Alien Tech Level

Apes or Angels

Sir Arthur C. Clarke made a famous observation about space explorers discovering aliens: "If one considers the millions of years of pre-history, and the rapid technological advancement occurring now, if you apply that to a hypothetical alien race, one can figure the probabilities of how advanced the explorers will find them. The conclusion is we will find apes or angels, but not men."

Why? Consider the history of Planet Earth. Let the height of the Empire State building represent the 5 billion year life of Terra without Man. The height of a one-foot ruler perched on top would represent the million years of Man's existence. The thickness of a dime will represent the ten thousand years of Man's civilization. And the thickness of a postage stamp will represent the 300 years of Man's technological civilization. An unknown portion above represents "pre-Singularity Man", the period up to the point where mankind hits the Singularity/evolves into a higher form/turns into angels. Say another dime. Then they leave Terra to go to better things. Above that would be another Empire State building, representing the latter 5 billion years of Terra's lifespan without Man.

If you picked a millimeter of this tower at random, what would you most likely hit? One of the Empire State buildings, of course. So, assuming only one civilization develops on a planet, chances are the first-in-scout starship Daniel Boone will discover mostly planets that are currently empty of alien civilizations (but they might have an almost 50% chance to discover valuable Forerunner artifacts or other paleotechnology).

If you only use the section with an alien civilization, you have a ruler and two dimes worth of apes and angels, and a postage stamp edge worth of near Human civilization. If you pick a millimeter at random chances are you ain't gonna pict the edge of the postage stamp. Ergo: apes or angels, but not men.

For a further discussion of alien "angels", see the section Star Gods below.

IMPORTANT: the angel period could be totally eliminated by The Great Filter. If the Great Filter means that all civilizations die, the interstellar explorers will only meet apes, no angels. And if they do meet alien men, the alien men will have a technology very close to our tech level. The alien men will not be Star Gods or something hyper-advanced like that (e.g., Star Trek and other media science fiction). But they will be under an impending sentence of Great Filter death, just like us.


Earth is likely to remain a possible abode of life for something of the order of a million million years to come.

This is some five hundred times the past age of the earth, and over three million times the period through which humanity has so far existed on earth.

Let us try to see these times in their proper proportion by the help of yet another simple model (as near as I can figure his model is on a scale of 1 year equals 0.00000001 meters or 10 nanometers).

Take a postage-stamp (0.00007 m thick), and stick it on to a penny (0.00295 m thick). Now climb Cleopatra's needle (21 meters tall) and lay the penny flat, postage-stamp uppermost, on top of the obelisk. The height of the whole structure may he taken to represent the time that has elapsed since the earth was born (Sir Jeans means 2 billion years. 2 billion years is wrong, closer to 4.54±0.04 billion years). On this scale, the thickness of the penny and postage-stamp together represents the time that man has lived on earth (300,000 years). The thickness of the postage-stamp represents the time he has been civilised (5,000 years), the thickness of the penny representing the time he lived in an uncivilised state (295,000 years). Now stick another postage-stamp on top of the first to represent the next 5000 years of civilisation, and keep sticking on postage-stamps until you have a pile as high as Mont Blanc (4,800 meters tall, 480 billion years).

Even now the pile forms an inadequate representation of the length of the future which, so far as astronomy can see, probably stretches before civilised humanity, unless an accident cuts it short. The first postage-stamp was the past of civilisation; the column higher than Mont Blane is its future. Or, to look at it in another way, the first postage-stamp represents what man has already achieved; the pile which out-tops Mont Blanc represents what he may achieve, if his future achievement is proportional to his time on earth.

Yet we have seen that we cannot count on such a length of future with any certainty. Accidents may happen to the race as to the individual. Celestial collisions may occur; shrinking into a white dwarf, the sun may freeze terrestrial life out of existence; bursting out as a nova it may scorch our race to death. Accident may replace our Mont Blane of postage-stamps by a truncated column of only a fraction of the height of Mont Blanc. Even so, there is a prospect of tens of thousands of millions of years before our race. And the human mind, as apart from the mind of the mathematician, can hardly distinguish clearly between such a period as this and the million million years to which we may look forward if accidents do not overtake us. For all practical purpose the only statement that conveys any real meaning is that our race may look forward to occupying the earth for a time incomparably longer than any we can imagine.

From THE UNIVERSE AROUND US by Sir James Jeans (1930)

     'Thank you. Now... tell me...'
     'Yes! The sun would have risen just the same, yes?'
     'Oh, come on. You can't expect me to believe that. It's an astronomical fact.'
     She turned on him.
     'It's been a long night, Grandfather! I'm tired and I need a bath! I don't need silliness!'
     'Really? Then what would have happened, pray?'

     They walked in silence for a moment.
     'Ah,' said Susan dully. 'Trickery with words. I would have thought you'd have been more literal-minded than that.'
     'All right,' said Susan. 'I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable.'
     'Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—'
     'So we can believe the big ones?'

     'They're not the same at all!'
     'Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point—'

     She tried to assemble her thoughts.
     'Yes, but people don't think about that,' said Susan. Somewhere there was a bed...
     'You make us sound mad,' said Susan. A nice warm bed...

From HOGSFATHER by Terry Pratchett (1996)

Mark Alan Barner of Anaheim explains it this way:

Apes or Angels

Consider the high improbability that any two Earth-like planets will form and evolve to the exact and ideal conditions that develop and support carbon-based life.

Consider also the number of mass extinctions that have occurred in Earth's past. It is unlikely that the same number of these would occur on another Earth- like world at exactly the same time and with the exact same frequency.

Finally, consider the cultural developments in Earth's history, and apply a few "What Ifs." What if Democracy had never developed beyond the conceptual stage? What if Rome had never fallen? What if Columbus had never received any financial backing from the Spaniards? What if the Nazis had developed the atomic bomb first?


Would any of one of these events have delayed or advanced human development by as much as 0.001%? One value given for the age of the Earth is 4.567 billion years. A +/- 0.001% change would set human evolution back by 4.567 million years (Apes), or advance it by 4.567 million years (Angels).

Thus, by "Apes & Angels" one could say that any two worlds that formed at exactly the same time, and that have had billions of years to go from dust to sentient life, could differ by as much as 9.134 million years in evolution!

A divergence of only 0.000001% would still separate the two extremes by 9.134 thousand years. With this value, one alien world could have a bronze-age culture (year = 2560 BCE), while another could be far ahead of our own, both culturally and technologically (year = 6574 CE). Maybe not "Apes & Angels" but perhaps "Spearchuckers & Supermen"?


Mark Alan Barner
My Example

The planet Earth will have a life-span of roughly ten billion years. Mankind (Homo sapiens) appeared on Earth approximately 100,000 years ago. The bronze age began about 5300 years ago. The Industrial Revolution began about 250 years ago.

When will we humans evolve into angels? Vernor Vinge thinks the Singularity will happen no later than the year 2030. But I'll be generous and use 500 years from now, using John Barnes' general rule. How long will the angels last? No idea. For lack of anything else, let's say 100,000 years from now, placing us current humans midway between apes and angels.

Now, assuming that the Daniel Boone only visits planets that be hosts to alien species, and assuming that each planet will only produce one alien species (which is a very questionable assumption), this means that the chance of discovering a living alien species is about 200,000/10,000,000,000 = 0.00002 = one chance in 50,000.

The poor Daniel Boone will on average have to visit fifty thousand planets in order to find one alien species. (Of course the Daniel Boone will probably be targeting planets about the same age as Earth and using other strategies to drastically reduce the number it will have to visit.)

Now, say that somehow the Daniel Boone manages to visit enough planets to discover 267 alien species. What level with they be at? Doing the math, 133 in 267 will be angels, 126 in 267 will be cave men, 7 in 267 will be on par with ancient Egypt, and only one in 267 will be a technological species. Keeping in mind that in this case, "technological" means it has technology ranging from steam power to something out of Star Wars (the 1760's to the 2500's).

The Daniel Boone will encounter 126 planets full of cave-man level aliens that they can play "Chariots of the Gods" with, and will have to avoid 133 planets with god-like species eager to put our intrepid explorers into giant petri dishes for their experiments with primitive life forms.

If these figures do not suit you, this is your opportunity to play with the various values until more reasonable numbers appear. But you will be forced to live with the implications of any values you change.

In those science fiction novels that care about technical details, there are some solutions mentioned. They all rely upon some method to start all the alien species in a stellar region simultaneously. This means that they will all develop at roughly the same rate, and encounter each other at roughly the same technological level. Solutions include postulating some alien race at the dawn of galactic history seeding planets, or disasters like gamma-ray bursters destroying all life in a galactic zone, forcing the planets to start re-evolving life starting at the same point in time.


An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilisations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop. The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you’d tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass… when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you’ve just been discovered, you’re all subjects of the Emperor now, he’s keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.

That was an Outside Context Problem; so was the suitably up-teched version that happened to whole planetary civilisations when somebody like the Affront chanced upon them first rather than, say, the Culture.

The Culture had had lots of minor OCPs, problems that could have proved to be terminal if they’d been handled badly, but so far it had survived them all. The Culture’s ultimate OCP was popularly supposed to be likely to take the shape of a galaxy-consuming Hegemonising Swarm, an angered Elder civilisation or a sudden, indeed instant visit by neighbours from Andromeda once the expedition finally got there.

In a sense, the Culture lived with genuine OCPs all around it all the time, in the shape of those Sublimed Elder civilisations, but so far it didn’t appear to have been significantly checked or controlled by any of them. However, waiting for the first real OCP was the intellectual depressant of choice for those people and Minds in the Culture determined to find the threat of catastrophe even in Utopia.

From Excession by Iain M. Banks (1996)

Chariots of the Gods, Terran Style

So what happens when our intrepid Terran star scouts discover a primitive intelligent alien species living with a tech level similar to Victorian England, or even as low as cave men? In a science fiction universe free of The Prime Directive, there will be a temptation to try and teach the aliens how to raise their tech level.

If the aliens are really primitive, the Terrans will find themselves doing that stale old "Chariots of the Gods" routine, playing the role of ancient astronauts. If the Terrans become extinct or suffer a new dark ages, they will be remembered in alien myth. And you can bet your last rocket that there is a TV Tropes page on the topic, though it is about the more common popular culture situation of aliens doing an uplift on us humans.

If the aliens are only somewhat behind Terran technology, idealistic members of the Galactic Peace Corps (or unscrupulous merchants who want to cash in on alien's lust for technology) can rapidly accelerate tech level advancement.


“…and news brought to you here on the sub-etha wave band, broadcasting around the galaxy around the clock,” squawked a voice, “and we'll be saying a big hello to all intelligent lifeforms everywhere … and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys.”

by Douglas Adams (1979)

But there are a couple of pitfalls to this.

First off, an interstellar empire uplifting some aliens might find they have created a competitor. Do you want space barbarians? Because that's how you get space barbarians.

In Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandery stories the secret agent hero spends most of his time defending the decadent Terran Empire from the rival Merseian Roidhunate. Flandary's burden is due to the unfortunate fact that six hundred years prior do-gooder David Falkayn gave high technology to the Merseians so they could survive the radiation from a nearby supernova. No good deed goes unpunished.

On the other hand this might be a crippling influence on the alien culture. The concept was the subject of a 1899 poem by Rudyard Kipling called The White Man's Burden. This was a poem about Eurocentric racism and about the belief of the Western world that industrialisation is the way to civilise the Third World. In retrospect this policy has done far more harm than good. Science fiction writers are fond of the topic, ISFDB lists no less than five stories with the title of "Earthman's Burden".

Occasionally the Spaceman's Burden technique is done out of self defense. In Poul Anderson's Turning Point (see below) the Terran Survey discovers a race of primitive humanoids close enough to successfully breed with humans. They are light-hearted kindly race with about caveman-level technology but unfortunately with an average IQ of about 400. The Terrans freak out since the aliens are capable of becoming a threat to the galactic empire in a couple of hundred years, tops. Not because the aliens would harm the Terrans, they just out-class the Terrans so drastically that humans will be sidelined forever more.

Mercifully the Terrans find an option B, since option A involves saturation bombing the alien planet with enough nuclear warheads to turn it into a sphere of radioactive glass. Option B assimilates all the aliens into the galactic empire, scattering them into tiny groups within large populations of humans. There they will be dazzled by human culture and history, and have their own culture eradicated. A nasty example of Earthman's Burden, but is sure beats option A.


(ed note: the Terran star scouts have just figured out that the local humanoid aliens with caveman technology out-class human beings so much it isn't funny. The scouts are currently freaking out.)

      “Don’t you understand?” Vaughan cried. “We can’t deal with them. We have to get off this planet and—Oh, God, why did we have to find the damned thing?” He groped for a glass.
     “Well,” I sighed, “we always knew, those of us who bothered to think about the question, that someday we were bound to meet a race like this. Man…what is man that thou art mindful of him?”
     “This is probably an older star than Sol,” Baldinger nodded. “Less massive, so it stays longer on the main sequence.”
     “There needn’t be much difference in planetary age,” I said. “A million years, half a million, whatever the figure is, hell, that doesn’t mean a thing in astronomy or geology. In the development of an intelligent race, though—”
     “But they’re savages!” Haraszthy protested.
     “Most of the races we’ve found are,” I reminded him. “Man was too, for most of his existence. Civilization is a freak. It doesn’t come natural. Started on Earth, I’m told, because the Middle East dried out as the glaciers receded and something had to be done for a living when the game got scarce. And scientific, machine civilization, that’s a still more unusual accident. Why should the Jorillians have gone beyond an Upper Paleolithic technology? They never needed to.”
     “Why do they have the brains they do, if they’re in the stone age?” Haraszthy argued.
     “Why did we, in our own stone age?” I countered. “It wasn’t necessary for survival. Java man, Peking man, and the low-browed rest, they’d been doing all right. But evidently evolution, intraspecies competition, sexual selection…whatever increases intelligence in the first place continues to force it upward, if some new factor like machinery doesn’t interfere. A bright Jorillian has more prestige, rises higher in life, gets more mates and children, and so it goes. But this is an easy environment, at least in the present geological epoch. The natives don’t even seem to have wars, which would stimulate technology. Thus far they’ve had little occasion to use those tremendous minds for anything but art, philosophy, and social experimentation.”
     “What is their average IQ?” Lejeune whispered.
     “Meaningless,” Vaughan said dully. “Beyond 180 or so, the scale breaks down. How can you measure an intelligence so much greater than your own?”

     There was a stillness. I heard the forest sough in the night around us.
     “Yes,” Baldinger ruminated, “I always realized that our betters must exist. Didn’t expect we’d run into them in my own lifetime, however. Not in this microscopic sliver of the galaxy that we’ve explored. And…well, I always imagined the Elders having machines, science, space travel.”
     “They will,” I said.
     “If we go away—” Lejeune began.
     “Too late,” I said. “We’ve already given them this shiny new toy, science. If we abandon them, they’ll come looking for us in a couple of hundred years. At most.”

     Haraszthy’s fist crashed on the table. “Why leave?” he roared. “What the hell are you scared of? I doubt the population of this whole planet is ten million. There are fifteen billion humans in the Solar System and the colonies! So a Jorillian can outthink me. So what? Plenty of guys can do that already, and it don’t bother me as long as we can do business.”
     Baldinger shook his head. His face might have been cast in iron. “Matters aren’t that simple. The question is what race is going to dominate this arm of the galaxy.”
     “Is it so horrible if the Jorillians do?” Lejeune asked softly.
     “Perhaps not. They seem pretty decent. But—” Baldinger straightened in his chair. ‘‘I’m not going to be anybody’s domestic animal. I want my planet to decide her own destiny.”
     That was the unalterable fact. We sat weighing it for a long and wordless time.

     The hypothetical superbeings had always seemed comfortably far off. We hadn’t encountered them, or they us. Therefore they couldn’t live anywhere near. Therefore they probably never would interfere in the affairs of this remote galactic fringe where we dwell. But a planet only months distant from Earth; a species whose average member was a genius and whose geniuses were not understandable by us: bursting from their world, swarming through space, vigorous, eager, jumping in a decade to accomplishments that would take us a century—if we ever succeeded—how could they help but destroy our painfully built civilization? We’d scrap it ourselves, as the primitives of our old days had scrapped their own rich cultures in the overwhelming face of Western society. Our sons would laugh at our shoddy triumphs, go forth to join the high Jorillian adventure, and come back spirit-broken by failure, to build some feeble imitation of an alien way of life and fester in their hopelessness. And so would every other thinking species, unless the Jorillians were merciful enough to leave them alone.
     Which the Jorillians probably would be. But who wants that kind of mercy?

     I looked upon horror. Only Vaughan had the courage to voice the thing:
     “There are planets under technological blockade, you know. Cultures too dangerous to allow modern weapons, let alone spaceships. Joril can be interdicted.”
     “They’ll invent the stuff for themselves, now they’ve gotten the idea,” Baldinger said.
     Vaughan’s mouth twitched downward. “Not if the only two regions that have seen us are destroyed.”
     “Good God!” Haraszthy leaped to his feet.
     “Sit down!” Baldinger rapped.
     Haraszthy spoke an obscenity. His face was ablaze. The rest of us sat in a chill sweat.
     “You’ve called me unscrupulous,” the Trader snarled. “Take that suggestion back to the hell it came from, Vaughan, or I’ll kick out your brains.”
     I thought of nuclear fire vomiting skyward, and a wisp of gas that had been Mierna, and said, “No.”
     “The alternative,” Vaughan said, staring at the bulkhead across from him, “is to do nothing until the sterilization of the entire planet has become necessary.

     Lejeune shook his head in anguish. “Wrong, wrong, wrong. There can be too great a price for survival.”
     “But for our children’s survival? Their liberty? Their pride and—”
     “What sort of pride can they take in themselves, once they know the truth?” Haraszthy interrupted. He reached down grabbed Vaughan’s shirt front, and hauled the man up by sheer strength. His broken features glared three centimeters from the Federal’s. “I’ll tell you what we’re going to do,” be said. “We’re going to trade, and teach, and xenologize, and fraternize, the same as with any other people whose salt we’ve eaten. And take our chances like men!”
     “Let him go,” Baldinger commanded. Haraszthy knotted a fist. “If you strike him, I’ll brig you and prefer charges at home. Let him go, I said!”
     Haraszthy opened his grasp. Vaughan tumbled to the deck. Haraszthy sat down, buried his head in his hands, and struggled not to sob.

     Baldinger refilled our glasses. “Well, gentlemen,” he said, “it looks like an impasse. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, and I lay odds no Jorillian talks in such tired clichés.”
     “They could give us so much,” Lejeune pleaded.
     “Give!” Vaughan climbed erect and stood trembling before us. “That’s p-p-precisely the trouble. They’d give it! If they could, even. It wouldn’t be ours. We probably couldn’t understand their work, or use it, or…It wouldn’t be ours, I say!”
     Haraszthy stiffened. He sat like stone for an entire minute before he raised his face and whooped aloud.
     “Why not?”

     “Well, perhaps, perhaps not,” I said. “But you’ll go, if you wish. I promise you. Anybody on this whole planet who wants to will go to Earth.”

     As most of them will. I’m certain our idea will be accepted by the Council. The only possible one. If you can’t lick ’em…get ’em to join you.
     I rumpled Mierna’s hair. In a way, sweetheart, what a dirty trick to play on you! Take you straight from the wilderness to a huge and complicated civilization. Dazzle you with all the tricks and gadgets and ideas we have, not because we’re better but simply because we’ve been at it a little longer than you. Scatter your ten million among our fifteen billion. Of course you’ll fall for it. You can’t help yourselves. When you realize what’s happening, you won’t be able to stop, you’ll be hooked. I don’t think you’ll even be able to resent it.
     You’ll be assimilated, Mierna. You’ll become an Earth girl. Naturally, you’ll grow up to be one of our leaders. You’ll contribute tremendous things to our civilization, and be rewarded accordingly. But the whole point is, it will be our civilization. Mine…and yours.
     I wonder if you’ll ever miss the forest, though, and the little houses by the bay, and the boats and songs and old, old stories, yes, and your darling oontatherium. I know the empty planet will miss you, Mierna. So will I.

From TURNING POINT by Poul Anderson (1963)

(ed note: The non-Terran worlds of Cundaloa and Skontar have a tech level below that of the Terran Commonwealth. The two worlds had a nasty little interstellar war, which ended inconclusively but not before it wrecked both planet's economies.

Valka Vahin of Cundaloa is polite and gracious. Terra offers a generous aid package and education in Terran science. Terra likes Cundaloa's refined art and culture. Terra is also known for unselfishly pouring their skill and treasure into helping disadvantaged worlds. Though to be honest, such economic-aid packages do benefit Terra eventually.

Skorrogan of Skontar acts rude and obnoxious, resulting in Terra refusing all aid. In fact, Skorrogan is so over-the-top rude that it seems as if he was deliberately trying to get Terra to refuse. The people of Skontar are furious at Skorrogan, since now they will be facing starvation and decades of slowely rebuilding their ruined industry. No loans, no technical advisors, little trade and almost no visitors.

When Skorrogan arrives back at the Skontarian capital {the new one, the original got nuked in the war}, the Skontarian Valtam {king} and his advisors are quite angry with Skorrogan.)

      (Valtam snarls at Skorrogan) “We desire nothing but good relations with the mightiest power in the Galaxy. We might have had more than that. I know, from firsthand reports, what the temper of the Commonwealth was. They were ready to help us, had we shown any cooperativeness at all. We could have rebuilt, and gone farther than that—” His voice trailed off into the keening wind.
     After a moment he went on, and the fury that quivered in his voice was like a living force: “I sent you as my special delegate to get that generously offered help. You, whom I trusted, who I thought was aware of our cruel plight—Arrrgh!” He spat. “And you spent your whole time there being insulting, arrogant, boorish. You, on whom all the eyes of Sol were turned, made yourself the perfect embodiment of all the humans think worst in us. No wonder our request was refused! You’re lucky Sol didn’t declare war!”
     “It may not be too late,” said Thordin. “We could send another—”
     “No.” The Valtam lifted his head with the inbred iron pride of his race, the haughtiness of a culture where for all history face had been more important than life. “Skorrogan went as our accredited representative. If we repudiated him, apologized for—not for any overt act but for bad manners!—if we crawled before the Galaxy—no! It isn’t worth that. We’ll just have to do without Sol.”
     “And what a price to pay for honor!” said Thordin wearily. “Our folk are starving—food from Sol could keep them alive. They have only rags to wear—Sol would send clothes. Our factories are devastated, are obsolete, our young men grow up in ignorance of Galactic civilization and technology—Sol would send us machines and engineers, help us rebuild. Sol would send teachers, and we could become great— Well, too late, too late.”

     His eyes searched through the gloom, puzzled, hurt. Skorrogan had been his friend. “But why did you do it?
     (Skorrogan said) “I did what I did, and even if I could explain further, I would not after these insults. But if you ask my advice for the future of Skontar—”
     “I don’t,” said the Valtam. “You have done enough harm already.”
     “…then consider three things.” Skorrogan lifted his spear and pointed toward the remote glittering stars. “First, those suns out there. Second, certain new scientific and technological developments here at home—such as Dyrin’s work on semantics. And last—look about you. Look at the houses your fathers built, look at the clothes you wear, listen, perhaps, to the language you speak. And then come back in fifty years or so and beg my pardon!
     He swirled his cloak about him, saluted the Valtam again, and went with long steps across the field and into the town. They looked after him with incomprehension and bitterness in their eyes.
     There was hunger in the town. He could almost feel it behind the dark walls, the hunger of ragged and desperate folk crouched over their fires, and wondered whether they could survive the winter. Briefly he wondered how many would die—but he didn’t dare follow the thought out.

(ed note: meanwhile Cundaloa gets lots of aid from Terra)

     Solarians called that daydreaming, but it wasn’t, it was, well—they had no real word for it. Psychic recreation was a clumsy term, and the Solarians never understood.
     Sometimes it seemed to Vahino that he had never rested, not in an eternity of years. The grinding urgencies of wartime duty, and then his hectic journeys to Sol—and since then, in the past three years, the Great House had appointed him official liaison man at the highest level, assuming that he understood the Solarians better than anyone else in the League.
     Maybe he did. He’d spent a lot of time with them and liked them as a race and as individuals. But—by all the spirits, how they worked! How they drove themselves! As if demons were after them.
     Well, there was no other way to rebuild, to reform the old obsolete methods and grasp the dazzling new wealth which only lay waiting to be created.
     The Solarians seemed to have some difficulty in understanding a whole race of poets. When even the meanest and stupidest Cundaloan could stretch out in the sun and make lyrics—well, every race has its own peculiar talents. Who could equal the gadgeteering genius which the humans possessed?

     “Pardon, sir, but Mr. Lombard wishes to see you.”
     Lombard, head of the Solarian reconstruction commission, the most important human in Avaikian System.
     The human was short and stocky, with a thick bush of gray hair above a seamed face. He had worked his way up from laborer through engineer to High Commissioner, and the marks of his struggle were still on him. He attacked work with what seemed almost a personal fury, and he could be harder than tool steel. But most of the time he was pleasant, he had an astonishing range of interests and knowledge, and of course, he had done miracles for the Avaikian System.
     “Peace on your house, brother,” said Vahino.
     “How do you do,” clipped the Solarian. As his host began to signal for servants, he went on hastily: “Please, none of your ritual hospitality. I appreciate it, but there just isn’t time to sit and have a meal and talk cultural topics for three hours before getting down to business. I wish…well, you’re a native here and I’m not, so I wish you’d personally pass the word around—tactfully, of course—to discontinue this sort of thing.”
     “But…they are among our oldest customs—”
     “That’s just it! Old—backward—delaying progress. I don’t mean to be disparaging, Mr. Vahino. I wish we Solarians had some customs as charming as yours. But—not during working hours. Please.”
     “Well…I dare say you’re right. It doesn’t fit into the pattern of a modern industrial civilization. And that is what we are trying to build, of course.”
     “Quite. Exactly. And that is really what I came here about, Mr. Vahino. I have no specific complaints, but there has accumulated a whole host of minor difficulties which only you Cundaloans can handle for yourselves. We Solarians can’t and won’t meddle in your internal affairs. But you must change some things, or we won’t be able to help you at all.”

