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 SONGS 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.

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:

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 part 1 and part 2
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.

“…science goes back a long way, actually. Francis Bacon speculated about a genuine science of man. Boole did some work along those lines as well as inventing the symbolic logic which was to be such a major tool in solving the problem.

“In the last century, a number of lines of attack were developed. There was already the psychology of Freud and his successors, of course, which gave the first real notion of human semantics. There were the biological, chemical, and physical approaches to man as a mechanism. Comparative historians like Spengler, Pareto, and Toynbee realized that history did not merely happen but had some kind of pattern.

“Cybernetics developed such concepts as homeostasis and feedback, concepts which were applicable to individual man and to society as a whole. Games theory, the principle of least effort, and Haeml’s generalized epistemology pointed toward basic laws and the analytical approach.

“The new symbologies in logic and mathematics suggested formulations—for the problem was no longer one of gathering data so much as of finding a rigorous symbolism to handle them and indicate new data. A great deal of the Institute’s work has lain simply in collecting and synthesizing all these earlier findings.”

From THE SENSITIVE MAN by Poul Anderson (1954)

Historical Events

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".

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 (1954)

"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)

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)

Star Trek uses a system of warping space to make their ships fly faster than light. Warping space is a long time tradition in SF, and the ensuing battles bear a striking resemblance to the battles between warships. This is no accident. Many space battles are written as though they were sea battles because the readers are familiar with the form, and besides, it's less work for the writers.

In fact, in the original Star Trek series. the episode that introduced the Romulans was written exactly like a duel between a destroyer and a submarine (the cloaked Romulan ship being the submarine). I know that because I recognized the movie from which they were cribbing their plot. It was The Enemy Below, with Robert Mitchum as the American destroyer captain and Curt Jurgens as the German U-boat captain.

From THE ART OF SCIENCE FICTION, VOLUME 2 by Michael McCollum (1998)

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

Asteroid Revolutionary War

This section has been moved here.


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

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.


Social cycle theories are among the earliest social theories in sociology. Unlike the theory of social evolutionism, which views the evolution of society and human history as progressing in some new, unique direction(s), sociological cycle theory argues that events and stages of society and history are generally repeating themselves in cycles. Such a theory does not necessarily imply that there cannot be any social progress. In the early theory of Sima Qian and the more recent theories of long-term ("secular") political-demographic cycles as well as in the Varnic theory of P.R. Sarkar an explicit accounting is made of social progress.

Historical forerunners

Interpretation of history as repeating cycles of Dark and Golden Ages was a common belief among ancient cultures.

The more limited cyclical view of history defined as repeating cycles of events was put forward in the academic world in the 19th century in historiosophy (a branch of historiography) and is a concept that falls under the category of sociology. However, Polybius, Ibn Khaldun (see Asabiyyah), and Giambattista Vico can be seen as precursors of this analysis. The Saeculum was identified in Roman times. In recent times, P. R. Sarkar in his Social Cycle Theory has used this idea to elaborate his interpretation of history.

19th and 20th century theories

Among the prominent historiosophers, Russian philosopher Nikolai Danilewski (1822–1885) is important. In Rossiia i Evropa (1869) he differentiated between various smaller civilizations (Egyptian, Chinese, Persian, Greek, Roman, German, and Slav, among others). He wrote that each civilization has a life cycle, and by the end of the 19th century the Roman-German civilization was in decline, while the Slav civilization was approaching its Golden Age. A similar theory was put forward by Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) who in his Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1918) also argued that the Western civilization had entered its final phase of development and its decline was inevitable.

The first social cycle theory in sociology was created by Italian sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923) in his Trattato di Sociologia Generale (1916). He centered his theory on the concept of an elite social class, which he divided into cunning 'foxes' and violent 'lions'. In his view of society, the power constantly passes from the 'foxes' to the 'lions' and vice versa.

Sociological cycle theory was also developed by Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889–1968) in his Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937, 1943). He classified societies according to their 'cultural mentality', which can be ideational (reality is spiritual), sensate (reality is material), or idealistic (a synthesis of the two). He interpreted the contemporary West as a sensate civilization dedicated to technological progress and prophesied its fall into decadence and the emergence of a new ideational or idealistic era.

Alexandre Deulofeu (1903–1978) developed a mathematical model of social cycles that he claimed fit historical facts. He argued that civilizations and empires go through cycles in his book Mathematics of History (in Catalan, published in 1951). He claims that each civilization passes through a minimum of three 1700-year cycles. As part of civilizations, empires have an average lifespan of 550 years. He also stated that by knowing the nature of these cycles, it could be possible to modify the cycles in such a way that change could be peaceful instead of leading to war. Deulofeu believed he had found the origin of Romanesque art, during the 9th century, in an area between Empordà and Roussillon, which he argued was the cradle of the second cycle of western European civilization.

Contemporary theories

One of the most important recent findings in the study of the long-term dynamic social processes was the discovery of the political-demographic cycles as a basic feature of the dynamics of complex agrarian systems.

The presence of political-demographic cycles in the pre-modern history of Europe and China, and in chiefdom level societies worldwide has been known for quite a long time, and already in the 1980s more or less developed mathematical models of demographic cycles started to be produced (first of all for Chinese "dynastic cycles") (Usher 1989). At the moment we have a considerable number of such models (Chu and Lee 1994; Nefedov 1999, 2002, 2003, 2004; S. Malkov, Kovalev, and A. Malkov 2000; S. Malkov and A. Malkov 2000; Malkov and Sergeev 2002, 2004a, 2004b; Malkov et al. 2002; Malkov 2002, 2003, 2004; Turchin 2003, 2005a; Korotayev et al. 2006).

Recently the most important contributions to the development of the mathematical models of long-term ("secular") sociodemographic cycles have been made by Sergey Nefedov, Peter Turchin, Andrey Korotayev, and Sergey Malkov. What is important is that on the basis of their models Nefedov, Turchin and Malkov have managed to demonstrate that sociodemographic cycles were a basic feature of complex agrarian systems (and not a specifically Chinese or European phenomenon).

The basic logic of these models is as follows:

  • After the population reaches the ceiling of the carrying capacity of land, its growth rate declines toward near-zero values.
  • The system experiences significant stress with decline in the living standards of the common population, increasing the severity of famines, growing rebellions etc.
  • As has been shown by Nefedov, most complex agrarian systems had considerable reserves for stability, however, within 50–150 years these reserves were usually exhausted and the system experienced a demographic collapse (a Malthusian catastrophe), when increasingly severe famines, epidemics, increasing internal warfare and other disasters led to a considerable decline of population.
  • As a result of this collapse, free resources became available, per capita production and consumption considerably increased, the population growth resumed and a new sociodemographic cycle started.

It has become possible to model these dynamics mathematically in a rather effective way. Note that the modern theories of political-demographic cycles do not deny the presence of trend dynamics and attempt at the study of the interaction between cyclical and trend components of historical dynamics.

Modern social scientists from different fields have introduced cycle theories to predict civilizational collapses in approaches that apply contemporary methods that update the approach of Spengler, such as the work of Joseph Tainter suggesting a civilizational life-cycle. In more micro-studies that follow the work of Malthus, scholars such as David Lempert have presented "alpha-helix" models of population, economics, and political response, including violence, in cyclical forms that add aspects of culture change into the model. Lempert has also modeled political violence in Russian society, suggesting that theories attributing violence in Russia to ideologies are less useful than cyclical models of population and economic productivity.

