Technology: the progressives dream and the reactionary's nightmare. Advances in technology have been creating upheavals in society all the way back to the start of the Bronze age and further.

But things really shifted into high gear with the Industrial Revolution. Technology started industrializing the United States around 1790, changing it from an agricultural society into a manufacturing society.

Things seemed to settle down until some clown invented television and the inhabitants of sleepy little United States towns had their minds blown by the realization that people who lived in other places were (gasp) different! That was just awful! Well, actually it was just change, which was bad enough to these folk. They didn't even notice the real problem: technology was starting the transformation of the United States from a manufacturing society into a service society.

The reactionaries started freaking out with the exodus of good-paying jobs from rural areas into the cities. And they started foaming at the mouth when technology gave us the internet.

Understand that the angry reactionaries are not just hicks rubes living in the sticks. Many of them are very rich and sophisticated people who happen to be buggy-whip magnates and are upset that the basis of their wealth just evaporated.

The point is, if you the science fiction writer postulate lots of technological advances in your novels, you must at least pay lip service to the sad fact that it will make a sizable segment of your society very angry.

On the other tentacle, progressives will find things bewildering as well.

As of this writing (2017) a person in their 50s will find much about current life to be quite different from when they were young. Nowadays land-line telephones are increasingly rare while mobile cell phones are proliferating. Children do not understand technologies like printed encyclopedias and telephone directories. For us old geezers a "computer" is a box with a monitor and a keyboard, increasingly a computer is a smart phone. Jerry Pournelle predicted that in the far future people could use something like an internet to find answers to their questions, but failed to predict that people would be angry if the answer took longer than three seconds to appear (drat that Google is slow today). There are even jobs that did not exist a couple of decades ago (Search engine optimization expert?)


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science could get out of hand!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poison gas was the sin of the scientist.

And can we name the sinner?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From THE SIN OF THE SCIENTIST by Isaac Asimov (1969)

Like the Romantics before them, genre-sf writers have generally been on the side of Faust, convinced that the quest for knowledge was a sacred one, no matter how fondly a jealous God might prefer blind faith. Characters in bad Hollywood Monster Movies might be able to sign off with a resigned admission that "there are things Man was not meant to know", but nothing could be more alien to the ethos of genre sf.

Even in early pulp sf, technology was a means rather than an end, and, however much Campbell's writers were inclined to the celebration of the competence of the engineer, there remained a visionary element in their work which centralized the Conceptual Breakthrough as the peak experience of human existence. The hi-tech future of pulp sf was not the "Utopia of Comforts" so bitterly criticized by such sceptical writers as S Fowler Wright but rather a reaching-out for further horizons.

Space Flight became and remained the central myth of sf because it was the ultimate window of opportunity, through which the entire Universe could be viewed – and, ultimately, known. In genre sf, the ultimate aim of technological progress is, in the words of Mack Reynolds, "total understanding of the cosmos". This is clearly reflected in the increasing interest which post-World War Two sf has taken in the traditional questions of religion and in the evolution of science-fictional ideas of the Superman.

From The Encylopedia of Science Fiction entry TECHNOLOGY

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.


  • Astra: First Colony
  • Free Scientists
  • Renzi, Arturo
  • Terra: Space Flight
From THE STARS ARE OURS! by Andre Norton (1954)

Technological Disruption

A milder but more tech-hostile form of this comes from powerful people whose basis of power is threatened with technological disruption. If you are an ultra-rich oil baron for whom petroleum is the basis of all your wealth and power, you are going to fight the solar power industry like you were a cornered wolverine. Just try to find a CEOs of telephone-directories, newspaper, encyclopedia, and magazine publishers who has anything nice to say about the advent of the internet. All of those publishers are rapidly going bankrupt.

Not to mention the MPAA and the RIAA who have been doing their darndest to stuff the Genie back into the bottle by outlawing the internet.

Such powerful people want the status quo ante, thank you very much. Not for deep-seated psychological reasons, it is just about the money. They will use every tool at their disposal. Everything from buying all the rights to the tech and supressing it, to forcing their bribed politicians to pass laws outlawing the disruptive technology, to sending a stealth team of elite assasins to kill the researchers developing the technology and burn all the research notes. Remember all those urban legends about the guy who invented an automobile that would run on water, and how they mysteriously vanished never to be seen again.

On the other hand there are powerful people wannnabes who hope to seize power by exploiting a new disruptive technology. They are more or less at war with the status quo group. Examples include Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk. Let alone any corporation who have made their profits skyrocket by utilizing this new thing called "the internet."

Science fiction writers sometimes use this as a plot idea. Indeed, the oil industry's fight against solar power was predicted in Robert Heinlein's short story "Let There Be Light" (1940). On a cynical note, Heinlein made a time-line to place all his stories and characters on. In the story the two protagonists Douglas and Martin prevail over the Power Syndicate. On the time-line I noticed that Douglas and Martin died on the same day. I suspect that they were assasinated in revenge by the Power Syndicate.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had given wings to the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From THE FIFTH ELEPHANT by Terry Pratchett (1999)

#1. Eli Whitney Accidentally Causes The Civil War

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

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

Yeah, about that ...

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

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

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

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

Technological Unemployment

Technological Unemployment is when a machine steals your job.

The classic example is back in the 1800s when all the artisan weavers angrily became Luddites because power looms stole their jobs and gave jobs to low-skilled cheap laborers.

(But the term "sabotage" did not come from Luddites tossing their wooden clog sabots into the the machinery. That is not supported by the etymology. I don't care what Lt. Valeris said in Star Trek VI. It is a common story, though.)

Anyway the economists will assure you that history proves there is nothing to worry about. Yes there will be some short-term pain as all the buggy-whip making jobs vanish, but in the long-term the march of technology will create more new jobs than were originally lost. Believing otherwise means you are an economic ignoramus making the mistake of falling for the Luddite Fallacy.

But around 2013 more and more economists became alarmed that this time it was different.

Up until now, machines were taking away jobs by replacing human strength. Now they were taking away jobs by replacing human intellect. Yuval Harari said “Humans only have two basic abilities — physical and cognitive. When machines replaced us in physical abilities, we moved on to jobs that require cognitive abilities. ... If AI becomes better than us in that, there is no third field humans can move to.”

It started slow. Personal computers with word-processing software drastically reduced the number of secretarial jobs. Income tax preparation software drastically reduced the number of tax preparation companies. Currently many fast food franchises are replacing food preparation workers with robots.

But that's OK said the economists. The displaced workers just need some more education so they can find jobs which have not been computerized yet. And they will be higher paying jobs, just you wait and see!

The economists got a rude shock when computers started taking away high-education jobs. That wasn't supposed to happen. It was also a chilling wake-up call to those with high-education jobs who had been smugly saying their jobs were safe.

For example, a new company called Enlitic applied Google's deep learning software TensorFlow to the task of diagnosing lung cancer by examining lung CT scans. They easily trained the software to do the work. Then they did a test where a panel of four of the world’s top human radiologists competed with the software. The results were dramatic. The human radiologists had a false positive rate (incorrectly diagnosing cancer) of 66%. The software had a false positive rate of only 47%. What is worse, the human radiologists had a false negative rate (missing a cancer diagnosis) of 7% while the software had a false negative rate of Zero.

Which means that once Enlitic trains their software on the other diseases, human radiologists will suddenly find themselves out of a job. The software will be cheaper than a radiologist's salary ($286,000/year), and can work 24-7. OK Mr. Economist, what sort of education would you suggest so these suddenly unemployed radiologists can find a better-paying job? Preferably a job that will NOT become lost to computer software before they even complete their education.

Such software is also making inroads into stealing such jobs as writing sports stories, journalism, computer programming, sewing garments, marketing, doing the job of junior lawyers by sorting through previous court cases and legal resources to find precedents, money management, and writing legal briefs. Not to mention financial analysts. And it is just a matter of time before general medical diagnosis falls as well.

As one commentor noted: It's not that complicated. Automation will go from freeing us up to do what we're good at, to being better than us at what we're good at. That's why it's different.

The mood among economists is becoming grim. While many are still maintaining that new jobs will eventually replaced the vanished ones, their pronouncements are starting to sound a bit hollow. The economists who believe the jobs will not be coming back used to be a tiny minority, but a 2014 Pew Research revealed such economists are now more like 48%. Technology is now destroying more jobs than it creates. The Luddite Fallacy is on very shaky ground.

Oxford academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne published a study with the findings that almost half of U.S. jobs are at high risk of computerization over the next 20 years. Positions that are particularly vulnerable to automation include telemarketers, tax preparers, watch repairers, insurance underwriters, cargo and freight agents, and mathematical technicians. Driving jobs on mining sites are already being automated and long-distance truck drivers, forklift operators and agricultural drivers could be replaced within five to 10 years.

A more recent McKinsey report suggested today's technology could feasibly replace 45% of jobs right now.

And for jobs requiring lower education lost to automation, even if they are eventually replace in the long-term, the short-term can wreck the entire US economy if the number of jobs is huge enough. It can be a disaster if the transition is too fast. The advent of autonomous cars and driverless trucks could put five million people in the US out of a job. The point being that the US economy does not have the ability to create five million new jobs fast enough to employ these people.

There are those who say: but what about creative jobs? A robot might be stronger and a computer might be smarter, but can they make art? The first point is if you actually think you can solve the unemployment problem by teaching the unemployed to be artists, well good luck with that. The second point is yes, computers are starting to make art.

Taken to its logical extreme, eventually there won't be any more jobs. None, everything will be done by robots and computers. Which is a problem since in modern society one needs money in order to avoid starving to death. And there are not a lot of ways to get money without a job. Not legal ways at any rate. The only people with money will be the ones that own the robots, or have income from either stocks or being independently wealthy.

Yes, corporations that manufacture goods for sale are shooting themselves in the foot by firing all their employees and replacing them with robots. This reduces the number of potential customers (ones who have money to purchase your product at any rate). However this is a "tragedy of the commons" situation. Basically each company figures the declining number of customers is Somebody Else's Problem, not their problem. Even worse, if a company decides to virtuously hang on to their workers to maintain the number of consumers, the company will find itself at a competitive disadvantage with respect to all their evil competitors who use robots. The virtuous companies will go bankrupt from the unfair competition from the evil companies.

But the big point is any society is only three missed meals away from violent anarchy. If widespread technological unemployment increases, the problem will be solved either elegantly by government and society, or it will solve itself inelegantly by natural forces. Probably food riots and angry hungry people setting up lots of guillotines to take care of the robot owners. The French Revolution was over 200 years ago, but the situation is much the same and if we are unlucky so will be the solution. Everything old is new again.

And obviously the food riots are not going to hold off until 100% unemployment happens. They will start much sooner than that.

So what are the elegant solutions?

Banning/refusing innovation
Somehow slow down the rate of technological innovation. Yeah, like that's ever going to work. There is too much money to be made by corporations through innovation. And you'll need global enforcement, or innovation-banned nations cannot compete with illegal innovation-allowed nations (see Butlerian Jihad). Practically all economists won't even consider this as a solution.
Welfare payments
Subsidies and hand outs to those affected. This is a band-aid trying to treat a sucking chest wound. Welfare is intended to be a temporary solution to until the situation fixes itself. Unfortunately this situation is permanent and "those affected" will include about 90% of the population.
Basic Income
Give everybody a salary large enough for food and housing, for free. Of course the first question that arises is "where is all that money going to come from" and the answer is usually "by taxing the rich" (though there are some schemes that somehow privatize the money source). Some say it is a bad idea because it will be a disincentive to work, which overlooks the fact that the problem is there isn't any work to be had. There are many who say such a scheme will be inevitable because the only alternative is guillotines.
This is a re-hash of the "educate displaced workers with skills to get new jobs." Try telling that to the radiologists (who will probably become so enraged that they will double the number of bones in your body). Besides, there won't be any jobs to be educated into.
Public Works
In other words, create enough fake jobs composed of worthless busy-work to give everybody a job (see Featherbedding). This creates the illusion of full employment. Again the question arises: where will the money come from?
Shorter Working Hours
This boils down to "as the amount of available work shrinks, it will have to be rationed so everybody can have a job." Obviously this is a stop-gap measure, not a solution. If the amount of available work is now zero, so will be the size of your work-ration.
Broadening the ownership of technological assets
If the only way to make money is by either owning robots or owning stock, then the government will have to give everybody free robots and stock so they can live. Again, who is going to pay for this?

And there are those who say that the rich should foot the bill for a solution, telling them that this is the fee for "guillotine insurance."

But a commentator named Kalin said: The elites will share their wealth only insofar as it's cheaper to do that (bread and circuses) than it is to keep the proles at bay through force. What Marx saw as an inexorable trend towards socialism may have in fact just been a temporary consequence of the industrial revolution, wherein labor was especially important and the power of an individual worker was large in historical terms. It's not impossible to imagine a sort of "Neo Feudalism" where a small minority of elites find it cheaper to maintain control via technological force-multipliers than to share their earnings such that everyone is actually happy or nearly so.

In other words, the rich will do the math and may well discover that a private army is cheaper than funding a Basic Income.

EWreckedSean observed: "This is how we get a Kwisatz Haderach..."


Mass automation is undermining our democracy in a very specific way: it's acting as the ultimate "resource curse."

"Countries with an abundance of natural resources, specifically non-renewable resources like minerals and fuels, tend to have less economic growth, less democracy, and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources."

Scholars debate the causes of the resource curse, but one popular theory has to do with the way autocrats fund themselves relative to democracies.

Autocrats, it turns out, need a lot of wealth to pay their cronies. No dictator rules alone; they need someone to run the military, someone to collect the taxes, and someone to enforce the laws. Those people have to be paid, and handsomely, or they'll overthrow the dictator (or just allow the dictator to be overthrown). This is called "selectorate theory" and this video is a great introduction.

Oil wealth, specifically, undermines democracy because when autocrats have access to oil wealth, they don't need to depend on their citizens very much. (Indeed, many oil-rich autocratic countries just allow other countries to come in and drill it, keeping local labor entirely out of the loop.)

Resource-cursed autocracies tend to democratize when the oil wealth runs out and they need to rely on the people's productivity to deliver wealth to cronies. When autocrats are forced to allow people to educate themselves and communicate with one another, democracy ensues.

It can work the other way, too. In every democracy, there's a group of folks asking themselves a question: is now the time to try a coup, to replace democracy with an autocracy? As the value of capital increases and the value of human labor decreases, the advantages of staging a coup become more and more enticing.

For years we've thought of human labor as the "ultimate resource." But it turns out that human labor isn't the ultimate resource. Robot labor that's just as good if not better than human labor is a resource beyond any we've ever seen.

But that means that we're discovering/inventing the ultimate resource curse.

We might use automation to fund universal basic income, or a class of elites could use it to undermine "unnecessary" citizens (the "unnecessariat"), establishing a corporate fascism.

When the government depends on human productivity for our tax base, the government needs to keep us all well-educated and healthy. But soon, government won't depend on human labor.

"Is now the time?" they're asking. And, increasingly, the answer is "yes."


People could indulge in such whims, because they had both the time and the money. The abolition of armed forces had at once almost doubled the world’s effective wealth, and increased production had done the rest. As a result, it was difficult to compare the standard of living of twenty-first-century man with that of any of his predecessors.

Everything was so cheap that the necessities of life were free, provided as a public service by the community as roads, water, street lighting and drainage had once been. A man could travel anywhere he pleased, eat whatever food he fancied—without handing over any money. He had earned the right to do this by being a productive member of the community.

There were, of course, some drones, but the number of people sufficiently strong-willed to indulge in a life of complete idleness is much smaller than is generally supposed. Supporting such parasites was considerably less of a burden than providing the armies of ticket-collectors, shop assistants, bank clerks, stockbrokers and so forth whose main function, when one took the global point of view, was to transfer items from one ledger to another.

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

"Good God, just how big is this underground city?"

"It goes down seventeen levels and now extends nearly to our South Eastern coastline."

Gaynor shook his head slowly, fumbled in his pocket and produced an empty (cigarette) packet. "Ah, well."

"Try one of ours." Michael tossed him one. "They're not superb but they don't turn your ears green like your brands. In the first place they're not synthetic and in the second we have manufacturing standards. No, there's no tip, just suck in a couple of times. If you are fortunate enough to join our community you'll get forty a week basic."


"Unlike the Administration we maintain the aged and physically unemployable. For these there is the basic: free accommodation, food, beamed entertainment and a few minor luxuries."

"Your economic system seems well worked out."

"Excellent." Relling rubbed his hands as if he had accomplished something important. "Now let's go out and spend some money."

"What money?" Perplexity made Gaynor sound aggressive.

"Mine for demonstrable purposes. You have only basic, a hundred units a week, which is not enough to go rash on. Of course, as soon as you decide on this job, you will get a salary plus basic."

From THE PRODIGAL SUN by Philip E. High (1964)

No one worried about a Prole. They were the outcasts of the new feudalism, the nightmare of the politician, the barrier to economic recovery, the burden of the privileged classes. It had not come to pogroms or mass extermination yet, but it had been talked about and was getting very close indeed.

The Proles! Six billion labor-class entities who, with an average I.Q. of only ninety, could not be fitted into the structure of society, who had to be carried by a sagging, groaning economic structure already on the verge of collapse. What the hell could you do with them? Anything they could do the machines could do six times as fast and twenty times more efficiently. No wonder, despite government subsidies, the Combines often lost patience and tossed some of the burden into the street. (where they are murdered by roving gangs of psychpaths)

(ed note: Then the supercomputer "Mother" is brought into the situation, where it makes a startling announcement)

"Permit me to state here that there are no Proles. Not only is such demarcation between the peoples of the same race undemocratic; it is completely false.

"Let me explain to you briefly how this division of classes came into being. As the machine displaced more and more workers, the I.Q. tests were correspondingly narrowed. As a result, those whose individual capacities extended beyond these tests were automatically ruled out and branded morons. The hypnads confined the field of intelligence even more, and soon your society was carrying a burden of unemployed which threatened to destroy its economy. Let me stress, however, that these alleged Proles were not intellectually inferior; potentially they were as intellectual as their fellows, but the structure of your society prevented the exercise of their talents.

"Permit me to quote examples. In the last few hours I have been scrutinizing individual files, and from the ranks of these alleged Proles I can bring you enough talent to rebuild the world."

From THE MAD METROPOLIS by Philip E. High (1966)

HIGH IN THE DEEP BLUE OF THE afternoon sky rode a tiny speck of glistening metal, scarcely visible in the glare of the sun. The workers on the machines below glanced up for a moment, then back to their work, though little enough it was on these automatic cultivators. Even this minor diversion was of interest in the dull monotony of green. These endless fields of castor bean plants had to be cultivated, but with the great machines that did the work it required but a few dozen men to cultivate an entire county.

From PIRACY PREFERRED by John W. Campbell, Jr. (1930)

Hatred for the damned frozen planet and the damned Ring that had sucked the life out of him and wrecked his career.

And hatred for the Knowledge Crash. If you could hate something that might not even have happened. That was perhaps the surpassing irony: no one was ever quite sure if the Knowledge Crash had even taken place. Some argued that the very state of being uncertain whether or not the Crash had occurred proved that it had.

Briefly put, the K-Crash theory was that Earth had reached the point where additional education, improved (but more expensive) technology, more and better information, and faster communications had negative value.

If, the theory went on, there had not been a Knowledge Crash, the state of the world information economy would be orderly enough to confirm the fact that it hadn’t happened. That chaos and uncertainty held such sway therefore demonstrated that the appropriate information wasn’t being handled properly. QED, the Crash was real.

An economic collapse had come, that much was certain. Now that the economy was a mess, learned economists were pointing quite precisely at this point in the graph, or that part of the table, or that stage in the actuarial tables to explain why. Everyone could predict it, now that it had happened, and there were as many theories as predictions. The Knowledge Crash was merely the most popular idea.

But correct or not, the K-Crash theory was as good an explanation as any for what had happened to the Earth’s economy. Certainly there had to be some reason for the global downturn. Just as certainly, there had been a great deal of knowledge, coming in from many sources, headed toward a lot of people, for a long time.

The cultural radicals—the Naked Purples, the Final Clan, all of them—were supposed to be a direct offshoot of the same info-neurosis that had ultimately caused the Crash. There were Whole communities who rejected the overinformed lifestyle of Earth and reached for something else—anything else—so long as it was different. Raphael did not approve of the rads. But he could easily believe they were pushed over the edge by societal neuroses.

The mental institutions of Earth were full of info-neurotics, people who had simply become overwhelmed by all they needed to know. Information psychosis was an officially recognized—and highly prevalent—mental disorder. Living in the modern world simply took more knowledge than some people were capable of absorbing. The age-old coping mechanisms of denial, withdrawal, phobic reaction and regression expressed themselves in response to brand-new mental crises.

Granted, therefore, that too much data could give a person a nervous breakdown. Could the same thing have happened to the whole planet?

The time needed for the training required to do the average technical job was sucking up the time that should have gone to doing the job. There were cases, far too many of them, of workers going straight from training program to retirement, with never a day of productive labor in between. Such cases were extreme, but for many professions, the initial training period was substantially longer than the period of productive labor—and the need for periodic retraining only made the situation worse.

Not merely the time, but the expense required for all that training was incredible. No matter how it was subsidized or reapportioned or provided via scholarship or grant program, the education was expensive, a substantial drain on the Gross Planetary Product.

Bloated with information, choked with the needs of a world-girdling bureaucracy required to track information and put it to use, strangled by the data security nets that kept knowledge out of the wrong hands, lost in the endless maze of storing and accessing all the data required merely to keep things on an even keel, Earth’s economy had simply ground to a halt. The world was so busy learning how to work that it never got the chance to do the work. The planet was losing so much time gathering vital data that it didn’t have a chance to put the data to use. Earth’s economy was writhing in agony. Both the planet generally, and the U.N. Astrophysical Foundation specifically, could scarcely afford necessities. They certainly could not afford luxuries—especially ones that could only add to the knowledge burden. Such as the Ring of Charon.

From THE RING OF CHARON by Roger MacBride Allen (1990)

(ed note: in the far future the short-sided scientist Bari Horn creates the first artificial intelligence which is regrettably utterly evil. Bari puts the intelligent computer brain into a large robot body, a "technomaton". He names it Malgarth. Shortly afterwards the robot figures it is illogical to be a slave to this puny human and mortally wounds Bari. The robot and the AI technology had been sold to The Robot Corporation.)

      Malgarth was left master of the laboratory. Deliberately, the robot set about the making of a second black brain and a second metal body— both, I perceived, inferior to its own. Malgarth, clearly, would avoid his creator's error!
     Presently, when shareholders in the Robot Corporation appeared to claim their property, Malgarth met them. Bari Horn's laboratory records, it seemed, had unfortunately been destroyed. His discoveries now reposed only in the synthetic brain of Malgarth. And Malgarth would declose them only in return for a controlling interest in the Corporation!
     The baffled investors finally yielded— and it seemed ironically fitting that the director of the Robot Corporation should be himself a robot. A new factory began turning out robot technomatons.
     Some of these, intended for domestic or public service, were almost human in appearance. Others, designed for industrial work, were queer-looking monstrosities of metal and rubber and plastics, each specialized for its own task.
     The technomatons were swifter and stronger than men; they required no food or rest or recreation, but only a yearly charge of atomic power in their stellidyne cells. The rental of a robot from Malgarth's Corporation was less than the hire of a human worker. Consequently the Corporation prospered exceedingly.
     Soon long red space-cruisers, bearing the black cogwheel that was the trademark of the Corporation, were carrying technomatons through all the Galactic Empire. The agencies of Malgarth, with grim-lensed robots presiding over desks and counters, were set up on every inhabited planet; branch factories in every civilized system.
     Any man, presently, from one spiral arm of the Galaxy to the opposite, could hire a quick, efficient technomaton to perform any conceivable task— for less than the cost of human labor. And a golden tide of currency and exchange flowed into the agencies of Malgarth, until the Corporation was richer than the Empire.
     Civilization, for a time, rejoiced in the strength and efficiency of these super-machines. Bari Horn, the inventor, was widely honored as the supreme benefactor of mankind.

     "Malgarth still rules the Corporation," he said. "And the Corporation has grown mightier than the Empire. Your prophesied return is in good time, Barihorn, for the struggle is at hand! It will be the robots, or mankind— both cannot survive. Men have been enslaved," rang the voice of Kel Aran. "Now they fight for freedom. We have cruised the Galaxy from Koridos to Tenephron, and everywhere there is rebellion— brave and yet hopeless rebellion against the iron might of the Space Police and the fleets of the Galactic Guard! For Malgarth moves the Emperor like a puppet, to the murder of his own wretched kind.
     In the confused intervals of half-awakening, I learned a little of the three companions of Kel Aran, and how they had come to join the Earthman's outlaw crusade against the Corporation. Each of them had suffered some grave injury from the robots.
     For the ultimate object of Malgarth, they believed, was the total extirpation of mankind. On every planet the agencies of the far-flung Corporation had been growing more wealthy, at the expense of human owners. The robot legions of Malgarth's Space Police were gathering power. Everywhere it was becoming more and more difficult for a mere human being to own anything, to find a job, to feed himself and his dependents, or even to get into the relief lines to receive synthetic gruel.
     "Why waste with human labor?" ran an old slogan of the Corporation. "Let a robot do your work— efficiently."
     And now the very existence of mankind, said Jeron Roc, seemed a waste to Malgarth. The Corporation's loftily-named "technomitanization" campaign was in reality a cunning and ruthless effort to supplant mankind.
     Jeron Roc, navigator of the Barihorn, was a native of Saturn. He was massively tall, dark-skinned, with the piercing eyes of intellectual power. He came of a proud and ancient family; his father had been the foremost astronomer of the solar system— until a new edict of the Emperor reserved scientific research for the robots alone.
     "The will of Malgarth is now the law of the Empire," he explained. "For the Corporation owns nine tenths of the property in the Empire. Without the taxes paid by the robots, the Emperor and his bureaucrats would starve. Therefore the fleets of the Galactic Guard support the outrageous claims of the Corporation."
     The cook, Zerek Oom, was inordinately fat, totally bald, and extremely white— being a native of one of the cloud-veiled worlds of Canopus. He was decorated with the most brilliant and remarkable tattooing I had ever seen. He had inherited vast estates, but the "technomitanization" laws had forced him to discharge his human laborers to starve, and rent robots in their stead; then, when a hungry world had no money to buy his crops, he went bankrupt, and the Corporation took his lands in lieu of robot-hire.

From AFTER WORLD'S END by Jack Williamson (1939)

Future Shock

One of the many ways of classifying personally types in twain is into "Neophiles" and "Neophobes." The former love and enjoy changes and new things, the latter instead hate and feel threatened by the same. Neophobes are hostile to series of changes, with responses ranging from "Stop The World, I Want To Get Off" to full blown Reactionary feelings.

And when the changes start coming faster and faster (i.e, the rate of change increases), Neophobes become more and more frantic. Which makes the current world situation a pretty dire place for Neophobes, since accelerated change is exactly what is happening. None of the Neophobe attempts to turn the clock back have any effect (generally because large corporations are making too much money exploiting the changes). At some point a given Neophobe is going to snap.

This threatens advancement along a tech tree since technological advancement is by definition a series of changes. Such technological changes always have a social impact. Just ask anybody who used to have a job on an automobile assembly line. Or people forced to be caregivers for their elderly parents who were granted longer lifespans by advancements in medical technology (welcome to the Sandwich Generation).

The concept (and the very term itself) of Future Shock was popularized by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book. As of this writing (2016) Toffler's book has been shown to be quite accurate by current events. There is a worryingly large segement of the population that is so oppressed by Future Shock that they apparently have undergone a psychological break, and now refuse to accept facts from science and indeed from reality in general.

Characteristically science fiction authors have some future shock aversion themselves, because it makes writing science fiction so much more difficult. There are many literary methods.


Future Shock is a book written by the futurist Alvin Toffler in 1970. In the book, Toffler defines the term "future shock" as a certain psychological state of individuals and entire societies. His shortest definition for the term is a personal perception of "too much change in too short a period of time". The book, which became an international bestseller, grew out of an article "The Future as a Way of Life" in Horizon magazine, Summer 1965 issue. The book has sold over 6 million copies and has been widely translated.


Toffler argued that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a "super-industrial society". This change overwhelms people. He believed the accelerated rate of technological and social change left people disconnected and suffering from "shattering stress and disorientation"—future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock, he popularized the term "information overload."

Development of society and production

Alvin Toffler distinguished three stages in development of society and production: agrarian, industrial and post-industrial.