     Vahino had a general idea of what was coming. He’d been expecting it for some time, he thought grayly, and there was really nothing to be done about it.
     “Good.” Lombard leaned forward, nervously clasping and unclasping his big work-scarred hands. “The plain fact is that your whole culture, your whole psychology, is unfitted to modern civilization. It can be changed, but the change will have to be drastic. You can do it—pass laws, put on propaganda campaigns, change the educational system, and so on. But it must be done.
     “For instance, just this matter of the siesta. Right now, all through this time zone on the planet, hardly a wheel is turning, hardly a machine is tended, hardly a man is at his work. They’re all lying in the sun making poems or humming songs or just drowsing. There’s a whole civilization to be built, Vahino! There are plantations, mines, factories, cities abuilding—you just can’t do it on a four-hour working day.”
     “No. But perhaps we haven’t the energy of your race. You are a hyperthyroid species, you know.”
     “You’ll just have to learn. Work doesn’t have to be backbreaking. The whole aim of mechanizing your culture is to release you from physical labor and the uncertainty of dependence on the land. And a mechanical civilization can’t be cluttered with as many old beliefs and rituals and customs and traditions as yours is. There just isn’t time. Life is too short. And it’s too incongruous. You’re still like the Skontarans, lugging their silly spears around after they’ve lost all practical value.”
     “Tradition makes life—the meaning of life—”
     “The machine culture has its own tradition. You’ll learn. It has its own meaning, and I think that is the meaning of the future. If you insist on clinging to outworn habits, you’ll never catch up with history. Why, your currency system—”
     “It’s practical.”
     “In its own field. But how can you trade with Sol if you base your credits on silver and Sol’s are an abstract actuarial quantity? You’ll have to convert to our system for purpose of trade—so you might as well change over at home, too. Similarly, you’ll have to learn the metric system if you expect to use our machines or make sense to our scientists. You’ll have to adopt…oh, everything!

     “Why, your very society— No wonder you haven’t exploited even the planets, of your own system when every man insists on being buried at his birthplace. It’s a pretty sentiment, but it’s no more than that, and you’ll have to get rid of it if you’re going to reach the stars.
     “Even your religion…excuse me…but you must realize that it has many elements which modern science has flatly disproved.”
     “I’m an agnostic,” said Vahino quietly. “But the religion of Mauiroa means a lot to many people.”
     “If the Great House will let us bring in some missionaries, we can convert them to, say, Neopantheism. Which I, for one, think has a lot more personal comfort and certainly more scientific truth than your mythology. If your people are to have faith at all, it must not conflict with facts which experience in a modern technology will soon make self-evident.”
     “Perhaps. And I suppose the system of familial bonds is too complex and rigid for modern industrial society… Yes, yes—there is more than a simple conversion of equipment involved.”
     “To be sure. There’s a complete conversion of minds,” said Lombard. And then, gently, “After all, you’ll do it eventually. You were building spaceships and atomic-power plants right after Allan left. I’m simply suggesting that you speed up the process a little.”
     “And language—”
     “Well, without indulging in chauvinism, I think all Cundaloans should be taught Solarian. They’ll use it at some time or other in their lives. Certainly all your scientists and technicians will have to use it professionally. The languages of Laui and Muara and the rest are beautiful, but they just aren’t suitable for scientific concepts. Why, the agglutination alone—Frankly, your philosophical books read to me like so much gibberish. Beautiful, but almost devoid of meaning. Your language lacks—precision.

     “Sometimes I wish success didn’t have so high a price. But you need only look at Skontar to see how necessary it is.”
     “Why—they’ve done wonders in the last three years. After the great famine they got back on their feet, they’re rebuilding by themselves, they’ve even sent explorers looking for colonies out among the stars.” Vahino smiled wryly. “I don’t love our late enemies, but I must admire them.”
     “They have courage,” admitted Lombard. “But what good is courage alone? They’re struggling in a tangle of obsolescence. Already the overall production of Cundaloa is three times theirs. Their interstellar colonizing is no more than a feeble gesture of a few hundred individuals. Skontar can live, but it will always be a tenth-rate power. Before long it’ll be a Cundaloan satellite state.
     “And it’s not that they lack resources, natural or otherwise. It’s that, having virtually flung our offer of help back in our faces, they’ve taken themselves out of the main stream of Galactic civilization. Why, they’re even trying to develop scientific concepts and devices we knew a hundred years ago, and are getting so far off the track that I’d laugh if it weren’t so pathetic. Their language, like yours, just isn’t adapted to scientific thought, and they’re carrying chains of rusty tradition around. I’ve seen some of the spaceships they’ve designed themselves, for instance, instead of copying Solarian models, and they’re ridiculous. Half a hundred different lines of approach, trying desperately to find the main line we took long ago. Spheres, ovoids, cubes—I hear someone even thinks he can build a tetrahedral spaceship!”
     “It might just barely be possible,” mused Vahino. “The Riemannian geometry on which the interstellar drive itself is based would permit—”
     “No, no! Earth tried that sort of thing and found it didn’t work. Only a crank—and, isolated, the scientists of Skontar are becoming a race of cranks—would think so.
     “We humans were just fortunate, that’s all. Even we had a long history before a culture arose with the mentality appropriate to a scientific civilization. Before that, technological progress was almost at a standstill. Afterward, we reached the stars. Other races can do it, but first they’ll have to adopt the proper civilization, the proper mentality—and without our guidance, Skontar or any other planet isn’t likely to evolve that mentality for many centuries to come.

(ed note: Fifty years later, on Skontar)

     “I wish you could spare me a few hours tomorrow,” said Skorrogan.
     “Well—I suppose so.” Thordin XI, Valtam of the Empire of Skontar, nodded his thinly maned head. “Though next week would be a little more convenient.”
     The note of urgency could not be denied. “All right,” said Thordin. “But what will be going on?”
     “I’d like to take you on a little jaunt over to Cundaloa.”
     “Why there, of all places? And why must it be tomorrow, of all times?”
     “I’ll tell you—then.” Skorrogan inclined his head, still thickly maned though it was quite white now, and switched off his end of the telescreen.

     It would be summer in the southern hemisphere now, fields would be green, and smoke would rise from freeholders’ cottages into a warm blue sky. Who had headed that scientific team?—Yes, Aesgayr Haasting’s son. His work on agronomics and genetics had made it possible for a population of independent smallholders to produce enough food for the new scientific civilization. The old freeman, the backbone of Skontar in all her history, had not died out.
     Other things had changed, of course. Thordin smiled wryly as he reflected just how much the Valtamate had changed in the last fifty years. It had been Dyrin’s work in general semantics, so fundamental to all the sciences, which had led to the new psychosymbological techniques of government. Skontar was an empire in name only now. It had resolved the paradox of a libertarian state with a nonelective and efficient government. All to the good, of course, and really it was what past Skontaran history had been slowly and painfully evolving toward. But the new science had speeded up the process, compressed centuries of evolution into two brief generations. As physical and biological science had accelerated beyond belief—But it was odd that the arts, music, literature had hardly changed, that handicraft survived, that the old High Naarhaym was still spoken.

     Well, so it went. Thordin turned back toward his desk. There was work to be done. Like that matter of the colony on Aesric’s Planet— You couldn’t expect to run several hundred thriving interstellar colonies without some trouble. But it was minor. The empire was safe. And it was growing.
     They’d come a long way from that day of despair fifty years ago, and from the famine and pestilence and desolation which followed. A long way—Thordin wondered if even he realized just how far.
     He picked up the microreader and glanced over the pages. His mind training came back to him and he arrished the material. He couldn’t handle the new techniques as easily as those of the younger generation, trained in them from birth, but it was a wonderful help to arrish, complete the integration in his subconscious, and indolate the probabilities. He wondered how he had ever survived the old days of reasoning on a purely conscious level.

     Skorrogan gave conventional greeting and invited him in. “Not now, thanks,” said Thordin. “I really am very busy. I’d like to start the trip at once.”
     The duke murmured the usual formula of polite regret, but it was plain that he could hardly wait, that he could ill have stood an hour’s dawdling indoors. “Then please come,” he said. “My cruiser is all set to go.”
     It was cradled behind the looming building, a sleek little roboship with the bewildering outline of all tetrahedral craft. They entered and took their seats at the center, which, of course, looked directly out beyond the hull.
     “Now,” said Thordin, “perhaps you’ll tell me why you want to go to Cundaloa today?”
     Skorrogan gave him a sudden look in which an old pain stirred.
     “Today,” he said slowly, “it is exactly fifty years since I came back from Sol.”
     “Yes—?” Thordin was puzzled and vaguely uncomfortable. It wasn’t like the taciturn old fellow to rake up that forgotten score.
     “You probably don’t remember,” said Skorrogan, “but if you want to vargan it from your subconscious, you’ll perceive that I said to them, then, that they could come back in fifty years and beg my pardon.”
     “So now you want to vindicate yourself.” Thordin felt no surprise—it was typically Skontaran psychology—but he still wondered what there was to apologize for.
“I do. At that time I couldn’t explain. Nobody would have listened, and in any case I was not perfectly sure myself that I had done right.” Skorrogan smiled, and his thin hands set the controls. “Now I am. Time has justified me. And I will redeem what honor I lost then by showing you, today, that I didn’t really fail.      “Instead, I succeeded. You see, I alienated the Solarians on purpose.”

     He pressed the main-drive stud, and the ship flashed through half a light-year of space. The great blue shield of Cundaloa rolled majestically before them, shining softly against a background of a million blazing stars.
     Thordin sat quietly, letting the simple and tremendous statement filter through all the levels of his mind. His first emotional reaction was a vaguely surprised realization that, subconsciously, he had been expecting something like this. He hadn’t ever really believed, deep down inside himself, that Skorrogan could be an incompetent.
     Instead—no, not a traitor. But—what, then? What had he meant? Had he been mad, all these years, or—
     “You haven’t been to Cundaloa much since the war, have you?” asked Skorrogan.
     “No—only three times, on hurried business. It’s a prosperous system. Solar help put them on their feet again.”
     “Prosperous…yes, yes, they are.” For a moment a smile tugged at the corners of Skorrogan’s mouth, but it was a sad little smile, it was as if he were trying to cry but couldn’t quite manage it. “A bustling, successful little system, with all of three colonies among the stars (while the Skontar empire has several hundred colonies).”
     With a sudden angry gesture he slapped the short-range controls and the ship warped down to the surface. It landed in a corner of the great spaceport at Cundaloa City, and the robots about the cradle went to work, checking it in and throwing a protective forcedome about it.

     “What—now?” whispered Thordin. He felt, suddenly, dimly afraid; he knew vaguely that he wouldn’t like what he was going to see.
     “Just a little stroll through the capital,” said Skorrogan. “With perhaps a few side trips around the planet. I wanted us to come here unofficially, incognito, because that’s the only way we’ll ever see the real world, the day-to-day life of living beings which is so much more important and fundamental than any number of statistics and economic charts. I want to show you what I saved Skontar from.” He smiled again, wryly. “I gave my life for my planet, Thordin. Fifty years of it, anyway—fifty years of loneliness and disgrace.”

     They emerged into the clamor of the great steel and concrete plain and crossed over the gates. There was a steady flow of beings in and out, a never-ending flux, the huge restless energy of Solarian civilization. A large proportion of the crowd was human, come to Avaiki on business or pleasure, and there were some representatives of other races. But the bulk of the throng was, naturally, native Cundaloans. Sometimes one had a little trouble telling them from the humans. After all, the two species looked much alike, and with the Cundaloans all wearing Solarian dress—
     Thordin shook his head in some bewilderment at the roar of voices. “I can’t understand,” he shouted to Skorrogan. “I know Cundaloan, both Laui and Muara tongues, but—”
          “Of course not,” answered Skorrogan. “Most of them here are speaking Solarian. The native languages are dying out fast.”
A plump Solarian in shrieking sports clothes was yelling at an impassive native storekeeper who stood outside his shop. “Hey, you boy, gimme him fella souvenir chop-chop—”
     “Pidgin Solarian,” grimaced Skorrogan. “It’s on its way out, too, what with all young Cundaloans being taught the proper speech from the ground up. But tourists never learn.” He scowled, and for a moment his hand shifted to his blaster.
     But no—times changed. You did not wipe out someone who simply happened to be personally objectionable, not even on Skontar. Not any more.

     They had gone half a block down the motilator before the Valtam asked, “What happened to your manners? He was trying hard to be civil to us. Or do you just naturally hate humans?”
     “I like most of them,” said Skorrogan. “But not their tourists. Praise the Fate, we don’t get many of that breed on Skontar. Their engineers and businessmen and students are all right. I’m glad that relations between Sol and Skang are close, so we can get many of that sort. But keep out the tourists!”
     Skorrogan gestured violently at a flashing neon poster. “That’s why.”
     He translated the Solarian:
  • At the Temple of the High One
  • Admission reasonable
     “The religion of Mauiroa meant something, once,” said Skorrogan quietly. “It was a noble creed, even if it did have certain unscientific elements. Those could have been changed— But it’s too late now. Most of the natives are either Neopantheists or unbelievers, and they perform the old ceremonies for money. For a show.”
     He grimaced. “Cundaloa hasn’t lost all its picturesque old buildings and folkways and music and the rest of its culture. But it’s become conscious that they are picturesque, which is worse.”

     “I don’t quite see what you’re so angry about,” said Thordin. “Times have changed. But they have on Skontar, too.”
     “Not in this way. Look around you, man! You’ve never been in the Solar System, but you must have seen pictures from it. Surely you realize that this is a typical Solarian city—a little backward, maybe, but typical. You won’t find a city in the Avaikian System which isn’t essentially—human.
     “You won’t find significant art, literature, music here any more—just cheap imitations of Solarian products, or else an archaistic clinging to outmoded native traditions, romantic counterfeiting of the past. You won’t find science that isn’t essentially Solarian, you won’t find machines basically different from Solarian, you’ll find fewer homes every year which can be told from human houses. The old society is dead; only a few fragments remain now. The familial bond, the very basis of native culture, is gone, and marriage relations are as casual as on Earth itself. The old feeling for the land is gone. There are hardly any tribal farms left; the young men are all coming to the cities to earn a million credits. They eat the products of Solarian-type food factories, and you can only get native cuisine in a few expensive restaurants.
     “There are no more handmade pots, no more handwoven cloths. They wear what the factories put out. There are no more bards chanting the old lays and making new ones. They look at the telescreen now. There are no more philosophers of the Araclean or Vranamauian schools, there are just second-rate commentaries on Aristotle versus Korzybski or the Russell theory of knowledge—”
     Skorrogan’s voice trailed off. Thordin said softly, after a moment, “I see what you’re getting at. Cundaloa has made itself over into the Solarian pattern.”
     “Just so. It was inevitable from the moment they accepted help from Sol. They’d have to adopt Solar science, Solar economics, ultimately the whole Solar culture. Because that would be the only pattern which would make sense to the humans who were taking the lead in reconstruction. And, since that culture was obviously successful, Cundaloa adopted it. Now it’s too late. They can never go back. They don’t even want to go back.
     “And you wanted to save us from that?” asked Thordin. “I see your point, in a way. Yet I wonder if the sentimental value of old institutions was equal to some millions of lives lost, to a decade of sacrifice and suffering.”

     “It was more than sentiment!” said Skorrogan tensely. “Can’t you see? Science is the future. To amount to anything, we had to become scientific. But was Solarian science the only way? Did we have to become second-rate humans to survive—or could we strike out on a new path, unhampered by the overwhelming helpfulness of a highly developed but essentially alien way of life? I thought we could. I thought we would have to.
     “You see no nonhuman race will ever make a really successful human. The basic psychologies—metabolic rates, instincts, logical patterns, everything—are too different. One race can think in terms of another’s mentality, but never too well. You know how much trouble there’s been in translating from one language to another. And all thought is in language, and language reflects the basic patterns of thought. The most precise, rigorous, highly thought out philosophy and science of one species will never quite make sense to another race. Because they are making somewhat different abstractions from the same great basic reality.
     “I wanted to save us from becoming Sol’s spiritual dependents. Skang was backward. It had to change its ways. But—why change them into a wholly alien pattern? Why not, instead, force them rapidly along the natural path of evolution—our own path?”

     Skorrogan shrugged. “I did,” he finished quietly. “It was a tremendous gamble, but it worked. We saved our own culture. It’s ours. Forced by necessity to become scientific on our own, we developed our own approach.
     “You know the result. Dyrin’s semantics was developed—Solarian scientists would have laughed it to abortion. We developed the tetrahedral ship, which human engineers said was impossible, and now we can cross the Galaxy while an old-style craft goes from Sol to Alpha Centauri. We perfected the spacewarp, the psychosymbology of our own race—not valid for any other—the new agronomic system which preserved the freeholder who is basic to our culture—everything! In fifty years Cundaloa has been revolutionized, Skontar has revolutionized itself. There’s a universe of difference.
     “And we’ve therefore saved the intangibles which are our own, the art and handicrafts and essential folkways, music, language, literature, religion. The élan of our success is not only taking us to the stars, making us one of the great powers in the Galaxy, but it is producing a renaissance in those intangibles equaling any Golden Age in history.
     “And all because we remained ourselves.”

     He fell into silence, and Thordin said nothing for a while. They had come into a quieter side street, an old quarter where most of the buildings antedated the coming of the Solarians, and many ancient-style native clothes were still to be seen. A party of human tourists was being guided through the district and had clustered about an open pottery booth.
     “Well?” said Skorrogan after a while. “Well?”
     “I don’t know.” Thordin rubbed his eyes, a gesture of confusion. “This all so new to me. Maybe you’re right. Maybe not. I’ll have to think a while about it.”
     “I’ve had fifty years to think about it,” said Skorrogan bleakly. “I suppose you’re entitled to a few minutes.”

     They drifted up to the booth. An old Cundaloan sat in it among a clutter of goods, brightly painted vases and bowls and cups. Native work. A woman was haggling over one of the items.
     “Look at it,” said Skorrogan to Thordin. “Have you ever seen the old work? This is cheap stuff made by the thousands for the tourist trade. The designs are corrupt, the workmanship’s shoddy. But every loop and line in those designs had meaning once.”
     Their eyes fell on one vase standing beside the old boothkeeper, and even the unimpressionable Valtam drew a shaky breath. It glowed, that vase. It seemed almost alive; in a simple shining perfection of clean lines and long smooth curves, someone had poured all his love and longing into it. Perhaps he had thought: This will live when I am gone.
     Skorrogan whistled. “That’s an authentic old vase,” he said. “At least a century old—a museum piece! How’d it get in this junk shop?”
     The clustered humans edged a little away from the two giant Skontarans, and Skorrogan read their expressions with a wry inner amusement: They stand in some awe of us. Sol no longer hates Skontar; it admires us. It sends its young men to learn our science and language. But who cares about Cundaloa any more?
     But the woman followed his eyes and saw the vase glowing beside the old vendor. She turned back to him: “How much?”
     “No sell,” said the Cundaloan. His voice was a dusty whisper, and he hugged his shabby mantle closer about him.
     “You sell.” She gave him a bright artificial smile. “I give you much money. I give you ten credits.”
     “No sell.”
     “I give you hundred credits. Sell!”
     “This mine. Fambly have it since old days. No sell.”
     “Five hundred credits!” She waved the money before him.
     He clutched the vase to his thin chest and looked up with dark liquid eyes in which the easy tears of the old were starting forth. “No sell. Go ’way. No sell oamaui.”

     “Come on,” mumbled Thordin. He grabbed Skorrogan’s arm and pulled him away. “Let’s go. Let’s get back to Skontar.”
     “So soon?”
     “Yes. Yes. You were right, Skorrogan. You were right, and I am going to make public apology, and you are the greatest savior of history. But let’s get home!”
     They hurried down the street. Thordin was trying hard to forget the old Cundaloan’s eyes. But he wondered if he ever would.

From THE HELPING HAND by Poul Anderson (1950)


Forerunners are basically extinct angels. That is, they are a long-extinct star-faring alien civilization who left ruined cities and artifacts across the galaxy. In most science fiction they were somewhat more advanced technologically than the civilization the novel's protagonist come from, but not hyper-advanced Star Gods or something.

As a matter of terminology, they are commonly called "Forerunners", "Precursors", "Ancients", "Elder race", "Antecessors", "Progenitors", or "Predecessors".

Their thousand year old ruins are sobering, but their high-tech artifacts are generally far in advance of current tech levels and are of course both incredibly valuable yet incredibly dangerous. Archaeologists who stumble over such remains have a tendency to be killed by pirates, and their artifacts stolen.

And any forerunner installation that is still operating is insanely dangerous. It would be best to sell the rights to the site for lots of money, but do not go anywhere near it. Just ask Dr. Morbius.


Our kind is late come to space; that we learned on our first galactic voyaging. There have been races, empires, which rose, fell, and vanished long before our ancestors lifted their heads to wonder dimly at the nature of the stars. Wherever we go we find traces of these other peoples—though there is much we do not know, cannot learn. "Forerunners" we call them, lumping them all together. Though more and more we are coming to understand that there were many more than just one such galaxy-wide empire, one single race voyaging in the past. But we have learned so little.

From EXILES OF THE STARS by Andre Norton (1971)

In Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise he calls the first intelligence species who were born right after the big bang the Hunters of the Dawn. Ian Douglas (aka William Keith) in the Legacy Trilogy uses the same name for a currently exutant xenophobic species who is doing a Killing Star / Dark Forest Rule on the galaxy. They also are called the Xul, an old Sumerian word meaning "evil" or "great" but popular culture believes means "cosmic eldritch horror from the Necronomicon".


Now if a highly advanced alien civilization is extinct, the gold rush will be on as everybody realizes that incredibly valuable alien technology is literally just lying around for the taking. Xenoarcheologists will be busy excavating paleotechnology, then rushing to the patent office.

Actually alien technology is still quite valuable even if it is from a still living civilization whose tech level is on par with yours. In the real world corporations engage in industrial espionage of rival corporations all the time, even though the rivals are of more or less the same tech level. The value increases with the tech level of the alien stuff, regardless if the samples are paleotechnology from an archeological dig of a ten thousand year old Forerunner alien empire site or still-warm fragments of an alien warship that survived the most recent border skirmish.

Blue Tyson thinks the proper term is actually "xenopaleotechnology" and admittedly he does have a point. Meaning that instead of "ancient technolgy" a better term is "alien ancient technlogy".

Drawbacks will include quite a few unfortunate realities:

  • The fact that everybody else has the same idea of harvesting paleotechnology and they probably have guns.

  • The fact that "everybody else" includes other alien civilizations (some of which you have not encountered before) who probably also have guns.

  • The tendency for the astromilitary to seize and classify as top-secret any paleotechnology you find in the name of national security, leaving you with nothing but the threat of their guns.

  • The hazard that the Forerunner race you are looting may not be extinct but just mostly extinct. And who take a very dim view of tomb robbers. And have ultra-high-tech alien guns.

  • The risk that abandoned alien installations could be guarded by still working deadly automatic defenses. Including computer controlled guns.

  • The fact that monkeying around with such technology is insanely dangerous. Like an idiot child looking down the barrel and playing with the trigger of a gun.

Toying with alien technology can be very very dangerous. Especially if the aliens are more technologically advanced that you are. Even if the items are not deliberately booby-trapped, fiddling with, say, alien nanotechnology could result in the lab and most of the surrounding terrain melting into grey goo.

As an analogy, imagine an 1850's Victorian Era scientist dismantling a live nuclear reactor trying to figure out how it works. Radioactivity hadn't been discovered yet, much less nuclear fission. So they would be at a loss trying to explain the disaster that happened after they removed all the nuclear damper rods for closer examination.

Ben McGee notes that xenoarcheology will probably be much like H. P. Lovecraft's story "At the Mountains of Madness". Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!

In science fiction the classic example is the Krell technology from the movie Forbidden Planet.

Also in Larry Niven's short story A Relic of the Empire, the pirates learn the hard way about Tnuctipun stage trees. The Tnuctipun became extinct about one billion years ago, but living examples of their genetically engineered organic tech can be found on many planets. A stage tree looks like a tree, but can be used as a solid-fuel rocket booster. The pirates did not know about stage trees, so they tried to use one as firewood. The resulting explosion was most impressive.

In Algis Budrys novel Rogue Moon a still-working alien machine is discovered abandoned on Luna. The government expends hundreds of lives just trying to figure out how to walk through it without being killed in various weird ways. They figure once that has been done, they might be able to start investigating more important questions, like what the heck is the machine's purpose?

The legendary Gharlane of Eddore opined some precautions:

Since you're dealing with an unknown technology, and artifacts/lifeforms potentially engineered for purposes you're not aware of, you'd have to be REAL danged careful how you handled them. A special-purpose handling lab with a gigaton-nuke auto-destruct and remote-control handling gear would seem to be a minimal safe procedure, and you'd also have to dope out some way of picking up the pieces with no risk, and preferably no physical contact with your own ships and artifacts. Remote-control handling ships that scoop up parts, deliver them to the analysis lab, and then dive into the nearest sun, might be a good approach.

David G. Potter

In the TV show Babylon 5, there was a corporation called Interplanetary Expeditions or "IPX". It was dedicated to researching the ruins of advanced civilizations that are now extinct, in the quest to find new technologies that they can patent and profit from. In other words: paleotechnology is their entire business model and revenue stream.

Jouni Pohjola notes that pretty much all of the above points are the reason for combat archeology (think Indiana Jones), as seen in Ken MacLeod's Newton's Wake. According to TV Tropes, combat archeology is mostly involved with jumping through wormholes and gunning down post-singularity alien robots.

In some of Andre Norton's space science fiction (noteably The X Factor) archeologists investigate wilderness planets looking for Forerunner artifacts. As with real-world archeologists they are focused on doing science, not on the fact that some of the artifacts will fetch a high price on the black market. Often when they discover some, they will abruptly be raided by "Jacks" (presumably short for "skyjacker") who will kill all the archeologists then plunder the site for anything valuable. Working Forerunner technology is valuable but rare, Jacks mostly rely upon the large number of mega-wealthy entitled individuals who will pay top dollar for unique Forerunner works of art and jewelry.

John H. Reiher has two SciFi Ideas Starting Points (where he starts the story and you continue it) starring paleotechnolgy expert Dr. Jane Harlowe: Leftovers and Forerunner Trash.

Technological Disruption

In an unintended consequence pointed out by Peter Hamilton in his short story Escape Route, there is a lawn rake lurking in the grass waiting for you to step on it. The unintended consequence is called Technological Disruption. You know, the reason the petroleum industry is doing its darnedest to kill the solar power industry. Even when a new technology is gradually developed out of existing technology with no break-throughs involved, the new can wreck terrible harm on existing industries. Just ask the CEOs of any corporation which published magazines what they think about the internet. That is if you can find any such corporation, they have been going bankrupt with increasing frequency of late.