From the Wikipedia entry for SOCIAL CYCLE THEORY

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.

      “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?”
     “City manager.”

From CITIES IN FLIGHT by James Blish (1956)

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

Dynastic cycle (traditional Chinese: 朝代循環; simplified Chinese: 朝代循环; pinyin: Cháodài Xúnhuán) is an important political theory in Chinese history. According to this theory, each dynasty rises to a political, cultural, and economic peak and then, because of moral corruption, declines, loses the Mandate of Heaven, and falls, only to be replaced by a new dynasty. The cycle then repeats under a surface pattern of repetitive motifs.

It sees a continuity in Chinese history from early times to the present by looking at the succession of empires or dynasties, implying that there is little basic development or change in social or economic structures. John K. Fairbank expressed the doubts of many historians when he wrote that "the concept of the dynastic cycle... has been a major block to the understanding of the fundamental dynamics of Chinese history."

The cycle

The cycle appears as follows:

  1. A new ruler unites China, founds a new dynasty, and gains the Mandate of Heaven.
  2. China, under the new dynasty, achieves prosperity.
  3. The population increases.
  4. Corruption becomes rampant in the imperial court, and the empire begins to enter decline and instability.
  5. A natural disaster wipes out farm land. The disaster normally would not have been a problem; however, together with the Corruption and overpopulation, it causes famine.
  6. The famine causes the population to rebel and a civil war ensues.
  7. The ruler loses the Mandate of Heaven.
  8. The population decreases because of the violence.
  9. China goes through a warring states period.
  10. One state emerges victorious.
  11. The state starts a new empire.
  12. The empire gains the Mandate of Heaven.
(The cycle repeats itself.)

The Mandate of Heaven was the idea that the Emperor was favored by Heaven to rule over China. The Mandate of Heaven explanation was championed by the Chinese philosopher Mencius during the Warring States period.

It has 3 main phases:

  1. The first is the beginning of the dynasty.
  2. The second is at the middle of the dynasty's life and is the peak of the dynasty.
  3. The last period is the decline of the dynasty, both politically and economically, until it finally collapses.


Chinese history is traditionally represented in terms of dynastic cycles. Through its long history, the Chinese have been ruled not by one dynasty, but by a succession of different dynasties. The first dynasty in China to be described in ancient historical records such as Records of the Grand Historian and Bamboo Annals is the Xia, which was succeeded by the Shang, although concrete existence of Xia is yet to be archaeologically proven.

Among these dynasties the Han and Tang are often considered as particularly strong periods, although other dynasties are famous for cultural and other achievements (for instance, the Song dynasty is sometimes associated with rapid economic development). Han and Tang, as well as other long, stable dynasties were followed by periods of disorder and the break-up of China into small regimes.

Out of disorder a leader eventually arose who unified the country and imposed strong central authority. For example, after the Han various dynasties ruled parts of China until Yang Jian reunited the country and established the Sui dynasty. The Sui set the scene for the long and prosperous Tang. After the fall of Tang, China again saw a period of political upheaval.

There is a famous Chinese proverb expressed in the 16th century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms that says "After a long split, a union will occur; after a long union, a split will occur" (分久必合,合久必分). Each of these rulers would claim the Mandate of Heaven to legitimize their rule.

Although this well-known dynastic periodization of China is more or less based on traditional Sinocentric ideology, it also applies to non-native rulers who sought to gain the Mandate of Heaven. While most ruling dynasties in Chinese history were founded by native Chinese, there were also non-native or Conquest Dynasties established by non-Han Chinese people beyond the traditional border of central part of China dominated by Han Chinese people (also known as China proper). These include the Yuan founded by Mongols and the Qing founded by Manchus, who later conquered the central part of China and assumed the title of Emperor of China.

From the Wikipedia entry for DYNASTIC CYCLE

Grosvenor read the letter grimly. He did not doubt that Kent had made sharp remarks to the secretary about the only Nexialist on the ship. Even as it was, Kent had probably restrained his language. The turmoil, the reservoir of hatred that was in the man, was still suppressed. If Korita was right, it would come out in a crisis. This was the “winter” period of man’s present civilization, and entire cul­tures had been torn to pieces by the vaulting egotism of individuals.

Dennison’s face was flushed, his voice harsh. “Look, Grove, you can’t possibly have anything against a man you don’t even know very well. Kent is the kind of person who won’t forget his friends.”

“I’ll wager he also has special treatment for those he dislikes,” said Grosvenor. He shrugged impatiently. “Carl, to me Kent represents all that is destructive in our present civilization. According to Korita’s theory of cyclic history, we’re in the ‘winter’ stage of our culture. I’m going to ask him to explain that more fully one of these days, but I’ll wager Kent’s caricature of a democratic campaign is an example of the worst aspects of such a period.”

Standing there, Grosvenor decided that it was too soon for drastic defense measures. It was hard to be certain that any sustained, positive action would not produce on board the ship the very situation he was supposed to prevent. Despite his own reservations about cyclic history, it was well to remember that civilizations did seem to be born, grow older, and die of old age. Before he did anything more, he’d better have a talk with Korita and find out what pitfalls he might inadvertently be heading towards.

He located the Japanese scientist at Library B, which was on the far side of the ship, on the same floor as the Nexial department. Korita was leaving as he came up, and Grosvenor fell in step beside him. Without preamble, he outlined his problem.

Korita did not reply immediately. They walked the length of the corridor before the tall historian spoke, doubtfully. “My friend,” he said, “I’m sure you realize the difficulty of solving specific problems on the basis of generalizations, which is virtually all that the theory of cyclic history has to offer.”

“Still,” Grosvenor said, “a few analogies might be very useful to me. From what I’ve read on this subject, I gather we’re in the late, or ‘winter,’ period of our own civilization. In other words, right now we are making the mistakes that lead to decay. I have a few ideas about that, but I’d like more.”

Korita shrugged. “I’ll try to put it briefly.” He was silent for a while, then said, “The outstanding common denominator of the ‘winter’ periods of civilizations is the growing comprehension on the part of millions of individuals of how things work People become impatient with superstitious or supernatural explanations of what goes on in their minds and bodies, and in the world around them. With the gradual accumulation of knowledge, even the simplest minds for the first time ‘see through’ and consciously reject the claims of a minority to hereditary superiority. And the grim battle for equality is on.”

Korita paused for a moment, then continued. “It is his widespread struggle for personal aggrandizement that constitutes the most significant parallel between all the ‘winter’ periods in the civilizations of recorded history. For better or worse, the fight usually takes place within the framework of a legal system that tends to protect the entrenched minority. The late-corner to the field, not understanding his motivations, plunges blindly into the battle for power. The result is a veritable melee of undisciplined intelligence. In thejr resentment and lust, men follow leaders as confused as themselves. Repeatedly, the resulting disorder has led by well-defined steps to the final static fellahin state.

“Sooner or later, one group gains the ascendancy. Once in office, the leaders restore ‘order’ in so savage a bloodletting that the millions are cowed. Swiftly, the power group begins to restrict activities. The licensing systems and other regulative measures necessary to any organized society become tools of suppression and monopoly. It becomes difficult, then impossible, for the individual to engage in new enterprise. And so we progress by swift stages to the familiar caste system of ancient India, and to other, less well-known but equally inflexible societies, such as that of Rome after about A.D. 300. The individual is born into his station in life and cannot rise above it.

“There, does that brief summary help you?”

