very near (astronomically speaking) the main galaxy, which have been visited, at least by probes.
- In the original version of The Empire Strikes Back, the Rebels averted 2-D Space at the end of the film by hiding far enough "above" the galactic plane that the galaxy is recognizable as such out the Redemption's viewport. The short story "Of Possible Futures: The Tale of Zuckuss and 4-LOM" even used this as a plot point. The 2004 DVD and subsequent Blu-ray editions changed the view to a nebula, which raises interesting questions regarding canon (though ones that have likely been answered given George Lucas' willingness to make changes to his movies and official statements where he calls the Star Wars Expanded Universe a parallel universe). If there was a Retcon made, it probably was because if the stellar object in question actually was the Galaxy, then the rate at which it was spinning would indicate that the Galaxy turns faster than light.
- Note that the Galaxy Far Away is also bisected by a Precursor-made hyperspace barrier that limits hyperspace travel to only one half of it. The other half is called the Unknown Regions; it features slow and haphazard hyperspace travel, isolated pockets of civilization (like the Chiss Ascendency or the planet O'reen) juxtaposed with mad, bad and dangerous to know alien races (such as the Ssi-Ruuvi and the Vagaari) and plain old Eldritch Abominations like Mnggal-Mnggal.
- The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov are all set within the galaxy. In the fourth Foundation book, someone wonders why - all places are the same distance away by hyperspace. Asimov gives a pretty good explanation. Ships traveling trough hyperspace are affected by objects with mass that lie along the line that connects the starting and the ending point of the jump. The greater the mass or the distance between them, the greater the effect. This is the main reason why starships in the Foundation Universe use several small jumps instead of the single long one. And with every jump requiring several days to calculate the new jump coordinates, intergalactic travel would take a long, long time...
- In the Robert A. Heinlein novel Time Enough for Love, the protagonist mentions how much of the Milky Way has been explored and settled but that Humans Are Special so that there have been a few spaceships that have attempted the "long" trip. Naturally, nothing is known about these ships as the author is well aware that the distance is just too huge for any word to get back (if anyone would really bother) for thousands of years (and that is with much faster than light spaceship drives).
- Except that their Libby drives are apparently time machines as well (Only recently used that way because apparently nobody realized they were), and can arrive at their destination as just about any time they choose. And as nearly every character is functionally immortal and can have their personality stored electronically (A technique used to move between bodies too beat up to rejuvenate, easily adaptable to long-term storage), "on-board" time is nearly a non-issue. The only reason nobody's doing it that way is because they're too stupid to realize they can.
- Samuel R Delaney wrote the excellent story "The Star Pit" where only people with a specific set of psychological issues can handle going outside the galaxy, even though interstellar travel is ridiculously convenient.
- Inversion: In Alan Dean Foster's novel Design for Great-Day, the Solarian Combine is a super-advanced mental and social amalgam of multiple species working together in harmony who routinely visit other galaxies in their ridiculously fast spacecraft.
- In Robert A. Heinlein's Glory Road, the Empress of the Five Galaxies rules over, well, exactly that. The necessary Faster-Than-Light Travel is accomplished by means of Portal Network.
- Night's Dawn trilogy, upon discovering the sleeping god at the end of the last book, and theorizing that it is capable of intergalactic travel, everyone is shocked, despite living in a society that has known FTL travel for more than 500 years.
- Given that it took several months and hundreds of small FTL 'jumps' for the main characters to travel the 1300 light years to find the Sleeping God it's not so surprising that they'd be shocked.
- Predictably, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is apparently set entirely within The Galaxy. Despite all the various forms of faster-than-light travel, extradimensional beings, and travel driven by improbability.
- There is one point in the radio show where the cast are escaping from Milliways and find themselves headed into intergalactic space — promptly running for the escape pods. Mind, there were other reasons not to want to be aboard that ship at that particular time.
- Related to this: when the characters are searching for the real power behind the galactic throne, someone says "maybe he rules the whole universe" and this is thenceforth assumed to be true.
