What is the earliest story or book combining FTL communication with a lack of FTL travel?

I first remember encountering this concept in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and then also in Ursula LeGuin's Hainish cycle. The Hainish cycle predates the Ender series, beginning I believe in 1966.

It seems to me that this creative combination would have a unique effect on the world/universe being described, culture, etc., as the dynamics of instantaneous (or, almost) communication, but needing years to get to different star systems (and the relativistic effects thereof) are quite different than either FTL travel & communication or STL travel & communication.

Were there earlier examples of this? What (and when!) is the earliest example?

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    FTL ships/STL communications (as with Traveller game, among others) is like "age of sail" -- fastest way to send a message is via ship. STL ships/FTL communications is more like "Marco Polo/Silk Road with radio" -- talk is quick, but it takes a very long time to visit or ship goods.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jun 17, 2021 at 13:45
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    The Wikipedia entry for Ansible gives a few historical antecedents. An Interocitor (for example). Jun 18, 2021 at 3:28
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    There may be some stories that accidentally meet your criteria. Where somebody was writing about space travel, but included real time communication over radio. Jun 18, 2021 at 14:37
  • It's not communication, but the Martians in Kurd Laßwitz' "Auf zwei Planeten" do have a device that can look in the past by retrieving lightbeams that have been reflected by past events, which suggests some sort of FTL technology (although that was in 1897, and I am not sure if Laßwitz himself would have seen lightspeed as some sort of natural barrier - he believed that space was filled with aether, and I am not sure what aether theory says about light speed). Jun 18, 2021 at 20:29
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    @Basya, no. That wasn't really intended as an answer, more as in interesting (IMO) tangent. Jun 19, 2021 at 21:03

3 Answers 3


If we're including psychic communication, then one possibility is Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker from 1937. In this book a community of minds travels through the cosmos in disembodied form, viewing the history of intelligent life in the cosmos, which gradually starts to form larger and larger collective minds by means of some kind of psychic communication. But as for physical travel, all the methods described seem to be slower than light:

Hitherto, in spite of tentative telepathic exploration on the part of the most awakened worlds, the life of the galaxy had been in the main the life of a number of isolated worlds which took no effect upon one another. With the advent of interstellar travel the many distinct themes of the world-biographies gradually became merged in an all-embracing drama.

Travel within a planetary system was at first carried out by rocket-vessels propelled by normal fuels. In all the early ventures one great difficulty had been the danger of collision with meteors. Even the most efficient vessel, most skillfully navigated and traveling in regions that were relatively free from these invisible and lethal missiles, might at any moment crash and fuse. The trouble was not overcome till means had been found to unlock the treasure of sub-atomic energy. It was then possible to protect the ship by means of a far-flung envelope of power which either diverted or exploded the meteors at a distance. A rather similar method was with great difficulty devised to protect the space ships and their crews from the constant and murderous hail of cosmic radiation.

Interstellar, as opposed to interplanetary, travel was quite impossible until the advent of sub-atomic power. Fortunately this source of power was seldom gained until late in a world's development, when mentality was mature enough to wield this most dangerous of all physical instruments without inevitable disaster. Disasters, however, did occur. Several worlds were accidentally blown to pieces. In others civilization was temporarily destroyed. Sooner or later, however, most of the minded worlds tamed this formidable djin, and set it to work upon a titanic scale, not only in industry, but in such great enterprises as the alteration of planetary orbits for the improvement of climate. This dangerous and delicate process was effected by firing a gigantic sub-atomic rocket-apparatus at such times and places that the recoil would gradually accumulate to divert the planet's course in the desired direction.

Actual interstellar voyaging was first effected by detaching a planet from its natural orbit by a series of well-timed and well-placed rocket impulsions, and thus projecting it into outer space at a speed far greater than the normal planetary and stellar speeds. Something more than this was necessary, since life on a sunless planet would have been impossible. For short interstellar voyages the difficulty was sometimes overcome by the generation of sub-atomic energy from the planet's own substance; but for longer voyages, lasting for many thousands of years, the only method was to form a small artificial sun, and project it into space as a blazing satellite of the living world. For this purpose an uninhabited planet would be brought into proximity with the home planet to form a binary system. A mechanism would then be contrived for the controlled disintegration of the atoms of the lifeless planet, to provide a constant source of light and heat. The two bodies, revolving round one another, would be launched among the stars.

As for telepathy, when it is used to form a "galactic Utopia" of many minds in communion, it is said to not be hindered by distance:

Telepathic intercourse united the whole galaxy; but telepathy, though it had the great advantage that it was not affected by distance, was seemingly imperfect in other ways. So far as possible it was supplemented by physical travel.

Telepathy was used not just to join minds in communion but also to make observations. In an earlier phase before the galactic utopia, some worlds fell victim to a type of "madness" akin to totalitarianism where they sought to conquer other worlds to convert them to their own way of thinking, and it's said that some more advanced worlds used telepathy to monitor the progress of these mad empires:

Throughout this period of imperial expansion a few world-systems of a very high order ... had watched events telepathically from afar. They saw the frontiers of empire advancing steadily toward them, and knew that they themselves would soon be implicated.