Grosvenor said slowly, “As I’ve already said, I’m trying to solve the problem Mr. Kent has presented me without falling into the egotistical errors of the late-civilization man you have described. I want to know if I can reasonably hope to defend myself against him without aggravating the hostilities that already exist aboard the Beagle.”

Korita smiled wryly. “It will be a unique victory if you succeed. Historically, on a mass basis, the problem has never been solved. Well, good luck, young man!”

(ed note: then suddenly the exploration starship comes under attack by a hypnotic telepathic broadcast from an unknown alien planet they happen to be passing by. Grosvenor manages to resist the attack due to his training in Nexialism. He frees Korita from the hypnotic trance)

     He turned to Korita, and asked, “In terms of cyclic history, what stage of culture could these beings be in?”
     A thin, wet line of moisture formed on the archeologist’s brow. “My friend,” he said, “surely you can’t expect a generalization at this stage. What do we know about these beings?”
     Grosvenor groaned inwardly. He recognized the need for discussion, but vital time was passing. He said indecisively, “Beings who can use hypnosis over a distance, as these can, would probably be able to stimulate each other’s minds, and so would have naturally the kind of telepathy that human beings can obtain only through the encephalo-adjuster.”
     He leaned forward, abruptly excited. “Korita, what effect would the ability to read minds without artificial aids have on a culture?”
     The archeologist was sitting up. “Why, of course,” he said. “You have the answer. Mind reading would stultify the development of any race, and therefore this one is in the fellahin stage.”
     His eyes were bright as he stared at the puzzled Grosvenor. “Don’t you see? The ability to read another’s mind would make you feel that you know about him. On that basis, a system of absolute certainties would develop. How could you doubt when you know? Such beings would flash through the early periods of their culture, and arrive at the fellah period in the swiftest possible time.”
     Alertly, while Grosvenor sat frowning, he described how various civilizations of Earth and galactic history had exhausted themselves, and then stagnated into fellahdom. Fellah people resented newness and change. They were not particularly cruel as a group, but because of their poverty they all too frequently developed an indifference toward the suffering of individuals.

From THE VOYAGE OF THE SPACE BEAGLE by A. E. van Vogt (1950)

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.

Probapossible Prolegomena to Ideareal History

(ed note: James Blish expounds upon the cyclical 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.

Collapse of the American Oligarchy

     “The collapse of urban cultures is an event much more frequent than most observers realize. Often, collapse is well underway before societal elites become aware of it, leading to scenes of leaders responding retroactively and ineffectively as their society collapses around them.”
     – Sander Vander Leeuw, Archaeologist, 1997

The tragedy is that, despite what you hear on TV or read in the paper or online, this collapse was completely predictable. Scientifically speaking, oligarchies always collapse because they are designed to extract wealth from the lower levels of society, concentrate it at the top, and block adaptation by concentrating oligarchic power as well. Though it may take some time, extraction eventually eviscerates the productive levels of society, and the system becomes increasingly brittle. Internal pressures and the sense of betrayal grow as desperation and despair multiply everywhere except at the top, but effective reform seems impossible because the system seems thoroughly rigged. In the final stages, a raft of upstart leaders emerge, some honest and some fascistic, all seeking to channel pent-up frustration towards their chosen ends. If we are lucky, the public will mobilize behind honest leaders and effective reforms. If we are unlucky, either the establishment will continue to “respond ineffectively” until our economy collapses, or a fascist will take over and create conditions too horrific to contemplate.

Sound familiar? America has witnessed a similar cycle of oligarchic corruption[1] starting in the 1760s, 1850s, 1920s, and 2000s:

  • Economic Royalists infiltrate critical institutions and rig political and economic systems to favor elites. 1760s: Royal governors run roughshod over colonial farmers; The East India Company, whose investors were primarily wealthy aristocrats, is given monopoly trading rights in the colonies. (The Tea Act was basically a corporate tax break for it.) 2000s: Vice President Dick Cheney’s company Halliburton is given no-bid contracts to handle military services in Iraq; American taxpayers bail out failed banks; Billionaire Warren Buffet pays a lower tax rate than his secretary; America’s medical system is dominated by profit-maximizing, health-minimizing insurance companies.

  • Rigged systems erode the health of the larger society, and signs of crisis proliferate. Developed by British archaeologist Sir Colin Renfrew in 1979[2], the following “Signs of Failing Times” have played out across time in 26 distinct societies ranging from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the collapse of the Soviet Union:
    1. Elite power and well-being increase and is manifested in displays of wealth;
    2. Elites become heavily focused on maintaining a monopoly on power inside the society; Laws become more advantageous to elites, and penalties for the larger public become more Draconian;
    3. The middle class evaporates;
    4. The “misery index” mushrooms, witnessed by increasing rates of homicide, suicide, illness, homelessness, and drug/alcohol abuse;
    5. Ecological disasters increase as short-term focus pushes ravenous exploitation of resources;
    6. There’s a resurgence of conservatism and fundamentalist religion as once golden theories are brought back to counter decay, but these are usually in a corrupted form that accelerates decline.

  • The crisis reaches a breaking point, and seemingly small events trigger popular frustration into a transformative change. If the society enacts effective reforms, it enters a new stage of development. If it fails to enact reforms, crisis leads to regression and possibly collapse. 1776: Lexington and Concord’s “shot heard round the world”; the Declaration of Independence; America becomes unified nation aimed at liberty and justice for all. 1933: Under huge public pressure, FDR turns from a standard New York politician to a champion of social and economic reform; government work-programs revitalize the nation’s infrastructure, and reforms such as the Glass-Steagall Act reduce bankers’ ability to abuse the system; Post-FDR America witnesses the longest surge of cross-scale prosperity and the largest increase in the middle class in history.

  • Over time, transformed societies forget why they implemented reforms; Economic Royalists creep back and the cycle starts a new. 1980-2000s: Reagan removes the Fairness Doctrine and stops enforcing antitrust laws; Economic elites argue we need to modernize finance by getting rid of Glass-Steagall; Tax rates on the wealthy plummet while infrastructure crumbles; The Supreme Court supports Citizens United and guts the Voting Rights Act; Gerrymandering increases.

[1] This cycle has occurred every 80 to 90 years throughout American and much of world history. It is detailed in books such as Strauss and Howe’s The Fourth Turning, and Thom Hartmann’s The Crash of 2016. See Strauss, W. & Howe, N., (1996). The Fourth Turning: What the cycles of history tell us about America’s next rendevouz with destiny.

[2] Renfrew, Colin. 1979. Systems collapse as social transformation: Catastrophe and anastrophe in early state societies. In Renfrew C. and Cooke, K.L. (eds.), Transformations: Mathematical approaches to culture change. New York: Academic Press, 481-506.



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.

One of these ships was the Vegan Scout — Starfire

THE PATROL ship, Starfire, Vegan registry, came into her last port in the early morning. And she made a bad landing, for two of her eroded tubes blew just as the pilot tried to set her down on her fins. She had bounced then, bounced and buckled, and now she lay on her meteor-scarred side.

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 Deneb II. 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 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

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Star Guard

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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

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).

Kicking it up a notch, some 1950s novels were about a series of technological advances one after the other, usually in the form of an arms race. Gotta explore the tech tree.

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.

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

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.

“We'll be saying a big hello to all intelligent lifeforms everywhere and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys.”


The Plow

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.

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.

You've Got Just One Shot

Fred Hoyle has suggested that the reestablishment of civilization may not be as easy as it sounds.