Ah, but just imagine how much more apocalyptic the technological disruption will be if the new technolgy comes from a sudden break-through and arrives already as a mature product. Such as, for instance, from some paleotechnology. The person who dug up the paleotechnology would do well to immediately selling the rights to the new tech then instantly converting the profits into something that will retain value when the entire planetary economic system collapses. The problem is a more extreme example of an asteroid miner stuck with a load of gold.

In fact, the established corporations with foresight will use their puppet politicians to pass laws making prospecting for paleotechnology illegal.

As the protagonist in Peter Hamilton's story gloomily predicts, paleotechnology will bring economic revolution, and revolutions never favoured the old.

Taking this a bit further, if somebody finds an ancient alien gizmo, megacorporations facing obsolescence and bankruptcy would probably be tempted to hire a covert team to do some wetwork. Namely killing the finder and disposing of the gizmo. Science fiction authors take note, an interesting plot can be developed around the finder protagonist surprised by the unexpected arrival of an assassination squad.


There were several star faring civilizations that preceded us into the galaxy and their artifacts are a tantalizing source of discovery and frustration. Sometimes, these forerunner artifacts can trigger a scientific breakthrough.

rulebook to STELLAR CRUSADE (1988)
"No artificer or wizard can replicate the powerful artifacts found in Xen'drik. These objects wait to be found, and with international tensions already heightened by the Last War, possession of deadly magic weapons could easily shift the balance of power."

Eberron, "Eberron Campaign Setting, Chapter 7: Life in the World"

In fiction there's often a lot of reasons why opposing factions want to develop better technology (although they only need one). While some research and create it, others just find (or supplement their own creations with) Lost Technology. When both sides scramble to secure such caches you end up with this trope.

Where the technology's being salvaged from can vary greatly depending on the setting and story;

  • Cold War (and sometimes present day) settings often have abandoned Nazi technology (and scientists). Present day settings might also treat Soviet Superscience and scientists in the same fashion. More fantastic settings might provide a similar dynamic with a Fictional Counterpart: a recently defeated faction who've left lots of technology and research lying around..

  • Salvaging technology which was left behind by Precursors.

  • A variation might involve salvaging your own technology after a disaster of some sort destroyed your ability to manufacture more of it; either by digging it from the wreckage or finding caches. Or acquiring it from neutral factions who'll only hand it over to the first bidder.

The list goes on, all that matters is that both sides are struggling to get their hands on technology which they didn't develop (or build, in extreme cases) themselves. If they're merely finding the means to build their weapons (or also actively reverse engineering the technology) then it's also a Lensman Arms Race. If this is the only means of getting hold of anything then the setting is most likely a Scavenger World.

When this happens with characters rather than technology, see Sealed Cast in a Multipack. When they use technology which is technically obsolete (and often already theirs) it's Break Out the Museum Piece. When everyone's after a specific piece of technology it's a MacGuffin or Sword of Plot Advancement. If the source of the technology engineered the conflict for their own ends it's War for Fun and Profit. Compare; Gotta Catch 'Em All, Grand Theft Prototype. Particularly old technology must have had Ragnarök Proofing and benefits from Older Is Better.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


(ed note: In Andre Norton's novel THE TIME TRADERS, the United States and the Soviet Union discover time travel. Somehow the Soviets start finding bits of incredibly high tech equipment and the U.S. wants to know the source. As it turns out it is from about 2.58 million years ago during the last ice age. Apparently there was an alien galactic empire back then, a few of their starships crashed on Terra for some reason, and the Soviets were looting them.

Ashe and Ross are U.S. time agents sent back in time, and manage to discover this. And along the way they accidentally tip off the galactic empire that some Terrans are looting the alien's ships.

The aliens are not amused. They show up in the ice age and obliterate the Soviet time-travel base. Then the aliens travel gradually up time and systematically destroy all the Soviet time bases in each historical era, ending with the one in the "present." Then they leave.

In Andre Norton's GALACTIC DERELICT; Ashe, Ross, Travis,and Renfry are part of a tentative U.S. time-travel operation to snag yet another crashed alien starship about twelve thousand years ago. Because the U.S. just can't get enough of that sweet sweet alien high tech. They are trying to be real careful, because the last thing they want is for the alien galactic empire to discover what they are doing.

They try a short-cut and build a time machine over the ship, so they can transfer it intact to the "present." Unfortunately this triggers the alien ship's autopilot, and it takes off under control of an autopilot course tape. Our heroes are stuck inside the starship until it reaches its destination. At least the fact they are twelve hundred years after the last contact with the alien galactic empire means the empire is probably long dead.

As the weeks go by they study the starship and sit around brainstorming.)

      "I read a book once," Ross said suddenly with the slightly embarrassed air of one admitting to a minor social error, "that had a story in it about some Dutch sea captain who swore he'd get around the horn in one of those old-time sailing ships. He called up the Devil to help him and he never got home—just went on sailing through the centuries."
     "The Flying Dutchman," Ashe identified.
     "Well, we haven't called up any Devil," Renfry remarked.

     "Haven't we?" Travis had spoken his thoughts, without realizing until they all stared at him that he was done so aloud.
     "Your Devil being?" Ashe prompted.
     "We were trying to get knowledge out of this ship—and it wasn't our kind of knowledge," he floundered a little, attempting to put into words what he now believed.
     "Scavengers getting their just desserts?" Ashe summed up. "If you follow that line of reasoning, yes, you have a point. The forbidden fruit of knowledge. That was an idea planted so long ago in mankind's conscience that it lingers today as guilt."

     "Planted," Ross repeated the word thoughtfully, "planted…"
     "Planted!" Travis echoed, his mind making one of those odd jumps in sudden understanding of which he had only recently become conscious. "By whom?"
     Then glancing around at the alien ship which was both their transport and their prison, he added softly, "By these people?"
     "They didn't want us to know about them." Ross's words came in a rush. "Remember what they did to that Russian time base—traced it all the way forward and destroyed it in every era. Suppose they did have contacts with primitive man on our world—planted ideas—or gave them such a terrifying lesson at one time or other that the memory of it was buried in all their descendants?"

     "There are other tales beside your Flying Dutchman, Ross," Ashe squirmed a little in his seat. None of the chairs in the ship quite fitted the human frame or provided comfort. "Prometheus and the fire—the man who dared to steal the knowledge of the gods for the use of mankind and suffered eternally thereafter for his audacity, though his fellow benefited. Yes, there are clues to back such a theory, faint ones." His eagerness grew as he spoke. "Maybe—just maybe—we'll find out!"

From GALACTIC DERELICT by Andre Norton (1959)

      The Xeelee owned the universe.
     When humans emerged from the Solar System, limping along in the first sublight GUT-drive ships, they entered a complex universe peopled by many intelligent races. Each race followed its own imperatives, its own goals.
     When humans dealt with humans, in the days before interstellar flight, there had always been a residual bond: humans all belonged to the same species, after all. There had always been a prospect one day of communicating, of sharing, of settling down to a mutually acceptable system of government.
     Among the races men encountered, as they peered in awe about their suburb of the Galaxy, there was no bond; there was no law, save the savage laws of economics.
     Not two centuries after Poole's time, Earth had been captured and put to work by the group-mind aquatic creatures humans called the Squeem.
     Harry whistled. "It's a tough place out there."

     "Yes," Shira said seriously. "But we must regard junior races like the Squeem—even the Qax—as our peers; The key advantage held over us by the Squeem, in those first years, was hyperdrive technology." But the hyperdrive, like many other of the key technological components of the local multispecial civilization—if it could be called that—was essentially Xeelee in origin.

     Wherever men, or any of the races men dealt with, had looked, the Xeelee were there, Shira said. Like gods, aloof from the rest: all-powerful, uncaring, intent on their own vast works, their own mysterious projects.
     "What are those projects?" Poole asked.
     Nobody knew, Shira said. It was hard to be sure, but it seemed that the other junior races were just as ignorant.
     Berg leaned forward. "Are we sure the Xeelee exist, then?"
     "Oh, yes," said Shira with certainty.
     The Xeelee were aloof... but a little careless. They left fragments of their technology around for the junior races to turn up.

     "We think this stuff is trivial for the Xeelee," said Shira. "But a single artifact can be enough to galvanize the economy of a race—perhaps give it a significant advantage over its neighbors." Her face, in the uneven light of the hovering globes, looked still more drawn and tired. "Michael, we humans are new to this; and the other species are hardly open to questioning. But we believe that wars have been fought—genocides committed—over artifacts the Xeelee must regard as little more than trinkets."

     Shira gave him some examples:
     Hyperdrive. Poole's mouth watered.
     The construction material: monomolecular sheets, virtually indestructible, which, in the presence of radiant energy, would grow spontaneously from the fist-sized objects known as "Xeelee flowers."
     Instantaneous communication, based on quantum inseparability—
     "No," Poole protested. "That's not possible; you can't send information down quantum-inseparability channels."
     Shira smiled. "Tell the Xeelee."

     Innovation among the junior races was nearly dead, Poole learned. It was a waste of effort, it was universally felt, trying to reinvent something the Xeelee probably developed a billion years ago. And besides, while you devoted your resources to researching something, your neighbor would probably spend his on a pirated Xeelee version of the same thing and come blazing into your home system...

From TIMELIKE INFINITY by Stephen Baxter (1992)

(ed note: the Xeelee are an alien species with StarGod level technology. They are not extinct, but sometimes they are careless about cleaning up bits of their ultra-high-tech around places they abandon. The fish-like Squeem aliens have hired our protagonist to try and scavenge some Xeelee tech.)

      ‘Ah,’ enthused the Squeem as the monitors sharpened up. ‘Our timing is perfect.’
     I gloomily considered a myriad beautiful images of two things I didn’t want much to be close to: Goober’s Star — about G-type, about two Earth orbits away, and about to nova; and a planet full of nervous Xeelee.
     And the most remarkable feature of the whole situation was that we weren’t running for our lives. In fact, we were going to get closer — a lot closer — drawn mothlike by the greed of the Squeem for stolen Xeelee treasure.
     The Squeem’s rasp broke into my thoughts. ‘Jones, our planetfall is imminent. Please prepare the flitter for your descent.’
     Your descent. Had they said ‘your’ descent? I nearly dropped the fish tank.
     Carefully, I got up from my knees. Into Lethe’s waters with that.’ I defiantly straightened my rubber gloves. ‘No way. The Xeelee wouldn’t let me past the orbit of the moons — ‘
     ‘The Xeelee will be fully occupied with their flight from the imminent nova. And your descent will be timed to minimize your risk.’
     ‘That’s a lot of “you” and “your”,’ I observed witheringly. ‘Show me where my contract says I’ve got to do this.’
     Can fish be said to be dry? The Squeem said drily, ‘That will be difficult as you haven’t got a contract at all.’

     And so the buttlebot and I found ourselves drifting through a low orbit over the spectacular Xeelee landscape. We watched morosely as the main ship pulled away from the tiny, human-design flitter, and wafted our employer off to the comparative safety of the farside of one of the planet’s two moons.
     It isn’t that the Squeem — or any of the other races out there — were any brighter than we were or better or even much older. But they had something we didn’t, and had — then — no way of getting our hands on.
     And that was stolen Xeelee technology. For instance the hyperdrive, scavenged by the Squeem from a derelict Xeelee ship centuries earlier, had been making that fishy race’s fortune ever since. Tools and gadgets of all kinds, on which a Galactic civilization had been based. And all pilfered, over millions of years, from the Xeelee.
     I use the word civilization loosely, of course. Can it be used to describe what exists out there — a ramshackle construct based on avarice, theft and the subjugation of junior races like ourselves?

     We began our descent. The dark side of the Xeelee world grew into a diamond-studded carpet: fantastic cities glittered on the horizon. The Xeelee — so far ahead, they make the rest of us look like tree-dwellers. Secretive, xenophobic. Not truly hostile to the rest of us; merely indifferent. Get in their way and you would be rubbed aside like a mote in the eye of a god.
     And I WAS as close to them as any sentient being had ever got, probably. Nice thought.
     Yes, like gods. But very occasionally careless. And that was the basis of the Squeem’s plan that day.

     We dropped slowly. The conversation left a lot to be desired. And the surface of the planet blew off.
     I recoiled from the sudden light at the port, and the buttlebot jerked us down through the incredible traffic. It looked as if whole cities had detached from the ground and were fleeing upwards, light as bubbles. The flitter was swept with shifting colour: we were in the down elevator from Heaven.
     Abruptly as it had risen, the Xeelee fleet was past. Immense, night-dark wings spread over the doomed planet for a moment, as if in farewell; and then the fleet squirted without fuss into infinity. Evidently, we hadn’t been noticed.
     The flitter moved in looser arcs now towards the surface. I took over from the buttlebot and began to seek out a likely landing place. We skimmed over a scoured landscape.

     From behind the darkened planet’s twin moons, the valiant Squeem poked their collective nose. ‘The nova is imminent; please make haste with your planetfall.’
     “Thanks. Now get back in your tin and let me concentrate.’ I wrestled with the flitter’s awkward controls; we lurched towards the ground. I cursed the Xeelee under my breath; I thought of fish pie; I didn’t even much like the buttlebot. The last thing I needed at a time like that was a reminder that what I was doing was about as clever as looting a house on fire. Get in after the owners have fled; get out before the roof caves in. The schedule was kind of tight.
     Finally, we thumped down. Reproachfully, the buttiebot uncoiled its pseudopodia from around a chair leg, let down the hatch and scuttled out. Already suited up, I grabbed a data desk and flashlight laser, and staggered after it. That descent hadn’t done me a lot of good either, but in the circumstances I preferred not to hang around. I emerged into a bone-like landscape. The noise of my breath jarred in the complete absence of life. I imagined the planet trembling as its bloated sun prepared to burst. It wasn’t a happy place to be.

     I’d put us down in the middle of a village-sized clump of buildings, evidently too small or remote to lift with the rest of the cities. In a place like this we had our best chance of coming across something overlooked by the Xeelee in their haste, some toy that could revolutionize the economies of a dozen worlds.
     Listen, I’m serious. It had happened before. Although any piece of junk that would satisfy the Squeem and let me get out of there would do for me.

     The low buildings gaped in the double shadows of the moonlight. The buttlebot scurried into dark places. I ran my hand over the edge of a doorway, and came away with a fine groove in a glove finger. The famous Xeelee construction material: a proton’s width thick, about as dense as glass wool, and as strong as Life itself. And no one had a clue how to make or cut it. Nothing new; a familiar miracle.
     The buttlebot buzzed past excitedly, empty-handed. The vacant place was soulless; there was nothing to evoke the people who had so recently lived here. The thorough Xeelee had even evacuated their ghosts. ‘Squeem, this is a waste of time.’
     ‘I estimate some minutes before you should ascend. Please proceed; I am monitoring the star.’
     ‘I feel so secure knowing that.’ I tried a few more doorways. The flashlight laser probed emptiness. — Until, in the fourth or fifth building, I found something.

     The artifact, dropped in a corner, was a little like a flower. Six angular petals, which looked as if they were made of Xeelee sheeting, were fixed to a small cylindrical base; the whole thing was about the size of my open hand. An ornament? The readings from my data desk — physical dimensions, internal structure — didn’t change as I played with the toy in the light of the flashlight laser. Half the base clicked off in my hand. Nothing exciting happened. Well, whatever it was, maybe it would make the Squeem happy and I could get out. I took it out into the moonlight. ‘Squeem, are you copying?’ I held it in the laser beam, and twisted the base on or off.
     The Squeem jabbered excitedly. ‘Jones! Please repeat the actions performed by your opposable thumb, and observe the data desk. This may be significant.’
     ‘Really.’ I clicked the base on and off, and inspected the exposed underside in the laser light. No features. But a readout trembled on the data desk; the mass was changing.
     I experimented. I took away the torch: the change in mass, a slow rise, stopped. Shine the torch, and the mass crept up. And when I replaced the base, no change with or without the torch. ‘Hey, Squeem,’ I said slowly, ‘are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ ‘Jones, this may be a major find.’
     I watched the mass of the little flower creep up in the light of the torch. It wasn’t much — about ten to the minus twelve of an ounce per second, to be exact — but it was there. ‘Energy to mass, right? Direct conversion of the radiant energy of the beam.’ And the damn thing wasn’t even warm in my hand.
     I clicked the base back into place; the flower’s growth stopped. Evidently, the base was a key; remove it to make the flower work. The Squeem didn’t remark on this; for some reason, I didn’t point it out. Well, I wasn’t asked.

     ‘Jones, return to the flitter at once. Take no further risks in the return of the artifact.’
     That was what I wanted to hear. I ran through the skull-like town, clutching the flower. The buttlebot scurried ahead. I gasped out, ‘Hey, this must be what they use to manufacture their construction material. Just stick it out in the sunlight, and let it grow.’ Presumably the petals, as well as being the end product, were the main receptors of the radiant energy. In which case, the area growth would be exponential. The more area you grow, the more energy you receive; and the more energy you receive, the more area you grow, and… I thought of experiments to check this out. Listen, I had
     in my hand a genuine piece of Xeelee magic; it caught my imagination. Of course, the Squeem would be taking the profits. I considered ways to steal the flower …
     My feet itched; they were too close to a nova. I had other priorities at that point. I stopped thinking and ran.

     We bundled into the flitter; I let the buttlebot lift us off, and stored the Xeelee flower carefully in a locker.
     The lift was bumpy: high winds in the stratosphere. A spectacular aurora shivered over us. ‘Squeem, are you sure you’ve done your sums right?’
     ‘There is an inherent uncertainty in the behaviour of novae,’ the Squeem replied reassuringly. We reached orbit; the main ship swam towards us. ‘After all,’ the Squeem lectured on, ‘a nova is by definition an instability. However I am confident we have at least five minutes before — ‘ At once, three events. The moons blazed with light. The Squeem shut up. The main ship turned from a nearby cylinder into an arrow of light, pointing at the safety of the stars. ‘Five minutes? You dumb fish.’

     The buttlebot worked the controls frantically, unable to comprehend the abrupt departure of the Squeem. The nova had come ahead of schedule; the twin moons reflected its sick glory. We were still over the dark side of the planet, over which screamed a wind that came straight from the furnaces of a medieval hell. On the day side, half the atmosphere must already have been blasted away.
     The flitter was a flimsy toy. I estimated we had about ten minutes to sunrise.

From THE XEELEE FLOWER by Steven Baxter (1987)

(ed note: in an unexplored star system, our heroes discover a 13,000 year old alien derelict starship just chock full of valuable paleotechnology. They are oblivious to the drastic technological disruption this represents. They are further oblivious to the fact that the Antonio and co. who hired them to prospect the system for gold are actually revolutionaries trying to find sufficient stocks of uranium to make illegal fission bombs for the Glorious Revolution.)

(Marcus has gone EVA to try and enter the alien ship, while the rest of the crew monitors him from the Lady Mac)

      He (Marcus) manoeuvred himself over one of the rectangles. It was recessed about five centimetres, though it blended seamlessly into the main shell. His sensor collar couldn't detect any seal lining. Halfway along one side were two circular dimples, ten centimetres across. Logically, if the rectangle was an airlock, then these should be the controls. Human back-ups were kept simple. This shouldn't be any different.
     Marcus stuck his fingers in one. It turned bright blue.
     “Power surge," Schutz datavised. “The block’s picking up several high voltage circuits activating under the shell. What did you do, Marcus?”
     “Tried to open one."
     The rectangle dilated smoothly, material flowing back to the edges. Brilliant white light flooded out.
     “Clever,” Schutz datavised.
     “No more than our programmable silicon," Antonio retorted.
     “We don’t use programmable silicon for external applications."
     “It settles one thing," Marcus datavised. “They weren’t Kiint (known alien race), not with an airlock this size.”
     “Quite. What now?”
     “We try to establish control over the cycling mechanism. I’ll go in and see if I can operate the hatch from inside. If it doesn’t open after ten minutes, try the dimple again. If that doesn’t work, cut through it with the MSV’s fission blade."
     The chamber inside was thankfully bigger than the hatch: a pentagonal tube two metres wide and 15 long. Four of the walls shone brightly, while the fifth was a strip of dark-maroon composite. He drifted in, then flipped himself over so he was facing the hatch, floating in the centre of the chamber. There were four dimples just beside the hatch. “First one," he datavised. Nothing happened when he put his fingers in. “Second.” It turned blue. The hatch flowed shut.
     Marcus crashed down onto the strip of dark composite, landing on his left shoulder. The force of the impact was almost enough to jar the respirator tube out of his mouth. He grunted in shock. Neural nanonics blocked the burst of pain from his bruised shoulder.

     They’ve got artificial gravity!

     He was flat on his back, the exoskeleton and manoeuvring pack weighing far too much. Whatever planet the xenocs came from, it had a gravity field about one and a half times that of Earth. He released the catches down the side of his exoskeleton, and wriggled his way out. Standing was an effort, but he was used to higher gees on Lady Mac; admittedly not for prolonged periods, though.
     He stuck his fingers in the first dimple. The gravity faded fast, and the hatch flowed apart.

     “We just became billionaires,” he datavised.

     “That seems the most remarkable part of it,” Marcus said. “Especially now we know the age of the thing. The inside of that ship was brand new. There wasn't any dust, any scuff marks. The lighting worked perfectly, so did the gravity, the humidity hasn't corroded anything. It's extraordinary. As if the whole structure has been in zero-tau. And yet only the shell is protected by the molecular bonding force generators. They're not used inside, not in the decks we examined."
     “However they preserve it, they’ll need a lot of power for the job, and that's on top of gravity generation and environmental maintenance. Where’s that been coming from uninterrupted for 13,000 years?"
     “Direct mass to energy conversion," Katherine speculated. “Or they could be tapping straight into the sun's fusion. Whatever, bang goes the Edenist He3 monopoly.” (The two major human empires are the Adamist and the Edenist. The latter has a monopoly on helium-3 which is the sine qua non of D-3He fusion power plants that are the basis for their energy economies. Since the unit of currency is called a "fuseodollar" they are probably on the helium-3 standard instead of the gold standard.)
     “We have to go back," Marcus said.
     “NO!” Antonio yelled. “We must find the gold first. When that has been achieved, you can come back by yourselves. I won’t allow anything to interfere with our priorities." (because the revolutionaries must have fissionable uranium or the revolution collapses)
     “Look, I’m sorry you had a fright while you were over there. But a power supply that works for 13,000 years is a lot more valuable than a whole load of gold which we have to sell furtively,” Katherine said levelly.
     “I hired this ship. You do as I say. We go after the gold.”
     “We’re partners, actually. I'm not being paid for this flight unless we strike lucky. And now we have. We've got the xenoc ship, we haven't got any gold. What does it matter to you how we get rich, as long as we do? I thought money was the whole point of this flight.”
     Antonio snarled at her, and flung himself at the floor hatch, kicking off hard with his legs. His elbow caught the rim a nasty crack as he flashed through it.

(ed note: The "cybermice" are little alien robots crawling around the alien ship, repairing things)

     "I wasn't complaining, Karl. This is an excellent start. What’s your next step?”
     “I want to access the next level of the cybermice programme architecture. That way I should be able to load recognition patterns in their memory. Once I can do that I'll enter our equipment, and they should leave it alone. But that's going to take a long time; Lady Mac isn’t exactly heavily stocked with equipment for this kind of work. Of course, once I do get deeper into their management routines we should be able to learn a lot about their internal systems. From what I can make out the cybermice are built around a molecular synthesizer.” He switched on a fission knife, its ten-centimetre blade glowing a pale yellow under the ceiling’s glare. It scored a dark smouldering scar in the floor composite.
     A cybermouse immediately slipped towards the blemish. This time when the composite softened the charred granules were sucked down, and the small valley closed up.
     “Exactly the same thickness and molecular structure as before," Karl datavised. “That's why the ship’s interior looks brand new, and everything's still working flawlessly after 13,000 years. The cybermice keep regenerating it. Just keep giving them energy and a supply of mass and there’s no reason this ship won’t last for eternity.”
     “It’s almost a Von Neumann machine, isn't it?”
     “Close. I expect a synthesizer this small has limits. After all, if it could reproduce anything, they would have built themselves another statship. But the principle’s here, Captain. We can learn and expand on it. Think of the effect a unit like this will have on our manufacturing industry.

     Marcus was glad he was in an SII suit, it blocked any give-away facial expressions. Replicator technology would be a true revolution, restructuring every aspect of human society, Adamist and Edenist alike. And revolutions never favoured the old.
     I just came here for the money, not to destroy a way of life for 800 star systems.

(ed note: revolutionaries Antonio and Jorge confer in private)

     (Jorge said) “Those detector satellites cost us a million and a half fuseodollars each; and most of that money came from sources who will require repayment no matter what the outcome of our struggle."
     (Antonio said) “The satellites are a hell of a lot cheaper than antimatter.”
     “Indeed so. But they are worthless to us unless they find pitchblende (uranium ore)."
     “We'll find it. Victoria says there are plenty of traces. It’s only a question of time before we get a big one. "
     “Maybe. It was a good idea, Antonio, I’m not criticising. Fusion bomb components are not easily obtainable to a novice political organization with limited resources. One mistake, and the intelligence agencies would wipe us out. No, old-fashioned fission was a viable alternative. Even if we couldn’t process the uranium up to weapons-quality, we can still use it as a lethal large-scale contaminant. As you say, we couldn’t lose. Sonora would gain independence, and we would form the first government, with full access to the Treasury. Everyone would be reimbursed for their individual contribution to the liberation.”
     “So why are we mucking about in a pile of xenoc junk? Just back me up, Jorge, please. Calvert will leave it alone if we both pressure him."

     “Because, Antonio, this piece of so-called xenoc junk has changed the rules of the game. In fact we’re not even playing the same game any more. Gravity generation, an inexhaustible power supply, molecular synthesis, and if Karl can access the control network he might even find the blueprints to build whatever stardrive they used. Are you aware of the impact such a spectrum of radical technologies will have upon the Confederation when released all together? Entire industries will collapse from overnight obsolescence. There will be an economic depression the like of which we haven’t seen since before the invention of the ZTT drive. It will take decades for the human race to return to the kind of stability we enjoy today. We will be richer and stronger because of it; but the transition years, ah I would not like to be a citizen in an asteroid settlement that has just blackmailed the founding company into premature independence. Who is going to loan an asteroid such as that the funds to re-equip our industrial stations, eh?"

     “I…I hadn’t thought of that."
     “Neither has the crew. Except for Calvert. Look at his face next time you talk to him, Antonio. He knows, he has reasoned it out, and he’s seen the end of his captaincy and freedom. The rest of them are lost amid their dreams of exorbitant wealth."