After the imperial threat is ended by the telepathic intervention of a more advanced species from a "sub-galaxy" (I think referring to one of the globular clusters that orbits in the halo of the Milky Way, Stapledon was very up-to-date on the latest in cosmology), they use "telepathic communication" to spread their plans for reorganizing the minds of the galaxy to make a true galactic group mind possible, so presumably telepathy did allow for something more akin to communication than an immediate total joining of minds:

The worlds of the Sub-Galaxy, recognizing that no further great advance in culture was possible unless the population of awakened worlds was immensely increased and diversified, now began to play an active part in the work of reorganizing the whole galactic continent. By telepathic communication they gave to all awakened worlds throughout the galaxy knowledge of the triumphant society which they themselves had created; and they called upon all to join them in the founding of the galactic Utopia. Every world throughout the galaxy, they said, must be an intensely conscious individual; and each must contribute its personal idiosyncrasy and all the wealth of its experience to the pooled experience of all. When at last the community was completed, they said, it must go on to fulfil its function in the far greater community of all galaxies, there to participate in spiritual activities as yet but dimly guessed.

In their earlier age of meditation the Sub-Galactic worlds, or rather the single intermittently awakening mind of the Sub-Galaxy, had evidently made discoveries which had very precise bearing on the founding of the galactic society; for they now put forward the demand that the number of minded worlds in the Galaxy must be increased to at least ten thousand times its present extent. In order that all the potentialities of the spirit should be fulfilled, they said there must be a far greater diversity of world-types, and thousands of worlds of each type. They themselves, in their small Sub-Galactic community, had learned enough to realize that only a very much greater community could explore all the regions of being, some few of which they themselves had glimpsed, but only from afar.

Later, after the establishment of a single galactic group mind, telepathy was used to survey the minds in other galaxies prior to joining them in a larger communal mind:

Telepathic exploration had long ago revealed that at least in some other galaxies there existed minded worlds. And now, after long experiment, the worlds of our galaxy, working for this purpose as a single galactic mind, had attained much more detailed knowledge of the cosmos as a whole. ... After long and patient work, however, our galactic society succeeded in forming a fairly complete survey of the cosmical population of galaxies.

And in a later phase where the communal minds of different galaxies begin to join in an intergalactic community, there is a line (written from the perspective of our galaxy's cosmic mind) about the effects of the expansion of space driving galaxies apart which also makes clear that their telepathic communication must be faster than light:

I knew with exactness the sum of cosmical matter. And though the "expansion" of space was already sweeping most of the galaxies apart more swiftly than light could bridge the gulf, telepathic exploration still kept me in touch with the whole extent of the cosmos. Many of my own members were physically divided from one another by the insurmountable gulf created by the ceaseless "expansion"; but telepathically they were still united.

Another iffier possibility:

Stapledon's earlier 1930 book Last and First Men, which covered the future evolution and eventual extinction of humanity (which was briefly alluded to in Star Maker), also featured slower than light physical travel and some kind of mental communication which I think is implied to potentially work faster than light, but this isn't as clearly spelled out. In one section, the "Last Men" living on Neptune discover that a novel type of "infection" in a nearby star is soon going to spread to the Sun and make the solar system uninhabitable, so they make plans for a type of directed panspermia in which they transmit micro-organisms to other star systems, and this is apparently limited by the speed of light:

In respect of the future, we are now setting about the forlorn task of disseminating among the stars the seeds of a new humanity. For this purpose we shall make use of the pressure of radiation from the sun, and chiefly the extravagantly potent radiation that will later be available. We are hoping to devise extremely minute electro-magnetic "wave-systems," akin to normal protons and electrons, which will be individually capable of sailing forward upon the hurricane of solar radiation at a speed not wholly incomparable with the speed of light itself. This is a difficult task. But, further, these units must be so cunningly inter-related that, in favourable conditions,they may tend to combine to form spores of life, and to develop, not indeed into human beings, but into lowly organisms with a definite evolutionary bias toward the essentials of human nature. These objects we shall project from beyond our atmosphere in immense quantities at certain points of our planet's orbit, so that solar radiation may carry them toward the most promising regions of the galaxy.

The Last Men were also said to have "mind-detecting instruments" which they used to survey other forms of intelligent life throughout the galaxy, and there is this vague comment on how it works (which references an episode earlier in the book where the moon fell from its orbit for inexplicable reasons):

You may wonder how we have come to detect these remote lives and intelligences. I can say only that the occurrence of mentality produces certain minute astronomical effects, to which our instruments are sensitive even at great distances. These effects increase slightly with the mere mass of living matter on any astronomical body, but far more with its mental and spiritual development. Long ago it was the spiritual development of the world-community of the Fifth Men that dragged the moon from its orbit.

Their telepathy also allows them to re-experience the lives of beings of the past, and it's discovered that there is a type of backwards causality in which they are actually affecting some of those lives, so while this doesn't quite show that telepathy was intended to be faster than light (it could be that this can only be done within their own past light cone), it does at least suggest telepathy is not bound by the ordinary laws of causality:

We have long been able to enter into past minds and participate in their experience. Hitherto we have been passive spectators merely, but recently we have acquired the power of influencing past minds. This seems an impossibility; for a past event is what it is, and how can it conceivably be altered at a subsequent date, even in the minutest respect?

