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.
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.
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 SONGS OF DISTANT EARTH and RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA by Arthur C. Clarke.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The history can go through the Cycle of Empires one or more times.
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.
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:
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.
"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.
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.
This step might be an overwhelming problem, because resource-wise you've got just one shot.
From here, the history can circle round back to Formation of Empire. Otherwise, it leads up to:
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.
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.
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.
Naturally, future histories will aways include wars. At least as long as humans are humans. But there may be other 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."
Asimov had another useful innovation in his Foundation trilogy. Part of the background of the first couple of stories was that the Foundation was going to create an "Encyclopedia Galactica" containing the knowledge of the day. So as an author, when Asimov was going to write a new story set in the series, he could get the reader up to speed by giving them a fictious Encyclopedia article from the even further in the future. This gave the reader "Cliff Notes" on the situation, and what had happened in prior volumes of the saga. This was much easier than that tired old method of one character starting an idiot lecture with "So Tell Me, Professor…" and burying the reader under an indigestible infodump disgused as dialog.
If you want to use Rome as a model for your galactic empire but 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".
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.
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.
Science fiction authors who just don't know when to quit may create elaborate future histories of alien races. As a general rule authors do not take on such extra work unless the history is the focus of the entire novel.
The Thalassians evolved from amphibians. They rely upon gods and magic to guide their thinking, and develop an authoritarian totalitarian state.
The Hetairians evolved from felines. They rely upon logic and reasoning to guide their thinking, and develop an anarchic group of decentralized clans.
Of course, when first contact happens, they both conclude that the other race is utterly evil. A reader of suspicious mind would suspect the authors were writing an allegory about the Cold War.
This section is about the theory that civilizations and cultures undergo well defined steps in their lifetime. This theory is somewhat controversial as you can imagine. However, it comes in real handy for a science fiction author trying to craft a future history. Just fill in the outline with the names of your galactic empires.
Be sure to see the Cyclical Governments section of the Interstellar Empire page. That is concerned with multiple cycles of difference government types a given culture may go through during its lifetime.
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.
“Well. I’ve got a job for you if you want it. I’ve been studying it ever since it was first mentioned to me, and all I can say is, it serves you right.”
Chris swallowed again. The Mayor studied the cigar judiciously.
“It calls for a very odd combination of skills and character traits. Taking the latter first, it needs initiative, boldness, imagination, a willingness to improvise and take short-cuts, and an ability to see the whole of a complex situation at a glance. But at the same time, it needs conservative instincts, so that even the boldest ideas and acts tend to be those that save men, materials, time, money. What class of jobs does that make you think of so far?”
“MILITARY GENERAL OFFICERS,” the City Fathers promptly announced.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Amalfi growled. He was plainly irritated, but it seemed to Chris an old irritation, almost a routine one. “Chris?”
“Well, sir, they’re right, of course. I might even have thought of it myself, though I can’t swear to it. At least all the great generals follow that pattern.”
“Okay. As for the skills, a lot of them are required, but only one is cardinal. The man has got to be a first-class cultural morphologist.”
Chris recognized the term, from his force feeding in Spengler. It denoted a scholar who could look at any culture at any stage in its development, relate to it all other cultures at similar stages, and come up with specific predictions of how these people would react to a given proposal or event. It surely wouldn’t be a skill a general would ever be likely to have a use for, even if he had the time to develop it.
“You’ve got the character traits, that’s plain to see—including the predisposition toward the skill. Most Okies have that, but in nowhere near the degree you seem to. The skill itself, of course, can only emerge with time and practice…but you’ll have lots of time. The City Fathers say five years’ probation.
“As for the city, we never had such a job on the roster before, but a study of Scranton and some more successful towns convinces us that we need it. Will you take it?”
Chris’s head was whirling with a wild, humming mixture of pride and bafflement. “Excuse me, Mr. Mayor—but just what is it?”