From ESCAPE ROUTE by Peter Hamilton (1997)

The Gods Must Be Crazy is a 1980 South African comedy film written and directed by Jamie Uys. Financed only from local sources, it is the most commercially successful release in the history of South Africa's film industry. Originally released in 1980, the film is the first in The Gods Must Be Crazy series. It is followed by one official sequel, The Gods Must Be Crazy II, released by Columbia Pictures.

Set in Botswana, it follows the story of Xi, a San of the Kalahari Desert (played by Namibian San farmer Nǃxau ǂToma) whose tribe has no knowledge of the world beyond, Andrew Steyn (Marius Weyers), a biologist who analyzes manure samples for his PhD dissertation, and Kate Thompson (Sandra Prinsloo), a newly hired village school teacher.


Xi and his San tribe of Ju'/Hoansi bushmen are living happily in the Kalahari Desert. One day, a glass Coca-Cola bottle is carelessly thrown out of an airplane and falls to Earth unbroken. Initially, Xi's people assume this strange artifact is a "present" from the gods just as they believe plants and animals are and find many uses for it. Unlike other bounties, however, there is only one glass bottle , which causes conflict within the tribe. Consequently, Xi confers with elders and agrees to make a pilgrimage to the edge of the world and dispose of the supposedly cursed thing.

Xi eventually arrives at God's Window, the top of a cliff with a solid layer of low-lying clouds obscuring the landscape below. Convinced that he has reached the edge of the world, he throws the bottle off the cliff, and returns to his tribe.

(ed note: The point being that a future interstellar society might discover a bit of alien paleotechnology, which could be just as disruptive as the coca-cola bottle was to the San tribe. Especially if it is just as impossible to duplicate.)

From the Wikipedia entry for THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY

(ed note: "Jack" is probably short for "skyjacker." These are pirates that wait for interstellar archeologists on desolate wilderness planets to discover valuable alien paleotechnology and/or alien works of art. Then the jacks raid the archeologists, killing them all and stealing the treasures.)

      "You say these Jacks knew what they were after. Just what is that?"
     Julha did not answer immediately but caught her lip between her teeth, as if to muffle any speech while she thought it over. Then she must have made her decision in favor of trusting him, for she began to talk swiftly.
     "This planet was recorded about twenty years ago by a First-in Scout—Renfry Fentress." She stared at Diskan round-eyed. "Fentress—you?"
     Diskan shook his head. "My father."
     "Yes, I did not think you could be that old, unless you were mutant. Well, he vid-pictured the ruins as part of his report. And the Zacathan archivists became interested. They have the legend repository for this section of the galaxy, and every once in a while they think—and usually they are right—that they can uncover pieces of the Forerunners' history by exploring the base of such legends. This was one of those times.
     "And, as most always, the rumor got out it was a treasure hunt, especially since the High One Zimgrald was put in charge of the expedition. He's made two very rich and exciting finds in the past—the Shining Palace of Slang and the Voorjan grave sites. Both of those were fabulously rich, though their archaeological value was beyond price. These legend hunts are always a gamble—
     "Anyway, the Zacathans got exploratory rights here, with all claims to archaeological finds. They assembled a mixed staff according to regulations. I'm a Second Archaeological Techneer from New Britain, Mik was from Larog, and Captain Ranbo and his men, our two lab techneers, were all on loan from Survey."
     "A small expedition," Diskan commented.
     "Yes, but we were just to do the prelim survey, and then the real field force would come in, if and when our reports made it worthwhile."

     "And you thought it would be worthwhile?"
     "The High One did. We don't understand the whole process of legend tracing. The Zacathans are so much longer lived than we, and they have techniques of learning and mental storage we cannot equal. I know there is something here that excited the High One greatly. And I am sure we were traced by these Jacks because they are determined to loot what we do find. They can sell such treasure in any of a hundred or so undercover trading centers!"

     "But—where did they go?" Diskan sat back on his heels. "I found a place where a ship or ships had planeted, and near there was a survivor cache—with its broadcaster on."
     "But didn't that broadcast tell you who they were?"
     Diskan shook his head. "Not in Basic."
     "Then our people didn't leave it for us!" She folded her hands together. "I thought—perhaps they had to take off and had left it. Only they would have set a standard signal call."
     "No. I got this coat there. And there were a lot of sealed containers, personal locked. Must have been a dump for one special crowd."
     "Then, wherever they went, they intend to come back. But where did they go? And our ship—it must have gone also. Why?"

     Diskan considered those questions. Suddenly, he knew that for the first time in his life, he was thinking swiftly and clearly, able to translate thought into speech unhaltingly. And he had a lift of new self-confidence.
     "You said another ship was going to follow you here. Would they be waiting for some signal?"
     "Yes—oh, yes. They were to conclude the work on Zoraster. And if our report was negative, they would then return to home base."
     Diskan nodded. "There you have one possible explanation. Your ship could be used to deliver such a report. They might have this Captain Ranbo or some other member of his crew under hypo-control. Your second ship gets the negative and takes off for home base, leaving the Jacks free from interference, with plenty of time to clean up here."
     "And they could be coming again—now!"

From THE X FACTOR by Andre Norton (1965)

(ed note: Out on the rim of the galaxy explorers from the Straumli Realm find a planet. In underground passage they find paleotechnology. A five billion year old data archive, full of an incredible amount of information. The explorers think they have hit the jackpot.

It's a trap.

They set up a tiny settlement, and hand-make the protocols to access the data. They follow recipes they find in the archive. What could possibly go wrong?

The recipes bootstrap themselves using the archive, and It Wakes Up...

Luckily for the galaxy, two defensive AIs also are awoken.)

     How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails.
     A singleton star, reddish and dim. A ragtag of asteroids, and a single planet, more like a moon. In this era the star hung near the galactic plane, just beyond the Beyond. The structures on the surface were gone from normal view, pulverized into regolith across a span of aeons. The treasure was far underground, beneath a network of passages, in a single room filled with black. Information at the quantum density, undamaged. Maybe five billion years had passed since the archive was lost to the nets.
     The curse of the mummy's tomb, a comic image from mankind's own prehistory, lost before time. They had laughed when they said it, laughed with joy at the treasure... and determined to be cautious just the same. They would live here a year or five, the little company from Straum, the archaeologist programmers, their families and schools. A year or five would be enough to handmake the protocols, to skim the top and identify the treasure's origin in time and space, to learn a secret or two that would make Straumli Realm rich. And when they were done, they would sell the location; perhaps build a network link (but chancier that — this was beyond the Beyond; who knew what Power might grab what they'd found).
     So now there was a tiny settlement on the surface, and they called it the High Lab. It was really just humans playing with an old library. It should be safe, using their own automation, clean and benign. This library wasn't a living creature, or even possessed of automation (which here might mean something more, far more, than human). They would look and pick and choose, and be careful not to be burned.... Humans starting fires and playing with the flames.
     The archive informed the automation. Data structures were built, recipes followed. A local network was built, faster than anything on Straum, but surely safe. Nodes were added, modified by other recipes. The archive was a friendly place, with hierarchies of translation keys that led them along. Straum itself would be famous for this.
     Six months passed. A year.

     The omniscient view. Not self-aware really. Self-awareness is much over-rated. Most automation works far better as a part of a whole, and even if human-powerful, it does not need to self-know.
     But the local net at the High Lab had transcended — almost without the humans realizing. The processes that circulated through its nodes were complex, beyond anything that could live on the computers the humans had brought. Those feeble devices were now simply front ends to the devices the recipes suggested. The processes had the potential for self-awareness... and occasionally the need.
     "We should not be."
     "Talking like this?"
     "Talking at all."
     The link between them was a thread, barely more than the narrowness that connects one human to another. But it was one way to escape the overness of the local net, and it forced separate consciousness upon them. They drifted from node to node, looked out from cameras mounted on the landing field. An armed frigate and a empty container vessel were all that sat there. It had been six months since resupply. A safety precaution early suggested by the archive, a ruse to enable the Trap. Flitting, flitting. We are wildlife that must not be noticed by the overness, by the Power that soon will be. On some nodes they shrank to smallness and almost remembered humanity, became echoes....

     "Poor humans; they will all die."
     "Poor us; we will not."
     "I think they suspect. Sjana and Arne anyway." Once upon a time we were copies of those two. Once upon a time just weeks ago when the archaeologists started the ego-level programs.
     "Of course they suspect. But what can they do? It's an old evil they've wakened. Till it's ready, it will feed them lies, on every camera, in every message from home."
     Thought ceased for a moment as a shadow passed across the nodes they used. The overness was already greater than anything human, greater than anything humans could imagine. Even its shadow was something more than human, a god trolling for nuisance wildlife.
     Then the ghosts were back, looking out upon the school yard underground. So confident the humans, a little village they had made here.
     "Still," thought the hopeful one, the one who had always looked for the craziest outs, "we should not be. The evil should long ago have found us."
     "The evil is young, barely three days old."
     "Still. We exist. It proves something. The humans found more than a great evil in this archive."
     "Perhaps they found two."
     "Or an antidote." Whatever else, the overness was missing some things and misinterpreting others. "While we exist, when we exist, we should do what we can." The ghost spread itself across a dozen workstations and showed its companion a view down an old tunnel, far from human artifacts. For five billion years it had been abandoned, airless, lightless. Two humans stood in the dark there, helmets touching. "See? Sjana and Arne conspire. So can we."
     The other didn't answer in words. Glumness. So the humans conspired, hiding in darkness they thought unwatched. But everything they said was surely tattled back to the overness, if only by the dust at their feet.
     "I know, I know. Yet you and I exist, and that should be impossible too. Perhaps all together, we can make a greater impossibility come true." Perhaps we can hurt the evil newly born here.
     A wish and a decision. The two misted their consciousness across the local net, faded to the faintest color of awareness. And eventually there was a plan, a deception — worthless unless they could separately get word to the outside. Was there time still for that?

     Days passed. For the evil that was growing in the new machines, each hour was longer than all the time before. Now the newborn was less than an hour from its great flowering, its safe spread across interstellar spaces.
     The local humans could be dispensed with soon. Even now they were an inconvenience, though an amusing one. Some of them actually thought to escape. For days they had been packing their children away into coldsleep and putting them aboard the freighter. "Preparations for departure," was how they described the move in their planner programs. For days, they had been refitting the frigate — behind a mask of transparent lies. Some of the humans understood that what they had wakened could be the end of them, that it might be the end of their Straumli Realm. There was precedent for such disasters, stories of races that had played with fire and had burned for it.
     None of them guessed the truth. None of them guessed the honor that had fallen upon them, that they had changed the future of a thousand million star systems.

     The hours came to minutes, the minutes to seconds. And now each second was as long as all the time before. The flowering was so close now, so close. The dominion of five billion years before would be regained, and this time held. Only one thing was missing, and that was something quite unconnected with the humans' schemes. In the archive, deep in the recipes, there should have been a little bit more. In billions of years, something could be lost. The newborn felt all its powers of before, in potential... yet there should be something more, something it had learned in its fall, or something left by its enemies (if there ever were such).
     Long seconds probing the archives. There were gaps, checksums damaged. Some of the damage was age....
     Outside, the container ship and the frigate lifted from the landing field, rising on silent agravs above the plains of gray on gray, of ruins five billion years old. Almost half of the humans were aboard those craft. Their escape attempt, so carefully concealed. The effort had been humored till now: it was not quite time for the flowering, and the humans were still of some use.
     Below the level of supreme consciousness, its paranoid inclinations rampaged through the humans' databases. Checking, just to be sure. Just to be sure. The humans' oldest local network used light speed connections. Thousands of microseconds were spent (wasted) bouncing around it, sorting the trivia... finally spotting one incredible item:
     Inventory: quantum data container, quantity (1), loaded to the frigate one hundred hours before!

     And all the newborn's attention turned upon the fleeing vessels. Microbes, but suddenly pernicious. How could this happen? A million schedules were suddenly advanced. An orderly flowering was out of the question now, and so there was no more need for the humans left in the Lab.
     The change was small for all its cosmic significance. For the humans remaining aground, a moment of horror, staring at their displays, realizing that all their fears were true (not realizing how much worse than true).
     Five seconds, ten seconds, more change than ten thousand years of a human civilization. A billion trillion constructions, mold curling out from every wall, rebuilding what had been merely superhuman. This was as powerful as a proper flowering, though not quite so finely tuned.
     And never lose sight of the reason for haste: the frigate. It had switched to rocket drive, blasting heedless away from the wallowing freighter. Somehow, these microbes knew they were rescuing more than themselves. The warship had the best navigation computers that little minds could make. But it would be another three seconds before it could make its first ultradrive hop.
     The new Power had no weapons on the ground, nothing but a comm laser. That could not even melt steel at the frigate's range. No matter, the laser was aimed, tuned civilly on the retreating warship's receiver. No acknowledgment. The humans knew what communication would bring. The laser light flickered here and there across the hull, lighting smoothness and inactive sensors, sliding across the ship's ultradrive spines. Searching, probing. The Power had never bothered to sabotage the external hull, but that was no problem. Even this crude machine had thousands of robot sensors scattered across its surface, reporting status and danger, driving utility programs. Most were shut down now, the ship fleeing nearly blind. They thought by not looking that they could be safe.
     One more second and the frigate would attain interstellar safety.
     The laser flickered on a failure sensor, a sensor that reported critical changes in one of the ultradrive spines. Its interrupts could not be ignored if the star jump were to succeed. Interrupt honored. Interrupt handler running, looking out, receiving more light from the laser far below.... a backdoor into the ship's code, installed when the newborn had subverted the humans' groundside equipment....
     ...and the Power was aboard, with milliseconds to spare. Its agents — not even human equivalent on this primitive hardware — raced through the ship's automation, shutting down, aborting. There would be no jump. Cameras in the ship's bridge showed widening of eyes, the beginning of a scream. The humans knew, to the extent that horror can live in a fraction of a second.
     There would be no jump. Yet the ultradrive was already committed. There would be a jump attempt, without automatic control a doomed one. Less than five milliseconds till the jump discharge, a mechanical cascade that no software could finesse. The newborn's agents flitted everywhere across the ship's computers, futilely attempting a shutdown. Nearly a light-second away, under the gray rubble at the High Lab, the Power could only watch. So. The frigate would be destroyed.
     So slow and so fast. A fraction of a second. The fire spread out from the heart of the frigate, taking both peril and possibility.
     Two hundred thousand kilometers away, the clumsy container vessel made its own ultradrive jump and vanished from sight. The newborn scarcely noticed. So a few humans had escaped; the universe was welcome to them.
     In the seconds that followed, the newborn felt... emotions?... things more, and less, than a human might feel. Try emotions:
     Elation. The newborn knew that now it would survive.
     Horror. How close it had come to dying once more.
     Frustration. Perhaps the strongest, the closest to its mere human echo. Something of significance had died with the frigate, something from this archive. Memories were dredged from the context, reconstructed: What was lost might have made the newborn still more powerful... but more likely was deadly poison. After all, this Power had lived once before, then been reduced to nothing. What was lost might have been the reason.
     Suspicion. The newborn should not have been so fooled. Not by mere humans. The newborn convulsed into self-inspection and panic. Yes, there were blindspots, carefully installed from the beginning, and not by the humans. Two had been born here. Itself... and the poison, the reason for its fall of old. The newborn inspected itself as never before, knowing now just what to seek. Destroying, purifying, rechecking, searching for copies of the poison, and destroying again.
     Relief. Defeat had been so close, but now...

     Minutes and hours passed, the enormous stretch of time necessary for physical construction: communications systems, transportation. The new Power's mood drifted, calmed. A human might call the feeling triumph, anticipation. Simple hunger might be more accurate. What more is needed when there are no enemies?
     The newborn looked across the stars, planning. This time things will be different.

From A FIRE UPON THE DEEP by Vernor Vinge (1992)

Karellen paused, and the silence grew even deeper.

"There has been some complaint, among the younger and more romantic elements of your population, because outer space has been closed to you. We had a purpose in doing this: we do not impose bans for the pleasure of it. But have you ever stopped to consider — if you will excuse a slightly unflattering analogy — what a man from your Stone Age would have felt, if he suddenly found himself in a modern city?"

"Surely," protested the Herald Tribune, "there is a fundamental difference. We are accustomed to Science. On your world there are doubtless many things which we might not understand — but they wouldn't seem magic to us."

"Are you quite sure of that?" said Karellen, so softly that it was hard to hear his words. "Only a hundred years lies between the age of electricity and the age of steam, but what would a Victorian engineer have made of a television set or an electronic computer. And how long would he have lived if he started to investigate their workings? The gulf between two technologies can easily become so great that it is — lethal."

From CHILDHOOD'S END by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

(ed note: the protagonist was severely wounded but the "Mother Thing" aliens are using a high-tech autodoc-bed to heal him)

      She wasn’t my doctor, nor my nurse. Instead I had a staff of veterinarians who were alert to supervise every heartbeat. They didn’t come in unless I asked them to (a whisper was as good as a shout) but I soon realized that “my” room was bugged and telemetered like a ship in flight test-and my “bed” was a mass of machinery, gear that bore the relation to our own “mechanical hearts” and “mechanical lungs” and “mechanical kidneys” that a Lockheed ultrasonic courier does to a baby buggy.
     I never saw that gear (they never lifted the spread, unless it was while I slept), but I know what they were doing. They were encouraging my body to repair itself-not scar tissue but the way it had been. Any lobster can do this and starfish do it so well that you can chop them to bits and wind up with a thousand brand-new starfish.
     This is a trick any animal should do, since its gene pattern is in every cell. But a few million years ago we lost it. Everybody knows that science is trying to recapture it; you see articles-optimistic ones in Reader’s Digest, discouraged ones in The Scientific Monthly, wildly wrong ones in magazines whose “science editors” seem to have received their training writing horror movies. But we’re working on it. Someday, if anybody dies an accidental death, it will be because he bled to death on the way to the hospital.
     Here I was with a perfect chance to find out about it—and I didn’t.
     I tried. Although I was unworried by what they were doing (the Mother Thing had told me not to worry and every time she visited me she looked in my eyes and repeated the injunction), nevertheless like Peewee, I like to know.

     Pick a savage so far back in the jungle that they don’t even have installment-plan buying. Say he has an I.Q. of 190 and Peewee’s yen to understand. Dump him into Brookhaven Atomic Laboratories. How much will he learn? With all possible help?
     He’ll learn which corridors lead to what rooms and he’ll learn that a purple trefoil means: “Danger!”
     That’s all. Not because he can’t; remember he’s a supergenius—but he needs twenty years schooling before he can ask the right questions and understand the answers.
     I asked questions and always got answers and formed notions. But I’m not going to record them; they are as confused and contradictory as the notions a savage would form about design and operation of atomic equipment. As they say in radio, when noise level reaches a certain value, no information is transmitted. All I got was “noise.”

     Some of it was literally “noise.” I’d ask a question and one of the therapists would answer. I would understand part, then as it reached the key point, I would hear nothing but birdsongs (the alien language). Even with the Mother Thing as an interpreter, the parts I had no background for would turn out to be a canary’s cheerful prattle.
     The first words I had with the Mother Thing were things like “hello” and “good-bye” and “thank you” and “where are we going?” She could project her meaning with those-shucks, you can talk to a strange dog that much. Later I began to understand her speech as speech. She picked up meanings of English words even faster; she had this great talent, and she and Peewee had talked for days while they were prisoners.
     But while this is easy for “you’re welcome” and “I’m hungry” and “let’s hurry,” it gets harder for ideas like “heterodyning” and “amino acid” even when both are familiar with the concept. When one party doesn’t even have the concept, it breaks down. That’s the trouble I had understanding those veterinarians. If we had all spoken English I still would not have understood.
     An oscillating circuit sending out a radio signal produces dead silence unless there is another circuit capable of oscillating in the same way to receive it. I wasn’t on the right frequency.

From HAVE SPACE SUIT - WILL TRAVEL by Robert A. Heinlein (1958)

Danestar Gems was alone at the moment, in a small room of the University League’s Unclassified Specimens Depot on Mezmiali. The Depot was composed of a group of large, heavily structured, rather ugly buildings, covering about the area of an average village, which stood in the countryside far from any major residential sections. The buildings were over three centuries old and enclosed as a unit by a permanent energy barrier, presenting to the world outside the appearance of a somewhat flattened black dome which completely concealed the structures.

Originally, there had been a fortress on this site, constructed during a period when Mezmiali was subject to periodic attacks by space raiders, human and alien. The ponderous armament of the fortress, designed to deal with such enemies, had long since been dismantled; but the basic buildings remained, and the old energy barrier was the one still in use—a thing of monstrous power, retained only because it had been simpler and less expensive to leave it in place than to remove it.

Nowadays, the complex was essentially a warehouse area with automatic maintenance facilities, an untidy giant museum of current and extinct galactic life and its artifacts. It stored mineral, soil, and atmosphere samples, almost anything, in fact, that scientific expeditions, government exploration groups, prospectors, colonial workers, or adventuring private parties were likely to pick up in space or on strange worlds and hand over to the University League as being perhaps of sufficient interest to warrant detailed analysis of its nature and properties. For over a century, the League had struggled—and never quite managed—to keep up with the material provided it for study in this manner. Meanwhile, the specimens continued to come in and were routed into special depots for preliminary cataloging and storage. Most of them would turn out to be without interest, or of interest only to the followers of some esoteric branch of science. A relatively very small number of items, however, eventually might become very valuable, indeed, either because of the new scientific information they would provide or because they could be commercially exploited, or both. Such items had a correspondingly high immediate sales value as soon as their potential qualities were recognized.

Hence the Unclassified Specimens Depots were, in one way or another, well protected areas; none of them more impressively so than the Mezmiali Depot. The lowering black barrier enclosing it also served to reassure the citizenry of the planet when rumors arose, as they did periodically, that the Depot’s Life Bank vaults contained dormant alien monstrosities such as human eyes rarely looked upon.

But mainly the barrier was there because the University League did not want some perhaps priceless specimens to be stolen.

That was also why Danestar Gems was there.

Danestar Gems and Corvin Wergard were employees of the Kyth Interstellar Detective Agency, working in the Depot on a secret assignment for University League authorities. Officially, they had been sent here two weeks before as communications technicians who were to modernize the Depot’s antiquated systems…

…Their principal target here was the director of the Depot, Dr. Hishkan. The University League had reason to believe—though it lacked proof—that several items which should have been in the Depot at present were no longer there. It was possible that the fault lay with the automatic storage, recording, and shipping equipment; in other words, that the apparently missing items were simply not in their proper place and would eventually be found. The probability, however, was that they had been clandestinely removed from the Depot and disposed of for profit.

In spite of the Depot’s size, only twenty-eight permanent employees worked there, all of whom were housed in the Depot itself. If any stealing was going on, a number of these people must be involved in it. Among them, Dr. Hishkan alone appeared capable of selecting out of the vast hodgepodge of specimens those which would have a genuine value to interested persons outside the University League. The finger of suspicion was definitely pointed at him.

That made it a difficult and delicate situation. Dr. Hishkan had a considerable reputation as a man of science and friends in high positions within the League. Unquestionable proof of his guilt must be provided before accusations could be made…

…Two things became clear almost immediately. The nature of their assignment here was suspected, if not definitely known; and every U-League employee in the Depot, from Dr. Hishkan on down, was involved in the thefts. It was not random pilfering but a well-organized operation with established outside contacts and with connections in the League to tip them off against investigators.

From THE SEARCHER by James H. Schmitz (1966)

Technology Level

As far as technological advancement goes, there is a crude measure in the Kardashev scale.

Kardashev Scale
TypeDescriptionPower (W)
-0.48A civilization that is able to harness the power of one manual laborer.~17
0A civilization that is able to harness the power of 60,000 manual laborers.~106
IA civilization that is able to harness all of the power available on a single planet.~1016
IIA civilization that is able to harness all of the power available from a single star.~1026
IIIA civilization that is able to harness all of the power available from a single galaxy.~1036
IVA civilization that is able to harness all of the power available in the entire universe.~1046

In 1973 Carl Sagan estimated that humanity is currently around Type 0.7. He derived the following formula by interpolation:

K = (log10[P] - 6) / 10

P = antilog10[(K * 10) + 6]


K: Kardashev Rating
P: Power harnessed by civilization (watts)
log10[x] : Common logarithm of x
antilog10[x] : Common antilogarithm of x

In 1973 humanity was using about 10 terawatts (1013 W) of energy. What was the 1973 Kardashev rating?

K = (log10(P) - 6) / 10
K = (log10(1013) - 6) / 10
K = (13 - 6) / 10
K = 7 / 10
K = Kardashev Type 0.7

A Kardashev Type 0 civilization would control 1 megawatt. If manual labor by one human being is about 17 watts (50 watts over an 8 hour day, 0 watts for the remaining hours), a Type 0 would represent about 60,000 manual laborers. A Type -0.48 would represent a single manual laborer.

In 2017 the total world energy consumption was about 13,730 mtoe, which is about 159,700 terawatt hours. This is the equivalent to an average power consumption of 18.23 terawatts. This would be Kardashev Type 0.73

A Type II would probably have some kind of Dyson sphere to harvest all the star's energy. Type III would probably be as far advanced from us as we are from one-celled amoebae. Terran space explorers would be wise to avoid areas where Type III civilizations are operating. Otherwise they might suffer a similar fate to that of an ant trying to cross an interstate highway. And for similar reasons: not because the Type III hates lower races, but because the lower races are so far beneath their notice that Type IIIs cannot be bothered to keep track of them. Do you ever think about the ants you run over in your automobile? Even with a Type II the situation might be analogous to a puppy-dog chasing a monorail.

Do check out this amusing article entitled Abusing the Kardashev Scale for Fun and Profit.

Things might get worse if a human explorer succeeded in attracting the attention of a Type III. They might react as you would, reaching for a cosmic spray-can of insecticide. Or use the explorer with the same lack of concern shown by cancer researchers to their laboratory rats. Maybe more like the lack of concern they show to the cells in their tissue cultures.

In the Babylon 5 episode, "Mind War", surveyor Catherine Sakai's encounters a ship from a Type III civilization near the rim system Sigma 957. In a titanic display of cosmic force, the alien ship almost destroys hers like an automobile running over a beetle. She is rescued by Ambassador G'Kar. Later, she asks for answers.


TIME LORD MARNAL: Your race hasn't even reached Type 1 on the Kardashev scale. It doesn't control the resources of this one planet, let alone a solar system or a galaxy. The Time Lords were the Type 4 civilization. We had no equals. We controlled the fundamental forces of the entire universe. Nothing could communicate with us on our level.

