First, go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entry "FUTURE HISTORY". The read the TV Trope's Standard Sci-Fi History (you might also want to read the TV Trope's Standard Sci-Fi Setting. Hackneyed, formulaic, derivative, and space opera; but very common).

Also check out this website's historical timeline of (mostly) real world events.

The 1950's flavored future history below is sort of an amalgam of Donald A. Wollheim's "Consensus Cosmogony", TV Trope's Standard Sci-Fi History, and my own memories of reading 1960's era science fiction.

Novels that cover several of the following stages include THE REDISCOVERY OF MAN by Cordwainer Smith, BIRTHRIGHT: THE BOOK OF MAN by Mike Resnick, and the anthologies GALACTIC EMPIRES vol. 1 and vol. 2 edited by Brian Aldiss.

1. Exploration and Colonization of the Solar System

Initial voyages to Luna and the planets of the solar system. Stories of the first efforts to set up terrestrial bases on the planets. Stories of the first colonies on such worlds, their problems internal and external, their conflicts with the parent world (maybe even a war of independence), interplanetary commerce, spaceship trade lanes, space pirates, asteroid mining, the weird wonders of the Outer Planets. Examples: TALES OF KNOWN SPACE by Larry Niven, SPACE CADET, FARMER IN THE SKY, THE ROLLING STONES, THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, PODKAYNE OF MARS, BETWEEN PLANETS, "Logic of Empire" by Robert Heinlein, SPACE DOCTOR by Lee Corey, HIGH JUSTICE, EXILES TO GLORY, "Tinker" by Jerry Pournelle, LIFEBOAT aka DARK INFERNO by James White, SCAVENGERS IN SPACE by Alan E. Nourse, THE MARTIAN WAY by Isaac Asimov, HIGHER EDUCATION by Pournelle and Sheffield, ISLANDS IN THE SKY, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SKY by Arthur C. Clarke.

Note that the performance of available rocket engines will affect the rate of exploration.

2. Slower Than Light Interstellar Exploration and Colonization

First interstellar flights. Starships that must travel centuries and contain generations descended from the original crews. Other planets of other stars. Contact with Terra is difficult at best. Lost colonies are typically founded during this era. Ben Bova calls this the "Marco Polo" stage of interstellar contact: adventure, strange tales, and artifacts. But no lasting political relations (for better or worse) with the neighbors. Example: TAU ZERO by Poul Anderson, ORPHANS OF THE SKY, TIME FOR THE STARS by Robert Heinlein, THE STARS ARE OURS by Andre Norton, THE OUTCASTS OF HEAVEN'S BELT by Joan Vinge, THE SONG OF DISTANT EARTH and RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA by Arthur C. Clarke.

3. Total or Limited Nuclear War on Terra (World War III)

Forrest J. Ackerman calls it "atomigeddon". Widespread nuclear death on Terra. Fall of civilization. Mutants. Political map is wiped clean, most or all modern day nations are gone. Eventual recovery. Example: A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter Miller, LOT and LOT'S DAUGHTER by Ward Moore, DAVY and STILL I PERSIST IN WONDERING by Edgar Pangborn, the Hiero Desteen series by Sterling Lanier, VAULT OF AGES by Poul Anderson, DAYBREAK - 2250 A.D. aka STAR MAN'S SON by Andre Norton.

4. Meeting With Aliens

First Contact. Intelligences on extra-solar planets and our problems with them or against them. What happens depends upon whether the aliens technology level is lower, the same, or greater than humanity. And whether the aliens are friendly or hostile. Things can range from alien invasions to humans playing star-god with primitive aliens. Examples: THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Niven and Pournelle, "First Contact" by Murray Leinster.

5. Faster Than Light Interstellar Exploration and Colonization

As per #2, but quicker. Examples: VOYAGE OF THE SPACE BEAGLE by A.E. van Vogt, THE LEGION OF SPACE or THREE FROM THE LEGION by Jack Williamson.

6. Colonization of the Galaxy

Human colonies on other solar systems. Contact with Mother Terra, independence or dependence. Commerce - exploitation or otherwise. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entry "COLONIZATION". Example: THE STARS LIKE DUST by Isaac Asimov, THE STAR FOX and THE ENEMY STARS by Poul Anderson, THE SEEDLING STARS by James Blish, REVOLT ON ALPHA-C by Robert Silverberg, the Med Service series by Murray Leinster, THE GREAT EXPLOSION by Eric Frank Russell, the Humanx Commonwealth series by Alan Dean Foster.

7. The Cycle of Empires

The history can go through the Cycle of Empires one or more times.

7A. Rise of the Galactic Empire

The rise of contact and commerce between many human-colonized worlds or many worlds of alien intelligences that have come to trust and do business with one another. For whatever reason the indepenent human and/or alien worlds unite. This can be for common defense, cultural reasons, economic reasons, or by conquest. The problem of mutual relations and the solution, usually in the form of treaties or defensive alliances. Implacable aliens in the cosmos who must be fought. The need for defense. The rise of industrial or financial or political powers, the eventual triumph of one and the establishment of a federation, a union, an alliance, or an autocratic empire of worlds, dominated usually from Old Terra. Example: the Trantorian Empire novels of Isaac Asimov, the Nicholas Van Rijn novels of Poul Anderson, THE HELMSMAN by Bill Baldwin, CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY by Robert Heinlein, THE WITCHES OF KARRES by James Schmitz, THE REDISCOVERY OF MAN by Cordwainer Smith, BIRTHRIGHT: THE BOOK OF MAN by Mike Resnick.

7B. Galactic Empire at its Height

Commerce between worlds an established fact, and adventures while dealing with worlds in and out of the Empire. The Pax Galactica reigns — a long period of peace and prosperity (at least on the surface). Technology is highly advanced. Civilization at it apex. During the Dark Ages, people will look back to this time as the Golden Age. The farthest planets, those of the Galactic Rim, considered as mavericks. The problem of aliens again outside the Empire, and outside our own galaxy. Politics within the government setup, intrigues, and dynasties, robotic mentalities versus human mentalities. Terraforming worlds for colonization. The exploration of the rest of the galaxy by official exploration ships (from the Survey Service), or adventurers, or commercial pioneers. Authors tend to avoid writing stories set in this period because it is very boring. Examples: The Lensman series by E.E. "Doc" Smith, FEDERATION by H. Beam Piper, the Commodore Grimes series by A. Bertram Chandler, the Sector General novels by James White, THE REDISCOVERY OF MAN by Cordwainer Smith, BIRTHRIGHT: THE BOOK OF MAN by Mike Resnick, the "First Empire" mentioned as background in THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Niven and Pournelle.

This period varies depending upon the iteration, whether this is the First, Second, or latter Galactic Empire. The first is the most optimistic period. The Second Empire is generally wiser and more benevolent, but is also aware that empires can fall. In the Golden Age, the Second Empire was often also the Final Empire. Third and later empires are essentially the same setting as the Second Empire, but the higher number serves to imply an old galaxy, not locked in stasis.

If this period doesn't turn out to be the Final Empire, eventually the edifice begins to crack, leading to:

7C. Galactic Empire Declines and Falls

Empire begins to decay. Intrigue and palace revolt. Breakaway planets. The alliance of worlds strained beyond its limits by rebellion, alien wars, decadence, corruption, scientific inability to keep up with internal or external problems. The rise of restless subject worlds. Outer provinces begin to revolt. Rim barbarians begin to invade. Decline, then loss of contact with farthest worlds, crumbling of commerce, failure of space lanes, distrust, finally worlds withdrawing into themselves as the empire/alliance/federation/union becomes an empty shell or is destroyed at its heart. Since Isaac Asimov showed the way, this period will resemble Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entry "FALL OF EMPIRE". Examples: the Foundation novels of Isaac Asimov, THE LAST PLANET aka STAR RANGERS by Andre Norton, the Dominic Flandry novels of Poul Anderson, THE COSMIC COMPUTER aka JUNKYARD PLANET by H. Beam Piper, GALACTIC DERELICT by Andre Norton, THE REDISCOVERY OF MAN by Cordwainer Smith, BIRTHRIGHT: THE BOOK OF MAN by Mike Resnick.

7D. The Interregnum or Dark Ages

"The Long Night." Worlds reverting to pre spaceflight conditions, savagery, barbarism, primitive forms of life, superstition. Worlds taking to barbarian raids on defenseless isolated planets, hastening the downfall of knowledge. Interstellar trade and communication fails. Knowledge and technology is lost. Fragments of spaceflight, fragments of empire, some starships, some efforts to revive. Rise of petty wars and kingdoms. Thousands of years of loss of contact. Humanity in this period becomes indigenous to most of the habitable planets of the galaxy, forgetting origins. Evolutionary changes may take place. Alteration of form to fit differing world conditions — giant men, tiny men, water-dwelling men, flying men, mutations. Rairly this can end with the extinction of humanity. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entry "INTERREGNUM". Examples: EARTHBLOOD by Keith Laumer, SPACE VIKING by H. Beam Piper, THE REDISCOVERY OF MAN by Cordwainer Smith, THE ARMAGEDDON INHERITANCE by David Weber, the Interstellar Empire novels of John Brunner.

7E. Renaissance

Rebirth of civilization. Interstellar trade and communications resume, and the seeds of a new Empire are planted. Examples: "Starfog" and "The Star Plunderer" by Poul Anderson.

From here, the history can circle round back to Formation of Empire. Otherwise, it leads up to:

8. Rise of a Permanent Galactic Civilization

Restoration of commerce between worlds. The reexploration of lost and uncontacted worlds and the bringing them back to high-technology, democratic levels. The efforts to establish trade between human worlds that no longer seem kin. Beating down new efforts to form empires, efforts which sometimes succeed and revert to approximations of the previous period, with similar results. Eventual rise of galactic harmony among intelligences. The exploration of other galaxies and of the entire universe. Examples: THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Niven and Pournelle, "Herbig-Haro" by Harry Turtledove, EMPIRE by H. Beam Piper, WARLORD by S.M. Stirling and David Drake.

9. Delphic Age

Everybody wears togas. Galactic harmony and an undreamed of high level of knowledge leads to experiments in creation, to harmony between galactic clusters, and possible exploration of the other dimensions of existence. The effort to match Creation and to solve the last secrets of the universe. Sometimes seeking out and confronting the Creative Force or First Cause itself, sometimes merging with it. The end of the universe, the end of time, the beginning of a new universe or a new space-time continuum. Humanity ascends to a higher plane of existence or mysteriously vanishes/goes extinct. Examples: LAST AND FIRST MEN and STAR MAKER by Olaf Stapledon, THE CITY AND THE STARS by Arthur C. Clarke.

Predicting the Future

The following is some suggested reading on the topic of predicting enough broad historical trends that can be used to manufacture your future history. In the following, the term "Psychohistory" refers to the fictional science created by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation trilogy, not the modern Psychohistory. "Cliology" is a variant on Asimovian Psychohistory.

Asimov, Isaac. Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (July 1988). SF Author Isaac Asimov discusses psychohistory.
How to Build a Future
Barnes, John (1991). Analog Magazine (March 1990) and collected in Apostrophes and Apocalypses by Tor Books (1998) and Writer's Chapbook #18. SF Author John Barnes discusses how he uses spreadsheets and computer programs to model sociological and economic trends. He then uses these as the skeleton to build his future histories upon.
The World, The Flesh, and The Devil (online)
Bernal, J. D. (1929) Visionary notes on the future and how to conquer the three great enemies of human advancement.
Candidate - Fundamental Theorems of Cliology
Choate, James. Notes on candidates for theorems in cliology.
Profiles of the Future
Clarke, Arthur (1984). Great collection of essays on technological advancements and predicting the future.
An Introduction to Cliology
Flynn, Michael. Collected in In the Country of the Blind. Cliology is a variant on psychohistory. Flynn develops it in interesting directions removed from Asimov's ideas.
An Introduction to Psychohistory
Flynn, Michael. Analog Magazine (April 1988 - May 1988). SF Author Michael Flynn discusses areas of scientific thought that could be used to actually formulate something approximating the psychohistory
Pson of Psychohistory
Flynn, Michael. Analog Magazine (June 1994). A follow-up to the "Intro to Psychohistory" article.
"Where To?"
Heinlein, Robert. Collected in Expanded Universe. An excellent essay on prediction the future in general and extrapolating technological progress in specific.
Stover, Gene. Notes on developing a predictive science of history.

Historical Events

If you are trying to write your own future history, legendary SF author Isaac Asimov shows the way. He took the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, filed off the serial numbers, replaced "Roman Empire" with "Galactic Empire", and thus wrote the Foundation Trilogy. (I jest. Asimov did much more than that. Asimov is one of the giants of science fiction and his Foundation trilogy is rightly considered to be one of the best SF series ever written, period.)

Noted SF author Ken MacLeod said "History is the trade secret of science fiction." Keep in mind that you do not have to copy the historical record slavishly, even real history doesn't do that. It has been said it is not quite true that "history repeats itself", more like "historical situations reoccur." More flippantly John Colombo said "History never repeats itself but it rhymes."

If you find Gibbon's Decline and Fall a little overwhelming, there is always the Complete Idiot's Guide to the Roman Empire. If you want something in between, try The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire by Edward Luttwak. For a "crossover" science fictional history, read here. And go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entry "COSMIC BACKGROUND HISTORY".

As an example, Bill Baldwin's rollicking space opera The Helmsman Saga is obviously based on World War II, with scenes reminding one of The Battle of Britain and The Dunkirk Miracle.

You can use other sources than history. Glen Cook's marvelous novel SHADOWLINE is a re-telling of Norse mythology. Only instead of Norse gods, it is about futuristic mercenary companies. The mercenary leader Storm is an Odin figure, sending two telepathic flying lizards around to spy in the same way Odin sent Huginn and Muninn. He has robot drone aircraft flying around various battlefields. If they spot some soldier who is valiant, when the soldier is killed the drones swoop down and carry off the body. The soldier is brought back to life by advanced medical techology and given the opportunity to enlist with Storm's mercenary legion, to fight and be reborn forever. This parallels the Norse tales of Valkyries and the undying warriors of Valhalla.

If you want a slightly more scientific method, you could take a stab at simulating future history.


If you ask me how to shine in the science-fiction line as a pro of luster bright,
I say, practice up the lingo of the sciences, by jingo (never mind if not quite right).
You must talk of Space and Galaxies and tesseractic fallacies in slick and mystic style,
Though the fans won't understand it, they will all the same demand it with a softly hopeful smile.

And all the fans will say,
As you walk your spatial way,
If that young man indulges in flights through all the Galaxy,
Why, what a most imaginative type of man that type of man must be.

So success is not a mystery, just brush up on your history, and borrow day by day.
Take an Empire that was Roman and you'll find it is at home in all the starry Milky Way.
With a drive that's hyperspatial, through the parsecs you will race, you'll find that plotting is a breeze,
With a tiny bit of cribbin' from the works of Edward Gibbon and that Greek, Thucydides.

And all the fans will say,
As you walk your thoughtful way,
If that young man involves himself in authentic history,
Why, what a very learned kind of high IQ, his high IQ must be.

Then eschew all thoughts of passion of a man-and-woman fashion from your hero's thoughtful mind.
He must spend his time on politics, and thinking up his shady tricks, and outside that he's blind.
It's enough he's had a mother, other females are a bother, though they're jeweled and glistery.
They will just distract his dreaming and his necessary scheming with that psychohistory.

And all the fans will say,
As you walk your narrow way,
If all his yarns restrict themselves to masculinity,
Why, what a most particularly pure young man that pure young man must be.

"The Foundation of S.F Success", Isaac Asimov (1958)

"Yes," Harkaman pounced on that last. "I know of at least forty instances, on a dozen and a half planets, in the last eight centuries, of anti-technological movements. They had them on Terra, back as far as the Second Century Pre-Atomic. And after Venus seceded from the First Federation, before the Second Federation was organized."

"You're interested in history?" Rathmore asked.

"A hobby. All spacemen have hobbies. There's very little work aboard ship in hyperspace; boredom is the worst enemy. My guns-and-missiles officer, Van Larch, is a painter. Most of his work was lost with the Corisande on Durendal, but he kept us from starving a few times on Flamberge by painting pictures and selling them. My hyperspatial astrogator, Guatt Kirbey, composes music; he tries to express the mathematics of hyperspatial theory in musical terms. I don't care much for it, myself," he admitted. "I study history. You know, it's odd; practically everything that's happened on any of the inhabited planets has happened on Terra before the first spaceship."

From Space Viking by H. Beam Piper (1963)

From Probapossible Prolegomena to Ideareal History by James Blish (1978). Blish expounds upon the historical theories of Oswald Spengler.

Civilizations may last for centuries and be extremely eventful; Imperial Rome is a prime example.


But autumn ends, and a civilization becomes a culture gone frozen in its brains and heart, and its finale is anything but grand. We are now far into what the Chinese called the period of contending states, and the collapse of Caesarism.

In such a period, politics becomes an arena of competing generals and plutocrats, under a dummy ruler chosen for low intelligence and complete moral plasticity, who amuses himself and keeps the masses distracted from their troubles with bread, circuses, and brushfire-wars. (This is the time of all times when a culture should unite — and the time when such a thing has become impossible.) Technology flourishes (the late Romans were first-class engineers) but science disintegrates into a welter of competing, grandiosely trivial hypotheses which supersede each other almost weekly and veer more and more markedly toward the occult.

Among the masses there arises a "second religiousness" in which nobody actually believes; an attempt is made to buttress this by syncretism, the wrenching out of context of religious forms from other cultures, such as the Indian, without the faintest hope of knowing what they mean. This process, too, leads inevitably towards a revival of the occult, and here science and religion overlap, to the benefit of neither. Economic inequity, instability and wretchedness become endemic on a hitherto unprecedented scale; the highest buildings ever erected by the Classical culture were the tenements of the Imperial Roman slums, crammed to bursting point with freed and runaway slaves, bankrupts, and deposed petty kings and other political refugees.

From Probapossible Prolegomena to Ideareal History by James Blish (1978)

The Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the 3rd century bc was a very complex region. The three empires founded by the successors of Alexander the Great were collapsing. They were locally powerful, but none was a superpower. Usurpers and secessionists complicated their politics.

Leagues of city states—the Achaeans and Aetolians in Greece proper, others in Asia Minor—had their own interests. New kingdoms, particularly that of Pergamum, were growing at the expense of their neighbors, and barbarians—both Celtic and Illyrian—were becoming regional powers instead of merely raiding and moving on.

Rome was still in the wings but the violent morass would shortly draw her in, ending both the chaos and her own status as a republic. (The region's enormous wealth and complexity, in my opinion, inexorably turned Rome into an empire.)

I adapted this setting for Paying the Piper. The general background is that of the war between Rhodes and Byzantium, ostensibly over freedom of navigation. It was about as stupid a conflict as you're likely to find, during which the real principals licked their lips and chuckled while well-meaning idealists wrecked their own societies in pursuit of unobtainable goals by improper means. Much of the military detail is drawn from the campaigns of Phillip the Fifth and his allies against the Aetolian League, particularly the campaign of 219 bc which culminated in Phillip's capture of Psophis.

I guess it isn't out of place to add one comment about the study of history. Knowing a good deal about how cultures interacted in the past allows one to predict how they will interact in the present, so I'm rarely surprised by the daily news. But I regret to say that this understanding doesn't appear to make me happier.

From a background note to PAYING THE PIPER by David Drake (2002)

Tracking Essential Goods

For a good overview of the history of the world in 48 pages, try David Maurer's Explanation of history. If you read the section on Aristocrat Tribal Societies, you will find a plausible explanation of the psychology of the Klingon Empire. Maurer covers the economic stages a nation goes through, with each state boiling down to a new answer to the problem of "where is the food going to come from?" Another book about stages is The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire by Edward Luttwak. And don't miss the Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World.

When getting down to basics, remember that the word Lord comes from the Old English word hlaford, which was derived from the Old English hlafweard. The word hlaf means "bread" or "loaf" and weard means "keeper" or "guardian", so Lord means "Keeper of the food". You give your allegiance to your lord because he's the one who gives you food. Meanwhile Lady come from the Old English word hlæfdige. -Dige means "maid", and is derived from dæge or "maker of dough."

In other words, the Lord brings home the bacon, and the Lady cooks it. And the Lord's men are loyal because he feeds them.

Aristocrat Tribal Societies

...This kind of society sometimes has the outward appearance of being an aristocrat peasant society, but in reality the common people have not been reduced to peasant status and are not compelled to deliver large amounts of food to their political leaders. This means that the common people retain a great deal of personal freedom and independence. These people fully realize that they have much more freedom than the peasants in neighboring societies and are determined to defend it. Most of the men carry weapons most of the time. This group contains quite a large number of different people. It includes Albanians, Kurds, Chechens, Berbers, Druse, many of the Arab countries, Afghans, a number of groups in Central Asia, Tibetans, Mongols, Gurkhas, and a number of Hill Tribes in Southeast Asia. The Scottish Highlanders were a member of this group before they were destroyed in the 18th century.

Most of these people lived in mountains, deserts, and difficult hill country where it was just not possible to produce a reliable food surplus. They were tough, well armed, and sometimes envious of the wealth that was produced by their more prosperous neighbors. It used to be common for many of them to raid their neighbors for food, women, and moveable wealth. It was a very macho form of society that admired physical toughness and ability with weapons. These aristocrat tribal societies seem to have a high level of resistance to the transition into modern nation-states.

(ed note: sound much like the Klingon Empire from classic original Star Trek)

From Explanation of history by David Maurer


In James Burke's fascinating documentary Connections, the first episode points out that technological progress was impossible until one key thing had been invented: the Plow.

Without the plow, all one person could manage to feed was themselves and maybe their family. Such cultures had to have 100% employment in the food raising industry. The culture could not afford the luxury of supporting citizens who were inventors. But with the invention of the plow, suddenly a surplus of food appears. Inventors can be supported, and the headlong rush of technological progress is off and running.

And in Jerry Pournelle's Janissaries, the Earth mercenaries are marooned on a primitive planet. The first thing they ask for from their alien owners is a copy of James Burke's Connections book. If you haven't seen Burke's documentary series Connections or The Day The Universe Changed, you might consider renting a copy.

Asteroid Revolutionary War

RocketCat sez

Science fiction authors utilizing the tried-and-true History Short-Cut method love using a Revolutionary War as a model. Because the rubes love it, just look at the Star Wars box office take (not to mention all the sequels). And because it never gets old, even in the real world. I mean, our first historical record of revolt was back in freaking 2740 BCE, and there have been thousands of them since.

Its all because human nature doesn't change. Founding nations throughout history just can't resist mistreating their colonies for profit, for power, and Because They Can. Eventually the colony in question gets angry enough to do something about it. The same old story happens again and again.

So nobody can accuse the SF author of depicting unrealistic events.

The science fiction readers eat it up as well. It is a dramatic and comfortingly familiar situation in a sometimes confusing science fiction universe. Any reader who has attended grade school has had history lessons drummed into their heads about the glorious revolutions in their nation's heritage. And pseudo-Libertarian spoiled brats stuck in the terrible twos who think they are being oppressed by the government, well, they just can't get enough SF revolution tales of liberation.

All the author has to do is drop into place the identity of the Oppressive Nation and the Colony and they are good to go. And the history books are just chock full of free exciting details to be used, such as rival nations covertly supplying aid to the rebels as a way of sticking it to the Oppressive Nation.

Many authors have been inspired by the American Revolutionary War and similar revolts. History repeats itself. So authors figure if Mars (for instance) is colonized, then Terra starts acting like King George, history will repeat with Mars emailing several megabytes worth of Declaration of Independence to Terra and starting the training of Martian minutemen.

TV Tropes calls it the The War of Earthly Aggression (though their sarcastic name is a riff off one of the titles of the American Civil War, not the American Revolutionary War). Related TV Tropes are The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified, The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized, La Résistance, and Les Collaborateurs.

Examples include:

Red Planet by Robert Heinlein (1949)
The colonial governor of Mars colony systematically oppresses the colonists in a constant effort to cut costs and squeeze out more profit. With predictable results.
Between Planets by Robert Heinlein (1951)
The dystopian Terran govenment falls on economic hard times, and tries the insanely bad idea of solving their economic woes by levying tribute on Venus Colony. Hilarity ensues. See quote below.
The Revolt on Venus by Carey Rockwell (1954)
Book 5 of the Tom Corbett Space Cadet series. A secret underground organization on Venus called the "Nationalists" plot a revolt against the Solar Confederation. As it turns out, it was all a bigger plot by The Villain who wanted to rule Venus, and was channeling the frustration of a group of Venusian colonial hot-heads into his sinister plan.
Revolt on Alpha C by Robert Silverberg (1955)
Terra's first colony at Alpha Centauri is 125 years old, and they are fed up with taxation without representation. They kick off the revolution just as the space patrol ship Carden arrives. Among her crew is our hero Cadet Stark, who must decide what is the proper and honorable course of action in a situation where there is no clear right and wrong.
Earthlight by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1955)
Terra has all the mineable heavy metal resources available in the solar system. The federation of planetary colonies have all the brilliant scientists and vitality. Terra is afraid of becoming a has-been, so tries to hold back the federation. Yes, it is that old Decay of the Fatherland trope yet again. Anyway, Terra had been holding back on the heavy metal shipments to the federation on the pretext that the mines are worked out. But they secretly discover ore deposits on Luna and try to covertly mine them. Alas, the federation finds out, and again hilarity ensues. See quote below.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein (1966)
The lunar colony was orginally a penal colony, which is why the Terran government considers them to be untrustworthy riffraff bastards. TerraGov then proceeds to export most of the lunar crops to Terra without allowing imports of water. When the lunar colony complains that this is causing an ecological collapse, TerraGov figures they are lying. The lunar colony revolts and demonstrates to Terra (and generations of gleeful SF fans) the horrific planetary bombardment capabilites inherent in a weaponized mass-driver.
Tales of the Flying Mountains by Poul Anderson (1970)
In this collection, the stories "The Rogue" and "Say It With Flowers" take place just before and during the Asterite War of Independence. The war was consciously modelled on the American one.
Birth of Fire by Jerry Pournelle (1976)
Martian colonists revolt against oppressive multinational corporations back on Terra.
BattleFleet Mars by SPI (1977)
This is a tabletop wargame, not a novel. In the game, the only major presence in space is the Ares Corporation. They have developed Mars and several asteroids. "Developed", as in all the miserable Ares Corp employees find that they perpetually owe their soul to the company store. The Terran government is powerless to change things, so the employees take matters into their own hands. It is not so much a revolutionary war as it is an incredibly violent labor strike.
Gundam by Yoshiyuki Tomino (1979)
Pretty much all of the various incarnations of the Gundam anime feature the orbital L5 colonies revolting for independence from Terra.
To The Stars trilogy by Harry Harrison (1980)
A totalitarian Terran government brutally controls a set of interstellar colonies who are carefully set up so they are totally dependent on each other. Each colony requires for survival goods that are only manufactured on another colony, and stockpiling is forbidden. Therefore it is impossible for any revolt to succeed unless all the colonies revolt simultaneously. Unfortunately for Terra, that is precisely what the colonies do.
Traveller: Library Data (N-Z) by John Harshman, Marc Miller & Loren Wiseman (1982)
In the universe of the Traveller role-playing game, inside the Third Imperium the Solomani Autonomous Region is a sphere of 50 parsecs radius centered on Terra. The Solomani (i.e., "Men of Sol") revolt, precipitating the Solomani Rim War. The Third Imperium had its victory, but it turned out to be Pyrrhic.
Clarke County, Space by Allen Steele (1990)
Lunar Descent by Allen Steele (1991)
Independence War by Particle Systems (1997)
In this top-notch computer game, Earth's Commonwealth Navy is embroiled in a decades old guerrilla war with the breakaway Indies.
"Bull Running's War" by Øyvind Myhre (1990) published in New Libertarian #187 (1990)
A short story about an American Indian colonist on Mars who got caught in the middle of a Martian libertarian revolution.
Insurrection by David Weber and Steve White (1990)
In the Terran Empire, the inner colonies of the Corporate Worlds basically run the government, and have used government structural tricks to all but disenfranchise the poor outer colonies of the Fringe Worlds. Just when the Fringe Worlds are about to get some representation, the Corporate Worlds pull yet another dirty trick to prevent it. Which turns out to be the straw that broke the camel's back.
The Company Wars series by C. J. Cherryh (1991)
This features a three-way fight between the Earth Company, the breakaway colonies of the Union, and the Merchanter's Alliance.

