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.


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' rule of thumb. 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.

Outside Context Problem

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.

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.


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)

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)

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)
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

Carl Sagan estimated that humanity is currently around Type 0.7. 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

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

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.

Exotic Civilizations: Beyond Kardaschev

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.

From Exotic Civilizations: Beyond Kardaschev by Paul Hughes (2004)

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 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.


(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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