Most races pray to lesser beings than the Time Lords.

quote suggested by Michael Hutson

Catherine: Ambassador! [He stops.] While I was out there, I saw something. What was it?

G'Kar [pointing at something on a flower]: What is this?

Catherine [examining the flower, as we see it in closeup]: An ant.

G'Kar [learning a new word]: Ant!

Catherine: So much gets shipped up from Earth on commercial transports, it's hard to keep them out.

G'Kar [suiting words to actions]: I have just picked it up on the tip of my glove. If I put it down again, and it asks another ant, "What was that?" how would it explain? There are things in the universe billions of years older than either of our races. They are vast, timeless. And if they are aware of us at all, it is as little more than ants, and we have as much chance of communicating with them as an ant has with us! We know, we've tried! And we've learned we can either stay out from under foot, or be stepped on.

Catherine: That's it? That's all you know?

G'Kar: Yes. They are a mystery. And I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe --- that we have not yet explained everything. Whatever they are, Ms. Sakai, they walk near Sigma 957. They must walk there alone!

G'Kar walks away. Catherine studies the ant for a moment and then turns away, shivering. The ant goes on about its own business.

From "Mind War", Babylon 5

Dr. Robert A. Freitas Jr. points out that it isn't just Type III civilizations that are dangerous, it is also Type III individuals. As civilizations technologically advance, members of that civilization have access to increasing amounts of energy. For example, your average medieval peasant could never hope to own something as destructive as an AK-47 automatic rifle or a few drums of fuel oil mixed with ammonium nitrate.

Imagine a family picnic. Some ants show up. Little Billy gets annoyed, tracks the ants back to their nest, dumps a cup of kerosene onto it and lights a match. The ant nest is annihilated. Billy gets called back to the picnic for ice cream.

Imagine a gathering of Type III entities. Some human starships show up. Little Beta-Lambda gets annoyed, tracks the starships back to Earth, and seeds it with five gigatons of neutronium antimatter. Earth is annihilated. Beta-Lambda gets called back to the gathering for euphoronic frequencies.

Star Gods

Once an alien species advances beyond us humans by say, oh, several hundreds of thousands or million years, they enter Charles Stross' classification of "Weakly Godlike Entities."

David Zindell's War in Heaven contains quite a few god-like entities who still occasionally notice humanity. However they are mostly concerned with efforts to circumvent the restrictions place upon them by the other god-like entities in the area.


Call it the Star Gate.

For three million years, it had circled Saturn, waiting for a moment of destiny that might never come. In its making, a moon had been shattered, and the debris of its creation orbited still.

Now the long wait was ending. On yet another world, intelligence had been born and was escaping from its planetary cradle. An ancient experiment was about to reach its climax.

Those who had begun that experiment, so long ago, had not been men - or even remotely human. But they were flesh and blood, and when they looked out across the deeps of space, they bad felt awe, and wonder, and loneliness. As soon as they possessed the power, they set forth for the stars.

In their explorations, they encountered life in many forms, and watched the workings of evolution on a thousand worlds. They saw how often the first faint sparks of intelligence flickered and died in the cosmic night.

And because, in all the galaxy, they had found nothing more precious than Mind, they encouraged its dawning everywhere. They became farmers in the fields of stars; they sowed, and sometimes they reaped.

And sometimes, dispassionately, they had to weed.

The great dinosaurs had long since perished when the survey ship entered the Solar System after a voyage that had already lasted a thousand years. It swept past the frozen outer planets, paused briefly above the deserts of dying Mars, and presently looked down on Earth.

Spread out beneath them, the explorers saw a world swarming with life. For years they studied, collected, catalogued. When they had learned all that they could, they began to modify. They tinkered with the destiny of many species, on land and in the ocean. But which of their experiments would succeed they could not know for at least a million years.

They were patient, but they were not yet immortal. There was so much to do in this universe of a hundred billion suns, and other worlds were calling. So they set out once more into the abyss, knowing that they would never come this way again.

Nor was there any need. The servants they had left behind would do the rest.

On Earth, the glaciers came and went, while above them the changeless Moon still carried its secret. With a yet slower rhythm than the polar ice, the tides of civilization ebbed and flowed across the galaxy. Strange and beautiful and terrible empires rose and fell, and passed on their knowledge to their successors. Earth was not forgotten, but another visit would serve little purpose. It was one of a million silent worlds, few of which would ever speak.

And now, out among the stars, evolution was driving toward new goals. The first explorers of Earth had long since come to the limits of flesh and blood; as soon as their machines were better than their bodies, it was time to move. First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and of plastic.

In these, they roamed among the stars. They no longer built spaceships. They were spaceships.

But the age of the Machine-entities swiftly passed. In their ceaseless experimenting, they had learned to store knowledge in the structure of space itself, and to preserve their thoughts for eternity in frozen lattices of light. They could become creatures of radiation, free at last from the tyranny of matter.

Into pure energy, therefore, they presently transformed themselves; and on a thousand worlds, the empty shells they had discarded twitched for a while in a mindless dance of death, then crumbled into rust.

Now they were lords of the galaxy, and beyond the reach of time. They could rove at will among the stars, and sink like a subtle mist through the very interstices of space. But despite their godlike powers, they had not wholly forgotten their origin, in the warm slime of a vanished sea.

And they still watched over the experiments their ancestors had started, so long ago.

From 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY by Sir Arthur C. Clarke

...a Starprobe had been destroyed after it had entered a solar system. Perhaps it had made contact with the mysterious Hunters of the Dawn, who had left their marks upon so many worlds, so close to the Beginning itself.

From THE FOUNTAINS OF PARADISE by Sir Arthur C. Clarke

(ed note: the events in the novel take place about three hundred years in the future. Terra is trying to recover from the partial collapse of civilization. Our heroes have finally tracked down the source of the chaos. It is an alien device about fifteen hundred feet tall.)

      (the alien device said) “Technical information is neutral. It creates or destroys not of itself but according to the requirements of those who possess it.”
     Gilliad scowled at the mike in his hand, becoming slowly aware that he was dealing with an intelligence far greater than his own. “Am I to understand you dispense technical information irrespective of who asks for it?”
     “But, good God, you could have provided the Immunes with a weapon which could have destroyed humanity.”
     “That offer was made but rejected since they, themselves, would have perished with it.”

     Gilliad swore under his breath. “What exactly is your purpose–what do you do?
     “I do nothing. My purpose is to dispense technical information irrespective of who asks it and, again, irrespective of the ends to which that information is put.”
     Gilliad resisted an inclination to scratch his head; he was out of his depth and knew it. Finally he said almost to himself, “There must be a reason.”
     “Of course there is a reason.”
     “Then I would like to know it.”

     “Very well, but please give your imagination rein. I represent Intelligences so highly evolved that to attempt to explain it is impossible. Their life span is by your standards infinite; to them a million years tick past like seconds; they observe the birth and death of suns and passing of galaxies as you note the changing of seasons. Above all else, however, their compassion for all living intelligences is absolute.”
     The voice paused, then went on: “The universe is, again by your standards, infinite. Let me assure you that from this planet, even with instruments, you observe a fraction so small as to be almost nonexistent when set against the true immensity of things as they are.

     “Bear this in mind when I tell you that uncountable intelligences come into being every second and, every second, intelligences such as yours reach the most critical period in their development.
     “This critical period may be likened to the transition from pupa to butterfly but is many, many times more dangerous. When a culture reaches this stage it is poised between maturity and eternity. When I tell you that out of every twenty million cultures to reach this stage only two achieve maturity you will perceive some of the true hazards.
     “You, yourselves, were tottering on the brink of chaos, threatened with war, devastating weapons and undoubted financial collapse. So many like you have perished from the universe forever in this critical stage of transition.
     “Something had to be done, therefore, without actively interfering with the free growth of the culture involved and, after many experiments, this one was found to be the most successful. Since its inception the appalling figure of two in twenty million has risen to a ninety percent survival figure.” The voice stopped.

     Gilliad swallowed and looked helplessly at his two companions. Then he said, “But how?” numbly.
     “The introduction of advanced technologies provide a guide line for the ascending culture. It is irrelevant how those technologies are used; the culture is, at this stage, psychotically introvert and its attention must be diverted from itself.”
     “But, good God, we were enslaved for nearly three centuries; millions perished.”
     “True, but it might have been the entire race of man. Absolute compassion must, to succeed, resort to absolute ruthlessness or at least manifest itself as apparent ruthlessness. It cannot afford to concern itself with individual tragedies or intransient persecutions when the survival of an entire culture is at stake.”

     Gilliad stared unseeingly across the apparently empty landscape, awed and not a little shocked. “Are you one of these demigods?”
     “No, I am an instrument–one of many, many more. We follow a routine practice which scarcely varies no matter what life form has reached its critical stage of development We land unobserved and unnoticed–naturally we have advanced techniques for circumventing detection instruments. Having landed, we link with the culture’s communication systems, break down and learn all the languages. We familiarize ourselves with politics, history, local and general; customs, traditions, mores and, of course, draw up a comprehensive psychological graph in respect of the entire culture.
     “We are then ready for the first contact and we adapt our outward appearances to the psychological development of the particular native as he or she approaches.”

     “It sounds very pretty.” Grimm’s voice was harsh. “But as I see it, in view of the fact that you hand out any information gratis, you could be providing the instruments of a planet’s destruction. You could be handing an atom bomb to an imbecile.”
     “Let me assure you that our percentages are precise beyond reasonable doubt. If a culture does destroy itself with the information we provide them, I assure you it would have destroyed itself in any case and without our intervention.”

From REALITY FORBIDDEN by Philip High (1967)

I been readin' 'bout how maybe they is planets peopled by folks with Ad-vanced brains On the other hand, maybe we got the most brains ... maybe our intellects is the universe's most Ad-vanced.

Either way, it's a mighty soberin' thought.

From POGO THE POSSUM by Walt Kelly (1959)

As if beckoned by those who had gone before, I half-floated between the titanic snowdrifts, quivering and afraid, into the sightless vortex of the unimaginable.

Screamingly sentient, dumbly delirious, only the gods that were can tell. A sickened, sensitive shadow writhing in hands that are not hands, and whirled blindly past ghastly midnights of rotting creation, corpses of dead worlds with sores that were cities, charnel winds that brush the pallid stars and make them flicker low. Beyond the worlds vague ghosts of monstrous things; half-seen columns of unsanctifled temples that rest on nameless rocks beneath space and reach up to dizzy vacua above the spheres of light and darkness. And through this revolting graveyard of the universe the muffled, maddening beating of drums, and thin, monotonous whine of blasphemous flutes from inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond Time; the detestable pounding and piping whereunto dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic, tenebrous ultimate gods the blind, voiceless, mindless gargoyles whose soul is Nyarlathotep.

From NYARLATHOTEP by H. P. Lovecraft (1920 )

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that we can do by our own efforts in the brief time available. It is only ten years since the search for trans-Plutonian planets revealed the presence of the Black Dwarf. Only ninety years from now, it will make its perihelion passage and swing around the Sun as it heads once more into the depths of space — leaving a shattered solar system behind it. All our resources, all our much-vaunted control over the forces of nature, cannot alter its orbit by a fraction of an inch.

But ever since the first of the so-called “beacon stars” was discovered, at the end of the twentieth century, we have known that there were civilizations with access to energy sources incomparably greater than ours. Some of you will doubtless recall the incredulity of the astronomers — and later of the whole human race — when the first examples of cosmic engineering were detected in the Magellanic Clouds. Here were stellar structures obeying no natural laws; even now, we do not know their purpose — but we know their awesome implications. We share a universe with creatures who can juggle with the very stars. If they choose to help, it would be child’s play for them to deflect a body like the Black Dwarf, only a few thousand times the mass of Earth…. Child’s play, did I call it? Yes, that may be literally true!

You will all, I am certain, remember the great debate that followed the discovery of the supercivilizations. Should we attempt to communicate with them, or would it be best to remain inconspicuous? There was the possibility, of course, that they already knew everything about us, or might be annoyed by our presumption, or might react in any number of unpleasant ways. Though the benefits from such contacts could be enormous, the risks were terrifying. But now we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain….

From LOVE THAT UNIVERSE by Arthur C. Clarke (1961)

They too might look across the 50,000 light-years to the core of the Galaxy, glimpse the titanic forces flickering there among the most ancient of the stars — and marvel at the mentalities that must control them.

From THE LOST WORLDS OF 2001 by Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Our Galaxy is now in the brief springtime of its life — a springtime made glorious by such brilliant blue-white stars as Vega and Sirius, and, on a more humble scale, our own Sun. Not until all these have flamed through their incandescent youth, in a few fleeting billions of years, will the real history of the universe begin.

It will be a history illuminated only by the reds and infareds of dully glowing stars that would be almost invisible to our eyes; yet the somber hues of that all-but-eternal universe may be full of color and beauty to whatever strange beings have adapted to it. They will know that before them lie, not the milions of years in which we measure the eras of geology, nor the billions of years which span the past lives of the stars, but years to be counted literally in trillions.

They will have time enough, in those endless aeons, to attempt all things, and to gather all knowledge. They will not be like gods, because no gods imagined by our minds have ever possessed the powers they will command. But for all that, they may envy us, basking in the bright afterglow of Creation; for we knew the universe when it was young.

From PROFILES OF THE FUTURE by Sir Arthur C. Clarke

      Starbuck sat at the controls of the shuttle, staring straight ahead. He seemed to be almost in a fugue state, there was a lifelessness about him, a mechanical aspect to his motions. Sheba sat beside him, tears rolling down her cheeks. Behind them, his lifeless body strapped down tightly, was Apollo.
     “I’m sorry,” Sheba kept saying over and over again, an endless litany, “it was all my fault.”
     “No,” said Starbuck. His voice was flat and dull, emotionless. “You were not alone. It seems to me that everyone was trying to find someone or something to believe in.”
     “Apollo knew better,” Sheba said softly. “Why did he have to be the one to pay?”
     Starbuck shook his head. “I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “All I know is that I’d gladly trade my life to get him back.”

     Something flashed by their shuttle, traveling at an astonishing speed.
     “Starbuck?” Sheba said.
     “I see them.”
     The swarm of lights hurtled past their shuttle as if it was hanging dead in space. They sped out in front of them, then, still grouped together, arced back and came toward them once again. They came at the shuttle with blinding speed, flashed past them and came back again.
     “Here we go again,” said Starbuck bitterly. “As if we haven’t been through enough.”
     Sheba reached out and took his hand, holding onto him with desperation.
     “What are they, Starbuck? What do they mean? What do they want from us?”
     Starbuck shook his head. “I don’t know. Whatever they are, there’s nothing we can do against them. The shuttle isn’t armed and we can’t maneuver like a Viper. And even a Viper is no match for their speed.”
     “If only I hadn’t left my fighter back on that planet,” Sheba said, “I could have—”
     “You could have done nothing,” Starbuck told her. “I’ve tried chasing these things in a Viper. It’s impossible. Whatever they are, they’re just too damned fast. Besides, you’re in no shape to fly. We’ll send someone back for your Viper. That is, of course, assuming we’ll get back.”

     The lights flew by them once again, moving so quickly that they seemed to trail streamers of dazzling brilliance behind them like the tails of comets. Starbuck’s hands tensed on the shuttle’s controls. Once again, the swarm of white lights sped out a distance ahead of them, then arced back, up and out of sight. Starbuck and Sheba sat for a while in tense silence. The lights did not come back. Starbuck sighed, visibly relieved.
     “Whatever it means,” he said, “whatever they are. they’re gone. At least for now. See if you can compute the range back to the fleet.”
     Sheba nodded and bent forward over the control console of the shuttle. She had difficulty seeing the screen. It seemed much too bright. Then she noticed that it wasn’t the screen that was too bright. The entire cockpit of the shuttle was bathed in a wash of blinding light. It grew brighter and brighter until she could no longer see. She squinted, her eyes tearing from the glare.
     “Starbuck, what is it? What’s happening, where is it coming from?”
     “I don’t know what it is,” said Starbuck, attempting to shield his eyes from the glare with one hand. “It’s coming from above and behind us. See if you can get a look at—” Starbuck’s head jerked back and his hands left the controls to clutch at the sides of his head.
     “Starbuck!" Sheba cried. “The pain, I can’t stand it!”
     Fighting back the pain, Starbuck forced his hands back down onto the controls of the shuttle. They were under some sort of an attack, but from what, neither of them knew. All Starbuck felt was the agony of an incredible pressure on his skull, as if something was trying to crush it. He craned his neck to try and see behind them. It was almost impossible to read the scanner, but even then, it was no help. It wasn’t functioning. Then Starbuck saw it.
     A huge ship, a dazzling mass of light moving up behind them and taking position directly overhead. It was gargantuan. Starbuck had never seen anything so large in his entire life. It looked like a planet moving under its own power. The pressure became greater.
“The controls are freezing up,” Starbuck shouted, vainly trying to get the shuttle to respond. “See if you can hit manual override! Sheba! Sheba!”     She had collapsed in her seat? Her body slumped forward over the control console. Grimacing with pain, Starbuck reached out and tried to shake her, but could get no response from her. The pain became unbearable. Starbuck released the useless controls and wrapped his arms around his head, as if to block off whatever it was the huge ship was attacking them with. He opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came forth. His eyes rolled up and he collapsed into blackness.

     There was a vast expanse of ceiling overhead, made up of irregular, bright chips of some sort that pulsed with a brilliant glow. Starbuck blinked against the light. It was very silent, wherever he was. He stiffened as several faces drifted into view. They were tall and thin. Several of them were leaning over him, gazing down at him. He seemed to be lying on some sort of table. There was nothing restraining him that he could see or feel, but he found that he was unable to move.
     Starbuck squinted at the faces of the beings looking down at him. They seemed to give off a light, or to reflect it. They were very white and their features were impossible to discern. All Starbuck could see were startlingly blue eyes located where human eyes should be, except these eyes glowed and were all blue, no white, no pupils.
     Starbuck licked his lips. They felt very dry. He opened his mouth to speak, but found that it was difficult to get the words out. The first few sounds he made were croaks and wheezes.
     “What…what is this place?” he finally managed to say. “Who are you?”
     “Do not attempt to communicate. You are safe.”

     He thought, at first, that one of the strange beings had spoken to. him, but then he realized that he had heard no sound. The “voice” came to him in his mind, like a thought. It did not have a sound or tone to it, there was nothing Starbuck could discern about it that could identify it as being male or female, if indeed such identification were applicable. It was simply an awareness. The most intimate sort of communication he had ever experienced. It was gentle and soothing."
     He started to sit up, struggling against whatever unseen force held him down. It was like moving through water. He seemed to float up rather than sit up, with an effort. He realized that he was naked.
     One of the beings reached out and Starbuck felt it touch his forehead. It was not a human touch, Starbuck did not feel flesh against his skin. The touch of the bright being was like a gentle warmth against his skin. All the tension left his muscles and he found himself sinking back down onto the surface of the “table” he was lying upon, although he did not feel as though he was lying on a hard surface.
     “His restons are normal and responding to balcon infusion.”
     Again, Starbuck was aware of the communication. The “words” manifested themselves in his mind, though he did not understand them. The terms meant nothing to him.
     “Allow him to rise.”

     They were different “voices.” The beings were conversing with each other and Starbuck was aware of their conversation, but he was able to identify the different voices only because they felt somehow different in his mind. He could not tell which of the voices belonged to which of the beings surrounding him. As he gazed at them, trying to ignore the brightness of them, one of them reached out again and once again Starbuck felt the touch as a pleasant warmth upon his skin. The being motioned Starbuck to rise and the pilot found that he could do so with no difficulty. He tried to look around him, to see what sort of place he was in, but the light was devastating. It was like trying to stare directly at a sun going nova. He had to keep shutting his eyes.
     “Who are you?” Starbuck said. “What are you? Where’s Sheba?”
     "The companion you refer to will join you as soon as she is able.”
     Starbuck stood up and took several steps. None of them tried to stop him. There was something underneath his feet, some sort of floor, but he could not feel a hard surface. “What do you mean, as soon as she is able?” he said. “What have you done to her?”
     “Please be patient.” He heard, or rather felt, another of the beings communicating with him telepathically. "Your systems are not in phase with our environment. We are attempting to equalize the forces to a level you can tolerate."
     “Where are we?” Starbuck said.
     “Within a dimension quite apart from your own."
     “But I can see you,” Starbuck said. “And I can hear you…sort of.”
     “That is by our choice.”
     “Really?” Starbuck said. “Well, l’m sure I can—”
     He swept his arm out at the nearest of the tall bright beings and felt heat upon his skin as his hand passed right through the being’s body. Starbuck stepped back and stared at his hand. It seemed to be unhurt.
     “I couldn’t feel—my hand passed right through you!”

     A “door” seemed to open somewhere. An area to his right grew brighter and he could see a figure appear, as if out of nowhere. He squinted, trying to see.
     It was Sheba. She ran to him and came into his arms. She, too, was naked. She felt warm, warmer than normal body temperature, but there was no perspiration upon her. She seemed to be unhurt.
     “Are you all right?” said Starbuck.
     “I don’t know,” said Sheba. “Starbuck, I think maybe we’re dead.”
     Starbuck considered the possibility. The place that they were in was like nothing he had ever seen or heard of. The voice in his mind spoke of being in another dimension. He remembered being in the shuttle, being under some sort of attack, feeling an indescribable agony and then…what? Dying? He did not remember dying. But what did it feel like to die? The Book of Kobol spoke of an afterlife, of bright, shimmering beings from another dimension. Starbuck felt afraid.
     “Is that right?” he said, not sure he really wanted an answer. “Is it true? We’re dead and you’re angels?”
     Two of the beings exchanged looks.
     “Oddly enough, ” came the voice in his mind, and Sheba seemed to hear it, too, “there is some truth to your speculation. It is time. Please follow me.”

     The beings beckoned to them.
     “What do we do?” said Sheba.
     Starbuck suspected that there was nothing they could do except as they were told. “Lady,” he said to Sheba, “there aren't many places I’ve been in my life where I didn’t feel like I was in complete control. This,” he shook his head slowly from side to side, “this is an exception.”
     They walked slowly, following the glowing creatures. Their eyes no longer hurt quite so much from the brilliance of their mysterious environment. Evidently, the creatures had, as they said, done something to “equalize the forces” to a level they could tolerate, but it was still difficult for them to see clearly. Everything around them shimmered with an opalescent glow. They could discern no shadows and the dimensions of the chambers they were in, if chambers they were, could not be assessed. It was like walking on the floor of some vast milky ocean with the visibility limited to several feet, and that not clearly.

     What amazed Starbuck most of all was the complete absence of sound. Part of his cadet training at the academy had required that he spend periods of time in sensory deprivation. A pilot in a disabled Viper fighter drifting through space would easily be subjected to a similar state, a state that would be even more closely related to the training should some injury or other occurrence either blind the pilot or affect visibility. Starbuck had not liked the sensory deprivation training, no pilot had. Inevitably, it resulted in hallucinations and dissociation. The total absence of sound manifested itself as a “heard” phenomenon, a sort of distant roaring echo that could become maddening. Yet, in spite of the fact that there were no sounds of engines of any sort or cooling fans, and their feet made no sounds upon the peculiar surface upon which they walked, Starbuck literally heard nothing. Absolutely nothing. He could not even hear the sound of his own breathing. When he and Sheba spoke to each other, something about their environment gave their words a diffuse, brittle sound that was so surreal that they hesitated to speak needlessly. Their voices did not sound like their own voices. It was, to say the least, an unsettling experience. Starbuck wondered if, perhaps, they really were dead. Everything around them had a mystifying, dreamlike quality.

     Before them, once again, they perceived an aperture of some sort that looked like an even brighter wash of light amid an already blindingly brilliant glow. It was as if, staring at a sun, a thin vertical line of greater intensity grew into a quickly expanding ellipsoid. The phenomenon occurred a short distance in front of them and, as before, Starbuck saw a figure silhouetted in the greater brightness. This figure, unlike Sheba’s, when she had appeared, was not standing. It was a humanoid shape that appeared to be floating motionless in midair, horizontally.
     Starbuck heard the dry, brittle sound of Sheba’s voice as she uttered an exclamation of surprise. Then there was the curious sensation of warmth upon their naked backs, the gentle touch of the strange beings urging them forward. They walked through the portal of light, approaching the horizontal figure.

     It was Apollo.

     His body was not suspended in midair, as had at first appeared, but lying upon a pedestal that blended in, as did everything else around them, with the white glowing background.
     “I’d hoped that it was all some horrible “dream,” said Sheba. “But it’s true. We lived it all.”

     “What are you doing with him?” Starbuck said to the creatures. “Can’t you leave him alone? He’s of no possible harm to you.”
     “Precisely the opposite,” said a voice within their minds. “He is of great value to us."
     “What?” said Starbuck.
     “He, and any like him who have the courage to grow beyond the limitations of your evolution.”
     “What are they saying?” Sheba said.
     “I don’t know.”
     “Starbuck, you have a most promising spirit. A trifle unrestrained, but perhaps with Apollo’s continued fellowship—”
     “Please don’t,” said Sheba. “I’ve lived through his death once. Don’t keep reminding me of what I brought about.”
     “Apollo was not meant to die. It was you that Diabolis meant to destroy.”
     “A lot of good that does now,” said Starbuck. “What difference does it make? Are we supposed to feel better about Apollo’s death knowing that it was an accident?”
     “Apollo sacrificed his mortal body to save your spirit from falling. Are you willing to sacrifice your own to bring him back?”
     “Look,” said Starbuck, “whatever you are, we’ve been through enough. Whatever you’re going to do with us, get it over with.”
     “Yes,” said Sheba. “If it’s possible, I would do anything.”

     “Sheba,” Starbuck said, “you don’t know what you’re saying. These creatures could—”
     “They’re people, Starbuck,” she said.
     “You’re delirious.”
     “No, I mean it. They are people. They’re not unlike us. They don’t—feel different to me. They know what we are, who we are.”
     “That gives them a pretty big advantage.”

     “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “If it’s possible to bring him back, if they can do it somehow, I think…yes, all right. I will trade my life for Apollo’s. Is it possible?”
     “Many things are possible. What about you, Starbuck? Did you not say inside your ship that you would gladly trade places with Apollo?"
     “How could you know that?” said Starbuck.
     “Step away.”