In the section on elemental bottlenecks I point out that phosphorus and nitrogen are vital for plants, animal, and people; but there are no rich sources in the solar system except for Terra. This is not an insurmountable problem for a spacecraft or space station. But it is a major catastrophe for an extra-terran solar system colony. Your supply of new baby colonials is limited to your supply of phosphorus.

This could be a large club that the government of Terra waves at the extraterrestrial colonies, if they start making noises about rebelling from Terra's oppressive control. If the Martian colonials start complaining about "no taxation without representation", Terra will respond with "You are receiving a nice steady supply of phosphorus. It would be a shame if anything happened to it." Naturally the Martian Revolutionary War might be kicked off by the unexpected discovery of of a large non-Terran source of phosphorus.

Belter Slogan

Evidently my sloganeering brain is still on good form:

"Down with Earther landsnatching! No legislation without excavation!"

(The predictable response of the Ceresians when some bureaucrat in a shiny suit arrives aboard to tell them all about how his government said it owned the sky ages ago and as their sovereign wossname from which all property rights derive, it'd like a 20% nitrogen tax now, please.)

((I mean, right before the people who actually worked their asses off carving a home out of that rock chuck him out the airlock. And then haul him back in again for the recycling tanks. No sense in being wasteful about it.))

From a post by Alistair Young (2016)

(ed note: the Corporate Worlds are the ones closest to Terra, the first ones colonized (the "inner worlds"). They quickly developed into the most economically powerful. The Fringe Worlds (the "outworlds") were colonized later, but were more numerous. Sadly, the Corporate worlds used their clout to rig the interstellar Federation. According to the rules, the Fringe Worlds were all but disenfranchised. Naturally the Fringe Worlds were a bit upset about that.)

After twenty-five years in the Assembly—twenty of them as head of her planet's delegation—Fionna had learned the bitter, sordid realities of the Federation's government, but the Chamber of Worlds still took her breath away. She wished she could have seen it when the Assembly had lived up to its promise, but not even the gangrenous present of partisanship and exploitation could diminish the grandeur of the ideal this chamber had been built to enshrine...

...Fionna fidgeted uneasily as the opening formalities filtered past her. She could see the Galloway's World delegation from where she sat, and Simon Taliaferro wasn't in his usual place. The New Zurich delegation was less than ten meters away, and she noted sinkingly that Oskar Dieter wasn't with his fellows, either. Whatever Greuner had tried to warn them of, those two would be at the heart of it. Her fingers flew over her information console, keying their names and punching up a cross index of the committees on which they sat, for she'd learned long since that it was in the closed committee meetings that the Corporate Worlds wove their webs.

The screen lit, confirming her memory. Both men were from populous worlds; combined with their personal seniority in the Assembly and the "representative membership" committee rules the Corporate Worlds had rammed through twelve years ago, that gave them membership on dozens of committees . . . including shared membership on Foreign Relations and Military Oversight. She frowned. Not only was each a member of both, but Taliaferro chaired Foreign Relations and Dieter chaired Military Oversight. It was an ominous combination...

...Taliaferro could have been prime minister, but his position as head of his delegation was more useful, and he would have been forced to resign it to accept the premiership. On the other hand, he could never have been president, for that largely gelded office was still decided by direct election. As heir to one of the shipbuilding dynasties which had used political power to cement its stranglehold on the Outworlds' commerce, he could never have carried enough of the popular vote. Ninety percent of all Federation cargo moved in hulls owned by Corporate World shipping magnates, yet over sixty percent of the Federation's systems lay in the Fringe and Rim. Which was why Taliaferro was hated . . . and why he was prepared to embrace any expedient to stave off the rapidly-approaching day when the Fringe's delegates would be numerous enough to demand an accounting for two centuries of economic exploitation...

..."Members of the Assembly," Taliaferro said, "I bring you great news! After months of negotiation, I can now tell you that perhaps the most momentous departure in the history of the Galaxy has been proposed. President Zhi and Prime Minister Minh have received a direct communication from the Khan of the Orions, borne by a fully empowered plenipotentiary." He paused for effect, knowing he'd gathered the eyes and ears of every delegate. "The Khan proposes nothing less than the amalgamation of the Terran Federation and the Khanate of Orion!"

His voice rose steadily through the last sentence, but it was almost lost in the roar which burst forth at the word "amalgamation," and Fionna was on her feet, one fist clenched on the top of her console.

"No!" she shouted, but her voice was lost in the uproar...

...Her eyes narrowed as she sank back into her seat. Of course the Corporate Worlds knew, and Taliaferro's obvious delight made cold, ugly sense. How was the huge population of the Khanate to fit into this new, amalgamated monster? Were the Orions suddenly to find themselves enfranchised to vote for the first time in their history? It had taken over a century of slow, painful population growth in the outworlds to earn the delegates to challenge the Corporate Worlds. With such a huge influx of votes, the Assembly would have no choice but to cut the representational basis . . . which would just coincidentally gerrymander the sparse Fringe population out of the representation it had finally gained...

...But if twenty-five years in the Assembly had taught her anything, it was that the Heart Worlds didn't understand the Fringe. The Corporate Worlders knew their outworld cousins and enemies far better than the motherworld and its oldest colonies did, though she suspected not even the Corporate Worlds fully realized the fulminating anger they were fanning. But the Heart Worlds were too far removed from their own frontier days. They'd forgotten what it was like to know that any outside attack must come through their systems to reach the heart of empire. As they'd forgotten—if they'd ever known—what it was to have their commerce, the lifeblood of their societies, manipulated and exploited by predatory merchants with a yen for power.

And because they had forgotten or did not know, they were a terrible danger to the Fringe. Fionna had seen the "new liberalism" of her Heart World colleagues. The Heart Worlds had it too good, she thought bitterly; they were too content, too ultracivilized. The Corporate Worlds could convince them the Fringe really was peopled by uncouth barbarians but little removed from outright savagery. Worse, they could be convinced to do what was "best" for the Fringe—even if it killed the object of their kindness!...

...Of all the Fringe Worlds, Beaufort, perhaps, most despised Corporate Worlders. Beaufort's heavy gravity had not been kind to its colonizers, despite their selection for high pressure tolerance, yet there had been fierce competition for space on the colony ships. The rebels of the Corporate Worlds, those who could no longer tolerate their roles as cogs in the vast machines, had seen in Beaufort a world poor enough and distant enough to be secure from manipulation and control. They'd gone to Beaufort to escape, and many had died there—so many BuCol actually closed the planet to immigration for almost sixty years.

Fionna's parents and grandparents had spoken of those bitter years. The gene pool was small; the environment was harsh; and BuCol's Corporate World bureaucrats had not gone out of their way to help. Those six decades of isolation had produced the dialect the Innerworlders mocked—and left a burning hatred in the hearts of the people who spoke it.

But then the unsuspected pharmaceutical potential of the Beaufort doomwhale had rocked Terran medical science, and suddenly the Corporate Worlds and the Assembly were filled with concern for the colony they had ignored for so long. The Corporate World combines had moved in, and the Corporate World nightmare had come for the people of Beaufort once more.

Yet cold, hostile Beaufort had trained them well, and the planetary government moved quickly to regulate doomwhaling and exclude the Corporate Worlds, unmoved by threats of economic reprisal. There was little anyone could do which the Corporate Worlds hadn't already done, and, for the first time in over a century and a half, Corporate World plutocrats were forced to dance to the economic piping of a Fringe World.

They had hated it, and it was Beaufort's successful resistance to their penetration which gave her delegation such prestige. Beaufort had proved the Corporate Worlds could be stopped; now it was time to prove they could be pushed back, and Fionna MacTaggart had dedicated her professional life to that goal...

(ed note: Corporate Worlder Simon Taliaferro finds fringeworlder delegate Fionna too much of an obstacle, and has her assassinated. )

They were no more truly "evil" than he himself. Like him, they played by the only rules they knew, and they played the "game" well. That was the problem. For them, it was only a game, a vastly exciting contest for the wealth of a galaxy.

They were manipulators and users because it had never occurred to them to be anything else. The Legislative Assembly was no government; it was a tremendous, fascinating toy, a machine whose buttons and levers disgorged ever more wealth, ever more power, and ever more intoxicating triumphs.

Sorrow filled him. The Corporate Worlds had spent trillions of credits and decades of political effort to master that machine, and when the growing Fringe population threatened their control, they'd moved ruthlessly to crush the opposition—all as part of "the game." For all the time and effort they spent plotting and planning, they were even blinder than the insulated Heart Worlders, for they saw Fringers only as obstacles, not as people, and certainly not as fellow citizens. They saw them as pawns, dupes—cartoon caricatures cruelly drawn by habitual contempt and denigration...

..."The truth," she sneered, "is that the Fringe won't even know what hit it for at least ten years—if they manage to figure it out then! With our majority, we'll control the post-amalgamation reapportionment. We'll gut them, and they'll stay gutted for fifty years!"

"Fifty?" Dieter allowed himself a chuckle. "Amanda, you obviously don't know as much about the demographics as you think." He felt spines stiffen as he threw his challenge into her teeth, filled with a courage based for a change on conviction rather than convenience. "It won't be fifty years, dear; if the Fringe population curves hold steady and the borders continue to expand, it'll be more like a hundred and fifty years."...

..."Dear me, Amanda—didn't Simon mention that?" Dieter's voice was harsh in the semi-silence. "He should have, because the Fringers have waited two hundred years for their representation to match ours; they'll certainly run a worst-case projection and realize they're facing at least another century of powerlessness. How do you think they'll react to that?"

"How can they react?" Taliaferro scoffed. "They won't have the votes to stop it."

"Precisely," Dieter said flatly. He drew a deep breath and rose, his gaze burning over the faces around him...

..."Listen to me, all of you," he said softly. "We can do it. We can use Skjorning to break the Fringe and then ram reapportionment through whatever opposition is left, but are you all too blind to see what will happen then?"

"Tell us, Oskar, since you seem so prescient," Taliaferro sneered, no longer hiding his contempt.

"I'll tell you, Simon," Dieter said, his voice sad. "War."

"War!" Taliaferro's laugh was harsh. "With whom, Oskar? That penniless bunch of ragged-assed barbarians? Hell, man, the Taliaferro Yards alone can build more hulls than all the Fringe Worlds put together! Not even Fringers could be stupid enough to buck that much firepower!"

"Can't they? Simon, I chair Military Oversight. I know what I'm talking about. They can fight, and they will. They'll be ready enough if you only railroad Skjorning out of the Assembly—" he saw frowns of distaste at his deliberately honest choice of verb "—but that isn't all you'll be doing. This amalgamation is an antimatter warhead, man! The mere threat of enfranchising the Orions will drive them berserk. And it won't be 'barbarian xenophobia,' whatever you tell the Heart Worlds. It'll be a cold sober appreciation of what adding that many non-Terran voters will do to their representation."

"So what?" Taliaferro shot back. "Let some of them try to secede! We'll squash them like bugs, and it'll prove they're barbarians! The Heart Worlds'll be as eager as we are to expel them from the Assembly—for good!"

Cold shock knifed through Dieter. Not surprise, really; perhaps he'd guessed Taliaferro's real intent all along and simply chosen not to face it.

"My God," he said softly. "You want a war."

(ed note: civil war ensues, and Taliaferro does suffer his richly deserved horrible fate. They didn't count on the fact that a sizeable proportion of the crew on Federation navy starships were from the outworlds. When civil war arrives, many ships defect to the outworld side.)

From Insurrection by Steve White & David Weber (1993)
The Ogg-Nat War: Prologue

     When the first interplanetary war broke out in 2178, we didn't call it what the history books do now. The Interplanetary Civil War (Terran name) and The War of Martian Interdependence (Mars' preference) were latter fictions to gloss over the root of the conflict.
     No, we called that war, The Ogg-Nat War—or Nat-Ogg, depending on your side.

     The first extra-Terran colonists were volunteers. They had to be. The mid-21st Century brought freefall and shallow gravity wells to hundreds, then thousands, of colonists serving double duty as test subjects on the human body's response to low gravity. And natural selection demanded its due.
     Roughly 80% of humans who permanently settled on the Moon or Mars, fell seriously ill within 20 years of arrival. Theoretically, we could've treated many of the ailments, but stem cells and genetic repairs had their limits. Some of the more serious conditions could only be treated on Earth, which could itself prove fatal. The remaining healthy 20% were forced by circumstance to either break backs to support the colony, or let their fellow colonists—colleagues, friends, spouses—die on a strange world.
     If you ever wondered how "malapert" became synonymous with "disaster" or "massacre," look at a map of the Moon's south pole, and look for the tallest peak. There you'll find the site of the first off-world riot—and a memorial to the 117 people who perished, many of whom were already near death. The riot started with a demand for better health care, and ended with the explosive decompression and collapse of two of the base's four domes.

     Which is why, in 2061, the first Low Gravity Genomic Survey was conducted. We discovered which genes improved survival and quality-of-life when you are no longer Earthbound. By 2080, gene therapy before long-term space travel was as routine as immunizations were for international travelers the century previous—if not nearly as frequent.
     The last unmodified resident of the Moon died in 2093. Jessica Dumas, a survivor of the Malapert Base Riot, was a medic by trade, and a mountain climber by passion. Without those skill sets, she probably would have asphyxiated like the other victims of the dome collapses. Instead she saved her skin—mostly. Burn scars and rosacea plagued her, yet she refused treatment. As she often explained, "I want people to see and understand."
     Dumas became a political activist, her energies focused on improving the health of the off-world colonies. She also popularized "Selenian" as a collective noun for Lunar colonists, as pushback against the derogatory use of "Loony" by Terrans. When she died at age 59 from cancer, she was mourned by three worlds.

     In 2137, the last unmodified Martian, 106-year old Jeferson Schefer, died at Arsia Caverns Hospital. Schefer was also the last living participant in the Low Gravity Genomic Survey—and had 86% of the genes identified as useful to survival off Earth.
     It's often rumored, although easily debunked, that Schefer's genome was the basis for all low-g gene therapies. Some opponents of human genetic modification called Schefer, "Adam Sans Eve." In reality he was a botanist remembered on Mars mostly for cultivating Elysium hazel and other Mars-adapted evergreens. On Earth, however, he's sometimes mentioned along with Henrietta Lacks as an example of unethical medical research, despite Schefer's frequent public defense of the Survey.

     Great care was taken to keep ethics above-board. But that didn't stop accusations from The Light, an ostensibly interfaith conservative think tank, that low-gravity gene therapies were "eugenics." Nor did it help that some of the changes, such as increased brain blood flow to combat hypoxia, tended to make for slightly happier and more imaginative humans.
     If you put a Terran, a Martian, and a Selenian in the same room, you wouldn't notice any glaring differences in overall morphology. Martians and Selenians often had slightly larger heads, due to genes that slow the fusion of cranial sutures during development, to help offset fluid shift. They also tended to slighter, more androgynous builds. Nonetheless, their bodies were well within Terran body norms.

     But personality-wise, there tended to be starker differences.
     Martians and Selenians were... weird. They prefered oblique strategies and independent thinking, but also tended to increased intimacy and bonding. On worlds where survival was tenuous and sustainability a dream, people began to drop the dogmas of Earth life that separated Us from Them. Every person counted in the effort to make these new worlds into homes. Bigots weren't welcome anymore.
     Back on Earth, the climate was becoming more perilous, with flood and famine taking its toll. People were clinging to whatever could give them comfort, including the idea that humanity had sinned by modifying the sacred genetic code and leaving the world we were intended to live and die upon, and that was the true cause of their calamities, rather than the abundance of carbon dioxide.
     Before long, to admit that you had spent any time in space, for any reason, was enough to be labeled an augment and be accused of offending the natural order. Even if you could somehow prove that you were a "natural" human genetically. Even if such a concept truly existed.

(ed note: so in the Ogg-Nat War, the Oggs were the Augmented Martians and Selenians, while the Nats were the Natural Terrans)

Space and the Law

The Greek Case

     Let us consider the Greeks of the first millennium b.c. It is from the Greeks that the modern Western world traces its philosophy, art, literature, science, and even important strands of its religion. Generally, we of the West feel sympathetic to the Greeks and identify with them in their struggles against the non-Greek "barbarians," notably in their war against the Persian Empire.
     Yet the ancient Greeks were not, at any time in their history, a single realm under a central government. They were a congerie of city-states, whose normal situation was that of mutual suspicion and hostility, and who would turn on any one of their number who showed signs of growing too powerful.
     They could never, under any circumstances, truly unite against an external enemy. Their closest approach to this was in the war against Persia between 500 and 450 BCE, and even then, substantial portions of the Greek world remained neutral—and in some cases even sided with the enemy.
     This was true despite the fact that the Greeks recognized themselves to share a common heritage, a common language, a common literature, a common religion. It was true despite the fact that the Greeks recognized themselves to be a unity at least to the extent that they lumped all non-Greeks together as "barbarians."
     After the successful fight against Persia, the Greeks could not maintain even the limited union that marked that war and, through division, fell easy prey first to Macedonia and finally to Rome.
     Was there no great accomplishment behind which a pan-Greek spirit might have flourished?
     Yes, there was, and it was even a great burst of colonizing energy that in some ways could offer an analogy to the projected twenty-first-century colonization of space.
     The Greeks, between 750 b.c. and 550 b.c., expanded greatly, planting colonies all along the Mediterranean coast from the farthest eastern reach of the Black Sea to the coastline of Spain in the far west, pushing back the non-Greeks already on the spot and constructing extensions of their own culture.
     Yet the period of colonization did not create the necessary spirit of union. For one thing, each colony was an independent city-state which promptly took up the task of fighting its city-state neighbors to the point where all could barely hold their own against the competing imperialisms of the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Etruscans and, eventually, could not hold their own at all against the Romans.
     Then, too, each colony was the product of the colonizing venture of a single city-state, so that Miletus was the colony of Athens; Syracuse of Corinth; Byzantium of Megara; Taras of Sparta, and so on. Many of the colonies then, in turn, founded colonies of their own.
     Any political or emotional ties that the colonies might form were therefore never with the Greek world as a whole, but at best with the mother city. The result was that when cities warred, each sometimes looked to a mother or daughter city for help, and disunion was exacerbated.

(ed note: though Asimov does point out that the Greek City States had some advantages.)

The European Case

     A curious parallel to the Greek experience was that of the great colonizing ventures of Western Europe between 1400 and 1800 a.d. As was the case with the Greeks, Western Europe had never been unified at any time after the fall of the west Roman Empire in the fifth century, except for a partial and abortive union under Charlemagne about 800 a.d. This disunity, as in the earlier case, persisted despite a common heritage, a common language of learning, a common literature, and a common religion.
     Nor did union develop through the great adventure of colonization.
     Some of the colonization, it is true, took place in Africa and Asia and was of the sort that established the domination of a European minority over a non-European majority. If we ignore this as an aberrant form, there remains the colonization of the Americas and of Australia where the native inhabitants were pushed back or destroyed and in which extensions of the colonizing culture were established as had been the case earlier, in the Greek colonizing period.
     In the European case, unlike that of the Greeks, the colonies were not independent from the start. Instead, each European nation kept its colonies tightly bound to itself and exploited them economically. (Eventually, these colonies rebelled and broke away, of course.)
     As in the Greek case, however, the colonies were established by single political units of the overall culture. No colony felt any allegiance to the European world in general, but only to individual nations. As a result, the colonies did not encourage union but rather exacerbated disunion, and colonial rivalries among the great colonizing powers became a new occasion for the endless wars that racked Europe as once they had racked Greece.

The American Case (ed note: this is Asimov's term, not mine. I know how demeaning this term is for nations in North and South America who are not the US)

     But now let us take a third case. In the period from 1600 to 1750, England (later Great Britain) had planted a series of colonies along the east-central coast of North America (pushing back the Indians and eventually destroying them in casual genocide).
     These colonies had varying degrees of self-government, but whatever their ties to the mother country, they were certainly independent of each other. There was no way in which the people of Massachusetts could help make the laws that governed Virginia, or vice versa.
     In the Revolutionary War of 1775-83, under the stress of the struggle for independence, the colonies joined in a weak and shaky alliance no stronger than the union of Greek city-states against Persia. Nor was it a unanimous alliance, any more than the Greek one had been, for the colonists in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, upper and lower Canada, and the West Indian islands did not join the rebellion. In fact, they wholeheartedly supported Great Britain. What is more, even within the thirteen colonies which were nominally in rebellion, at least as many colonists fought for Great Britain as for independence.
     The war ended at last with American independence established but that did not make the alliance of thirteen self-governing and essentially independent "states" any stronger. Few political observers in Europe thought that the "United States" would remain united for long.
     There are a number of reasons why the Union persisted, but one of them rests with a crucial self-abnegating decision on the part of the infant states—a decision whose wisdom and critical effect has been underestimated by posterity.
     The new states were primarily settled east of the Allegheny Mountains, but the territory of the new nation stretched westward to the Mississippi River. The royal charters that had originally established the colonies-turned-states were vague as to boundaries and generous in granting everything westward to the setting sun. The result was that nine of the states had claims, conflicting and overlapping, to the western lands. The land north of the Ohio River, for instance (the Northwest Territory), was claimed entirely by Virginia and, in part, by Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York.
     Had such conflicting claims persisted, there would have been an endless cause of wrangling among the states, and the earlier Greek and European experiences would have been relived. Had the claims been straightened out and the western lands distributed among the states according to some compromise, conflicting imperialisms would nevertheless have been set up, and each further extension of national territory would have been the occasion for endless rivalries. The nation in the end would have become a congerie of battling subnations.
     What really happened was that one of the states without western claims, Maryland, refused to join the Union even under the weak terms of alliance that had existed during the Revolutionary War until all western claims were abandoned and the western lands turned over to the weak and almost powerless Congress.
     One by one, to appease Maryland, the various states abandoned their western claims.
     Not only was a cause of rivalry removed, but the cen­tral legislative body, the Congress, had in this way gained something. Congress was so weak in the years following the Revolutionary War that it was almost a negligible quantity, as the United Nations is today. Like the United Nations, the early Congress would not levy taxes but had to wait, hat in hand, for contributions from the states that made up the Union— contributions that came reluctantly, sparingly, or not at all.
     But Congress now had the western lands! What was it to do with them?
     On July 13, 1787, with only eighteen members of Congress present (so moribund was the body), the "Northwest Ordi­nance" was passed. By that Ordinance, it was decided that when population reached a certain level, new states would be formed out of the Northwest Territory and these new states would be equal to the old ones in all political and social respects. No state would be the superior of another because it was older or because it had been one of the original thirteen. Had this point not been made clear, the Union might have become a mixture of dominating senior states and dominated junior ones, and the stage would have been set for new rebellions.
     The new states, like the Greek colonies, had equal status with the mother states, but unlike the Greek colonies maintained strong political ties with the colonizing power. These strong, political ties were not, as in the case of the European colonies, to a single segment of the colonizing culture, but to the culture as a whole. The new states became part of a central government which, in 1787, was made infinitely stronger by the working out of a federal constitution which was quickly adopted by the various states. (This adoption meant that the states voluntar­ily surrendered key portions of their sovereignty—again an enormously wise example of self-abnegation.)
     There was another reason why American colonization, in the form of new states, strengthened the Union—unlike the case of the earlier Greek and European examples.
     The new American states were not officially founded by particular old American states. Most of the immigrants would naturally come from nearby states, but anyone could enter from any state—and did. The result was that, on the whole, blocs of states were not formed. There was not, from the start, a Virginia bloc and a New York bloc and so on.
     The discords and dangers to which that would have given rise are clearly shown through the one case where blocs did form, but in a manner that did not arise out of the way in which the new states were formed.
     Unfortunately, the states while they had still been colonies, had imported black slaves from Africa and created a master-slave society where none need have existed. The unwisdom of this decision went far to neutralizing all the wisdom that had gone into, the establishment of a working Union.
     As time went on, some of the states outlawed slavery and a growing hostility arose between them and the other states that permitted it. Unfortunately, the two groups were not scattered, but formed two compact blocs.
     The consequences showed what might have happened if the United States had been broken up into half a dozen spheres of influences. In 1859, when Kansas was approaching entry as a state, possibly free and possibly slave, both sides attempted to influence the vote by subsidizing immigrants, arming them, and encouraging force. The result was a civil war in Kansas.
     Within two years, there was a Civil War in the nation as a whole.
     The United States survived, at great cost, partly because there were only two blocs. One could be defeated, the other be victorious. Had there been half a dozen blocs, the shifting alliances that would have resulted as each bloc perceived danger to itself every time a competing bloc seemed to grow too strong would have made a clear-cut conclusion impossible and the United States would have disintegrated.
     What was more amazing than the victory of the Union in 1865, however, was the fact that it was followed by reconciliation. The defeated slave states, prostrated and humiliated, did not easily forget or forgive and haven't entirely forgotten and forgiven to this day, but the spirit of revenge was contained. The embittered memory of defeat did not result in further revolts or in a guerrilla movement or a long-lived independence drive or appeals to foreign powers. Instead, reconciliation while slow, was real, and the United States has remained strong and united.
     How did this come about? Partly the responsibility must surely rest with the historic accident that, in the decades immediately after the Civil War, what remained of the West was developed and a dozen new states were formed—states which were settled by men from the victorious North and from the defeated South on an equal basis; states which, therefore, owed allegiance to neither of the two sides but only to the nation as a whole. In the great task of the colonization of the West, the sectional wounds were healed. (ed note: sorry Isaac, it didn't turn out that way.)