(ed note: 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
Period The Classical Culture The Arabian Culture The Western Culture The Earthmanist Culture Pre-Cultural Period
Tribes and their chiefs; no politics, no State. Chaos of primitive expression forms.
Mycenean Age, "Agamemnon"
Frankish Period, Charlemagne
Vegan-War Period Admiral Hrunta
Culture. Early Period. 1100-650 0-500 900-1500 2464-3111 P1. Formation of Feudal Order 1100-750 0-400 900-1254 2464-3089 R1. Spiritual Spring: the Priestly Myth Demeter cult Primitive Christianity German Catholicism Hruntanism R1. Spiritual Spring: the Military Myth Trojan War Gospels, Apocalypses Siegfried, Arthur Vegan-War Myth A1. Early forms, rural, unconsciously shaped Doric The cupola Gothic - R2. Mystical-metaphysical shaping of Myth Cosmogonies Patristic literature Scholasticism - P2. Breakdown of Feudal Order: The Interregnum 750-650 400-500 1254-1500 3089-3111 R3. Spiritual Summer: the Reformation Orphism, et al. Monophysitism, et al. Huss- Luther- Loyola Arpad Hrunta A2. Exhaustion of possibilities in Early forms Late Doric Proto-Arabesque Early Renaissance - Culture. Late Period. 630-300 500-800 1500-1815 3111-3925 P3. Formation of a World of Aristocratic States 650-487 500-661 1500-1660 3111-3602 R4. First purely philosophical world views Pre-Socratics In Jewish literature Galileo, Bacon - M1. Formation of a new Mathematic Geometry Algebra Analysis Matrix mathematics A3. Mature art forms, urban and conscious Ionic Zenith of mosaic art Baroque - R5. Puritanism; opposition to rising absolutism Pythagoras Mohammed Cromwell; the Fronde The 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 Enlightenment Socrates The Mutazilites Locke, Rousseau - A4. Intellectualization of Mature art forms Myron, Phidias Arabesque Rococo - M2. Zenith of mathematical thought Conic sections Spherical trigonometry The infinitesimal - R7. The Great Conclusive System: Mystic Plato Alfarabi Goethe, Hegel - R7. The Great Conclusive System: Scholastic Aristotle Avicenna Kant - 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.
Okies vs. Earth and Colonials.
A5. Exhaustion and dissolution of Mature forms Corinthian "Moorish" art Romanticism - Civilization and Spiritual Winter 300-0-300 800-1400 1815-2522 3976-4104 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 toMacHineryism.
In Cloud 3998-4104
New York vs. IMT; Jorn vs. New York
R8. Materialism (science, utility, prosperity) The Cynics Brethren of Sincerity Comte, Darwin, Marx The Stochastics R9. Ethical-social ideals replacing religion Epicurus, Zeno Movements in Islam Schopenhauer, et al. - M3. Mathematics: the concluding thought Archimedes Al-Biruni Riemann - R10. Spread of final world sentiment Roman Stoicism Practical Fatalism Ethical Socialism - A6. Art problems; craft art Hellenistic art Spanish-Sicilian art Modern 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) Syncretism Syncretic Islam Adventism; Witnesses P8. THE FINAL POLITICAL FORM
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 display Triumphal arch Gigantic buildings The Jupiter Bridge The Aftermath After 284
Arabinization in the East.
Westernization of the Arabian lands and entire world.
Galaxy proper conquered by Web of Hercules.
(ed note: 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. The stages are based on James Blish's chart, which was the only example of such stages back then.)
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.