- Inverted (or something) in Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought series. All technology, including FTL travel, works better as you get farther from the galactic core. This means it's impossible to get to the middle of the galaxy, because your ship will continually slow down and eventually FTL becomes impossible. Intergalactic travel should be possible, except that the outer reaches of this galaxy are controlled by technological AIs who have ascended to near-godhood, and they don't let anyone past them.
- Also as one heads closer to the galactic core even at sub-lightspeed high technology begins to break down, computers can no longer function, and once inside the "Unthinking Depths" you'd no longer be capable of sentient thought.
- Subverted in The Last Legionary young adult series by Douglas Hill. The "Overlight" FTL drive used by spaceships in the stories is perfectly capable of getting a ship to another galaxy in several months but extended stays in Overlight drive humans insane, making it impossible to have a functioning crew at the other end of the trip. At the end of the series Keill's alien sidekick Glr (from another galaxy herself) reveals that suspended animation allows the problem to be bypassed allowing her to potentially take Keill to visit her home galaxy.
- In Iain M. Banks' The Culture novels, it's explained that the Grid — the barrier between this universe the other ultraverses/infraverses ships use to travel— changes properties in extra-galactic space, making ships travel slower. Although, it didn't stop the Sleeper Service from trying.
- In Mikhail Akhmanov's Arrivals from the Dark books, all known galactic races utilize the "contour" drive for instantaneous FTL travel. It works by shifting the ship into another universe and then back into a new location. The drive consumes very little power but is prone to burn-outs, especially smaller models. However, jumps require extremely precise calculations, and strong gravity fields can drastically affect them. That is why most prefer to make a series of shorter jumps than a single long jump. Only the Orion Arm (our arm) of the galaxy is explored by most of the known races. The Faata hail from the Perseus Arm but don't know much about the Orion Arm. It is common for Faata in the first two novels to take the long way around instead of jumping directly through the Void (area between the two arms with no stars). During the Void Wars, however, the Faata make several attempts to travel through the Void instead of around it. It is possible that the Daskins have travelled outside the galaxy. Most races assume that all of them left the galaxy long ago, which would explain their absence.
- In Andrei Livadny's The History of the Galaxy series, only a (relatively) small chunk of the galaxy has been discovered by humanity and all known races. While all alien races are, at least, millions of years old, the fact that they relied on Portal Networks and never invented the hyperdrive means that their expansion was extremely slow. Humans, on the other hand, have spread our in all directions, but only have several hundred colonies not too far from each other. Also, the nature of Hypersphere implies that it is limited to our own galaxy. No one ever brings up the idea of going to another galaxy.
- In Vladimir Vasilyev's War for Mobility duology, a newly-discovered portal to another galaxy is a major plot point, with its discovery sparking an interstellar war. Without it, FTL travel is way too slow to cross intergalactic distances. It is implied, though, that the Precursors who created the portals were able to do so, as they would've had to fly a portal to the other galaxy first in order to use it.
- Also, in the novel Death or Glory, which takes place several hundred years prior to the duology, The Alliance is being slowly crushed by a race of Space Whales from outside the galaxy.
- Perry Rhodan started out with this (well, to be fair, it started with the first in-universe moon landing and mankind needed some time to even spread out into the galactic neighborhood)...then came the classic Andromeda arc (issues #200 - #299), which showcased the difficulties of trying to even reach enemies in another galaxy with the technology available at the time, notably FTL drives that burnt out and needed to be replaced too soon to cover the entire distance. (Besides the creation of new multi-stage, multi-drive ship designs that used and dropped their drives one after the other, the main answer was the successful hijacking of several of the enemies' own intergalactic transmitter stations.) Even much later, 'routine' intergalactic travel remains pretty much limited to the familiar cosmic neighborhood and actual long-distance expeditions are pretty few and far between.