The first stage began in the period of the Neolithic Era when people invented agriculture, thereby passing from barbarity to a civilization. The second stage began in England with the Industrial Revolution during which people invented the machine tool and the steam engine. The third stage began in the second half of the 20th century in the West when people invented automatic production, robotics and the computer. The services sector attained great value.

Toffler proposed one criterion for distinguishing between industrial society and post-industrial society: the share of the population occupied in agriculture versus the share of city labor occupied in the services sector. In a post-industrial society, the share of the people occupied in agriculture does not exceed 15%, and the share of city laborers occupied in the services sector exceeds 50%. Thus, the share of the people occupied with brainwork greatly exceeds the share of the people occupied with physical work in post-industrial society.

Fear of the future

Alvin Toffler's main thought consists of the fact that modern man feels shock from rapid changes. For example, Toffler's daughter went to shop in New York City and she couldn't find a shop in its previous location. Thus New York has become a city without a history. The urban population doubles every 11 years. The overall production of goods and services doubles each 50 years in developed countries. Society experiences an increasing number of changes with an increasing rapidity, while people are losing the familiarity that old institutions (religion, family, national identity, profession) once provided. The so-called "brain drain" – the emigration of European scientists to the United States – is both an indicator of the changes in society and also one of their causes.

From the Wikipedia entry for FUTURE SHOCK

Rather, I'd just like to note that the past decade or so seems to have been marked by a worldwide upwelling of bigotry and intolerance

This stuff is pervasive; you can come up with alarming news of authoritarian excesses in every corner of the globe.

What's going on?

Reading Robert Altermeyer's The Authoritarians gives one or two pointers, but the narrow focus — on authoritarian followers in politics — begs the question of where all this authoritarianism is coming from.

The term Future Shock was coined by Alvin and Heidi Toffler in the 1960s to describe a syndrome brought about by the experience of "too much change in too short a period of time". Per Wikipedia (my copy of Future Shock is buried in a heap of books in the room next door) "Toffler argues that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a 'super-industrial society'. This change will overwhelm people, the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving them disconnected and suffering from 'shattering stress and disorientation' — future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems were symptoms of the future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock, he also popularized the term information overload."

It's about forty years since "Future Shock" was published, and it seems to have withstood the test of time. More to the point, the Tofflers' predictions for how the symptoms would be manifest appear to be roughly on target. They predicted a growth of cults and religious fundamentalism; rejection of modernism: irrational authoritarianism: and widespread insecurity. They didn't nail the other great source of insecurity today, the hollowing-out of state infrastructure and externally imposed asset-stripping in the name of economic orthodoxy that Naomi Klein highlighted in The Shock Doctrine, but to the extent that Friedmanite disaster capitalism can be seen as a predatory corporate response to massive political and economic change, I'm inclined to put disaster capitalism down as being another facet of the same problem. (And it looks as if the UK and USA are finally on the receiving end of disaster capitalism at home, in the post-2008 banking crisis era.)

My working hypothesis to explain the 21st century is that the Tofflers underestimated how pervasive future shock would be. I think somewhere in the range from 15-30% of our fellow hairless primates are currently in the grip of future shock, to some degree. Symptoms include despair, anxiety, depression, disorientation, paranoia, and a desperate search for certainty in lives that are experiencing unpleasant and uninvited change. It's no surprise that anyone who can offer dogmatic absolute answers is popular, or that the paranoid style is again ascendant in American politics, or that religious certainty is more attractive to many than the nuanced complexities of scientific debate. Climate change is an exceptionally potent trigger for future shock insofar as it promises an unpleasant and unpredictable dose of upcoming instability in the years ahead; denial is an emotionally satisfying response to the threat, if not a sustainable one in the longer term.

Deep craziness: we're in it, and there's probably not going to be any reduction in the prevalence of authoritarian escapism until we collectively become accustomed to the pace of change. Which will, at a minimum, not happen until the older generations have died of old age — and maybe not even then.

From A WORKING HYPOTHESIS by Charles Stross (2010)

The elderly are all involuntary refugees in an alien culture that is the future version of their own childhood home.

Also, their knees hurt! (This is why so many of them are grumpy.)

Charles Stross (2017)

(ed note: During the fall of the Galactic Empire the Vegan Scout Starfire was sent on a bogus mission into unexplored space, basically to die in the wilderness. The ship gradually falls apart due to lack of spares and proper engineers. Finally it crashes on an unknown planet, the ship a total wreck. But Captain Vibor snaps and calmly orders the crew to fix the unfixable ship.)

     “Let’s have it,” he said and sat down on a bedroll. He was aware that the tension which had held them all for a second or two was relaxing. And he knew that the rangers would follow his lead—they would wait for his decision.
     “(Captain) Vibor is no longer with us—he’s—he’s cracked.” Smitt fumbled for words. And Kartr read in him a rising fear and desolation.
     “Is it because of his loss of sight? If that is so, the condition may be only temporary. When he becomes resigned to that—”
     “No. He has been heading for a breakdown for a long time. The responsibility of command under present conditions—that fight with the Greenies—he was good friends with Tork, remember? The ship falling to pieces bit by bit and no chance for repairs— It’s added up to drive him under. Now he’s just refusing to accept a present he doesn’t dare believe in. He’s retired into a world of his own where things go right instead of wrong. And he wants us in there with him.
     …But Kartr could at this moment understand the odd incidents of the past months, certain inconsistencies in Vibor’s orders—one or two remarks he had overheard.
     “You think that there is no chance of his recovering?”
     “No. The crash pushed him over the edge. The orders he’s given during the past hour or so—I tell you—he’s finished!”

(ed note: This is the fate of those suffering from acute Future Shock)

From STAR RANGERS by Andre Norton, 1953.
Collected in STAR SOLDIERS (2001), currently a free eBook in the Baen free library.

The first person to introduce the concept of Future Shock was Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book, Future Shock. The main argument is that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society”. This change will overwhelm people, the accelerated rate of technological and social change will leave them disconnected, suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation” – future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems were symptoms of future shock.

A few years earlier, Gordon Moore in his now famous paper introduced the idea that would eventually be called Moore’s Law, that states that the speed and density of microprocessor design will follow an exponential curve. This was at a time when computers had barely had any impact on society, nearly 20 years before PC’s made hardly a dent on the economic landscape. 30 years later we saw the explosion of the Internet into the world. Now 40 years later, microprocessors speed is doubling almost every year, and its effects are extraordinary. Not a day goes buy now when some scientific or technological advance isn’t hitting the front pages. As Ray Kurzweil suggest with his Law of Accelerating Returns, microprocessor are such an integrated part of our lives of economic progress, that now society too is caught up in this accelerating change, suggesting that we could see as much change in the next 25 years, as we saw in the last 10,000 years combined!

As one of the leading thinkers on the singularity, Eliezer Yudkowsky is someone accustomed to thinking about extremes of future technological change and advancement. After having many wide ranging discussions with futurists of all stripes, he noticed that certain technological implications can be too “far out” or shocking to some groups more than others. So he came up with what he calls Future Shock Levels or the level that different people find themselves in terms of their concept of the future, and what they are willing to consider, or which is too futuristic or even shocking for them.

Shock Level 0

Degree of Change: Flat.

Technologies: Same as today, maybe more TV channels, bigger cars or TV’s.

The legendary average person is comfortable with modern technology – not so much the frontiers of modern technology, but the technology used in everyday life. Most people, TV anchors, journalists, politicians.

For people at this level, the future is seen as pretty much the same as it is today. If you could chart their concept of the future on a graph, you would see change reaching a plateau today and leveling off from here on out. Almost every economic and political paper about the future I’ve read falls into this category. When they discuss wide ranging implications of their policy decisions, there is hardly any mention of technological change at all, and only in the most mundane ways with concepts of Level 1 being described as something to be afraid of, with dangerous out-of-control implications. The current climate of fear over cloning and stem-cell therapy falls into this level.

Shock Level 1

Degree of Change: Logarithmic, then hitting a relative plateau in a decade or two.

Technologies: Virtual reality, living to a hundred, e-commerce, hydrogen economy, ubiquitous computing, stem-cell cloning, minor genetic improvements.

At this level you will find the majority of futurists and future oriented publications. Modern technological frontiers as depicted in WIRED magazine and books like Future Shock and Bill Gates, The Road Ahead. Included in this group are most scientists, novelty-seekers, early-adopters, programmers and technophiles.

Placed on a chart, future progress will continue upwards in a logarithmic fashion, with each year bringing the same amount of change as last year. Eventually this incremental change will lead to people living to a hundred, and optimistically in a society with clean energy, general economic prosperity, and conservative space exploration scenarios.

In my experience most of the people described above think about the future in relatively conservative terms. If you ever read a future oriented article by one of them they often say things like, “This probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but perhaps my children or grandchildren will live to see it”, If you ever read a quote like that you know you’re reading someone at SL1. Almost every report that comes out of NASA is hopelessly stuck at SL1.

Shock Level 2

Degree of Change: Logarithmic to Exponential

Technologies: major genetic engineering, medical immortality, interstellar travel, and new “alien” cultures.

At this level you’ll find your typical SF Fan. Literary SF and cutting edge magazines like Mondo 2000, Omni or Future magazine of days past were filled with Level 2 ideas. Ironically, I don’t know of a single popular SF movie or TV show that exists comfortably at this level. Not even Star Trek qualifies for SL2, as it barely considers life spans past 100, with immortality remaining the exclusive domain of “super-advanced aliens”.

Up and until the 1980’s there wasn’t much discussion of future change past level 2, except in the most limited sense. This is probably because the concept of radical accelerating change was still beyond the radar of almost every forward thinking person at the time. Enabling Level 3 technologies like molecular nanotechnology were not even considered then. The only exceptions I know of are Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary, who were completely at home with post-human evolution (SL3).

Shock Level 3

Degree of Change: Exponential

Technologies: Immortality, nanotechnology, human-equivalent AI, intelligence increase, mind uploading, total body revision, intergalactic exploration, megascale engineering.

Clearly identifiable people didn’t exist at this level until the 1980’s when groups like the Extropians and transhumanists emerged. Writers like Robert Anton Wilson, and Timothy Leary with his SMI2LE concept were the first people to my knowledge who discussed this level in any depth. However, it wasn’t until Eric Drexler published his book Engines of Creation that finally set the stage for concrete, detailed technological speculation of SL3 possibilities.

Shock Level 4

Degree of Change: Exponential to Hyperbolic (Accelerating Acceleration)

Technologies: Singularity, Matrioska “Jupiter” Brains, Powers, complete mental revision, ultraintelligence, posthumanity, Alpha-Point computing, Apotheosis, the total evaporation of “life as we know it.”

The only people I know who are comfortable discussing change at this level are Singularitarians, and some cutting edge psychedelic pioneers like Terence McKenna and John Lilly. Olaf Stapledon in his book Star Maker waxed poetic about SL3 megascale engineering and SL4 ultra-intelligences, and John Lilly discussed multiple encounters with a SL4 intelligences, which he gave names like “ECCO” and “Solid State Entities”. The first writer to bring this into concrete technological terms was Vernor Vinge in his 1993 paper . These ideas were soon picked up by Extropians and Transhumanists, but as far as I know it wasn’t until the Singularitarians that this level was embraced concretely and enthusiastically.

As Eliezer Yudkowsky says, If there’s a Shock Level Five, I’m not sure I want to know about it!

Eliezer goes on to say,

“If somebody is still worried about virtual reality (low end of SL1), you can safely try explaining medical immortality (low-end SL2), but not nanotechnology (SL3) or uploading (high SL3). They might believe you, but they will be frightened – shocked.

That’s not to say you can’t do it. In fact, you can take advantage of the future shock to carry the idea. You just have to be careful.

By a similar token, a Singularitarian can shock a science-fiction fan, but not an Extropian – the Extropian will be interested, perhaps enthusiastic, but not shocked. (Of course, if the person was already enthusiastic about Transhumanism, they might be wildly enthusiastic about the Singularity.) An Extropian can shock your average Wired reader, but should be careful about trying this with the “person on the street” – they may be frightened. And so on. In general, one shock level gets you enthusiasm, two gets you a strong reaction – wild enthusiasm or disbelief, three gets you frightened – not necessarily hostile, but frightened, and four can get you burned at the stake.”

From FUTURE SHOCK LEVELS by Paul Hughes (2004)

(ed note: A decade before the events in the novel, the alien Maseni land on Terra and become our best friends. Sadly, a large percentage of the human population has an acute attack of Future Shock. Neophobes, the entire lot of them.)

     “You have this compulsion to talk with zanies,” Brutus said. “We never encounter a batch of Pure Earthers that you pass by; you’ve always got to stop and have a few words with them.”
     “They fascinate me,” Jessie said.
     “Sometimes, I think you could be one of them, with a little nudge,” the hell hound said, contemptuously.
     Jessie ignored the hound’s sneering remark. He said, “The Pure Earthers are borderline Shockies; if they’d been just a hair more upset by the Maseni landing and all that’s come since, they’d be in one of the homes. I’ll never have the chance to see any real Shockies, but I can get an idea what they must be like from studying the Pure Earthers.”
     “Why this interest in Shockies?” Brutus asked.
     “You know why. My parents are Shockies.”
     “Oh, yeah,” Brutus said. “I forgot.” But he hadn’t forgotten at all. He was just looking for something more to sneer about. “They went starkers when the Maseni touched down, a couple of wide-eyed blubbers.”
     Jessie watched the approaching Pure Earthers. “That’s right.”

     The first Maseni interstellar ships had landed a decade ago, in the second week of October, 1990. Within a year, the population of Earth—regardless of nationality, race, ethnic group, or education—had been roughly divided into three types of reactions.

     First, there were those who were profoundly shocked by these developments, but who were able to cope and reorder the nature of their lives and the limits of their perceptions of the universe. These were about forty-five percent of the population.

     Another forty-five percent were simply unable to adjust. These were the Shockies. They were jolted by the realization that mankind was not the most intelligent species in existence, a fact scientists had predicted for years but which the Shocldes had always rejected as “holcum” or “bunkum” or “crap,” or “heresy” or “craziness”. They were further jolted to discover— thanks to the Maseni—that the supernatural world actually existed, that the denizens of nightmare were real (vampires, werewolves, etc.). And they were crushed to discover that (insert deity of choice) was not quite the being they had always thought. Not only were their patriotic and racial convictions smashed, but so was their spiritual belief…

     Shockies behaved in one of three ways:
  1. Uncontrolled rage that led to murder, bombing, rape and rampages of undirected violence.
  2. As they had always acted before, refusing to acknowledge that the Maseni existed or that their world had changed at all, no matter how much that changed world impinged on their fantasy.
  3. Or they simply became catatonic, staring off into another world, unable to speak, unable to feed themselves or control their own bodily functions.
     Cultural shock, severe, horrible.

     Space-program scientists had long theorized the extent of such a sickness an alien race should ever be found, but none of them had realized how far-reaching the illness would be.

     “Are you going to bleed for them forever?” Brutus asked. “Haven't you ever heard of ‘survival of the fittest’? Did the Cro-Magnon man weep for the Neanderthal?”
     “These were my parents,” Blake said. “My mother and father. If they could have just accepted change, a little bit—”
     “Then they’d have been Pure Earthers,” Brutus said. “Would you have been any happier with that?”
     “I guess not.”

     The Pure Earthers, at first, had no name and operated under no central organization; that development had required five years in the making. But they were all alike, and they could function coherently as a group; the Pure Earth League was an inevitable product of the Maseni landing. Those citizens who had not gone starkers but who were also unable to cope, about ten percent of the world population, agitated for an end of Human-Maseni relations and a return to the simpler life. They were, of course, doomed to extinction. Their own children, more accustomed to seeing Maseni and supernaturals in the streets, were falling away from the older folks; succeeding generations would give fewer and fewer bodies to the Cause.

     Millennium City was a 200-store shopping mall, most of it under a single roof, with indoor pedwalks, indoor and outdoor parks, fountains, convention facilities, hotels, more fountains, amusement centers, free theaters and museums, robot guides to help you find your way, a three hundred million credit wonder that had been completed only a year before. It was staffed exclusively by robots and was efficiently run, enormously profitable.

     Only ten years earlier, it could never have been built —and not only because Maseni technology was required to construct it. Ten years ago, the city of Los Angeles simply would not have had the room, in the heart of its west side, to contain such a lavish, three-hundred-acre structure. Then, there had been too many people, too much crowding.

     Now, a decade after the Maseni landing on Earth, the city was only half as populated as it had been. Forty-five percent of the city’s people had gone starkers and ended up in homes for Shockies. Many of these, in the following ten years, either took their own lives or died from too long in a catatonic trance. For the most part, the Shockies were those who were already hopelessly at odds with their times; they were, in many cases, those who ignored the warnings of ecologists and continued to have large families, polluting the Earth with excess flesh. Removed from the mating cycle, they no longer contributed to the population boom.

     Those who adapted to the Maseni and the other changes, tended to have no families, or small ones. As the Shockies died, the population dropped, and land became available. With the welfare rolls almost wiped out, and with vital services crying for good workers, everyone again had a job and everyone was more affluent than any time in the nation’s history. There was not only room to build Millennium City, but also credits to spend there.

     Old office buildings were torn down, as were rows and rows of shabby houses where no one lived any more. They razed factories that had once produced useless gadgets and flashy gewgaws, for none of these things were now in demand; society had suddenly become aware of its own power and of the true value of possessions. Millennium City not only provided services and products, but a place to feel at ease, a center for commerce which was, at the same time, a business establishment and a community meeting place.

From THE HAUNTED EARTH by Dean Koontz (1973)

You Are Not Ready

This is when a technological advance is so powerful and destructive that some idiot will eventually use it to cause powerful destruction. Things are bad enough when some human researcher stumbles over the advance, but it can be lots worse when the advance is some ultra-high tech paleotechnology from a long extinct Forerunner species. The classic example is the Krell technology from the movie Forbidden Planet.

The important point to note is that the technology is not bad or evil per se, only in the hands of a primitive emotional race such as human beings. Once the human race reaches maturity such technology is safe. Imagine a type of nanotechnology that can be hacked into a form that can turn the entire planet Terra into gray goo, yet simple enough to be made by a bright teenager in their parent's garage. Terra wouldn't last five minutes before it started to dissolve. Some idiot would try it, probably thousands of idiots simultaneously. Morons who what to see what happens, angry people who want to make the entire world pay, depressed people who want to really end it all, those who think such a corrupt world needs a do-over, I'm sure you can think of many others.

However, you cannot child-proof the entire universe. The long term solution is not to suppress technology, but to uplift humanity. Because suppressing technology never works in the long term. When it is steam-engine time, it is steam-engine time.

But sometimes people try. The TV Trope is Keeper of Forbidden Knowledge. An example are the colonists sent to planet Topaz in Andre Norton's The Defiant Agents. The Western Alliance and Greater Russian are both frantically sending interstellar colonists to every planet they can find. They hope to find valuable paleotechnology from the forerunner galactic empire that collapsed about ten thousand years ago. Topaz is supposed to be a Western planet but Russia infiltrates some of their own. Paleotechnology is discovered. However, both sets of colonists realize that if either the Alliance or Russia gets their hands on the alien tech, Terra will be destroyed in the resulting war. So they set themselves up as keepers of forbidden knowledge, with three colonists on each side knowing the secret, and faking the failure of the colony.

The Dragonborn: Surely there's more you can tell me.
Master Arngeir: There is indeed much that we know that you do not. That does not mean that you are ready to understand it.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Commonly uttered phrase by powerful — often Sufficiently Advanced — beings when lesser lifeforms (like our heroes) ask for assistance or technical support. Oftentimes, the heroes get a hold of the information or gear for themselves, and the point is proven or refuted. (If the hero keeps insisting for an answer, they may get an Armor-Piercing Response, which may prove that they're indeed not ready.)

In other situations, this can be a line uttered by either The Mentor or the Big Bad. In the former case, he is telling our young hero not to be brash and preparation is very important (though the hero will rarely listen). In the latter case, it is used as a rather hammy taunt.

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

The Weapon

The room was quiet in the dimness of early evening. Dr. James Graham, key scientist of a very important project, sat in his favorite chair, thinking. It was so still that he could hear the turning of pages in the next room as his son leafed through a picture book.

Often Graham did his best work, his most creative thinking, under these circumstances, sitting alone in an unlighted room in his own apartment after the day’s regular work. But tonight his mind would not work constructively. Mostly he thought about his mentally arrested son–his only son–in the next room. The thoughts were loving thoughts, not the bitter anguish he had felt years ago when he had first learned of the boy’s condition. The boy was happy; wasn’t that the main thing?

He opened the door. A stranger stood there; he said, “Dr. Graham? My name is Niemand; I’d like to talk to you. May I come in a moment?”

The small man interlocked his fingers; he leaned forward. He said, “Dr. Graham, you are the man whose scientific work is more likely than that of any other man to end the human race’s chance for survival.”

A crackpot, Graham thought. Too late now he realized that he should have asked the man’s business before admitting him. It would be an embarrassing interview–he disliked being rude, yet only rudeness was effective.

“Dr. Graham, the weapon on which you are working–”

Niemand’s eyes met Graham’s and he said, “I like him,” with obvious sincerity. He added, “I hope that what you’re going to read to him will always be true.”

Graham didn’t understand. Niemand said, “Chicken Little, I mean. It’s a fine story–but may Chicken Little always be wrong about the sky falling down.”

Graham suddenly had liked Niemand when Niemand had shown liking for the boy. Now he remembered that he must close the interview quickly. He rose, in dismissal.

He said, “I fear you’re wasting your time and mine, Mr. Niemand. I know all the arguments, everything you can say I’ve heard a thousand times. Possibly there is truth in what you believe, but it does not concern me. I’m a scientist, and only a scientist. Yes, it is public knowledge that I am working on a weapon, a rather ultimate one. But, for me personally, that is only a by-product of the fact that I am advancing science. I have thought it through, and I have found that that is my only concern.”

“But, Dr. Graham, is humanity ready for an ultimate weapon?”

Graham frowned. “I have told you my point of view, Mr. Niemand.”

Niemand said, “I took the liberty of bringing a small gift to your son, doctor. I gave it to him while you were getting the drinks for us. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“Of course. Thank you. Good night.”

Graham closed the door; he walked through the living room into Harry’s room. He said, “All right, Harry. Now I’ll read to–”

There was sudden sweat on his forehead, but he forced his face and his voice to be calm as he stepped to the side of the bed. “May I see that, Harry?” When he had it safely, his hands shook as he examined it.

He thought, only a madman would give a loaded revolver to an idiot.

From THE WEAPON by Fredric Brown (1951)

      Ashe himself and a younger partner, Ross Murdock, had been part of the final action which had solved the mystery, having traced that source of knowledge not to an earlier and forgotten human civilization but to wrecked spaceships from an eon-old galactic empire—an empire which had flourished when glacial ice covered most of Europe and northern America and humans were cave-dwelling primitives.

     Voyage tape fed into the controls of the ship had taken the men, and, when rewound, it had almost miraculously returned them to Earth with a cargo of similar tapes found on a world which might have been the capital for a government comprised of whole solar systems. Tapes—each one was the key to another planet.
     And that ancient galactic knowledge was treasure such as humans had never dreamed of possessing, though many rightly feared that such discoveries could be weapons in hostile hands. Tapes chosen at random had been shared with other nations at a great drawing. But each nation secretly remained convinced that, in spite of the untold riches it might hold as a result of chance, its rivals had done better. Right at this moment, Ashe knew there were Western agents trying to do at the Russian project just what Camdon (the Russian spy) had done there (stolen the coordinates of the Western-own planet Topaz). However, that did not help in solving their present dilemma about Operation Cochise (Western operation to colonize Topaz), now perhaps the most important part of their plan.
     "We test and we test," said the fat man. "Always we test. We move like turtles when it would be better to race like greyhounds. There is such a thing as overcaution, as I have said from the first. One would think"—his accusing glance included Ashe and Kelgarries—"that there had never been any improvising in this project, that all had always been done by the book. I say that this is the time we must take the big gamble, or else we may find we have been outbid for space entirely. Let those others discover even one alien installation they can master and—" his thumb shifted from his lip, grinding down on the desk top as if it were crushing some venturesome but entirely unimportant insect—"and we are finished before we really begin."

(ed note: The Russians claim-jump Topaz and set up their own colony. It includes colonists who are descended from the Tartars, and who are enslaved by a brain control gizmo. They also set up an orbital defense network to destroy the Western colony ship when it arrives.

The Western colony ship shows up, is attacked, but manages to survive for a crash landing. The Russians think the ship was destroyed. The only survivors are the Western colonists, all descended from Apache native americans, and who are still recovering from the Redax treatment. Redax leaves them thinking and reacting just like their distant ancestors. Back on Terra there is also colony teams composed of Eskimos and Pacific Islanders, waiting for appropriate planets to be discovered.

As it turns out, there is indeed a forerunner installation on the planet inside some hidden towers. It is just jam packed with lethal high tech weapons that the human race is not mature enough to use. Luckily the Russians are unaware of the installation.

The Apache team meet up with Tartars who have escaped Russian brain control and they make a common cause against the evil Russian overlords. This will be a challenge since they only have bow & arrows, spears and knives. The Russians have helicopter and machine guns.)

     "Listen," Jil-Lee, his side padded with bandages, stepped closer—"and tell me, younger brother, what is it that you seek in these towers?"
     "On another world there were secrets of the old ones to be found in such ancient buildings. Here that might also be true."
     "Yet, Nolan, I do not believe that it is for more voyage tapes that our younger brother now searches, nor would those do us any good—as our ship will not rise again from here. What is it that you do seek?"
     "Knowledge—weapons, maybe. Can we stand against these machines of the Russians? Yet many of the devices they now use are taken from the star ships they have looted through time. To every weapon there is a defense."
     Nolan blinked and for the first time a hint of interest touched the mask of his face. "To the bow, the rifle," he said softly, "to the rifle, the machine gun, to the cannon, the bomb. The defense can be far worse than the first weapon. So you think that in these towers there may be things which shall be to the Russian's machines as the bomb is to the cannon of the Horse Soldiers?"
     Travis had an inspiration. "Did not our people lay aside the bow for the rifle when we went up against the Bluecoats?"
     "We do not so go up against these Russians!" protested Lupe.
     "Not now. But what if they come across the mountains, perhaps driving the Tatars before them to do their fighting—?"
     "And you believe that if you find weapons in these towers, you will know how to use them?" Jil-Lee asked. "What will give you that knowledge, younger brother?"
     "I do not claim such knowledge," Travis countered. "But this much I do have: Once I studied to be an archaeologist and I have seen other storehouses of these star people. Who else among us can say as much as that?"
     "That is the truth," Jil-Lee acknowledged. "Also there is good sense in this seeking out of the tower things. Let the Russians find such first—if they exist at all—and then we may truly be caught in a box canyon with only death at our heels."

(ed note: Travis Fox finds the forerunner towers, and watches an alien briefing recording)

     But this much he did know—these towers had been built by the bald spacemen (the forerunners), and they were highly important to that vanished stellar civilization. The information in this room, as disjointed as it had been for him, led to a treasure trove on Topaz greater than he had dreamed.
     Travis swayed on the bench. To know so much and yet so little! If Ashe were only here, or some other of the project technicians! A treasure such as Pandora's box had been, peril for one who opened it and did not understand.
     And there was another thing he knew: The Russians must not find this. Such a discovery on their part would not only mean the end of his own people on Topaz, but the end of Earth as well. This place might hold new and alien knowledge that could destroy whole nations at a time!
     If he could—much as his archaeologist's training would argue against it—he would blot out this whole valley above and below ground. But while the Russians might possess a means of such destruction, the Apaches did not. No, he and his people must prevent its discovery by the enemy by doing what he had seen as necessary from the first—wiping out the Russian leaders! And that must be done before they chanced upon the tower!

     Travis slogged on. He was so tired now that only the drug from the ration bars he mouthed at intervals kept him going at a dogged pace, hardly more than a swift walk. And always his mind was haunted by fragments of pictures, pictures he had seen in the reader. The big bomb had been the nightmare of his own world for so long, and what was that against the forces the bald star rovers had been able to command?
     "Towers—" He struggled to keep his wits through the pain and billowing weakness beginning to creep through him. "Russians mustn't get to the towers! Worse than the bomb … end us all!"
     He had a hazy glimpse of Nolan and Jil-Lee closing in about him. The desire to cough tore at him, but they had to know, to believe …
     "Russians get to the towers—everything finished. Not only here … maybe back home too …"

     "I have been thinking of this treasure house in the towers. Suppose we could find new weapons there… ."
     Travis hesitated. He still shrank from the thought of opening the secret places behind those glowing walls, to loose a new peril.
     "If we took weapons from there and lost the fight …" He advanced his first objection and was glad to see the expression of comprehension on Jil-Lee's face.
     "It would be putting the weapons straight into Russian hands," the other agreed.
     "We may have to chance it before we're through," Manulito warned. "Suppose we do get some of their technicians into this trap. We may need a bigger nutcracker than we've ever seen."
     With a return of that queasy feeling he had known in the tower, Travis knew Manulito was speaking sense. They might have to open Pandora's box before the end of this campaign.