Our civilization developed using fossil fuels as an energy source. The coal and oil in the Earth’s crust are the residues of hundreds of millions of years of biological evolution and decay. At the present rate of growth, in another 50 or 100 years We will have exhausted all fossil fuels on Earth.

If our civilization were to destroy itself at that time, the absence of fossil fuels would make the development of a successor civilization unlikely, at least for a few hundreds of millions of years.

From INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE by I. S. Shklovskii and Carl Sagan (1966)

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.


5.1 Resource depletion or ecological destruction

The natural resources needed to sustain a high-tech civilization are being used up. If some other cataclysm destroys the technology we have, it may not be possible to climb back up to present levels if natural conditions are less favorable than they were for our ancestors, for example if the most easily exploitable coal, oil, and mineral resources have been depleted. (On the other hand, if plenty of information about our technological feats is preserved, that could make a rebirth of civilization easier.)

Pulling back from the tight-focus shock for a moment, we know that development isn't inevitable.

If there are no large reserves of coal and iron to mine you're unlikely to get widespread deployment of steam engines. If it's easier for your second sons to set out and march into unoccupied territory and set up farming than to try and eke more food out of a smaller subdivided family farm, you won't get increases in population density until you butt up against the Malthusian limits. If your political system generates a succession crisis that can only be resolved by a brutal and destructive civil war once every generation, that's not going to be conductive to long-term capital accumulation and investment, or to development of a culture of respect for the rule of law (including observance of any form of property law not enforced at swordpoint). If your religion insists that women are chattel and slaveowning is just fine, then the aristocratic beneficiaries of such a system have little incentive to improve productivity and conditions that benefit their perceived inferiors.

But the ability of a pre-industrial empire to enforce social norms globally is hampered by their ability to operate on a worldwide scale: no global system of social control that can block industrialization is possible to a state or agency that hasn't acquired the means of rapid communication and transportation (unless it emerges in the future as an accidental side-effect of resource depletion—if Olduvai theory holds water, then future civilizations won't be able to easily reindustrialize because we'll have consumed the necessary prerequisites).

From THE IRON LAW OF DEVELOPMENT by Charles Stross (2016)

Technological Stasis

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.


The Butlerian Jihad is an event in the back-story of Frank Herbert's fictional Dune universe. Occurring over 10,000 years before the events chronicled in his 1965 novel Dune, this jihad leads to the outlawing of certain technologies, primarily "thinking machines," a collective term for computers and artificial intelligence of any kind. This prohibition is a key influence on the nature of Herbert's fictional setting.

Writing for The New Yorker, Jon Michaud praises Herbert's "clever authorial decision" to excise robots and computers ("two staples of the genre") from his fictional universe, but suggests that this may be one explanation why Dune lacks "true fandom among science-fiction fans" to the extent that it "has not penetrated popular culture in the way that The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars have".

Herbert coined the name in honor of his friend, Frank Butler (who later worked as an attorney in Stanwood, Washington), because of a community movement Butler helped set in motion which resulted in the cancellation of the building of the R.H. Thomson Expressway through Seattle in 1970.

Perhaps coincidentally, 19th-century author Samuel Butler introduced the idea of evolved machines supplanting mankind as the dominant species in his 1863 article "Darwin among the Machines" and later works. Butler goes on to suggest that all machines be immediately destroyed to avoid this outcome.

The original Dune series

In Terminology of the Imperium, the glossary of 1965's Dune, Frank Herbert provides the following definition:

Jihad, Butlerian: (see also Great Revolt) — the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots begun in 201 B.G. and concluded in 108 B.G. Its chief commandment remains in the O.C. Bible as "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind."

Herbert refers to the Jihad many times in the entire Dune series, but did not give much detail on how he imagined the actual conflict. In God Emperor of Dune (1981), Leto II Atreides indicates that the Jihad had been a semi-religious social upheaval initiated by humans who felt repulsed by how guided and controlled they had become by machines:

"The target of the Jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines," Leto said. "Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgments. Naturally, the machines were destroyed."

In the series, Herbert illustrates how the Jihad leads to many profound and long-lasting effects on the socio-political and technological development of humanity. The known universe is purged of all forms of thinking machines, resulting in not only a ban on the re-creation of similar devices (which remains in effect throughout the periods described in the original six Dune novels), but also a great technological reversal for humanity. The chief commandment from the Orange Catholic Bible, "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind", holds sway, as do the anti-artificial intelligence laws in which the penalty for owning an AI device or developing technology resembling the human mind is immediate death. This leads to the rise of a new feudalistic galactic empire which lasts for over ten thousand years, until the rise of the God Emperor Leto II in 10,217 A.G.

To replace the analytical powers of computers without violating the commandment of the O.C. Bible, "human computers" known as Mentats are developed and perfected, their mental abilities ultimately honed to the point where they become superior to those of the ancient thinking machines. Similarly specialized groups of humans which arise after the Jihad include the Bene Gesserit, a matriarchal order with advanced mental and physical abilities, and the Spacing Guild, whose prescience makes safe and instantaneous space travel possible. Fringe societies such as the Ixians and Bene Tleilax eventually begin to develop mechanical and biological technology that, if not actually transgressing the commandments of the Jihad, at least come extremely close. Prohibitions spawned by the Jihad also include artificial insemination, as explained in Dune Messiah (1969) when Paul Atreides negotiates with the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, who is appalled by Paul's suggestion that he impregnate his consort Princess Irulan in this manner.

See also

From the Wikipedia entry for BUTLERIAN JIHAD

(ed note: Dr. Barnes elaborates on the spreadsheet mathematical models he used to calculate historical cycles. In A MILLION OPEN DOORS STL relativistic starships establish interstellar colonies which develop over the next thousand years. Then some joker invents an instantaneous interstellar teleportation machine. Suddenly all the colonies can travel to each other and back to Terra.

Dr. Barnes suddenly needs a reason why the colonists do not find a thousand year older Terra that is incomprehensibly advanced. He needs a plausible way to put the brakes on technological advance.)

I didn’t want the world to get utterly unrecognizable (though that might make another good story), but clearly I would need a reason why it wasn't unrecognizable. I decided to add an event to the background: at or around the time the colony ships are leaving, for some reason or other, the global human culture decides change in general is bad, and begins the Inward Turn (a period like the Enlightenment or Renaissance). There will be much refinement but little new development after A.D. 2300.

Such things have happened. The familiar case is Tokugawa Japan, but China, Persia, and India have done similar things at times, and the tendency was clearly there in other cultures (e.g., Dark Ages Ireland, fourth century Rome). So it’s a reasonable human possibility.

Of course, after several centuries of the tide running the other way in our culture, we’re out of sympathy with such a cultural turning, and may think of it as “decadent,” as “stagnation” and “degeneracy.” But it need not be. The Inward Turn simply means people will value and explore one set of possibilities at the expense of another. It will tend to favor skills, arts, and crafts that require extensive refinement and disciplined training: gymnastics, martial arts, formal or classic styles in the arts, religions requiring elaborate meditative practices, taxonomic or “catalog” sciences, ethics and ontology in philosophy. By the same token, it will devalue that which requires novelty and personal passion: team contact sports, romanticism and subjectivism in arts, religions based on fervor and conversion experiences, theoretical sciences, epistemology. That’s a choice—not a moral collapse. They’ll have fewer Beethovens and Rimbauds, but more formal gardens and tea ceremonies.

And at the time of the story, centuries later, the Inward Turn will be as automatically accepted, unremarked, and beyond debate as the Renaissance is today.