- The third novel in Sergey Lukyanenko's A Lord from Planet Earth trilogy reveals that, while humans in the 22nd century are able to cross galaxies, it was a complete accident that a ship ended up in a faraway dwarf galaxy and stumbled on a race of Human Aliens with Blue and Orange Morality. What follows is an intergalactic war that leaves humans desperately scrambling for allies. They have set up a No Warping Zone on the outskirts of the Milky Way in the direction of the dwarf galaxy that forces the enemy ships to drop out and be attacked by human forces. Played straight in the first two novels, where precise hyperspace coordinates are required in order to make FTL jumps. The only coordinates available are those left behind by the Seeders (actually, 22nd-century humans who traveled back in time to seed the galaxy with HumanAlien life).
- In another of Lukyanenko's series, Line of Delirium (inspired by Master of Orion) the main character speaks with an Alkari representative who reveals that the entire Alkari race is making preparations to leave the galaxy for another one, as they have given up trying to conquer this one (they were the first known race to develop interstellar travel but waited too long to spread out). Why they think the other galaxy will be empty of life is not mentioned.
- In the William Shatner novel Beyond the Stars (a part of his Quest For Tomorrow series), the protagonist Jim (Does This Remind You of Anything?) is sent on a colony ship. The back cover of the book claims that the ship is called Outward Bound and is, in fact, a Generational Ship heading for another galaxy. This is, however, a case of Covers Always Lie. Not only do they get the name of the ship wrong (it's similar, though), but it's simply heading for a world far away from human space, but no one ever mentions another galaxy. It's also revealed in the next book that a previously-unknown race of Bee People blows up the colony ship soon after Jim gets off.
- One of the books in the Alex Benedict series by Jack McDevitt notes that current FTL technology could reach the Andromeda Galaxy in about a year. It hasn't happened for the simple reason that there's no need.
- In Animorphs, all of the space-faring civilizations mentioned are confined to our galaxy. Even the sufficiently advanced Ellimist and Crayak are limited in their influence to our galaxy.
- Played with in Uplift universe, where the Civilization of Five Galaxies does span— well, take a guess— but can't for the life of it reach any galaxy outside that set. It turns out the hyperspace links just aren't there to travel outside the Five. Even more nastily, it turns out that in the distant past there were something more like fourteen galaxies, and by the end of the series it will be further traumatically reduced to the Civilization of Four Galaxies. This is predicted to continue until the Milky Way truly is the only way, along with each other isolated galaxy. An attempt by otherwise Sufficiently Advanced Aliens to bridge the gap turns out to be the other impetus for the story.
- Double Subverted in the Star Carrier series. As revealed in the third book the Sh'daar came from another galaxy, but not by hoofing it. Their home galaxy was a dwarf that was "eaten" by the much larger Milky Way a few billion years ago.
- Played straight in the main Revelation Space Series novels - the scarcity of Conjoiner Drives and the limitations of lightspeed - have limited human expansion to a roughly 100 lighyear wide bubble around Earth. Even the Inhibitors - a "race" of robots that purge starfaring life and think within the timespan of billions of years - have their operations limited to the Milky Way. Averted in the Distant Finale novellas with the release of the Greenfly terraformers; humanity begins to flee wholesale from the Milky Way to escape.
- In Warhammer 40,000, the Imperium is prevented from going beyond the galaxy by the Astronomicon (a psychic lighthouse needed for reliable Warp travel) not being powerful enough to guide them that far. The Eldar are constricted by the infrastructure of their webway tunnels, Ork Warp travel is haphazard and the Tau are limited to a form of FTL considerably slower than true Warp travel. The Tyranids come from another galaxy, but they probably travelled very slowly between the galaxies. What isn't explained, however, is why the Necrons and their C'tan masters went into hibernation after scouring the galaxy clean of most life millions of years ago, given that their inertialess drives (fast FTL without entering the Warp) and immortal shells give them the means to travel to other galaxies even if it takes thousands of years, and the prospect of killing more living gives them a motive.
- In Nightbringer it is mentioned that "whole galaxies had died by their command", or something like that. The Necrons hid to escape the Enslaver plague. There were still plenty of people trying to kill them - the Nightbringer's flagship is defeated by a large alien fleet.