     If we agree, then, that the Greek civilization and the West European civilization each harmed itself enormously through an inability to unite, while the American civilization developed unprecedented power-plus-liberty over a vaster area than had ever before been the subject of such an experiment—and if we further agree that the Greek and European systems of colonization did not further union at home, while the American system of colonization did—then what can we say about the forthcoming colonization of space in the twenty-first century?
  1. The colonizing culture should be united to begin with, as Greece and Europe were not and as the United States was, even though the union might be excessively weak. This we may fairly hope for, since twentieth-century civilization is not likely to survive without some form of global cooperation and since a model for it already exists in the form of the United Nations (though one could scarcely imagine a more feeble and ineffective global government). (ed note: sorry Isaac, it didn't turn out that way.)

  2. The space colonies must not be utterly independent as soon as they are capable of such independence, as in the Greek case; nor must they be subjected to such humiliating dependence as to be forced into rebellion and consequent utter independence, as in the European case. Either way, the results will not be conducive to global government. Instead, the space colonies must be tied to earth but under terms which give them the full rights and privileges of the Earthly units themselves, as in the American example. This we may hope for, too, since the space colonies will not be sufficiently self-supporting for a period of time and can scarcely hope for complete independence very soon, and since colonial oppression had gone out of style and, we may hope, will remain out of style.

  3. The space colonies must not feel bound, either politically (as in the European case) or emotionally (as in the Greek case) to one single colonizing unit of the greater whole since that would encourage rivalry and disunion; but must feel bound to the central government only (as in the American case).

     This third requirement is the most crucial since it seems the least likely. To make it possible, the global government must be in charge of the colonizing ventures, and the colonization must take place under global auspices. Each colony must be open for colonization, without restriction, to people from any part of the Earth, and, indeed, a well-mixed population should be positively encouraged on every colony.
     We should avoid, like the plague, the formation of colonies populated entirely by Americans, or by Russians, or by Uruguayans—or by any group that would then feel some emotional or traditional attachment to one section of the Earth 'more than another.
     A well-mixed colony would, instead, be a microcosm of Earth and would be divorced from the local rivalries of the civilizing power. Naturally, we cannot expect perfection. On any of the colonies there will be occasionally fashionable nostalgia that will make itself felt in the boosting of various ethnic heritages. We are experiencing this today in the United States, in fact, and it is a far cry from this to the deadly rivalries that result when opposing groups are armed and are ready to convert hatred into force.
     And then, as the number of colonies increases, each with problems having nothing to do with terrestrial localisms, those localisms will seem to grow progressively more picayune and meaningless, and the global government will grow ever stronger and more meaningful.
     My conclusion, then, is that if the colonization of'space is carried through as wisely and as farsightedly as the colonization of the American West, it will be a vast project that will unite humanity both in the performance and in the consequence, and may be the route by which we can establish a functional global law for the first time in history and, in consequence, make human civilization permanent.
     So to those who cry out that space exploration is too expensive, I can only ask: How much is survival worth?

From Space and the Law by Isaac Asimov (1976)
World of Ptavvs

(ed note: Relations between Terra and the Belter Civilization is strained. But each has a monopoly on something that is vital to the other)

“No, we can’t call on the Belt for help.” Chick’s expression dismissed the idea with the contempt he felt it deserved. “Not with Belt relations the way they are now. They know what they’d do to us with an embargo on uranium, and we know what we’d do to them by holding off their vitamins, and both sides are just itching to see who’d collapse first. You think they’d believe a story like ours? All the proof we can offer is second hand, from their point of view. They’d think we were setting up our own mining operation, or trying to claim a moon. They’d think anything at all, because all they can tell for sure is that three ships from Earth are on their way to Neptune.

From World of Ptavvs by Larry Niven (1965)

IF WAR CAME, thought Sadler, it would be a tragedy of circumstances rather than deliberate policy. Indeed, the stubborn fact that had brought Earth into conflict with her ex-colonies sometimes seemed to him like a bad joke on the part of Nature.

Even before his unwelcome and unexpected assignment, Sadler had been well aware of the main facts behind the current crisis. It had been developing for more than a generation, and it arose from the peculiar position of the planet Earth.

The human race had been born on a world unique in the solar system, loaded with a mineral wealth unmatched elsewhere. This accident of fate had given a flying start to man's technology, but when he reached the other planets, he found to his surprise and disappointment that for many of his most vital needs he must still depend on the home world.

Earth is the densest of all the planets, only Venus approaching it in this respect. But Venus has no satellite, and the Earth/Moon system forms a double world of a type found nowhere else among the planets. Its mode of formation is a mystery still, but it is known that when Earth was molten the Moon circled at only a fraction of its present distance, and raised gigantic tides in the plastic substance of its companion.

As a result of these internal tides, the crust of the Earth is rich in heavy metals—far richer than that of any other of the planets: They hoard their wealth far down within their unreachable cores, protected by pressures and temperatures that guard them from man's depredations. So as human civilization spread outward from Earth, the drain on the mother world's dwindling resources steadily increased.

(ed note: this is an out-dated theory. Currently it is thought that Terra's deposits of heavy metals came from asteroid strikes.)

The light elements existed on the other planets in unlimited amounts, but such essential metals as mercury, lead, uranium, platinum, thorium and tungsten were almost unobtainable. For many of them no substitutes existed; their large-scale synthesis was impractical, despite two centuries of effort—and modern technology could not survive without them.

It was an unfortunate situation, and a very galling one for the independent republics on Mars, Venus and the larger satellites, which had now united to form the Federation. It kept them dependent upon Earth, and prevented their expansion toward the frontiers of the solar system. Though they had searched the asteroids and moons, among the rubble left over when the worlds were formed, they had found little but worthless rock and ice. They must go cap in hand to the mother planet for almost every gram of a dozen metals that were more precious than gold.

That in itself might not have been serious, had not Earth grown steadily more jealous of its offspring during the two hundred years since the dawn of space travel. It was, thought Sadler, an old, old story, perhaps its classic example being the case of England and the American colonies. It has been truly said that history never repeats itself, but historical situations recur. The men who governed Earth were far more intelligent than George the Third; nevertheless, they were beginning to show the same reactions as that unfortunate monarch.

There were excuses on both sides. there always are. Earth was tired; it had spent itself, sending out its best blood to the stars. It saw power slipping from its hands, and knew that it had already lost the future Why should it speed the process by giving to its rivals the tools they needed?

The Federation, on the other hand, looked back with a kind of affectionate contempt upon the world from which it had sprung. It had lured to Mars, Venus and the satellites of the giant planets some of the finest intellects and the most adventurous spirits of the human race. Here was the new frontier, one that would expand forever toward the stars. It was the greatest physical challenge mankind had ever faced, it could be met only by supreme scientific skill and unyielding determination. These were virtues no longer essential on Earth; the fact that Earth was well aware of it did nothing to ease the situation.

All this might lead to discord and interplanetary invective, but it could never lead to violence. Some other factor was needed to produce that, some final spark which would set off an explosion echoing round the solar system.

That spark had now been struck. The world did not know it yet, and Sadler himself had been equally ignorant a short six months ago. Central Intelligence, the shadowy organization of which he was now a reluctant member, had been working night and day to neutralize the damage. A mathematical thesis entitled "A Quantitative Theory of the Formation of the Lunar Surface Features" did not look like the sort of thing that could start a war—but an equally theoretical paper by a certain Albert Einstein had once ended one.

The paper had been written about two years ago by Professor Roland Phillips, a peaceable Oxford cosmologist with no interest in politics. He had submitted it to the Royal Astronomical Society, and it was now becoming a little difficult to give him a satisfactory explanation of the delay in publication.

Unfortunately—and this was the fact that caused great distress to Central Intelligence—Professor Phillips had innocently sent copies to his colleagues on Mars and Venus. Desperate attempts had been made to intercept them, but in vain. By now, the Federation must know that the Moon was not as impoverished a world as had been believed for two hundred years.

"I must speak bluntly, even if I have to upset the people back home. Earth isn't very popular here. The phrase 'dog in the manger' gets bandied around quite a lot. Your own supply difficulties are recognized, but it's felt that the frontier planets are short of necessities while Earth wastes much of its resources on trivial luxuries. I'll give you an example. Yesterday the news came in that the Mercury outpost has just lost five men through a faulty heat-exchange unit in one of the domes. The temperature control failed and the lava got them—not a very nice death. If the manufacturer had not been short of titanium, this wouldn't have happened.

"Of course, it's not fair to blame Earth for this. But it's unfortunate that only a week ago you cut the titanium quota again, and the interested parties here are seeing that the public doesn't forget it. I can't be more specific than that, because I don't want to be cut off, but you'll know who I mean.

"I don't believe that the situation will get any worse unless some new factor enters the picture. But suppose—and here I want to make it quite clear that I'm only considering a hypothetical case—suppose Earth were to locate new supplies of the heavy metals. In the still-unexplored ocean depths, for instance. Or even on the Moon, despite the disappointments it's given in the past.

"If this happens, and Earth tries to keep its discovery to itself, the consequences may be serious. It's all very well to say that Earth would be within its rights. Legal arguments don't carry much weight when you're fighting thousand-atmosphere pressures on Jupiter, or trying to thaw out the frozen moons of Saturn. Don't forget, as you enjoy your mild spring days and peaceful summer evenings, how lucky you are to live in the temperate region of the solar system, where the air never freezes and the rocks never melt. What is the Federation likely to do if such a situation arises? If I knew, I couldn't tell you. I can only make some guesses. To talk about war, in the old-fashioned sense, seems absurd to me. Either side could inflict heavy damage on the other, but any real trial of strength could not possibly be conclusive. Earth has too many resources, even though they are dangerously concentrated. And she owns most of the ships in the solar system.

"The Federation has the advantage of dispersion. How can Earth carry out a simultaneous fight against half-a-dozen planets and moons, poorly equipped though they may be? The supply problem would be completely hopeless.

"If, which heaven forbid, it should come to violence, we may see sudden raids on strategic points by specially equipped vessels which will make an attack and then retreat into space. Any talk of interplanetary invasion is pure fantasy. Earth certainly has no wish to take over the planets. And the Federation, even if it wanted to enforce its will on Earth, has neither the men nor the ships for a full-scale assault. As I see it, the immediate danger is that something like a duel may take place—where and how is anyone's guess—as one side attempts to impress the other with its strength. But I would warn any who may be thinking of a limited, gentlemanly war that wars were seldom limited, and never gentlemanly. Good-by, Earth—this is Roderick Beynon, speaking to you from Venus."

From Earthlight by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1955)
Between Planets

(ed note: from Heinlein's outline notes for Between Planets:)

  1. the bill of rights is a damned good idea
  2. absentee landlords are a bad idea
  3. people can't vote themselves something for nothing—and collect.
  4. Terra is a small place; so is the solar system. Survivor types will meet the challenge by finding more land and bending it to their needs.
  5. The folks who stay at home are nutty as hell if they think that their economic problems can be solved for any length of time by levying tribute on colonies.

Mr. Reeves studied his fingernails. "Are you quite sure where your loyalties lie?" he said slowly.

Don forced himself to think about it. His father had been born on Earth; his mother was a second-generation Venus colonial. But neither planet was truly their home; they had met and married on Luna and had pursued their researches in planetology in many sectors of the solar system. Don himself had been born out in space and his birth certificate, issued by the Federation, had left the question of his nationality open. He could claim dual citizenship by parental derivation. He did not think of himself as a Venus colonial; it had been so long since his family had last visited Venus that the place had grown unreal in his mind. On the other hand he had been eleven years old before he had ever rested his eyes on the lovely hills of Earth.

"I'm a citizen of the System," he said harshly.

"Mmmm—" said the headmaster. "That's a fine phrase and perhaps someday it will mean something. In the meantime, speaking as a friend, I agree with your parents. Mars is likely to be neutral territory; you'll be safe there. Again, speaking as your friend—things may get a little rough here for anyone whose loyalty is not perfectly clear."

"Nobody has any business questioning my loyalty! Under the law, I count as native born!"

The man did not answer. Don burst out, "The whole thing is silly! If the Federation wasn't trying to bleed Venus white there wouldn't be any war talk."

Reeves stood up. "That will be all, Don. I'm not going to argue politics with you."

"It's true! Read Chamberlain's Theory of Colonial Expansion!"

Reeves seemed startled. "Where did you lay hands on that book? Not in the school library."

Don did not answer. His father had sent it to him but had cautioned him not to let it be seen; it was one of the suppressed books—on Earth, at least. Reeves went on, "Don, have you been dealing with a booklegger?"

Don remained silent.

The orchestra, which had been playing softly from nowhere in particular, stopped suddenly and the sound system announced "News flash!" At the same time the darkening sky overhead turned black and lighted letters started marching across it. The voice over the sound system read aloud the words streaming across the ceiling: BERMUDA: OFFICIAL: THE DEPARTMENT OF COLONIAL AFFAIRS HAS JUST ANNOUNCED THAT THE PROVISIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE VENUS COLONIES HAS REJECTED OUR NOTE. A SOURCE CLOSE TO THE FEDERATION CHAIRMAN SAYS THAT THIS IS AN EXPECTED DEVELOPMENT AND NO CAUSE FOR ALARM.

The lights went up and the music resumed. Dr. Jefferson's lips were stretched back in a mirthless grin. "How appropriate!" he commented. "How timely! The handwriting on the wall."

Circum-Terra was a great confused mass in the sky. It had been built, rebuilt, added to, and modified over the course of years for a dozen different purposes—weather observation station, astronomical observatory, meteor count station, television relay, guided missile control station, high-vacuum strain-free physics laboratory, strain-free germ-free biological experiment station, and many other uses.

But most importantly it was a freight and passenger transfer station in space, the place where short-range winged rockets from Earth met the space liners that plied between the planets. For this purpose it had fueling tanks, machine shops, repair cages that could receive the largest liners and the smallest rockets, and a spinning, pressurized drum—"Goddard Hotel"—which provided artificial gravity and Earth atmosphere for passengers and for the permanent staff of Circum-Terra.

Goddard Hotel stuck out from the side of Circum-Terra like a cartwheel from a pile of junk. The hub on which it turned ran through its center and protruded out into space. It was to this hub that a ship would couple its passenger tube when discharging or loading humans. That done, the ship would then be warped over to a cargo port in the non-spinning major body of the station. When the Glory Road made contact, there were three other ships in at Circum-Terra, the Valkyrie in which Don Harvey had passage for Mars, the Nautilus, just in from Venus and in which Sir Isaac expected to return home, and the Spring Tide, the Luna shuttle which alternated with its sister the Neap Tide.

Instead of a hotelman anxious to please his guests, in came three men in uniform. The two flank men were carrying mob guns cradled at their hips; the third man had only a hand pistol, still holstered. He stepped forward, planted his feet and set his fists on his hips. "Attention! Quiet, everybody."

He got it; his voice had the ring of command which is obeyed without thinking. He went on, "I am Assault Sergeant McMasters of the High Guard, Venus Republic. My commanding officer has directed me to advise you of the present situation."

There was an additional short moment of silence, then a rising mutter of surprise, alarm, disbelief, and indignation. "Pipe down!" the sergeant shouted. "Take it easy. Nobody's going to get hurt—if you behave." He went on, "The Republic has taken over this station and everybody is being cleared out. You groundhogs will be shipped back to Earth at once. Those of you who are headed home to Venus will go home—provided you pass our loyalty check. Now, let's get sorted out."

Don was busy trying to quiet down and arrange his whirling thoughts. He was forced at last to admit that this was it, this was war, the war that he had told himself was impossible. No cities had been bombed, not yet—but this was the Fort Sumter of a new war; he was smart enough to see that. He did not have to be threatened with a boot in the belly to see what was in front of his face.

He realized with nervous shock that he had just barely gotten away in time. The Valkyrie might be the last ship to Mars in a long, long time. With the transfer station in the hands of the rebels it might be the last one for years.

The Earthlings had no guards and no colonials in with them; they were giving vent freely to their opinions about events, "—outrage! We should blast every one of their settlements, level them to the ground!" "—I think we should send a committee to this commanding officer of theirs and say to him firmly—" "I told you we shouldn't have come!" "Negotiate? That's a sign of weakness." "Don't you realize that the war is already over? Man, this place isn't just a traffic depot; it's the main guided-missile control station. They can bomb every last city on Earth from here, like ducks on a pond!"

Don noticed the last remark, played it over in his mind, let it sink in. He was not used to thinking in terms of military tactics; up to this moment the significance of a raid on Circum-Terra had been lost on him. He had thought of it in purely personal terms, his own convenience.

Would they actually go that far? Bomb the Federation cities right off the map? Sure, the colonials had plenty to be sore about, but—Of course, it had happened like that, once in the past, but that was history; people were more civilized now. Weren't they?

The flag of the task force commander, High Commodore Higgins, was shifted from Circum-Terra back to the Nautilus, and Higgins moved at once to carry out the rest of the coup. The storming of Circum-Terra had been managed almost without bloodshed; it had depended on timing and surprise. Now the rest of the operation must be completed before any dislocation in ship schedules would be noticed on Earth.

The Nautilus and the Valkyrie had already been prepared for their long jumps; the Spring Tide's crew was removed to be sent to Earth and a crew supplied from the task force; she herself was fueled and provisioned for deep space. Although designed for the short jump to Luna, she was quite capable of making the trip to Venus. Space travel is not a matter of distance but of gravity potential levels; the jump from Circum-Terra to Venus required less expenditure of energy than did the terrible business of fighting up though Earth's field from New Chicago to Circum-Terra.

The Spring Tide shoved off in a leisurely, economical parabola; she would make the trip to Venus in free fall all the way. The Valkyrie blasted away to shape a fast, almost flat, hyperboloid orbit; she would arrive as soon or sooner than the Nautilus. The Nautilus was last to leave, for High Commodore Higgins had one more thing to do before destroying the station—a television broadcast on a globe-wide network.

It cut suddenly, the tank went empty and a voice said, "We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a special news flash." The tank filled again, this time with the features of Commodore Higgins.

His face lacked the synthetic smile obligatory for all who speak in public telecast; his manner and voice were grim. "I am High Commodore Higgins, commanding Task Force Emancipation of the High Guard, Venus Republic. The High Guard has seized Earth's satellite station Circum-Terra. We now have all of Earth's cities utterly at our mercy."

He paused to let it sink in. Don thought it over and did not like the thought. Everybody knew that Circum-Terra carried enough A-bomb rockets to smear any force or combination of forces that could be raised to oppose the Federation. The exact number of rocket bombs carried was a military secret, variously estimated between two hundred and a thousand. A rumor had spread through the civilians in the Nautilus that the High Guard had found seven hundred and thirty-two bombs ready to go, with component parts for many more, plus enough deuterium and tritium to make up about a dozen Hell bombs.

Whether the rumor was true or not, Circum-Terra certainly held enough bombs to turn the Terran Federation into a radioactive abattoir. No doubt with so much under ground many inhabitants of cities would survive, but any city, once bombed, would have to be abandoned; the military effect would be the same. And many would die. How many? Forty millions? Fifty millions? Don did not know.

The commodore went on, "Mercifully we stay our hand. Earth's cities will not be bombed. The free citizens of Venus Republic have no wish to slaughter their cousins still on Terra. Our only purpose is to establish our own independence, to manage our own affairs, to throw off the crushing yoke of absentee ownership and of taxation without representation which has bled us poor.

"In so doing, in so taking our stand as free men, we call on all oppressed and impoverished nations everywhere to follow our lead, accept our help. Look up into the sky! Swimming there above you is the very station from which I now address you. The fat and stupid rulers of the Federation have made of Circum-Terra an overseer's whip. The threat of this military base in the sky has protected their empire from the just wrath of their victims for more than five score years.

"We now crush it.

"In a matter of minutes this scandal in the clean skies, this pistol pointed at the heads of men everywhere on your planet, will cease to exist. Step out of doors, watch the sky. Watch a new sun blaze briefly and know that its light is the light of Liberty inviting all Earth to free itself.


Subject peoples of Earth, we free men of the free Republic of Venus salute you with that sign!"

Suddenly the tank went dead and at the same instant there was a flash of light so intense that it leaked through the shuttered ports and tormented the optic nerve. Don was still shaking his head from it when over the ship's announcing system came the call: "Safe to unshutter!"

A petty officer stationed at the compartment's view port was already cranking the metal shield out of the way; Don crowded in and looked.

A second sun blazed white and swelled visibly as he watched. What on Earth would have been—so many terrible times had been—a climbing mushroom cloud was here in open space a perfect geometrical sphere, growing unbelievably. It swelled still larger, dropping from limelight white to silvery violet, became blotched with purple, red and flame. And still it grew, until it blanked out Earth beyond it.

(ed note: in reality, a nuclear detonation in space looks like a very bright camera strobe)

At the time it was transformed into a radioactive cosmic cloud Circum-Terra had been passing over, or opposite, the North Atlantic; the swollen incandescent cloud was visible to most of the habitable portions of the globe, a burning symbol in the sky.

From Between Planets by Robert Heinlein (1951)
The Sands of Mars

“I won’t jump the gun,” he said, “and I can’t tell you what’s happening now. But here’s a little story that may amuse you. Any resemblance to— — ah— — real persons and places is quite coincidental.”

“I understand,” grinned Gibson. “Go on.”

“Let’s suppose that in the first rush of interplanetary enthusiasm world A has set up a colony on world B. After some years it finds that this is costing a lot more than it expected, and has given no tangible returns for the money spent. Two factions then arise on the mother world.

One, the conservative group, wants to close the project down— — to cut its losses and get out. The other group, the progressives, wants to continue the experiment because they believe that in the long run Man has got to explore and master the material universe, or else he’ll simply stagnate on his own world. But this sort of argument is no use with the taxpayers, and the conservatives are beginning to get the upper hand.

“All this, of course, is rather unsettling to the colonists, who are getting more and more independently minded and don’t like the idea of being regarded as poor relations living on charity. Still, they don’t see any way out— until one day a revolutionary scientific discovery is made. (I should have explained at the beginning that planet B has been attracting the finest brains of A, which is another reason why A is getting annoyed.) This discovery opens up almost unlimited prospects for the future of B, but to apply it involves certain risks, as well as the diversion of a good deal of B’s limited resources. Still, the plan is put forward— — and is promptly turned down by A. There is a protracted tug-of-war behind the scenes, but the home planet is adamant.

“The colonists are then faced with two alternatives. They can force the issue out into the open, and appeal to the public on world A. Obviously they’ll be at a great disadvantage, as the men on the spot can shout them down.

The other choice is to carry on with the plan without informing Earth— — I mean, planet A— — and this is what they finally decided to do.

“Of course, there were a lot of other factors involved —political and personal, as well as scientific. It so happened that the leader of the colonists was a man of unusual determination who wasn’t scared of anything or anyone, on either of the planets. He had a team of first-class scientists behind him, and they backed him up. So the plan went ahead; but no one knows yet if it will be successful. I’m sorry I can’t tell you the end of the story; you know how these serials always break off at the most exciting place.”

From The Sands of Mars by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1951)
Leviathan Wakes

"I didn't mean... Look, I'm sure there are all kinds of differences. Earth hates Mars for having a better fleet. Mars hates Earth for having a bigger one. Maybe soccer's better in full g; maybe it's worse. I don't know. I'm just saying anyone this far out from the sun? They don't care. From this distance, you can cover Earth and Mars with one thumb.