(ed note: more details here)

From HOW TO BUILD A FUTURE by John Barnes (1991)

2010–2100 CoDominium Intelligence Services engage in serious effort to suppress all research into technologies with military applications. They are aided by zero-growth organizations. Most scientific research ceases.

…There was another reason, too. CoDominium Intelligence licensed all scientific research and tried to suppress anything that could have military value. The U.S.-Soviet alliance was on top and wasn't about to let any new discoveries upset the balance. They couldn't stop everything, but they didn't have to, so long as the Grand Senate controlled everyone's R&D budget and could tinker with the patent laws.

…If we had not suppressed scientific research. But that was done in the name of the peace. Prevent development of new weapons. Keep control of technology in the hands of the government, prevent technology from dictating policy to all of us; it had seemed so reasonable, and besides, the policy was very old now. There were few trained scientists, because no one wanted to live under the restrictions of the Bureau of Technology.

     …Mark nodded, but Halpern only sneered. "You don't know anything at all," Halpern said. "Oppression? Shooting rioters? Sure that's part of what the CD does, but it's not the worst part. Symptom, not cause. The case is their g*dd*mn so-called intelligence service. Suppression of scientific research. Censorship of technical journals. They've even stopped the pretense of basic research. When was the last time a licensed physicist had a decent idea?"
     Mark shrugged. He knew nothing about physics.
     Halpern grinned. There was no warmth in the expression. His voice had a bitter edge. "Keeping the peace, they say. Only discourage new weapons, new military technology. B*llsh*t, they've stopped everything for fear somebody somewhere will come up with—"

…BuReloc had been shipping the worst troublemakers off Earth for two generations now … except for the Grand Senators, Owensford thought mordantly. Earth could not afford more trouble. The CoDominium had kept the peace since before his grandfather's birth, the United States and Soviet Union acting in concert to police a restive planet. The cost had been heavy; an end to technological progress, as the CoDo Intelligence services suppressed research with military implications … which turned out to be all research.

…CoDominium Intelligence was tasked with suppressing scientific research; their most effective method had been a generations-long effort to corrupt every data base and research program on Earth. Few of the colony worlds had the time or resources needed to undo the damage. Besides, there were few trained scientists left anywhere after four generations. Nobody wanted to live under the lidless eye of BuInt all their lives, with involuntary transportation to someplace like Fulson's World as the punishment for stepping over the line. Mostly what were left were technicians, cookbook engineers who might make a minor change in a recipe if they were very daring.

From THE PRINCE by Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling (2002)

(Senator Bish Wagoner said)“But there’s something far more radically wrong now. If space flight were still a live proposition, by now some of it would have been taken away from the army again. There’d be some merchant shipping maybe; or even small passenger lines for a luxury trade, for the kind of people who’ll go in uncomfortable ways to unliveable places just because it’s horribly expensive.” He chuckled heavily. “Like fox-hunting in England a hundred years ago; wasn’t it Oscar Wilde who called it ‘the pursuit of the inedible by the unspeakable’?”

“Isn’t it still a little early for that?” Corsi said.

“In 2013? I don’t think so. But if I’m rushing us on that one point, I can mention others. Why have there been no major exploratory expeditions for the past fifteen years? I should have thought that as soon as the tenth planet, Proserpine, was discovered some university or foundation would have wanted to go there. It has a big fat moon that would make a fine base—no weather exists at those temperatures—there’s no sun in the sky out there to louse up photographic plates—it’s only another zero-magnitude star—and so on. That kind of thing used to be meat and drink to private explorers. Given a millionaire with a thirst for science, like old Hale, and a sturdy organizer with a little grandstand in him—a Byrd-type—and we should have had a Proserpine Two station long ago. Yet space has been dead since Titan Station was set up in 1981. Why?”

He watched the flames for a moment.

“Then,” he said, “there’s the whole question of invention in the field. It’s stopped, Seppi. Stopped cold.”

Corsi said: “I seem to remember a paper from the boys on Titan not so long ago—”

“On xenobacteriology. Sure. That’s not space flight, Seppi; space flight only made it possible; their results don’t update space flight itself, don’t improve it, make it more attractive. Those guys aren’t even interested in it. Nobody is any more. That’s why it’s stopped changing.

“For instance: we’re still using ion-rockets, driven by an atomic pile. It works, and there are a thousand minor variations on the principle; but the principle itself was described by Coupling in 1954! Think of it, Seppi—not one single new, basic engine design in fifty years! And what about hull design? That’s still based on von Braun’s work—older even than Coupling’s. Is it really possible that there’s nothing better than those frameworks of hitched onions? Or those powered gliders that act as ferries for them? Yet I can’t find anything in the committee’s files that looks any better.”

“Are you sure you’d know a minor change from a major one?”

“You be the judge,” Wagoner said grimly. “The hottest thing in current spaceship design is a new elliptically wound spring for acceleration couches. It drags like a leaf-spring with gravity, and pushes like a coil-spring against it. The design wastes energy in one direction, stores it in the other. At last reports, couches made with it feel like sacks stuffed with green tomatoes, but we think we’ll have the bugs out of it soon. Tomato bugs, I suppose. Top Secret.”

“There’s one more Top Secret I’m not supposed to know,” Corsi said. “Luckily it’ll be no trouble to forget.”

“All right, try this one. We have a new water-bottle for ships’ stores. lt’s made of aluminum foil, to be collapsed from the bottom like a toothpaste tube to feed the water into the man’s mouth.”

“But a plastic membrane collapsed by air pressure is handier, weighs less—”

“Sure it does. And this foil tube is already standard for paste rations. All that’s new about this thing is the proposal that we use it for water too. The proposal came to us from a lobbyist for CanAm Metals, with strong endorsements by a couple of senators from the Pacific Northwest. You can guess what we did with it.”

“I am beginning to see your drift.”

“Then I’ll wind it up as fast as I can,” Wagoner said. “What it all comes to is that the whole structure of space flight as it stands now is creaking, obsolescent, over-elaborate, decaying. The field is static; no, worse than that, it’s losing ground. By this time, our ships ought to be sleeker and faster, and able to carry bigger payloads. We ought to have done away with this dichotomy between ships that can land on a planet, and ships that can fly from one planet to another.

“The whole question of using the planets for something—something, that is, besides research—ought to be within sight of settlement. Instead, nobody even discusses it any more. And our chances to settle it grow worse every year. Our appropriations are dwindling, as it gets harder and harder to convince the Congress that space flight is really good for anything. You can’t sell the Congress on the long-range rewards of basic research, anyhow; representatives have to stand for election every two years, senators every six years; that’s just about as far ahead as most of them are prepared to look. And suppose we tried to explain to them the basic research we’re doing? We couldn’t; it’s classified!

“And above all, Seppi—this may be only my personal ignorance speaking, but if so, I’m stuck with it— above all, I think that by now we ought to have some slight clue toward an interstellar drive. We ought even to have a model, no matter how crude—as crude as a Fourth of July rocket compared to a Coupling engine, but with the principle visible. But we don’t. As a matter of fact, we’ve written off the stars. Nobody I can talk to thinks we’ll ever reach them.”

Corsi got up and walked lightly to the window, where he stood with his back to the room, as though trying to look through the light-tight blind down on to the deserted street.