- Also, they have no guarantee that they would even find another galaxy possessing sentient life, which the C'Tan had grown so accustomed to feeding on that they wouldn't accept any other food source. Better to remain in a galaxy where such life still exists (the Old Ones, Eldar and Orks hadn't been wiped out, just severely depleted by the Enslaver plague; the C'Tan wouldn't have wiped them out, since they considered them a delicacy) and wait for it to be rejuvenated (and hopefully for the Enslavers to die out).
- The fifth edition Necron codex retcons the whole thing away. They don't have real FTL but just hack the Eldar webway, using their immortality to take longer trips at sub-light speeds. The sources that said they had this ability were always from other races, they just misunderstood what they were seeing.
- In Traveller only a small part of the Milky Way is known by Emperor Strephon's time.
- Inverted by Palladium's Phase World setting. The FTL engines used are slowed down by gravity interference from stars and suchlike, meaning that it's often just as fast moving between the closely spaced galaxies as it is crossing the same one.
- Justified in BattleTech by the low FTL speeds of JumpShips. Yes, they can make near-if-not-quite instantaneous 'jumps' over up to 30 light years at once...then the drive core takes at least a week to safely recharge, requiring either a nearby star to collect the energy via solar sail or eating into the limited fuel reserves if using the ship's own power plant to do so. The charging time and the lack of ship production facilities has the side effect of making exploration a perilous endeavor - nobody wants to go exploring in unmapped systems in a four hundred year old priceless starship whose construction techniques and shipyards have long since been forgotten, when there is a chance that said four hundred year old jump drive can suddenly stop working, thus stranding the ship.
- The wormhole that brought humanity from The Milky Way to New Eden in the backstory of EVE Online collapsed millennia before the game's setting. The limits of stargate construction in the EVE 'verse make it impossible to create a man-made link back. This limits gameplay to one galaxy, though you can see the wormhole's remains in the New Eden solarsystem.
- The recent addition of ubiquitous wormholes appearing and disappearing throughout the galaxy have granted access to another galaxy, where a race called the Talocan have left their vicious Sleepers to guard their advanced technology. The new wormhole systems are dangerous and lawless, but exploiting them can be very profitable. Its also speculated that the Sleepers were left behind or are the remnants of Humanity that was cut off when the Eden wormhole collapsed.
- Mass Effect is set in the Milky Way and aside from the mechanical Reapers, none of the spacefaring civilizations in it are able to travel to other galaxies. This is because the "Mass Relays" which everyone uses to get around the galaxy are Black Box technology left behind by the extinct Protheans, or rather, by the millions-of-years-gone species that created the Reapers, and not only does nobody know exactly how they work, a past Bug War has made The Federation very cautious about activating relays without knowing where they lead.
- The real issue is the limitations of non-Relay FTL technology. Mass Relays allow instantaneous travel across hundreds to thousands of light years, but you can only travel to a Relay within that range, which obviously limits you to the Milky Way. Non-Relay FTL travel is so slow in comparison (only 10 light years a day, at best) that it takes forever to get anywhere, and your effective range is limited by the need to discharge the ship's drive every 48 hours on a planet or in a sufficiently powerful magnetosphere. More than 99% of the galaxy remains unexplored.
- Freespace uses a naturally-occurring portal network to jump ships between star systems, but a jump node to another galaxy is never found, or even hinted at (Epileptic Trees as to what exactly the Shivans did to Capella notwithstanding). On the other hand, humanity hasn't exactly explored very far in Freespace; the GTVA's territory only consists of approximately 40 star systems. They've barely started exploring the Milky Way, let alone other galaxies!
- Justified in the Master of Orion series, as ships can only travel so far from your territory, making it quite understandable why other galaxies would be out of reach. (It is possible to research fuel cells with unlimited range, but these come so late in the game it hardly matters.)
- Like the MOO series, Galactic Civilizations also restricts the range your starships can travel from your systems, again making it understandable why other galaxies would be out of reach.
- Of course, as any player who has tried to wage war on the far side of the map can tell you, it just takes building a series of space-stations towards your destination to extend your ships' range far enough to reach.