From Leviathan Wakes by James Corey (2011)

     “Mars is America,” Tori said, waving his beer expansively. “It’s exactly the same.”
     “It’s not America,” Malik said.
     “Not like it was at the end. Like the beginning. Look at how long it took to travel from Europe to North America in the 1500s. Two months. How long to get here from Earth? Four. Longer if the orbits are right.”
     “Which is the first way in which it’s not like America,” Malik said, dryly.
     “It’s within an order of magnitude,” Tori said. “My point is that politically speaking, distance is measured in time. We’re months away from Earth. They’re still thinking about us like we’re some kind of lost colony. Like we answer to them. How many people here, just at this table have had directives from someone who’s never been outside a gravity well but still felt like they should tell us where our research should go?
     Tori raised his own hand, and Raj followed suit. Voltaire. Carl. Reluctantly, Malik. Tori’s grin was smug.
     “Who’s doing the real science in the system?” Tori said. “That’s us. Our ships are newer and better. Our environmental science is at least a decade ahead of anything they’ve got on Earth. Last year, we hit self-sustaining.”
     “I don’t believe that,” Voltaire said. The new one still hadn’t spoken, but Solomon watched her attention shift to each new speaker. He watched her listen.
     “Even if there are a few things we still need from Earth, we can trade for them. Shit, give us a few years and we’ll be mining them out of the Belt,” Tori said, backing away from his last point and making a new, equally unlikely assertion at the same time. “It’s not like I’m saying we should cut off all diplomatic relations.”
     “No,” Malik said. “You’re saying we should declare political independence.”
     “Damn skippy, I am,” Tori said. “Because distance is measured in time.”
     “And coherence is measured in beer,” Voltaire said, the cadence of her voice matching Tori’s perfectly. The new woman smiled at the mimicry.
     “Even if we decided that all we had to lose was our chains,” Malik said, “why would we bother? We are already de facto our own government. Pointing out the fact is only going to stir up trouble.”
     “Do you really think Earth hasn’t noticed?” Tori said. “You think the kids back at the labs on Luna and Sao Paulo aren’t looking up at the sky and saying That little red dot is kicking our asses? They’re jealous and they’re scared and they should be. It’s all I’m saying. If we do our own thing, the earliest they could do something about it still gives us months of lead time. England lost its colonies because you can’t maintain control with a sixty-day latency, much less a hundred and twenty.
     “Well,” said Voltaire drily, “that and the French.”
     “And good damn thing, too,” Tori said as if she hadn’t spoken. “Because who was it that came in when the Nazis started knocking on England’s door? Am I right?”
     “Um,” Solomon said, “no, actually. You just made the other point. We’re really the Germans.”
     And because he spoke, the new woman’s gaze turned to him. He felt his throat go tight and sipped his beer to try to loosen up. If he spoke now, his voice would crack like he was fourteen again. Voltaire put her elbows on the table, cradled her chin in her dark hands, and hoisted her eyebrows. Her expression could have had This should be good as the caption.
     “Okay,” Malik said, abandoning his disagreement with Tori. “I’ll bite. In what ways are we like a murderous bunch of fascists?” “By-by how we’d fight,” Solomon said. “Germany had all the best science, just like us. They had the best tech. They had rockets. No one had rockets, but they did. Nazi tanks could destroy allied tanks at something like five to one. They had the best attack submarines, drone missiles, early jet aircraft. They were just that much better. Better designed, better manufactured. They were elegant and they were smart.”
     “Apart from the whole racial cleansing genocide thing,” Julio said.
     “Apart from that,” Solomon agreed. “But they lost. They had all the best tech, just like we do. And they lost.
     “Because they were psychopathic and insane,” Julio said.
     “No,” Solomon said. “I mean, they were, but there have been a lot of fascist psychopaths that didn’t lose wars. They lost because even though one of their tanks was worth five of the other guy’s, America could build ten. The industrial base was huge, and if the design wasn’t as good, who cared? Earth has that industrial base. They have people. It could take them months, maybe years, to get here, but when they did, it would be in numbers we couldn’t handle. Being technically advanced is great, but we’re still just building better ones of the stuff that came before. If you want to overcome the kind of demographic advantage Earth has, you’ll need something paradigm-shiftingly new.”

From Drive by "James S.A. Corey" (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) 2012. Prequel to The Expanse
Disappointed Revolutionaries

(ed note: In the city of Ankh-Morport, the angry young men plot revolution to overthrow the government. In order to save "The People." )

There were plotters, there was no doubt about it. Some had been ordinary people who'd had enough. Some were young people with no money who objected to the fact that the world was run by old people who were rich. Some were in it to get girls. And some had been idiots as mad as Swing, with a view of the world just as rigid and unreal, who were on the side of what they called 'the people'. Vimes had spent his life on the streets, and had met decent men and fools and people who'd steal a penny from a blind beggar and people who performed silent miracles or desperate crimes every day behind the grubby windows of little houses, but he'd never met The People.

People on the side of The People always ended up disappointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn't that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people.

As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn't measure up. What would run through the streets soon enough wouldn't be a revolution or a riot. It'd be people who were frightened and panicking. It was what happened when the machinery of city life faltered, the wheels stopped turning and all the little rules broke down. And when that happened, humans were worse than sheep. Sheep just ran; they didn't try to bite the sheep next to them.

From Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (2002)


The Andromeda Strain

Gladstone, upon hearing of the death of "Chinese" Gordon in Egypt, was reported to have muttered irritably that his general might have chosen a more propitious time to die: Gordon's death threw the Gladstone government into turmoil and crisis. An aide suggested that the circumstances were unique and unpredictable, to which Gladstone crossly answered: "All crises are the same."

He meant political crises, of course. There were no scientific crises in 1885, and indeed none for nearly forty years afterward. Since then there have been eight of major importance; two have received wide publicity. It is interesting that both the publicized crises—atomic energy and space capability—have concerned chemistry and physics, not biology.

This is to be expected. Physics was the first of the natural sciences to become fully modern and highly mathematical. Chemistry followed in the wake of physics, but biology, the retarded child, lagged far behind. Even in the time of Newton and Galileo, men knew more about the moon and other heavenly bodies than they did about their own.

It was not until the late 1940's that this situation changed. The postwar period ushered in a new era of biologic research, spurred by the discovery of antibiotics. Suddenly there was both enthusiasm and money for biology, and a torrent of discoveries poured forth: tranquilizers, steroid hormones, immunochemistry, the genetic code. By 1953 the first kidney was transplanted and by 1958 the first birth-control pills were tested. It was not long before biology was the fastest-growing field in all science; it was doubling its knowledge every ten years, Farsighted researchers talked seriously of changing genes, controlling evolution, regulating the mind—ideas that had been wild speculation ten years before.

And yet there had never been a biologic crisis. The Andromeda Strain provided the first.

According to Lewis Bornheim, a crisis is a situation in which a previously tolerable set of circumstances is suddenly, by the addition of another factor, rendered wholly intolerable. Whether the additional factor is political, economic, or scientific hardly matters: the death of a national hero, the instability of prices, or a technological discovery can all set events in motion. In this sense, Gladstone was right: all crises are the same.

The noted scholar Alfred Pockran, in his study of crises (Culture, Crisis and Change), has made several interesting points. First, he observes that every crisis has its beginnings long before the actual onset. Thus Einstein published his theories of relativity in 1905—15, forty years before his work culminated in the end of a war, the start of an age, and the beginnings of a crisis.

Similarly, in the early twentieth century, American, German, and Russian scientists were all interested in space travel, but only the Germans recognized the military potential of rockets. And after the war, when the Gennan rocket installation at Peenemünde was cannibalized by the Soviets and Americans, it was only the Russians who made immediate, vigorous moves toward developing space capabilities. The Americans were content to tinker playfully with rockets—and ten years later, this resulted in an American scientific crisis involving Sputnik, American education, the ICBM, and the missile gap.

Pockran also observes that a crisis is compounded of individuals and personalities, which are unique:

It is as difficult to imagine Alexander at the Rubicon, and Eisenhower at Waterloo, as it is difficult to imagine Darwin writing to Roosevelt about the potential for an atomic bomb. A crisis is made by men, who enter into the crisis with their own prejudices, propensities, and predispositions. A crisis is the sum of intuition and blind spots, a blend of facts noted and facts ignored.
Yet underlying the uniqueness of each crisis is a disturbing sameness. A characteristic of all crises is their predictability, in retrospect. They seem to have a certain inevitability, they seem predestined. This is not true of all crises, but it is true of sufficiently many to make the most hardened historian cynical and misanthropic.
From The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton (1969)

Cyclical History

Be sure to see the Cyclical Governments section of the Interstellar Empire page.

In his epic series Cities In Flight, James Blish based his future history on the theories of Oswald Spengler's book The Decline of the West and its civilization model. Spengler's thesis is that civilizations and cultures go through well defined stages in their life-cycle. This is obviously a big help to the SF author trying to create the history of the future.

In the appendix to the omnibus volume of Cities in Flight, Leland Sapiro has a short essay outlining Spenglerian theory, and includes a chart of the stages of the life-cycle of a civilization (it also mentions how incredibly difficult it is to make a chart like this). It illustrates the stages with example from the cultures of ancient Greece, Arabia, Western, and Blish's "Earthmanist". (the latter stages of Western culture are also fictional ones from Blish, since Western culture hasn't collapsed yet. Or at least not that I've noticed.) Fictional entries are in brown text.

Epochs Divided into Periods
P=political; A=art; R=religio-philosophic; M=mathematical
PeriodThe Classical CultureThe Arabian CultureThe Western CultureThe Earthmanist Culture
Pre-Cultural Period
Tribes and their chiefs; no politics, no State. Chaos of primitive expression forms.
Mycenean Age, "Agamemnon"
Persian-Seleucid Period
Frankish Period, Charlemagne
Vegan-War Period Admiral Hrunta
Culture. Early Period.1100-6500-500900-15002464-3111
P1. Formation of Feudal Order1100-7500-400900-12542464-3089
R1. Spiritual Spring: the Priestly MythDemeter cultPrimitive ChristianityGerman CatholicismHruntanism
R1. Spiritual Spring: the Military MythTrojan WarGospels, ApocalypsesSiegfried, ArthurVegan-War Myth
A1. Early forms, rural, unconsciously shapedDoricThe cupolaGothic-
R2. Mystical-metaphysical shaping of MythCosmogoniesPatristic literatureScholasticism-
P2. Breakdown of Feudal Order: The Interregnum750-650400-5001254-15003089-3111
R3. Spiritual Summer: the ReformationOrphism, et al.Monophysitism, et al.Huss- Luther- LoyolaArpad Hrunta
A2. Exhaustion of possibilities in Early formsLate DoricProto-ArabesqueEarly Renaissance-
Culture. Late Period.630-300500-8001500-18153111-3925
P3. Formation of a World of Aristocratic States650-487500-6611500-16603111-3602
R4. First purely philosophical world viewsPre-SocraticsIn Jewish literatureGalileo, Bacon-
M1. Formation of a new MathematicGeometryAlgebraAnalysisMatrix mathematics
A3. Mature art forms, urban and consciousIonicZenith of mosaic artBaroque-
R5. Puritanism; opposition to rising absolutismPythagorasMohammedCromwell; the FrondeThe Duchy of Gort
P4. Climax of the State-Form ("Absolutism"):
Aristocracy held in check by alliance of King (or Tyrant) with Bourgeoisie
Age of Themistocles and Pericles
The Omayyad Caliphate
The Ancient Regime
Earth and Okies vs. Colonials
R6. Spiritual Autumn: the EnlightenmentSocratesThe MutazilitesLocke, Rousseau-
A4. Intellectualization of Mature art formsMyron, PhidiasArabesqueRococo-
M2. Zenith of mathematical thoughtConic sectionsSpherical trigonometryThe infinitesimal-
R7. The Great Conclusive System: MysticPlatoAlfarabiGoethe, Hegel-
R7. The Great Conclusive System: ScholasticAristotleAvicennaKant-
P5. Revolution and Napoleonism
Bourgeoisie against alliance of King (or Tyrant) and Aristocracy; victory of Money over Blood.
Partisans of Philip; Alexander
The Kufans; the first Abbassids.
Robespierre, Napoleon.
Okies vs. Earth and Colonials.
A5. Exhaustion and dissolution of Mature formsCorinthian"Moorish" artRomanticism-
Civilization and Spiritual Winter300-0-300800-14001815-25223976-4104
P6. Transition from Napoleonism to Caesarism
The Period of Contending States; dominance of Money ("Democracy").
From Alexanderism to Caesarism.
From Caliphate to Sultanate.
From Napoleonism to
In Cloud 3998-4104
New York vs. IMT; Jorn vs. New York
R8. Materialism (science, utility, prosperity)The CynicsBrethren of SincerityComte, Darwin, MarxThe Stochastics
R9. Ethical-social ideals replacing religionEpicurus, ZenoMovements in IslamSchopenhauer, et al.-
M3. Mathematics: the concluding thoughtArchimedesAl-BiruniRiemann-
R10. Spread of final world sentimentRoman StoicismPractical FatalismEthical Socialism-
A6. Art problems; craft artHellenistic artSpanish-Sicilian artModern art-
P7. Caesarism
Victory of force-politics over Money; decay of the nations into a formless population, soon made into an imperium of gradually increasing crudity of despotism.
Sulla, Caesar Tiberius, up to Domitian.
The Seljuk Sultanate.
MacHinery and Erdsenov; rise to full power of Bureaucratic State.
The Triumph of Time Over Space
A7. Artificial, archaic, exotic art forms.Roman art"Oriental" art-
Rll. Second Religiousness (in the masses only)SyncretismSyncretic IslamAdventism; Witnesses
The world as spoil. Gradual enfeeblement of imperial machinery against raiders and conquerors. Primitive human conditions thrusting up into the highly civilized mode of living.
Full power of the Empire, then disintegration in the West.
Rise-fall of the Ilkhanate; rise of Ottoman Turks under whom the moribund culture endures to 1920.
Full power; then decline and fall of Bureaucratic State.
A8. Fixed forms, giganticism, imperial displayTriumphal archGigantic buildingsThe Jupiter Bridge
The AftermathAfter 284
Arabinization in the East.
Westernization of the Arabian lands and entire world.
After 2522
Galaxy proper conquered by Web of Hercules.

Leland Sapiro's chart was used in the classic computer game Omnitrend's Universe. ( here, here, here, here, here, here ). It was used to classify the cultural level of each planet. It determined the types of products that were illegal to import.

Omnitrend's Universe. Appendix G: Cultural List

A Guide To Cultural Epochs

Since the latter part of the Nineteenth Century [Common Era], historians have been dividing cultures into "epochs." Epochs are the turning points in the history of a culture. For example, the rise of George Louis I was a new epoch in New Europe culture.

All the cultures in the Local Group have undergone a careful examination and classification by the Janet Leader Foundation on Arbest. These classification codes help the traveler to determine what the import and immigration restrictions are.

CodeEpochDescriptionAccept ImmigrantsIllegal Product Types
1Pre-CulturalClans, tribes, no politics. A chaos of primitive expression.Yes[none]
2FuedalismRural art, naturally shaped. Warriors and Priests in power.NoARTI, EDUC, INFO
3Breakdown of FuedalismExhaustion of early art forms, the Reformation.YesARTI, NARC, ENTR, PERS, JEWL
4Formation of Aristocratic StatesMature art, new forms of math, philosophical world views and puritanical religions opposed to growing absolutism.NoARTI, EDUC, NARC, PERS, JEWL, FURN, CLTH, FOOD
5AbsolutismAristocracy held in check by King/Tyrant with Bourgeoise. The zenith of mathematical thought, intellectualization of art, the great conclusive systems of thought.YesWEAP
6Revolution and NapoleonismBourgoise against alliance of King/Tyrant and Aristocracy. The Victory of Money over Blood. Exhaustion of art forms.NoEDUC, TRANS, INFO, WEAP
7Transition from Napoleonism to CaesarismThe epoch of Contending States. Dominance of Money ("Democracy"). Rational social ethics replace Religion. Final world sentiment. Conceptual art. Final Thought in Mathematics.YesNARC, SLAV, BOGU
8CaesarismVictory of Force-Politics over Money. The decay of nations into a formless mass, soon to be made into an imperium of gradually increasing despotism. Archaic, exotic art.NoEDUC, WEAP, BOGU
9Final Political FormThe world as a spoil. Primitive human conditions thrusting up into the highly civilized mode of living.No[none]

ARTI - artifact; BOGU - bogus items; CLTH - clothing; EDUC - educational materials; ENTR - entertainment; FOOD - food; FURN - furniture; INFO - information; JEWL - jewelry; NARC - narcotics; PERS - personal items; SLAV - slaves; TRANS - transportation; WEAP - weapon

From Omnitrend's Universe

Novel that have a background of cyclical history include The Last Planet AKA Star Rangers by Andre Norton, the Cities in Flight novels of James Blish, Birthright: The Book of Man by Mike Resnick, Macroscope by Piers Anthony, the Childe Cycle novels of Gordon Dickson, the Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, the LaNague Federation novels of F. Paul Wilson, the Polesotechnic novels by Poul Anderson, and of course the Foundation trilogy (with the prequels The Stars Like Dust, The Currents of Space, and Pebble in the Sky) by Isaac Asimov. The old bromide is that history never repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes.


Then none was for a party;
Then all were for the state;
Then the great man helped the poor
And the poor man loved the great;
Then lands were fairly portioned;
Then spoils were fairly sold:
The Romans were like brothers
In the brave days of old.

Now Roman is to Roman
More hateful than a foe,
And the Tribunes beard the high,
And the Fathers grind the low.
As we wax hot in faction,
In battle we wax cold;
Wherefore men fight not as they fought
In the brave days of old.

Horatius by Thomas Babbington, Lord Macaulay

Vestigial Empire

"There was a time when this whole quadrant belonged to us! What are we now? Twelve worlds and a thousand monuments to past glories. Living off memories and stories, and selling trinkets. My god, man! We've become a tourist attraction. 'See the great Centauri Republic - open 9 to 5 - Earth time.'"

Londo Mollari, Babylon 5 — "The Gathering"

This nation used to rule the known world, or at least a sizable chunk of it. Unfortunately, for the last n years, its influence has been declining and its territory shrinking.

Vestigial Empires tend to leave behind still-working infrastructure (especially roads or the nearest space-operatic equivalent) as they shrink; frequently, they also leave behind a common language. Generally their remaining bits are a hotbed of cutthroat politics, ruled by decadent nobles with superiority complexes and equally decadent and morally challenged courtiers. In Space, may result from an Ungovernable Galaxy.

The protagonist is rarely actually from the Vestigial Empire—any time one is involved in a setting, it's usually it's either a source of villains, or a setting whose politics need to be navigated in order to obtain allies. Quite often, the only mention of them may be in a Cryptic Background Reference.

Being a Fantasy Counterpart Culture to late imperial Rome or Byzantium isn't required, but it's definitely a bonus.

Contrast with Precursors — an entire species of Vestigial Empire which tends to leave little to no working infrastructure and is also long gone by the time the story takes place. All or part of the Vestigial Empire may be The Remnant if they're still fighting for the (usually) lost cause of restoring their former glory. An inversion is a Rising Empire.

For a huge list of examples click here

Vestigial Empire entry from TV Tropes

The Last Planet

THERE is an old legend concerning a Roman Emperor, who, to show his power, singled out the Tribune of a loyal legion and commanded that he march his men across Asia to the end of the world. And so a thousand men vanished into the hinterland of the largest continent, to be swallowed up for ever. On some unknown battlefield the last handful of survivors must have formed a square which was overwhelmed by a barbarian charge. And their eagle may have stood lonely and tarnished in a horsehide tent for a generation thereafter. But it may be guessed, by those who know of the pride of these men in their corps and tradition, that they did march east as long as one still remained on his feet.

In 8054 A.D. history repeated itself — as it always does. The First Galactic Empire was breaking up. Dictators, Emperors, Consolidators wrested the rulership of their own or kindred solar systems from Central Control. Space pirates raised flags and recruited fleets to gorge on spoil plundered from this wreckage. It was a time in which only the ruthless could flourish.

Here and there a man, or a group of men, tried vainly to dam the flood of disaster and disunion. And, notable among these last-ditch fighters who refused to throw aside their belief in the impartial rule of Central Control were the remnants of the Stellar Patrol, a law enforcement body whose authority had existed unchallenged for almost a thousand years. Perhaps it was because there was no longer any security to be found outside their own ranks that these men clung the closer to what seemed in the new age to be an out worn code of ethics and morals. And their stubborn loyalty to a vanished ideal was both exasperating and pitiful to the new rulers.

Jorcam Dester, the last Control Agent of Deneb, who was nursing certain ambitions of his own, solved in the Roman manner the problem of ridding his sector of the Patrol He summoned the half dozen officers still commanding navigable ships and ordered them — under the seal of the Control — out into space, to locate (as he said) and re map forgotten galactic border systems no one had visited in at least four generations. He offered a vague promise to establish new bases from which the Patrol might rise again, invigorated and revived, to fight for the Control ideals And, faithful to their very ancient trust, they upped-ship on this mission, undermanned, poorly supplied, without real hope, but determined to carry out orders to the last.

The sled rode the air smoothly, purring gently. That last tune-up they had given her had done the trick after all. Even though they had had to work from instructions recorded on a ten-year-old repair manual tape. She had been given the last of the condensers. They had practically no spare parts left now—

"Zinga," Kartr demanded suddenly of his seat mate. "Were you ever in a real Control fitting and repair port?"

"No," replied the Zacathan cheerfully. "And I sometimes think that they are only stories invented for the amusement of the newly hatched. Since I was mustered into the service we have always done the best we could to make our own repairs—with what we could find or steal. Once we had a complete overhaul—it took us almost three months—we had two wrecked ships to strip for other parts. What a wealth of supplies! That was on Karbon, four—no, five space years ago. We still had a head mech-techneer in the crew then and he supervised the job. Fylh—what was his name?"

"Ratan. He was a robot from Perun. We lost him the next year in an acid lake on a blue star world. He was very good with engines—being one himself."

"What has been happening to Central Control—to us?" asked Kartr slowly. "Why don't we have proper equipment—supplies—new recruits?"

"Breakdown," replied Fylh crisply. "Maybe Central Control is too big, covers too many worlds, spreads its authority too thin and too far. Or perhaps it is too old so that it loses hold. Look at the sector wars, the pull for power between sector chiefs. Don't you think that Central Control would stop that—if it could?"

"But the Patrol—"

Fylh trilled laughter. "Ah, yes, the Patrol. We are the stubborn survivals, the wrongheaded ones. We maintain that we, the Stellar Patrol, crewmen and rangers, still keep the peace and uphold galactic law. We fly here and there in ships which fall to pieces under us because there are no longer those with the knowledge and skill to repair them properly. We fight pirates and search forgotten skies—for what, I wonder? We obey commands given to us over the signature of the two Cs. We are fast becoming an anachronism, antiques still alive but better dead. And one by one we vanish from space. We should all be rounded up and set in some museum for the planet-bound to gawk at, objects with no reasonable function—"

"What will happen to Central Control?" Kartr wondered and set his teeth as a lurch of the sled stabbed his arm against Zinga's tough ribs and jarred his wrist.

"The galactic empire—this galactic empire," pronounced the Zacathan with a grin which told of his total disinterest in the matter, "is falling apart. Within five years we've lost touch with as many sectors, haven't we? C.C. is just a name now as far as its power runs. In another generation it may not even be remembered. We've had a long run—about three thousand years—and the seams are beginning to gap. Sector wars now—the result—chaos. We'll slip back fast—probably far back, maybe even into planet-tied barbarianism with space flight forgotten. Then we'll start all over again—"

"Maybe," was Fylh's pessimistic reply. "But you and I, dear friend, will not be around to witness that new dawn—"

Zinga nodded agreement. "Not that our absence will matter. We have found us a world to make the best of right here and now. How far off civilized maps are we?" he asked the sergeant.

They had flashed maps on the viewing screen in the ship, maps noted on tapes so old that the dates on them seemed wildly preposterous, maps of suns and stars no voyager had visited in two, three, five generations, where Control had had no contact for half a thousand years. Kartr had studied those maps for weeks. And on none of them had he seen this system. They were too far out—too near the frontier of the galaxy. The map tape which had carried the record of this world—provided there had ever been one at all—must have rusted away past using, forgotten in some pigeonhole of Control archives generations ago.

"Completely." He took a sort of sour pleasure in that answer.

From The Last Planet AKA Star Rangers by Andre Norton, 1953. Collected in Star Soldiers (2001), currently a free eBook in the Baen free library.

Dark Piper

As a functioning unit in the Confederation scheme, Beltane had been in existence about a century at the outbreak of the Four Sectors War. That war lasted ten planet years.

Lugard said it was the beginning of the end for our kind and their rulership of the space lanes. There can rise empires of stars, and confederations, and other governments. But there comes a time when such grow too large or too old, or are rent from within. Then they collapse as will a balloon leaf when you prick it with a thorn, and all that remains is a withered wisp of stuff. Yet those on Beltane welcomed the news of the end of the war with a hope of new beginning, of return to that golden age of "before the war" on which the newest generation had been raised with legendary tales. Perhaps the older settlers felt the chill of truth, but they turned from it as a man will seek shelter from the full blast of a winter gale. Not to look beyond the next corner will sometimes keep heart in a man.

Since the population of Beltane was small, most of them specialists and members of such families, it had been drained of manpower by the services, and of the hundreds who were so drafted, only a handful returned...

...There was no definite victory, only a weary drawing apart of the opponents from exhaustion. Then began the interminable "peace talks," which led to a few clean-cut solutions.

Our main concern was that Beltane now seemed forgotten by the powers that had established it. Had we not long before turned to living off the land, and the land been able to furnish us with food and clothing, we might have been in desperate straits. Even the biannual government ships, to which our commerce and communication had sunk in the last years of the war, had now twice failed to arrive, so that when a ship finally planeted, it was a cause for rejoicing — until the authorities discovered it was in no way an answer to our needs but rather was a fifth-rate tramp hastily commandeered to bring back a handful of those men who had been drafted off-world during the conflict. Those veterans were indeed the halt and the blind — casualties of the military machine...

...We strapped into the foreseats, and I set the course dial for Butte Hold. Nowadays it was necessary to keep both hands on the controls. There was too apt to be some sudden breakdown, and the automatics were not to be trusted.

Since the war the settlements on Beltane had contracted instead of expanded. With a short supply of manpower, there had been little or no time wasted in visiting the outlying sites, abandoned one after another...

...I hoped they would number among them some techneer-mechanics with training in the repair of vehicles. Already our machines had become so unpredictable that some of the settlements talked of turning to beasts of burden...

..."This is a wreck-"

"It is about the best you can find nowadays," I replied promptly. "Machines don't repair themselves. The techneer-robos are all on duty at the labs. We have had no off-world supplies since Commander Tasmond lifted with the last of the garrison. Most of these hoppers are just pasted together, with hope the main ingredient of that paste."...

...The Free Trade party is looking forward to independence and is trying to beam in a trader. Meanwhile, repairs go first for lab needs; the rest of it slides...

..."And they had better give up their dreams of trade, too. The breakup is here and now, boy. Each world will have to make the most of its own resources and be glad if someone else doesn't try to take them over—"

"But the war is over!"

Lugard shook his head. "The formal war, yes. But it tore the Confederation to bits. Law and order — we won't see those come again in our time, not out there—" He motioned with one thin hand to the sky over us. "No, not in our time, nor probably for generations to come. The lucky worlds with rich natural resources will struggle along for a generation or two, trying hard to keep a grip on civilization. Others will coast downhill fast. And there will be wolves tearing all around—"


"An old term for aggressors. I believe it was an animal running in packs to pull down prey. The ferocity of such hunts lingered on in our race memories. Yes, there will be wolf packs out now."