To Wagoner’s fire-dazed eyes, he was scarcely more than a shadow himself. The senator found himself thinking, for perhaps the twentieth time in the past six months, that Corsi might even be glad to be out of it all, branded unreliable though he was. Then, again for at least the twentieth time, Wagoner remembered the repeated clearance hearings, the oceans of dubious testimony and gossip from witnesses with no faces or names, the clamor in the press when Corsi was found to have roomed in college with a man suspected of being an ex-YPSL member, the denunciation on the senate floor by one of MacHinery’s captive solons, more hearings, the endless barrage of vilification and hatred, the letters beginning “Dear Doctor Corsets, You bum,” and signed “True American.” To get out of it that way was worse than enduring it, no matter how stoutly most of your fellow scholars stood by you afterwards.

“I shan’t be the first to say so to you,” the physicist said, turning at last. “I don’t think we’ll ever reach the stars either, Bliss. And I am not very conservative, as physicists go. We just don’t live long enough for us to become a star-traveling race. A mortal man limited to speeds below that of light is as unsuited to interstellar travel as a moth would be to crossing the Atlantic. I’m sorry to believe that, certainly; but I do believe it.”

Wagoner nodded and filed the speech away. On that subject, he had expected even less than Corsi had given him.

“But,” Corsi said, lifting his snifter from the table, “it isn’t impossible that interplanetary flight could be bettered. I agree with you that it’s rotting away now. I’d suspected that it might be, and your showing tonight is conclusive.”

“Then why is it happening?” Wagoner demanded.

“Because scientific method doesn’t work any more.”

“What! Excuse me, Seppi, but that’s sort of like hearing, an archbishop say that Christianity doesn’t work any more. What do you mean?”

Corsi smiled sourly. “Perhaps I was overdramatic. But it’s true that, under present conditions, scientific method is a blind alley. It depends on freedom of information, and we deliberately killed that. In my bureau, when it was mine, we seldom knew who was working on What project at any given time; we seldom knew whether or not somebody else in the bureau was duplicating it; we never knew whether or not some other department might be duplicating it. All we could be sure of was that many men, working in similar fields, were stamping their results Secret because that was the easy way—not only to keep the work out of Russian hands, but to keep the workers in the clear if their own government should investigate them. How can you apply scientific method to a problem when you’re forbidden to see the data?

“Then there’s the caliber of scientist we have working for the government now. The few first-rate men we have are so harassed by the security set-up—and by the constant suspicion that’s focused on them because they are top men in their fields, and hence anything they might leak would be particularly valuable —that it takes them years to solve what used to be very simple problems. As for the rest—well, our staff at Standards consisted almost entirely of third-raters: some of them were very dogged and patient men indeed, but low on courage and even lower on imagination. They spent all their time operating mechanically by the cook-book—the routine of scientific method —and had less to show for it every year.”

“Everything you’ve said could be applied to the space-flight research that’s going on now, without changing a comma,” Wagoner said. “But, Seppi, if scientific method used to be sound, it should still be sound. It ought to work for anybody, even third-raters. Why has it suddenly turned sour now—after centuries of unbroken successes?”

“The time lapse,” Corsi said sombrely, “is of the first importance. Remember, Bliss, that scientific method is not a natural law. It doesn’t exist in nature, but only in our heads; in short, it’s a way of thinking about things—a way of sifting evidence. It was bound to become obsolescent sooner or later, just as sorites and paradigms and syllogisms became obsolete before it (ed note: ??!?). Scientific method works fine while there are thousands of obvious facts lying about for the taking—facts as obvious and measurable as how fast a stone falls, or what the order of the colors is in a rainbow. But the more subtle the facts to be discovered become—the more they retreat into the realms of the invisible, the intangible, the unweighable, the sub-microscopic, the abstract—the more expensive and time-consuming it is to investigate them by scientific method.

“And when you reach a stage where the only research worth doing costs millions of dollars per experiment, then those experiments can be paid for only by government. Governments can make the best use only of third-rate men, men who can’t leaven the instructions in the cook-book with the flashes of insight you need to make basic discoveries. The result is what you see: sterility, stasis, dry rot.”

“Then what’s left?” Wagoner said. “What are we going to do now? I know you well enough to suspect that you’re not going to give up all hope.”

“No,” Corsi said, “I haven’t given up, but I’m quite helpless to change the situation you’re complaining about. After all, I’m on the outside. Which is probably good for me.” He paused, and then said suddenly: “There’s no hope of getting the government to drop the security system completely?”


“Nothing else would do.”

“No,” Wagoner said. “Not even partially, I’m afraid. Not any longer.”

Corsi sat down and leaned forward, his elbows on his knobby knees, staring into the dying coals. “Then I have two pieces of advice to give you, Bliss. Actually they’re two sides of the same coin. First of all, begin by abandoning these multi-million-dollar, Manhattan-District approaches. We don’t need a newer, still finer measurement of electron resonance one-tenth so badly as we need new pathways, new categories of knowledge. The colossal research project is defunct; what we need now is pure skullwork.”

“From my staff?”

“From wherever you can get it. That’s the other half of my recommendation. If I were you, I would go to the crackpots.”

Wagoner waited. Corsi said these things for effect; he liked drama in small doses. He would explain in a moment.

“Of course I don’t mean total crackpots,” Corsi said. “But you’ll have to draw the line yourself. You need marginal contributors, scientists of good reputation generally whose obsessions don’t strike fire with other members of their profession. Like the Crehore atom, or old Ehrenhaft’s theory of magnetic currents, or the Milne cosmology—you’ll have to find the fruitful one yourself. Look for discards, and then find out whether or not the idea deserved to be totally discarded. And—don’t accept the first ‘expert’ opinion that you get.”

“Winnow chaff, in other words.”

“What else is there to winnow?” Corsi said. “Of course it’s a long chance, but you can’t turn to scientists of real stature now; it’s too late for that. Now you’ll have to use sports, freaks, near-misses.”

“Starting where?”

“Oh,” said Corsi, “how about gravity? I don’t know any other subject that’s attracted a greater quota of idiot speculations. Yet the acceptable theories of what gravity is are of no practical use to us. They can’t be put to work to help lift a spaceship. We can’t manipulate gravity as a field; we don’t even have a set of equations for it that we can agree upon. No more will we find such a set by spending fortunes and decades on the project. The law of diminishing returns has washed that approach out.”

Wagoner got up. “You don’t leave me much,” he said glumly.

“No,” Corsi agreed. “I leave you only what you started with. That’s more than most of us are left with, Bliss.”

Wagoner grinned tightly at him and the two men shook hands. As Wagoner left, he saw Corsi silhouetted against the fire, his back to the door, his shoulders bent. While he stood there, a shot blatted not far away, and the echoes "bounded back from the face of the embassy across the street. It was not a common sound in Washington, but neither was it unusual: it was almost surely one of the city’s thousands of anonymous snoopers firing at a counter-agent, a cop, or a shadow.

Corsi made no responding movement. The senator closed the door quietly.

He was shadowed all the way back to his own apartment, but this time he hardly noticed. He was thinking about an immortal man who flew from star to star faster than light.

From THEY SHALL HAVE STARS by James Blish (1956)

(Excerpt from the Encyclopedia Galactica)

THE FIRST GALACTIC exploratory and colonization flight came as a direct outgrowth of a peculiar sociological- political situation on the planet Terra. As a result of a series of wars between nationalistic divisions atomic power was discovered. Afraid of the demon they had so loosed the nations then engaged in so-called "cold wars" during which all countries raced to outbuild each other in the stock piling of new and more drastic weapons and the mobilization of manpower into the ancient "armies."