- In Halo, human ships take a really long time to get anywhere with slipspace, so that explains why they haven't ventured beyond the Milky Way; the series itself takes place primarily around the Orion Arm. On the other hand, the Forerunners were advanced enough to build installations located well outside of the Milky Way; the only reason they never seem to have bothered to expand to other galaxies was lack of interest. The Precursors and the Flood were also both capable of intergalactic travel, which makes sense given that they're actually the same thing.
- Covenant ships also have absurdly fast FTL engines, despite merely being inferior copies of Forerunner technology, being able to reach about 937 lightyears per day. If that speed is maintained continuously, a Covenant ship could go from one end of the Milky Way to the other in a mere four months. However, not only are the Covenant too bound by religious dogma to care to learn how to use their technology to its fullest potential, they're more concerned about consolidating their control of the Orion Arm (and picking it clean of Forerunner artifacts) first.
- Silentium clarifies that while the Forerunners were capable of intergalactic travel, even with their extremely advanced technology it was still rather expensive and difficult to do so. They never found the potential benefits of extragalactic travel to be worth the expense.
- The gameplay of Tachyon: The Fringe is centered around tachyon gates (or tachyon coil generators, to be precise) that connect all of known space (actually, only a few dozen systems). Close to the end of the game, a news report informs the player about newly-invented tachyon wave generators, vastly increasing the range at which capital ships can travel (fighters still need static gates for FTL travel).
- Played straight in the first Homeworld game, but averted in the stand-alone expansion. In the Cataclysm expansion, the Naggarok is an experimental extragalactic ship sent by an unknown race millions of years ago. On the way, it has picked up a hitchhiker in hyperspace, which ended up being a sentient virulent lifeform known as the Beast. The Naggarok is way more advanced than anything anyone in the galaxy has, including an intergalactic hyperdrive, an inertialess sublight engine, and disassemble weapons that can take any ship apart in seconds. The Bentusi, afraid of the Beast, decide to flee the galaxy for another one using a powerful slipgate. Since the sequel almost completely ignores the expansion, this trope is once again in effect, except, perhaps, the fact that most of the Bentusi are gone.
- Even with the strongest engines available in Spore, you can only cross a few parsecs in a single jump, and each jump has to end near a star or spacial anomaly. Intergalactic space is just too barren to cross.
- In Escape Velocity, the hyperdrive can only operate along explored Hyperspace Lanes that have to be charted with unmanned probes. It's not even entirely clear how much of the Milky Way is explored.
- Subverted in the X-Universe series. Which star system is connected to which via the games' jumpgate network has nothing to do with its location in space, and has a way of changing seemingly at random due to meddling precursors. However, the X-Encyclopedia packaged with the X-Superbox series collection explains that while the gate network in its entirety averts the trope (it's spread across much of the Local Groupnote ), the closed loop of gates in which the series takes place is confined to the Milky Way. However, it's possible to jump off of the gate system using the Unfocused Jump Drive, which typically dumps the ship into intergalactic space.
- Averted in Infinite Space, which is mostly set in the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds. Void Gate travel is instantaneous and occasionally intergalactic, but requires having a gate available. Conventional FTL travel between the two galaxies is possible, but dangerous due to Space Pirates and natural hazards. The original colonization of the Large Magellanic Cloud was accomplished by enormous Generation Ships. The player does travel to the Milky Way at the very end of the game; to the Solar System, in fact.
- Schlock Mercenary has a footnote on why teraport travel outside the galaxy is prohibitively expensive in the best of times. That said, there is a way: the two galaxies are linked by means of a wormgate sent at sublight speeds.
- In Orion's Arm a total lack of FTL has prevented anyone from leaving the Milky Way yet, as the name implies no one has even reached another arm of the galaxy. However a message from the Triangulum Galaxy has been picked up and massive telescope arrays have seen planetary scale building projects occurring in other galaxies.
- Not only did the Triangulum civilization send a message describing their entire civilization, they also told of a ten light-year wide object with the mass of billions of stars and made up of the artificially imploded remains of an entire galaxy headed toward the Local Group of galaxies. Not only is it crossing intergalactic space, it's also coming from an entirely different cluster of galaxies.