"From the Four Stars?"

"No," he answered. "They are as badly mauled as we. But there are the remnants of broken fleets, ships whose home worlds were blasted, with no ports in which they will be welcomed. These can easily turn rogue, carrying on a way of life they have known for years, merely changing their name from commando to pirate. The known rich worlds will be struck first — and places where they can set up bases—"...

..."You cannot trust such treaties —"

"Perhaps you cannot, Sector-Captain." That was Scyld Drax. "The military mind is apt to foresee difficulties—"

"The military mind!" Lugard's interruption came clearly. "I thought I made it simple — the situation is as plain as the sun over you, man! You say you want peace, that you think the war is over. Maybe the war is, the kind we have been fighting, but you don't have peace now — you have a vacuum out of which law, and what little protection any world can depend upon, has been drained. And into this is going to spread, just like one of your pet viruses, anarchy. A planet not prepared to defend itself is going to be a target for raiders. There were fleets wrecked out there, worlds destroyed. The survivors of those battles are men who have been living by creating death around them for almost half a generation, planet time. It has become their familiar way of life — kill or be killed, take or perish. They have no home bases to return to; their ships are now their homes. And they no longer have any central controls, no fears of the consequences if they take what they want from the weaker, from those who cannot or will not make the effort to stand them off. You let this ship land — only one ship, you say, poor lost people; give them living room as we have a sparsely settled world — there is one chance in a hundred you read them aright.

"But there are ninety-nine other chances that you have thrown open the door to your own destruction. One ship, two, three — a home port, a safe den from which to go raiding."...

From Dark Piper by Andre Norton (1968)

The Stars, Like Dust

'An entirely old one, rather. The Tyranni are destroying the right of twenty billion human beings to take part in the development of the race. You've been to school. You've learned the economic cycle. A new planet is settled' - he was ticking the points off on his fingers - 'and its first care is to feed itself. It becomes an agricultural world, a herding world. It begins to dig in the ground for crude ore to export, and sends its agricultural surplus abroad to buy luxuries and machinery. That is the second step. Then, as population increases and foreign investments grow, an industrial civilization begins to bud, which is the third step. Eventually, the world becomes mechanized, importing food, exporting machinery, investing in the development of more primitive worlds, and so on. The fourth step.

'Always the mechanized worlds are the most thickly populated, the most powerful, militarily - since war is a function of machines - and they are usually surrounded by a fringe of agricultural, dependent worlds.

'But what has happened to us? We were at the third step, with a growing industry. And now? That growth has been stopped, frozen, forced to recede.

It would interfere with Tyrannian control of our industrial necessities. It is a short-term investment on their part, because eventually we'll become unprofitable as we become impoverished. But meanwhile, they skim the cream.

'Besides, if we industrialized ourselves, we might develop weapons of war. So industrialization is stopped; scientific research is forbidden. And eventually the people become so used to that, they lack the realization even that anything is missing. So that you are surprised when I tell you that I could be executed for building a visisonor.

'Of course, someday we will beat the Tyranni. It is fairly inevitable. They can't rule forever. No one can. They'll grow soft and lazy. They will intermarry and lose much of their separate traditions. They will become corrupt. But it may take centuries, because history doesn't hurry. And when those centuries have passed, we will still all be agricultural worlds with no industrial or scientific heritage to speak of, while our neighbors on all sides, those not under Tyrannian control, will be strong and urbanized. The Kingdoms will be semicolonial areas forever. They will never catch up, and we will be merely observers in the great drama of human advance.'

From The Stars, Like Dust by Isaac Asimov

The Only Thing We Learn

In the short story "The Only Thing We Learn", by Cyril M. Kornbluth (1949), the frontier rebels are attacking Earth and the Home Stars, and they are doing a good job of it. Earth wing commander Arris and historian Glen wait for the frontier rebels to come and finish them off.

Lunar relay flickered out as overloaded fuses flashed into vapor. Arris distractedly paced back to the dark corner and sank into a chair.

"I'm sorry," said the voice of Glen next to him, sounding quite sincere. "No doubt it was quite a shock to you."

"Not to you?" asked Arris bitterly.

"Not to me."

"Then how did they do it?" the wing commander asked the civilian in a low, desperate whisper. "They don't even wear .45's. Intelligence says their enlisted men have hit their officers and got away with it. "They elect ship captains! Glen, what does it all mean?"

"It means," said the fat little man with a timbre of doom in his voice, "that they've returned. They always have. They always will. You see, commander, there is always somewhere a wealthy, powerful city, or nation, or world. In it are those who's blood is not right for a wealthy, powerful place. They must seek danger and overcome it. So they go out — on the marshes, in the desert, on the tundra, the planets, or the stars. Being strong, they grow stronger by fighting the tundra, the planets, or the stars. They — they change. They sing new songs. They know new heroes. And then, one day, they return to their old home."

"They return to the wealthy, powerful city, or nation or world. They fight its guardians as they fought the tundra, the planets, or the stars — a way that strikes terror to the heart. Then they sack the city, nation, or world and sing great ringing sagas of their deeds. They always have. Doubtless they always will."

"But what shall we do?"

"We shall cower, I suppose, beneath the bombs they drop on us, and we shall die, some bravely, some not, defending the palace within a very few hours. But you will have your revenge."

"How?" asked the wing commander, with haunted eyes.

The fat little man giggled and whispered in the officer's ear. Arris irritably shrugged it off as a bad joke. He didn't believe it. As he died, drilled through the chest a few hours later by one of Algan's gunfighters, he believed it even less.

(ed note: the "revenge" is that after sacking the city, the returning frontiersmen settle down and become the new wealthy powerful city. And one day it will be their turn to be killed by the new frontiersmen.)

From "The Only Thing We Learn" by Cyril M. Kornbluth (1949), as collected in Space Dreadnoughts, edited by David Drake

Star Guard

In this novel, the humans of Terra develop a faster-than-light starship, only to discover that Sol is inside an alien interstellar federation several thousand years old: Central Control. C.C. only allows Terrans into the rest of the galaxy as third-class citizens, barely tolerated and only allowed off-world in the narrowly role defined by C.C.: that of mercenary.

It is instructive to compare the bold-face text in the quote below with the bold-face text in the "The Only Thing We Learn" quote above.

"What made them so quick on the trigger, sir? The Patrol usually doesn't flare up that way—or do they? And that officer said `Terrans' as if we were Lombros muck worms—"

"It shouldn't surprise you, Karr, to discover that some of the more `superior' races who make up the C.C. Councils at the present moment are inclined to rate us at just about that level—in private, naturally. One doesn't boast of caste openly—that's too close to shape and race prejudice. But I've seen an Ageratan leave an eating booth before he had finished his meal because a Terran was seated as his neighbor. It's illegal, unethical, violates all those pretty slogans and refined sentiments drilled into them from the cradle or the egg—but it persists."

"But the Zacathans aren't like that—and Rey and Mic were friendly with that Lupan on Secundus—"

"Certainly. I can cite you a thousand different shapes and races who accept Terrans as equals as easily as we accept them in return. But note two things, Karr, and they are important. The systems where we are persona non grata are dominated by humanoid races and they are systems which have had space travel for a very long time, who have pioneered in the Galaxy. Embedded deep in them is an emotion they refuse to admit—fear.

"Back on Terra in the ancient days before the nuclear wars we were divided into separate races, the difference in part depending on the color of skin, shape of features, and so forth. And in turn those races were subdivided into nations which arose to power, held in control large portions of the planet, sometimes for centuries. But as the years passed each in turn lost that power, the reins slipped from their hands. Why?

"Because the tough, sturdy fighters who had built those empires died, and their sons, or their sons' sons' sons were another breed. For a while, even after the fighting quality died out, an empire would still exist—as might a well-built piece of machinery set in motion. Then parts began to wear, or oiling was needed, and there was no one who remembered, or cared, or had the necessary will and strength to pull it together and make repairs. So another, younger and tougher nation took over—perhaps after a war. History progressed by a series of such empires—the old one yielding to the new.

"Now the races of the Galaxy with whom we have established the closest ties are, so far, not of our species. We like the Zacathans who are of reptile origin, we enjoy the Trystians, whose far-off ancestors were birds. The Yubana—they're evolved felines. And most of these are also newcomers on the Galactic scene. But—and this is important—they have different aims, backgrounds, desires, tastes. Why should a Zacathan fret over the passing of time, hurry to get something done the way we must do? His life span is close to a thousand years, he can afford to sit around and think things out. We feel that we can't. But we're not a threat to him or his way of life."

"But, sir, do you think we are to the others—the humanoids of Agerat and Rassam? Their civilizations are old but basically they are similar to ours—"

"And are showing signs of decay. Yes, we're a threat to them because of our young pushing energy, our will to struggle, all the things they openly deplore in us. For, old as Terra seems to us, she is very young in the Galaxy. So they've met us with a devious design. It is their purpose to wall us off—not openly and so provide us with a legitimate grievance which we may take before the Grand Council—but legally and finally. They struggle to dissipate our strength in needless warfare which in no way threatens their control, sapping our manpower and so rendering helpless a race which might just challenge them in the future. And because we have fought and dreamed of the stars we have been forced to accept their condition—for a time."

"A time, sir?" burst out Kana passionately. "For three hundred years we've played their game—"

"What is three hundred years on the Galactic chessboard?" Hansu returned calmly. "Yes, for three hundred years we have taken their orders. Only now they must be beginning to realize that their plan is not working. I'm not sure that their motives had been plain even to them. They have played omnipotence so long that they have come to believe in their godhead—that they can make no wrong moves. For they have always operated against us under cover—until now.

From Star Guard by Andre Norton (1955). Collected in Star Soldiers (2001), currently a free eBook in the Baen free library.

The Cosmic Computer

(Ed Note: in the novel, about 40 years in the past the Terran Federation was embroiled in a civil war against the secessionist System States Alliance. On the vangard planet Poictesme the Federation starts a top secret operation to create Merlin, a cutting-edge computer. The war unexpectedly ends. But the Merlin project discovers a dreadful secret, and covers up the existance of Merlin. Forty years later, the protagonist Conn discovers Merlin, but the Federation agent Shanlee warns of the danger.)

Shanlee puffed for a moment at the cigarette; it must really have tasted good after his long abstinence.

"You know, we were really caught off balance when the War ended. It even caught Merlin short; information lag, of course. The whole Alliance caved in all at once. Well, we fed Merlin all the data available, and analyzed the situation. Then we did something we really weren't called upon to do, because that was policy-planning and wasn't our province, but we were going to move an occupation army into System States planets, and we didn't want to do anything that would embarrass the Federation Government later. We fed Merlin every scrap of available information on political and economic conditions everywhere in the Federation, and set up a long-term computation of the general effects of the War.

"The extrapolation was supposed to run five hundred years in the future. It didn't. It stopped, at a point a trifle over two hundred years from now, with a statement that no computation could be made further because at that point the Terran Federation would no longer exist."

The others, who had taken chairs facing him, looked at him blankly.

"No more Federation?" Judge Leduc asked incredulously. "Why, the Federation, the Federation..."

The Federation would last forever. Anybody knew that. There just couldn't be no more Federation.

"That's right," Shanlee said. "We had trouble believing it, too. Remember, we were Federation officers. The Federation was our religion. Just like patriotism used to be, back in the days of nationalism. We checked for error. We made detail analyses. We ran it all over again. It was no use.

"In two hundred years, there won't be any Terran Federation. The Government will collapse, slowly. The Space Navy will disintegrate. Planets and systems will lose touch with Terra and with one another. You know what it was like here, just before the War. It will be like that on every planet, even on Terra. Just a slow crumbling, till everything is gone; then every planet will start sliding back, in isolation, into barbarism."

"Merlin predicted that?" Kurt Fawzi asked, shocked.

If Merlin said so, it had to be true.

Shanlee nodded. "So we ran another computation; we added the data of publication of this prognosis. You know, Merlin can't predict what you or I would do under given circumstances, but Merlin can handle large-group behavior with absolute accuracy. If we made public Merlin's prognosis, the end would come, not in two centuries but in less than one, and it wouldn't be a slow, peaceful decay; it would be a bomb-type reaction. Rebellions. Overthrow of Federation authority, and then revolt and counterrevolt against planetary authority. Division along sectional or class lines on individual planets. Interplanetary wars; what we fought the Alliance to prevent. Left in ignorance of the future, people would go on trying to make do with what they had. But if they found out that the Federation was doomed, everybody would be trying to snatch what they could, and end by smashing everything. Left in ignorance, there might be a planet here and there that would keep enough of the old civilization to serve, in five or so centuries, as a nucleus for a new one. Informed in advance of the doom of the Federation, they would all go down together in the same bloody shambles, and there would be a Galactic night of barbarism for no one knows how many thousand years."

"We don't want anything like that to happen!" Tom Brangwyn said, in a frightened voice.

"Then pull everybody out of here and blow the place up, Merlin along with it," Shanlee said.

"No! We'll not do that! " Fawzi shouted. "I'll shoot the man dead who tries it!"

"Why didn't you people blow Merlin up?" Conn asked.

"We'd built it; we'd worked with it. It was part of us, and we were part of it. We couldn't. Besides, there was a chance that it might survive the Federation; when a new civilization arose it would be useful. We just sealed it. There were fewer than a hundred of us who knew about it. We all took an oath of secrecy. We spent the rest of our lives trying to suppress any mention of Merlin or the Merlin Project.

"Let's not try to decide it ourselves," Conn said. "Let's get Merlin into operation, and run a computation on it."

"You mean, ask Merlin to tell us whether it ought to be destroyed or not?" Ledue asked incredulously. "Let Merlin put itself on trial, and sentence itself to destruction?"

"Merlin is a computer; computers deal only in facts. Computers are machines; they have no sense of self-preservation. If Merlin ought to be destroyed, Merlin will tell us so."

They ran off the computations Merlin had made forty years before, and rechecked them. There had been no error. The Terran Federation, overextended, had been cracking for a century before the War; the strain of that conflict had started an irreversible breakup. Two centuries for the Federation as such; at most, another century of irregular trade and occasional war between independent planets, Galaxy full of human-populated planets as poor as Poictesme at its worst. Or, aware of the future, sudden outbursts of desperate violence, then anarchy and barbarism.

It took a long time to set up the new computation. Forty years of history for almost five hundred planets had to be abstracted and summarized, and translated from verbal symbols to the electromathematical language of computers and fed in. Conn and Sylvie and General Shanlee and the three men and two women Conn had taught on Koshchei worked and rested briefly and worked again. Finally, it was finished.

"General; you're the oldest Merlin hand," Conn said, gesturing to the red button at the main control panel. "You do it."

"You do it, Conn. None of us would be here except for you."

"Thank you, General."

He pressed the button. They all stood silently watching the output slot.

Even a positronic computer does not work instantaneously. Nothing does. Conn took his eyes from the slot from which the tape would come, and watched the second-hand of the clock above it. The wait didn't seem like hours to him; it only seemed like seventy-five seconds, that way. Then the bell rang, and the tape began coming out.

It took another hour and a half of button-punching; the Braille-like symbols on the tape had to be retranslated, and even Merlin couldn't do that for itself. Merlin didn't think in human terms.

It was the same as before. In ignorance, the peoples of the Federation worlds would go on, striving to keep things running until they wore out, and then sinking into apathetic acceptance. Deprived of hope, they would turn to frantic violence and smash everything they most wanted to preserve. Conn pushed another button.

The second information-request went in: What is the best course to be followed under these conditions by the people of Poictesme? It had taken some time to phrase that in symbols a computer would find comprehensible; the answer, at great length, emerged in two minutes eight seconds. Retranslating it took five hours.

In the beginning and for the first ten years, it was, almost item for item, the Maxwell Plan. Export trade, specialized in luxury goods. Brandies and wines, tobacco; a long list of other exportable commodities, and optimum markets. Reopening of industrial plants; establishment of new industries. Attainment of economic self-sufficiency. Cultural self-sufficiency; establishment of universities, institutes of technology, research laboratories. Then the Maxwell Plan became the Merlin Plan; the breakup of the Federation was a fact that entered into the computation. Build-up of military strength to resist aggression by other planetary governments. Defense of the Gartner Trisystem. Lists of possible aggressor planets. Revival of interstellar communications and trade; expeditions, conquest and re-education of natives...

"We can't begin to handle this without Merlin," Conn said. "If that means blowing up the Federation, let it blow. We'll start a new one here."

"No; if there's a general, violent collapse of the Federation, it'll spread to Poictesme," Shanlee told him. "Let's ask Merlin the big question."

Merlin took a good five minutes to work that one out. The question had to include a full description of Merlin, and a statement of the information which must be kept secret. The answer was even more lengthy, but it was summed up in the first word: Falsification.

"So Merlin's got to be a liar, too, along with the rest of us!" Sylvie cried. "Conn, you've corrupted his morals!"

The rest of it was false data which must be taped in, and lists of corrections which must be made in evaluating any computation into which such data might enter. There was also a statement that, after fifty years, suppression of the truth and circulation of falsely optimistic statements about the Federation would no longer have any importance.

"Well, that's it," Conn said. "Merlin thought himself out of a death sentence."

From The Cosmic Computer by H. Beam Piper (1963)

Technological Progress


A common failing of with those who write future histories is a failure to take into account Future Shock, that is, the rapid progress of technological advancement. Refer to the "Apes or Angels" argument. Consider that one hundred years ago the paper clip had just been invented, Marconi had invented the wireless radio, the Wright brothers had invented the airplane, and the latest cutting edge material was Bakelite. Assuming that technology continues to advance at the same rate, all of our flashy technological marvels of today will look just as quaint and obsolete in the year 2100. And in 2500, they will look like something made by Galileo.

Remember, this assumes that the rate of technological progress remains the same. The evidence suggests that the rate is increasing.

When it comes to futures histories in various SF novels, the main failing I have noted is a failure of scope. While you may read novels with orbital beanstalks, immortality drugs, virtual people living in digital cyber-reality, nanotechnology, transhumanity and post-humans, Dyson spheres, teleportation, zero-point energy, matter duplicators, time travel, cloning, and cyborgs; you almost never find an individual novel that has all of these things (although Greg Egan's DIASPORA comes close, and the Orion's Arm project comes even closer).

This is because future history SF novels are not meant to predict the future, so much as they are meant to illuminate a specific point the author is trying to make.

I am once again stunned at the insistence that Star Trek has to be allegorically relevant, but if it must, I'd prefer it take on more scientific/ethical issues, like a justification for banning genetic enhancement. or how a society with FTL, molecular replication, and teleportation has managed to sidestep a technological singularity.

Star Trek is considered by many to be the public face of SF, it's flagship. I hold by my belief that to retain that title it needs to take it up a level: travel out into some heretofore unexplored quadrant and find that it is heavily populated by Type II Kardashev cultures, Lovecraftian ancients, Kirby-esque star gods, Matrioshka brain AIs trying to tap reality's source-code, post-singularity societies like Banks Culture, Wright's Oecumene, or Hamilton's Edenists, etc.

In short, Trek needs to catch up with the rest of science fiction.

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape- descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

From The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

INVENTOR n. A person who makes an ingenious arrangement of wheels, levers and springs, and believes it civilization.

From The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (1911)

Around 1910, the hot multiple-use buzzword was "Electric," as in Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout or Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. In the 1920's it was "Radio." Radio was just coming into regular use, so it was new and exciting. In the 1940's it was "Atomic," for obvious reasons. In the 1950's it was "Transistorized". In the 1960's it was "Laser". In the 1970's it was "Computerized". Currently it is "Nanotechnolgy."

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Even if it actually a screw. So if you invent some fabulous scientific breakthrough for your SF story, try to resist the temptation to use it as the solution for everything. You can see how silly it becomes.

Naturally, the more specific the details of your future technology that you describe in your SF story, the bigger the risk that it is going to sound quite silly in the decades to come. This is called "Zeerust", and of course TV Tropes has a page devoted to it just chock full of entertaining examples and associated tropes (food pills, jet pack, video phone, flying car, etc).

My favorite example is "Into the Meteorite Orbit" by Frank K. Kelly (1933).

It starts out so good. It predicts air-traffic controllers, the 22nd century as being dominated by the energy crisis, it even has the hero finding a recorded message on his video-telephone.

Then the reader's willing suspension of disbelief crashes and burns as the hero pulls the wax cylinder out of the video-telephone, puts it in the replay unit, and places the needle on the groove. Oops.

And then there were the slide-rules in a short story by A. E. Van Vogt, complete with a radio link to the ship's computer.

In "How to Build a Future", John Barnes suggests as a rule of thumb one shouldn't try predicting technological advances past 500 years or so. He got this by assuming that each epoch of advance is composed of 90% of existing technology miniaturized, turbo-charged, or otherwise improved and 10% technology that is "magic" (in the sense of Clarke's Third Law) coming from scientific breakthroughs. An example of the 90% would be the development of the propeller airplane into the jet airplane, an example of the 10% would be the invention of the laser. His thinking is that while one can extrapolate improvements in existing technology, breakthroughs cannot be visualized. Indeed they would be almost incomprehensible (imagine trying to explain the quantum mechanical basis of the transistor to Thomas Edison). The first epoch would be 10% magic. The second would be an extension of the first plus 10% new magic, for a grand total of 19% magic. By epoch 7 it will be 52% magic. After about 500 years of technological epochs, the current technology approaches 100% magic as compared to the starting technology, hence the 500 year rule of thumb. Keep it up and you'll have a Vingian Singularity.

Authors who worry about such details try to come up with a way to put the brakes to progress. Barnes postulated a "inward turn" in his A MILLION OPEN DOORS. In his DUNE novels, Frank Herbert has the "Butlerian Jihad". In Jerry Pournelle's CoDominion novels, the government suppresses all research that might upset the military balance, which is basically all research. In Andre Norton's THE STARS ARE OURS, Terra is controlled by a fundamentalist Luddite regime which swept into power after a close brush with nuclear Armageddon.

Steam Engine Time

"Steam Engine Time" is a science fictional concept that when the time is ripe for Invention X it will be independently created by isolated individuals all over the world. Apparently the term was coined by Charles Fort.

Wikipedia calls it Multiple Discovery or Simultaneous Invention Hypothesis, as opposed to the more traditional Heroic Theory Of Invention And Scientific Development Hypothesis. Wikipedia also has an impressive list of multiple discoveries. Kevin Kelly calls it Technological Inevitability, the concept that some inventions are meant to be.

In science fiction, a good example is Harry Harrison's "In Our Hands, The Stars" (expanded into The Daleth Effect). SPOILERS: a scientist invents a reactionless drive which will turn a submarine into instant spaceship. The scientist does not want the invention falling into the hands of the military (of any and all nations) because it would be a horrific war weapon. Most of the novel is about the desperate efforts of the scientist to keep it secret and the desperate attempts of all the militaries of the world to seize the secret. Much death and destruction ensue. But the punch line comes when the invention is independently discovered by scientists all over the world. It seems that for the world it has become "Daleth Effect Time".

When the time is ripe for certain things, these things appear in different places in the manner of violets coming to light in early spring.

Farkas Bolyai
Steam Engine Time Urban Dictionary

A period of time when many inventors all over the world, despite isolation from each other, and with no contact with each other in any way, begin inventing a similar technology with a coincidental commonality of ideas.

The invention of the steam engine didn't occur in only one place but was invented independently and in isolation by many inventors all over the world.

Another example of steam engine time includes the independent invention of the aeroplane by people in isolation from each other in many different regions of the world, leading to arguments about "who" invented the aeroplane first.

From Steam Engine Time entry in Urban Dictionary, by Wataru108 (2008)
Charles Fort

For example, he (Charles Fort) was uncomfortable with the notion of “invention” and wondered whether Watt really invented the steam engine or the Wright brothers invented the flying machine. In his book New Lands, Fort wrote: “One of the greatest of secrets that have eventually been found out was for ages blabbed by all the pots and kettles in the world—but that the secret of the steam engine could not reveal itself until came the time for its co-ordination with the other phenomena and the requirements of the Industrial Age.”

William Gibson Interview

There’s an idea in the science-fiction community called steam-engine time, which is what people call it when suddenly twenty or thirty different writers produce stories about the same idea. It’s called steam-engine time—because nobody knows why the steam engine happened when it did. Ptolemy demonstrated the mechanics of the steam engine, and there was nothing technically stopping the Romans from building big steam engines. They had little toy steam engines, and they had enough metalworking skill to build big steam tractors. It just never occurred to them to do it. When I came up with my cyberspace idea, I thought, I bet it’s steam-engine time for this one, because I can’t be the only person noticing these various things. And I wasn’t. I was just the first person who put it together in that particular way, and I had a logo for it, I had my neologism.


The actual phrase was first coined by the collector of weird, Charles Fort, in 1931, who wrote in his early fantasy novel Lo!: “A tree cannot find out, as it were, how to blossom, until comes blossom-time. A social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine-time.”

Steam-engine-time is another name for technological determinism, which is another way to say simultaneous independent invention, Turns out simultaneous parallel discovery and invention are the norm in science and technology rather than the exception (see my previous post).

When it is steam-engine-time, steam engines will occur everywhere. But not before. Because all the precursor and supporting ideas and inventions need to be present. The Romans had the idea of steam engines, but not of strong iron to contain the pressure, nor valves to regulate it, nor the cheap fuel to power it. No idea – even steam engines — are solitary. A new idea rests on a web of related previous ideas. When all the precursor ideas to cyberspace are knitted together, cyberspace erupts everywhere. When it is robot-car-time, robot cars will come. When it is steam-engine-time, you can’t stop steam engines.

From Steam-Engine-Time by Kevin Kelly (2011)
Simultaneous Invention

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call “multiples”—turns out to be extremely common. One of the first comprehensive lists of multiples was put together by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, in 1922, and they found a hundred and forty-eight major scientific discoveries that fit the multiple pattern. Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented” decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, in Wiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a year earlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost Bürgi in Switzerland.