Code Epoch Description Accept Immigrants Illegal Product Types 1 Pre-Cultural Clans, tribes, no politics. A chaos of primitive expression. Yes [none] 2 Fuedalism Rural art, naturally shaped. Warriors and Priests in power. No ARTI, EDUC, INFO 3 Breakdown of Fuedalism Exhaustion of early art forms, the Reformation. Yes ARTI, NARC, ENTR, PERS, JEWL 4 Formation of Aristocratic States Mature art, new forms of math, philosophical world views and puritanical religions opposed to growing absolutism. No ARTI, EDUC, NARC, PERS, JEWL, FURN, CLTH, FOOD 5 Absolutism Aristocracy held in check by King/Tyrant with Bourgeoise. The zenith of mathematical thought, intellectualization of art, the great conclusive systems of thought. Yes WEAP 6 Revolution and Napoleonism Bourgoise against alliance of King/Tyrant and Aristocracy. The Victory of Money over Blood. Exhaustion of art forms. No EDUC, TRANS, INFO, WEAP 7 Transition from Napoleonism to Caesarism The epoch of Contending States. Dominance of Money ("Democracy"). Rational social ethics replace Religion. Final world sentiment. Conceptual art. Final Thought in Mathematics. Yes NARC, SLAV, BOGU 8 Caesarism Victory 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. No EDUC, WEAP, BOGU 9 Final Political Form The 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
But from a science fiction writer's standpoint, one of the most dramatic parts comes in between. The Interregnum aka "The Dark Ages". The part that Isaac Asimov used to create an entire genre of science fiction, when he was inspired by Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to write the immortal Foundation trilogy. The part which happens historically between the fall of the first Galactic Empire and the rise of the Second. That period which Poul Anderson gave the picturesque name "The Long Night."
Which is also the part that makes historians throw up their hands in despair, since the popular culture conception of the dark ages is almost total fantasy. The majority of modern scholars avoid the term altogether due to its negative connotations, finding it misleading and inaccurate. Historians prefer the term "Early Middle Ages"
Be that as it may, the historians will just have to keep wringing their hands, because "Early Middle Ages" won't put your science fiction novel on the best-seller's list. The readers want something familiar, dramatic, and full of dark majesty; they wouldn't give a rat's heinie for dull historical accuracy. Writers can milk the popular culture misconception for all it is worth, because it never gets old.
In science fiction the fall into the long night can be a dull slow decline into decadence and decay. However, more commonly it comes about due to exciting savage wars to seize the galactic crown or exciting savage wars as galactic sector governors try to split their fiefdom off into a separate pocket empire. Or both. As the empire weakens the space barbarians in their longboat starships at the rim of the galaxy invade the outer provinces. Barbarians raid defenseless isolated planets. Interstellar trade and communication fails, knowledge is lost, high-tech equipment becomes useless because nobody knows how to repair it anymore. Countless petty wars and tiny kingdoms. The few remaining bits of high-tech that still work become more and more precious. Low-tech items become more common, such as swords. Science is lost, superstition increases, priceless paintings are used as toilet paper. There is a markéd increase in Machiavellianism, barbarian savagery, and general bad manners.
In the Foundation trilogy some planets lost the ability to maintain their atomic power infrastructure and reverted to coal and oil. Although some still had starships, presumably steam-powered. In Niven and Pournelle's The Mote In God's Eye the planet New Scotland was recently terraformed. It required high-tech injection of tailored algae into volcanic plumes to keep the atmosphere breathable. When the Long Night hit, things got real tense on the planet. It was a desperate race between bootstrapping up to terraforming technology and everybody dying of suffocation. This is always a problem if you are living in a place where high technology is vital for survival.
Eventually things decay to the point that the starships stop working, and all the worlds revert to pre-spaceflight conditions. From there individual isolated planets can decivilize all the way down to cave-man level if they are unlucky. Or even to extinction if their luck has really run out. Lucky ones can arrest the fall at various technology levels, or even start to rise again.
Things become nasty, brutish, and short for a thousand years or so. Until a few planets regain starship technology and the second galactic empire starts to rise.
Empires or organizations with some foresight can make some preparations. This was the focus of Asimov's Foundation trilogy, the Foundation's goal was to reduce the long night from thirty thousand years down to a mere thousand.