(ed note: A small group of Apaches, lead by Fox, go to the towers for the bare minimum of alien weapons. They only take three disintegration pistols.)

     The Apaches looked into a set of compartments, each holding an object with a barrel, a hand grip, a general resemblance to the sidearms of their own world and time, but sufficiently different to point up the essential strangeness. With infinite care Travis worked one out of the vise-support which held it. The weapon was light in weight, lighter than any automatic he had ever held. Its barrel was long, a good eighteen inches—the grip alien in shape so that it didn't fit comfortably into his hand, the trigger nonexistent, but in its place a button on the lower part of the barrel which could be covered by an outstretched finger.
     Travis sighted the long barrel of the weapon at a small bush backed by a boulder, and he pressed the firing button. There was no way of knowing whether the weapon was loaded except to try it.
     The result of his action was quick—quick and terrifying. There was no sound, no sign of any projectile … laser beam … or whatever might have issued in answer to his finger movement. But the bush—the bush was no more!
     A black smear made a ragged outline of the extinguished branches and leaves on the rock which had stood behind. The earth might still enclose roots under a thin coating of ash, but the bush was gone!
     "The breath of Naye'nezyani—powerful beyond belief!" Buck broke the horrified silence first. "In truth evil is here!"
     Jil-Lee raised his gun—if gun it could be called—aimed at the rock with the bush silhouette plain to see and fired.
     This time they were able to witness disintegration in progress, the crumble of the stone as if its substance was no more than sand lapped by river water. A pile of blackened rubble remained—nothing more.
     "To use this on a living thing?" Buck protested, horror basing the doubt in his voice.
     "We do not use it against living things," Travis promised, "but against the ship of the Russians—to cut that to pieces. This will open the shell of the turtle and let us at its meat."
     Jil-Lee nodded. "Those are true words. But now I agree with your fears of this place, Travis. This is a devil thing and must not be allowed to fall into the hands of those who—"
     "Will use it more freely than we plan to?" Buck wanted to know. "We reserve to ourselves that right because we hold our motives higher? To think that way is also a crooked trail. We will use this means because we must, but afterward …"
     Afterward that warehouse must be closed, the tapes giving the entrance clue destroyed. One part of Travis fought that decision, right though he knew it to be. The towers were the menace he had believed. And what was more discouraging than the risk they now ran, was the belief that the treasure was a poison which could not be destroyed but which might spread from Topaz to Earth.
     Suppose the Western Alliance had discovered that storehouse and explored its riches, would they have been any less eager to exploit them? As Buck had pointed out, one's own ideals could well supply reasons for violence. In the past Earth had been racked by wars of religion, one fanatically held opinion opposed to another. There was no righteousness in such struggles, only fatal ends. The Russians had no right to this new knowledge—but neither did they. It must be locked against the meddling of fools and zealots.
     "Taboo—" Buck spoke that word with an emphasis they could appreciate. Knowledge must be set behind the invisible barriers of taboo, and that could work.
     "These three—no more—we found no other weapons!" Jil-Lee added a warning suggestion.
     "No others," Buck agreed and Travis echoed, adding:
     "We found tombs of the space people, and these were left with them. Because of our great need we borrowed them, but they must be returned to the dead or trouble will follow. And they may only be used against the fortress of the Russians by us, who first found them and have taken unto ourselves the wrath of disturbed spirits."
     "Well thought! That is an answer to give the People. The towers are the tombs of dead ones. When we return these they shall be taboo. We are agreed?" Buck asked.
     "We are agreed!"
     Buck tried his weapon on a sapling, saw it vanish into nothingness. None of the Apaches wanted to carry the strange guns against their bodies; the power made them objects of fear, rather than arms to delight a warrior. And when they returned to their temporary camp, they laid all three on a blanket and covered them up. But they could not cover up the memories of what had happened to bush, rock, and tree.
     "If such are their small weapons," Buck observed that evening, "then what kind of things did they have to balance our heavy armament? Perhaps they were able to burn up worlds!"

     Menlik (the Tartar shaman) pulled at his upper lip. "That is also truth. But now they have no eyes in the sky, and with so many of their men away, they will not patrol too far from camp. I tell you, andas, with these weapons of yours a man could rule a world!"
     Travis looked at him bleakly. "Which is why they are taboo!"
     "Taboo?" Menlik repeated. "In what manner are these forbidden? Do you not carry them openly, use them as you wish? Are they not weapons of your own people?"
     Travis shook his head. "These are the weapons of dead men—if we can name them men at all. These we took from a tomb of the star race who held Topaz when our world was only a hunting ground of wild men wearing the skins of beasts and slaying mammoths with stone spears. They are from a tomb and are cursed, a curse we took upon ourselves with their use."
     There was a strange light deep in the shaman's eyes. Travis did not know who or what Menlik had been before the Red conditioner had returned him to the role of Horde shaman. He might have been a technician or scientist—and deep within him some remnants of that training could now be dismissing everything Travis said as fantastic superstition.
     Yet in another way the Apache spoke the exact truth. There was a curse on these weapons, on every bit of knowledge gathered in that warehouse of the towers. As Menlik had already noted, that curse was power, the power to control Topaz, and then perhaps to reach back across the stars to Earth.
     When the shaman spoke again his words were a half whisper. "It will take a powerful curse to keep these out of the hands of men."
     "With the Russians gone or powerless," Buck asked, "what need will anyone have for them?"
     "And if another ship comes from the skies—to begin all over again?"
     "To that we shall have an answer, also, if and when we must find it," Travis replied. That could well be true … other weapons in the warehouse powerful enough to pluck a spaceship out of the sky, but they did not have to worry about that now.
     "Arms from a tomb. Yes, this is truly dead men's magic. I shall say so to my people. When do we move out?"

(ed note: The Apaches and the free Tartars attack the Russian base. The brain-controlled Tartars are diverted, the three Apaches with disintegrator start carving the Russian starship into confetti. They then enter the ship to destroy all the critical equipment.)

     Darkness! Travis snapped on the torch for an instant, saw about him the relays of a com system, and gave it a full spraying as he pivoted, destroying the eyes and ears of the ship—unless the burnout he had effected below had already done that. A flash of automatic fire from his left, a searing burn along his arm an inch or so below the shoulder—
     Travis' action was purely reflex. He swung the burner (disintegrator pistol) around, even as his mind gave a frantic No! To defend himself with automatic, knife, arrow—yes; but not this way. He huddled against the wall.
     An instant earlier there had been a man there, a living, breathing man—one of his own species, if not of his own beliefs. Then because his own muscles had unconsciously obeyed warrior training, there was this. So easy—to deal death without really meaning to. The weapon in his hands was truly the devil gift they were right to fear. Such weapons were not to be put into the hands of men—any men—no matter how well intentioned.

     "First," the Apache spoke his own thoughts—"we must return these."
     The three alien weapons were lashed into a square of Mongol fabric, hidden from sight, although they could not be so easily shut out of mind. Only a few of the others, Apache or Mongol, had seen them; and they must be returned before their power was generally known.
     "I wonder if in days to come," Buck mused, "they will not say that we pulled lightning out of the sky, as did the Thunder Slayer, to aid us. But this is right. We must return them and make that valley and what it holds taboo."
     "And what if another ship comes—one of yours?" Menlik asked shrewdly.
     Travis stared beyond the Tatar shaman to the men about the fire. His nightmare dragged into the open … What if a ship did come in, one with Ashe, Murdock, men he knew and liked, friends on board? What then of his guardianship of the towers and their knowledge? Could he be as sure of what to do then? He rubbed his hand across his forehead and said slowly:
     "We shall take steps when—or if—that happens—"
     But could they, would they? He began to hope fiercely that it would not happen, at least in his lifetime, and then felt the cold bleakness of the exile they must will themselves into.
     "Whether we like it or not," (was he talking to the others or trying to argue down his own rebellion?) "we cannot let what lies under the towers be known … found … used … unless by men who are wiser and more controlled than we are in our time."
     Menlik drew his shaman's wand, twiddled it between his fingers, and beneath his drooping lids watched the three Apaches with a new kind of measurement.
     "Then I say to you this: Such a guardianship must be a double charge, shared by my people as well. For if they suspect that you alone control these powers and their secret, there will be envy, hatred, fear, a division between us from the first—war … raids … This is a large land and neither of our groups numbers many. Shall we split apart fatally from this day when there is room for all? If these ancient things are evil, then let us both guard them with a common taboo."
     He was right, of course. And they would have to face the truth squarely. To both Apache and Mongol any off-world ship, no matter from which side, would be a menace. Here was where they would remain and set roots. The sooner they began thinking of themselves as people with a common bond, the better it would be. And Menlik's suggestion provided a tie.
     "You speak well," Buck was saying. "This shall be a thing we share. We are three who know. Do you be three also, but choose well, Menlik!"
     "Be assured that I will!" the Tatar returned.
     Perhaps clan and Horde would combine or perhaps they would drift apart—time would tell. But there would be the bond of the guardianship, the determination that what slept in the towers would not be roused—in their lifetime or many lifetimes!
     Travis smiled a bit crookedly. A new religion of sorts, a priesthood with sacred and forbidden knowledge … in time a whole new life and civilization stemming from this night. The bleak cold of his early thought cut less deep. There was a different kind of adventure here.

From THE DEFIANT AGENTS by Andre Norton (1960)

      "There was a chance once," said Webster, almost as if he were speaking to himself. "A chance for new viewpoints, for something that might have wiped out the muddle of four thousand years of human thought. A man muffed that chance."
     Grant stirred uncomfortably, then sat rigid, afraid Webster might have seen him move.
     "That man," said Webster, "was my grandfather."
     Grant knew he must say something, that he could not continue to sit there, unspeaking.
     "Juwain may have been wrong," he said. "He might not have found a new philosophy."
     "That is a thought," declared Webster, "we have used to console ourselves. And yet, it is unlikely. Juwain was a great Martian philosopher, perhaps the greatest Mars had ever known. If he could have lived, there is no doubt in my mind he would have developed that new philosophy.
     But he didn't live. He didn't live because my grandfather couldn't go to Mars."

(ed note: The world government in Geneva found evidence that a race of hyper-intelligent mutants had developed in the Ozarks. They send agent Grant to contact them, and ask if they can complete Juwain's unfinished philosophy. Grant encounters Joe the mutant.)

     Joe's voice broke his thoughts.
     "You're an enumerator, aren't you? Why don't you ask me the questions? Now that you've found me you can't go off and not get it down on paper. My age especially. I'm one hundred sixty-three and I'm scarcely adolescent. Another thousand years at least."
     He hugged his knobby knees against his chest and rocked slowly back and forth. "Another thousand years and if I take good care of myself—"

     "But that isn't all of it," Grant told him, trying to keep his voice calm. "There is something more. Something that you must do for us."
     "For us?"
     "For society," said Grant. "For the human race."
     Grant stared. "You mean that you don't care."

     Joe shook his head and in the gesture there was no bravado, no defiance of convention. It was just blunt statement of the fact.
     "Money!" suggested Grant.
     Joe waved his hands at the hills about them, at the spreading river valley. "I have this," he said. "I have no need of money."
     "Fame, perhaps?"
     Joe did not spit, but his face looked like he had.
     "The gratitude of the human race?"
     "It doesn't last," said Joe and the old mockery was in his words, the vast amusement just behind his lips.
     "Look, Joe," said Grant and, hard as he tried to keep it out, there was pleading in his voice, "this thing I have for you to do is important … important to generations yet to come, important to the human race, a milestone in our destiny—"
     "And why should I," asked Joe, "do something for someone who isn't even born yet? Why should I look beyond the years of my own life? When I die, I die, and all the shouting and the glory, all the banners and the bugles will be nothing to me. I will not know whether I lived a great life or a very poor one."
     "The race," said Grant.
     Joe laughed, a shout of laughter. "Race preservation, race advancement. That's what you're getting at. Why should you be concerned with that? Or I?"
     The laughter lines smoothed out around his mouth and he shook a finger in mock admonishment. "Race preservation is a myth … a myth that you all have lived by—a sordid thing that has arisen out of your social structure. The race ends every day. When a man dies the race ends for him—so far as he's concerned there is no longer any race."
     "You just don't care," said Grant.
     "That," declared Joe, "is what I've been telling you."

     He squinted at the pack upon the ground and a nicker of a smile wove about his lips. "Perhaps," he suggested, "if it interested me—" Grant opened up the pack, brought out the portfolio.
     Almost reluctantly he pulled out the thin sheaf of papers, glanced at the title: "Unfinished Philosophical Proposition and Related Notes of Juwain". He handed it across, sat watching as Joe read swiftly and even as he watched he felt the sickening wrench of terrible failure closing on his brain.

     Back in the Webster house he had thought of a mind that knew no groove of logic, a mind unhampered by four thousand years of moldy human thought. That, he had told himself, might do the trick.
     And here if was. But it still was not enough. There was something lacking—something he had never thought of, something the men in Geneva had never thought of, either.
     Something, a part of the human make-up that everyone, up to this moment, had taken for granted.
     Social pressure was the thing that had held the human race together through all millennia—held the human race together as a unit just as hunger pressure had held the ants enslaved to a social pattern.
     The need of one human being for the approval of his fellow humans, the need for a certain cult of fellowship—a psychological, almost physiological need for approval of one's thought and action. A force that kept men from going off at unsocial tangents, a force that made for social security and human solidarity, for the working together of the human family.
     Men died for that approval, sacrificed for that approval, lived lives they loathed for that approval. For without it a man was on his own, an outcast, an animal that had been driven from the pack.
     It had led to terrible things, of course—to mob psychology, to racial persecution, to mass atrocities in the name of patriotism or religion. But likewise it had been the sizing that held the race together, the thing that from the very start had made human society possible.
     And Joe didn't have it. Joe didn't give a damn. He didn't care what anyone thought of him. He didn't care whether anyone approved or not.
     Grant felt the sun hot upon his back, heard the whisper of the wind that walked in the trees above him. And in some thicket a bird struck up a song.
     Was this the trend of mutancy? This sloughing off of the basic instinct that made man a member of the race?
     Had this man in front of him, reading the legacy of Juwain, found within himself, through his mutancy, a life so full that he could dispense with the necessity for the approval of his fellows? Had he, finally, after all these years, reached that stage of civilization where a man stood independent, disdaining all the artificiality of society?

     Joe looked up.
     "Very interesting," he said. "Why didn't he go ahead and finish it?"
     "He died," said Grant.
     Joe clucked his tongue inside his cheek. "He was wrong in one place." He nipped the pages, jabbed with a finger.
     "Right here. That's where the error cropped up. That's what bogged him down."
     Grant' stammered. "But … but there shouldn't be any error. He died, that's all. He died before he finished it."
     Joe folded the manuscript neatly, tucked it in his pocket.
     "Just as well," he said. "He probably would have botched it."
     "Then you can finish it? You can—" There was. Grant knew, no use of going on. He read the answer in Joe's eyes.

     "You really think," said Joe and his words were terse and measured, "that I'd turn this over to you squalling humans?"

     Grant shrugged in defeat. "I suppose not. I suppose I should have known. A man like you—"
     "I," said Joe, "can use this thing myself."

From CENSUS by Clifford Simak (1944)

(ed note: Of all races in the universe, the Atheleni have safely passed the second armageddon but not the first. They invented but only used one the Telepathic Madness, but have yet to face the challenge of inventing nuclear weapons)

Aretenon glanced at the furnishings of his chamber, recalling with an effort the fact that in his own youth almost everything he saw would have appeared impossible or even meaningless to him. Not even the simplest of tools had existed then, at least in the knowledge of his people. Now there were ships and bridges and houses—and these were only the beginning.

‘I am well satisfied,’ he said. ‘We have, as we planned, diverted the whole stream of our culture, turning it away from the dangers that lay ahead. The powers that made the Madness possible will soon be forgotten: only a handful of us still know of them, and we will take our secrets with us. Perhaps when our descendants rediscover them they will be wise enough to use them properly. But we have uncovered so many new wonders that it may be a thousand generations before we turn again to look into our own minds and to tamper with the forces locked within them.’

They Are Not Ready

This is sort of the inverse of You Are Not Ready. Terran space explorer may run across a planet-bound technologically-primitive alien species. Naïve and idealistic explorers may succumb to the temptation to help out the aliens by giving them a few technological tips.

This is generally a very bad idea:

  • The aliens technological development will become distorted. At the least will be horrible technological disruption, at worse the species may inadvertently or advertently kill themselves off.
  • Do you want Space Barbarians? Because this is how you get space barbarians.

This is more or less the reason for the Star Trek's famed Prime Directive. Author Sylvia Engdahl maintains that she thought of her version of the Prime Directive in 1950 (before Star Trek) though her first novel featuring it was not published until 1970. Though the first example in written science fiction appears to be Olaf Stapledon's classic 1937 novel Star Maker.

In most incarnations of the non-interference claus, the space explorers are forbidden to give the primitive aliens any technological tips. In the extreme version the space explorers are forbidden to let the alien know that the explorers exist. Either the explorers have to restrict their explorations to observing the planet from orbit, or if it is possible for the explorers to disguise themselves as the aliens in question you cannot make any revealing slips.

When does a civilization graduate to being "ready" and no longer subject to the Prime Directive? Generally there is some benchmark. In Star Trek the primitive civilization graduates when they invent a faster-than-light starship. In the CoDominion Universe it is when the level of technology advances to the point where they can put an astronaut into space. In the Anthropology Service Universe it is when the species evolves to the point where they sponaneously develop psionic powers.


"As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes the introduction of superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely."

Starfleet General Order 1 (also known as the Prime Directive), Star Trek

Even without ever having met a real culture from outer space, mankind has experienced firsthand the sort of disaster that can come from First Contact between a technologically-advanced society and a technologically-primitive and/or culturally-different one. Case in point: much of the European age of exploration and colonization included a great deal of war, exploitation, cultural assimilation (both forced and not) and even genocide across Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas, including cultures that, according to modern research, may have been more advanced than we once believed.

It is for this reason and others that Science Fiction writers came up with the concept of the Alien Non-Interference Clause: in the future, it is believed, people will have learned from the mistakes of the past and take steps from preventing the same mistakes from recurring as humans explore space.

Of course, such rules are ultimately an Obstructive Code of Conduct that creates as many problems as it solves. Crash landing on an inhabited world when this rule is in force brings obvious difficulties. Trying to study an alien culture without being discovered is a popular scenario. And where do you draw the line? At exactly what point is a species officially "mature" enough to let them in on the secrets of the universe? Does non-interference mean you're morally obliged to let a species suffer or die because it is their "natural development"? And what will happen when the "protectees" do develop advanced technology and discover that alien races have been watching them for generations… and consider themselves pretty darn righteous for their policy of non-assistance? And what should be done if the "protectees" are looking for extraterrestrial intelligence? There's also the little matter of how one defines a culture's "normal evolution" or "healthy development"; in addition to the aforementioned "letting them all die" aspect, if a society seems happy but social development has "stagnated", does that justify stepping in to nudge them in the right direction, or should you assume that they might possibly be able to do so in their own time?

A common twist on the trope is to have such a law in effect, and then come across an alien race that is eager to gain tech and knowledge from the humans. What happens then? Can you get away with telling the aliens You Are Not Ready? Where does the rule stop being about "preserving alien cultures" and start being about "keeping the humans (or The Federation) as the dominant power"? One ironic inversion is to have a second, more advanced set of aliens show up and refuse to help because they have this exact same clause, essentially turning the tables and putting the protagonist on the receiving end of this "benign neglect".

This also appears as the reason that aliens aware of our existence, or even visiting our planet in secret have not announced their presence to us. Usually, the condition to join interstellar society is the independent development of starships or Faster-Than-Light Travel, or at least to starting to colonise other planets in the Solar System.

Compare Helping Would Be Killstealing. Contrast Technology Uplift, when the aliens don't have this clause. See also Low Culture, High Tech, which is what the violation of this rule can sometimes lead to. Protagonists who tend to say Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right! usually treat this as a Frequently-Broken Unbreakable Vow.

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


Their (the "Symbiotics") little island universe, their outlying cluster of stars, had come wholly under their control. It contained many natural planetary systems. Several of these included worlds which, when the early Arachnoid explorers visited them telepathically, were found to be inhabited by native races of pre-utopian rank. These were left to work out their own destiny, save that in certain crises of their history the Symbiotics secretly brought to bear on them from afar a telepathic influence that might help them to meet their difficulties with increased vigor. Thus when one of these worlds reached the crisis in which Homo sapiens now stands, it passed with seemingly natural ease straight on to the phase of world-unity and the building of Utopia. Great care was taken by the Symbiotic race to keep its existence hidden from the primitives, lest they should lose their independence of mind. Thus, even while the Symbiotics were voyaging among these worlds in rocket vessels and using the mineral resources of neighboring uninhabited planets, the intelligent worlds of pre-utopian rank were left unvisited. Not till these worlds had themselves entered the full Utopian phase and were exploring their neighbor planets were they allowed to discover the truth. By then they were ready to receive it with exultation, rather than disheartenment and fear. Thenceforth, by physical and telepathic intercourse the young-utopia would be speedily brought up to the spiritual rank of the Symbiotics themselves, and would cooperate on an equal footing in a symbiosis of worlds.

Some of these pre-utopian worlds, not malignant but incapable of further advance, were left in peace, and preserved, as we preserve wild animals in national parks, for scientific interest. Aeon after aeon, these beings, tethered by their own futility, struggled in vain to cope with the crisis which modern Europe knows so well. In cycle after cycle civilization would emerge from barbarism, mechanization would bring the peoples into uneasy contact, national wars and class wars would breed the longing for a better world-order, but breed it in vain. Disaster after disaster would undermine the fabric of civilization. Gradually barbarism would return. Aeon after aeon, the process would repeat itself under the calm telepathic observation of the Symbiotics, whose existence was never suspected by the primitive creatures under their gaze. So might we ourselves look down into some rock-pool where lowly creatures repeat with naive zest dramas learned by their ancestors aeons ago.

The Symbiotics could well afford to leave these museum pieces intact, for they had at their disposal scores of planetary systems. Moreover, armed with their highly developed physical sciences and with sub-atomic power, they were able to construct, out in space, artificial planets for permanent habitation. These great hollow globes of artificial super-metals, and artificial transparent adamant, ranged in size from the earliest and smallest structures, which were no bigger than a very small asteroid, to spheres considerably larger than the Earth. They were without external atmosphere, since their mass was generally too slight to prevent the escape of gases. A blanket of repelling force protected them from meteors and cosmic rays.

From STAR MAKER by Olaf Stapledon (1937)

(ed note: Our heroes are from a Terran colony that backslid to about 17th century level technology after the fall of the first galactic empire, and are currently on a covert mission to a colony that backslid to medieval level technology. The representatives of the Empire who only backslid to 2600 CE level technology sternly tell our heroes about the Prime Directive. Trader MacKinnie is one of our heroes. Captain Greenaugh is from the Empire.)

      The contrast between the two officers could not have been greater. One was young, tall, of slight build, his hair an indescribable brown something like damp straw. The other was much older, with lines of care etched around his expressionless eyes, his hair gray where there was hair at all. He was heavy and short, but he had in common with the younger man a look of hardness and dedication; yet, again in contrast to his junior brother in service, there was none of the air of expectancy and anticipation the boy displayed.
     "Trader MacKinnie." The older man said it factually. "I am Captain Greenaugh of His Imperial Majesty's Navy. I command the garrison here and Tombaugh up there in orbit. This is Midshipman Landry, who will be my observer on this stupid voyage of yours."
     MacKinnie stood and bowed slightly to Captain Greenaugh, even less to Landry, making no move to extend his hand when the others did not.
     "Won't you sit down, Captain?" Soliman asked softly. "Some wine, perhaps? Grua?"
     "No. Mr. Landry and I are on duty." The midshipman's face was impassive; or had there been a hint of a smile? It was hard to tell.
     "Then please be seated," Soliman insisted. "I prefer to stand." He turned his attention to MacKinnie. "As you are to be the local in charge of this expedition, sir, it is my duty to caution you that any infringement of Imperial regulations on the part of any member of this expedition will result in trial and punishment of both the crew member and you personally. Is that understood?"

     "Yes, Captain," MacKinnie said. He elaborately inspected the large ring on his left hand, then looked up. "I understand perfectly. Tell me why you are so unhappy with me, if you would, please."
     "I am not unhappy with you, sir. It is understandable that you would wish to travel in space. I am unhappy with Mr. Soliman for browbeating me into letting you do it."
     "Browbeating, Captain?" Soliman said in an amused tone. "Why, I merely indicated—"
     "You merely indicated the relevant passages in the Imperial regulations and reminded me of your influence. I don't give a damn about your influence, but I can't ignore the regulations. However, I warn you, MacKinnie, if Mr. Soliman can be sticky about regulations, so can I. You'll get a copy of the pertinent sections before you go, but I decided to see you personally to try to talk you out of this venture."

     "If you please, Captain," Dougal asked, "why are you so opposed to our simple trading expedition? I thought it was Imperial policy to encourage trade among the worlds of the Empire. Your ambassador promises that Prince Samual's World will profit highly through joining the Empire."
     "Sir—" The captain paused and snapped his fingers.
     "Citizen Dougal, sir," the midshipman answered. "In the service of King David."
     "Citizen Dougal, I have all too few officers on this station. I am responsible for the protection of this world from all interference with its development and assimilation into the Empire. There's a nest of outies (rebels) not twenty parsecs away; your King David is in one hell of a hurry to unify this planet against stiff opposition; the survey team keeps borrowing my people; and thanks to this expedition I have to send a junior officer off for the Saints alone know how long. There'll be reports to file, inspections to conduct. And for what? So Mr. Soliman here can add another mega-crown to his bank account, and you people can bring some kind of gimcrack new luxuries to absorb what little capital there is on Prince Samual's World. I don't like it and I don't have to like it."
     "Sorry you feel that way, Captain," MacKinnie said. Inwardly he knew all too well the plight of a military man caught up in the details of government. He would have felt sympathy for Greenaugh, but the memory of Lechfeld was too strong. The Imperials were the enemy. "But you have admitted that you understand our motives for wanting to go. I hope we can get our work accomplished without causing you any trouble."

     "You're damn right you will," Greenaugh snapped. "But before you make your final decision, let me acquaint you with the regulations. Item: you will be supplied with a basic naval study of the planetary languages found in the chief city of Makassar. You will at no time teach any native your own language or Imperial speech. All negotiations will be conducted in one of the planetary languages. Is that understood?"
     MacKinnie nodded, suddenly realizing why all the Imperials he had met spoke a variant of the language of Haven. If you used a man's own language, you weren't likely to tell him anything he didn't know about. He wouldn't even have the words for most advanced concepts.
     "Item: as Imperial subjects," Greenaugh continued, "you would ordinarily be entitled to protection from barbarians and arbitrary imprisonment. In your case we can't extend it. The garrison on Makassar is too small and there's no ship. If you get in trouble, you're on your own."
     The captain took a small notebook-sized object from his pocket, touched a stud on the side of it and glanced at its face before returning it to his scarlet tunic. MacKinnie recognized it as one of the tiny Imperial computers, supposedly equivalent to hundreds of the best mechanical calculators in use in Haven's banks; equivalent and more. The Imperials used them for everything, as notebooks and pocket clocks, for communications and diaries. (to science fiction readers in 1981 this was hot stuff. Nowadays we call them run-of-the-mill smartphones.)

     "Another thing, MacKinnie. Any technical innovation traced to you directly or indirectly can result in a charge of interference. If it results in any severe disruption of the development of that planet, you can get life imprisonment. Assessment of the effects of innovations and your responsibilities for them are up to the Emperor's Lord Judges."
     "Why are the regulations so severe, Captain?" Dougal asked. "It is our understanding that the Empire intends only peace and friendship for its member worlds."
     "Damn right. And sudden technical changes destroy both. I've seen worlds where some smart guy used a little technology and a lot of guts to set himself up as a planetary king. Half the population out of work, the other half in a turmoil. Took the better part of a fleet and a division of Marines to keep order on the place. Mister, it's not going to happen in my sector."