“There were four independent discoveries of sunspots, all in 1611; namely, by Galileo in Italy, Scheiner in Germany, Fabricius in Holland and Harriott in England,” Ogburn and Thomas note, and they continue:

The law of the conservation of energy, so significant in science and philosophy, was formulated four times independently in 1847, by Joule, Thomson, Colding and Helmholz. They had been anticipated by Robert Mayer in 1842. There seem to have been at least six different inventors of the thermometer and no less than nine claimants of the invention of the telescope. Typewriting machines were invented simultaneously in England and in America by several individuals in these countries. The steamboat is claimed as the “exclusive” discovery of Fulton, Jouffroy, Rumsey, Stevens and Symmington.

For Ogburn and Thomas, the sheer number of multiples could mean only one thing: scientific discoveries must, in some sense, be inevitable. They must be in the air, products of the intellectual climate of a specific time and place.

From In the Air by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)

The Singularity

The Singularity is a theoretical event where computer artificial intelligence escapes control and Everything Changes. If an AI figures out how to improve its intelligence, the Singularity will happen rather quickly because computers can do a gazillion mathematical calculations in a fraction of a second.

Charles Stross calls it "The Rapture Of The Nerds", because Singularity fans talk about it in terms one generally only hears among eschatologists. Human history will come to an end, beer will be five cents a pint, everybody will have their brain uploaded into the paradise of a hyper interstellar internet, there to live out a blissful immortality while being all watched over by machines of loving grace. And it is going to happen Real Soon Now.

Others see the advent of Skynet, with hordes of Terminator robots hunting down humans with phased plasma rifles in the 40 watt range, crunching human skulls underfoot.

But both predictions are meaningless, since the point of a singularity is it signals where the math breaks down and future prediction is impossible. Sort of like a historical event horizon. Any prediction you make is revealing more about the hopes and fears lurking inside your personality than it is the actual details of the post-Singularity future.

Anyway the label was first mentioned by Stanislaw Ulam in 1958. But it was popularized by Vernor Vinge to the point where pretty much every science fiction author has at least heard the term. Of course there have been a few science fiction stories written about it.

Vinge is of the opinion that the Singularity will strike the instant that some entity appears that is "Superintelligent." It will then work its will, and the human history will vanish into the unpredictable event horizon of the Singularity. Vinge figures this can happen four different ways:

  • A computer may be developed that is both awake and superhumanly intelligent. This might be from some human genius who builds a very smart machine, or by a human who makes a computer capable of such recursive self-improvement that when the human's back is turned the computer undergoes an intelligence explosion, bootstrapping itself into superintellence.
  • A large computer network may "wake up" as a superintelligent entity. Arthur C. Clarke used this in his 1965 story Dial "F" for Frankenstein when the telephone system wakes up. Nowadays the first thing that springs to mind is the internet, which is a disturbing thought. Blasted thing will have 4chan for a dark subconscious.
  • A computer/brain interface may become so intimate that the users will be for all intents and purposes superintelligent.
  • There may be no computers involved at all. Biological science might be able to grant human beings the power of superintelligence.

Naturally once you have a superintelligent being, there is nothing stopping it from creating a super-superintelligent being, and so on.

Earth Strike

"Transcendence," Admiral Barry said. "That seems to be an ongoing theme with these creatures."

"Yes, sir. In particular, we think they're talking about the GRIN Singularity."

Since the twentieth century—some would say earlier—human technology had been advancing in exponential leaps, each advance in science spawning new advances in dizzying and fast-accelerating profusion. It wasn't just the technology that had been growing; it was the pace of that growth, the ever-increasing speed of technological innovation and development. Just five centuries ago, humans had made their first successful heavier-than-air flight in a fabric-and-spruce glider powered by a gasoline engine, a voyage lasting all of twelve seconds and covering 120 feet. Thirty years later, aviator Wiley Post flew a Lockheed Vega monoplane around the world, the first man to do so solo, making eleven stops along the way and logging the total time in the air at 115 hours, 36 minutes.

And thirty years after that, humans were riding rockets into low Earth orbit, circling the globe in ninety minutes, and were just six short years from walking on the Moon.

In the late twentieth century, a science fiction writer, math professor, and computer scientist named Vernor Vinge had pointed out that if the rate of technological change was graphed against time, the slope representing that change was fast approaching a vertical line—what he called the "technological singularity" in an essay written in 1993. Human life and civilization, he'd pointed out, would very quickly become unrecognizable, assuming that humans weren't replaced entirely by their technological offspring within the next few decades.

Other writers of the era had pointed out that there were four principle drivers of this exponential increase in high-tech wizardry: genetics, robotics, infotechnology, and nanotechnology, hence the acronym "GRIN." The GRIN Singularity became a catchphrase for the next four centuries of human technological progress.

"GRIN wasn't quite the apotheosis people thought it would be," Noranaga pointed out.

"That's kind of a strange statement coming from a guy who breathes with gills and can outswim a dolphin," Barry pointed out.

"He's right, though," Mendelson said. "The way the pace of things was picking up in the twenty-first century, it looked like humans would become super-sentient god-machines before the twenty-second. The surprise is that we didn't."

"Well," Koenig said, "we did kind of get distracted along the way."

As Mendelson had pointed out, the only surprising thing about any of this was that the rate of increase hadn't already rocketed into the singularity sometime in the late twenty-first century. Various factors were to blame— two nasty wars with the Chinese Hegemony culminating in an asteroid strike in the Atlantic, the ongoing struggle with Earth's fast-changing climate and the loss of most of Earth's coastal cities, the collapse of the global currency and the subsequent World Depression. The Blood Death of the early twenty-second century had brought about startling advances in nanomedicine.. .but it had also killed one and a half billion people and brought about a major collapse of civilization in Southern Asia and Africa.

Those challenges and others had helped spur technological advances, certainly, but at the same time they'd slowed social change, redirected human creativity and innovation into less productive avenues, and siphoned off trillions of creds that otherwise would have financed both technological and social change. Human technological advance, it seemed, came more in fits and starts than in sweeping asymptotic curves.

(ed note: science fiction authors should note that Mr. Keith did not want to write about a post-Singularity human society, so he offered reasons why the Singularity had not happened. Yet.)

Science and Society

Funny thing about society in general and people in specific. Back in the 1750's this new thing called "Science" really started coming into its own. It was amazing the things it could discover, and so many of them with marvelously practical uses! It seemed like there was nothing science could not do. Science was going to bring us to a grand and glorious utopian future. Even now there is some nostaligia for this view, the technical term is "Retro-Futurism".

This all turned to worms in the early 1900's. Suddenly science revealed its dark side. Science unleashed unspeakable horrors, there were things man was not meant to know, and one started to see more and more dystopias in science fiction literature.

Science didn't change, it can't. The change was in the attitude of society.

So what happened? Yes, I know most of you suddenly shouted "The invention of the atom bomb, you moron!". BZZZT! You're wrong, thank you for playing. It was already in full swing long before 1945. So what's the answer?

I believe that master science fiction author and science explainer Isaac Asimov has the answer. He wrote about it in a 1969 essay entitled The Sin of the Scientist (collected in The Stars In Their Courses). He was speculating on what a "scientific sin" would be. Turns out it would be an act that would blacken the very name of science itself.

For a long period after 1752, throughout the nineteenth century indeed, science was generally considered the hope of humanity. Oh, there were people who thought this particular scientific advance or that was wicked, and who objected to anesthetics, for instance, or to the theory of evolution, or, for that matter, to the Industrial Revolution—but science in the abstract remained good.

How different it is today! There is a strong and growing element among the population which not only finds scientists suspect, but is finding evil in science in the abstract.

It is the whole concept of science which (to many) seems to have made the world a horror. The advance of medicine has given us a dangerous population growth; the advance of technology has given us a growing pollution danger; a group of ivory-tower, head-in-the-clouds physicists have given us the nuclear bomb; and so on and so on and so on.

But at exactly which point in time did the disillusionment with the "goodness" of science come? When did it start?

Could it have come at the time when some scientist or scientists demonstrated the evil in science beyond any doubt; showed mankind a vision of evil so intense that not only the scientist himself but all of science was darkened past the point where it could be washed clean again?

When was the sin of the scientist committed, then, and who was the scientist?

The easy answer is the nuclear bomb. It was to that which Oppenheimer referred in his remark on sin.

But I say no. The nuclear bomb is a terrible thing that has contributed immeasurably to the insecurity of mankind and to his growing distrust of science, but the nuclear bomb is by no means pure evil.

To develop the nuclear bomb, physicists had to extend, vastly, their knowledge of nuclear physics generally. That has led to cheap radioisotopes that have contributed to research in science and industry in a hundred fruitful directions; to nuclear power stations that may be of tremendous use to mankind, and so on. Even the bombs themselves can be used for useful and constructive purposes (as motive power for spaceships, for one thing). And missiles, which might have hydrogen bombs attached, might have spaceships attached instead.

Besides, even if you argue that the development of the nuclear bomb was sin, I still reply that it wasn't the first sin. The mistrust of science itself antedates the nuclear bomb. That bomb intensified the mistrust but did not originate it.

I find a certain significance in the fact that the play R.U.R. by Karel Capek was first produced in 1921.

It brought the Frankenstein motif up to date. The original Frankenstein, published a century earlier, in 1818, was the last thrust of theological, rather than scientific, sin. In its Faustian plot, a scientist probed forbidden knowledge and offended God rather than man. The monster who in the end killed Frankenstein could easily be understood as the instrument of God's vengeance.

In R.U.R., however, the theological has vanished. Robots are created out of purely scientific motivation with no aura of "forbiddenness." They are tools intended to advance man's good the way the railroad and telegraph did; but they got out of hand and in the end the human race was destroyed.

Science could get out of hand!

The play was an international success (and gave the word "robot" to the world and to science fiction) so its thesis of science out of hand must have touched a responsive chord in mankind.

Why should men be so ready, in 1921, to think that science could get out of hand and do total evil to the human race, when only a few years before, science was still the "Mr. Clean" who would produce a Utopia if allowed to work?

What happened shortly before 1921? World War I happened shortly before 1921.

World War II was a greater and deadlier war than World War I; but World War I was incomparably more stupid in its details.

Men have made colossal misjudgments in a moment of error and may make more to come. Some day, someone will push the wrong button, perhaps, in a moment of panic or lack of understanding, and destroy the world; but never has constant, steady stupidity held sway for weeks, months and years as among the military leaders of World War I. For persistent stupidity, they will never be approached.

A million men and more died at Verdun. Sixty thousand British soldiers died in a single day on the Somme while generals thought they could build a bridge of mangled flesh across the trenches.

Everything about the carnage was horrible, but was there anything which managed to make itself felt above that sickening spectacle of mutual suicide? Was it the new explosives used in unprecedented quantities; the machine guns, the tanks? They were only minor developments of old devices. Was it the airplane, first used in battle, in this war? Not at all! The airplane was actually admired, for it was in itself beautiful, and it clearly had enormous peacetime potential.

No, no! If you want the supreme horror of the war, here it is:

On April 22, 1915, at Ypres, two greenish-yellow clouds of gas rolled toward the Allied line at a point held by Canadian divisions.

It was poison gas; chlorine. When the clouds covered the Allied line, that line caved in. The soldiers fled; they had to; and a five-mile opening appeared.

No gap like that had been seen anywhere before on the Western Front, but the Germans muffed their opportunity. For one thing, they hadn't really believed it would work (even though they had earlier experimented with gas in a smaller way against the Russians), and were caught flat-footed. For another, they hesitated to advance until the cloud had quite dissipated.

The Canadians were able to rally, and after the clouds drifted away, their line re-formed. By the time of the next gas attack, all were prepared and the gas mask was in use.

That was the horror of World War I, for before the war was over poison gases far more horrible than the relatively innocuous chlorine were put into use by both sides.

So grisly was the threat of poison gas, so insidious its onset, so helpless an unprepared group of victims and, what's more, so devastatingly atrocious did it seem to make war upon breathing—that common, constant need of all men —that after World War I gas warfare was outlawed.

In all of World War II, poison gas was not used no matter what the provocation, and in wars since, even the use of tear gas arouses violent opposition. Military men argue endlessly that poison gas is really humane; that it frequently incapacitates without killing or permanent harm; that it does not maim horribly the way shells and bullets do. People nevertheless will not brook interference with breathing. Shells and bullets might miss; one might hide from them. But how escape or avoid the creeping approach of gas?

And what, after all, is the other side of poison gas? It has only one use; to harm, incapacitate and kill. It has no other use. When World War I was over and the Allies found themselves left with many tons of poison gas, to what peaceful use could those tons be converted? To none. The poison gas had to be buried at sea or disposed of clumsily in some other fashion. Was even theoretical knowledge gained? No!

Poison gas warfare was developed knowingly by a scientist with only destruction in mind. The only excuse for it was patriotism, and is that enough of an excuse?

There is a story that during the Crimean War of 1853-56, the British government asked Michael Faraday, the greatest living scientist of the day, two questions: 1) Was it possible to develop poison gas in quantities sufficient to use on the battlefield? And 2) would Faraday head a project to accomplish the task?

Faraday said "Yes" to the first and an emphatic "No" to the second. He did not consider patriotism excuse enough. During World War I, Ernest Rutherford of Great Britain refused to involve himself in war work, maintaining that his research was more important.

In the name of German patriotism, however, poison gas warfare was introduced in World War I, and it was the product of science. No one could miss that. Poison gas was invented by the clever chemists of the German Empire. And the gas poisoned not only thousands of men, but the very name of science. For the first time, millions became aware that science could be perverted to monstrous evil, and science has never been the same again.

Poison gas was the sin of the scientist.

And can we name the sinner?

Yes, we can. He was Fritz Haber, an earnest German patriot of the most narrow type, who considered nothing bad if it brought good (according to his lights) to the Fatherland. (Alas, this way of thinking is held by too many people of all nations and is not confined to Germany.)

Haber had developed the "Haber process" which produced ammonia out of the nitrogen of the air. The ammonia could be used to manufacture explosives. Without that process, Germany would have run out of ammunition by 1916, thanks to the British blockade. With that process, she ran out of food, men and morale, but never out of ammunition. This, however, will scarcely qualify as a scientific sin, since the Haber process can be used to prepare useful explosives and fertilizers.

During the war, however, Haber labored unceasingly to develop methods of producing poison gas in quantity and supervised that first chlorine attack.

His reward for his unspotted devotion to his nation was a most ironic one. In 1933, Hitler came to power and, as it happened, Haber was Jewish. He had to leave the country and died in sad exile within the year.

That he got out of Germany safely was in part due to the labors of Rutherford, who moved mountains to rescue as many German scientists as he could from the heavy hand of the Nazi psychopaths. Rutherford personally greeted those who reached England, shaking hands with them in the fraternal comradeship of science.

He would not, however, shake hands with Haber. That would, in his view, have been going too far, for Haber, by his work on poison gas, had put himself beyond Rutherford's pale.

I can only hope that Rutherford was not reacting out of offended national patriotism, but out of the horror of a scientist who recognized scientific sin when he saw it.

Even today, we can still recognize the difference. The men who developed the nuclear bombs and missile technology are not in disgrace. Some of them have suffered agonies of conscience but they know, and we all know, that their work can be turned to great good, if only all of us display wisdom enough. Even Edward Teller, in so far as his work may result in useful fusion power some day, may be forgiven by some his fatherhood of the H-bomb.

But what about the anonymous, hidden people, who in various nations work on nerve gas and on disease germs? To whom are they heroes?

To what constructive use can nerve gas in ton-lot quantities be put? To what constructive use can plague bacilli in endless rows of flasks be put?

The sin of the scientist is multiplied endlessly in these people and for their sake—to make matters theological once again—all mankind may yet be cursed.

From "The Sin of the Scientist" by Isaac Asimov (collected in The Star In Their Courses) 1969
Technology Changing Society 1

By the standards of all earlier ages, it was Utopia. Ignorance, disease, poverty and fear had virtually ceased to exist. The memory of war was fading into the past as a nightmare vanishes with the dawn; soon it would lie outside the experience of all living men.

With the energies of mankind directed into constructive channels, the face of the world had been remade. It was, almost literally, a new world. The cities that had been good enough for earlier generations had been rebuilt-or deserted and left as museum specimens when they had ceased to serve any useful purpose. Many cities had already been abandoned in this manner, for the whole pattern of industry and commerce had changed completely. Production had become largely automatic; the robot factories poured forth consumer goods in such unending streams that all the ordinary necessities of life were virtually free. Men worked for the sake of the luxuries they desired; or they did not work at all.

It was One World. The old names of the old countries were still used, but they were no more than convenient postal divisions. There was no one on earth who could not speak English, who could not read, who was not within range of a television set, who could not visit the other side of the planet within twenty-four hours..

Crime had practically vanished. It had become both unnecessary and impossible. When no one lacks anything, there is no point in stealing. Moreover, all potential criminals knew that there could be no escape from the surveillance of the Overlords. In the early days of their rule, they had intervened so effectively on behalf of law and order that the lesson had never been forgotten.

Crimes of passion, though not quite extinct, were almost unheard of. Now that so many of its psychological problems had been removed, humanity was far saner and less irrational. And what earlier ages would have called vice was now no more than eccentricity—or, at the worst, bad manners.

One of the most noticeable changes had been a slowing-down of the mad tempo that had so characterized the twentieth century. Life was more leisurely than it had been for generations. It therefore had less zest for the few, but more tranquillity for the many. Western man had relearned—what the rest of the world had never forgotten—that there was nothing sinful in leisure as long as it did not degenerate into mere sloth.

Whatever problems the future might bring, time did not yet hang heavy on humanity's hands. Education was now much more thorough and much more protracted. Few people left college before twenty—and that was merely the first stage, since they normally returned again at twenty-five for at least three more years, after travel and experience had broadened their minds. Even then, they would probably take refresher courses at intervals for the remainder of their lives in the subjects that particularly interested them.

This extension of human apprenticeship so far past the beginning of physical maturity had given rise to many social changes. Some of these had been necessary for generations, but earlier periods had refused to face the challenge—or had pretended that it did not exist. In particular, the pattern of sexual mores—insofar as there had ever been a single pattern—had altered radically. It had been virtually shattered by two inventions, which were, ironically enough, of purely human origin and owed nothing to the Overlords.

The first was a completely reliable oral contraceptive; the second was an equally infallible method—as certain as fingerprinting, and based on a very detailed analysis of the blood—of identifying the father of any child. The effect of these two inventions upon human society could only be described as devastating, and they had swept away the last remnants of the Puritan aberration.

(ed note: the above was written in 1953. A reasonably reliable oral contraceptive became available in 1960, and highly accurate DNA paternity tests became available in the 1980s. Sadly for Clarke's future history, as of 2016 in the US the Puritans are still with us.)

Another great change was the extreme mobility of the new society. Thanks to the perfection of air transport, everyone was free to go anywhere at a moment's notice. There was more room in the skies than there had ever been on the roads, and the, twenty-first century had repeated, on a larger scale, the great American achievement of putting a nation on wheels.

It had given wings to the world.

Though not literally. The ordinary private flyer or aircar had no wings at all, or indeed any visible control surfaces.

Even the clumsy rotor blades of the old helicopters had been banished. Yet man had not discovered anti-gravity; only the Overlords possessed that ultimate secret. His aircars were propelled by forces which the Wright brothers would have understood. Jet reaction, used both directly and in the more subtle form of boundary layer control, drove his flyers forward and held them in the air. As no laws or edicts of the Overlords could have done, the ubiquitous little aircars had washed away the last barriers between the different tribes of mankind.

From Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
Technology Changing Society 2

(ed note: this is from a satirical fantasy novel, but still demonstrates how technology changes society. The same concept can be adapted to science fiction.

The race of dwarfs do lots of mining. This means dealing with the dangerously explosive gas called firedamp. A profession arose to deal with firedamp, called "knockermen". And knockermen became leaders. Until...)

     'Thank you for that, corporal. Tell me . . . those robes some of the dwarfs were wearing. I know they wear them on the surface so they're not polluted by the nasty sunlight, but why wear them down there?'
     'It's traditional, sir. Er, they were worn by the . . . well, it's what you'd call the knockermen, sir.'
     'What did they do?'
     'Well, you know about firedamp? It's a gas you get in mines sometimes. It explodes.'
     Vimes saw the images in his mind as Cheery explained . . .

     The miners would clear the area, if they were lucky. And the knockerman would go in wearing layer after layer of chain-mail and leather, carrying his sack of wicker globes stuffed with rags and oil. And his long pole. And his slingshot.
     Down in the mines, all alone, he'd hear the knockers. Agi Hammerthief and all the other things that made noises, deep under the earth.
     There could be no light, because light would mean sudden, roaring death. The knockerman would feel his way through the utter dark, far below the surface.
     There was a type of cricket that lived in the mines. It chirruped loudly in the presence of firedamp. The knockerman would have one in a box, tied to his hat.
     When it sang, a knockerman who was either very confident or extremely suicidal would step back, light the torch on the end of his pole and thrust it ahead of him. The more careful knockerman would step back rather more, and slingshot a ball of burning rags into the unseen death. Either way, he'd trust in his thick leather clothes to protect him from the worst of the blast.
     It was an honorable trade but, at least to start with, it didn't run in families. They didn't have families. Who'd marry a knockerman? They were dead dwarfs walking. But sometimes a young dwarf would ask to become one; his family would be proud, wave him goodbye, and then speak of him as if he was dead, because that made it easier.
     Sometimes, though, knockermen came back. And the ones that survived went on to survive again, because surviving is a matter of practice. And sometimes they would talk a little of what they heard, all alone in the deep mines ... the tap-tapping of dead dwarfs trying to get back into the world, the distant laughter of Agi Hammerthief, the heartbeat of the turtle that carried the world.
     Knockermen became kings.

     Vimes, listening with his mouth open, wondered why the hell it was that dwarfs believed that they had no religion and no priests. Being a dwarf was a religion. People went into the dark for the good of the clan, and heard things, and were changed, and came back to tell...

     And then, fifty years ago, a dwarf tinkering in Ankh-Morpork had found that if you put a simple fine mesh over your lantern flame it'd burn blue in the presence of the gas but wouldn't explode. It was a discovery of immense value to the good of dwarfkind and, as so often happens with such discoveries, almost immediately led to a war.
     'And afterwards there were two kinds of dwarf,' said Cheery sadly. 'There's the Copperheads, who all use the lamp and the patent gas exploder, and the Schmaltzbergers, who stick to the old ways. Of course we're all dwarfs,' she said, 'but relations are rather . . . strained.'
     'I bet they are.'
     'Oh, no, all dwarfs recognize the need for the Low King, it's just that . . .'
     ' . . they don't quite see why knockermen are still so powerful?'
     'It's all very sad,' said Cheery.

From The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett (1999)
Technology Changing Society 3

#1. Eli Whitney Accidentally Causes The Civil War

The American South, the 1790s. The plantation slavery model was in trouble. The old crops of rice, tobacco, and indigo weren't profitable any more. Neither was cotton, due to the labor-intensive process of jerking the seeds out. It took days of combing bush to remove all the sticky seed and get everyone to stop laughing at all the euphemisms.

Cue Eli Whitney and his cotton gin. A relatively quick and easy spur-of-the-moment invention, the gin was capable of whipping out 55 pounds of cotton in a single day. In comparison, teasing out the seeds by hand might get you a whole pound for a day's work. Hooray! The plantations were saved!

Yeah, about that ...

Before the cotton gin came around, slavery had been on the way out. Slaves were expensive to maintain, and poor production was making it exceedingly pointless to keep them. Thanks to the gin, cotton became super profitable, and the cotton economy exploded. There was one catch: While the gin super effectively processed cotton by separating it from its seeds, it did precisely jack s**t to pick it. So by making processing profitable and much more efficient, it massively raised the need for pickers. That is, slaves.

So the number of slaves in the South quintupled between 1800 and 1850, and by 1860, the region was an agricultural powerhouse, its wealth based on King Cotton and slave labor. As for Eli Whitney, he was a scholar and an inventor who never owned slaves himself, so the whole "slavery explosion" part of the equation possibly hadn't even occurred to him. And even if that didn't come as a shock to him, what happened afterwards most certainly did.

When abolitionists up North began to suggest that maybe the South shouldn't be making bank on the bloody backs of human beings, it threatened the livelihoods of every rich man down there. Said rich men weren't taking that from a bunch of Yankees, so next came talk of secession, and you know what happened next. 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War, all tracing back to Eli's humble cotton engine. Which, by the way, he never made much money from, because his device was easily copied and patent law sucked.

Luckily for him, Eli had gained a solid reputation as an innovator, and was eventually consoled with a massive government order. Of guns.

Warning Signs for Tomorrow

Anders Sandberg has created a brilliant set of "warning signs" to alert people of futuristic hazards. Some are satirical, but they are all very clever. There are larger versions of the signs here.

The Sword on the Starship

Some space opera writers are fascinated with the romantic concept of star conquerors charging out of their interstellar star ships on horseback, waving longswords. While cinematically interesting, the concept is obviously scientifically silly, surely somebody advanced enough to run an FTL starship can manage to cobble together a laser pistol (or a submachine gun).

A related notion is a high-tech interstellar empire threatened by "barbarians" waiting in their FTL longboat starships at the rim of the empire. Just like a galactic Roman Empire. One wonders about the tech assumptions though. Either starships are relatively cheap (ponder the idea of "barbarians" fielding aircraft carriers as a comparison) or the smallest feudal units are pretty good sized.

There are several related entries on the TV Tropes website: Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age, Archaic Weapon for an Advanced Age, Guns Are Worthless, Rock Beats Laser, and Heroes Prefer Swords.