Now it is true that past events are what they are, irrevocably; but in certain cases some feature of a past event may depend on an event in the far future. The past event would never have been as it actually was (and is, eternally), if there had not been going to be a certain future event, which, though not contemporaneous with the past event, influences it directly in the sphere of eternal being. The passage of events is real, and time is the successiveness of passing events; but though events have passage, they have also eternal being. And in certain rare cases mental events far separated in time determine one another directly by way of eternity.

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    Very cool. I'm going to have to look at these two possibilities a little further, maybe next week, as I am completely unfamiliar with them....it is not clear to me how similar this telepathic communion is to communication as we think of it. But this is older than I thought we'd go...
    – Basya
    Jun 18, 2021 at 10:13
  • @Baysa I added a few more quotes to the Star Maker section to show that telepathy did allow for something more like communication as well as the monitoring of the doings of other minds without actually joining them as a single mind.
    – Hypnosifl
    Jun 18, 2021 at 18:56
  • Thank you. I borrowed and skimmed the book a bit....it is a little different than what I had in mind, but close enough that I have to accept it. It does indeed appear to deal with the effects of communication where physical contact is difficult or impossible due to travel time. He definitely approaches it very differently (and very early). Interesting. Thank you.
    – Basya
    Jun 20, 2021 at 14:13
  • @Baysa Did you have in mind a more technological form of FTL communication, like the ultrawave? If so it might be worth asking a separate question about the earliest story to pair technological FTL communication with space travelers being restricted to slower than light speeds.
    – Hypnosifl
    Jun 20, 2021 at 22:02
  • Thanks. I was thinking of doing that. I did have in mind technological communication, but mainly I was thinking about stories which dealt with (even if only as a side issue, not the main plot) the societal implications of such a setup. Telepathic communication does indeed meet that criterion, and, indeed, this book seems to deal with that issue, just very differently than the other examples with which I am familiar. I might open the other question too...
    – Basya
    Jun 21, 2021 at 12:24

Perhaps the 1956 Heinlein novel Time for the Stars? It had FTL communication via telepathic twins (and triplets) while still using STL ships that boost to the stars.

  • Nice. I'd forgotten that one (got a copy of the book, just forgot it was STL ships with instantaneous telepathy). Also dealt with issue of communicating during time dilation.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jun 17, 2021 at 13:07
  • Fascinating. I think I would have to allow the telepathic FTL communication, although it is not at all what I was thinking of, as the impact on space exploration and such would be similar.
    – Basya
    Jun 17, 2021 at 13:07
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    Should this be two separate answers? If I end up accepting one of them, I'd want to accept, well, one of them :-)
    – Basya
    Jun 17, 2021 at 13:08
  • @Basya, I might suggest waiting to see if others can find even earlier stories before accepting. If after a while nobody does, then I would be happy to remove the Heinlein novel from the answer and let the "With Folded Hands" stand on its own. As you said,. you had not been considering telepathy as an FTL means originally anyhow.
    – beichst
    Jun 17, 2021 at 13:16
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    Great! I have split out the answers as requested. If no earlier acceptable stories are found then you will have the option to accept on the "With Folded Hands" answer.
    – beichst
    Jun 17, 2021 at 13:31

I don't believe there is mention of exactly how fast the travel is from the fictional planet Wing IV to Earth, it is possible the 1947 novelette With Folded Hands by Jack Williamson might qualify because the travel was STL, but still allowed interstellar travel in the 50-60 year timeframe of the story. I.e. that one of the MCs traveled from the planet to Earth STL over the 60 year period from when the "Humanoids" were created until they showed up on Earth. Please see excerpt from story below that I remembered showing velocity of light still an absolute limit.

However, later in the story it also mention an inflexion drive so I think this will not qualify.

With Folded Hands- Excerpt

enter image description here

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    I'm not sure what you are saying about "With Folded Hands"? If they are traveling STL and the communication is relatively instantaneous, then it would qualify, unless they are traveling STL and getting to a distant star system in a week (which implies FTL even if they don't admit it)
    – Basya
    Jun 17, 2021 at 13:29
  • Thank you for separating them.
    – Basya
    Jun 17, 2021 at 13:30
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    I'm glancing through it now...I have yet to see the faster-than-light communication...can you direct me to it? It looks as though someone is claiming to be doing research that will enable this...
    – Basya
    Jun 17, 2021 at 13:42
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    I think I may need to withdraw the Folded hands answer. I found another section which talks about the FTL communications using the rhoomagnetic waves. But, it then mentions an "inflexion drive" which seems to indicate FTL travel as well. Do you agree we should probably withdraw this answer and go with the "Time for the Stars" instead?
    – beichst
    Jun 17, 2021 at 14:04
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    Keep this answer if you don't mind. It's iffy for sure, but interesting nevertheless. Jun 17, 2021 at 20:45

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