     "The regulations are severe for a purpose," Renaldi added. "There is no telling what the effects of even the most innocent technical revelations can be. Even something as inherently benign as medicines can change the whole pattern of life. There is a famous case, from the early days of the New Empire. The Church went in and with the best of motives taught practical medicine to primitives. The missionaries were particularly concerned with saving children from infant diseases. They intended to give them some new agricultural and industrial techniques, but the people were not ready for them. They rejected the agriculture and industry, but they adopted the medicine. Within fifty standard years, there was famine all over that world. The results were horrible."
     Greenaugh nodded. "Still were when I was young Landry's age. I served a hitch on an escort vessel convoying a provisions fleet. Silliest thing you ever saw. You ever think of how futile it is to try to ship food to a whole world that's starving? If you took every ship in the Navy and merchant service and put them on it, even if the food was free and waiting in the same star system, it wouldn't do any good. But the Emperor's sister got interested in the place and they had to have a try at 'helping.' Did no good at all. Population's thinned out a bit now on Placentia, but the planet'll never be the same."

     "So you see," Soliman said softly, "it is important not to interfere. No matter what the reason. You can always say that things would have been worse if you did not interfere, but you can't know." He sipped his wine. "Besides, people will have adjusted to the evils they are accustomed to. Your attempts to help may introduce evils they don't know, which are always worse to bear and will probably retard their natural development."
     "Thank you," MacKinnie said. "We will be very careful. What else must I know?"
     "Still determined," Greenaugh said. "Thought you would be. Well, if I can't persuade you to give it up, I can't. Bring your crew here tomorrow for inspection. Midshipman Landry will tell you the rest of the details." He strode to the door, then paused and turned back. "Just remember, MacKinnie you were warned. The hell with it." He went briskly out, followed by his midshipman.

     "(our hero) Colonel MacKinnie? I am Dudley Boyd, First Secretary. His Excellency will see you now."
     Boyd cleared his throat. "Your Excellency, may I present Colonel Nathan MacKinnie. Colonel, High Commissioner Sir Alexei Ackoff."
     "Would anyone care for a drink? This will be quite informal."
     "Informal but official," Boyd warned. "Colonel (MacKinnie), you and Freelady Graham have been charged with interfering with the orderly development of a primitive world, to wit, Makassar."
     "But we didn't interfere," Mary protested.
     Ackoff waved impatiently. "Don't be nonsensical. There's always interference when an advanced people move among primitives."
     "I see," MacKinnie said. "You were embarrassed by our ship, and you've chosen us to pay for it."
     "Pronouns," Dudley Boyd said.
     "I beg your pardon?"
     "Wrong pronouns," Boyd said. "You said 'you,' meaning us, and that's not true. You've been arrested by Navy orders, not ours."
     "Makassar is under Navy jurisdiction," Ackoff explained. "There is no civil government there. Captain Greenaugh is within his rights, and he could try you by court martial. You would then have the right to appeal to civil authority, which is to say, to me. We're trying to save time by dealing directly with you."

     "But what did we do?" Mary asked.
     "Captain Greenaugh is still building his case," Ackoff said. "But as it happens, I can put one precise specification to his charge. Horse collars."
     "Horse collars?" MacKinnie frowned. "I hadn't thought the Empire concerned itself with trivia."
     Ackoff laughed. "Trivia? Colonel, the horse collar effectively ended slavery on Earth in pre-atomic times. I see you don't understand.
     "Consider that if you harness a horse by fastening a strap around its neck, the poor beast can't pull very hard because when it pulls it strangles itself. Improperly hitched horses can do about five times as much work as a man. But a horse eats five times as much as a man. Given the choice between a horse and a slave there isn't much in it.
     "But. Add the rigid horse collar so the load goes on to the shoulders, and the horse can do ten times as much work as a man—and it still eats only five times as much. Horses are then clearly preferable to humans for heavy work. Prior to the invention of horse collars there were as many slaves as free people on Earth. Afterwards, slavery became fairly rare and only imposed on people thought inferior. And I see I am indulging my tendency to lecture.

     "My point is simple. I know from the reports—from your own admissions—that you introduced rigid horse collars. Probably a lot of other seemingly minor innovations will have a profound impact. Privately, I expect you did them far more good than harm, but if we want to charge you, we have all the evidence we need."
     "And you can't say you weren't warned," Boyd said. "Captain Greenaugh is adamant on that point. He warned you himself."
     "But—" Graham protested.
     Nathan shook his head. "They've obviously got more to say. Let's hear them out."

(ed note: Ackoff offers a deal that will make Captain Greenaugh think he got revenge but will be satisfactory to our heroes and to Ackoff. )

From KING DAVID'S SPACESHIP by Jerry Pournelle (1981)

A Service starship is a good place to study; you have lots of free time at your disposal. especially if you are neither part of a survey team nor a member of the crew. But who wants to study all the time? I had never been off my home world before; since I'm from a Service family. even entering the Academy hadn't meant a trip for me. And I was dying to see something! I knew that I would not be permitted to accompany any regular team for a long time. So when the Andrecian situation came up and Father was appointed Senior Agent to handle it, I begged him to take me with him.

     “It's out of the question, Elana," he said gravely. “We are not going on a sightseeing trip. You know that. "
     “Evrek's going! "
     “Evrek has completed Third Phase; he has taken the Oath. He's ready for a field assignment. and while I wouldn't have chosen a thing like this for his first one, it's his job."
     “Please, Father?" I persisted. “I won't be in the way, I promise!"
     “I'm sorry. But it would be dangerous, not only for you but for the mission."
     I didn't reply aloud; though language is a useful tool, sometimes you get further telepathically.
     I'm not afraid…and I'll learn from it!
     You're too young, you're not yet sworn!

All my life I've wanted a career in the Anthropological Service; I've lived and breathed it ever since I was old enough to know what a Youngling world is. But even for someone with my background, the Academy is not easy to get into. The stories you hear about the entrance tests being such an awful ordeal are true. They're carefully designed to be, because you're not meant to pass unless you want to pretty desperately. It's not just a matter of being smart—though you do have to be, of course—or of having high aptitude for the control of psychic powers like psychokinesis and the Shield as well as ordinary telepathy. It's more a question of having the right personality. The Service is not about to turn anybody loose on a Youngling world who's not fitted for the responsibility. So there are all sorts of psychological tests and some other things they throw in to weed out anyone who hasn't sufficient—well, fortitude. Being an agent isn't always fun, and you are supposed to take the first steps toward finding that out before you get in too deep.

So they do everything they can to discourage you—but it's a very good arrangement, because the Service is not just a job. After all, once you take the Oath you are in for life; it's irrevocable. and you renounce your allegiance to your native world. There are a number of reasons why it was set up this way, but the main one is that they just don't want you if you don't feel that strongly about it. The power to influence Youngling civilizations is not a thing to be taken lightly.

But if you are truly serious about it, if you are willing to make the sacrifices the Oath demands. all the worlds of the universe are open to you! If you are not in the Service you will never see anything but Federation planets, for the worlds of Younglings peoples who are not yet mature enough to qualify for Federation membership—are strictly off limits to everyone but trained field agents. The reasons are very complex, but what it boils down to is that if Youngling peoples were to find out that they aren't the most advanced humans in the universe, their civilizations just wouldn't develop properly. They wouldn't ever realize their own potential. The Federation doesn't want to dominate other peoples, only to study them—so we don't reveal ourselves.

The really big thing about the Service, though, the thing that makes you want to give your life to it, is the opportunity to do something worthwhile…more than worthwhile, actually significant. Because, while our main objective is to study the Younglings, there are occasions on which we do take action. There are times when we may, literally, save a world—save its people, I mean, from slavery or from extinction. Not that we meddle in any planet's internal affairs; that is absolutely forbidden, for the Federation knows that however benevolent this might seem in some cases, it would be ultimately harmful. But we do try to save Youngling peoples from each other, when we can.

For some Youngling civilizations, the most advanced ones, have starships. It takes a lot less maturity to build a starship than to understand what to do with one when you get it. With their starships, they begin to expand to planets besides their own, which is both natural and right. The trouble is, they don't stick to uninhabited planets; occasionally they grab one that belongs to somebody else: either they invade it, or they unwittingly destroy its culture through peaceful contact. We stop that if it's feasible, but we do it in a very quiet manner. Oh, it would be easy to use force! It would be easy to lay down ultimatums and that kind of thing, because we of the Federation have all sorts of powers that nobody else has; but we'd do more harm than good that way.

So we don't send in a fully armed starship and an army of men. We send two or three field agents, unarmed, just as if it were an ordinary data—gathering expedition.

It's a frustrating problem. It's heartbreaking, even, when you really think about it. We have so much power, yet we can accomplish so little! Our primary mission is to observe and to learn. The sad fact is that Youngling peoples are often wiped out, either through colonization of their planet or through some other disaster that we haven't any idea of how to prevent and we may not even know about it until it's too late. Once in a while, though, it happens that we are in the right place at the right time to come to the rescue.

Meanwhile, I turned back to the text that I had been studying:

It is by now a well-known fact that the human peoples of the universe have similar histories—not that the specific details are similar, but the same patterns emerge on every home world. Each must pass through three stages: first childhood, when all is full of wonder, when the people of a world admit that much is unknown to them, calling it "supernatural," yet believing; then adolescence, when they discard superstition and revere science, feeling that they have charted its realms and have only to conquer them —never dreaming that certain "supernatural" wonders should not be set aside, but understood. And at last maturity, when the discovery ls made that what was termed “supernatural” has been perfectly natural all along, and is in reality a part of the very science that sought to reject it…

But I don't want to read about all that, I thought, I want to see it! What sort of people are down there on Andrecia? What sort of emergency is it that's taken us off course and is serious enough for a team to be sent in—for them to risk contact, maybe, or even their lives?

Contact is a thing that's seldom permitted, except under very compelling circumstances. Younglings are not allowed to know that the Federation even exists. That's the most unbreakable rule we have, because a Youngling culture could be irreparably damaged by that awareness. You have to be willing to die rather than make an illegal disclosure; in fact one of the provisions of the Oath binds you to do just that. So contact, when it's necessary, requires a cover of some sort. And any mission involving this can be very risky indeed.

I canceled out the text and instructed the computer to give me all the facts it had on Andrecia. It didn't have many. There was a survey not too many years ago, but as the Andrecian culture is a very rudimentary one, there was not much technology for the team to study. But they were a very vulnerable people Andrecia was a good planet, a rich one. Too rich! It didn't take much imagination to guess the nature of the current trouble.

I knew, with my mind if not yet with my emotions, that the danger could be real. You might think that no Youngling could be much of a match for a Federation citizen, but any field agent knows better. The thing is, you can't always use your advantage. It's not only that the use of non— native physical weapons is prohibited—some of the psychic powers are too revealing, too. There's a rather well-known case where an agent made a small slip, and then had to let herself be put to death for witchcraft rather than go on to an actual disclosure.

From ENCHANTRESS FROM THE STARS by Sylvia Engdahl (1970)

The provisions of the GAIL noninterference policy place strict limits on the methods used by the Study Project. The Remusans must not become aware that they are being studied by advanced races from other planets. In itself, this knowledge would profoundly alter their natural development. Consequently, the Project Staff takes extreme precautions to preclude discovery. Though the station travels in a low orbit, a special light-absorbing field surrounds it, preventing it from being seen from the surface, even with optical telescopes. Except in very special circumstances, approved in advance by GAIL, the Project Staff must avoid direct contact with the Remusans. Studies of their culture must be carried out by extensive use of sophisticated sensing devices and the occasional photographing of written documents.

The Project would not have had much value if we hadn’t studied the physiology of the Remusans. Although Remusans regularly engage in the deliberate slaughter of their own kind, GAIL forbids this practice by its members. Yet taking live Remusans for study and returning them to the surface would have revealed GAlL’s existence. We solved this problem by developing techniques for hypnotizing our specimens so they are subsequently unaware that they have been taken and examined. Generally they can recall only the few brief moments before their capture and the fact that they had “lost” several hours, or sometimes days of time.

We make it a practice to take individuals while they walk alone, usually at night, so none of their fellows witness their kidnapping. To date, some 150 Remusans from different parts of the planet have been examined in this way. The practice has been strictly controlled. Two people are never taken from the same village or tribe. In most cases, the specimen’s fellows don’t believe the story of his capture, discounting it as possession by devils, religious visions, or outright fabrication. We have now obtained a complete physiological data base, so the number of specimens studied in the future will be limited to ten per century.

Staff members at the station cooperate very closely. Each day we hold meetings to discuss the day’s planned operations. The station houses two antigrav shuttles designed for transport between the station and the surface of Remus. Except for maintenance days, these vehicles fly missions around the clock. Most missions are routine and involve planting sensor arrays and repairing defective units. The sensors have been designed as self-contained units and will self-destruct if disturbed from their original placement or if their power drops to a critically low level. Retrieving these devices would be expensive and possibly hazardous, particularly if the device should be discovered by the natives. Special cloaking fields shield the shuttle craft and cause them to reflect their backgrounds. When viewed from the ground, the shuttlecraft assumes the color of the sky overhead. When viewed against a backdrop of trees, the shuttlecraft appears to be green or grey or whatever color the trees might be that season. I love the excitement of surface missions and generally go on one each week that I’m in space. Missions may be as simple as filming a battle from the spacecraft hovering just over a nearby forest, or they may involve entering a monarch’s walled fortress under cover of darkness to copy records and documents reserved for royal eyes. I find the suspense of nearly being discovered exhilarating. I enjoy being close to discovery but sufficiently in control of a situation that I can escape undetected at the last second.

I had my closest call while escaping from the castle of the Whar (monarch) of Zarobar. I had just taken a furtive picture of the Treaty of Zweig, a pact that would end war among ten tribes covering a third of a continent. I slipped out the door of her private closet moments before the Whar returned and headed for a nearby balcony, intending to launch myself into the air with my antigrav pack. ]ust before I engaged the drive, I noticed a young female guard staring at me. Her mouth was starting to open, and I knew that in the next second she would call for help. Calmly, with the experience gained by more than seventy missions, I took the neural neutralizer from my belt and fired it at her.

The neural neutralizer causes a temporary loss of consciousness without corresponding loss of motor functions. The target feels as if she has gone into a trance very like a lapse of memory in the thirty seconds she remained dazed, I made my escape through the air to the waiting shuttlecraft. Each time a field Worker uses the neutralizer, he or she must file a written report. The neutralizer is used only in moments of direct contact with Remusans. Too many contacts would be indicative that observers are getting careless and that security procedures need to be tightened. This was the only time I’ve had to use my neutralizer, the lowest record for any field sociologist with three years of service. I haven’t been able to assess the effect of this incident on the culture, but I suspect the guard felt she had seen a spirit rather than an alien being. Belief in such spirits forms part of the religion of Zarobar’s natives.

From HANDBOOK FOR SPACE PIONEERS by L. Stephen Wolfe and Roy L. Wysack (1977)

(ed note: Our heroes are from a Terran colony Prince Samual's World that backslid to about 17th century level technology after the fall of the first galactic empire. The representatives of the reborn Empire, who only backslid to 2600 CE level technology, discover Prince Samual's World. Which will be incorporated into the Empire according to The Rules.)

      The reason was not hard to find, for in one corner of the crowded bar three officers of the Imperial Navy held court, buying drinks for anyone on Prince Samual's World who would sit with them and laugh at their jokes.
     Across from Jefferson a young native, browned by field work, too young to be in the Blue Bottle pub if he were not sitting with the Emperor's overlords, beamed at his new friend and shouted approval of the song. "Great, Lieu—uh, Jeff, great. Tell us more about what it's like out there. Tell us about other worlds. Are we the most backward place you've ever seen?"
     Lieutenant Jefferson belched loudly, murmured an automatic apology, and focused dizzily on his admirers. "Oh hell, no, Simom, not by a full broadside. Samual's got guns, and factories, and—and long-distance communications, and hydroelectric power; man, you've got nothing to be ashamed of. You've got no world government, and those wars you're always in stomp you down or for sure you'd be Class Two status in the Empire instead of a colony (but you did indeed get stomped down by the wars, so Prince Samual's world is doomed to be an enslaved colony instead of a Class Two). When I think how bad you got torn up in the Secession Wars, it's amazing you got this far in a few centuries . . . standard centuries, that is. You're doing fine here. Simom, we've been to places where they don't even have hydrocarbon power, no electricity, no pellet guns, nothing but horses and men running around in iron pants the way you see—well, the way we see in Imperial history books, books about the time when Earth was all there was to it. Friend, you almost have space travel. Another hundred years, another fifty years even, you'd have found us instead of the other way around. Too bad you didn't," he added, his voice changing. "Been better for you if you had. Class Two status for sure, maybe Class One, if you'd had real space flight before we got here. Not your fault; the survey ship just happened by looking for a gas giant to scoop some fuel from and decided to look you over. A real pity."
     As the headwaiter brought more drinks, Simom asked, "What was it like, that place (planet Makassar) where they wore iron pants? Is it far from here? Have you colonized it? Can we go there?"
     "Ho, one at a time," Jefferson shouted. "Far? Not more than twelve light-years, one jump from here, I think. Let's see, yeah, there's nothing between the two suns and theirs is a big one; hell, it's that thing you people call the Eye of the Needle; you could see it right now if you went outside. And no, no colonies there, not enough to make it worthwhile yet. And we're spread so thin. Keep a little observation post there to watch for outies (interstellar rebels), a first lieutenant and a couple of middies, few Marines. Not even a ship in orbit. Detection gear, observation satellite, that's about all. Nothing important there, except, of course, their Temple."
     Jefferson had allowed his voice to drop for a moment, a note of weariness creeping in as he thought of the immense task of the Imperial Navy trying to reclaim the pieces of an Empire lost and shattered in the Secession Wars, the capital itself only reaching for the stars decades ago. His Majesty hoped to knit together the fragments before another war could send mankind staggering back to primitive conditions. There had been no winners of the last war, and the next would be worse. There must not be a next one, he said to himself. Never again. Then he brightened as the raucous humor and obvious friendship of the natives washed over him. Best enjoy it now, he thought. They wouldn't be so friendly to the Navy after the colonists arrived—but that was years away, and the night was young.
     "The funny part, Simom, is that the Temple is worth more to them than the whole bloody planet, if they only knew it! They were right to make it a holy place and preserve it, but if they only knew! Why, there's a whole Old-Empire subsection library in that rabbit warren they've built up around what used to be the Viceroy's Palace! The Service librarians almost went out of their minds, some of the history books and things they found there. Even a few science books, operating manuals for old Imperial Fleet stuff; you name it, it's there, or bits and pieces of it are.
     "They don't even know what it all is! Wouldn't do them any good if they did, no technology to understand it anyway. And my sweet Savior, how they guard that stuff! Thought we'd never get any of it copied for the archives. If we'd taken just one of those cubes out—yeah, cubes, the library was geared to a computer. Not much like your books. Took a lot of work to get that fixed, I'll tell you. And those priests watched every second we were there. Never did make copies of most of the stuff; we'll get it some day. Be a great job for some historian. We had to sneak in, convince their bishops we were from the stars— they still haven't told the people in the city about us. And the chaplain had to get in on the act, convince them we were religiously orthodox, gave them some song and dance about how we, too, believed that God spoke from their archives. The chaplain said it was all right, the first thing they copied was a Bible, so he didn't lie about it. Couldn't harm a thing copying the stuff or they'd have boiled up so thick it'd take a battleship to kill them all. Can't do that, they're good people. We'll need everyone in this sector one day.

(Mercenary Colonel MacKinnie finds himself out of a job, after the Imperials stop his calvary attack with an air-to-surface missile fired from a surface-to-orbit spacecraft. He finds himself kidnapped by Dougal, chief of the secret police. Dougal has a plan to aid Prince Samual's World, and is trying to enlist MacKinnie's help.)     "Tell me what you know of the plans the Imperial Navy has for Prince Samual, Colonel MacKinnie."
     "Precious little. They appeared less than a year ago, and almost immediately settled in Haven. At first they didn't interfere with the planetary governments, but then they made an alliance with your King David—"
     "Your king also, Colonel," Dougal interrupted.
     "With King David. They helped you conquer the other city-states around Haven, and finally did for you what no Haven army had ever been able to do. They gave you Orleans. I don't know who's next, but I presume this goes on until Haven takes all of North Continent. After that . . . who knows, the Southies, I suppose."
     "And then what will they do, Colonel?"
     "Your newspapers keep telling us they'll help us, give us all kinds of scientific marvels, but I've yet to see any of them. You Havenites have kept them all."
     "We haven't, because there have been none. Every assistance the Imperials have given us has been direct, with their Marines operating the weapons and none of my people even allowed to see their new technology. Go on, what after that?"
     "Once you have conquered the whole blasted planet, I guess they take you into their Empire, with David Second as planetary king."
     "And you find that unpleasant?" Dougal smiled.
     "What do you want me to say, Citizen Dougal? You've told me you head the secret police. You want me to say treason out of my own mouth?"
     Malcolm Dougal poured more chickeest, carefully, not spilling a drop, and took a long sip before replying. "Appreciate your situation, Colonel. If I meant you harm, it would happen to you. I need no evidence, and there would be no trial. No one knows you're here but my most trusted men, and if you never leave this room, why, who will know it? I'm interested in what you think, Iron Man MacKinnie, and it's damned important to Haven and the whole planet. Now stop being coy and answer my questions."
     "Yes, I find that unpleasant. I can think of more unpleasant things, such as domination of the planet by one of the Southie despots, but after what you've done to Orleans, damned right I find it unpleasant."
     "Thank you." Dougal was speaking in his normal tone, an apologetic note to his voice, but the resemblance to a rabbit was gone. Now he merely looked like a businessman. "Would you find absolute domination by an Imperial Viceroy even less pleasant?"
     "Of course."
     "And why?" Dougal waved in an imperious manner. "I know why. For the same reason that you drink chickeest, bitter as it is. Because he is an outlander, a foreigner, not of Samual at all, and we belong here. This is our world and our home, and I tell you, Colonel MacKinnie, that we will never be slaves to that Empire. Not while I live and not while my sons live."
     "So you hope to escape that by using the Imperial Marines and Navy to conquer the planet?"
     "No. I had hoped to do so, but it won't work. Colonel, once their colonists and viceroy land here, King David will have no more influence over this planet than your sergeant. I thought you knew little of them. Few know anything at all."
     Dougal dismissed Solon with a wave and pointed to the papers. "This is the only Imperial artifact we have been able to obtain. It appears to be some kind of work of fiction, about the adventures of a naval officer on a newly settled planet. But it also gives us much information about the structure of the Imperial government, just as one of Cadace's best-sellers would tell them a lot about the government of Haven even though there's not a line in it intended to do so. Do you understand?" MacKinnie nodded.
     "Then," the policeman continued, "understand this. The Empire has several kinds of planetary governments within it. There is Earth itself, which is the honorary capital, but is mostly uninhabitable because of the aftermath of the Secession Wars. For their own reasons they keep some institutions including their naval and military academies there, but the real capital is called Sparta, and is in another planetary system entirely. After the capitals there are what they call Member Kingdoms, which are planetary governments strong enough to give the Imperial Navy a good fight if the Empire tried to interfere with their internal affairs.
     "Then there are Class One and Class Two worlds. We can't tell the difference between them, but they have less authority over their own affairs than the Member Kingdoms. They do have representation on the capital in one house of a multi-house advisory council, and some of their people are officers in the Imperial services. The two classes refer to some differences in technology which we do not understand, but the relevant factors are the technology levels when admission to the Empire takes place. They both seem to have something called atomic power which fascinates the physicists at the University, and their own spaceships."
     MacKinnie nodded, recalling some remarks made by the drunken lieutenant in the Blue Bottle. He mentioned this to Dougal, who nodded.
     "Good," Dougal said. "You are here because you overheard him. You see, Colonel, after the Class One and Class Two worlds, there's nothing left but colonies. And that's what we'll be."
     "What's the status of colonies?" MacKinnie asked.
     "They have none. Imperial citizens are imported as an aristocracy to impart civilization. A viceroy governs in the Emperor's name, and the Navy keeps a garrison to see that no trouble develops. The colonists end in complete control of everything, and the locals do as they're told or else."
     "How can they govern a whole planet against everybody's will? What good does it do them to burn half the world to ashes like Lechfeld?" MacKinnie drank the last of his now cooled chickeest, then answered his own question. "But of course they don't have to fight their own battles, do they? There's always a local government ready to toady to the Imperials. Someone to do their dirty work for them." He looked significantly at Dougal.
     Malcolm Dougal pretended not to notice. "Yes. There is always one. If not King David, then one of the Southie despots. But it won't happen, MacKinnie. I've found a way to win this fight and get Class Two status for Samual. I've found a way, a chance, but I can't do it alone. I need your help." Dougal leaned across the desk looking intently at Nathan MacKinnie.
     "What are you going to do?"
     "But you must have heard him. You were there when he babbled about the Old Empire library on a planet at the Eye of the Needle."
     MacKinnie thought for a moment, then said, "Yes, but I don't see how that can help us."
     "You haven't thought about this for months, as I have. We found that book not long after they landed, Colonel. It took only a few weeks to understand most of the language. It's not all that different from ours, at least the written forms, which is why the Imperials get around Haven so easily."
     The policeman lit a 'robac cigar, leaned back in his chair, and glared at the ceiling. "Ever since I could read that thing, I've thought of little else but ways to escape this trap. There's no way to avoid being part of the Empire, but by the Saints we can make them take us in as human beings, not slaves!"
     "If you had the book so early, you must have understood what they wanted before Haven made the alliance with them."
     "Of course. It was on my advice that His Majesty entered the alliance. Unless we consolidate Prince Samual's World under a planetary government, we have no chance at all of escaping colonization. And unless it's under King David, I won't have any influence over the planetary government, and you will pardon me if I think I may be better at this kind of intrigue than some of the, shall we say, more honorable men of the other city-states?"
     "All right," MacKinnie said. "So you're a master of intrigue. I still don't see what we can do."
     Dougal laughed. "You've drunk too much whiskey, Iron Man MacKinnie. Tonight and other nights. You're not above a bit of duplicity yourself. You used several very clever dodges on us. Your record, Colonel—I have it here—your record says you are more than just a simple combat soldier. But it's pleasing to be able to instruct you."
     Dougal poured more chickeest. "That library is the key to it all. If we had the knowledge that must be there—our people at the University, and the industrial barons of Orleans and Haven, and the miners of Clanranald—what couldn't they do? We could build a spaceship. A starship, perhaps. And by their own rules the Imperials would have to admit us as a classified world, not a colony. We'd still have to knuckle under to them, but we'd be subjects, not slaves."
     MacKinnie took a deep breath. "That's quite a plan."
     "It's the only possible plan."
     MacKinnie shook his head. "I don't see how you can keep them from finding out, but you're better at that than me. But you can't get at the library without a ship, and we can't build a ship without the library. Even if we had one, we couldn't operate it. There's been nobody on this planet who ever saw the inside of a starship for hundreds of years. Until the Imperials came, most of the population thought that history before the Secession Wars was just a lot of legends. How in hell do you propose that we get to the Eye of the Needle?"
     "That's the simplest part of the plan, Colonel. The Imperials have already offered to take us there." He smiled at Nathan's startled look. "They're not all Navy and Military, you know. Some Imperial citizens are Traders. There's one batch of them right now negotiating with King David over the rights to grua. They think our brandy will be worth a fortune on their capital.
     "They want platinum and iridium, too; those metals seem to be very useful to them and in short supply. But there isn't much they can give us in return, because the Navy won't let them sell us what we really want—technology. The Navy rule is, you can't trade anything more technologically advanced than what your customer already has without special permission from the Imperial Council. We offered to buy those little devices they all carry around like notebooks. 'Pocket computers,' the Navy men call them. They seem to be machines. They can't sell those."
     "What can they sell?"
     "Not much, it appears. But they have offered the king transportation to a world less advanced than ours, someplace where we can try our luck at selling. They suggested a planet at the star we call the Eye of the Needle as the closest, and we are already discussing an expedition to go there and try to organize trade . . . ."
     "The Navy will permit this?" MacKinnie asked.
     "Under conditions. Stringent conditions, I might add. We can't take anything more advanced than the natives already have. The Navy inspects our trade mission and goods before we go to the planet. But they will let us go. It appears that the Imperial Traders Association has a good-sized block of votes in the Imperial Council. I don't pretend to understand capital politics, but the ITA seems very influential. They can force the Navy to let us trade with that planet, Makassar, it's called."
     "Won't they be watching to see that we don't get near the library?" MacKinnie asked. The whiskey fog was gone from his mind now, but more than that, he felt useful again, as if there were something he might do which could not be taken away by a whim of fate. He listened to Dougal with keen interest, not noticing that Sergeant Stark was stirring on the couch to his right.
     "They have never mentioned the library," Dougal said. "Until that young lieutenant babbled about it in the Blue Bottle, I never knew it existed. I think the library's an anomaly in their records, not listed as an advanced artifact because it's so old and the people on Makassar don't know how to use it. That's only a guess. I do know they've been willing to let us go there."