Star Wars movies
Lightsabers are laserized swords but to make oneself immune to blaster bolts you have to Trust The Force, Luke! Only the precognition granted by the Force will allow the Jedi or Sith to get the blade in place fast enough to deflect the bolt. Of course they will be worthless against a .45 automatic. The lightsaber blade will just convert the solid bullet into a molten metal bullet with all of its kinetic energy still intact and still heading right for your face.
Dune novels by Frank Herbert
The Holtzman effect personal force fields will stop bullets safely and will stop laser bolts with the unfortunate side effect of a thermonuclear explosion. Only swords and other blades will penetrate, and only slow moving swords at that. When Herbert adds the Butlerian Jihad it makes the universe of ten thousand years from now look remarkably medieval. Which is a good thing if the author does not want to be forced to write a high-tech cyberpunk post-Singularity novel.
Traveller RPG
Swords are used on planets with high Law Levels because on such worlds it is illegal for civilians to carry firearms. Cutlasses are used when pirates invade starships because guns tend to perforate the hull and let all the air out (in reality you'll have about an hour before the pressure becomes dangerously low). On merchant starships there are racks for cutlasses next to the airlocks so the crew can repel boarders.
Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burrough
The Martians have firearms which fire explosive radium bullets. However, there is a nearly unbreakable cultural taboo against fighting a foe with unequal weapons. You can only use weapons of equal or lesser effectiveness. No "Raiders of the Lost Ark" allowed, if your foe pulls out a sword it is not fair to just shoot him.
Deathstalker series by Simon Green
A bolt from a disruper pistol is deadly, but the blasted weapon takes two minutes to recharge. Just like a camera strobe with a weak battery and a large capacitor. People fire their single bolt then unsheathe their sword. There are no slugthrowers firing bullets available because their relatively low price would allow them to be purchased by the "lower classes" of society, and the aristocracy frowns on that.
Sargasso of Lost Starships by Poul Anderson
The aliens have superhuman psychic powers that can deflect blaster bolts or bullets. But they can't stop a sword or a spear because those have too much inertia. Unfortunately for the aliens, the human invader figure this out quite quickly.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The "stasis field" alters the laws of physics so nothing can move faster than 16.3 m/s. Inside a stasis field soldiers are forced to use melee weapons or bow and arrows; lasers, chemical explosives, nuclear warheads, and other high-tech weapons will not work. They also have to wear insulated armor or they are instantly killed by the stasis field bringing the biochemical basis of their body's metabolism to screeching halt.
The Trigger by Arthur Clarke and Michael Kube-McDowell
Scientist accidentally invent a device which will detonate all explosives and gunpowder with a large radius. Criminals learn how to exploit this (e.g., faultless at-range detonator) so the scientists develop the device to the point where exposure will render all explosives and gunpowder in range permanently inert and useless. Criminals start using bow and arrow. The scientists foolishly try to develop the device further, and to their horror realize they've made the ultimate genocide machine.

Forsooth, many have written begiling tales of swordplay laid on Mars, not to mention Venus and assorted extra-solar planets. In fact, I am reading one, Gardner Fox's WARRIOR OF LLARN, right now.

The trouble with most of these stories, including Fox's, is that the authors try to combine two incompatable elements. For one, they want the glamor of antiquity. Therefore they fill their imaginary worlds with impenetrable jungles, fearsome monsters, glittering palaces, haughty emperors, beautiful princesses, sinister temples, villainous priests, cowering slaves, deadly duels, gladitorial combats, ghastly ghosts, frightful demons, lethal magic, gallant steeds, and of course a lavish assortment of swords and other hand-to-hand weapons.

But, at the same time, the writers want to cash in on the fictional appeal of super-science. So, along with this display of picturesque archaism, they mingle elements from the technological present and future: guns, disintegrators and other lethal ray projectors, mechanical air and ground vechicles, and other scientific gadgets. At this point, pop goes the illusion they have striven so hard to build up. For, their fictional milieu is as anachronistic, or technologically incongruous, as it would be to have a contemporary American businessman wear Gothic armor to his office or light his cigarette by rubbing sticks.

True, such incongruities do exist in the real world. Today you can see a Peruvian Indian jogging along on his mule and holding a transistor to his ear. (ed note: for all you young whipper-snappers, this was written in those ancient days of yore when a transistor FM radio was considered cutting-edge high-tech) But a mixture of the technics of different eras is always an unstable and rapidly changing state of affairs, because people compelled to mix with those of a technologically more advanced culture soon adopt the gadgets of the others, as far as they can do so without much disturbing their basic cultural attitudes, social organizations, and traditional way of life. Even when these things are disturbed, the people may eventually adopt the new discoveries when they get used to them.

To judge by the record of our own species, most people are not conservative about adopting more effective methods of killing their foes and getting from place to place. In recent centuries, for instance, primitive people who found themselves fighting Westerners did their damndest to obtain Western weapons. In the wars of the Peruvian Indians against the Conquistadores, many Indian chiefs went into battle wearing armor looted from dead Spaniards. Once the primitives had enough guns, they quickly shelved their bows and spears. The Plains Indians made little use of either in their wars with the whites in the 1870s and 80s... the end of the (19th) century, however, the sword had become an absurd anachronism, even though there were still a few cavalry charges. The last I know of was on 20 March 1942, when Sandeman's cavalry detachment charged a Japanese position near Toungoo, Burma. Needless to say, Sandeman and his gallant Sikhs were all killed before the could get within slashing distance...

...My point is that people who have weapons like radar-sighted, aluminum-alloy, radium rifles of Burroughs' Martians, with ranges of hundreds of miles, would not fool around with swords and spears, as Burroughs' people do, any more than the Plains Indians did when they got rifles. Nor will they go galumphing around on thoats, gawrs, drals, or other beasts of burden when the equivalents of automobiles and airplanes are available. Remember how quickly the Plains Indians adopted the horse...

...So, if you really want to build a convincing fantasy world, ... make up your mind what technological level your world shall have. If it is the ancient, pre-industrial world, that's fine; if the contemporary world, that's fine; if a world of super-science, that's fine. But don't mix them, unless the older technology is shown as crumbling before the new, as it always has, or unless the older activity is preserved in the form of a sport (e.g., hunting, fishing, sailing a sailboat, riding a horse, fighting with swords, shooting a bow, or throwing a javelin)...

From "Range" by Sprague de Camp, Amra v.2 #33 (1965)

Poul Anderson had this comment on de Camp's analysis:

I have no argument with Sprague's interesting essay, but might amplify his remarks a trifle.

First, he modestly omits one legitimate way in which you can put your superscientific hero in a sword-swinging type of sitiuation. That's when, because of shipwreck, secrecy, technological blockade, or whatever, said hero has to get out and mingle with the backwards natives (oops, I mean underdeveloped patriots!) on their own terms à la Krishna.

Poul Anderson

John Brunner is of the opinion that at a bare minimum, a technologically primitive culture can only utilize high-tech items from a more advanced culture if they have some people who are "cobblers." These are tinkerers who can see the functionality of the high-tech components, and reproduce the functionality using native low-tech solutions.

Or things can be easy if the high-tech items are ultra-advanced indestructable self-repairing technology that any moron can use.

Speaking as one who misguidedly thought that writing swords-and-spaceship stories was easy (it used to be, but then I started asking awkward questions of myself), I read both Sprague de Camp's "Range" and Poul Anderson's comment theron with considerable interest. I got to the point where the latter was accusing the former of modesty in omitting the Krishna-type situation as a legitimate means of mating these ingredients, and realized that Poul was doing the same in his turn...

...There are two more ways, not examined in detail in the Amra discussion, in which this paradoxical situation can arise. First, and right under our noses, is the one implied by the horse-doesn't-need-United-Steel argument in respect of modes of transportation. We've had it in scores of After-the-Bomb stories. Modern technology requires an interlocking structure of cohesive and cooperative enterprise in which a catastrophic milieu would vanish and might not appear in its original form...

...One can select out from a body of techniques a certain rather limited group which are within the competence of a single man or a small team — for example the Afghan rifles — and provided one condition is met those techniques can then survive as folk knowledge...

...The condition which must be met is this: among the isolated team or community continuing the technique must be at least one cobbler. I mean by that someone who will make do — who can cut through the fog of traditional methods which surrounds most modern technology and see that even if such-and-such isn't available, so-and-so will do the job. What do those Afghans put in their rifles? Cordite? Maybe — if they have a source of supply from a factory. But for all their handcrafting skill, I don't see them processing nitroglycerine over a cooking fire. More likely, they're packing their cartridges with a rather inefficient black powder.

In your post-nuclear-holocaust situation, to give a parallel instance, you'll be able to keep cars and jeeps moving provided you have somebody around who can bake the gas out of wood, or compress methane boiled off by stable-dung, and plumb a gas-supply into the induction manifold using scrap tubing and insulated tape...

...So: Situation One aforementioned is a catastrophic one, during which for a comparatively brief time a maximal range of incongruities coexist...

...Let's consider Situation Two now; it's far more stable and leads to many more promising consequences. For my investigations into this area, I can thank Poul — hence my comments about his own excess of modesty. He had a delightful scene in a Planet yarn years back, where a sword-swinging spaceman argued that the stars couldn't be light-years apart because he could get from one to the other in a week or two. He'd set up a borderline case of the item under consideration: what one might call an inheritance situation. And the reason why this hasn't been examined more closely in the previous articles in Amra is probably because on Earth it's occurred only rarely and over a small area for a short space of time.

To the quick of the ulcer: a society (community, whatever) busy using up someone else's resources and not its own is a perfect setting in which to combine the most contrasting gadgetry. In the story just referred to, and in heaven knows how many more of that sort, the inheritors are the derelict descendants of a star-spanning galactic empire.


For instance, it takes the resources of a major industrial power to crash a can of instruments on the moon, or to operate an eighty-thousand-ton ocean liner or a fleet of jet aircraft. Unless something incredible happens, and I don't mean a faster-than-light drive, it's going to take the resources of an industrialized planet to maintain a spacefleet. A galactic empire will contain so many planets so highly industrialized and so densely populated that some part of it will survive any major crash and probably make the whole shebang into a galaxy-sized parallel with present-day Earth.

Not good enough. How do we get the local planetary populations down to peasant-agriculture numbers? How do we reduce the odds against knowledge of fifty-percent-plus are of contemporary (star-flying) technology disappearing altogether over an entire chunk of the galaxy?...

...I got it clear in my mind that the ships were surviving because they were built to last, while planet-bound engineering was mainly the product of the inhabitants, isolated on the fringe of the galaxy, and probably a century or two behind the state of the art at the Hub when the empire collapsed (which brings me approximately level with Asimov in his Foundation stories, though he was using the argument to a different end).

And then I got it, belatedly because as I said the Earthside parallels are extremely rare. I can only think of such instances as people mining ancient monuments for building stone and lacking either the patience or the skill to square a true block themselves when the store runs dry.

Suppose the early explorers of the galaxy find caches of starships belonging to a vanished race, in such enormous quantities that they can spread across the stars like seed from a puffball. Good: this provides all the necessary incongruities. You can go as far and as fast as you like; you don't have to take a cross-section of Earthside technology in every ship; and when you get where you're going you start with the local resources only. Maybe you don't make a very good job of it. In that case, when some next-door system gets into an expansionist mood you rather welcome being taken over and garrisoned by legionaries who bring advanced medicine (we should have invited Mrs. Jones who knows first aid!) — and maybe you do well enough yourself to launch out in the conquest game yourself.

But at no point does human knowledge of the borrowed technology catch up with the application of it. This is no surprise though — out of the next hundred people you see drive past you, how many do you think could change a spark plug or grind a valve? In certain previously advanced areas of the galaxy understanding will be achieved; maybe humans get to the theory underlying the stardrive ... but where from there? To build the tools to build the machines to apply the theory, and that may take generations.

(Ed note: This does remind one of Frederik Pohl's Heechee novels.)

From INTERSTELLAR EMPIRE by John Brunner (1965)

This may or may not be the story John Brunner was referring to:

Many men — risking indictment as warlocks or sorcerers—had tried to probe the secrets of the Great Destroyer and compute the speed of these mighty spacecraft of antiquity. Some had even claimed a speed of 100,000 miles per hour for them. But since the starships made the voyage from Earth to the agricultural worlds of Proxima Centauri in slightly less than twenty-eight hours, such calculations would place the nearest star-system an astounding two million eight hundred thousand miles from Earth — a figure that was as absurd to all Navigators as it was inconceivable to laymen.

(Ed note: 2,800,000 miles is a pathetic 1/50th the mean distance between Earth and Mars. To travel from Earth to Proxima Centauri in 28 hours would require the starship to be travelling about 1320 times the speed of light, which is a far far cry from 100,000 mph.)

From "The Rebel of Valkyr" by Alfred Coppel (Planet Stories, Fall, 1950)

A Little Knowledge

Havesting Cobbler Spaceship Technology

(ed note: The aliens of the planet Trillia were visited by Terrans in starships. Unfortunately the Trillians did not have anything the Terrans considered valuable trade goods. The Trillians could not purchase Terran starships, so they slowly researched how to make their own crude ships. One fine day a Trillian named Witweet is kidnapped at blaster-point by some Terran criminals, who want his aid in stealing a crude Trillian starship.)

First it called briefly at a neighboring star, on one of whose planets were intelligent beings that had developed a promising set of civilizations. But, again, quite a few such lay closer to home.

The era of scientific expansion was followed by the era of commercial aggrandizement. Merchant adventurers began to appear in the sector. They ignored Paradox, which had nothing to make a profit on, but investigated the inhabited globe in the nearby system. In the language dominant there at the time, it was called something like Trillia, which thus became its name in League Latin. The speakers of that language were undergoing their equivalent of the First Industrial Revolution, and eager to leap into the modern age.

Unfortunately, they had little to offer that was in demand elsewhere. And even in the spacious terms of the Polesotechnic League, they lived at the far end of a long haul. Their charming arts and crafts made Trillia marginally worth a visit, on those rare occasions when a trader was on such a route that the detour wasn't great. Besides, it was as well to keep an eye on the natives. Lacking the means to buy the important gadgets of Technic society, they had set about developing these for themselves.

"Dog your hatch!" The vocalizer made meaningless noises and Harker realized he had shouted in Anglic. He went back to Lenidellian-equivalent. "I don't propose to waste time. My partners and I did not come here to trade as we announced. We came to get a Trillian spaceship. The project is important enough that we'll kill if we must. Make trouble, and I'll blast you to greasy ash. It won't bother me. And you aren't the only possible pilot we can work through, so don't imagine you can block us by sacrificing yourself. I admit you are our best prospect. Obey, cooperate fully, and you'll live. We'll have no reason to destroy you." He paused. "We may even send you home with a good piece of money. We'll be able to afford that."

The bottling of his fur might have made Witweet impressive to another Trillian. To Harker, he became a ball of fuzz in a kimono, an agitated tail and a sound of coloratura anguish. "But this is insanity . . . if I may say that to a respected guest. . . . One of our awkward, lumbering, fragile, unreliable prototype ships—when you came in a vessel representing centuries of advancement—? Why, why, why, in the name of multiple sacredness, why?"

"I'll tell you later," the man said.

The port was like nothing in Technic civilization, unless on the remotest, least visited of outposts. After all, the Trillians had gone in a bare fifty years from propeller-driven aircraft to interstellar spaceships. Such concentration on research and development had necessarily been at the expense of production and exploitation. What few vessels they had were still mostly experimental. The scientific bases they had established on planets of next-door stars needed no more than three or four freighters for their maintenance.

Thus a couple of buildings and a ground-control tower bounded a stretch of ferrocrete on a high, chilly plateau; and that was Trillia's spaceport. Two ships were in. One was being serviced, half its hull plates removed and furry shapes swarming over the emptiness within. The other, assigned to Witweet, stood on landing jacks at the far end of the field. Shaped like a fat torpedo, decorated in floral designs of pink and baby blue, it was as big as a Dromond-class hauler. Yet its payload was under a thousand tons. The primitive systems for drive, control, and life support took up that much room.

"May I, in turn, humbly request enlightenment as to your reason for . . . sequestering . . . a spacecraft ludicrously inadequate by every standards of your oh, so sophisticated society?"

"We don't actually want the ship as such, except for demonstration purposes," Harker said. "What we want is the plans, the design. Between the vessel itself, and the service manuals aboard, we have that in effect."

Witweet's ears quivered. "Do you mean to publish the data for scientific interest? Surely, to beings whose ancestors went on to better models centuries ago—if, indeed, they ever burdened themselves with something this crude—surely the interest is nil. Unless . . . you think many will pay to see, in order to enjoy mirth at the spectacle of our fumbling efforts?" He spread his arms. "Why, you could have bought complete specifications most cheaply; or, indeed, had you requested of me, I would have been bubbly-happy to obtain a set and make you a gift." On a note of timid hope: "Thus you see, dear boy, drastic action is quite unnecessary. Let us return. I will state you remained aboard by mistake—"

Olafsson guffawed. Dolgorov said, "Not even your authorities can be that sloppy-thinking." Harker ground out his cigarette on the deck, which made the pilot wince, and explained at leisured length:

"We want this ship precisely because it's primitive. Your people weren't in the electronic era when the first human explorers contacted you. They, or some later visitors, brought you texts on physics. Then your bright lads had the theory of such things as gravity control and hyperdrive. But the engineering practice was something else again.

"You didn't have plans for a starship. When you finally got an opportunity to inquire, you found that the idealistic period of Technic civilization was over and you must deal with hardheaded entrepreneurs. And the price was set 'way beyond what your whole planet could hope to save in League currency. That was just the price for diagrams, not to speak of an actual vessel. I don't know if you are personally aware of the fact—it's no secret—but this is League policy. The member companies are bound by an agreement.

"They won't prevent anyone from entering space on his own. But take your case on Trillia. You had learned in a general way about, oh, transistors, for instance. But that did not set you up to manufacture them. An entire industrial complex is needed for that and for the million other necessary items. To design and build one, with the inevitable mistakes en route, would take decades at a minimum, and would involve regimenting your entire species and living in poverty because every bit of capital has to be reinvested. Well, you Trillians were too sensible to pay that price. You'd proceed more gradually. Yet at the same time, your scientists, all your more adventurous types were burning to get out into space.

"I agree your decision about that was intelligent too. You saw you couldn't go directly from your earliest hydrocarbon-fueled engines to a modern starship—to a completely integrated system of thermonuclear powerplant, initiative-grade navigation and engineering computers, full-cycle life support, the whole works, using solid-state circuits, molecular-level and nuclear-level transitions, forcefields instead of moving parts—an organism, more energy than matter. No, you wouldn't be able to build that for generations, probably.

"But you could go ahead and develop huge, clumsy, but workable fission-power units. You could use vacuum tubes, glass rectifiers, kilometers of wire, to generate and regulate the necessary forces. You could store data on tape if not in single molecules, retrieve with a cathode-ray scanner if not with a quantum-field pulse, compute with miniaturized gas-filled units that react in microseconds if not with photon interplays that take a nanosecond.

"You're like islanders who had nothing better than canoes till someone happened by in a nuclear-powered submarine. They couldn't copy that, but they might invent a reciprocating steam engine turning a screw—they might attach an airpipe so it could submerge—and it wouldn't impress the outsiders, but it would cross the ocean too, at its own pace; and it would overawe any neighboring tribes."

He stopped for breath.

"I see," Witweet murmured slowly. His tail switched back and forth. "You can sell our designs to sophonts in a proto-industrial stage of technological development. The idea comes from an excellent brain. But why could you not simply buy the plans for resale elsewhere?"

"The damned busybody League." Dolgorov spat.

"The fact is," Olafsson said, "spacecraft—of advanced type—have been sold to, ah, less advanced peoples in the past. Some of those weren't near industrialization, they were Iron Age barbarians, whose only thought was plundering and conquering. They could do that, given ships which are practically self-piloting, self-maintaining, self-everything. It's cost a good many lives and heavy material losses on border planets. But at least none of the barbarians have been able to duplicate the craft thus far. Hunt every pirate and warlord down, and that ends the problem. Or so the League hopes. It's banned any more such trades."

He cleared his throat. "I don't refer to races like the Trillians, who're obviously capable of reaching the stars by themselves and unlikely to be a menace when they do," he said. "You're free to buy anything you can pay for. The price of certain things is set astronomical mainly to keep you from beginning overnight to compete with the old-established outfits. They prefer a gradual phasing-in of newcomers, so they can adjust.

"But aggressive, warlike cultures, that'd not be interested in reaching a peaceful accommodation—they're something else again. There's a total prohibition on supplying their sort with anything that might lead to them getting off their planets in less than centuries. If League agents catch you at it, they don't fool around with rehabilitation like a regular government. They shoot you."

Harker grimaced. "I saw once on a telescreen interview," he remarked, "Old Nick van Rijn said he wouldn't shoot that kind of offenders. He'd hang them. A rope is reusable."

"And this ship can be copied," Witweet breathed. "A low industrial technology, lower than ours, could tool up to produce a modified design, in a comparatively short time, if guided by a few engineers from the core civilization."

"I trained as an engineer," Harker said. "Likewise Leo; and Einar spent several years on a planet where one royal family has grandiose ambitions."

"But the horror you would unleash!" wailed the Trillian. He stared into their stoniness. "You would never dare go home," he said.

"Don't want to anyway," Harker answered. "Power, wealth, yes, and everything those will buy—we'll have more than we can use up in our lifetimes, at the court of the Militants. Fun, too." He smiled. "A challenge, you know, to build a space navy from zero. I expect to enjoy my work."

"Will not the, the, the Polesotechnic League . . . take measures?"

"That's why we must operate as we have done. They'd learn about a sale of plans, and then they wouldn't stop till they'd found and suppressed our project. But a non-Technic ship that never reported in won't interest them. Our destination is well outside their sphere of normal operations. They needn't discover any hint of what's going on—till an interstellar empire too big for them to break is there. Meanwhile, as we gain resources, we'll have been modernizing our industry and fleet."

"It's all arranged," Olafsson said. "The day we show up in the land of the Militants, bringing the ship we described to them, we'll become princes."

"Kings, later," Dolgorov added. "Behave accordingly, you xeno. We don't need you much. I'd soon as not boot you through an airlock."

Witweet spent minutes just shuddering.

From A Little Knowledge by Poul Anderson (1971). Collected in David Falkyn: Star Trader

The Warlock of Rhada

In The Warlock of Rhada by Robert Cham Gilman, one thousand years after the fall of the first galactic empire, warriors are armed with swords and ride horses, but by golly the starships still work. Built to last.

Using Inherited Technology

The starship Gloria in Coelis, grounded on the sandy plain to the west of Lord Ulm of Vara's keep, was ancient. Though the men who presently flew her were the wisest of their time, they had no really clear notion of how the vessel operated, when it was built or how fast it traveled. From time out of mind, the Order of Navigators had trained its priests in the techniques of automated starflight by rote. Even now, as the Gloria's two million metric tons depressed the soil of the Varan plain, the duty Navigators on the starship's bridge, were chanting the Te Deum Stella, the Litany for Preflight, this ritual being one of the first taught to young novice Navigators on the cloister-planets of Algol.

Though the three junior priests on the bridge were chanting the voice commands that activated the immense ship's systems, in fact only the propulsion units (sealed after manufacture in the time of the Empire) responded. The priests did not know that the vessel's life-support systems and its many amenities had ceased to function more than a thousand years earlier. The interior of the starship was lit by torches burning in wall-sconces, water and food were stored aboard in wooden casks, and the ship's atmosphere was replenished not by the scrubber units, as originally intended, but by the air that was taken aboard through the open ports and hatchways. The starships were capable of almost infinite range, for the engines operated on solar-phoenix units. But the length of any star voyage was limited by the food and water supply and by the fouling of the air by the hundreds of men and horses of the warbands the starships most often carried.

The bridge had been depolarized, and from within this consecrated area where only a Navigator might pass, the duty crew could see the squat towers and thick walls of Lord Vim's keep. The warband, almost a thousand armed men, was mustering on the plain below the north tower, preparing to file into the vaulted caverns within the kilometer-long ship.

Brother Anselm, a novice who spoke with the heavy Slavic accents of the Pleiades Region, had the Conn. This honor was a small one, for the ship was not under way, but the engine cores were still humming from the recent voyage from Aurora, and Anseim, a fervent young man, imagined that the voice of the Holy Star was in them — and speaking directly to him.

He half-closed his eyes and chanted, "Planetary Mass two-third nullified and cores engaged for atmospheric flight at minus thirty and counting."

Brother Gwill, a thinly made and sour young Altairi, made the response, pressing the glowing computer controls in the prescribed sequence. "Cores One and Three at Energy Point Three, for the Glory of Heaven. Cores Two, Four, and Five coming into phase as the Lord of the Great Sky Commands."

"Hallelujah, Core Energy rising on scan curve," Anselm declared with fervid devotion...

..."Null-grav power to main buss at Energy Point Five in the Name of the Holy Name."

"Null-gee to main buss at my hack, if it is pleasing to the Spirit," Gwill responded. In spite of himself he could not suppress a shiver of anticipation. At Energy Point Five, the power of the cores was fed into the lifting system and the vast star ship would begin to lose mass. The tonnage that interacted with planetary gravity to give the ship its great weight when at rest would begin to dissipate into a spatio-temporal anomaly, changing the molecular structure by reversing the atomic polarities of all matter within the Core field. The men who designed and built the starships understood this effect only imperfectly, and the Navigators who now flew them across the Great Sky understood it not at all. But the visual and physical effects of the change in matter within the Core fields was spectacular and awesome. As the Null-grav buss was activated, the skin of the ship would begin to shimmer and glow, surplus energy accumulated by kinesis and radiation from the Vyka Sun expending itself as light and molecular motion until the starship actually began to move. It was a sight that created consternation among the common folk of all the Great Sky, and even Navigators, who were accustomed to the phenomena, gave thought to the miraculous and holy nature of the great ships that were their domain.

Anselm murmured to Brother Collis, "Gloria in Excelsis, let the ship's pressure rise to ambient."

"Ambient it is and blessed be the Holy Star," Collins said rapidly. He pressed the prescribed buttons on the Support Console and waited the required thirty heartbeats. Nothing happened, nor did the young novice expect anything to happen. The display screen remained dark. "We are hold, hold, hold, may it be pleasing to God," he reported in the familiar rising chant. "Hold on pressure, hold on flow, hold on storage."...

...The three priests made the sign of the Star and Anselm in dictated that Brother Gwill should make the Query.

The novice punched in the coded sequence that was one of the first things memorized by all Navigators and meant, in effect, "Are we where we should be?" Ordinarily, for a short atmospheric flight, the Query was omitted from the Litany, but nothing was ever left out when Brother Anseim was in charge of the countdown.

The ship's computer flashed its reply on the display-screen: "Position coordinates D788990658-RA008239657. Province of Vega, Area 10, Aldrin. Planetary coordinates 23° 17' north latitude, 31° 12' west longitude, inertial navigation system engaged."