Scientific training became valued only for the aid it could render in helping to arm and fit a nation for war. For some time scientists and techneers of all classes were kept in a form of peonage by "security" regulations. But a unification of scientists fostered in a secret underground movement resulted in the formation of "Free Scientist" teams, groups of experts and specialists who sold their services to both private industry and governments as research workers. Since they gave no attention to the racial, political, or religious antecedents of their members, they became truly international and planet-, instead of nation-, minded—a situation both hated and feared by their employers.

Under the stimulus of Free Scientist encouragement man achieved interplanetary flight. Terra was the third in a series of nine planets revolving about the sun, Sol I. It possessed one satellite, Luna.

Exploration ships made landings on Luna, and the two neighboring planets, Mars and Venus. None of these worlds were suitable for human colonization without vast expenditure, and they offered little or no return for such effort. Consequently, after the first flurry of interest, space flight died down, and there were few visitors to the other worlds, except for the purpose of research. Three "space stations" had been constructed to serve Terra as artificial satellites. These were used for refueling interplanetary ships and astronomical and meteorological observation. One of these provided the weapon the nationalists had been searching for in their war against the "Free Scientists." The station was invaded and occupied by a party of unidentified armed men (later studies suggest that these men were mercenaries in the pay of nationalist forces). And this group, either by ignorant chance or with deliberate purpose, turned certain installations in the station into weapons for an attack upon Terra. There are indications that they themselves had no idea of the power they unleashed, and that it was at once beyond their control. As a result the major portion of the thickly populated sections of the planet were completely devastated and no one was ever able to reckon the loss of life.

Among those who were the sole survivors of an entire family group was Arturo Renzi. Renzi, a man of unusual magnetic personality, was a believer in narrow and fanatical nationalist doctrines. Because of his personal loss he began to preach the evil of science (with propaganda that the Free Scientists themselves had turned the station against the earth that had apparently been carefully prepared even before the act) and the necessity for man to return to the simple life on the soil to save himself and Terra.

To a people already in psychic shock from the enormity of the disaster, Renzi appeared the great leader they needed and his party came into power around the world. But, fanatic and narrow as he was, his voiced policies were still too liberal for some of his supporters.

Renzi's assassination, an act committed by a man arbitrarily identified as an outlawed Free Scientist, touched off the terrible purge which lasted three days. At the end of which time the few scientists and techneers still alive had been driven into hiding, to be hunted down one by one through the following years as chance or man betrayed them.

Saxon Bort, a lieutenant of Renzi's, assumed command of the leader's forces and organized the tight dictatorship of the Company of Pax.

Learning, unless one was a privileged "Peaceman," became suspect. Society was formed into three classes — the nobility as represented by the Peacemen of various grades, the peasantry on the land, and the work-slaves—descendants of suspected scientists or techneers.

With the stranglehold of Pax firmly established on Terra, old prejudices against different racial and religious origins again developed. All research, invention, and study was proscribed and the planet was fast slipping into an age of total darkness and retreat. Yet it was at this moment in her history that the first galactic flight was made.

From THE STARS ARE OURS by Andre Norton (1954)

“You aren’t even a cadet as yet.” Baldwin went on. “There is the project to increase our numbers, but that is thousand-year program; you’d need a perpetual calendar to check it. More important is keeping matches away from baby ("baby" is the government, the "matches" in this case is a simple technique to make the sun go nova). Joe, it’s been eighty-five years since we beheaded the last commissar: have you wondered why so little basic progress in science has been made in that time?”

“Eh? There have been a lot of changes.”

“Minor adaptations—some spectacular, almost none of them basic. Of course there was very little progress made under communism; a totalitarian political religion is incompatible with free investigation. Let me digress: the communist interregnum was responsible for the New Men getting together and organizing. Most New Men are scientists, for obvious reasons. When the commissars started ruling on natural laws by political criteria—Lysenkoism and similar nonsense—it did not sit well; a lot of us went underground.

“I’ll skip the details. It brought us together, gave us practice in underground activity, and gave a backlog of new research, carried out underground. Some of it was obviously dangerous; we decided to hang onto it for a while. Since then such secret knowledge has grown, for we never give out an item until it has been scrutinized for social hazards. Since much of it is dangerous and since very few indeed outside our organization are capable of real original thinking, basic science has been almost at a public standstill.

“We hadn’t expected to have to do it that way. We helped to see to it that the new constitution was liberal and—we thought—workable. But the new Republic turned out to be an even poorer thing than the old. The evil ethic of communism had corrupted, even after the form was gone. We held off. Now we know that we must hold off until we can revise the whole society.”

From GULF by Robert Heinlein (1949)

The politicization of science is the manipulation of science for political gain. It occurs when government, business, or advocacy groups use legal or economic pressure to influence the findings of scientific research or the way it is disseminated, reported or interpreted. The politicization of science may also negatively affect academic and scientific freedom. Historically, groups have conducted various campaigns to promote their interests in defiance of scientific consensus, and in an effort to manipulate public policy.


Researcher William R. Freudenburg and colleagues have noted that where decisions and action are required, science can offer valuable degrees of certainty, however, it can never offer a guarantee. John Horgan describes how this point is sometimes intentionally ignored as a part of what he calls an "Orwellian tactic". Organizations sometimes seek to shift all discussion on some issues away from 'conclusions are most scientifically likely' to 'even the more probable conclusion is still uncertain.'

Chris Mooney has claimed these tactics are used to gain more attention for views that have been undermined by scientific evidence. In his view, the media ends up in a misguided pursuit of "balance" which results in undue weight in reporting. As examples, Mooney offers the Teach the Controversy campaign that seeks to cast doubt on some aspects of evolutionary explanations, and other campaigns that seek to cast doubt on certain aspects of anthropogenic climate change.

William R. Freudenburg and colleagues have written about this rhetorical technique, and state that this is an attempt to shift the burden of proof in an argument. Cigarette lobbyists combating laws that would control smoking via trivializing evidence as uncertain, is offered as an example of a SCAM (Scientific Certainty Argumentation Method). They maintain that what is needed is a balanced approach that carefully considers the risks of both Type 1 and Type 2 errors in a situation while noting that scientific conclusions are always tentative. The authors conclude that politicians and lobby groups are too often able to make "successful efforts to argue for full 'scientific certainty' before a regulation can be said to be 'justified' – and that, in short, is a SCAM."

Hank Campbell and microbiologist Alex Berezow have described "feel-good fallacies" used in politics, where politicians frame their positions in a way that makes people feel good about supporting certain policies even when scientific evidence shows there is no need to worry or there is no need for dramatic change on current programs. They have claimed that progressives have had these kinds of issues with policies involving genetically modified foods, vaccination, overpopulation, use of animals in research, nuclear energy, and other topics.

(ed note: for more detail and examples, refer to the Wikipedia article)

From the Wikipedia entry for POLITICIZATION OF SCIENCE

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.


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)

Where Is Terra?

Once cute trope that pops up occasionally is that in the ultra distant future mankind has spread so far into space for so long that they have forgotten where Terra is.

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.

For a man 'home' is the place of his birth and childhood—whether that be Siberian steppe, coral island, Alpine valley, Brooklyn tenement, Martian desert, lunar crater, or mile-long interstellar ark. But for Man, home can never be a single country, a single world, a single Solar System, a single star cluster. While the race endures in recognizably human form, it can have no abiding place short of the Universe itself.

This divine discontent is part of our destiny. It is one more, and perhaps the greatest, of the gifts we have inherited from the sea that rolls so restlessly around the world.