Outfitting all Empire planets with Global Village Construction Sets in vaults will help bootstrap a planet back into civilization. Also useful are Time Capsules, Cosmic Libraries, special Museums and Space Monasteries. In Philip E. High's These Savage Futurians, due to an overnight destruction of infrastructure, the spectre of mass starvation looms. Scientist frantically genetically engineer a food supply suited for the current global population reduced to a medieval level of technology. Protages look like cabbages, but they are high in protein, contain all required vitamins, and grow like weeds.
Even without preparation, any organization that can retain a bit of infrastructure can become a nucleus for rebirth. Even unlikely ones, like the post office. We saw that in fiction with David Brin's The Postman, and in real life in Puerto Rico during 2017.
After the mindless drudgery of the Long Night, eventually a new galactic empire will rise from the ashes, phoenix-like. Although, as previously mentioned, if a given planet has already gobbled up the low-hanging natural resources they may be in trouble because you just got one shot.
In science fiction the level of technology has to be more advanced than present-day state-of-the-art, otherwise where is the fun in that? Indeed, in some science fiction a single advance in technology starts off the entire plot, with the balance of the novel spent exploring the ramifications and changes caused to society (i.e., the theme of the novel is unintended consequences).
Such science fiction novels can make the readers impatient with the real world. They often complain that we have reached the 21st century yet there are still no ubiquitous flying cars, jet packs, cities on the ocean floor, nor lunar colonies.
Having said that, such science fiction readers are often oblivious to the titanic tech advances they have personally lived through. Such as the advent of the internet. Which made this entire website possible.
So the most common error science fiction writers make is drastically underestimating the rate of technological advance.
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.
Job one is getting enough food to eat, because otherwise you die.
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 whose job was inventing innovations instead of raising food.
But with the development 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, with an eye towards converting the primitive planet into an industrial one. The book is practically a blueprint. If you haven't seen Burke's documentary series Connections or The Day The Universe Changed, you might consider renting a copy.
Dr. Hoyle has a point. As civilization on Terra advanced, it used up all the low hanging fruit. All the easily accessible petroleum and rare minerals have been extracted. Now you have to use incredibly difficult techniques like fracking and deep offshore oil drilling.
Which means if some civilization destroying apocalypse strikes (Class 2 Civilization Extinction, Scope: Planetary, Severity: Societal Collapse), any new civilization attempting to increase its technology level will crash into an overwhelming road block. Basically they will have to make the jump from medieval technology to offshore oil drilling in one step.
In other words: you practically get only one shot at a high-tech civilization on a given planet. If you screw up and destroy your civilization, you'll have to wait a few hundreds of millions of years for your next chance.
Richard Duncan is even more pessimistic. His Olduvai theory predicts that the lifetime of an industrial civilization is under 100 years, apocalypse or no. As near as I can figure his theory hinges on the "peak oil" phenomenon. He predicts our technological civlization will start contracting about the year 2030.
This sad fate can be avoided by purchasing some insurance: extraterrestrial colonies and space mining. This can be an argument to invest in the colonization of space, the species of MacGuffinite called Don't Keep All Your Eggs In One Basket.
The second and subsequent civilizations on a given planet will probably be forced into landfill mining of landfills created by the prior civilization.
As previously mentioned, the most common error science fiction writers make is drastically underestimating the rate of technological advance. A hundred years ago the Wright brother made the first powered flight in that motorized kite they called the "Flyer". Nowadays we have Boeing 747 passenger liners. Therefore a mere hundred years from now there will be aircraft that make the 747 look like the Wright Flyer.
What I am saying is that Star Wars technology is more like 150 years from now, not ten thousand years from now. In ten thousand years we will all be cosmic StarGods who sculpt entire galaxies as art projects. Which makes the DUNE universe target date of 21,267 CE somewhat ludicrous.
Authors who do not want to write about StarGods have a problem.