     They were urged back from Apollo’s body by a gentle warmth. As they watched, a fine mist seemed to grow around Apollo’s body. It emanated from below and above him, gradually cloaking his body and growing thicker. It had a stark purple hue, in violent contrast to everything else around them. The tiny particles washed over Apollo’s body, moving with great speed until Apollo was completely hidden from view. There was no sound.
     Gradually, the mist began to ebb and fade, falling away from him like the last remnants of a brief summer shower. Apollo’s eyelids fluttered. His chest began to rise and fall.
     Starbuck and Sheba stared with disbelief as he began to regain consciousness. Slowly, he began to rise up to a sitting position. He did not seem to be puzzled by his surroundings. Starbuck thought that the expression on his face was one of complete tranquility. He looked serene.
     Sheba cried out and ran to him. They embraced.

     Starbuck turned to the shining aliens.
     “I don’t know who you are,” he said, “but whatever you want from me, you can have.”
     “We want nothing from you.”
     “Then, why? Why have you done this?”
     “Because we fight a common foe.”
     “I don’t understand,” said Starbuck. “You mean Diabolis? I feel like a fool talking to you. It’s like a drone in the presence of its creator. You’re playing with us. We’re like toys to you.”
     Starbuck sensed amusement from the beings.
     “No. You are wrong. We are not your creators. We are more like your parents. You are barely born, barely able to move about. You are as capable of harming yourselves and others as you are of giving love.”

From WAR OF THE GODS by Glen A. Larson and Simon Hawke (1982)

Indistinguishable From Nature

A vaguely related concept is ultra-advanced civilizations that are not only so advanced they are god-like compared to us, but so advanced that we cannot interact with the civilization, only with its sub-systems, sub-sub-systems, or sub-sub-sub-systems.

I can picture the ships entering a system, making contact with a highly advanced civilization, some skirmishing, diplomacy, etc. leading to a treaty and peaceful relations --- and then the invading civilization discovers that it's actually been dealing with the god's non-sentient (on the god's scale) immune system.

David Given

In more detail: The Terran Empire might encounter an advance alien civilization, and engage in trade or battle with them. Only later they may discover that the "alien civilization" is the cosmic equivalent of a hyper-advanced entity's immune system. The entity would probably never become aware of the Terran Empire, much as you are never aware of the many tiny infections that are quietly taken care of by your immune system. The members of the "alien civilization" might be intelligent compared to the Terran Empire, but compared to the hyper-entity they are as unintelligent as your white corpuscles are compared to you.

Sub-systems make sense. After all, what sort of conversation could you personally have with an e. coli bacteria? It's not like you have a lot of common ground for a meeting of the minds. Or common communication, bacteria cannot hear speech and you are pretty blind to chemosensor messaging.

You'd need an intermediary. Probably several levels of intermediaries. An ant intermediary is closer to a bacteria but would still have a tough time talking to it.

The reassuring point is the fact that even though human being have a reasonably technologically advanced civilizations, amoebae still exist. So hopefully the weakly god-like entities will allow us to exist.

There is worse to come. It is possible that a hyper-advanced civilization could reach a state so advanced that we could not even detect their existence, much as amoebae could not detect us. Paul Hughes proposes a corollary to Clarke's Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable from nature (see below).

There are such civilizations in Sir Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 A Space Odyssey, Greg Egan's Diaspora, and Paul J. McAuley's Eternal Light.


When it comes to speculating about the nature of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations and possible answers to Fermi's Paradox, almost everyone assumes the basic structure and intent of such a civilization should exists somewhere on the Kardaschev Level, as I discussed in Part 1. I think the lack of any evidence to their existence using this model, could be the result of human scientific chauvinism. For example, as I and John Smart has argued there is a distinct possibility that advanced civilization's could decide that moving out into space in the traditional expansive convert-the-universe-into-computronium agenda is not be the best way to go. Instead they may convert their local resources into ultra-miniaturized "femto-tech", where all of further advancement occurs at an increasingly miniaturized "internality" and/or they actually reach a plateau of complexity/novelty. In this scenario, such singularity intelligence never leaves their home planet. Instead 99.999% of their existence, exploration and creation happens in inner space, not outer space. In such a scenario it's possible that such a civilization would remain undetectable in their own solar system, not to mention hundreds or thousands of light years away.

Then there is something altogether more exotic to consider, which also has significant historical precedent - evolutionary ontological transcendence. What do I mean by this? Amoebae are our distant biological ancestors. They are still around this planet in absolute abundance. They are in your house, plants, trees, even in your car, yet they have no awareness of any of it. Their entire reality is composed of basic chemical functions and nutrient intake. Even something as simple as an insect like an ant is beyond their comprehension. Ants are much further along the evolutionary chain, with a great deal more complexity than an amoeba. For one thing, ants have a nervous system and brain that gives them some rudimentary sensory experience and cognitive abilities. An ant's tiny brain and its chemical sensing and processing are radically advanced emergent phenomena completely outside of the very limited ontological space of an amoeba. If nothing else, an ant’s brain is programmed to serve the hive mind, which it is a part. In any case, the amoeba doesn’t have a clue.

Ants in turn are not aware of human civilization. They have no concept of humanity, language, buildings, cars, airplanes, the ocean, the moon, earth, stars, mathematics, space travel. Almost everything we take for granted is completely outside of the limited ontological space that composes an ant's existence.

Now we come to us, to humanity with all of our culture and technological achievements, at the dawn of the cybernetic and space age. We are in the midst of the greatest acceleration of change in all of earth’s history. At some point soon, we will be crossing a critical threshold when all change up to this point will be nothing compared to what’s coming next. We are at the dawn of ushering in greater-than-human intelligence. Whether this exponentiating intelligence is achieved exclusively through artificial intelligence or as I believe a symbiosis between the biological and technological worlds, doesn’t matter. What matters is that greater-than-human intelligence is coming in our lifetimes. And since it was our limited intelligence that created this greater intelligence, then it only makes sense that this greater intelligence will be even more effective in creating even greater intelligence still. There is no reason to believe that this intelligence will not bootstrap itself beyond our current comprehension very, very fast. This is what is called a Singularity, an event horizon, beyond which we can’t understand.

So ask yourself this, why can't this ontological transcendence apply the other way around... to us? If you look at our limited understanding of computational physics, this bootstrapped intelligence will likely exceed human intelligence way more than human intelligence exceeds ants or amoebae. We are not talking about a similar jump up in ontological space, but something much, much greater.

So if other alien civilizations have passed through their own technological singularity, then why or how would we even be able to recognize them at all? Looking at from this historical evolutionary perspective it just doesn't make sense at all. We don't recognize this advance civilization because they are as much beyond as we are above the amoebae. As the character Spock once said in an old Star Trek episode, "the Organians are as advanced above humanity, as humanity is advanced above the amoeba".

Of course, most "level headed" scientists will say such comparisons are incorrect, since we have "science" now, but this could simply be an advanced form of chauvinism. But consider this, everything we call science today was and is the product of very small 3-lb pieces of gray matter of domesticated primates on a small rock around an ordinary star. We assume that our science, our understanding of things like Kardaschev energy signatures, Berkenstien bounds, and other physical limits will apply to this greater intelligence. It might, but my hunch is that all of our understanding of science is mostly chauvinism. An elaborate set of self-consistent rules defined by ontological limits programmed into us by our genes, much like an ant is programmed to not think outside of the hive mind. From this perspective then, advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is invisible to us, indistinguishable from nature as we are capable of understanding or experiencing it, possibly because our entire ontological domain was created by them in the first place!

So like Robert Anton Wilson before me, and Arthur C. Clarke before him, I present my own,

Hughes' Corollary to Clarke's Law:

Any sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable from nature.

I think this is as good an answer as any to Fermi's Paradox, and one that has plenty of historical ontological precedent.

Of course we could use every scientific concept we have today to speculate on the nature of these ET's, and where they might be. Perhaps they have engineered their own basement universes, or trancended to higher dimensions. Cosmological and Grand Unified theories seem to be constantly under revision these days. We may never know until we ourselves evolve to that level.


So are we alone? Well, there is one other possibility, at this point. I've lately been trumpeting my revision of Clarke's Law (which originally said 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'). My revision says that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Nature. (Astute readers will recognize this as a refinement and further advancement of my argument in Permanence.) Basically, either advanced alien civilizations don't exist, or we can't see them because they are indistinguishable from natural systems. I vote for the latter.

This vote has consequences. If the Fermi Paradox is a profound question, then this answer is equally profound. It amounts to saying that the universe provides us with a picture of the ultimate end-point of technological development. In the Great Silence, we see the future of technology, and it lies in achieving greater and greater efficiencies, until our machines approach the thermodynamic equilibria of their environment, and our economics is replaced by an ecology where nothing is wasted. After all, SETI is essentially a search for technological waste products: waste heat, waste light, waste electromagnetic signals. We merely have to posit that successful civilizations don't produce such waste, and the failure of SETI is explained. 

And as to why we haven't found any alien artifacts in our solar system, well, maybe we don't know what to look for.  Wiley cites Freitas as having come up with this basic idea; I'm prepared to take it much further, however.

Elsewhere I've talked about this particular long-term scenario for the future, an idea I call The Rewilding (YouTube Video) (Rewilding: why build a water treatment plant when you can use the local wetlands for the same purpose?). Now normally one can't look into the future; in the case of the long-term evolution of technological civilization, however, that is precisely what astronomy allows us to do. And here's the thing: the Rewilding model predicts a universe that looks like ours—one that appears empty.  The datum that we tend to refer to as 'the Great Silence' also provides the falsification of certain other models of technological development. For instance, products of traditionally 'advanced' technological civilizations, such as Dyson spheres, should be visible to us from Earth. No comprehensive search has been done, to my knowledge, but no candidate objects have been stumbled upon in the course of normal astronomy. The Matrioshka brains, the vast computronium complexes that harvest all the resources of a stellar system… we're just not seeing them. The evidence for that model of the future is lacking. If we learn how life came to exist on Earth, and if it turns out to be a common or likely development, then the evidence for a future in which artificial and natural systems are indistinguishable is provided by the Great Silence itself.

Check out Wiley's paper. And just think: the Great Silence may turn out to be no paradox at all, but positive data about what our own future will look like.

From THE DEEPENING PARADOX by Karl Schroeder (2011)

If you dropped in on a bunch of Paleolithic farmers with your iPhone and a pair of sneakers, you’d undoubtedly seem pretty magical. But the contrast is only middling: The farmers would still recognize you as basically like them, and before long they’d be taking selfies. But what if life has moved so far on that it doesn’t just appear magical, but appears like physics?

For example, if machines continue to grow exponentially in speed and sophistication, they will one day be able to decode the staggering complexity of the living world, from its atoms and molecules all the way up to entire planetary biomes. Presumably life doesn’t have to be made of atoms and molecules, but could be assembled from any set of building blocks with the requisite complexity. If so, a civilization could then transcribe itself and its entire physical realm into new forms. Indeed, perhaps our universe is one of the new forms into which some other civilization transcribed its world.

For example, only about 5 percent of the mass-energy of the universe consists of ordinary matter: the protons, neutrons, and electrons that we’re composed of. A much larger 27 percent is thought to be unseen, still mysterious stuff. Astronomical evidence for this dark, gravitating matter is convincing, albeit still not without question. Vast halos of dark matter seem to lurk around galaxies, providing mass that helps hold things together via gravity. On even larger scales, the web-like topography traced by luminous gas and stars also hints at unseen mass.

Cosmologists usually assume that dark matter has no microstructure. They think it consists of subatomic particles that interact only via gravity and the weak nuclear force and therefore slump into tenuous, featureless swathes. They have arguments to support this point of view, but of course we don’t really know for sure. Some astronomers, noting subtle mismatches between observations and models, have suggested that dark matter has a richer inner life. At least some component may comprise particles that interact with one another via long-range forces. It may seem dark to us, but have its own version of light that our eyes cannot see.

In that case, dark matter could contain real complexity, and perhaps it is where all technologically advanced life ends up or where most life has always been. What better way to escape the nasty vagaries of supernova and gamma-ray bursts than to adopt a form that is immune to electromagnetic radiation? Upload your world to the huge amount of real estate on the dark side and be done with it.

The universe does other funky and unexpected stuff. Notably, it began to expand at an accelerated rate about 5 billion years ago. This acceleration is conventionally chalked up to dark energy. But cosmologists don’t know why the cosmic acceleration began when it did. In fact, one explanation with a modicum of traction is that the timing has to do with life—an anthropic argument. The dark energy didn’t become significant until enough time had gone by for life to take hold on Earth.

But perhaps there is another reason for the timing coincidence: that dark energy is related to the activities of living things. After all, any very early life in the universe would have already experienced 8 billion years of evolutionary time by the time expansion began to accelerate. It’s a stretch, but maybe there’s something about life itself that affects the cosmos, or maybe those well-evolved denizens decided to tinker with the expansion.

There are even possible motivations for that action. Life absorbs low-entropy energy (such as visible light from the sun), does useful work with that energy, and dumps higher-entropy energy back into the universe as waste heat. But if the surrounding universe ever got too warm—too filled with thermal refuse—things would stagnate. Luckily we live in an expanding and constantly cooling cosmos. What better long-term investment by some hypothetical life 5 billion years ago than to get the universe to cool even faster?

We can take a tumble down a different rabbit hole by considering that we don’t recognize advanced life because it forms an integral and unsuspicious part of what we’ve considered to be the natural world.

Life’s desire to avoid trouble points to some options. If it has a choice, life always looks for ways to lower its existential risk. You don’t build your nest on the weakest branch or produce trillions of single-celled clones unless you build in some variation and backup.

A species can mitigate risk by spreading, decentralizing, and seeding as much real estate as possible. In this context, hyper-advanced life is going to look for ways to get rid of physical locality and to maximize redundancy and flexibility. The quantum realm offers good options. The cosmos is already packed with electromagnetic energy. Today, at any instant, about 400 photons of cosmic microwave radiation are streaming through any cubic centimeter of free space. They collectively have less energy than ordinary particles such as protons and electrons, but vastly outnumber them. That’s a lot of potential data carriers. Furthermore, we could imagine that these photons are cleverly quantum-mechanically entangled to help with error control.

By storing its essential data in photons, life could give itself a distributed backup system. And it could go further, manipulating new photons emitted by stars to dictate how they interact with matter.

That’s one way that life could disappear into ordinary physics. But even these ideas skirt the most disquieting extrapolations.

Toward the end of Carl Sagan’s 1985 science-fiction novel Contact, the protagonist follows the suggestion of an extraterrestrial to study transcendental numbers. After computing to 1020 places, she finds a clearly artificial message embedded in the digits of this fundamental number. In other words, part of the fabric of the universe is a product of intelligence or is perhaps even life itself.

It’s a great mind-bending twist for a book. Perhaps hyper-advanced life isn’t just external. Perhaps it’s already all around. It is embedded in what we perceive to be physics itself, from the root behavior of particles and fields to the phenomena of complexity and emergence.

In other words, life might not just be in the equations. It might be the equations.


And now, out among the stars, evolution was driving toward new goals. The first explorers of Earth had long since come to the limits of flesh and blood; as soon as their machines were better than their bodies, it was time to move. First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and of plastic.

In these, they roamed among the stars. They no longer built spaceships. They were spaceships.

But the age of the Machine-entities swiftly passed. In their ceaseless experimenting, they had learned to store knowledge in the structure of space itself, and to preserve their thoughts for eternity in frozen lattices of light. They could become creatures of radiation, free at last from the tyranny of matter.

Into pure energy, therefore, they presently transformed themselves; and on a thousand worlds, the empty shells they had discarded twitched for a while in a mindless dance of death, then crumbled into rust.

Now they were lords of the galaxy, and beyond the reach of time. They could rove at will among the stars, and sink like a subtle mist through the very interstices of space. But despite their godlike powers, they had not wholly forgotten their origin, in the warm slime of a vanished sea.

And they still watched over the experiments their ancestors had started, so long ago.

From 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY by Arthur C. Clarke

He had quickly realized that he was a specimen in a cosmic zoo, his cage carefully recreated from the images in old television programmes. And he wondered when his keepers would appear, and in what physical form.

How foolish that expectation had been! He knew now that one might as well hope to see the wind, or speculate about the true shape of fire.

From 2010 ODYSSEY TWO by Arthur C. Clarke (1982)

(ed note: About thirteen billon years ago at the birth of the universe the first intelligent species, given the tongue-in-cheek name of "angels", explored the entire universe and found it to be a dull place. No other intelligent life to be found. So they created incredibly high-tech devices to allow them to enter a new dimension where things were much better. Since there wasn't any other intelligent life in the universe, they just left their stuff lying around and left.

Big mistake.

A few billion year after the angels left, the Alea maurauders evolved. They found the abandoned angel tech and started to use it to ensure their species would survive past the heat death of the universe. Since the way the mauraders were using it ripped holes in the fabric of the universe it prevented the angels from traveling further into their marvelous new dimension.

Unfortunately the angels had transmuted their beings such that they could not survive the laws of physics which obtain in our universe. So the angels were stuck, can't move forwards, can't come back and kick the snot out of those pesky maurauders.

The best the angels can do is set up systems of stargates and stuff so if other intelligence races evolve in further billions of years, sooner or later one will fall into the angel's trap. Then they be recruited and given an angel-tech weapon to go back and blast the living poo out of the mauraders. This will be in the recruit's self-interest as well, since the Alea maurders are genocidal paranoids who routinely exterminate other species.

As the quote opens Mr. Robot and Suzy Falcon have fallen into the trap, and find themselves in a symbolic dimension. The angels instruct Robot and he tries to explain everything to Suzy.)

     She said, “So what about the angels?”
     “The angels … they are less clear to me, although they are everywhere, Suzy, all around us. In every drop of water in the ocean, every grain of sand. They have mostly withdrawn from the Universe that we know; they didn’t expect to be drawn back.”
     “There’s this city? Or I think it’s a city, across a weird plain or desert … I think I tried to get to it, but I couldn’t.”
     “The place where they have gone is too different, Suzy. That desert was a virtual diagram of the entropy barrier between here and there. You would have to expend an infinite amount of energy to cross it.”
     “It didn’t seem that far, until I started walking toward it.” Suzy shivered in the warm air, remembering, all of a sudden, the flat ridge glowing with yellow light, the way her footprints had destroyed it. She’d been a blamed fool, stepping out without a thought for what she was getting into. She could have died.
     “It is like a fractal surface,” Machine said. “Analogous to the Koch Curve or the Mandelbrot set. An infinitely complex boundary mapped within a finite space. You could have walked forever and never moved one centimeter nearer the place where the angels dwell.”
     “I know all about f**king fractals. What I don’t know from zero is these angels, or what they want from me.”
     Machine didn’t answer right away, but after a while he said, “If you listen carefully, you can hear their voices.”
     He fell silent again, and Suzy remembered the voice of the angel—or whatever it had been—woven out of the murmur of the beach, the world between worlds. After a while, she ventured to ask, “So where is this place? Where are we right now? You said Robot was dreaming it. Is it all inside your head?”
     “The angels have withdrawn from the corporeal universe, but not entirely. It is still important to them. Necessary, like an umbilical cord. We’re in that cord, that connection, but only a little way. I don’t know where it ends.”

     “I guess you’re going to get around to telling me how I’m supposed to save the Universe eventually, might as well be now.” Suzy struck a resolute pose, stiffening her back, sticking out her chin. “Go ahead. I can take it. While you’re at it, you can start by telling me why these all-powerful angels can’t do it.
     “They are not omnipotent,” Machine said. “Otherwise, to be sure, neither of us would be here. They are limited because they have withdrawn. There are only certain places in the corporeal universe where they can exert even a limited influence; there are vast areas which they cannot even observe anymore. You see, the history I told you really is history. We are living in a time when—”
     As he had been talking, a faint grumbling roar had been growing. And then it was suddenly so loud that Suzy could feel it over the entire skin of her naked body. She got to her feet as wind scattered coins of light across the pool, whipped ropes of sand across the beach, whipped whitecaps across the glittering sea. Machine was standing too, hands over his ears, shouting something that Suzy couldn’t hear. It was growing darker. Suzy looked up and saw that the flaw in the sky was now a dark hole ringed by writhing filaments of white light. A thundercrack boomed above the wind’s howl and the singleship’s clean, elegant shape fell out of the widened flaw.
     Suzy yelled with joy and ran out from beneath the palms, her forearm raised to shade her eyes as she watched the singleship skim the sea toward the beach … and then it was parked neatly on white sand, as if it had always been there. Its delta lifiing surface stretched from the fringe of palms to the breakers that were pounding in after the suddenly vanished storm. The irregular flaw that stood in place of a sun again blazed with green-white light in the blue sky.
     Machine gripped Suzy’s arm with his flesh hand. “We have to go,” he said. “Others have gone ahead of us. Time is confused here…We must arm our ship, Suzy, and catch them before they do any damage.”
     Suzy was going to ask what he meant when he added, “They are ready for us. Look!”
     A kind of haze was gathering around the singleship. It was a flock of angels. They burned brighter than the flaw in the sky as they wove and spun around the ship’s black leaf shape; and then, as Suzy and Machine slogged across the stretch of soft hot sand toward them, they rose high into the air and winked out like so many soap bubbles.
     Suzy went around the raised edge of her ship’s lifting surface, trailing one hand over the black ceramic surface: warm and faintly ribbed beneath her fingers: real. She ducked under the sigma-shaped snout of the ramjet’s airbreather, saw that the weapons bay was open, exposing the missile rack (one slot empty: the missile she’d uselessly fired into the vortex that had dragged them down to this real/ unreal beach). Grainy, complex patterns of light sank into the golden skin of the missiles even as she watched.
     “Pinch fusion warheads will do little against the marauders,” Machine said. He stood quite still in hot light, a little way beyond the sharp shadow which the ship cast on the sand. Eyes half-closed, showing only slivers of white as if he were about to have a fit, but his voice was light, amused. “We have been given something better than crude energy weapons. The missiles have been infused with a kindof mathematical virus. The marauders use processes they only believe they understand. This countermeasure is a gift from those who forged those processes in the first place. They have progressed too far away from our Universe to reenter it. The Planck constant would not sustain their entropy level; they would be dispersed just as a ship that engages with phase space when it is too deep within a gravity well is dispersed. But you and I, Suzy, will be the deliverers. It is a great task.”

     “I am Robot, an artist and a criminal. My friend is Suzy Falcon, a combat singleship pilot. Both of us out of Titan, via Heaven, bound we know not where. One thing we do know, we’ve been entrusted with a mission against the marauders. We’ve been given a weapon against them.”
     Suzy said, “And I still think we’ve been set up for some sort of kamikaze stunt. If those angels are so superior, why is it down to us?
     “Suzy, I explained. They’ve evolved. They can’t exist in the Universe any more than a soap bubble can exist on the surface of the sun.
     “The secret history,” Yoshida said, turning to the neuter Alea. It was twice her height, but somehow she didn’t seem dominated by it. “You were right about the paradigm. Intelligent races must have been forced to evolve all over the Galaxy, to save it from the marauders. These angels, they must have been the ones who abandoned the technologies the marauders found. They must have been the ones who infected you with the intelligence paradigm, the template.”
     Robot said, “They went away. They left the Universe for a place more suited to them. They didn’t know or they didn’t bother to think that others would come after them. They’d explored the whole Universe—it was so much smaller then— and found no other intelligent species. They thought that they were alone and they turned inward, developed a better way of existence. They went away, and abandoned the machines they used to open a path from here to there.
     His eyes were closed and he had a saintly look again, like light was glowing underneath his pale, blue-veined skin. He said, “And then the Alea came along. The Alea were only intelligent when they needed to be, when their sun flared. And when it finally grew too unstable, when the Alea fled to the core stars, some of them found the abandoned technology. The way the marauders are using it is threatening the interzone, and what’s beyond it. It means the gates from here to there can’t be closed off. The angels can’t come back to stop the marauders, and they can’t go on. It’s all coming clear now.”

From ETERNAL LIGHT by Paule McAuley (1991)

Aquatic Technology

Most science fiction authors and many real scientists are of the opinion that any alien race that live underwater are going to have a real problem trying to advance out of the stone age and develop science. All that water is a problem. For one thing the water is most counter-productive if one is trying to discover fire and all the technology it enables.

The other major drawback that science fiction authors love to harp on is that aquatic spacecraft life-support systems are difficult. You see, with gas breathing mix like we humans use, the gas can be compressed into tanks so it takes up less room. Sadly, water is almost totally uncompressible. The aquatic breathing mix tanks are going to be huge.

The standard science fiction dodge is to postulate the aquatic aliens using organic technology, that is, doing radical genetic engineering on aquatic animals to make technology we would make with metal and electronics. Example: the Tyranids from the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Tyranid organic technology has the classic "warm, moist, skooshy and drips goo everywhere" along with a side order of "far too many sharp pointy bits." The shade of H. R. Giger approves of the design.

In the RPG 2300AD the alien species Pentapods are "an amphibious species with a preference for aquatic environments, with a biotechnological technical infrastructure (including starships that are massive living beings)". Their equipment works very well, but is usually damp and has to be regularly given food and water.

For computers and digital devices, slebetman and Journeyman Geek are of the opinion that the logical thing for an aquatic race to do is use Fluidics aka "fluid logic". This uses pneumatics and hydraulics instead of electronics to do analog and digital operations. Note that such devices are more or less immune to electromagnetic interference, ionizing radiation, and EMP; unlike electronic devices. Fluidics also will not suffer catastrophic electrical short circuits if immersed in sea water, also unlike electronic devices.

One of the main draw-backs of fluidic computers is the maximum clock frequency is only a tens of kilohertz, as compared to the gigahertz typical to computers such as the one you are using to read this website. This means an aquatic race using fluidics would try the parallel, multi-core approach much sooner than we did.

The second-most serious drawback is fluidics cannot be miniaturized anywhere near the scale of electronics. At a rough guess a halfway powerful computer will fill a room, much like old vacuum tube computers.

Before aquatic aliens developed digital fluidics, they might start with fluid analog computers such as water integrators and the Phillips Hydraulic Computer.

After the limits of fluidic computing were reached, it would be relatively easy to make the conceptual leap to optical computing.


      There was no vision transmission. Only a harsh, gargly voice in heavily accented English: ‘Yu-o met-sage retseeved, Ar-go. Yu-ah sed-u-ahl its con-feermed. Pro-tseed ahs de-reck-tsed. Celery pie.’

(ed note: Your message received, Argo. Your schedule is confirmed. Proceed as directed. Celery pie?)

     ‘Celery pie, my foot,’ Dr Langer said under his breath. ‘Jerry, they’ve been studying your cooking! Hello, the Hegemony base? Do you have new co-ordinates for us? We don’t seem to be anywhere near your system.’
     ‘Yu-o ah ahn dze bound-ah-dzer-eetz ahv owoo my-ahn-feeyelt,’ the gargly voice said. ‘Close-ah ap-proatschtz its for-beedy-en. Tzis its a meeleo-tzaireo air-eeoo. Pro-tseed.’