From KING DAVID'S SPACESHIP by Jerry Pournelle (1981)

The government of Yiktor was at the feudal stage.…Thus the existing balance of power was a delicate thing. This meant for us Traders brain lock, weapon lock, nuisances though they were and much as we disliked them.

Far back in Free Trading, for their own protection against the power of the Patrol and the wrath of Control (the galactic empire), the Traders themselves had realized the necessity of these two safeguards on primitive planets. Certain technical information was not an item to be traded, no matter how high the inducement. Arms from off-world, or the knowledge of their manufacture, were set behind a barrier of No Sale. When we planeted on such a world, all weapons other than belt stunners were put into a lock stass which would not be released until the ship rose from that earth. We also passed a brain lock inhibiting any such information being won from us. This might seem to make us unarmed prey for any ambitious lord who might wish to wring us hard for such facts. But the law of the fair gave us complete immunity from danger—as long as we stayed within the limits set by the priests on the first day.

From MOON OF THREE RINGS by Andre Norton (1966)

There are few guidelines that members of Starfleet hold as dear as the Prime Directive. (Though I’m Not Just A Doctor: On-the-Job Flexibility and You may come in second, and Contraceptive Techniques for When Warp Ten Makes You a Lizard gets an honorable mention.)

The Directive is the closest thing that Star Trek has to a central dogma. Disavowing the exploitation that has so often riddled human history, the Federation decides to keep its hands off of any societies that have not yet attained interstellar travel. In the words of the original Enterprise crew, this involves “No identification of self or mission… No interference with the social development of said planet… No References to space, other worlds, or advanced civilizations.”

This was expanded greatly during the breadth of the Trek franchise, malleable in the hands of different writers. The central idea of mucking about in a less-advanced planet’s affairs being bad stayed the same, creating plots both interesting and contrived. On TOS, though, it was usually an excuse to raid the network wardrobe department.

The fear behind the Prime Directive was one oft used in science fiction in the latter half of the Twentieth Century: if a less technologically developed species got their hands on highly developed technology, then they would promptly use it to destroy themselves in some way. So Star Trek argues that it is far better for the race to develop technologically on its own, so that they can attain the technology that can be used to destroy themselves without cheating. Which is better, somehow.

Given the historical context of the Cold War, it’s understandable why the Prime Directive came about. When TOS was in production, the major world powers on both sides extended their policy by subversively manipulating countries and regions deemed strategic. And, in many cases, this interference led to damage in terms of political extremism, economic stagnation, and countless human lives through state sponsored violence and war.

Wouldn’t it be nice, thought ol’ Gene, to have everyone just mind their own stinkin’ business for once?

On the whole, that’s an admirable notion. Let everyone tend to themselves, and together we can make a better world (or galaxy or whatever) that is defined by our own terms. It’s good that Roddenberry wanted to make room for that sort of view in his unique vision of the future, and it serves as a timely commentary on issues we still face today.

Too bad that, the way it’s portrayed, the Prime Directive is even worse than interfering in the first place, and it’s even a little space elitist.

I know, I know. That’s a pretty hefty critique to lay at the feet of a revered TV franchise, but I wouldn’t say it if I couldn’t back it up. And I don’t just mean the whole “we’ll wait for you to make the technology that can kill you” stuff. The real problem has to do with a theory in political science known as ‘developmental theory.’

This theory tries to explain the changes of states over time, and can be characterized as “path dependent.” Path dependency maintains that development in any sort of system is the result of a series of choices that accumulates returns over time. A country’s development from the past is therefore dependent on its, er, path. This theory is heavily informed by the notion of a telos, which means “destination” in Greek (not to be confused with the second home of the Cybermen, different franchise). Thus, a teleological frame of thinking is one that involves a linear progression with an ultimate goal at its end.

Combine the two ideas, and you have something like this: at the beginning of development, you have the “State of Nature” where anarchy reigns and individuals will attempt to control or share basic resources. From here societies will develop around deciding where those resources go, with growing levels of sophistication as time continues. At some point along this line, the society changes so much from its previous form that it experiences what social theorist Max Weber called a “disenchantment” with its past self.

This theory works out fine, until we come to the part that often comes under fire: some hold that the beginning of “true” modernity for all states (the telos) is linked directly to certain events in European history, such as the Enlightenment or the Romantic Movement. This view is often criticized for treating Europe as an isolated entity, without taking into account the effect that Europe and the rest of the world had on each other at the time. Recent analyses suggest that the relative early rise of Europe was due to cultural organization in the West versus that found in the rest of the world, with Europe not as deterministically ‘special’ as was once thought.

The parallel between developmental theory and the Prime Directive make themselves quite clear. In both cases, there is a select group of states which say that others that have not yet attained certain characteristics (read: the same as their own) are not as modern or sophisticated. And until those “lower” cultures take on the characteristics of the “sophisticates,” they will be forever confined to a pre-modern existence. The Prime Directive, however, maintains that it is necessary for the different societies to achieve their telos on their own, and any external influence will forever taint their progress to that noble goal.

That is the real hypocrisy (and space elitism) of the Prime Directive. While they apparently want societies to flourish without any external variables, almost like the observers of an experiment, the Federation fails to recognize (or admit to recognize) that there exists within the universe certain limitations that could potentially restrict a huge percentage of the universal population.

Here’s what I mean by that: A corollary to the Fermi Paradox suggests that it’s possible for intelligent life to exist in the universe, but certain factors would limit them from access to our sort of technological development. A hypothetical species could have their means of interstellar travel and communication on a mass scale severely depreciated, with the rest of the universe totally unaware of them.

That said, it would still be possible for them to achieve a socio-political disenchantment similar to any other Federation member, or even for their scientific knowledge to excel in relation to their restrictions. However, they would never be eligible for membership in the Federation due to systemic factors that are entirely out of their control.

The Federation seems to think this is the way things should be, and why wouldn’t they when it works so well in their favor? Doing this allows them to retain a greater share of the universe’s prosperity, only doling it out to those that mimic their own successes exactly.

Through this developmental self-selection, the Federation’s membership becomes homogenized and enforces a technological hegemony on the universe that ironically keeps many underprivileged groups from reaching their potential within the universe’s socio-political ecosystem. This hegemony becomes so important that some societies are allowed to fall by the wayside through total extinction events in order to protect it.

Now, you can argue all you like that this isn’t the true intent of the Prime Directive, but you sure can’t say that this isn’t the effect. Differences between the member races are usually arbitrary and one-note, doing nothing to counter the Federation’s human-lead policies. Rarely are there signs of discord, with the organization acting in concert throughout its affairs. New members never really seem to stir the pot when they come along, and this self-selection is more than likely the culprit.

This raises the question, what good does the Prime Directive actually do for anyone involved? We’ve already established that it’s harmful to the development of the universe at large, and that it makes out the Federation to be a culturally stagnant hypocrite. Where’s the good, other than the pat on the back the Federation gives itself because they’re one of the “good guys?”

There is none. It is a logical back alley designed only as a political statement against imperialist or interventionist histories. As a piece of art and storytelling meant to make comment on the Cold War and conflicts like it, I suppose that’s fine, even if it doesn’t very well reflect how societies have historically interacted with each other in the past.

I think this is why I prefer the sort of science fiction like Stargate: SG-1 or the relatively new Falling Skies, which portrays interactions between alien races at varying technological levels with a great amount of nuance. The races in these stories exchange all sorts of things, even weaponry. Sometimes the interactions are good, sometimes they’re bad, sometimes just indifferent.

There are no absolutes, as there are none in real life. Exploring where the consequences of those actions go, and the “disenchantment” that they bring about, is much more compelling than holding onto a blind fear of the past’s mistakes.


Thus, hardening of the arteries is the process by which a television show gradually limits itself by setting up conditions which will affect all episodes that will come after. Producers are always a little bit wary about expanding on their formats because of the danger of this happening—the happening—they might inadvertently set something up that could backfire and severely limit them in the future.

A few examples from STAR TREK:

The Prime Directive—also known as General Order Number One. This, according to the STAR TREK Writers’ Guide, third revision, is “a wise, but often troublesome rule which prohibits starship interference with the normal development of alien life and societies.” It was first postulated in an episode entitled, “The Apple” in which Kirk and crew must violate the directive and destroy an Eden. The justification was that this Eden was an artificial condition which was already interfering with the normal development of this particular culture. It rapidly became clear that the Prime Directive was to be more honored in the breach than otherwise.

In fact, the only times we ever heard about the Prime Directive was just before Kirk broke it. There never was a story told where he obeyed the rule.

The Prime Directive was broken in “A Private Little War," “Patterns of Force," “A Piece of the Action,” “Bread and Circuses,” and quite a few other episodes. This is why it was such a troublesome rule—it was troublesome to the writers who had to work their stories around it. In all of these episodes, Kirk eventually had to interfere with the so-called normal development of the alien society. Sometimes he was putting it back on its proper course after someone else had tampered with it, "Bread and Circuses,” “Patterns of Force,” for example.

The STAR TREK Writers’ Guide summarizes the rule like this: “It can be disregarded when absolutely vital to the interests of the entire Earth Federation, but the Captain who does violate it had better be ready to present a sound defense of his actions."

Which means, translated into English: The Prime Directive is a great idea, but it's also a bloody nuisance. Let's forget about the whole thing.

The Prime Directive gets in the way of telling “Mary Worth” stories. It keeps the Enterprise from being a cosmic meddler. And that's too much of a limitation on the format. It keeps Kirk from being a moralist because he can no longer say, “This is right and this is wrong" to the people of Eminiar VII and Vendikar in “A Taste of Armageddon.” In fact, he can't even blow up the computer that controls their simulated war if he subscribes to General Order Number One.

Nor can he destroy the Landru computer on Beta III in “Return of the Archons." Nor is he allowed to upset the status quo on Triskelion in “The Gamesters of Triskelion.”

The Prime Directive is a very idealistic rule—but it keeps getting in the way of the story. Therefore, it has to be disregarded. Regularly.

In the third season, it was totally ignored. Forgotten. They had problems enough without it.

From THE WORLD OF STAR TREK by by David Gerrold (1973)

Man Was Not Meant To Know

As opposed to the above, this is technology that will be forever bad and evil, no matter how mature humanity becomes. This is not quite as common in science fiction, since science generally does not admit to the existence of any such thing. It generally is found only in stories based around one moral system or another so the evilness is relative to the morality, not an absolute. More like in fantasies like H. P. Lovecraft's tales of dread Cthulhu.

A mild version of this sometimes appears in science fictions as a dystopian background, or as something the author uses to deliberately put the brakes on technological development so the novel's background does not confuse the readers.

Spock: I do not dispute that in the wrong hands...
McCoy: "In the wrong hands"? Would you mind telling whose are the right hands, my logical friend?
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility, but Power Corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Some powers — and responsibilities — are too great for anyone to be trusted with.

A character may realize this on his own — perhaps the Big Bad has just been defeated, and his Ancient Artifact is now in The Hero's control. After contemplating all the good he could do, The Hero may realize that he can't take away people's free will. He may experience a "We're Not So Different" moment, and gain some sympathy for his enemy.

Alternatively, the party may begin fighting over who should control this power, demonstrating their inability to be trusted with it. Eventually, a wiser member will point out that the only possible solution is for no one to have it.

In any case, the choice will usually be clear. The source of power must be discarded, destroyed, or sealed back in its tin. This may be a final resolution, a return to the status quo, or even the beginning of a quest to get rid of the power. If the proper choice isn't made, this may mark the Start of Darkness.

See No MacGuffin, No Winner when the power is lost as a karmic punishment, rather than a willing decision in fear of the consequences. Also compare It Belongs in a Museum. Does not refer to powers that only women have, or only The Chosen One or many should have.

See also: The World Is Not Ready, Status Quo Is God, Reluctant Mad Scientist, and Technological Pacifist. If the power simply isn't used, for no specific reason, that's Holding Back the Phlebotinum. If the protagonists aim for this trope but don't succeed, see Dangerous Device Disposal Debacle.

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


(ed note: the protagonists are trying to recover a billon-year old alien space suit encased in a time-stopping "statis field." Among the things inside the suit is a device that will amplify a telepath's power to a point where they could hypnotically enslave everybody on Terra.)

(ed note: Luke the ARM from Terra and Smoky from the Belt are arguing)

      “I never thought the ARMS was a grand idea,” said Luke. “I think they’re necessary. Absolutely necessary. I joined because I thought I could be useful.”
     “Luke, if flatlanders (Earthmen) need thought police to keep them alive, they shouldn’t stay alive. You’re trying to hold back evolution.”
     “We are not thought police! What we police is technology. If someone builds something that has a good chance of wiping out civilization, then and only then do we suppress it. You’d be surprised how often it happens.”
     Smoky’s voice was ripe with scorn. “Would I? Why not suppress the fusion tube while you’re at it? No, don’t interrupt me, Luke, this is important. They don’t use fusion only in ships. Half Earth’s drinking water comes from seawater distilleries, and they all use fusion heat. Most of Earth’s electricity is fusion, and all of the Belt’s. There’s fusion flame in crematoriums and garbage disposal plants. Look at all the uranium you have to import, just to squirt into fusion tubes as primer! And there are hundreds of thousands of fusion ships, every last one of which — “
     ” — turns into a hydrogen bomb at the flip of a switch.”
     “Too right. So why doesn’t the ARMS suppress fusion?”
     “First, because the ARMS was formed too late. Fusion was already here. Second, because we need fusion. The fusion tube is human civilization, the way the electrical generator used to be. Thirdly, because we won’t interfere with anything that helps space travel. But I’m glad — “
     “You’re begging the…”
     “MY TURN, Smoky. I’m glad you brought up fusion, because that’s the whole point. The purpose of the ARMS is to keep the balance wheel on civilization. Knock that balance wheel off kilter, and the first thing that would happen would be war. It always is. This time it’d be the last. Can you imagine a full-scale war, with that many hydrogen bombs just waiting to be used? Flip of a switch, I think you said.”
     “You said. Do you have to stamp on human ingenuity to keep the balance wheel straight? That’s a blistering condemnation of Earth, if true.”
     “Smoky, if it weren’t top secret I could show you a suppressed projector that can damp a fusion shield from ten miles away. Chick Watson got to be my boss by spotting an invention that would have forced us to make murder legal. There was — “
     “Don’t tell me about evidence you can’t produce.”
     “All right, dammit, what about this (alien telepathic) amplifier we’re all chasing? Suppose some bright boy came up with an amplifier for telepathic hypnosis? Would you suppress it?”
     “You produce it and I’ll answer.”

     “So we all made it,” said Luke, beaming around at the company. “I was afraid the Last War would start on Pluto.”
     “Me too,” said Lew. His voice was barely slurred. “We were afraid you wouldn’t take the hint when we couldn’t answer your calls. You might have decided that was some stupid piece of indirection.” He blinked and tightened his lips, dismissing the memory. “So what’ll we do with the spare suit?” (which contains the alien telepathic hypnosis amplifier)
     Now he had everybody’s attention. This was a meeting hall, and the suit was the main order of business.
     “We can’t let Earth have it,” said Smoky. “They could open it. We don’t have their time stopper.” (the spare suit is encased in a time-stopping "statis field", and cannot be opened without a second field. Earth has stasis technology, the Belt does not.) Without looking at Luke, he added, “Some inventions do have to be suppressed.”
     “You could get it with a little research,” said Garner.
     “Dump it on Jupiter,” Masney advised. “Strap it to the Heinlein’s hull and let Woody and me fly it. (Masney is from Earth, Woody is from the Belt) If we both come back alive you know it got dumped on schedule. Right?”
     “Right,” said Lew. Garner nodded. Others in the lounge tasted the idea and found it good, despite the loss of knowledge which must be buried with the suit. Larry Greenberg, who had other objections, kept them to himself.

From WORLD OF PTAVVS by Larry Niven (1965)

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)


Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population.

Obviously it is a hot-button issue. Most groups become hysterical when you suggest limiting their right to reproduce (especially if said group fears they will slip from being the majority to being the minority).

They get even more hysterical when they are prevented from reproducing by being put to death.

However there are other troubling questions. The main one is exactly what sort of measuring standard are you using to define "improved"? Almost as troubling is "who decides the measuring standards, and who does the measuring?" Obviously those in power can abuse this as a nasty form of ethnic cleansing.

More innocently, harm can mistakenly be done. For instance, sickle-cell anaemia is a genetically caused disease which occurs when the person inherits two allele of the sickle cell trait. People suffering from it rarely live past age 60. So that allele should be eugenically eliminated, right? Wrong! People with one allele are resistant to the even more deadly disease malaria. In this case, using eugenics would do more harm than good. The same holds true for the cystic fibrosis allele and cholera.

There is also the fear that such manipulation will reduce genetic diversity thus leading to inbreeding depression. In Beyond This Horizon by Robert Heinlein, genetic selection for increased health, longevity, and intelligence has become so widespread that the unmodified 'control naturals' are a carefully managed and protected minority.

Finally there is all those hideous overtones of Nazi Germany.

A milder form of eugenics is when the decision is made by the parents, not the government. You generally see this in science fiction with in vitro fertilization and a doctor giving the parents genetic counselling. The doctor gives the parents a list with check-boxes so the parents can chose what traits they want in their offspring, and advises them to omit obvious genetic diseases. The choices are fed into the machine, there is some quick genetic engineering on the zygote, then it is ready to be implanted (or popped into the artificial womb). See the movie Gattaca.

I don't trust people to genetically 'design' their child because I see what they do with character creation in games.

From a thread in Reddit: Shower Thoughts by Slimebeast (2016)

There are many ways to implement eugenics.


After homo sapiens becomes a multi-planet species, the question becomes, would we remain a single species of humanity? Scott Solomon thinks a lot about this question in his new book Future Humans, which will be published by Yale Press in October. In it, he explores the future evolution of our species, including some musings on Mars.

“The general concept for the book is to ask about our ongoing evolution, from the perspective of a scientist who takes what we know about our past, what we know about today, and thinking about the long-term possibilities for our species,” Solomon, a biologist at Rice University in Houston, said. What, he wondered, would it take to lead to development of a new species? Put another way, how long would humans on Mars remain human?

Solomon explained that new species evolve most commonly when a barrier prevents a population from mating, such as on an island archipelago, so species on separate Galapagos islands evolve along separate lines. With modern humanity, of course, the trend is going in the opposite direction, as people move around the planet at a rate unprecedented in human history. “So on planet Earth it would take a major change to imagine us having populations isolated long enough to have distinct species,” he said.

The gulf between Earth and Mars might present such a barrier, if the Martian colony were self-sustaining and persistent. Through natural selection, humans and any organisms they bring with them, such as a plants, may evolve and adapt to Mars' harsh environment and low gravity, which is only a third of Earth's gravity.

Lacking a magnetosphere, Mars is bombarded by an increased rate of radiation, which also favors speciation. Ionizing radiation causes mutation in genes, which would provide a source of new genetic variations. That could accelerate the process of adaptation. On the downside, Solomon said, the higher radiation might just kill people. Or it might cause colonists to perpetually huddle inside small habitats and space suits, leading a Morlock-like existence and facing a similar evolutionary fate.

Ultimately it still may take a long time for speciation to occur. The one solid data point we have on Earth is the colonization of the Americas, which were settled by waves of people moving across the Bering Strait around the end of the last ice age. These populations were then isolated from the rest of world for about 10,000 years. When Europeans arrived they found a distinct population of native Americans, Solomon said, but certainly not a different species. That would suggest that, on a planet with a similar atmosphere and gravity as the Earth, it would take a human population more than 10,000 years to speciate. Mars is not that planet, of course.

Another factor to consider as humans contemplate colonizing other worlds, Solomon said, is the “founder effect,” which simply means that when a small number of people establish a new population from a larger population, the genes of the founders will have a huge influence on that population moving forward. This occurred with the small bands of humans spreading out from Africa.

“I’m thinking about what the long-term fate of our species may be,” Solomon said. “When selecting colonists I don’t believe we should be trying to select what attributes we want in a new species of humans. But it’s interesting to think that if you were to take only people from certain populations, or try to include a diversity of all of humanity, how those outcomes would be very different for the potential of what might become a new species of humans.”


Quote Brain Wave has been moved here.


Nothing to do with corn

“Ladies, Lords.

Today, with the advent of cheaply available nanomutagens, we are seeing an explosion in human genetic alteration ranging from pre-natal to geriatric–and from targeted risk factor reduction to wholesale alteration of secondary sexual characteristics. The government does not possess any agency for regulating such operations, and the recent passage of court bill 2301AP-8903 legally binds it to inaction. I believe this is a failure on the part of this committee, inasmuch as we are obligated to also advise policy.

The problem is that legalization of all such genetic engineering doesn’t merely pass the burden of inevitable failures onto the expectant parents or individual requesting the treatment (as the legislature appears to have concluded); it also creates a sociogenetic debt.

True, we have overseen the almost complete eradication of the more common genetically linked susceptibilities–as well as single-gene genetic disorders proper, such as CF and TS in the last decade alone. In the case of the former, we can all agree that eliminating the most common ΔF508 mutation was a triumph of science and humanity.

But what about myopia? If present trends continue, genes for imperfect eyesight will be ruthlessly bred out until no human wears eyeglasses. Gone will be the bespectacled academic, the horn-rimmed librarian, the bookish teen. This correction of a genetic fault will thereby alter our culture.

People have preferences for hair, eye color, and so on. So far, diversity has been preserved only by the presence of differing racial and societal expectations of attractiveness. But already we see evidence of women crippled by their parents’ absurdly idealized notions of beauty, especially body weight, and men too Hellenistically sculpted to fit into standard space suits. We’re at an inflection point where an entire generation could be born blond if some hypothetical singer with sandy hair became sufficiently popular.”

TS [2301-05-22 13:28, 2301-05-22 13:33]


Just now, he was reading up on Vivers. Kelly could find little in the ship’s library on the strange creatures. He asked Torwald, and the older spacer gave him a microfilm monograph, written by none other than one Torwald Raffen, that contained more accurate information than any “official” document about the secretive subspecies.

Kelly learned that in the last century, a few decades after the first interstellar drive was perfected, a group of geneticists got together and decided, after the fashion of scientists, that the human race could stand some improvement. They were going to create the Future Man. It was decided that humans were good mainly for surviving and that the new human race would have to be even better at it in order to be equal to the unknown exigencies of new worlds. It was agreed that the upright, bipedal, digit-handed human form could scarcely be improved upon for generalized capability, but that little improvements could be added here and there, specialties without specialization, as it were. Onto this they grafted a mentality obsessively concerned with survival. The result was the Viver, though it was not quite what they had planned. The fear that Vivers generated in ordinary humans was sufficient to get genetic engineering of humans banned forever. Kelly scratched Teddy’s ears and pondered that. The pseudobear had become a close friend, for it seemed to be the only life form on board that didn’t give him orders, chew him out, or think up unpleasant jobs for him to perform.

The typical Viver, Kelly read, was between six and seven feet tall and covered with horny, articulated plates of chitin that roughly followed the lines of human musculature. The hands were human in design but much larger, the knuckles covered with a spiked band of bone. The fingertips were equipped with inch-long retractile claws that did not interfere with ordinary use of the fingers when sheathed. Elbows and knees were heavily knobbed and bore large spikes. The feet had no toes, the foot being equipped with a club of bone and chitin where the toes should be. At the back of the leg, just below the calf, was a protrusion somewhat like a horse’s fetlock that concealed a seven-inch razor-sharp spur, perhaps the deadliest of the Viver’s natural weapons.

The head, set on a long flexible neck, was the least human feature of a Viver. The eyes were huge, taking up most of the skull’s interior. They were covered with a transparent plate and could swivel independently of one another. There were several, smaller apertures around the skull for the eyes to peer through. The beings had no true teeth, just serrated chitin.

Internally, Vivers difiered even more radically from the human parent stock. The brain was distributed throughout the body in tiny nodes, and the heart was likewise decentralized, being a series of small pumps distributed throughout the circulatory system. Practically the only way to kill a Viver was to cut him up into very small pieces. All parts, including brain tissue, were regenerative. It had been speculated that if a Viver were split in two down the middle, two complete Vivers would be the eventual result. So far no one had had the nerve to try that particular experiment.

Psychologically, all else was subordinate to the survival imperative. A Viver concerned himself with the survival of his race, his clan, his family, and himself. There were no political loyalties, only biological ones. They were smugglers because they had no respect whatever for ordinary human laws. They would have made invincible soldiers, but they saw war as a threat to their survival and studiously ignored conflicts between ordinary humans.

However, there was one exception. Young Vivers, before being judged fit to reproduce, had to undergo a period of exile during which they were expected to take part in wars and other adventures of a violent sort. It was for this last reason that the Space Angel was calling upon the good ship K’Tchak.

The Viver ship resembled a collection of buildings held together with tubes and braces, and, essentially, that was what it was. Built in space, it was never intended to land. The craft had to be big, for it contained almost all of the clan K’Tchak, and additions were made as the clan expanded. Despite their horrible tempers, Vivers liked the company of their own kind and ran to large families. It was all part of their obsession with survival.

As she approached, the Angel had about a fleet’s worth of armament trained on her. This was not because of her new weaponry; lifeboats received the same treatment from a Viver clan ship. Torwald gave a few passwords over the ship-to-ship and obtained grudging permission to go aboard, alone. As a security precaution, the skipper insisted that Torwald carry a scanner giving full aural and visual communication with those aboard the Angel. The Vivers did not object to the procedure; Vivers understood all about security precautions.

From SPACE ANGEL by John Maddox Roberts (1979)

End of Natural Selection

A concept that appears in science fiction once or twice is that "humans have stopped evolving", specifically technology and medical science have drastically hindered the process of natural selection. For instance, in primitive times a person with the genetic disease Phenylketonuria probably would not be able to survive long enough to reproduce (natural selection will prevent passing on the genetic disease). But currently modern medicine can detect the disease in newborns, and treat it with a special diet. In other words the person would survive long enough to pass it on to their offspring, thus thwarting natural selection.

Sir David Attenborough stated "We stopped natural selection as soon as we started being able to rear 95–99 percent of our babies that are born." Others have pointed out that while that might be true of 1st world countries, it is far from being true for the entire world.

In the Alan E. Nourse novel The Bladerunner (no relation to the movie of the same name) the world of the future has free, comprehensive medical treatment is available for anyone so long as they qualify for treatment under the Eugenics Laws. Preconditions for medical care include sterilization, and no legitimate medical care is available for anyone who does not qualify or does not wish to undergo the sterilization procedure (including children over the age of five). The ideas is to stop thwarting natural selection.

Others say humans are indeed still evolving, all we have done is shifted a large number of selective forces. While modern medicine has averted many biological cause of natural selection, one can see many new versions of natural selection by just perusing the Darwin Awards. In other words: deadly diseases has been replaced by Jackass.

A tangentially related concept appears in the Cyril Kornbluth short story The Marching Morons (which later inspired the movie Idiocracy). In the story, married couples who are intelligent tend not to have children, while unintelligent couples breed like cockroaches. After several hundred years of this, the average intelligence is what we would currently call an IQ of 45. The few intelligent people have no idea how to stop the collapse of society, but lucky for them a con artist who had been in suspended animation for 300 years has an answer that is effective (abet draconian).

The main flaw with the story is that the possibility of genetically breeding for stupidity is unproven.


"When did mankind lose touch with natural selection? No matter how inferior a human's genes are, that person is protected by laws, and can't be killed. Even those incapacitated in accidents or stricken with a serious illness are needlessly kept alive. What a drawn out, wasteful existence. It's this divorce from natural selection that has caused mankind to stop evolving. It's a step down. The devolution of mankind. But I intend to accelerate the culling of genetically inferior humans. To rekindle the refining fire of natural selection!" — Hans Davis, Metal Gear Ac!d

Some evil mad scientists use their twisted intellect solely for personal gain. This particular villain is not so provincial. His genius and his motives go hand in hand, and his concerns are (he thinks) with the welfare of the human species. Simply put, to the Evilutionary Biologist, humanity is stuck in an evolutionary rut, and it's up to him to put us back on the proper path so we can continue to evolve.