It will be driving our descendants on toward a myriad unimaginable goals when the sea is stilled forever, and Earth itself a fading legend lost among the stars.

From ACROSS THE SEA OF STARS by Arthur C. Clarke (1959)

      "No problem!" Fyrdenna insisted. "How long has it been since you were home? Our support worlds have been prospering, and they are all behind us. Home Base is expanding. There is going to be a new construction airdock, and more carriers. There is even talk of a final push to defeat the Union."
     "The rest I can believe, but not that," (the AI embodied in the starship) Valthyrra said doubtfully. "We lost too much when we lost Terra, and that was a long time before you or I came out of the construction bay. We would have to get back what we lost before we can seriously consider making an end to this war."
     "So?" Fyrdenna asked. "You send your crack pilots into Vannkarn after the Vardon's memory cell, and we would have Terra back in a year to two."
     Valthyrra hesitated in her response, since the idea had definite appeal. Of all the big wolf ships, the Vardon had been the last to know the location of Terra. She had been destroyed when Valthyrra had still been very young; one of her memory cells, the big information storage units of her computer mind, had been found by the (enemy) Union centuries later. Their attempts to access that wealth of information had proven futile, and at last the unit had been placed on display in Vannkarn, the capital of the Rane Sector. The Starwolves had long believed that they would one day get it back and find the way to Terra, where the big carriers had first been built. Perhaps that time would be soon, Valthyrra thought, if a certain pack leader could be trained to the task.

(ed note: A group of Starwolves are cheekily visiting the enemy Union planet Vannkarn, and are in a museum looking at Vardon's memory cell. Dveyella is talking about events that happened fifty thousand years ago)

     "Failed who?" Tregloran alone dared to ask.
     "Failed themselves," she answered. "Do you know what this is?"
     "It looks like part of a large computer," he speculated cautiously.
     "This is a memory cell from a Starwolf carrier," she said. "The traits and personal memories of a ship are held in there. There are eight scattered throughout a ship, with enough duplication in the information they store and the computers they drive that even extensive damage does not affect the operation of a ship. That, for all practical purposes, holds the life of a ship. The Theralda Vardon, to be exact.
     "The Vardon came out of the early days of the war. That was back when the Union still had the technology and industry to be able to fight us... and occasionally win. The Vardon was besieged and destroyed about sixteen thousand years ago, the last of the fifty-seven carriers to be lost, in the years when the Kelvessan were in some danger of dying out.
     "Most likely she was ripped apart by a small thermonuclear explosion from a shield-penetrating missile, such as the Union has not been able to build in ten thousand years. According to the Union's own story, a piece of the wreckage was found much later, and the unit was discovered inside. They salvaged it, recognized it as something important and brought it here for safekeeping. Since they assume that we cannot get to it here, they soon grew bold enough to place it on public display."
     "Can we get it back?" Merkollyn asked.
     "Yes, if we want to try hard enough," she answered. "Since the unit is of no use to the Union, we have let matters stand until we are ready for it."
     "Ready for it?" Tregloran, always the quickest, caught a hidden meaning in that.
     Dveyella nodded slowly. "That is the second of our failings. You recall, do you not, that we left Terra during the early days? The Union could not get at Terra directly, but they did something that forced us to retreat from the planet for many thousands of year. Just what is not exactly known.
     "Now comes the strange part of the story. We lost much in that hasty retreat from Terra. Since we could no longer return there, within time even its very location was recorded only in the memories of the great ships. And the Vardon was the last ship built before the loss of Terra, the last ship that knew where to find it. Since the Union knows even less of Terra than we do, there is no one today who knows where Terra is.
     "But Terra was not destroyed. Whatever happened, it was understood from the start that we could return there someday. And our kind has long held a belief, almost a prophecy, although based, I fear, on wishful thinking. The Starwolves have long believed that when the time comes that we may at last win this war, when the Union is waning in strength and we are waxing, then Terra will be found. And the only place where we might discover how to find it is in the Vardon's memory cell."
     Tregloran stared in disbelief. "You mean this unit is still operational?"

From THE STARWOLVES by Thorarinn Gunnarsson (1988)

     “First we must find out where you are going. And when.”
     Professor Coypu staggered across the laboratory, and I followed, in almost as bad shape. He was mumbling over the accordion sheets of the computer printout that were chuntering and pouring out of the machine and piling up on the flow.
     “Must be accurate, very accurate,” he said. “We have been running a time probe backward. Following the traces of these disturbances. We have found the particular planet. Now we must zero in on the time. If you arrive too late, they may have already finished their job. Too early and you might die of old age before the fiends are even born.”
     “Sounds charming. What is the planet?”
     “Strange name. Or rather names. It is called Dirt or Earth or something like that. Supposed to be the legendary home of all mankind.
     “Another one? I never heard of it.
     “No reason you should. Blown up in an atomic war ages ago. Here it is. You have to be pushed backward thirty-two thousand five hundred and ninety-eight years. We can’t guarantee anything better than a plus or minus three months at that distance.”
     “I don’t think I’ll notice. What year will that be?”
     “Well before our present calendar began. It is, I believe, A.D. 1975 by the primitive records of the aborigines of the time.”


     One afternoon, he found the Leewit curled up and asleep in the chair he usually occupied on the porch before the house. She slept there for four solid hours, while the captain sat nearby and leafed gradually through a thick book with illuminated pictures called “Histories of Ancient Yarthe.”

(ed note: our heroes figure out that they have been sent back in time, on the planet Karres)

     Goth shook her head. “Not a bit of klatha around except ours and the vatch. There’s no witches here yet, believe me! And won’t be for another three hundred thousand years anyway—”
     “Three hundred thou … !” the captain half shouted. He checked himself. “How do you know that?”
     “Got a little moon here. You’ll see it tonight. Karres had one early, but then it smacked down around the north pole and messed things up pretty bad for a while. They figured that must have been a bit more than three hundred thousand years back … so we’re back before that! Besides, there’s the animals. A lot of them aren’t so much different from what they’re going to be. But they’re different. You see?”
     “Yeah, I guess I do!” the captain admitted. He cleared his throat. “It startled me for a moment.”
     “Pretty odd, isn’t it?” Goth agreed. “No Empire at all yet, no Uldune! Patham, no starships even! Everybody that’s there is still back on old Yarthe!

From THE WITCHES OF KARRES by James Schmitz ()

     “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.”

From FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov (1951)

     “To start with, have you ever heard of Earth?”
     “Which one? There are a couple of planets in this sector by that name, and another one in near the Hub somewhere. I can’t say I know much about any of them.”
     “The Earth I’m talking about is the original one. Over in the Sirius sector. The birthplace of the human race, millions of years ago.”
     “You mean such a place actually exists? I thought it was nothing more than a legend, a myth. for children.” Zim shook his head in puzzlement, then took another long drink from the glass in front of him.
     “No, I assure you it isn’t a myth. Earth, old Earth, actually exists, and it is really the original home of mankind. Let me fill you in a little on the background.
     “As near as we can determine from the records, something like seventeen hundred years ago man was confined to that one system, Sol. Space travel had developed slowly, until the invention of the inertialess drive, which opened up the stars. Over the next several hundred years, the men of Earth went out, colonizing uninhabited planets and contacting other species.

From VOYAGE TO A FORGOTTEN SUN by Donald Pfeil (1975)

Science and Society

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End of Natural Selection

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Warning Signs for Tomorrow

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