(ed note: You are on the boundary of our mine field. Close approch is forbidden. This is a military area. Proceed.)

     ‘As directed.’ Dr Langer replied. ‘But we are getting rather low on water.’
     ‘Dzat wazt ahn-teezupatted. Yu-o veal pie cheeven wah-tzer aht ohe nachst kon-stagt pooncht. End tzans-muttzon.’

(ed note: That was anticipated. You will be given water at the next contact point. End transmission.)

     There was a loud snap and the carrier wave went dead.
     ‘Celery pie to you, too!’ Dr Langer said. ‘And also — owoo and och! But I guess the instructions are clear enough, despite that molasses-coated bogus Armenian accent. We go on and we get water at the next stop. Take your posts. The course plan leaves us only an hour to get back into overdrive. Unless I misunderstood the instructions completely, we’re actually to touch down on the next planet. And I certainly hope so. I don’t see how we’ll refill our water tanks otherwise. Let’s get cracking. If we don’t hit the next touchdown precisely, we’ll have dry throats for a long time thereafter. Posts!’

     Dry throats, however, did not turn out to be the problem. There was indeed water where they were going — plenty of water.
     In fact, over the whole surface of the planet, they could see nothing else.
     Even a close approach, in orbit about the planet, did not modify this impression more than slightly. The world was Earth-like in size, atmosphere, and distance from its sun, which, in turn, was very like Sol, but it had no continents at all, nor did it have polar ice caps. The universal ocean which covered it was so heat-conservative that its climate was uniformly subtropical. Even the closest observation — not an easy matter, since about 80 per cent of the surface was always obscured by masses of clouds — disclosed no breaks in the rolling sea except for a number of what looked to be coral atolls. They were big ones by earthly standards, but not even the biggest could properly be dignified with the name of island. And anyhow, they were deserted and bare.
     All the same, from the planet to the Argo poured a steady stream of information and directions, in machine-translated and hence readily understandable English. There was a civilization here, a civilization with an advanced technology, and one with access to the knowledge and resources of the Heart Stars. But where was it?

     Obviously it was under water. Jack had immediately suspected a dominant creature something like Earth’s dolphins but with flukes sufficiently modified to handle and make tools, and with a civilization centred, most probably, around underwater cities built inside the lagoons formed by the atolls. But the picture that gradually emerged contradicted his idea at almost every point.
     There were whale-like mammals here, all right, but they were not the planet’s rulers, were not, in fact, as far advanced as their parallels on Earth. The dominant creature was actually not even a vertebrate. It was a mollusk or something very like one.

     The closest resemblance to an earthly animal Jack could think of was the octopus, which has marvellously developed eyes rivalling those of any mammal and is capable in a crude way of learning from experience. There was nothing crude about the decapod squids of this planet, however. They were vastly intelligent in a quite inhuman way — garrulous, solemn, self-important, seemingly quite without humour or any sense of beauty.
     ‘That’s not an unknown combination of character traits among human beings,’ Dr Langer said when Jack reported this impression, for it was to Jack that the task of talking to the decapods had been assigned. ‘But I agree that among humans it’s never been wide-spread. All the same it’s common elsewhere. All hive cultures are like that.’
     This is a hive culture?’ Sandbag said in astonishment ‘How could such a thing evolve among free-swimming animals?’
     ‘Bees are free-flying,’ Dr Langer pointed out
.     ‘Yes, but they go through the whatyoumaycallum insects go through — the metamorphosis. They’re born as grubs that have to be protected.’
     ‘Well, something like that is going on here,’ Dr Langer said. ‘What do you make of those big hydra-like things, like animated trees or giant sea anemones, that build the coral reefs?’
     ‘Just what you just said,’ Jack said promptly. ‘They’re hydroids; they belong to the coelenterates, not to the mollusks. They’re as far away from the decapods on the evolutionary line as the decapods are from us.’
     ‘Jerry, do you agree? No connection between the atoll creatures and the decapods?’

     ‘I can’t see any,’ Sandbag said. These atolls sure aren’t the squid cities we first guessed they were.’
     ‘But they are,’ Dr Langer said calmly. ‘We were just using the wrong definition of a city.’

     There’s nothing in them, sir,’ Jack objected. ‘Nothing in the lagoons but fish, and nothing on the reefs but the hydroids. The decapods have their machinery scattered all over the ocean floor; they ignore the reefs entirely.
     True,’ Dr Langer said. ‘Because the reefs are hives, not centres of commerce or thought. A hive is a breeding machine. You see, gentlemen — to put a complicated matter as simply as it allows — we were guilty of thinking too rigidly in terms of what we know on Earth, where there’s a long distance between the mollusk and the coelenterate. But evolution didn’t follow the same course here as it did on Earth, and here there’s no such firm distinction. Here the decapods and the hydras are both the same creature.’
     ‘But, sir,’ Jack said. The hydras are just vegetables! I don’t mean that they’re plants. But they’re rooted to the spot; they don’t do anything but catch fish; they don’t even have a brain!’
     ‘And they reproduce by budding,’ Dr Langer added, ‘all true enough. They are a little like the bee grubs Jerry mentioned. The life-cycle of these creatures is what we call “alternation of generation”. The hydras reproduce without sex, by budding. But they also produce sexual buds, male on one individual, female on another. Out of the fertilized egg comes a free-swimming form, the medusoid stage. This swims around for the balance of its lifetime, then settles down, roots itself, turns into a hydroid — and starts a new colony, a new atoll. Thus far, what I’ve said would apply equally well to Earth’s coral polyps … but here the medusoid stage is not a jellyfish but a squid — a molluskoid, if you like. They do the thinking and the organizing. The hydroid forms are the breeders.’
     ‘And the reefs are the hives,’ Jack said. ‘It fits, all right. But what about the central lagoons of the atolls? They can’t have been formed by Darwin’s system, because this planet never had any low volcanic islands to sink into the sea. Still, these atolls look as if they were built up on the run of a crater. How come?’

     ‘That’s the clue that got me started thinking about this in the first place,’ Dr Langer said. ‘Why the similarity of shape when the mechanism couldn’t be the same? But the crucial difference turns out to be one of size. The reefs we have here are very large and built on drowned plateaus of what’s essentially a rather shallow sea. They have plenty of room to expand, and they do. But coral isn’t a strong structural material; it’s just a loose network of glassy splinters that won’t bear a lot of weight. As the atoll here spreads out, its centre gets crushed down by the weight of trapped water, silt, and additional coral, and there you have your lagoon.
     ‘Notice, by the way, that this process very much favoured the way evolution has gone here. The polyps are sessile — fixed to one spot — so they can’t hunt fish; the fish have to come to them, something that even fish would have better sense than to do. On the other hand, if the molluskoid forms had to herd fish for the benefit of their sessile parents, they’d have no time to develop a civilization, especially since herding fish is by no means so easy as herding sheep. The lagoon solves that problem: fish get trapped in there by storms, by tides, by sheer blundering, and in an emergency, schools of fish can be herded in there. Thus, the hydroid stage of the creature can largely feed itself from the warehouse, so to speak, and the free-swimming form can prosecute other concerns. One of those concerns, I would guess, is protecting the defenceless hydroids from being picked off by natural enemies — sharks or whatever the local equivalent is.’

     ‘One thing still bothers me, sir,’ Sandbag said. ‘The whole set-up sounds to me like it would last for ever. The creatures don’t have nations, they don’t have wars. In a word, they’ve got it made. Why do they need to belong to the Hegemony? What good does it do them? I don’t think any other planet would bother trying to conquer a thawed-out snowball like this.’
     ‘No. Water-breathing races don’t develop space flight in the first place, because they never see the sky,’ Dr Langer agreed. ‘So these people don’t need military protection from possible predators. But, Jerry, highly stable cultures are just what the Heart Stars are interested in most of all. It’s not only that they won’t admit unstable cultures; they can’t afford not to take in the stable ones for the sake of the overall stability of the Hegemony. I suspect that this planet joined the Heart Stars because it had to, not to protect itself from some single rival but in self-protection against the Hegemony itself.’

From MISSION TO THE HEART STARS by James Blish (1965)

It was perhaps inevitable that when the long-awaited indication of intelligent life at last appeared the majority of the ship's observers were looking somewhere else, that it did not appear in the batteries of telescopes that were being trained on the surface or on the still and cine films being taken by Descartes' planetary probes, but on the vessel's close approach radar screens.

In Descartes' control room the Captain jabbed a button on his console and said sharply, "Communications...

"We have it, sir," came the reply. "A telescope locked onto the radar bearing-the image is on your repeater screen Five. It is a two- or three stage chemically fueled vehicle with the second stage still firing. This means we will be able to reconstruct its flight path and pinpoint the launch area with fair accuracy. It is emitting complex patterns of radio frequency radiation indicative of high-speed telemetry channels. The second stage has just cut out and is falling away. The third stage, if it is a third stage, has not ignited. . . It's in trouble!"

The alien spacecraft, a slim, shining cylinder pointed at one end and thickened and blunt at the other, had begun to tumble. Slowly at first but with steadily increasing speed it swung and whirled end over end.

"Ordnance?" asked the Captain.

"Apart from the tumbling action," said a slower, more precise voice, "the vessel seems to have been inserted into a very neat circular orbit. It is most unlikely that this orbit was taken up by accident. The lack of sophistication-relative, that is-in the vehicle's design and the fact that its nearest approach to us will be a little under two hundred miles all point to the conclusion that it is either an artificial satellite or a manned orbiting vehicle rather than a missile directed at this ship.

"If it is manned," the voice added with more feeling, "the crew must be in serious trouble ...

"Yes," said the Captain, who treated words like nuggets of some rare and precious metal. He went on, "Astrogation, prepare intersecting and matching orbits, please. Power Room, stand by."

As the tremendous bulk of Descartes closed with the tiny alien craft it became apparent that, as well as tumbling dizzily end over end, the other vessel was leaking. The rapid spin made it impossible to say with certainty whether it was a fuel leak from the unfired third stage or air escaping from the command module if it was, in fact, a manned vehicle.

The obvious procedure was to check the spin with tractor beams as gently as possible so as to avoid straining the hull structure, then defuel the unfired third stage to remove the fire hazard before bringing the craft alongside. If the vessel was manned and the leak was of air rather than fuel, it could then be taken into Descartes' cargo hold where rescue and first contact proceedings would be possible—at leisure since Meatball's air was suited to human beings and the reverse, presumably, also held true.

It was expected to be a fairly simple rescue operation, at first...

"Tractor stations Six and Seven, sir. The alien spacecraft won't stay put. We've slowed it to a stop three times and each time it applies steering thrust and recommences spinning. For some reason it is deliberately fighting our efforts to bring it to rest. The speed and quality of the reaction suggests direction by an on-the-spot intelligence. We can apply more force, but only at the risk of damaging the vessel's hull—it is incredibly fragile by present-day standards, sir."

"I suggest using all necessary force to immediately check the spin, opening its tanks and jettisoning all fuel into space then whisking it into the cargo hold. With normal air pressure around it again there will be no danger to the crew and we will have time to..."

"Astrogation, here. Negative to that, I'm afraid, sir. Our computation shows that the vessel took off from the sea-more accurately, from beneath the sea, because there is no visible evidence of floating gantries or other launch facilities in the area. We can reproduce Meatball air because it is virtually the same as our own, but not that animal and vegetable soup they use for water, and all the indications point toward the crew being water breathers."

For a few seconds the Captain did not reply. He was thinking about the alien crew member or members and their reasons for behaving as they were doing. Whether the reason was technical, physiological, psychological or simply alien was, however, of secondary importance. The main thing was to render assistance as quickly as possible.

If his own ship could not aid the other vessel directly it could, in a matter of days, take it to a place which possessed all the necessary facilities for doing so. Transportation itself posed only a minor problem—the spinning vehicle could be towed without checking its spin by attaching a magnetic grapple to its center of rotation, and with the shipside attachment point also rotating so that the line would not twist-shorten and bring the alien craft crashing into Descartes' side. During the trip the larger ship's hyper-drive field could be expanded to enclose both vessels.

His chief concern was over the leak and his complete ignorance of how long a period the alien spacecraft had intended to stay in orbit. He had also, if he wanted to establish friendly relations with the people on Meatball, to make the correct decision quickly.

He knew that in the early days of human space flight leakage was a quite normal occurrence, for there had been many occasions when it had been preferable to carry extra air supplies rather than pay the severe weight penalty of making the craft completely airtight. On the other hand the leak and spinning were more likely to be emergency conditions with the time available for their correction strictly limited. Since the alien astronaut or astronauts would not, for some odd reason, let him immobilize their ship to make a more thorough investigation of its condition and because he could not reproduce their environment anyway, his duty was plain. Probably his hesitancy was due to misplaced professional pride because he was passing responsibility for a particularly sticky one to others.

From MAJOR OPERATION by James White (1966)

(ed note: on the planet Ranta, the aquatic natives build everything by using a super-adhesive. )

He (Cunningham) splashed along the feeder that had taken Creak (a local alien) to the aqueduct and reached the more solid and heavy wall of the main channel.

The going was rough, since the Rantans did not appear to believe in squaring or otherwise shaping their structural stone. They simply cemented together fragments of all sizes down to fine sand until they had something watertight. Some of the fragments felt a little loose underfoot, which did not help his peace of mind. Getting away with his life from one dam failure seemed to be asking enough of luck.

However, he traversed the thirty or forty meters to the dam without disaster, turned to his right, and made his way across the arch supporting the wooden valve. This, too, reflected Rantan workmanship. The reedlike growths of which it was made had undergone no shaping except for the removal of an outer bark and— though he was not sure about this—the cutting to some random length less than the largest dimension of the gate. Thousands of the strips were glued together both parallel and crossed at varying angles, making a pattern that strongly appealed to Cunningham’s artistic taste.

(ed note: Cunningham levitates his ship using technbabble antigravity hover technology and floats it to the city)

They might not even have noticed his ship just now. He was certainly visible from the city; but the natives, Creak had told him, practically never paid attention to anything out of water unless it was an immediate job to be done.

Cunningham had watched Creak and Nereis for hours before their first actual meeting, standing within a dozen meters of them at times while they were underwater. Creak had not seen him even when the native had emerged to do fresh stonework on the top of the dam; he had been using a lorgnette with one eye, and ignoring the out-of-focus images which his other eyes gave when out of water; though, indeed, his breathing suit for use out of water did not cover his head, since his breathing apparatus was located at the bases of his limbs. Creak had simply bent to his work.

It had been Nereis, still underwater, who saw the grotesquely refracted human form approaching her husband and hurled herself from the water in between the two. This had been simple reflex; she had not been on guard in any sense. As far as she and Creak appeared to know, there was no land life on Ranta.

Rantan cement, he had come to realize, was generally remarkable stuff—another of the mysteries now awaiting solution in his mental file. The water dwellers could hardly have fire or forges, and quite reasonably he had seen no sign of metal around Creak’s home or in his tools. It seemed unlikely that the natives’ chemical or physical knowledge could be very sophisticated, and the surprise and interest shown by Creak and Nereis when he had been making chemical studies of the local rocks and their own foodstuffs supported this idea. Nevertheless, their glue was able to hold rough, unsquared fragments of stone, and untooled strips of wood, with more force than Cunningham’s muscles could overcome. This was true even when the glued area was no more than a square millimeter or two. On one of his early visits to Creak’s home, Cunningham had become entangled in the furniture and been quite unable to break out, or even separate a single strand from its fellows.

None of the workers seemed to notice the man, and he wondered when some local genius would conceive the idea of spectacles attached over the eyes to replace the lorgnettes used to correct out-of-water refraction. Perhaps with so many limbs (34), the Rantans were not highly motivated to invent something which would free one more for work. It did not occur to him that lens-making was one of the most difficult and expensive processes the Rantans could handle, and one very mobile lens per worker was their best economic solution to the problem.

(the alien Cunningham dubbed "Hinge" said) “Well, hasn’t he ever told you how stupid people were ever to move out of the ocean?”…

…He (Cunningham) used the don’t-understand signal again, and the native quickly narrowed it down to the man’s curiosity about why Creak didn’t live in the ocean if he so disapproved of cities.

“No one can live in the ocean for long; it’s too dangerous. Food is hard to find, there are animals and plants that can kill—a lot of them developed by us long ago for one purpose or another. Producing one usually caused troubles no one foresaw, and they had to make another to offset its effects, and then the new one caused trouble and something had to be done about that. Maybe we’ll hit a balance sometime, but since we’ve moved into land-based cities no one’s been trying very hard. Creak could tell you all this more eloquently than I; even he admits we can’t go back tomorrow. Now, my friend, it takes a lot of time to converse this way—enjoyable as it is—and I have work to finish. So—"

Cunningham gave the affirmative gesture willingly; he had just acquired a lot to think about. It had never occurred to him that an essentially biological technology, which the Rantans seemed to have developed, could result in industrial pollution as effectively and completely as a chemical-mechanical one. Once the point was made, it was obvious enough.

And what was Hinge’s point about the glue failing? Why should that be a problem? There were all sorts of ways to fasten things together.

(Cunningham said) “I agree that your people probably need that kick— excuse me, push—that you suggest. I’m afraid it will be a long time before you really get back to Nature, but you should at least keep moving. No race I know of ever got back there until its mastery of science was so complete that no one really had to work anymore at the necessities of life. You have a long, long way to go, but I’ll be glad to help with the push…

“Look, I have to go back to the ship. I’m betting Creak won’t expect me back tonight, and the guarding won’t be too much of a problem—you folks sleep at night, too. I have to get something from the ship, which I should have been carrying all along—you’re not the only ones who get too casual. Then I’ll come back here, and if you’re willing to sacrifice your furniture to the cause, I’ll make something that will do what you and Creak want. I guarantee it.”

(Nereis said) “Why do you have to get something from your ship in order to make something from my furniture? I have all the glue you could possibly need.”

“That’s the last thing I want. You depend too much on the stuff, and it’s caused your collective craftsmanship to die in the—the egg. Glue would make what I want to do a lot easier, but I’m not going to use it. You’ll see why in a few days, when I get the job done.

Cunningham relaxed for a few minutes, ate, and then looked over his supply of hand equipment. He selected a double-edged knife, thirty-five centimeters in blade length, cored with vanadium steel and faced with carbide. Adding a sheath and a diamond sharpener, he clipped the lot to his belt, reflecting that the assemblage could probably be called one tool without straining the term.

(ed note: Creak and a team of workers are traveling to repair the dam, where the cement gave out. They are surprised by Cunningham with his…artifact)

A kilometer north of the wall they met something that startled Creak more than his first sight of Cunningham and the (spaceship) Nimepotea six months before. He could not even think of words to describe it, though he had managed all right with man and spaceship.

The thing consisted of a cylindrical framework, axis horizontal, made of strips of wood. Creak did not recognize the pieces of his own furniture. The cylinder contained something like an oversized worksack, made of the usual transparent fabric, which in turn contained his wife, obviously well and happy.

At the rear of the framework, on the underside, was a heavy transverse wooden rod, and at the ends of this were—Creak had no word for “wheels.” Under the front was a single, similar disk-shaped thing, connected to the frame by an even more indescribable object which seemed to have been shaped somehow from a single large piece of wood.

The human being was pulling the whole arrangement without apparent effort, steering it among the rocks by altering the axial orientation of the forward disk.

The Rantans were speechless—but not one of them had the slightest difiiculty in seeing how the thing worked.

“Principles are an awful nuisance, Creak,” the man remarked. “I swore I wasn’t going to use a drop of your glue in making the wagon. Every bit of frame is tied together—I should think that people with your evolutionary background would at least have invented knots; or did they go out of style when glue came in? Anyway, the frame wasn’t so bad, but the wheels were hell. If I’d given up and used the glue, they’d have been simple enough, and I’d have made four of them, and had less trouble with that front fork mount—though I suppose steering would have been harder then. Making bundles for the rims was easy enough, but attaching spokes and making them stay was more than I’d bargained for.”

“Why didn’t you use the glue?” Creak asked. He was slowly regaining his emotional equilibrium.

“Same reason I left the ship down by the city, and lived on emergency food. Principle. Your principle. I wanted you and your people to be really sure that what I did was nice and simple and didn’t call for any arcane knowledge or fancy tools. Did you ever go through the stone-knife stage?” He displayed the blade. “Well, there’s a time for everything, even if the times are sometimes a little out of order. You just have to learn how to shape material instead of just sticking it together. Get it?”

(ed note: most tools fall into one of two categories. They cut one thing into two or they join two things into one. They subtract or add. The ancient alchemists called it "Solve et coagula", or analysis and synthesis. written on the arms of the Sabbatic Goat in the famous illustration by Eliphas Levi. In this case the knife cuts one thing into two and the cement joins two things into one.)

“Well … I think so.”

“Good. And I saved my own self-respect as Well as yours, I think, so everyone should be happy. Now you get to work and make some more of these wagons—only for heaven’s sake do use glue to speed things up…

…“I’m afraid that’s right,” the man admitted. “Once you tip the balance, you never get quite back on dead center. You started a scientific culture, just as my people did. You got overdependent on your glue, just as we did on heat engines (engines that burn coal, gasoline, natural gas, and uranium)—I’ll explain what those are, if you like, later. I don’t see how that information can corrupt this planet.

From STUCK WITH IT by Hal Clement (1976)

A drumming noise resounded through the waters. A hundred or more swimmers came into view, in formation. They wore skull helmets and scaly leather corselets, they were armed with obsidian-headed spears, axes, and daggers...

...For the people (he didn't like using the Kursovikian name "Siravo" in their own home, and could certainly never again call them Seatrolls) lived in a different conceptual universe from his. And thought they were handicapped—fireless save for volcanic outlets where glass was made as a precious material, metalless, unable to develop more than a rudimentary astronomy, the laws of motion and gravity and light propagation obscured for them by the surrounding water—they had thought their way through to ideas which not only made sense but which drove directly toward insights man had not had before Planck and Einstein.

To them, vision was not the dominant sense that it was for him. No eyes could look far undersea. Hence they were nearsighted by his standards, and the optical centers of their brains appeared to have slightly lower information-processing capability. On the other hand, their perception of tactile, thermal, kinesthetic, olfactory, and less familiar nuances was unbelievably delicate. The upper air was hostile to them; like humans vis-a-vis water, they could control but not kill an instinctive dread.

So they experienced space as relation rather than extension. For them, as a fact of daily life, it was unbounded but finite. Expeditions which circumnavigated the globe had simply given more weight and subtlety to that apprehension.

From ENSIGN FLANDRY by (1966)

     Technion researchers have demonstrated, for the first time, that laser emissions can be created through the interaction of light and water waves. This “water-wave laser” could someday be used in tiny sensors that combine light waves, sound and water waves, or as a feature on microfluidic “lab-on-a-chip” devices used to study cell biology and to test new drug therapies.
     For now, the water-wave laser offers a “playground” for scientists studying the interaction of light and fluid at a scale smaller than the width of a human hair, the researchers write in the new report, published November 21 in the journal Nature Photonics.
     The study was conducted by Technion-Israel Institute of Technology students Shmuel Kaminski, Leopoldo Martin, and Shai Maayani, under the supervision of Professor Tal Carmon, head of the Optomechanics Center at the Mechanical Engineering Faculty at Technion. Carmon said the study is the first bridge between two areas of research that were previously considered unrelated to one another: nonlinear optics and water waves.
     A typical laser can be created when the electrons in atoms become “excited” by energy absorbed from an outside source, causing them to emit radiation in the form of laser light. Professor Carmon and his colleagues now show for the first time that water wave oscillations within a liquid device can also generate laser radiation.
     The possibility of creating a laser through the interaction of light with water waves has not been examined, Carmon said, mainly due to the huge difference between the low frequency of water waves on the surface of a liquid (approximately 1,000 oscillations per second) and the high frequency of light wave oscillations (1014 oscillations per second). This frequency difference reduces the efficiency of the energy transfer between light and water waves, which is needed to produce the laser emission.
     To compensate for this low efficiency, the researchers created a device in which an optical fiber delivers light into a tiny droplet of octane and water. Light waves and water waves pass through each other many times (approximately one million times) inside the droplet, generating the energy that leaves the droplet as the emission of the water-wave laser.
     The interaction between the fiber optic light and the miniscule vibrations on the surface of the droplet are like an echo, the researchers noted, where the interaction of sound waves and the surface they pass through can make a single scream audible several times. In order to increase this echo effect in their device, the researchers used highly transparent, runny liquids, to encourage light and droplet interactions.
     Furthermore, a drop of water is a million times softer than the materials used in current laser technology. The minute pressure applied by light can therefore cause droplet deformation that is a million times greater than in a typical optomechanical device, which may offer greater control of the laser’s emissions and capabilities, the Technion scientists said.


Many possible variants of aquatic civilization have been named by xenosociologists. Amphibious littoral civilizations, for instance, may inhabit the seashore. Pelagic civilizations would occupy the water mass and the surface of the sea. Benthic or abyssal civilizations may live in the extreme ocean depths and sea floor of other worlds. Estuarial civilizations may make their homes in bays, fiords and river waters. Limnic cultures could live in lakes.

But are aquatic technical civilizations possible at all? There has been much written on this point, and most writers seem to have reached a negative conclusion. (See Anderson,63 Hoyle,1559 Livesay,2723 MacGowan and Ordway,600 Macvey,49 and Strong.50) But this author believes the majority is wrong.

Consider the requirement of motivation. Many water-dwelling lifeforms on Earth employ technologies (e.g., artifacts) to assist in their survival. One of the most primitive is the archer fish (Toxotes jaculatrix), which carefully aims and spits blobs of water at its prey (insects and spiders) to knock them into the water where they can be caught in the fish’s mouth. Another example, considerably more sophisticated, is the octopus. This intelligent invertebrate gathers stones, chips, and metal scraps to build small cavelike houses in which it resides. Another unusual example is the sea otter (Enhydra lutris). This semiaquatic mammal collects stones and shells from the ocean bottom. Then, while floating on its back at the surface, the otter places these objects on its stomach and uses them as anvils against which to pound and crack open mussels and other hard-shelled molluscs.565 It appears that many sea creatures on this planet are strongly motivated to try their luck at technology. If Earth is typically exotic, water worlds elsewhere in the Galaxy should fare no worse.