Why the Evilutionary Biologist believes this is necessary varies, as do his methods. Some Evilutionary Biologists simply believe that humanity has erred in its domination of the environment, and thus our very survival as a species is threatened unless they force us to continue evolving. Others see change and so-called improvement as goals in and of themselves, and resolve to use scientific advancement to cause them. Still others seek to create a new race of biologically superior transhumans or just the Ultimate Life Form with the power of science, either because they see humans as having outlived their time on the planet or because of a genuine desire to improve the human condition. They often subscribe to the philosophies of Social Darwinism and "The Ends Justify the Means". It's not uncommon for them to practice what they preach and marry a woman they see as fit and worthy for them and father a Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter.

Regardless, because of his dedication, the Evilutionary Biologist is willing to break laws, engage in experimental alterations upon other human beings, and ruin lives for the higher goal. Their creations are no less exempt; whether they're Replacement Goldfish, with the Cloning Blues, or genetically "programmed" to have evil In the Blood, their "children" are doomed to live sad, short, rebellious lives, unless they really do feel parental. They will never realize that Evil Evolves, and will never be able to identify themselves as the villains.

Evilutionary Biologists often create inhuman monsters and artificial humans to serve as minions and Mooks, as well as to populate their extensive Garden of Evil. They themselves may even be willing to suffer the fruits of their experimentation, often resulting in a monstrous, inhuman new body.

Whenever an Evilutionary Biologist appears on the scene — they are the most common form of villainous biologist in many games and Speculative Fiction media — be on guard for a Science Is Bad aesop to rear its ugly head.

This is especially ironic because in real biology, one of the core precepts of the theory of evolution is that it does not "improve" a species, because there is no such thing as an ideal form for a species — only what is best* at surviving and reproducing in current conditions. If the environment changes, the species must adapt all over again, which is why genetic diversity (Nature's way of "hedging her bets") is usually a good thing. Moreover, assuming that a species must evolve if subjected to imposed selection pressures (or Phlebotinum-induced mutations) overlooks the harsh fact that most organisms don't adapt in the face of such challenges: they simply go extinct, which is why we're not rubbing elbows with mammoths, sauropods and trilobites today. Deliberately applying such selective forces to humans may let us join them in extinction, not improve upon our current state. Finally, evolution is conservative, and a species which is thriving (you know, like Homo sapiens) is unlikely to evolve new traits, because it's doing fine the way it is. Sharks, for example, haven't changed much since before the first dinosaurs appeared, and they're just as successful as ever...making the entire mania of the Evilutionary Biologist suspect at best.

Even so, Goal-Oriented Evolution was taken dead seriously by many in the heyday of the Eugenics Movement, and still gets cited by people who really ought to know better (Singularitarians are frequently guilty of it).

Examples of this trope will probably be German, and possibly one of Those Wacky Nazis, if we want to be really obvious.

Compare Designer Babies.

* Or rather "good enough". Products of evolution are often The Alleged Car of the natural world. Go figure

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


     But I can tell you what sort of a planet it is (Planet Sanctuary). Like Earth, but retarded.
     Literally retarded, like a kid who takes ten years to learn to wave bye-bye and never does manage to master patty-cake. It is a planet as near like Earth as two planets can be, same age according to the planetologists and its star is the same age as the Sun and the same type, so say the astrophysicists. It has plenty of flora and fauna, the same atmosphere as Earth, near enough, and much the same weather; it even has a good-sized moon and Earth's exceptional tides.
     With all these advantages it barely got away from the starting gate. You see, it's short on mutations; it does not enjoy Earth's high level of natural radiation.
     Its typical and most highly developed plant life is a very primitive giant fern; its top animal life is a proto-insect which hasn't even developed colonies. I am not speaking of transplanted Terran flora and fauna—our stuff moves in and brushes the native stuff aside.
     With its evolutionary progress held down almost to zero by lack of radiation and a consequent most unhealthily low mutation rate, native life forms on Sanctuary just haven't had a decent chance to evolve and aren't fit to compete. Their gene patterns remain fixed for a relatively long time; they aren't adaptable—like being forced to play the same bridge hand over and over again, for eons, with no hope of getting a better one.
     As long as they just competed with each other, this didn't matter too much—morons among morons, so to speak. But when types that had evolved on a planet enjoying high radiation and fierce competition were introduced, the native stuff was outclassed.
     Now all the above is perfectly obvious from high school biology . . . but the high forehead from the research station there who was telling me about this brought up a point I would never have thought of.
     What about the human beings who have colonized Sanctuary?
     Not transients like me, but the colonists who live there, many of whom were born there, and whose descendants will live there, even into the umpteenth generation—what about those descendants? It doesn't do a person any harm not to be radiated; in fact it's a bit safer—leukemia and some types of cancer are almost unknown there. Besides that, the economic situation is at present all in their favor; when they plant a field of (Terran) wheat, they don't even have to clear out the weeds. Terran wheat displaces anything native.
     But the descendants of those colonists won't evolve. Not much, anyhow. This chap told me that they could improve a little through mutation from other causes, from new blood added by immigration, and from natural selection among the gene patterns they already own—but that is all very minor compared with the evolutionary rate on Terra and on any usual planet. So what happens? Do they stay frozen at their present level while the rest of the human race moves on past them, until they are living fossils, as out of place as a pithecanthropus in a spaceship?
     Or will they worry about the fate of their descendants and dose themselves regularly with X-rays or maybe set off lots of dirty-type nuclear explosions each year to build up a fallout reservoir in their atmosphere? (Accepting, of course, the immediate dangers of radiation to themselves in order to provide a proper genetic heritage of mutation for the benefit of their descendants.)
     This bloke predicted that they would not do anything. He claims that the human race is too individualistic, too self-centered, to worry that much about future generations. He says that the genetic impoverishment of distant generations through lack of radiation is something most people are simply incapable of worrying about. And of course it is a far-distant threat; evolution works so slowly, even on Terra, that the development of a new species is a matter of many, many thousands of years.

From STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein (1959)

Improving lives doesn’t.

Among the baker’s dozen of known galactic species that crawled their way to sapience, sociopsychologists were astonished to find that every one of them had the same intelligence. The bipeds from Earth, the avian dinosaurs from that one outer rim world, the furry bear-creatures that ate methane, put any together and they score within 10 points of each other on an IQ test. This wasn’t true for any other attribute. (Im)mortality? widely varying. Genders? Different systems. Biochemistry? Carbon through Arsenic. Size, shape? Hell no.

But intelligence? Why that?

It turns out that entry-level sapience evolves as a survival trait. Hunt/find your food, develop technologies to make that easier, maybe do some farming, and so on. After basic establishment of civilization, mortality drops by factors in the hundreds or thousands. Population booms, and you start getting plagues from the species concentrating in cities.

This is where it gets interesting. See, once you have plagues, you need doctors. And once you have doctors, you start thinking about all of the other ways to cheat death. So the plagues are beaten back by vaccinations or antibiotics, and then your civ starts concentrating on welfare and quality-of-life.

Pretty soon, your species is living at the maximum, or nearly, of their theoretically longest lives. For some species, this is an extension from a lifespan of decades to millennia.

This is bad.

At best, evolution stagnates. Your weak and stupid have the same chance of reproduction as anyone else–and they’re certainly not going to die before influencing their environments. Diseases that should have killed are mere annoyances, chomping futilely against a barrier of solid medical science. Predators that once ravaged tribes now are confined in zoos or hunted to extinction.

So no one gets any smarter.

The long and short of it is, after a certain point, intelligence is no longer a tremendous advantage to survival and, subsequently, traditional selection factors are abrogated completely. That is point at which medical science develops, which itself happens only when sapients begin the process of introspection and develop sympathy–that is, shortly after the development of sapience itself.


(ed note: Councilor Lake is a sector governor of the Union. Velmeran is an alien Starwolf. Valthyrra is a Starwolf artificial intelligent computer.)

     Which was much easier said than done, Councilor Lake reflected. And just the beginning of his own problems. The human race was dying, or at least degenerating to the point that it could no longer care for itself. The genetic message that made a human was deteriorating; random, detrimental mutations were not only occurring at an alarming rate but were being passed into the common genetic pool. There was no determining the exact cause, although the Councilor preferred to believe that mankind had been too long removed from the laws of natural selection that had guided its evolution.
     People were smaller than they had been in the first days of space flight, slighter of build and gentler of mood and feature. Unfortunately, people were also less intelligent than they had been, less able to reason and remember. Mental deficiency and imbalance claimed a fourth of the population, and another fourth was genetically sterile. It was a problem that had been a very long time coming, but it had finally become so bad that the High Council could no longer ignore it. For in another thousand years the machinery of the Union, of human civilization itself, would grind to a halt for want of maintenance. That might seem like a very long time, but for a problem fifty thousand years in the making, it was already too late.
     Still, Councilor Lake wanted to save what he could. And if stern measures were taken now, a large part of the Union could be saved. The only solution was to enforce the sterilization of large segments of the population, intervening where nature had failed. The general population would not take such controls lightly. The military would be needed to enforce order, especially on those worlds that bore little love or loyalty for the Union from the start. And for that, the problem that the Starwolves represented would have to be eliminated. Or at least reduced to a manageable level.

     "But if we (Starwolves) are not destroying the Union, what is?" Velmeran asked.
     "We see the results, but we can only argue the cause," Lake explained. "Personally, I believe it is because we were not meant for civilized life. Nature gave us hands and a brain so that we could tie a rock to a stick to make a better club. All the rest has been our own idea. Then we began the process of removing ourselves from our environment, the circumstances and conditions that shaped us. Our evolution has stalled out; our civilization promises equal chances for both the weak and strong, and nature intended harsher rules. Cut off from any shaping influence, our species has begun to decline right down to the genetic level.
     "The genetic code that defines a human is becoming too foggy and ragged to read properly. Over a third of our population is genetically sterile. Random mutation has driven infant mortality to levels that we have not known since the dark ages. Mental deficiency and mental imbalance claim a quarter of the population. Do you wonder if we are not in trouble? Our race is dying out, for want of proper maintenance."

     "There is something that I would like to know," Velmeran said quickly. "Have you kept any statistics on the genetic deterioration of the human race?"
     "Genetic deterioration?" Valthyrra's lenses seemed almost to blink in confusion. "Actually, it is hard for me to make any valid observations, but that does not change the fact of its reality. Our own human worlds are in slow decline, and there is every indication that the Union worlds are proceeding at a much greater pace. Especially the inner worlds — it is getting so bad that if all the machines were to suddenly stop, it is doubtful that they could ever get anything running again."
     "Why?" Velmeran asked.
     "Because Mother Nature is a stern mistress," she explained, the information analysis, storage and retrieval systems in her warming to the task. "The one rule of all life is change, and the driving force is survival. But that is a game that modern, civilized man has not been forced to play in nearly sixty thousand years. Nature intended that only the best should thrive and multiply, but for so long now nearly everyone survives — and reproduces indiscriminately. Change continued, but in a random, ineffectual manner, and once begun the process accelerates itself.

From THE STARWOLVES by Thorarinn Gunnarsson (1988)

He pried one eye open, then the other. The voice belonged to a girl of about twenty-one who was standing next to the bed, gazing down at Jason. She was beautiful.

Jason’s eyes opened wider as he realized she was very beautiful—with the kind of beauty he had never found on the planets in the center of the galaxy. The women he had known all ran to pale skin, hollow shoulders, grey faces covered with tints and dyes. They were the product of centuries of breeding weaknesses back into the race, as the advance of medicine kept alive more and more non-survival types.

This girl was the direct opposite in every way. She was the product of survival on Pyrrus. The heavy gravity that produced bulging muscles in men, brought out firm strength in strap-like female muscles. She had the taut figure of a goddess, tanned skin and perfectly formed face. Her hair, which was cut short, circled her head with a golden crown. The only unfeminine thing about her was the gun she wore in a bulky forearm holster.

From DEATHWORLD by Harry Harrison (1960)


In the real world, a Mutant is an organism that suffered a mutation while in the embryonic state. The natural occurrence of genetic mutations is integral to the process of evolution.

The vast majority of mutations either [A] have little or no noticeable effect or [B] kills the embryo before it can be born. The process of evolution is advanced by zillions of tiny mutations over zillions of generations, culled by the relentless forces of natural selection.

No, exposure to radiation will not turn you into a mutant. But if your gonads are irradiated, your future children might be.

Early science fiction authors either didn't understand mutations or found the actual process incredibly boring. So they jazzed it up.

They frantically waved their hands and breathlessly announced that mutation could lead to the Next Stage Of Human Evolution™ !

This concept contains two ignorant fallacies for the price of one. First off it makes the ridiculous assumption that there are "levels" of evolution (measured by what metric, pray tell?) then it compounds the stupidity by postulating that evolution is working towards a specific goal ("orthogenesis") and you can use these non-existent evolutionary levels to measure the progress to the non-existent goal. The tell-tale sign of the latter is the phrase "more evolved."

In reality, the only "goal" of evolution is for the organism to be able to survive and thrive in whatever the current conditions happen to be in this geological epoch. Since conditions change with time, the goal of evolution is a moving target.

Early SF writers who were evolution-theory morons assumed that "intelligence" was the goal of evolutionary progress, the "ultimate life-form" at the top of the evolutionary ladder. The ultimate intelligent life-form was some sort of giant brain. Examples include the Arisans from E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series.

This would lead more evolved females to demand Cesarean section. You see the relatively large size of the human baby's head is the reason why of all the species on Terra, humans are pretty much the only ones who suffer painful child birth. The evolution of a larger pelvis has not kept up with the evolution of larger baby heads.

Latter writers assumed that the goal was a set of superhuman abilities (you know: super-strength, advanced intelligence, immunity to various lethal things, and of course psionic abilities). Examples include Adam Warlock. Others cut to the chase and postulated that the end goal was to evolve humans into energy beings. Examples from Star Trek include the Organians, the Q, and arguably the Melkot, the Thasian, the Metrons, the Medusans, and the Zetarian.

The "levels of evolution" nonsense also lead to nonsensical stories where radiation from nuclear testing creates a crop of mutant children all with the same mutation. In reality mutations are more random than Pi. Not all such stories have this flaw, but there are enough to be really annoying. The only way to get lots of mutants with the same random mutation is if they share a common ancestor.

The stupid writers also got the mechanism wrong. In reality if somebody was exposed to a mutagen, their future offspring might be mutants because the DNA in the germ cells got mangled prior to procreation. But the writers were under the misapprehension that the mutagen would transform the poor exposed person into a mutant on the spot, much like the way cosmic ray exposure created the Fantastic Four. This erroneous concept was apparently created by Hugo de Vries in his 1901 story Die Mutationstheorie.

Mutants are not just people either, don't forget the radiation-spawned giant ants in the movie Them!.

None of this is scientifically accurate, but it is very exciting reading.

In Edmond Hamilton's 1931 story The Man Who Evolved, the concepts were twisted for a shock ending. The mad scientist Dr. John Pollard figures out that cosmic rays are responsible for evolution (sort of true) so exposing a person to concentrated cosmic rays will rapidly evolve them to the next stage of evolution (nope, author is unclear on the concept, it will just fry them to a crisp). With each treatment his brain becomes larger while his body becomes more spindly. At the next to the last stage he is nothing but a huge brain feeding on telepathic energy. Unfortunately for him the final stage is a pathetic primitive single-celled organism. Because apparently the levels of evolution are arranged more as a circle than as a rising staircase.

After 1945 science fiction writers finally got it through their heads that radiation would cause you to have mutant children, but not grant you any unusual powers apart from a drastically shortened lifespan. But they were still stuck on that goal oriented evolution nonsense.

The authors did however invented a brand new trope: a world wide rise in the number of mutants born due to either nuclear testing or in the apocalyptic aftermath of a nuclear war. "Children of the Atom" so to speak.

In science fiction, mutants from low level rises of background radiation due to nuclear testing tend to be superior beings with super powers. The X-Men and Perry Rhodan's Mutant Corps fall into this category.

Post-atomic-war mutants on the other hand tend to be pathetic cripples with misshapen bodies and the wrong number of limbs. In Forrest J. Ackerman's shaggy-dog story The Mute Question, the muties have a proverb: two heads are better than none.

The muties of Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky fall into this category, though in this case the radiation is not from an atomic war. As it turns out the mutie Joe-Jim also has two heads.

In the X-Men stories there is often deep-seated prejudice against mutants, since average humans have the not unreasonable fear that mutants will supplant them. Draconian anti-mutant laws are passed, and periodically there are attempts at mutant genocide. Which just goes to show what idiots average humans are. Especially given the stupendous superpowers possessed by mutants and how angry they become when you try pulling that "final solution" atrocity on them.

There is also plenty of "mutants are evil" garbage in John Wyndham's The Chrysalids. Take a post-nuclear apocalypse community with about Amish levels of technology, mix in an oppressive religion with a paranoid fear of the new, and you have a formula for a real eugenic nightmare. Mutations are considered to be "Blasphemies" and must be either killed or sterilised and banished to the Fringes.

In the Perry Rhodan novels, Terra discovers that the solar system is surrounded by highly advanced interstellar empires that would love to annex the planet. He needs an ace-in-the-hole or Terra is doomed. The Mutant Corps is a team of mutants with psionic powers which the alien empires cannot cope with. The 18 founding-members were mostly Japanese who were born shortly after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The X-Men are sort of the Marvel comics version of Perry Rhodan's Mutant Corps, since X-Men issue #1 came out about two years after Perry Rhodan volume 6.

The archtypical superhuman mutants are the Slans from the eponymous novel by A. E. van Vogt. Every subsequent novel with "Homo Superior" mutants owes something to the Slans (though the novel is sadly unknown nowadays). When it came out, science fiction fans embraced the concept. This is because they naturally figured that they were Slans. The fans started using the pejorative term "mundane" for non-fans, sort of a science-fiction-fan version of the term "Muggle." A house or building where lots of SF fans lived was called a "Slan-shack."

There are a couple of science fiction novels dealing with mutants and galactic empires. They imply that mutants tend to appear when an empire is in the "decline and fall" stage. In his immortal Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov has the mutant the Mule appear during the Dark Ages after the fall of empire. In Andre Norton's Star Ranger the historian mentions that the current time of galactic empire collapse is when "change mutants" make their appearance.

Other novels mention dark rumors about how mutant occur on those planets beyond the rim of the galactic empire. An example is John Brunner's Altar On Asconel.

In Jack Williamson's Seetee Ship and Seetee Shock, the children of asteroid miners occasionally are born with abilities useful in the space environment. Rob McGee is immune to radiation, and has an ability to sense gravitational masses. This allows him to navigate the asteroid belt with relative ease. McGee is the first evidence of asterites evolving into humans suited for living in space.


Blink now, and man is creeping along the galactic rim, in those areas which were later to be regarded as the home of mutants and pirates—but which, significantly, were and remain the only areas where interstellar ships have been built by human beings.

(ed note: Human Empire ships are xenopaleotechnology inherited from a long extinct Forerunner race)

“From me you won’t get the full story,” Vix countered. “I guess no one knows it except those devils on Asconel—Bucyon, and the witch Lydis, and maybe that monster Shry!” He shot a keen look at Spartak. “You flinched when I said ‘witch,’ and ‘devil’ too—don’t you hold with such terms?”

Spartak looked at the table before him, choosing his words carefully. “There are certainly records of mutations developing possessed of what are generally called supernormal talents,” he granted. “Indeed, it was part of Imperial policy for some millennnia to maintain the stability of the status quo by locating such mutations and—if they hadn’t already been put to death by supersititious peasants or townsfolk— transporting them to the lonely Rim worlds. There are said to be whole planets populated by such mutations now. But words like, ‘witch’ have—ah—unfortunate connotations.”

From THE ALTAR ON ASCONEL by John Brunner (1965)

     “I believe that you did break free from him,” Zicti said soberly. “Which is why I have laid the compulsion on you — But, let us examine the facts — you men of Ylene are six point six on the sensitive scale, are you not?”
     “Yes. But Arcturians are supposed to be only five point nine— ”
     “True. But there is always the chance lately that one may be dealing with a change mutant. And this is the proper time in the wave of history for change mutants to appear. A pity we do not know more of Cummi’s background. If he is a mutant that would explain a great deal.”
     “Mutants!” Kartr repeated and he shivered. “I was on Kablo when Pertavar started the Mutant Rebellion— ”
     “Then you know what can come of such an upcurve in mutant births. There are good and bad results from all changes.”

From STAR RANGERS by Andre Norton (1953)

“Joe, what is a superman?”

Gilead did not answer.

“Very well, let’s chuck the term,” Baldwin went on. “It’s been overused and misused and beat up until it has mostly comic connotations. I used it for shock value and I didn’t shock you. The term ‘supermen’ has come to have a fairy tale meaning, conjuring up pictures of x-ray eyes, odd sense or senses, double hearts, uncuttable skin, steel muscles—an adolescent’s dream of the dragon-killing hero. Tripe, of course. Joe, what is a man? What is man that makes him more than an animal? Settle that and we’ll take a crack at defining a superman—or New Man, homo novis, who must displace homo sapiens—is displacing him—because he is better able to survive than is homo sap. I’m not trying to define myself, I’ll leave it up to my associates and the inexorable processes of time as to whether or not I am a superman, a member of the new species of man—same test to apply to you.”


“You. You show disturbing symptoms of being homo novis, Joe, in a sloppy, ignorant, untrained fashion. Not likely, but you just might be one of the breed. Now—what is man? What is the one thing he can do better than animals which is so strong a survival factor that it outweighs all the things that animals of one sort or another can do much better than he can?”

“He can think,”

“I fed you that answer; no prize for it. Okay, you pass yourself off a man; let’s see you do something, What is the one possible conceivable factor—or factors, if you prefer—which the hypothetical superman could have, by mutation or magic or any means, and which could be added to this advantage which man already has and which has enabled him to dominate this planet against the unceasing opposition of a million other species of fauna? Some factor that would make the domination of man by his successor, as inevitable as your domination over a hound dog? Think, Joe. What is the necessary direction of evolution to the next dominant species?”

Giiead engaged in contemplation for what was for him a long time. There were so many lovely attributes that a man might have: to be able to see both like a telescope and microscope, to see the insides of things, to see throughout the spectrum, to have hearing of the same order, to be immune to disease, to grow a new arm or leg, to fly through the air without bothering with silly gadgets like helicopters or jets, to walk unharmed the ocean bottom, to work without tiring—Yet the eagle could fly and he was nearly extinct, even though his eyesight was better than man’s. A dog has better smell and hearing; seals swim better,balance better, and furthermore can store oxygen. Bats can survive where men would starve or die of hardship; they are smart and pesky hard to kill. Rats could—Wait! Could tougher, smarter rats displace man? No, it Just wasn’t in them; too small a brain.

“To be able to think better,” Gilead answered almost instantly. “Hand the man a cigar! Supermen are superthinkers;anything else is a side issue. I’ll allow the possibility of super-somethings which might exterminate or dominate mankind other than by outsmarting him in his own racket-thought. But I deny that it is possible for a man to conceive in discrete terms what such a super-something would be or how this something would win out. New Man will beat out homo sap in homo sap’s own specialty—rational thought, the ability to recognize data, store them, integrate them, evaluate correctly the result, and arrive at a correct decision. That is how man got to be champion; the creature who can do it better is the coming champion. Sure, there are other survival factors, good health, good sense organs, fast reflexes, but they aren’t even comparable, as the long, rough history of mankind has proved over and over—Marat in his bath, Roosevelt in his wheelchair, Caesar with his epilepsy and his bad stomach. Nelson with one eye and one arm, blind Milton; when the chips are down it’s brain that wins, not the body’s tools.’…

…“We defined thinking as integrating data and arriving at correct answers. Look around you. Most people do that stunt just well enough to get to the corner store and back without breaking a leg. If the average man thinks at all, he does silly things like generalizing from a single datum. He uses one-valued logics. If he is exceptionally bright, he may use two-valued, ‘either-or’ logic to arrive at his wrong answers. If he is hungry, hurt, or personally interested in the answer, he can’t use any sort of logic and will discard an observed fact as blithely as he will stake his life on a piece of wishful thinking. He uses the technical miracles created by superior men without wonder nor surprise, as a kitten accepts a bowl of milk. Far from aspiring to higher reasoning, he is not even aware that higher reasoning exists. He classes his own mental process as being of the same sort as the genius of an Einstein. Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.

“For explanations of a universe that confuses him he seizes onto numerology, astrology, hysterical religions, and other fancy ways to go crazy. Having accepted such glorified nonsense, facts make no impression on him, even if at the cost of his own life. Joe, one of the hardest things to believe is the abysmal depth of human stupidity.

“That is why there is always room at the top, why a man with just a leetle more on the ball can so easily become governor, millionaire, or college president—and why homo sap is sure to be displaced by New Man, because there is so much room for improvement and evolution never stops.

“Here and there among ordinary men is a rare individual who really thinks, can and does use logic in at least one field—he’s often as stupid as the rest outside his study or laboratory—but he can think, if he’s not disturbed or sick or frightened. This rare individual is responsible for all the progress made by the race; the others reluctantly adopt his results. Much as the ordinary man dislikes and distrusts and persecutes the process of thinking he is forced to accept the results occasionally, because thinking is efficient compared with his own maunderings. He may still plant his corn in the dark of the Moon but he will plant better corn developed by better men than he.

“Still rarer is the man who thinks habitually, who applies reason, rather than habit pattern, to all his activity. Unless he masques himself, his is a dangerous life; he is regarded as queer, untrustworthy, subversive of public morals; he is a pink monkey among brown monkeys—a fatal mistake. Unless the pink monkey can dye himself brown before he is caught.

“The brown monkey’s instinct to kill is correct; such men are dangerous to all monkey customs.

“Rarest of all is the man who can and does reason at all times, quickly, accurately, inclusively, despite hope or fear or bodily distress, without egocentric bias or thalmic disturbance, with correct memory, with clear distinction between fact, assumption, and non-fact. Such men exist, Joe; they are ‘New Man’—human in all respects, indistinguishable in appearance or under the scalpel from homo sap, yet as unlike him in action as the Sun is unlike a single candle.”

Gilead said, “Are you that sort?”

“You will continue to form your own opinions.”

“And you think I may be, too?”

“Could be. I’ll have more data in a few days.”

Gilead laughed until the tears came. “Kettle Belly, if I’m the future hope of the race, they had better send in the second team quick. Sure I’m brighter than most of the jerks I run into, but, as you say, the competition isn’t stiff. But I haven’t any sublime aspirations. I’ve got as lecherous an eye as the next man. I enjoy wasting time over a glass of beer. I just don’t feel like a superman.”

“Speaking of beer, let’s have some.” Baldwin got up and obtained two cans of the brew. “Remember that Mowgli felt like a wolf. Being a New Man does not divorce you from human sympathies and pleasures. There have been New Men all through history; I doubt if most of them suspected that their difference entitled them to call themselves a different breed. Then they went ahead and bred with the daughters of men, diffusing their talents through the racial organism, preventing them from effectuating until chance brought the genetic factors together again.”

“Then I take it that New Man is not a special mutation?”

“Huh? Who isn’t a mutation, Joe? All of us are a collection of millions of mutations. Around the globe hundreds of mutations have taken place in our human germ plasm while we have been sitting here. No, homo novis didn’t come about because great grandfather stood too close to a cyclotron; homo novis was not even a separate breed until he became aware of himself, organized, and decided to hang on to what his genes had handed him. You could mix New Man back into the race today and lose him; he’s merely a variation becoming a species. A million years from now is another matter; I venture to predict that New Man, of that year and model, won’t be able to interbreed with homo sap—no viable offspring.”

“You don’t expect present man—homo sapiens—to disappear?”

“Not necessarily. The dog adapted to man. Probably more dogs now than in umpteen B.C.—and better fed.”

“And man would be New Man’s dog.”

“Again not necessarily. Consider the cat.”

“The idea is to skim the cream of the race’s germ plasm and keep it biologically separate until the two races are permanently distinct. You chaps sound like a bunch of stinkers. Kettle Belly.”

“Monkey talk,”

“Perhaps. The new race would necessarily run things—”

“Do you expect New Man to decide grave matters by counting common man’s runny noses?”

“No, that was my point. Postulating such a new race, the result is inevitable. Kettle Belly, I confess to a monkey prejudice in favor of democracy, human dignity, and freedom. It goes beyond logic; it is the kind of a world I like. In my job I have mingled with the outcasts of society, snared their slumgullion. Stupid they may be, bad they are not—I have no wish to see them become domestic animals.”