Authors who worry about such details try to come up with a way to put the brakes on progress.
- In his DUNE novels, Frank Herbert has the "Butlerian Jihad". This eliminates "thinking machines" (computers and artificial intelligence), so bye-bye internet. Creating thinking machines is punishable by death.
- John Barnes postulated a "Inward Turn" in his A MILLION OPEN DOORS. Due to reaction from the aftermath of a horrific world war, world culture decided to take a rest from technological progress for a few centuries.
- 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. Scientific research was made illegal. Heck, study and book-larnin' was made illegal (excep for the privileged "Peacemen" of the new regime). And the former scientists were made into menial slaves.
- In James Blish's THEY SHALL HAVE STARS government security has grown so strict that one researcher complains the scientific method doesn't work any more. Progress has ground to a halt.
- And the Long Night (dark ages following the decline and fall of the Galactic empire) is always a good way to reset the clock by a thousand years or so. This can be found in Asimov's FOUNDATION trilogy, Niven and Pournelles THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE, H. Beam Piper's SPACE VIKING, and Poul Anderson's Flandry of Terra series.
These are a few of the many ways that "thinking-man's" authors use to justify writing stories about, say, recognizable reader-friendly galactic kings and queens. Otherwise logic dictates they'd be being forced to write science fiction about some unrecognizable reader-unfriendly bizarre cyberpunk dystopia. Hard for the author to write, and it drastically limits their reader-base.
Non-scientific authors do not have that problem. They just write unabashedly write science-fantasy about recognizable galactic kings and queens with no justification. Because they figure their reader base is too unsophisticated to know any better. But such authors probably avoid this website in the first place, frightened away at the sight of the first equation. And by the hostile glare from RocketCat.
Occasionally an author can make their desired background plausible by altering just one technological advancement instead of suppressing all technological advance. A "Minimum Necessary Change", to use the terminology of Isaac Asimov's time-travel novel The End of Eternity.
Remember von Braun's giant space wheel type space station? It would have paid for itself, with improved weather forecasts, relaying TV and radio messages over the globe, and observing hostile military maneuvers. 76 meters in diameter with a crew of fifty! Makes the ISS look like a used beer can.
Why didn't it get built? It was rendered obsolete by the invention of integrated circuits. Without ICs you need a huge crew with life support and artificial gravity. With ICs you can get away with using a small inexpensive satellite with no crew at all.
So an author who wants a background where huge space stations made their appearance in the 1950s, you just need an alternate history where the IC was never invented. Of course this implies a world with vacuum tube computers filling entire buildings and no such things as personal computers and smart phones, but this just adds more flavor to the science fiction background.
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.
After all, interstellar colonists hungry for the "light of home" will be out of luck if the colony is farther than 55.7 light years away from Sol. Beyond that distance, Sol will be dimmer than apparent magnitude 6.0, too dim to see with the naked eye. Colonists who want to see Sol will need a telescope.
- In Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World, Professor Coypu vaguely knows that humanity originated on a planet called "Dirt" or "Earth" or something like that.
- In James Schmitz's The Witches of Karres they vaguely know that humanity originated on a planet called "Yarthe".
- In Isaac Asimov's Foundation, Lord Dorwin dabbles with the "Origin Question", trying to figure out which planet man started from.
- In Andre Norton's Star Rangers, everybody knows that Terra of Sol is the legendary home of mankind, but nobody has the faintest idea of where it is located.
- In Andre Norton's Moon Of Three Rings all the Free Traders starships have ship's cats. But nobody can remember which planet the cat species came from.
- In Thorarinn Gunnarsson's The Starwolves planet Terra had to be evacuated for some mysterious reason. The location of Terra was kept in the memory cells of their sentient starships. Unfortunately all the original ships were gradually destroyed in the ten-thousand year war with the evil Union. Said Union had captured one of the ship memory cells eons ago but could not extract any information from it. The memory cell becomes a MacGuffin in the novel.