In spite of their familiarity with the ways of the holy starships, the three novices felt a tingling thrill at the appearance of the strangely shaped sigils in the ancient Anglic runes of the Empire. They had only the vaguest notion of what the ship meant by addressing them in these mystical words, in these phrases of the ancient world. But the background color on the display screen was the Color of Go — emerald green — and that told them that the Gloria in Coelis was, once again, ready for flight.


The Rhadan warlock Cavour (Early Second Empire period) once suggested that starships could attain velocities in excess of 200,000 kilometers per standard hour. Not only did he run the fatal risk of the displeasure of the Order of Navigators by these calculations (in an earlier age he would have been burned), but he earned the derision of his contemporaries. His computations, based on the known elapsed time for flight between the Rimworlds and Earth, resulted in a hypothetical diameter for the galaxy of 12,800,000 kilometers. Even Cavour, a learned man for his day, was shaken by this immense figure, and recanted.

Interregnal investigators, such few as there were, believed that a figure of 666,666 kilometers represented the exact diameter of what they called "The Great Sky."

-Matthias ben Mullerium, The History of the Rhadan Republic, Late Second Stellar Empire period

From The Warlock of Rhada by Robert Cham Gilman (AKA Alfred Coppel) (1985)

The Road Not Taken

For an even more unbelievable solution, read Harry Turtledove's "The Road Not Taken". Joshua Munn points out that there is a similar situation in David Brin's "Just a Hint"

Barbarians have FTL but we don't

"Back then, on Terra, they knew FTL travel was impossible forever. It was a rude shock when they found that a couple of simple experiments could have given them the key to contragrav and the hyperdrive three, four, even five centuries earlier." (ed note: in the 1500's.)

"How did they miss them?" Chang asked.

"No idea — in hindsight they're obvious enough. What's that race that flew bronze ships because they couldn't smelt iron? And every species we know that reached what the old Terrans would have called a seventeenth-century technological level did what was needed — except us."

"But trying to explain contragrav and the hyperdrive skews an unsophisticated, developing physics out of shape. With attention focused on them, too, work on other things, like electricity and atomics, never gets started. And those have much broader applications — the others are only really good for moving things from here to there in a hurry."

With a chuckle, Chang said, "We must have seemed like angry gods when we finally got the hyperdrive and burst off Terra. Radar, radio, computers, fission and fusion — no wonder we spent the next two hundred years conquering."

From "Herbig-Haro" by Harry Turtledove (sequel to "The Road Not Taken")

The Mote In God'S Eye

They don't make things like they used to

Blaine was searching for something to say when Whitbread gave him his opportunity. At first Blaine saw only that the junior midshipman was doing something under the edge of the table - but what? Tugging at the tablecloth, testing its tensile strength. And earlier he'd been looking at the crystal. "Yes, Mr. Whitbread," Rod said. "It's very strong."

Whitbread looked up, flushing, but Blaine didn't intend to embarrass the boy. "Tablecloth, silverware, plates, platters, crystal, all have to be fairly durable," he told the company at large. "Mere glassware wouldn't last the first battle. Our crystal is something else. It was cut from the windscreen of a wrecked First Empire reentry vehicle. Or so I was told. It's certain we can't make such materials any longer. The linen isn't really linen, either; it's an artificial fiber, also First Empire.

From THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Tiger By The Tail

Space Barbarians

In his state, he needed half a minute to figure out how the sliding latch, cast in the form of a monster's head, was operated. He flung the door open and stared down the projection cone of a blaster.

The weapon was not of any make he recognized. However, there was no doubt as to its nature. Flandry sighed, attempted to relax, and considered the guard who held it.

The guard gestured him back, unslung a horn from his shoulder, and blew a howling blast. That was pure flamboyancy; anyone who could build or buy spaceships would have intercoms installed. Old customs often lingered, though, especially when a people acquired modern technology overnight.

Which too many have done, Flandry reflected with grimness. One would have been too many, and as is—

Outside the Empire, knowledge faded swiftly away. Yet there had been sporadic contact with dwellers in the wilderness. Merchant adventurers had searched widely about in olden days, and not always been scrupulous about what they sold. In this way and that, individual natives had wangled passage to advanced planets, and sometimes brought back information of a revolutionizing sort. Often this got passed on to other societies.

And so, here and there, cultures arose that possessed things like starships and nuclear weapons, and played ancient games with these new toys. Barbarian raiders had fearfully harried about during the Troubles. In the long run, the practice of hiring rival barbarians as mercenaries against them only worsened matters. After the Empire brought the Pax, it soon established lethal discouragements of raids and attempts at conquest within its sphere. The marches lay long quiet. But now the Empire was in a bad way, it relied ever more on nonhuman hireling fighters, its grip upon the border stars was slipping . . . word got around, and latter-day buccaneers began to venture forth. . . .

Barbarians could be bought off, or played off against each other, or cowed by an occasional punitive expedition—most of the time. But if ever somebody among them formed a powerful coalition, and saw an opportunity—vae victis! Even if the Imperialists broke him, the harm he did first would be catastrophic. Vae victoris!

"You must have a small empire of your own by now," Flandry said.

"Aye, though not small. The gods who forged our destiny saw to it that our ancestors did not learn the secrets of power from humans, who might afterward have paid heed to us and tried to stop our growth. It was others who came to our world and started the great change."

Flandry nodded his weary head. The historical pattern was time-worn; Terra herself had been through it, over and over, long before her children departed for the stars. By way of exploration, trade, missionary effort, or whatever, a culture met another which was technologically behind it. If the latter had sufficient strength to survive the encounter, it gained knowledge of the foreigner's tricks and tactics while losing awe of him. Perhaps in the end it overcame him.

The gap between, say, a preindustrial Iron Age and an assembly of modern machines was enormous. It was not uncrossable. Basic equipment could be acquired, in exchange for natural resources or the like. Educations could be gotten. Once a class of engineers and applied scientists was in existence, progress could be made at home; if everything worked out right, it would accelerate like a landslide. After all, when you knew more or less how to build something, and had an entire, largely unplundered planet to draw on, your industrial base would soon suffice for most purposes. Presently you would have an entire planetary system to draw on.

It wasn't necessary to educate whole populations. Automated machinery did the bulk of the work. Peasants with hoes and sickles might well toil in sight of a spacefield for generations after it had come into being. In fact, the ruling class might consider extensive schooling undesirable, particularly among nationalities which its own had conquered.

New instrumentalities—old, fierce ways—

After a time he was conducted to Cerdic's cabin. The place had a number of ethnic touches, such as a huge pair of tusks displayed on a bulkhead between shields and swords, animal skins on the deck, and a grotesque idol in one corner. Flandry wondered if they were there merely because they were expected. Other furniture included a desk with infotrieve and computer terminal, bookrolls and a reader for them, a holoscreen, and, yes, a number of codex volumes bearing Anglic titles. The prince occupied an Imperial-made lounger, too. Jewelry glittered across his massive breast.

"I told you before, I have been in the Empire, on Terra's very self; and I have studied deeply, aided by data retrieval systems, the works of your own sociologists, and of nonhumans who have an outside view of your ways. I know the Empire—its self-seeking politicians and self-indulgent masses, corruption, intrigue, morality and sense of duty rotten to the heart, decline of art into craft and science into dogma, strength sapped by a despair too pervasive for you to realize what it is—aye, aye. You were a great race once, you humans; you were among the first who aspired to the stars. But that was long ago."

The accusation was oversimplified, probably disingenuous. Yet enough truth was in it to touch a nerve. Cerdic's voice rose: "The time has waxed ready for the young peoples, in their strength and courage and hopefulness, to set themselves free, burn away the decayed mass of the Empire and give the universe something that can grow!"

Only, thought Flandry, first comes the Long Night. It begins with a pyrotechnic sunset across thousands of worlds, which billions of sentient beings will not see because they will be part of the flames. It deepens with famine, plague, more war, more destruction of what the centuries have built, until at last the wild folk howl in our temples—save where a myriad petty tyrants hold dreary court among the shards. To say nothing of an end to good music and high cuisine, taste in clothes and taste in women and conversation as a fine art.

The Scothan domain was less unmanageable. It had conquered some hundred planetary systems outright, but for the most was content to exact tribute from these, in the form of raw materials, manufactured goods, or specialized labor. It dominated everything else within that space. It had made client states of several chosen societies, helping them start their own industrial revolutions and their own enforced unifications of their species. Under Penda, the coalition had grown sufficiently confident to plan war on the Empire.

The objective was not simple plunder, albeit wealth did beckon. Goods could be produced at home without the risks of battle. Nor was it merely territorial aggrandizement. That could be more safely carried on by discovering new worlds off in the wilderness, whose inhabitants weren't able to fight back. Nevertheless, honest toil could never in hundreds of years yield what a victory would bring in overnight. And planets that Scothan or human could colonize were spread thinly indeed among the suns; long searches were necessary to find them, and then generations of struggle and sacrifice were usually needed to make them altogether fit. Terra had already made the investment.

Below and beyond these practical calculations were what Flandry saw as irrationalities and recognized as the true driving forces. Scotha—Scothan society, in the form it had taken—needed war and conquest. The great required outlets for ambition, that their names might match or outshine the forefathers'. Lesser folk wanted a chance to better their lot, a chance that the aristocratic, anti-commercial order at home could not offer them without undermining itself. Glory was a fetish, and scant glory remained to be won in the barbarian regions. Sheer adventurousness clamored, and that darker longing for submergence of self which humankind had also known, too often, too well. The needs, the drives came together and took the shape of crusading fervor, a sense of holy racial destiny.

From Tiger By The Tail by Poul Anderson (1951). Collected in Captain Flandry: Defender of the Terran Empire

Technological Decline

Joan Vinge pointed out an unexpected consequence of the collapse of technology in her THE OUTCASTS OF HEAVEN'S BELT. If a planetary colony falls into barbarism, everybody reverts to a non-technological agrarian society. If an asteroid civilization falls into barbarism, everybody dies. It takes lots of technology to run the oxygen system, airlocks, spaceships, hydroponics, nuclear reactors, and other items vital for life in space. No technology, no life. In other words, they are a Hydraulic state.

Betha saw suddenly the fatal flaw the original colonizers, already Belters, must never have considered. Without a world to hold an atmosphere, air and water -- all the fundamentals of life -- had to be processed or manufactured or they didn't exist. And without a technology capable of processing and manufacturing, in a system without an Earthlike world to retreat to, any Dark Age would mean extinction.


For more details about predicting the technological future, refer to Robert Heinlein's essay "Where To?" and Sir Arthur C. Clarke's Profiles of the Future.


And after they were gone, the farms and ranches and factories would go on, almost but not quite as before. Nothing on Gram, nothing on any of the Sword-Worlds, was done as efficiently as three centuries ago. The whole level of Sword-World life was sinking, like the east coastline of this continent, so slowly as to be evident only from the records and monuments of the past. He said as much, and added: "And the genetic loss. The best Sword-World genes are literally escaping to space, like the atmosphere of a low gravity planet, each generation begotten by fathers slightly inferior to the last. It wasn't so bad when the Space Vikings raided directly from the Sword-Worlds; they got home once in a while. Now they're conquering planets in the Old Federation for bases, and staying there."

He turned to Basil Gorrarn. "You see, the gentleman isn't crazy, at all. That's what happened to the Terran Federation, by the way. The good men all left to colonize, and the stuffed shirts and yes-men and herd-followers and safety-firsters stayed on Terra and tried to govern the Galaxy."

The city was familiar, from Otto Harkaman's descriptions and from the pictures Vann Larch had painted during the long jump from Gram. As they came in, it looked impressive, spreading for miles around the twin buildings that spired almost three thousand feet above it, with a great spaceport like an eight-pointed star at one side. Whoever had built it, in the sunset splendor of the old Terran Federation, must have done so confident that it would become the metropolis of a populous and prospering world. Then the sun of the Federation had gone down. Nobody knew what had happened on Tanith after that, but evidently none of it had been good.

At first, the two towers seemed as sound as when they had been built; gradually it became apparent that one was broken at the top. For the most part, the smaller buildings scattered widely around them were standing, though here and there mounds of brush-grown rubble showed where some had fallen in. The spaceport looked good—a central octagon mass of buildings, the landing-berths, and, beyond, the triangular areas of airship docks and warehouses. The central building was outwardly intact, and the ship-berths seemed clear of wreckage and rubble.

By the time the Nemesis was following the Space Scourge and the Lamia down, towed by her own pinnaces, the illusion that they were approaching a living city had vanished. The interspaces between the buildings were choked with forest-growth, broken by a few small fields and garden-plots. At one time, there had been three of the high buildings, literally vertical cities in themselves. Where the third had stood was a glazed crater, with a ridge of fallen rubble lying away from it. Somebody must have landed a medium missile, about twenty kilotons, against its base. Something of the same sort had scored on the far edge of the spaceport, and one of the eight arrowheads of docks and warehouses was an indistinguishable slag-pile.

The rest of the city seemed to have died of neglect rather than violence. It certainly hadn't been bombed out. Harkaman thought most of the fighting had been done with subneutron bombs or Omega-ray bombs, that killed the people without damaging the real estate. Or bio-weapons; a man-made plague that had gotten out of control and all but depopulated the planet.

"It takes an awful lot of people, working together at an awful lot of jobs, to keep a civilization running. Smash the installations and kill the top technicians and scientists, and the masses don't know how to rebuild and go back to stone hatchets. Kill off enough of the masses and even if the planet and the know-how is left, there's nobody to do the work. I've seen planets that decivilized both ways. Tanith, I think, is one of the latter."

From Space Viking by H. Beam Piper (1962)
Intellectual Decadence

     “You don’t intend. You don’t. And who are you? And may I ask what you meant by blowing off your mouth about our nuclear-power plant? Why, it’s just the thing that would s a military target.”
     “Yes,” grinned Hardin. “A military target to stay away from. Isn’t it obvious why I brought the subject up? It happened to confirm a very strong suspicion I had had.”
     “And that was what?”
     “That Anacreon no longer has a nuclear-power economy. If they had, our friend would undoubtedly have realized that plutonium, except in ancient tradition is not used in power plants. And therefore it follows that the rest of the Periphery no longer has nuclear power either. Certainly Smyrno hasn’t, or Anacreon wouldn’t have won most of the battles in their recent war. Interesting, wouldn’t you say?”
     “Bah!” Pirenne left in fiendish humor, and Hardin smiled gently.
     He threw his cigar away and looked up at the outstretched Galaxy. “Back to oil and coal, are they?” he murmured — and what the rest of his thoughts were he kept to himself.

     “The Encyclopedia first,” ground out Crast. “We have a mission to fulfill.”
     “Mission, hell,” shouted Hardin. “That might have been true fifty years ago. But this is a new generation.”
     “That has nothing to do with it,” replied Pirenne. “We are scientists.”
     And Hardin leaped through the opening. “Are you, though? That’s a nice hallucination, isn’t it? Your bunch here is a perfect example of what’s been wrong with the entire Galaxy for thousands of years. What kind of science is it to be stuck out here for centuries classifying the work of scientists of the last millennium? Have you ever thought of working onward, extending their knowledge and improving upon it? No! You’re quite happy to stagnate. The whole Galaxy is, and has been for space knows how long. That’s why the Periphery is revolting; that’s why communications are breaking down; that’s why petty wars are becoming eternal; that’s why whole systems are losing nuclear power and going back to barbarous techniques of chemical power.
     “If you ask me,” he cried, “the Galactic Empire is dying!”

     When the lights went on again, Lord Dorwin said: “Mahvelous. Twuly mahvelous. You ah not, by chance, intewested in ahchaeology, ah you, Hahdin?”
     “Eh?” Hardin shook himself out of an abstracted reverie. “No, milord, can’t say I am. I’m a psychologist by original intention and a politician by final decision.”
     “Ah! No doubt intewesting studies. I, myself, y’know” — he helped himself to a giant pinch of snuff — “dabble in ahchaeology.”
     “His lordship,” interrupted Pirenne, “is most thoroughly acquainted with the field.”
     “Well, p’haps I am, p’haps I am,” said his lordship complacently. “I have done an awful amount of wuhk in the science. Extwemely well-read, in fact. I’ve gone thwough all of Jawdun, Obijasi, Kwomwill … oh, all of them, y’know.”
     “I’ve heard of them, of course,” said Hardin, “but I’ve never read them.”
     “You should some day, my deah fellow. It would amply repay you. Why, I cutainly considah it well wuhth the twip heah to the Pewiphewy to see this copy of Lameth. Would you believe it, my Libwawy totally lacks a copy. By the way, Doctah Piwenne, you have not fohgotten yoah pwomise to twansdevelop a copy foah me befoah I leave?”
     “Only too pleased.”
     “Lameth, you must know,” continued the chancellor, pontifically, “pwesents a new and most intwesting addition to my pwevious knowledge of the ‘Owigin Question.”’
     “Which question?” asked Hardin.
     “The ‘Owigin Question.’ The place of the owigin of the human species, y’know. Suahly you must know that it is thought that owiginally the human wace occupied only one planetawy system.”
     “Well, yes, I know that.”
     “Of cohse, no one knows exactly which system it is — lost in the mists of antiquity. Theah ah theawies, howevah. Siwius, some say. Othahs insist on Alpha Centauwi, oah on Sol, oah on 61 Cygni — all in the Siwius sectah, you see.”
     “And what does Lameth say?”
     “Well, he goes off along a new twail completely. He twies to show that ahchaeological wemains on the thuhd planet of the Ahctuwian System show that humanity existed theah befoah theah wah any indications of space-twavel.”
     “And that means it was humanity’s birth planet?”
     “P’haps. I must wead it closely and weigh the evidence befoah I can say foah cuhtain. One must see just how weliable his obsuhvations ah.”
     Hardin remained silent for a short while. Then he said, “When did Lameth write his book?”
     “Oh — I should say about eight hundwed yeahs ago. Of cohse, he has based it lahgely on the pwevious wuhk of Gleen.”
     “Then why rely on him? Why not go to Arcturus and study the remains for yourself?”
     Lord Dorwin raised his eyebrows and took a pinch of snuff hurriedly. “Why, whatevah foah, my deah fellow?”
     “To get the information firsthand, of course.”
     “But wheah’s the necessity? It seems an uncommonly woundabout and hopelessly wigmawolish method of getting anywheahs. Look heah, now, I’ve got the wuhks of all the old mastahs — the gweat ahchaeologists of the past. I wigh them against each othah — balance the disagweements — analyze the conflicting statements — decide which is pwobably cowwect — and come to a conclusion. That is the scientific method. At least” — patronizingly — “as I see it. How insuffewably cwude it would be to go to Ahctuwus, oah to Sol, foah instance, and blundah about, when the old mastahs have covahed the gwound so much moah effectually than we could possibly hope to do.”
     Hardin murmured politely, “I see.”
     “Come, milord,” said Pirenne, “think we had better be returning.”
     “Ah, yes. P’haps we had.”
     As they left the room, Hardin said suddenly, “Milord, may I ask a question?”
     Lord Dorwin smiled blandly and emphasized his answer with a gracious flutter of the hand. “Cuhtainly, my deah fellow. Only too happy to be of suhvice. If I can help you in any way fwom my pooah stoah of knowledge—”
     “It isn’t exactly about archaeology, milord.”
     “No. It’s this: Last year we received news here in Terminus about the meltdown of a power plant on Planet V of Gamma Andromeda. We got the barest outline of the accident — no details at all. I wonder if you could tell me exactly what happened.”
     Pirenne’s mouth twisted. “I wonder you annoy his lordship with questions on totally irrelevant subjects.”
     “Not at all, Doctah Piwenne,” interceded the chancellor. “It is quite all wight. Theah isn’t much to say concuhning it in any case. The powah plant did undergo meltdown and it was quite a catastwophe, y’know. I believe wadiatsen damage. Weally, the govuhnment is sewiously considewing placing seveah westwictions upon the indiscwiminate use of nucleah powah — though that is not a thing for genewal publication, y’know.”
     “I understand,” said Hardin. “But what was wrong with the plant?”
     “Well, weally,” replied Lord Dorwin indifferently, “who knows? It had bwoken down some yeahs pweviously and it is thought that the weplacements and wepaiah wuhk wuh most infewiah. It is so difficult these days to find men who weally undahstand the moah technical details of ouah powah systems.” And he took a sorrowful pinch of snuff.

     “But, Hardin,” reminded Fara, “we can’t!”
     “But you haven’t tried. You haven’t tried once. First, you refused to admit that there was a menace at all! Then you reposed an absolutely blind faith in the Emperor! Now you’ve shifted it to Hari Seldon. Throughout you have invariably relied on authority or on the past — never on yourselves.”
     His fists balled spasmodically. “It amounts to a diseased attitude — a conditioned reflex that shunts aside the independence of your minds whenever it is a question of opposing authority. There seems no doubt ever in your minds that the Emperor is more powerful than you are, or Hari Seldon wiser. And that’s wrong, don’t you see?”
     For some reason, no one cared to answer him.
     Hardin continued: “It isn’t just you. It’s the whole Galaxy. Pirenne heard Lord Dorwin’s idea of scientific research. Lord Dorwin thought the way to be a good archaeologist was to read all the books on the subject — written by men who were dead for centuries. He thought that the way to solve archaeological puzzles was to weigh the opposing authorities. And Pirenne listened and made no objections. Don’t you see that there’s something wrong with that?”
     Again the note of near-pleading in his voice. Again no answer.
     He went on: “And you men and half of Terminus as well are just as bad. We sit here, considering the Encyclopedia the all-in-all. We consider the greatest end of science. is the classification of past data. It is important, but is there no further work to be done? We’re receding and forgetting, don’t you see? Here in the Periphery they’ve lost nuclear power. In Gamma Andromeda, a power plant has undergone meltdown because of poor repairs, and the Chancellor of the Empire complains that nuclear technicians are scarce. And the solution? To train new ones? Never! Instead they’re to restrict nuclear power.”
     And for the third time: “Don’t you see? It’s Galaxywide. It’s a worship of the past. It’s a deterioration — a stagnation!”

From Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)

As has happened so often in the past, the challenge may be too great. We may establish colonies on the planets, but they may be unable to maintain themselves at more than a marginal level of existence, with no energy left over to spark any cultural achievements. History has one parallel as striking as it is ominous, for long ago the Polynesians achieved a technical tour-de-force which may well be compared with the conquest of space. By establishing regular maritime traffic across the greatest of oceans, writes Toynbee, they "won their footing on the specks of dry land which are scattered through the watery wilderness of the Pacific almost as sparsely as the stars are scattered through space." But the effort defeated them at last, and they relapsed into primitive life. We might never have known of their astonishing achievement had it not left, on Easter Island, a memorial that can hardly be overlooked. There may be many Easter Islands of space in the aeons to come — abandoned planets littered not with monoliths but with the equally enigmatic debris of another defeated technology.

From PROFILES OF THE FUTURE by Arthur C. Clarke

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

From "OZYMANDIAS" by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)

(ed note: Percy Shelley and his friend Horace Smith were in a friendly competition to write a sonnet about the new statue of Ramesses II in the British Museum. Smith's sonnet is similar in story and moral point, but includes a science fiction bit about a hunter of the future looking at the ruins of London. Sort of like an 1800's version of the ending of Planet of the Apes.)

In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
"The wonders of my hand."— The City's gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place

From OZYMANDIAS by Horace Smith (1818)

(ed note: Titus Crow steps out of his grandfather-clock-like time machine several million years in the future)

I was up at dawn, if that gradual lightening of the sky, in which the stars never quite managed to extinguish themselves above the monstrous desert of Earth, could ever be called a dawn. The waning orange sun was rising in the dark blue of the eastern sky. And yet, despite the fact that the sun was dying, still its rising was my undoing, for of course the enigmatic structure I so desired to investigate lay in just that direction, to the east. Pitifully dim though the sun was by the standards of this twentieth century, still it was bright enough to throw the face of that towering edifice into shadow. Because of this I found myself approaching the thing blind, as it were, and I did so to within a distance of some three and a half miles. The base of the skyscraper (so I had come to think of it, though its actual purpose was as much a mystery as ever) lay in something of a declivity, but for all that the thing must still have stretched a good three-quarters of a mile into the thin air, while its column was easily a third of that distance in diameter.

At this point something about the shape of the thing caused me to halt the clock's slow forward motion. It almost seemed as if I stood at the feet of a giant, and I had not yet made up my mind that this giant was friendly! Nor was this idea too far fetched, for indeed the shape of the thing, seen in silhouette, was somehow statuesque.

I decided to circle about it and thus observe it from a position where the dim sun would not be shining directly into my eyes, but no sooner had I taken this decision than yet another factor arose to deny me a clear, unobstructed view of the thing. The sun, climbing steadily now into the sky, was warming however remotely the tenuous air of the valley in which my giant stood. A fine mist was rising, clinging to and climbing the steep and strangely suggestive outlines of the structure, so that by the time I reached that point to the north from which I had hoped to view it, the combination of ground haze and rising, writhing vaporization had obscured all but its pointed summit. That summit, however, I could now see quite clearly: a great curve of a silvery hull and sharp prow tilted at the sky, sleek fins gleaming in the weak sunlight. A spaceship, held aloft in a giant's hand, symbol of man's domination of the stars and of his exodus from this dying Earth!

My heart gave a wild leap. This was more than I had dared hope for, better by far than the thought of the last members of the human race burrowing in the dry earth like so many miserable worms. Impatiently I waited while the sun completed its work and the feeble haze began to drift lazily down from the gargantuan it so thinly veiled. And soon those disturbing proportions I had noted before began to emerge, but this time clearly and unmistakably to my shocked eyes!

My mouth went dry, my mind utterly blank in an instant. I could only stare ... and stare ... while my jaw dropped lower and lower and my hopes for mankind plummeted into unfathomable abysses. For perhaps a full half hour I stood there beside the clock, until, gripped by an emotion like none I had ever known before, I stumbled once more in through the panel of that purple-glowing gateway to forgotten times and places and carelessly hurled myself back, back into time, perhaps to a time when man lived and loved, fought and died and gloried on the green hills and in fertile valleys of Earth.

For the immense metal statue holding aloft that silvery symbol of galactic exodus was made neither by nor yet in the image of man. Vastly intelligent were its builders, yes, and plainly proud of their ancient heritage, a heritage which predated mere man and now patently antedated him ... It was a beetle!

From The Transition Of Titus Crow by Brian Lumley (1975)

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