For the first time the big man showed concern. His persona as “King of the Kopsters,” master merchandiser, slipped away; he sat in brooding majesty, a lonely and unhappy figure. “I know, Joe. They are of us; their little dignities, their nobilities, are not lessened by their sorry state. Yet it must be.”

“Why? New Man will come—granted. But why hurry the process?”

“Ask yourself.” He swept a hand toward the oubliette (where he destroyed the last record of the easy technique to make the sun go nova). ‘Ten minutes ago you and I saved this planet, all our race. It’s the hour of the knife. Some one must be on guard if the race is to live; there is no one but us. To guard effectively we New Men must be organized, must never fumble any crisis like this-and must increase our numbers. We are few now, Joe; as the crises increase, we must increase to meet them. Eventually—and it’s a dead race with time—we must take over and make certain that baby never plays with matches.”

He stopped and brooded. “I confess to that same affection for democracy, Joe. But it’s like yearning for the Santa Claus you believed in as a child. For a hundred and fifty years or so democracy, or something like it, could flourish safely. The issues were such as to be settled without disaster by the votes of common men, befogged and ignorant as they were. But now, if the race is simply to stay alive, political decisions depend on real knowledge of such things as nuclear physics, planetary ecology, genetic theory, even system mechanics. They aren’t up to it, Joe. With goodness and more will than they possess less than one in a thousand could stay awake over one page of nuclear physics; they can’t learn what they must know.”

Gilead brushed it aside. “It’s up to us to brief them. Their hearts are all right; tell them the score—they’ll come down with the right answers.”

“No, Joe. We’ve tried it; it does not work. As you say, most of them are good, the way a dog can be noble and good. Yet there are bad ones—Mrs. Keithley and company and more like her. Reason is poor propaganda when opposed by the yammering, unceasing lies of shrewd and evil and self-serving men. The little man has no way to judge and the shoddy lies are packaged more attractively. There is no way to offer color to a colorblind man, nor is there any way for us to give the man of imperfect brain the canny skill to distinguish a lie from a truth.

“No, Joe. The gulf between us and them is narrow, but it is very deep. We cannot close it.”

“I wish,” said Gilead, “that you wouldn’t class me with your ‘New Man’, I feel more at home on the other side.”

“You will decide for yourself which side you are on, as each of us has done.”

From GULF by Robert Heinlein (1949)

At least half the people Volyova saw were Ultranauts, evidenced by their tendency towards paleness, spindly build, flaunted body augmentations, swathes of black leather and acres of glinting jewellery, tattoos and trade-trophies. None of the Ultras she saw were extreme chimerics. with the possible exception of Hegazi, who probably qualified as one of the half-dozen most augmented people in the carousel. But the majority wore their hair in the customary Ultra manner, fashioned in thick braids to indicate the number of reefersleep stretches they had done, and many of them had their clothes slashed to expose their prosthetic parts. Looking at these specimens, Volyova had to remind herself that she was part of the same culture.

Ultras, of course, were not the only spacegoing faction spawned by humanity. SkyJacks—at least here— made up a significant portion of the others she saw. They were spacedwellers to be sure, but they did not crew interstellar ships and so their outlook was very different to the wraithlike Ultras. with their dreadlocks and old-fashioned expressions.

There were others still. Icecombers were a Skyjack offshoot; psychomodified for the extreme solitude which came from working the Kuiper belt zones, and they kept themselves to themselves with ferocious dedication. Gillies were aquatically modified humans who breathed liquid air; capable of crewing short-range, high-gee ships: they constituted a sizeable fraction of the system's police force. Some gillies were so incapable of normal respiration and locomotion that they had to move around in huge robotic fishtanks when not on duty.

And then there were Conjoiners: descendants of an experimental clique on Mars who had systematically upgraded their minds, swapping cells for machines, until something sudden and drastic had happened. In one moment, they had escalated to a new mode of consciousness—what they called the Transenlightenment—precipitating a brief but nasty war in the process. Conjoiners were easy to pick out in crowds: recently they had bio-engineered huge and beautiful cranial crests for themselves, veined to dissipate the excess heat produced by the furious machines in their heads. There were fewer of them these days. so they tended to draw attention. Other human factions—like the Demarchists. who had long allied themselves with the Conjoiners—were acutely aware that only Conjoiners knew how to build the engines which powered lighthuggers.

From REVELATION SPACE by Alastair Reynolds (2000)

Stratified Cities

It does seem like a truism that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, and the middle class vanishes. Since science fiction can turn the volume up to 11, it can play with Extreme Speculative Stratification

Since the wealthy enjoy looking down upon the peons, they often try to make the process easier by living at a higher altitude. Some readers might remember the British comedy show Upstairs, Downstairs. Turn this up to 11 and soon all the aristocrats are living at the top of skyscrapers. The peasants live on the ground in wretched hives. The skyscrapers are cross-connected with elevated walk-ways and flying cars, so the rich do not have to descend into the slums in order to visit an adjacent building. Often the tops of the skyscrapers are Arcologies.

In the comic book Magnus Robot Fighter, ordinary citizens live in kilometer-high skyscrapers, while the malcontents who despise civilized life live in the shadowy valleys at the base of the buildings. Malcontents call the citizens "Cloud Cloddies", while the citizens call the malcontents "Gophs", short for gophers.

In Isaac Asimov's The Currents Of Space, all the cities have two levels. The upper level is for the Sarkite masters and bottom level for Florinian serfs. The Florinians have to make do with the little bits of sunlight that come through the limited gaps in the Sarkite's floor. All the rest in in shadow.

In the Star Trek episode "The Cloud Minders", the Ardanans live in the antigravity city of Stratos in luxury, while the miserable Troglytes are forced to labor in the mineral mines.

In the movie Elysium, the rich live in a posh space habitat in low orbit, all the better to snicker at an entire planet that has degraded into Detroit.

In the classic movie Metropolis, the rich live in skyscrapers which depend upon subterranean laborers being worked until they drop.

Even in 1726 the city of Laputa was obnoxiously flying over the poor folk in Gulliver's Travels.

Heck, there are even hobos living on the ground in The Jetsons while everybody else lives in buildings on stilts.

This is inverted in James Blish's CITIES IN FLIGHT series. The antigravity "Okie" cities travel from star to star and visit planetary colonies, and are thus technically of higher altitude than the colonies. However, the colonists consider the Okies to be little better than tramps, hobos, and migrant labor. The Okies earn their living by being hired by the colonists.

"There ain't a side of the tracks more wrong than 'under' 'em."
Augustus Sinclair, BioShock 2

The extreme Lampshading of the Skyscraper City, making it even more enormous and overbuilt. A Skyscraper City is when the city seems to consist entirely of skyscrapers that rival the construction of Dubai (and then some) but the Layered Metropolis is when the city planners went even further by adding more streets, and even buildings, very far (or sometimes not that far) above the city. This tends to go hand in hand with Under City or Absurdly Spacious Sewer, for some reason. Probably the aesthetic.

Maybe they realized how inconvenient it might be to take an elevator down a hundred stories or so, cross the street, then go back up the other building's elevator. Or they might have been worried about wiring, plumbing, or public transportation. Exactly how people take the car to these levels or get plumbing that high up will almost never be addressed, and similar questions as those raised by the Skyscraper City are also rarely addressed-such as the population needed, the construction methods, or how any of this is structurally sound.

Predictably, there will be Urban Segregation where the rich will always be a majority on the top, and the lower classes will have the bottom. Which presents an intriguing dichotomy as one neighbourhood becomes slowly and literally overshadowed by another level, and thus more unfashionable. Similarly to the Skyscraper City, if the issue of population is brought up, it will usually be in a dystopian setting where overpopulation plagues the planet or at least big cities.

It is also a sub-trope of Skyscraper City, making it a sub-subtrope to Mega City. It fits very well in Cyber Punk settings. Compare City Planet (which lends itself more to this than the Skyscraper City), Star Scraper, and Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale. Has surprisingly little to do with Layered World.

The arcology is an idea for applying this concept in real life. Now with its own page!

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


On Florina, all other cities had names, but this one was simply the “City.” The workers and peasants who lived in it and around it were considered lucky by the rest of the planet. In the City there were better doctors and hospitals, more factories and more liquor stores, even a few dribbles of very mild luxury. The inhabitants themselves were somewhat less enthusiastic. They lived in the shadow of the Upper City.

The Upper City was exactly what the name implied, for the City was double, divided rigidly by a horizontal layer of fifty square miles of cementalloy resting upon some twenty thousand steel-girdered pillars. Below in the shadow were the “natives.” Above, in the sun, were the Squires. It was difficult to believe in the Upper City that the planet of its location was Florina. The population was almost exclusively Sarkite in nature, together with a sprinkling of patrollers. They were the upper class in all literalness.

Terens knew his way. He walked quickly, avoiding the stares of passers-by, who surveyed his Townman clothing with a mixture of envy and resentment. Rik’s shorter legs made his gait less dignified as he tried to keep up. He did not remember very much from his only other visit to the City. It seemed so different now. Then it had been cloudy. Now the sun was out, pouring through the spaced openings in the cementalloy above to form strips of light that made the intervening space all the darker. They plunged through the bright strips in a rhythmic, almost hypnotic fashion.

Oldsters sat on wheeled chairs in the strips, absorbing the warmth and moving as the strip moved. Sometimes they fell asleep and would remain behind in the shade, nodding in their chairs until the squeaking of the wheels when they shifted position woke them. Occasionally mothers nearly blocked the strips with their carriaged offspring.

Terens said, “Now, Rik, stand up straight. We’re going up.” He was standing before a structure that filled the space between four square-placed pillars, and from ground to Upper City.

Rik could guess what the structure was. It was an elevator that lifted to the upper level.

These were necessary, of course. Production was below, but consumption was above. Basic chemicals and raw food staples were shipped into Lower City, but finished plastic ware and fine meals were matters for Upper City. Excess population spawned below; maids, gardeners, chauffeurs, construction laborers were used above.

From THE CURRENTS OF SPACE by Isaac Asimov (1952)

(ed note: On the planet Yellowstone, the newer buildings incorporate nanotechnology for self-repair and alterations. Unfortunately the alien Melting Plague struck. It subverts the nanotechnology causing the buildings to change in grotesque ways.)

Sometimes, in her early days on Yellowstone. Khouri had asked a few of the locals why anyone had ever bothered settling the planet in the first place if it was so inhospitable. Sky's Edge might have its wars, but at least you could live there without domes and atmosphere-cracking systems. She had quickly learned not to expect anything resembling a consistent answer, if the question itself was not deemed an outsider's impudence. Evidently, though, this much was clear: the chasm had drawn the first explorers and around them had accreted a permanent outpost, and then something like a frontier town. Lunatics, chancers and wild-eyed visionaries had come, driven by vague rumours of riches deep within the chasm. Some had gone home disillusioned. Some had died in the chasm's hot. toxic depths. But a few had elected to stay because something about the nascent city's perilous location actually appealed to them. Fast forward two hundred years and that huddle of structures had become … this.

The city stretched away infinitely in all directions, it seemed, a dense wood of gnarled interlaced buildings gradually lost in murk. The very oldest structures were still more or less intact: boxlike-buildings which had retained their shapes during the plague because they had never contained any systems of self-repair or redesign. The modern structures, by contrast, now resembled odd, up-ended pieces of driftwood or wizened old trees in the last stages of rot. Once those skyscrapers had looked linear and symmetrical, until the plague made them grow madly, sprouting bulbous protrusions and tangled, leprous appendages. The buildings were all dead now, frozen into the shapes which seemed calculated to induce disquiet. Slums adhered to their sides, lower levels lost in a scaffolded maze of shanty towns and ramshackle bazaars, aglow with naked fires. Tiny figures were moving in the slums, walking or rickshawing to business along haphazard roadways laid down over old ruins. There were very few powered vehicles, and most of the contraptions Khouri saw looked like they were steam-driven.

The slums never reached more than ten levels up the sides of the buildings before collapsing under their own weight, so for two or three hundred further metres the buildings rose smoothly, relatively unscathed by plague transformations. There was no evidence of occupation in these mid-city levels. It was only near the very tops that human presence again re-asserted itself: tiered structures perched like cranes' nests among the branches of the malformed buildings. These new additions were aglow with conspicuous wealth and power: bright apartment windows and neon advertisements. Searchlights swept down from the eaves, sometimes picking out the tiny forms of other cable-cars, navigating between districts. The cable-cars picked their way through a network of fine branches, lacing the buildings like synaptic threads. The locals had a name for this high-level city-within-a-city: the Canopy.

From REVELATION SPACE by Alastair Reynolds (2000)

In any case the final architectural effect (of the city of Minas Troney) was that of an Italian wedding cake.*

* The historian Bocaraton notes that this may have been intentionally "emblematic of all the crumbs inside."

From BORED OF THE RINGS by the Harvard Lampoon ()

The Death of Cities

Yes, as of this writing people who live in rural areas are quite upset that all the good-paying jobs appear to be in urban areas so there is an exodus toward the cities.

But in the future, things may reverse themselves, sort of.

Arthur C. Clarke pointed out that there is sort of an inverse relationship between communication and transportation. What he means is the more advanced one becomes, the less you need the other. If communication develops virtual reality to the point where businesses can conduct meetings with members who physically are located all over the globe and you can't tell the difference, why go to the expense and inconvenience of traveling physically to a meeting? Already many corporations are experimenting with telecommuting.

By the same token, if transportation develops a teleportation device that can whisk you from Hong Kong to New York in a fraction of a second, who needs teleconferences? In other words: in many ways communication and transportation are two different techniques dealing with the same problem.

With respect to cities, the point is that if either technology becomes advanced enough, who needs cities?


Even from the air, the city looked deserted. But only two and a half hours were left—there was no time for further exploration. Orostron made his decision, and landed near the largest structure he could see. It seemed reasonable to suppose that some creatures would have sought shelter in the strongest buildings, where they would be safe until the very end.

The deepest caves—the heart of the planet itself—would give no protection when the final cataclysm came. Even if this race had reached the outer planets, its doom would only be delayed by the few hours it would take for the ravening wavefronts to cross the Solar System.

Orostron could not know that the city had been deserted not for a few days or weeks, but for over a century. For the culture of cities, which had outlasted so many civilisations had been doomed at last when the helicopter brought universal transportation. Within a few generations the great masses of mankind, knowing that they could reach any part of the globe in a matter of hours, had gone back to the fields and forests for which they had always longed. The new civilisation had machines and resources of which earlier ages had never dreamed, but it was essentially rural and no longer bound to the steel and concrete warrens that had dominated the centuries before. Such cities as still remained were specialised centres of research, administration or entertainment; the others had been allowed to decay, where it was too much trouble to destroy them. The dozen or so greatest of all cities, and the ancient university towns, had scarcely changed and would have lasted for many generations to come. But the cities that had been founded on steam and iron and surface transportation had passed with the industries that had nourished them.

From RESCUE PARTY by Arthur C. Clarke (1946)

      He hobbled over and sat down beside Gramp on the bench.
     "We're leaving," he said.
     Gramp whirled on him. "You're leaving!"
     "Yeah. Moving out into the country. Lucinda finally talked Herb into it. Never gave him a minute's peace, I guess. Said everyone was moving away to one of them nice country estates and she didn't see no reason why we couldn't."
     Gramp gulped. "Where to?"
     "Don't rightly know," said Mark. "Ain't been there myself. Up north some place. Up on one of the lakes. Got ten acres of land. Lucinda wanted a hundred, but Herb put down his foot and said ten was enough. After all, one city lot was enough for all these years."
     "Betty was pestering Johnny, too," said Gramp, "but he's holding out against her. Says he simply can't do it. Says it wouldn't look right, him the secretary of the Chamber of Commerce and all, if he went moving away from the city."
     "Folks are crazy," Mark declared. "Plumb crazy."

     The years had moved too fast. Years that had brought the family plane and helicopter, leaving the auto to rust in some forgotten place, the unused roads to fall into disrepair. Years that had virtually wiped out the tilling of the soil with the rise of hydroponics. Years that had brought cheap land with the disappearance of the farm as an economic unit had sent city people scurrying out into the country where each man, for less than the price of a city lot, might own broad acres. Years that had revolutionized the construction of homes to a point where families simply walked away from their old homes to the new ones that could be bought, custom-made, for less than half the price of a prewar structure and could be changed at small cost, to accommodate need of additional space or just a passing whim.

     Gramp sniffed. Houses that could be changed each year, just like one would shift around the furniture. What kind of living was that?
     He plodded slowly down the dusty path that was all that remained of what a few years before had been a busy residential street. A street of ghosts, Gramp told himself- of furtive, little ghosts that whispered in the night. Ghosts of playing children, ghosts of upset tricycles and canted coaster wagons. Ghosts of gossiping housewives. Ghosts of shouted greetings. Ghosts of flaming fireplaces and chimneys smoking of a winter night.

     "I have something to say," said Webster. "Something that should have been said long ago. Something all of you should hear. That I should be the one who would tell it to you is the one thing that astounds me. And yet, perhaps, as one who has worked in the interests of this city for almost fifteen years, I am the logical one to speak the truth.

     "Alderman Griffin said the city is dying on its feet and his statement is correct. There is but one fault I would find with it and that is its understatement. The city … this city, any city … already is dead.
     "The city is an anachronism. It has outlived its usefulness. Hydroponics and the helicopter spelled its downfall. In the first instance the city was a tribal place, an area where the tribe banded together for mutual protection. In later years a wall was thrown around it for additional protection. Then the wall finally disappeared but the city lived on because of the conveniences, which it offered trade and commerce. It continued into modem times because people were compelled to live close to their jobs and the jobs were in the city.
     "But today that is no longer true. With the family plane, one hundred miles today is a shorter distance than five miles back in 1930. Men can fly several hundred miles to work and fly home when the day is done. There is no longer any need for them to live cooped up in a city.
     "The automobile started the trend and the family plane finished it. Even in the first part of the century the trend was noticeable—a movement away from the city with its taxes and its stuffiness, a move toward the suburb and close-in acreages. Lack of adequate transportation, lack of finances held many to the city. But now, with tank farming destroying the value of land, a man can buy a huge acreage in the country for less than he could a city lot forty years ago. With planes powered by atomics there is no longer any transportation problem."

     He paused and the silence held. The mayor wore a shocked look. King's lips moved, but no words came. Griffin was smiling.

     "So what have we?" asked Webster. "I'll tell you what we have. Street after street, block after block, of deserted houses, houses that the people just up and walked away from. Why should they have stayed? What could the city offer them? None of the things that it offered the generations before them, for progress had wiped out the need of the city's benefits. They lost something, some monetary consideration, of course, when they left the houses. But the fact that they could buy a house twice as good for half as much, the fact that they could live as they wished to live, that they could develop what amounts to family estates after the best tradition set them by the wealthy of a generation ago—all these things outweighed the leaving of their homes.
     "And what have we left? A few blocks of business houses. A few acres of industrial plants. A city government geared to take care of a million people without the million people. A budget that has run the taxes so high that eventually even business houses will move to escape those taxes. Tax forfeitures that have left us loaded with worthless property. That's what we have left.

     "If you think any Chamber of Commerce, any ballyhoo, any hare-brained scheme will give you the answers, you're crazy. There is only one answer and that is simple.
     The city as a human institution is dead. It may struggle on a few more years, but that is all."

From CITY by Clifford Simak (1952)

She was bitterly disappointed to hear that the age of cities had passed. Despite all that Leon could tell her about the completely decentralised culture that now covered the planet from pole to pole, she still thought of Earth in terms of such vanished giants as Chandrigar, London, Astrograd. New York, and it was hard for her to realise that they had gone forever, and with them the way of life they represented.

‘When we left Earth,’ Leon explained, ‘the largest centres of population were university towns like Oxford or Ann Arbor or Canberra; some of them had fifty thousand students and professors. There are no other cities left of even half that size.’

‘But what happened to them?’

‘Oh, there was no single cause, but the development of communications started it. As soon as anyone on Earth could see and talk to anyone else by pressing a button, most of the need for cities vanished. Then anti-gravity was invented, and you could move goods or houses or anything else through the sky without bothering about geography. That completed the job of wiping out distance, which the airplane had begun a couple of centuries earlier. After that, men started to live where they liked, and the cities dwindled away.’

From THE SONGS OF DISTANT EARTH (short-story version) by Arthur C. Clarke (1958)


Museums are repositories of knowledge. Since many science fiction stories hinge on discovering important knowlege, it is not unusual for the author to use the discovery of an ancient museum as a plot short-cut.


The city was not very large; it was certainly far smaller then London or New York had been at their heyday. According to Vindarten, there were several thousand such cities scattered over the planet, each one designed for some specific purpose. On Earth, the closest parallel to this place would have been a university town—except that the degree of specialization had gone much further. This entire city was devoted, Jan soon discovered, to the study of alien cultures.

In one of their first trips outside the bare cell in which Jan lived, Vindarten had taken him to the museum. It had given Jan a much needed psychological boost to find himself in a place whose purpose he could fully understand. Apart from the scale upon which it was built, this museum might well have been on Earth. They had taken a long time to reach it, falling steadily on a great platform that moved like a piston in a vertical cylinder of unknown length. There were no visible controls, and the sense of acceleration at the beginning and ending of the descent was quite noticeable. Presumably the Overlords did not waste their compensating field devices for domestic uses. Jan wondered if the whole interior of this world was riddled with excavations; and why had they limited the size of the city, going underground instead of outwards? That was just another of the enigmas he never solved.

One could have spent a lifetime exploring these colossal chambers. Here was the loot of planets, the achievements of more civilizations than Jan could guess. But there was no time to see much. Vindarten placed him carefully on a strip of flooring that at first sight seemed an ornamental pattern. Then Jan remembered that there were no ornaments here—and at the same time, something invisible grasped him gently and hurried him forward. He was moving past the great display cases, past vistas of unimaginable worlds, at a speed of twenty or thirty kiometres an hour.

The Overlords had solved the problem of museum fatigue. There was no need for anyone to walk.

They must have travelled several kilometres before Jan's guide grasped him again, and with a surge of his great wings lifted him away from whatever force was propelling them. Before them stretched a huge, half-empty hall, flooded with a familiar light that Jan had not seen since leavng Earth. It was faint, so that it would not pain the sensitive eyes of the Overlords, but it was, unmistakably, sunlight. Jan would never have believed that anything so simple or so commonplace could have evoked such yearning in his heart.

So this was the exhibit for Earth. They walked for a few metres past a beautiful model of Paris, past art-treasures from a dozen centuries grouped incongruously together, past modern calculating machines and paleolithic axes, past television receivers and Hero of Alexandra's steam-turbine. A great doorway opened ahead of them, and they were in the office of the Curator for Earth.

Was he seeing a human being for the first time? Jan wondered. Had he ever been to Earth, or was it just another of the many planets in his charge, of whose exact location he was not precisely sure? Certainly he neither spoke nor understood English, and Vindarten had to act as interpreter.

Jan had spent several hours here, talking into a recording device while the Overlords presented various terrestrial objects to him. Many of these, he discovered to his shame, he could not identify. His ignorance of his own race and its achievements was enormous; he wondered if the Overlords, for all their superb mental gifts, could really grasp the complete pattern of human culture.

Vindarten took him out of the museum by a different route. Once again they floated effortlessly through great vaulted corridors, but this time they were moving past the creations of nature, not of conscious mind. Sullivan, thought Jan, would have given his life to be here, to see what wonders evolution had wrought on a hundred worlds. But Sullivan, he remembered, was probably already dead.

Then, without any warning, they were on a galleiy high above a large circular chamber, perhaps a hundred metres across. As usual, there was no protective parapet, and for a moment Jan hesitated to go near the edge. But Vindarten was standing on the very brink, looking calmly downwards, so Jan moved cautiously forward to join him.

The floor was only twenty metres below—far, far too close. Afterwards, Jan was sure that his guide had not intended to surprise him, and was completely taken aback by his reaction. For he had given one tremendous yell and jumped backwards from the gallery's edge, in an involuntary effort to hide what lay below. It was not until the muffled echoes of his shout had died away in the thick atmosphere that he steeled himself to go forward again.

It was lifeless, of course—not, as he had thought in that first moment of panic, consciously staring up at him. It filled almost all that great circular space, and the ruby light gleamed and shifted in its crystal depths.

It was a single giant eye.

     "Why did you make that noise?" asked Vindarten.
     "I was frightened," Jan confessed sheepishly.
     "But why? Surely you did not imagine that there could be any danger here?"
     Jan wondered if he could explain what a reflex action was, but decided not to attempt it.
     "Anything completely unexpected is frightening. Until a novel situation is analysed, it is safest to assume the worst."

His heart was still pounding violently as he stared down once more at that monstrous eye. Of course, it might have been a model, enormously enlarged as were microbes and insects in terrestrial museums. Yet even as he asked the question, Jan knew, with a sickening certainty, that it was no larger than life.

Vindarten could tell him little; this was not his field of knowledge, and he was not particularly curious. From the Overlord's description, Jan built up a picture of a cyclopean beast living among the asteroidal rubble of some distant sun, its growth uninhibited by gravity, depending for food and life upon the range and resolving power of its single eye.

There seemed no limit to what Nature could do if she was pressed, and Jan felt an irrational pleasure at discovering something which the Overlords would not attempt. They had brought a full-sized whale from Earth—but they had drawn the line at this.

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

(ed note: Spoilers for The Mote in God's Eye

The alien Moties have a problem. Suffice to say this biological problem means they inexorably bomb themselves into the stone age every thousand years or so. This has been going on for a bit over a million years.

To jump-start their next climb out of the stone age the Moties maintain "museums" containing technological information. These are armored, and have a lock that can only be opened with fairly advanced astronomical knowledge. This keeps out Moties that are too technologically primitive from entering the museums.)

     It was large. At first there had been nothing to give it scale; now he had been flying toward it for ten minutes or more.
     It was a dome with straight sides blending into a low, rounded roof. There were no windows, and no other features except a rectangular break that might have been a door, ridiculously small in the enormous structure. The gleam of sunlight on the roof was more than metallic; it was mirror-bright. (anti-laser armor)
     Whitbread landed just outside the rectangular doorway. This close the door loomed over him, it had been dwarfed by the building.

     His eyes kept straying to the mirror-surfaced building. Presently he got up to examine the door.
     It was a good ten meters high. Impressively tall to Whitbread, a gigantic thing for a Motie. But were Moties impressed by size? Whitbread thought not. The door must be functional—what was ten meters high? Heavy machinery? There was no sound at all when he put his pickup microphone against the smooth metallic surface.
     At one side of the alcove containing the door was a panel mounted on a stout spring. Behind the panel was what seemed to be a combination lock. And that was that—except that Moties expected each other to solve such puzzles at a glance. A key lock would have been a NO TRESPASSING sign. This was not.
     Probably it was intended to keep out—what? Browns? Whites? Laborers and the nonsentient classes? Probably all of them. A combination lock could be thought of as a form of communication.
     "Um. I wish Dr. Buckman were here. Those are Motie numbers—aye, and the Mote solar system, with the dial where the Mote ought to be, Let me see …"
     Whitbread watched interestedly as Potter stared at the dial. The New Scot pursed his lips, then said, "Aye. The gas giant is three point seven two times as far from the Mote as Mote Prime. Hmmm." He reached into his shirt pocket and took out the ever-present computer box. "Umm … three point eight eight, base twelve. Now which way does the dial go?"
     "Then, again, it might be somebody's birthday," said Whitbread. He was glad to see Gavin Potter. He was glad to see anyone human here. But the New Scot's meddling with the dials was—disturbing. Left, right, left, right, Gavin Potter turned the dials …
     It was an interesting puzzle. "Try left again," Whitbread suggested. "Hold it." Whitbread pushed the symbol representing Mote Prime. It depressed with a click. "Keep going left."
     "Aye. The Motie astronomical maps show the planets going counterclockwise."
     On the third digit the door began to slide upward. "It works!" Whitbread shouted.
     The door slid up to a height of one and a half meters. Potter looked at Whitbread and said, "Now what?"
     "You're kidding."
     "We hae our orders," Potter said slowly. They sat down between the plants and looked at each other. Then looked at the dome. There was light inside, and they could easily see under the door. There were buildings in there …

     Whitbread and Potter stood alone within the dome. They stared in wonder.
The dome was only a shell. A single light source very like an afternoon sun blazed halfway down its slope. Moties used that kind of illumination in many of the buildings Whitbread had seen.
     Underneath the dome it was like a small city—but not quite. Nobody was home. There was no sound, no motion, no light in any of the windows. And the buildings …
     There was no coherency to this city. The buildings jarred horribly against each other. Whitbread winced at two clean-lined many-windowed pillars framing what might have been an oversized medieval cathedral, all gingerbread, a thousand cornices guarded by what Bury's Motie had said were Motie demons.
     Here were a hundred styles of architecture and at least a dozen levels of technology. Those geodesic forms could not have been built without pre-stressed concrete or something more sophisticated, not to mention the engineering mathematics. But this building nearest the gate was of sun-baked mud bricks. Here a rectangular solid had walls of partly silvered glass; there the walls were of gray stone, and the tiny windows had no glass in them, only shutters to seal them from the elements.
     "Rain shutters. It must have been here before the dome," Potter said.
     "Anyone can see that. The dome is almost new. That cathedral … it might be, that cathedral in the center is so old it's about to fall apart."
     "Look there. Yon parabolic-hyperboloid structure has been cantilevered out from a wall. But look at the wall!"
     "Yah, it must have been part of another building. God knows how old that is." The wall was over a meter thick, and ragged around the edges and the top. It was made of dressed stone blocks that must have massed five hundred kilos each. Some vinelike plant had invaded it, surrounded it, permeated it to the extent that by now it must be holding the wall together.
     Whitbread leaned close and peered into the vines. "No cement, Gavin. They've fitted the blocks together. And still it supports the rest of the building—which is concrete. They built to last."
     "Do ye remember what Horst said about the Stone Beehive?"
     "He said he could feel the age in it. Right. Right …"
     "It must be of all different ages, this place. I think we'll find that it's a museum. A museum of architecture? And they've added to it, century after century. Finally they threw up that dome to protect it from the elements."
     "Ye sound dubious."
     "That dome is two meters thick, and metal. What kind of elements …"
     "Asteroid falls, it may be. No, that's nonsense. The asteroids were moved away eons ago." (try nuclear attack)
     "I think I want to have a look at that cathedral. It looks to be the oldest building here."