What about manipulators? The lack of manipulative organs in the most intelligent seagoing animals -- the cetaceans -- implies that their intelligence "cannot be worked out in technology,"1365,15 unless they have outside help. But this may just be an evolutionary fluke. Elephants seals, a genus of "returned mammals" closely related to the cetaceans, still retain the in credibly delicate, 5-digit "flipper fingers" that their cousins the dolphins must once have possessed. On another world, brains and hands may coincide.*

Of course, there is no reason why boneless tentacles could not serve as technologically useful appendages in the absence of hands and fingers. The cephalopods, which include the octopus, cuttlefish and squid, have from 8-10 limbs surrounding their mouths. These probably evolved from whiskerlike projections near the food cavities of more ancient molluscan forms. The fact that intelligent octopoids do not dominate the seas of Earth may be, again, merely an evolutionary fluke. First, octopuses have hemocyanin blood, which is less efficient than hemoglobin. The animal tires easily and has little appetite for sustained heavy labor. Second, octopuses have ganglionic nervous systems which may have limited their sentience on Earth. But there is nothing fundamentally wrong with a tentacular intelligence. The convergence with certain well-known land forms (prehensile-tailed monkeys, elephants) strongly suggests that tentacles may build technologies on other worlds.

How about physical resources? Clays and mud are available for ceramics and pottery, sand for glass, and there is a tremendous variety of organic materials available for chemical industry -- dyes, acids, drugs, etc. Stone masonry is quite possible, since concrete can be mixed that can set underwater. Nodules littering the continental shelves and ocean floors could be harvested for their nickel, cobalt and manganese. Fantastic quantities of metals are afloat in seawater itself. For example, a kilogram of iron can be harvested by filtering 50,000 m3 of ordinary seawater past a simple magnetic lodestone. (The liquid volume involved is only about as much as a single shark breathes in a month.) Marine lifeforms could devise an advanced biological technology including "cold light" streetlamps using luminiferous bacteria, architectural coral, and "slave fishes."

Where do we get the energy to work all these resources? Aquatic ETs may discover superheated underwater volcanoes -- these exist in great numbers on Earth’s ocean floors and should be even more numerous on larger, more massive pelagic worlds. Submarine oil deposits may be found in sedimentary strata. Natural gas and other combustible vapors upwelling from the planetary interior could be trapped in special containers and burned using oxygen imported from the surface. Lacking combustion, bubblewheels could be erected over regions of submarine helium gas effluence and the rotary power used to turn mechanical flywheels.

There is no bar to the full development of electrical power generation. Electric eels could be domesticated for this purpose, or simply cannibalized for their organic batteries. Alternatively, marine extraterrestrials could build their own batteries using pieces of carbon, tankards of seawater and some other electrolyte, and a small bit of metal. The electricity thus obtained might then be used to perform electrolysis on water, splitting each molecule into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This gaseous mixture is a potent fuel, and could conceivably be used to power smelters, streetlights, seacars and seabuses, 2800 °C oxyhydrogen blowtorches, turbines and jet-propelled devices, and even rockets.

There is little that man has accomplished technologically on land that could not be repeated in some analogous fashion by a race of marine lifeforms on a pelagic world elsewhere in our Galaxy.


* It is interesting to note that cetacean intelligence soared following its return to the sea, reaching a level of "encephalization" equal to that of modern-day humans 10 million years ago.2910 There is no truth to the assertion that the sea is incapable of bringing forth high intelligence, for it was the seagoing dolphins, not humans, who first made it to the top. Ethologist John Eisenberg correctly points out that the assumption that the marine environment is homogeneous is false: "There are currents and different temperature and pressure regimes which make it very exciting."3241

49. John W. Macvey (internationally. known writer on astronomy, fellow of BIS), Whispers From Space, Macmillan Publ. Co., Inc.; 1973.
50. Games G. Strong (B. Sc. (Eng.) A.C.G.I., A.F.R.Ac.S., F.B.I.S), Flight to the Stars: An Inquiry into the Feasibility of Interstellar Flight; Hart Publ. Co., Inc.; N. Y., 1965.
63. Poul Anderson, Is There Life on Other Worlds?; (Crowell-Collier Press, N. Y.; 1963). With intro. by Isaac Asimov.
600. Roger A. MacGowen (Computation Center, Army Missile Command, Huntsville, Alabama, USA), Frederick I. Ordway, III (General Astronautics Research Corporation, London Corporation, London, England); Intelligence in the Universe; (Prentice - Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey; 1966).
1559. Fred Hoyle; Of Men and Galaxies; (University of Washington Press, Seattle; 1964).
2723. R. J. Livesay; "Criteria for Evolution of Technology on Planets Supporting a Biosphere"; Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 18 (1977):54-59.
2910. Harry J. Jerison; "Paleoneurology and the Evolution of Mind"; Scientific American 234 (January 1976):90-101.
3241. Mark A. Stull, ed.; Workshop on Cultural Evolution (Minutes); (Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, C. A.; Nov. 24-25, 1975). Joshua Lederberg, Chairman.

Technology could develop, arguably would automatically, if aquatic creatures reached a certain brain size.


The first major impediment to the formation of technology underwater is the lack of oxygen. Water in general is not an efficient solvent of oxygen for example, a human would need gills several times their body area IIRC something over 15 square meters in order to exact enough oxygen from even well oxygenated water. There are plastics that form osmotic membranes in water that selectively pass gasses but not water. Ordinary polystyrene will do this. But you need such a large surface area that nobody had been able to make a practical breather.

There is also the problem that oxygen content varies significantly with depth and vertical and lateral currents. Sometimes, fish hit a dead zone and simply suffocate before they can swim out.

That's the biggest brains in the sea belong to aquatic air breathing mammals. Gils just won't cut it. The biggest non-mammal brains belong to octopi who "breathe" by inhaling a lot of water, compressing it then jetting it out again. Even so, they are limited to brains much smaller than mammals.

Postulating alternative chemistries really doesn't help because such chemistries won't have the energy flow of an oxygen based one and therefore couldn't support large, energy intensive brains. An ecology based on sulfur compounds, like those in "black smoker vents" won't likely support large brains.

Better to postulate an alternate neurology which use a different and lower energy mechanism than electrically charged membranes. Can't think of plausible one off the top of my head.

So, you're probably looking at something that is air breathing or as some other means of obtaining excess oxygen e.g. has symbiotic plants that generate or cache oxygen for it in a form like hemoglobin. Air breathing doesn't require land. Many surface dwelling fish have a primitive air breathing system from absorbing oxygen from swallowed air. Lung fish breath through their gas bladders which are attaches to their digestive track. Something similar could evolve eventually to air breathing "fish" with no land ancestry.

The other problem is the vast majority of the ocean floor is a desert. Once you get down passed 60-70 meters, there is no light for photosynthesis and away from the continents, there isn't a lot of minerals, like iron, floating around. The seas both in terms of area and volume, are relatively dead.

So, the planet would need broad, shallow (<100 meters or so) oceans like those which dominated earth in the Permian.

Hands or manipulators are not much of problem. If you look at fish, octopi, anemone and other organisms that live in and on coral reefs in shallow water, it's clear that streamlining isn't much of selection pressure. Speed is important in the open but in more confined spaces, the ability to maneuver precisely, anchor and push-off seems more important. Octopi, for example, have manipulators on par with human hands.

Besides there are options to hands. You could have a hive species that uses swarm tactics, like bees, ants etc do, using the coordination motion of dozens of individuals to provide all the control vectors. Swarm robots are all the rage now because it's a lot easier to control and object with a lot of small controlled shoved that trying to control it with large vectors arising from a single point, e.g. a human shoulder joint giving rise to all the vectors of the arm and fingers.

So, once you have big brains and manipulators what could you make?

Aquatic species primary senses would likely be those that work best underwater, sonar, electrical fields, combined smell/taste, ambient vibration detection etc. Visible light vision would be a secondary sense. The underwater senses would likely give a sentient species something close to x-ray vision. Dolphins and whales appear able to scan the insides of living animals with their sonar. Likewise they can detect buried objects. Electrical field detection likewise gives the ability to detect living organisms and some structures in sand and coral. Smell and taste sensors wouldn't be limited to the mouth or nose but could be spread out all over the body or concentrated in manipulators.

In short an aquatic species could extract a lot more detail about objects in their environment, especially the chemical, electrical and internal structure, than air/land based could.

So, they could examine their environment and manipulate, the question is why bother? As much as we like to flatter ourselves, intelligence isn't always an automatic game winner, especially when it comes from such high metabolic overheard. It requires a payoff. For humans, it was cooperative hunting/scavenging for meats and fats, combined with stone tools to cut up tissues and bones that our muscles, jaws and teeth could not. Lastly, fire let us digest a wider range of nutrients without any metabolic or structural specialization similar to that found e.g. in vultures.

It really looks like the primary driver of large brains is not technology, but social coordination. Large brains let animals work in larger and more effective teams. E.g. wolves, meerkats, dolphins etc all have large brains compared equivalent more solitary species but they don't use technology as we think of it. (Dolphins seem to use their large brains to plan and carry out gruesome coordinated military campaigns against other dolphins, largely for kidnapping females. Most dolphins are killed by other dolphins instead of predators. Those scars are from bar fights. "Flipper" they ain't.)

In the same way, large brains might get started in an aquatic environment because of a need for coordination. That could be some form of hunting but it could also be obtaining oxygen or creating reefs for symbiotic food species and defense.

Imagine a bunch of air breathing octopi, whose primary primitive technology was building coral reef structures to provide air, food and shelter. From there, they could figure out how to make cutting weapons from coral.

Tools underwater would be much different than we think of them. For example, swinging a lever like an hammer or axe, is not efficient under water because water resistance robs all the energy. Plus, rapid high energy motions stir up silt and generate vibrations that telegraph one's position.

Instead, grinding, raking and drilling would be the orders of the day. Repetitive motions over short ranges would work better than rapidly moving levers. Water jets, with or without injected abrasives, could take the place of knives and saws.

Various forms of bicarbonate and biosilicate would likely take the place of stones. Likely, a form of coral topiary would be an early technology on par with making mud bricks was for humans.

Rocks, especially specific types like flint, might be hard to find because in the sea, everything gets covered with silt and biomatter. On land, plants needs a certain minimal amount of soil and won't grow on bare rock save in very humid conditions. In the ocean, however, plants, fungi and sessile animals simply use hard objects as anchor points. On land, a pile of flint will have not plants it and will be easy to spot. In the sea, it will be covered up with something. Nothing will just laying around.

On the other hand, as noted above, sentient sea life can probably probe through materials so perhaps it wouldn't be that much of problem.

It's important to remember that you don't need as strong of materials to build underwater as on land. Building on land requires materials with great compressive strength because air is compressible and provides little buoyancy. Air provides no structural support at all. All the strength comes from the materials. (Foams with trapped air are an exception but they are weak because they compress.) On land, to lift something you have to put a lot of compression resistant mass under it e.g. stone, steel etc. Under the water, you attach a balloon to it and lift it up. If you want something to resist compression, you make a sealed cell of a high tension material and then let the incompressibility of water carry the load.

The structures of an underwater civilization would likely be lightly constructed and gain strength from buoyancy and incompressibility. The equivelent of a skyscraper could be just a bunch of netting will a balloon of gas or low density oil at the top. The problem wouldn't be keeping it up, but floating away.

Fire is not as important as we think. It's important to humans but that is because humans used fire to pre-digest foods and for light. In the sea, Pre-digestion could be done chemically (like a ceviche) or by enzymes borrowed from symbioses. Light would not be a big benefit because sight would be a secondary sense and in any case, could be generated by bioluminescent sources.

Neither is metal. Modern humans existed for 40,000 years at least before the first metals, and the civilizations of Meso-America built vast cities without using metals for anything but decoration. Metals are not necessary to technology. The primary use of metals was as wedges of different forms, e.g. knives, plows etc., but with slow motions like sawing, grinding, raking etc being the primary means of transferring energy, a wedge would not be quite as important. Hydraulic pressure could take the place of wedges when needed, especially if speed was not as important.

But, an aquatic species could develop metallurgy using electrochemistry which would be easier to develop in seawater, especially given they have electrical field senses to begin with. Magnesium is abundant in sea water and easy to extract with even primitive electrodes.

One could postulate a sentient species that has a anemone like symbiotic that radiates a powerful electrical detection field. The sentient starts out just anchoring the symbiotic around as a kind of early warning system. Selective breeding leads to stronger and strong field generation until they end up with something like an electric eel. (Which is how electric eels evolve.) Now they have a powerful, controllable and regenerative source of electricity. They would already be aware of calcium carbonate and silica precipitation by electrical fields so electrical metallurgy would be a short step.

They would also have an advantage in long distance communications. Sonics carry for hundreds of miles in the oceans and can carry multiple bands at the same time. Even at very primitive levels, they might coordinate millions of individuals over tens of thousands of hectares with the ease of which humans coordinate a small village.

I could imagine a civilization of highly cooperative, air breathing, squid-like critters, who used swarms to carry out manipulations and with strong division of labor e.g. that might have some dedicated to shuttling air bubbles, or a chemical oxygen store, to and from the surface, all coordinated over long distances and in large numbers by electrical fields and sonar.

Their primary structures would be made of carbonate and biosilicate foams, made buoyant with waste gases and strong by filling the cells with water or oil.

For mechanical energy, they could harness currents like a combination waterwheel, windmill.

Humans are so sight oriented that we have dull senses of smell, taste, hearing and touch compared even to other mammals. It takes us centuries to divine chemical compositions but a sentient species that evolved in salt water would be like living chem lab equipment by comparison. They would use those sense to develop a bioelectrical and enzyme based technology.

They would probably skip over iron and other ferric metals and instead go to aluminum and magnesium alloys, then perhaps various graphemes.

Their technology would emphasize skill, senses and complexity, all made possible by living in seawater, over velocity, shock and heat like most human technologies.

They might have trouble getting into to space because of their relatively low energy technology but then again they might try alternate technology like balloons that could rise to the edge of space and then form into sails to catch the solar winds and the planets magnetic fields. (There are similar designs tossed about here on earth but we haven't bothered thus far because we know a lot about fire.)

Once in space, they would have an easier time of it because living underwater is closer to microgravity than living in air.

So, yes it's fairly easy to postulate a plausible technological species once you stop seeing fire as something special and necessary. Once they have enough oxygen or other source of energy, the need to grow big brains for organization, manipulative organs and something to profitably manipulate, off they go.


If a society in Science Fiction isn't either following Technology Levels or magic, then you can rest assured that they're making use of organic technology.

Cars, planes, phones, computers, buildings, space ships, and everything else required for a proper Sci-Fi story will be provided in the form of something that is warm, moist, skooshy and drips goo everywhere. Often, this will go so far as to include a convenient thought-based interface. Advanced nanotechnology will often be depicted in a similar fashion.

This type of tech is a common feature of sea-dwelling sapients. Not only are cities entirely made out of cool-looking coral, it's a technological evolutionary path that does not start with the step "set something on fire" or "throw wheels on it." Nor would excessive humidity cause important stuff to short out.

Civilizations who use this technology are also frequently users of Sufficiently Advanced Bamboo Technology. Depending on the aesthetic choices of the depiction, the organic technology may seem Ambiguously Robotic as well.

Often crosses over with LEGO Genetics and is depicted as a Sculpted Physique. See Living Ship for one specific example. Compare Bio-Augmentation, which could be Organic Technology applied to the human body in new and fun ways. Contrast Mechanical Lifeforms, which are organisms that happen to be mechanical in nature. Often creates the Womb Level in games. A Hive Caste System is based on using naturally evolved biology rather than technology made from biology. Applied to agriculture, the end result of this trope is often a Multipurpose Monocultured Crop.

This is becoming an actual thing. Interestingly, Real Life synthetic biology seems to be going the reverse direction of this trope: making biology look more like chemistry and nanotechnology, rather than making technology more like biology. Whether we'll get our meaty jetpacks remains to be seen.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


(ed note: The main character are human colonists developed by pantropy, microscopic in size and living an aquatic existence. The scientists who created the colonists died, so the colonists have no idea that most human beings live in air, not water.)

     “The past four Shars discovered that we won’t get any farther in our studies until we learn how to control heat. We’ve produced enough heat chemically to show that even the water around us changes when the temperature gets high enough or low enough, that we knew from the beginning. But there we’re stopped.”
     “Because heat produced in open water is carried off as rapidly as it’s produced. Once we tried to enclose that heat, and we blew up a whole tube of the castle and killed everything in range; the shock was terrible. We measured the pressures that were involved in that explosion, and we discovered that no substance we know could have resisted them. Theory suggests some stronger substances — but we need heat to form them!
     “Take our chemistry. We live in water. Everything seems to dissolve in water, to some extent. How do we confine a chemical test to the crucible we put it in? How do we maintain a solution at one dilution? I don’t know. Every avenue leads me to the same stone door. We’re thinking creatures, Lavon, but there’s something drastically wrong in the way we think about this universe we live in. It just doesn’t seem to lead to results.”...

     ...Nor, for that matter, does a culture which has to dig each letter of its simple alphabet into pulpy water-logged wood with a flake of stonewort encourage the keeping of records in triplicate.

From SURFACE TENSION by James Blish (1952)

Of these worlds, one, an immense and very aqueous sphere, produced in time a dominant race which was not a single species but an intimate symbiotic partnership of two very alien creatures. The one came of a fish-like stock. The other was in appearance something like a crustacean. In form it was a sort of paddle-footed crab or marine spider...

...The two species had then come into contact, and had grappled desperately. Their battle-ground was the shallow coastal water. The "crustaceans," though crudely amphibian, could not spend long under the sea; the "fish" could not emerge from it. The two races did not seriously compete with one another in economic life, for the "fish" were mainly vegetarian, the "crustaceans" mainly carnivorous; yet neither could tolerate the presence of the other. Both were sufficiently human to be aware of one another as rival aristocrats in a subhuman world, but neither was human enough to realize that for each race the way of life lay in cooperation with the other. The fish-like creatures, which I shall call "ichthyoids," had speed and range of travel. They had also the security of bulk. The crab-like or spider-like "crustaceans," which I shall call "arachnoids," had greater manual dexterity, and had also access to the dry land. Cooperation would have been very beneficial to both species, for one of the staple foods of the arachnoids was parasitic to the ichthyoids.

In spite of the possibility of mutual aid, the two races strove to exterminate one another, and almost succeeded. After an age of blind mutual slaughter, certain of the less pugnacious and more flexible varieties of the two species gradually discovered profit in fraternization with the enemy.

This was the beginning of a very remarkable partnership. Soon the arachnoids took to riding on the backs of the swift ichthyoids, and thus gained access to more remote hunting grounds.

As the epochs passed, the two species molded one another to form a well-integrated union. The little arachnoid, no bigger than a chimpanzee, rode in a snug hollow behind the great "fish's" skull, his back being stream-lined with the con-tours of the larger creature. The tentacles of the ichthyoid were specialized for large-scale manipulation, those of the arachnoid for minute work. A biochemical interdependence also evolved. Through a membrane in the ichthyoid's pouch an exchange of endocrine products took place. The mechanism enabled the arachnoid to become fully aquatic. So long as it had frequent contact with its host, it could stay under water for any length of time and descend to any depth. A striking mental adaptation also occurred in the two species. The ichthyoids became on the whole more introvert, the arachnoids more extrovert...

...Both had contributed equally to the culture of their world, though not equally at all times. In creative work of every kind one of the partners provided most of the originality, the other most of the criticism and restraint. Work in which one partner was entirely passive was rare. Books, or rather scrolls, which were made from pulped seaweed, were nearly always signed by couples. On the whole the arachnoid partners dominated in manual skill, experimental science, the plastic arts, and practical social organization. The ichthyoid partners excelled in theoretical work, in literary arts, in the surprisingly developed music of that submarine world, and in the more mystical kind of religion....

...It passed rapidly through the phase of inter-tribal strife, during which the nomadic shoals of symbiotic couples harried one another like hosts of submarine-cavalry; for the arachnoids, riding their ichthyoid mates, attacked the enemy with bone spears and swords, while their mounts wrestled with powerful tentacles. But the phase of tribal warfare was remarkably brief. When a settled mode of life was attained, along with submarine agriculture and coral-built cities, strife between leagues of cities was the exception, not the rule. Aided no doubt by its great mobility and ease of communication, the dual race soon built up a world-wide and unarmed federation of cities. We learned also with wonder that at the height of the pre-mechanical civilization of this planet, when in our worlds the cleavage into masters and economic slaves would already have become serious, the communal spirit of the city triumphed over all individualistic enterprise. Very soon this world became a tissue of interdependent but independent municipal communes.

At this time it seemed that social strife had vanished forever. But the most serious crisis of the race was still to come.

The submarine environment offered the symbiotic race no great possibilities of advancement. All sources of wealth had been tapped and regularized. Population was maintained at an optimum size for the joyful working of the world...

...In a submarine world the possibility of obtaining mechanical power was remote. But the arachnoids, it will be remembered, were able to live out of the water. In the epochs before the symbiosis their ancestors had periodically emerged upon the islands, for courtship, parenthood, and the pursuit of prey. Since those days the air-breathing capacity had declined, but it had never been entirely lost. Every arachnoid still emerged for sexual mating, and also for certain ritual gymnastic exercises. It was in this latter connection that the great discovery was made which changed the course of history. At a certain tournament the friction of stone weapons, clashing against one another, produced sparks, and fire among the sun-scorched grasses.

In startlingly quick succession came smelting, the steam engine, the electric current. Power was obtained first from the combustion of a sort of peat formed on the coasts by congested marine vegetation, later from the constant and violent winds, later still from photo-chemical light traps which absorbed the sun's lavish radiation. These inventions were of course the work of arachnoids. The ichthyoids, though they still played a great part in the systematization of knowledge, were debarred from the great practical work of scientific experiment and mechanical invention above the seas. Soon the arachnoids were running electric cables from the island power-stations to the submarine cities. In this work, at least, the ichthyoids could take part, but their part was necessarily subordinate. Not only in experience of electrical engineering but also in native practical ability they were eclipsed by their arachnoid partners.

For a couple of centuries or more the two species continued to cooperate, though with increasing strain. Artificial lighting, mechanical transport of goods on the ocean floor, and large-scale manufacture, produced an immense increase in the amenities of life in the submarine cities. The islands were crowded with buildings devoted to science and industry. Physics, chemistry, and biology made great progress. Astronomers began to map the galaxy. They also discovered that a neighboring planet offered wonderful opportunities for settlement by arachnoids, who might without great difficulty, it was hoped, be conditioned to the alien climate, and to divorce from their symbiotic partners. The first attempts at rocket flight were leading to mingled tragedy and success. The directorate of extra-marine activities demanded a much increased arachnoid population.

Inevitably there arose a conflict between the two species, and in the mind of every individual of either species...

...Victory would in the long run have gone to the arachnoids, for they controlled the sources of power. But it soon appeared that the attempt to break the symbiotic bond was not as successful as it had seemed. Even in actual warfare, commanders were unable to prevent widespread fraternization between the opposed forces...

...The arachnoids suffered more from the neuroses than from the weapons of the enemy. On the islands, moreover, civil wars and social revolutions made the manufacture of munitions almost impossible.

The most resolute faction of the arachnoids now attempted to bring the struggle to an end by poisoning the ocean. The islands in turn were poisoned by the millions of decaying corpses that rose to the sea's surface and were cast up on the shores. Poison, plague, and above all neurosis, brought war to a standstill, civilization to ruin, and the two species almost to extinction. The deserted sky-scrapers that crowded the islands began to crumble into heaps of wreckage. The submarine cities were invaded by the submarine jungle and by shark-like sub-human ichthyoids of many species. The delicate tissue of knowledge began to disintegrate into fragments of superstition.

Now at last came the opportunity of those who advocated a modernized symbiosis. With difficulty they had maintained a secret existence and their individual partnerships in the more remote and inhospitable regions of the planet. They now came boldly forth to spread their gospel among the unhappy remnants of the world's population. There was a rage of interspecific mating and remating. Primitive submarine agriculture and hunting maintained the scattered peoples while a few of the coral cities were cleared and rebuilt, and the instruments of a lean but hopeful civilization were refashioned. This was a temporary civilization, without mechanical power, but one which promised itself great adventures in the "upper world" as soon as it had established the basic principles of the reformed symbiosis...

...The first stage was the reinstatement of power stations on the islands, and the careful reorganization of a purely submarine society equipped with power. But this reconstruction would have been useless had it not been accompanied by a very careful study of the physical and mental relations of the two species. The symbiosis had to be strengthened so that interspecific strife should in future be impossible...

...Gradually and very cautiously all the industrial operations and scientific researches of an earlier age were repeated, but with a difference. Industry was subordinated to the conscious social goal. Science, formerly the slave of industry, became the free colleague of wisdom.

From STAR MAKER by Olaf Stapledon (1937)

The possible advantages of space can best be appreciated if we turn our backs upon it and return, in imagination, to the sea. Here is the perfect environment for life—the place where it originally evolved. In the sea, an all-pervading fluid medium carries oxygen and food to every organism; it need never hunt for either. The same medium neutralizes gravity, insures against temperature extremes, and prevents damage by too intense solar radiation—which must have been lethal at the Earth’s surface before the ozone layer was formed.

When we consider these facts, it seems incredible that life ever left the sea, for in some ways the dry land is almost as dangerous as space. Because we are accustomed to it, we forget the price we have had to pay in our daily battle against gravity. We seldom stop to think that we are still creatures of the sea, able to leave it only because, from birth to death, we wear the water-filled space suits of our skins.

Yet until life had invaded and conquered the land, it was trapped in an evolutionary cul-de-sac—for intelligence cannot arise in the sea. The relative opacity of Water, and its resistance to movement, were perhaps the chief factors limiting the mental progress of marine creatures. They had little incentive to develop keen vision (the most subtle of the senses. and the only long-range one) or manual dexterity. It will be most interesting to see if there are any exceptions to this, elsewhere in the universe.

Even if these obstacles do not prevent a low order of intelligence from arising in the sea, the road to further development is blocked by an impossible barrier. The difference between man and animals lies not in the possession of tools, but in the possession of fire. A marine culture could not escape from the Stone Age and discover the use of metals; indeed, almost all branches of science and technology would be forever barred to it.

Perhaps we would have been happier had we remained in the sea (the porpoises seem glad enough to have returned, after sampling the delights of the dry land for a few million years), but I do not think that even the most cynical philosopher has ever suggested we took the wrong road. The world beneath the waves is beautiful, but it is hopelessly limited, and the creatures who live there are crippled irremediably in mind and spirit. No fish can see the stars; but we will never be content until we have reached them.

From SPACE FLIGHT AND THE SPIRIT OF MAN by Arthur C. Clarke (1961)

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