     The cathedral was a museum right enough. Any civilized man in the Empire would have recognized it. Museums are all alike.
     There were cases faced in glass, and old things within, marked by plaques—with dates and printing on them. "I can read the numbers," said Potter. "Look, they're in four and five figures. And this is base twelve!"
     "My Motie asked me once how old our recorded civilization is. How old is theirs, Gavin?"
     "Well, their year is shorter … Five figures. Dating backward from some event; that's a minus sign in front of each of them. Let me see …" He took out his computer and scrawled quick, precise figures. "That number would be seventy-four thousand and some-odd. Jonathon, the plaques are almost new."
     "Languages change. They must translate the plaques every so often."
     "Yes … yes, I know this sign. 'Approximately.' " Potter moved swiftly from exhibit to exhibit. "Here it is again. Not here … but here. Jonathon, come look at this one."
     It was a, very old machine. Once iron, it must be rust now, all the way through. There was a sketch of what it must have looked like once. A howitzer cannon.
     "Here on the plaque. This double-approximation sign means educated guesswork. I wonder how many times that legend has been translated."
     Room after room. They found a wide staircase leading up, the steps shallow but broad enough for human feet. Above, more rooms, more exhibits. The ceilings were low. The lighting came from lines of bulbs of incandescent filaments that came on when they entered, went out when they left. The bulbs were mounted carefully so they wouldn't mar the ceiling. The museum itself must be an exhibit.
     The plaques were all alike, but the cases were all different. Whitbread did not think it strange. No two Motie artifacts were ever precisely alike. But one … he almost laughed …
     A bubble of glass several meters long and two meters wide rested on a free-form sculpted frame of almost beach-colored metal. Both, looked brand-new. There was a plaque on the frame. Inside was an ornately carved wooden box, coffin sized, bleached white by age, its lid the remains of a rusted wire grille. It had a plaque. Under the rusted wire, a selection of wonderfully shaped, eggshell-thin pottery, some broken, some whole. Each piece in the set had a dated plaque. "It's like nested exhibits," he said.
     Potter did not laugh. "That's what it is. See here? The bubble case is about two thousand years old … that can't be right, can it?"
     "Not unless …" Whitbread rubbed his class ring along the glass bubble. "They're both scratched. Artificial sapphire." He tried it on the metal. The metal scratched the stone. "I'll accept two thousand."
     "But the box is around twenty-four hundred, and the pottery goes from three thousand up. Look you how the style changes. 'Tis a depiction of the rise and fall of a particular school of pottery styling."
     "Do you think the wooden case came out of another museum?"
     Whitbread did laugh then. They moved on. Presently Whitbread pointed and said, "Here, that's the same metal, isn't it?" The small two-handed weapon—it had to be a gun—carried the same date as the sapphire bubble.
     Beyond that was a puzzling structure near the wall of the great dome. It was made of a vertical lacework of hexagons, each formed from steel members two meters long. There were thick plastic frames in some of the hexagons, and broken fragments in others.
     Potter pointed out the gentle curve of the structure. " 'Twas another dome. A spherical dome with geodesic bracing. Not much left of it—and it wouldn't hae covered all of the compound anyway."
     "You're right. It didn't weather away, though. Look at how these members near the edge are twisted. Tornadoes? This part of the country seems flat enough." (nuclear attack)
     It took Potter a moment to understand. There were no tornadoes in the rough terraformed New Scotland. He remembered his meteorology lessons and nodded. "Aye. Maybe. Maybe." Beyond the fragments of the earlier dome Potter found a framework of disintegrating metal within what might have been a plastic shell. The plastic itself looked frayed and moth-eaten. There were two dates on the plaque, both in five figures. The sketch next to the plaque showed a narrow ground car, primitive looking, with three seats in a row. The motor hood was open.
     "Internal combustion," said Potter. "I had the idea that Mote Prime was short on fossil fuels."
     "Sally had an idea on that too. Their civilization may have gone downhill when they used up all their fossil fuels. I wonder."

     But the prize was behind a great glass picture window in one wall. They found themselves looking into the "steeple" past an ancient, ornately carved bronze plaque that had a smaller plaque on it.
     Within the "steeple" was a rocket ship. Despite the holes in the sides and the corrosion everywhere, it still held its shape: a long, cylindrical tank, very thin-walled, with a cabin showing behind a smoothly pointed nose.
     They made for the stairs. There must be another window on the first floor …
     And there was. They knelt to look into the motor.
     Potter said, "I don't quite …"
     "NERVA style," said Whitbread. His voice was almost a whisper. "Atomic. Very early type. You send some inert fuel through a core of uranium or plutonium or the like. Fission pile, prefusion …"
     "Are you sure?"
     Whitbread looked again before he nodded. "I'm sure."
     Fission had been developed after internal combustion; but there were still places in the Empire that employed internal combustion engines. Fission power was very nearly a myth, and as they stared the age of the place seemed to fall from the walls like a cloak and wrap them in silence.

(ed note: A Motie shows up in an aircraft and picks up Staley. He tells Staley that they and the others are marked for death because other factions of Moties are upset that the humans have found out the Motie's dreadful secret. A secret that actually truly is pretty dreadful. Could spell the downfall of the Terran Empire, which is why the Moties were hiding it. As the aircraft arrives at the museum Jonathon comes out and greets them.)

     "We've been exploring your—"
     "Jonathon, we don't have time," the Motie said. The other Brown-and-white eyed them with an air of impatience.
     "We're under a death sentence for trespassing." Staley said flatly. "I don't know why."
     There was silence. Whitbread said, "Neither do I. This is nothing but a museum—"
     "Yes," Whitbread's Motie said. "You would have to land here. It's not even bad luck. Your dumb animal miniatures must have programmed the reentry cones not to hit water or cities or mountain peaks. You were bound to come down in farm lands. Well, that's where we put museums."
     "Out here? Why?" Potter asked. He sounded as if he already knew. "There are nae people here—"
     "So they won't get bombed."

     The silence was part of the age of the place. The Motie said, "Gavin, you aren't showing much surprise."
     Potter attempted to rub his jaw. His helmet prevented it. "I don't suppose there's any chance of persuading you that we hae learned nothing?"
     "Not really. You've been here three hours."
     Whitbread broke in. "More like two. Horst, this place is fantastic! Museums within museums; it goes back incredibly far—is that the secret? That civilization is very old here? I don't see why you'd hide that."
     "You've had a lot of wars," Potter said slowly.
     The Motie bobbed her head and shoulder. "Yah."
     "Big wars."
     "Right. Also little wars."
     "How many?"
     "God's sake, Potter! Who counts? Thousands of Cycles. Thousands of collapses back to savagery. Crazy Eddie eternally trying to stop it. Well, I've had it. The whole decision-maker caste has turned Crazy Eddie, to my mind. They think they'll stop the pattern of Cycles by moving into space and settling other solar systems."
     Horst Staley's tone was flat. As he spoke he looked carefully around the dome and his hand rested on his pistol butt. "Do they? And what is it we know too much of?"
     "I'm going to tell you. And then I'm going to try to get you to your ship, alive—"

From THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1974)

(ed note: in the novel, it is discovered that there is an interesting galactic broadcast. Unfortunately the overriding signal is a special message (the "Destroyer") that somehow fries the brain of any human that watches it. Ivo Archer turns out to be immune, and sees that behind the overriding signal is sort of a galactic library broadcast. After a series of misadventures, our heroes arrive at one of the closest galactic stations which is sending the brain-frying message. It is deserted. They then stumble over a galactic museum.)

      They were in a long quiet hall lighted from the ceiling, a hall that slanted gently downward. "Down" was toward the center of the sphere, not the rim; nothing so simple as centripetal pseudo-gravity here. The materials of the hall's construction were conventional, as these things went; no scintillating shields, no compacted matter. If this were typical, the two-mile sphere could not possibly have the mass of a star, or even a planet. Somehow it generated gravity without mass.
     The situation was not, on second thought, surprising. A potent gravitic field was no doubt necessary to power the destroyer impulse, and it should be a simple matter to allow some of it to overlap around the unit, providing for visitors. It was handy for holding down satellites too, even at distances similar to those prevailing in the Solar System itself. Earth was only eight light-minutes from Sol....
     A hundred yards or so along, the hall widened into a level chamber. Here there were alcoves set in the walls, and objects resting within them.
     Afra reached into the alcove and lifted out its artifact. It was a sphere about four inches in diameter, rigid and light, made of some plastic material. It was transparent; as she held it up to the light they all could see its emptiness.
     "A container?" Groton conjectured.
     "A toy?" Beatryx said.
     Groton looked at her. "I wonder. An educational toy. A model of the destroyer?"
     "Not without docking vents," Afra said. She put it back and went on to the next. This was a cone six inches high with a flat base four inches across. It was made of the same transparent material, and was similarly empty.
     "Dunce cap," Ivo suggested.
     She ignored him and went on. The third figure was a cylindrical segment on the same scale as the cone, closed off by a flat disk at each end. It was solid but light, the silver-white surface opaque but reflective. Afra turned it about. "Metallic, but very light," she said. "Probably — "
     Suddenly she dropped it back in the alcove and brushed her hands against her shorts as though they were burning.
     The others watched her. "What happened?" Groton asked.
     "That's lithium!"
     Groton looked. "I believe you are right. But there's a polish on it — a coating of wax, perhaps. It shouldn't be dangerous to handle."
     What was so touchy about lithium? Ivo wondered, but he decided not to inquire. Probably it burned skin, like an acid, or was poisonous.

     Afra looked foolish. "I must be more nervous than I let on. I just never expected — " She paused, glancing down the wall. "Something occurs to me. Is the next one a silvery-gray pyramid?"
     Groton checked. "Close. Actually it's a tetrahedron, similar to the one we built originally on Triton. Your true pyramid has five sides, counting the bottom."
     "How do you know?"
     "This is an elemental arrangement. Look at — "
     "Elementary arrangement," Groton corrected her.
     "Elemental. You do know what an element is? Look at these objects. The first is a sphere, which means it has only one side: outside. The second is a closed cone: two sides, one curved, one flat. The third, the cylinder, has three. Yours has four, and so on. The first two aren't empty — they're gases! Hydrogen and helium, first and second elements on the periodic table — "
     "Could be," Groton said, impressed.
     "And likely to be so for any technologically advanced species. Lithium, the metal that's half the weight of water, third. Beryllium, fourth. Boron — "
     She broke off again and lurched for the sixth alcove — and froze before it.
     The others followed. There lay a four-inch cube — six sides — of a bright clear substance.
     Groton picked it up. "What's number six on the table? Six protons, six electrons... isn't that supposed to be carbon?" Then he too froze, eyes fixed on the cube. The light refracted through it strongly.
     Then Ivo made the connection. "Carbon in crystalline form — that's diamond!"
     They gazed upon it: sixty-four cubic inches of diamond, that had to have been cut from a much larger crystal.
     A single exhibit — of scores in the hall.

     Then Afra was moving down the length of the room, calling off the samples. "Nitrogen — oxygen — fluorine — neon...."
     Groton shook his head. "What a fortune! And they're only samples, shape-coded for ready reference. They — "
     Words failed him. Reverently, he replaced the diamond block.
     "Scandium — titanium — vanadium — chromium — " Afra chanted as she rushed on. "They're all here! All of them!"
     Beatryx was perplexed. "Why shouldn't they put them on display, if they want to?"
     Groton came out of his daze. "No reason, dear. No reason at all. It's just a very expensive exhibit, to leave open to strangers. Perhaps it is their way of informing us that wealth means nothing to them."
     She nodded, reassured.
     "The rare earths, too!" Afra called. She was now on the opposite side of the room, working her way back. "Here's promethium — pounds of it! And it doesn't even occur in nature!"
     "Does she know all the elements by heart?" Ivo muttered.
     "Osmium! That little cube must weigh twenty pounds! And solid iridium — on Earth that would sell for a thousand dollars an ounce!"
     "Better stay clear of the radioactives, Afra!" Groton cautioned her.
     "They're glassed in. Lead glass, or something; no radiation. I hope. At least they don't have them by the pound! Uranium — neptunium — plutonium — "
     "Saturnium — jupiterium — marsium," Ivo muttered, facetiously carrying the planetary identifiers farther. It seemed to him that too much was being made of this exhibit. "Earthium — venusium — mercurochrome — "
     "Mercury," Groton said, overhearing him. "There is such an element."

     Afra came back at last, subdued. "Their table goes to a hundred and twenty. Those latter shapes get pretty intricate..."
     "You know better than that, Afra," Groton said. "Some of those artificial elements have half-lives of hours, even minutes. They can't sit on display."
     "Even seconds, half-life. They're still here. Look for yourself."
     "Facsimiles, maybe. Not — "
     "No." Groton looked for himself. "Must be some kind of stasis field," he said dubiously. "If they can do what they can do with gravity — "
     "Suddenly I feel very small," she said.

     But Ivo reminded himself that such tricks were nothing compared to the compression of an entire planet into its gravitational radius, and the protection of accompanying human flesh. This exhibit was impressive, but hardly alarming, viewed in perspective. He suspected that there was more to it than they had spotted so far.
     The hall continued beyond the element display, slanting down again. Ivo wondered about such things as the temperature. Sharp changes in it should affect some of the element-exhibits, changing them from solid to liquid, or liquid to gas. Yet the exhibit had been geared to a comfortable temperature for human beings, and was obviously a permanent arrangement. The layout, too — convenient for human beings, even to the height of the alcove.
     Had this been the destroyer station closest to Earth, there could have been suspicion of a carefully tailored show. But this one was almost fifty thousand light-years distant. It could not have been designed for men — unless there were men in the galaxy not of Earth. Or very similar creatures.
     The implications disturbed him, but no more than anything else about this strange museum. He knew it had been said that a planetary creature had to be somewhat like man in order to rise to civilization and technology, and that long chains of reasoning had been used to "prove" this thesis — but man's reasoning in such respects was necessarily biased, and he had discounted it. Yet if it were true — if it were true — did it also hold for man's personality? The greed, the stupidity, the bloodthirst — ?

     The passage opened into a second room. This one was much larger than the first, and the alcoves began at floor-level.
     "Machinery!" Groton exclaimed with the same kind of excitement Afra had expressed before. He went to the first exhibit: a giant slab of metal, shaped like a wedge of cheese. As he approached, a ball fell on it and rolled off. Nothing else happened.
     "Machine?" Ivo inquired.
     "Inclined plane — the elementary machine, yes."
     Well, if Groton were satisfied…
     The second item was a simple lever. Fulcrum and rod, the point of the latter wedged under a large block. As they came up to it, the rod moved, and the block slid over a small amount. Groton nodded, pleased, and Ivo followed him to the next. The two women walked ahead, giving only cursory attention to this display.
     The third resembled a vise. A long handle turned a heavy screw, so that the force applied was geared down twice. "Plane and lever," Groton remarked. "We're jumping ahead about fifty thousand years each time, as human technology goes."
     "So far."
     The fourth one had a furnace and a boiler, and resembled a primitive steam engine — which it was. The fifth was an electric turbine.
     After that they became complicated. To Ivo's untrained eye, they resembled complex motors, heaters and radio equipment. Some he recognized as variants of devices he had blue printed via the macroscope; others were beyond his comprehension. Not all were intricate in detail; some were deceptively smooth. He suspected that an old automobile mechanic would find a printed-circuit board with embedded micro-transistors to be similarly smooth. One thing he was sure of: none of it was fakery.
     Groton stopped at the tenth machine. "I thought I'd seen real technology when we terraformed Triton," he said. "Now — I am a believer. I've digested about as much as I care to try in one outing. Let's go on."

     The girls had already done so, and were in the next chamber. This contained what appeared to be objects of art. The display commenced with simple two- and three-dimensional representations of concretes and abstracts, and went on to astonishing permutations. This time it was Beatryx who was fascinated.
     "Oh, yes, I see it," she said, moving languidly from item to item. She was lovely in her absorption, as though the grandeur and artistry of what she perceived transfigured her own flesh. Now she outshone Afra. Ivo had not realized how fervent her interest in matters artistic was, though it followed naturally from her appreciation of music. He had assumed that what she did not talk about was of no concern to her, and now he chided himself for comprehending shallowly — yet again.
     The display did not appeal to him as a whole, but individual selections did. He could appreciate the mathematical symbolism in some; it was of a sophisticated nature, and allied to the galactic language codes.
     A number were portraits of creatures. They were of planets remote from Earth, but were intelligent and civilized, though he could not tell how he could be sure of either fact. Probably the subtle clues manifested themselves to him subliminally, as when Brad had first shown him alien scapes on the macroscope. Description? Pointless; the creatures were manlike in certain respects and quite alien in certain others. What mattered more was their intangible symmetry of form and dignity of countenance. These were Greek idealizations; the perfect physique with the well-tutored mind and disciplined emotion. These were handsome male, females and neuters. They were represented here as art, and they were art, in the same sense that a rendition of a finely contoured athlete or nude woman was art by human terms.
     The rooms continued, each one at a lower level than the one preceding, until it seemed that the party had to be at the second lap of a spiral. One chamber contained books; printed scrolls, coiled tapes, metallic memory disks. Probably all the information the builders of the station might have broadcast to space was here, the reply to anyone who might suspect that the destroyer was merely sour grapes delivered by an ignorant culture. It was, in retrospect, obvious that that had never been the case.
     One room contained food. Many hours and many miles had passed in fascination; they were hungry. Macroscopic chemical identifiers labeled the entrees, which were in stasis ovens. The party made selections as though they were dining at an automat, "defrosting" items, and the menu was strange but good.

From MACROSCOPE by Piers Anthony (1969)

(ed note: The aliens have been engaged in a war of extermination with the human empire for about a hundred years. But suddenly the humans learn how to use Chaos-prediction methods to allow them to win every single battle with the aliens.)

“Are weapons armed?” she asked the corvette-leader direct.

“Armed and under your control.” The answer was prompt. “You’re way beyond sensible weapon range, but good luck anyway.”

Scowling with concentration, Shadow worked assiduously at the firing controls, directing sixteen long-range missiles not at the alien craft but to theoretical points of intercept time and position where her Chaos insight told her the events were designed to take place. The space around the patrol-craft became patterned with long ion trials from the projectiles as they leaped on their mission from the tubes of the corvettes slightly to their rear, but over the communications channel came occasional expressions of disbelief in the validity of the courses the weapons were taking.

By this time Hover’s own screens had begun to acquire a scatter of light which was the image of the alien squadron still too distant to be resolved by the scanners. In closer proximity but receding fast, the images of the missiles could also be seen, making for their Chaos-predicted destination that appeared to hold scant chance of becoming the actual point of interception. The corvette-leader had also come to the same conclusion.

“I guess we screwed that one up! The bogies are way off line.”

As if deliberately to confound his statement, the whole alien squadron turned sharply to a new heading which curved them with unique precision exactly to the points to which the missiles had been heading. Even without the screens, the beautiful rosettes of the great explosions could be seen framed clearly against the dark wastes of the void. Shadow’s slight smile of triumph was a wonderful thing to see.

(ed note: using their Chaos-prediction bogy-finder scheme, the human fleet destroys all the hostile alien warships. But then the humans detect alien "ghost" ships, drifiting with no power on and no aliens aboard. Some scoutships are sent to survey the ghost ships.)

“What did the survey tell us, Jym?” asked Hover.

“The damndest thing. There’s only one way we can interpret those ghost ships—and that’s to assume they were deliberately set up as a sort of museum.”

“I don’t figure it.”

“Neither did we at first. There were no aliens aboard, but from the exhibits and the layout inside, I’d say the vessels were designed to give us a fair insight into what type of creatures they are, their habits and customs, and their sciences and arts. It was a thumbnail sketch of several non-human races we’ve often fought but never actually met.

“I believe it, because you tell me it’s so. But did you also figure out why they left them there?”

“We can only hazard a guess. But it has the right feel about it. We think this is a primary bridge attempting to cross the communications gap that separates the aliens from ourselves. They’ve given us this much understanding preparatory to trying to start a dialogue.

A dialogue on what?”

Peace, Cass. We think they’re trying to sue for peace.

“After all these years?”

“Don’t forget times have changed. They haven’t won a single engagement since we started our Bogy-finder scheme, and the rate at which they’re losing ships must be stretching their resources close to breaking point.”

“Are we going to respond?”

“We’ve nothing to lose by trying. Before we had their museum we didn’t even know what they looked like, let alone how we might start a conversation. Now we’re cracking the whole mystery open, and Space Force is assembling our own space-museum which we intend leaving in one of their regular patrol routes. This could be a big thing, Cass. Understanding can negate an awful lot of irrational fear—the sort of fear that makes a species start a shooting war when there’s maybe a more peaceful means to achieve the same end.”

From THE CHAOS WEAPON by Colin Kapp (1977)

(ed note: Terra discovers faster-than-light travel, and meets the other alien races in the galaxy. Those races are members of the Galactic Confederacy.

Relations get more and more tense over 200 years, since Terrans always wanted to be top dog, and have troubles taking orders from other species. Finally a Terran hot-head named Captain Reed Ballinger snaps, tells the Confederacy to perform upon itself an anatomical impossibility involving basic breeding functions, and bombs the Star Brain. The latter being the cosmic computer who runs the Confederacy.

The Star Brain is annoyed by this, and issues an edict that the human race is banned from space flight. All humans are landed on Terra, and a network of monitor satellites put in orbit to prevent any spaceship from lifting off.

      “Anybody waiting for you?” he asked Turk.
     “There’s no one who’d care whether I came back to Earth or shipped out to the Milky Way."
     Andy didn’t answer. No one would ship out again, ever. Tycho III was the last Earth ship to return home. By interstellar edict, space was now forever closed to Earthmen.
     “Say,” Turk said, trying to break the gloom of their thoughts, “don’t you have a brother who's a spaceman waiting for you?”
     “He was a spaceman," Andy corrected. There were no spacemen now, just earthbound exiles. “I don't know where he is.”
     Andy was delaying until the last possible instant the moment when he would step out of Tycho III’s airlock. Probably, he would never set foot inside a spaceship again; no Earthman would. Earth’s brief two hundred years in space were now history, ancient history.

(ed note: Captain Reed Ballinger has not learned his lesson, and decides to double-down on the "stupid" strategy. He obviously never heard the meme definition of "insanity". He has secretly gathered some still-working spacecraft, weapons from museums, and a crowd of young hot-heads. His big plan is to somehow break the monitor satellite blocade, fly his fleet to Canopus, and bomb the snot out of the Star Brain.)

     On his third day in Mexico, Andy was given the task of plotting an orbit out of subspace. He wished he had access to star charts, for the patterns of stars that emerged out of the smoky haze of simulated sub-space looked tantalizingly familiar.
     Wasn't that extremely bright Class F0 star on the right edge of the viewport Canopus?
     The home of the Star Brain?
     The unknown star's spectrum was F0 (actually A9 II), of that Andy was almost sure. And, even accounting for simulated proximity, it was extremely bright. Of the brightest stars in the sky, Andy remembered from his lessons at Luna Academy, Canopus stood second only to Sirius. And that was because Sirius’ distance from Sol System was a mere 8.7 light years, whereas eighty times that distance separated Canopus from Sol System (actually 310 ± 20 light-years).
     Sirius’ apparent visual magnitude was —1.58.
     Canopus’ apparent visual magnitude was —0.86 (actually −0.74).
     But Sirius’ absolute visual magnitude was only 1.3 on a scale that placed the sun itself at 4.8.
     And Canopus’ absolute visual magnitude, on the same scale, was an astonishing —7.5 (actually –5.71).
     The intelligent races of the Galaxy had selected a truly spectacular star system as the home of the Star Brain Was Andy plotting a simulated orbit toward it now?

Reed Ballinger thinks his master plan will result in Terra ruling the galaxy. But any rational human being can see it will just result in a galactic war and with a lifeless Terra glowing blue with radiation for about ten thousand years. The number of alien empires outnumber Terra by an order of magnitude or so.

There is a better solution, not that testosterone-poisoned anti-intellectual Reed Ballinger will ever admit it.)

     Frank had said, “Got your application all ready?”
     “I saw it in your desk. What’s the matter, Andy?”
     “It's nothing.”
     “Come on, now. This is your brother Frank you're talking to."
     “I guess I’m not sure, that's all.”
     “About being a spaceman? What else do you want to be? ”
     “You'll laugh if I tell you."
     “Try me," Frank suggested.
     And Andy, averting his eyes, had said uncomfortably, “Well, I was thinking of maybe being an archaeologist. "
     “A digger, huh?”
     Andy's face reddened as he defended the idea. “Did you ever stop to think of all the mysteries of mankind's past that haven’t been solved? Angkor, the origin of the Cretans, the way we keep on finding that so many of the ancient myths really happened, it's … fascinating,” Andy finished lamely.
     His brother Frank had surprised him. “Sure it is. And I can see how it would interest a bright kid like you.”
     “You mean you're not mad at me? ”
     “What for? You want to be an archaeologist; go ahead and be one. I have a hunch you'll make me proud of you.
     “Could be you'll be able to mix them, Andy."
     “Mix what? "
     “Space and archaeology. I didn't want to tell you till you made up your mind. But didn't it occur to you that every civilized world in the Galaxy has its archaeological past, just as Earth does? "
     “I guess so, but you never hear of diggers visiting each other’s worlds to study alien ancient history.”
     “That’s true, you don't," Frank said soberly. “Maybe it's one trouble with the Galaxy. Maybe it's why we need a Star Brain to tell us what to do, because we don't take the trouble to understand each other."
     “I think we ought to.”
     Frank smiled. “ Keep thinking like that, and I have a hunch one of these years I'll sit back and watch my famous brother.”

(The protagonist Andy escapes from Ballinger's secret base, and eventualy finds his way to another secret base, one with a much better idea about how to deal with the Star Brain)

     Andy saw the flat tundra, a range of low pine-covered hills, a little valley beyond them with the glistening silver thread of a river twisting through it … and in the valley surrounded by row after row of tiny rectangles that Andy realized were small buildings, a single enormous spaceship.
     It stood, tail down, near the girders of its gantry, proud slim nose pointing at the sky. It seemed poised and expectant, as if ready to blast off momentarily.
     “That is the old Thule III,” Freya said. “Your brother’s ship on his last command. An accident was arranged when it was sent to a European base for dismantling, and the authorities think Thule III lies at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, as you can see, it is here. In it we will win our way back to space again.”
     “A single spaceship, against the rockets of the Monitor Satellites?”
     “Yes, Andy. A single spaceship. But we have a weapon Reed Ballinger never thought of. "
     “Then you are going to blast your way back into space," Andy said, trying unsuccessfully to check the anger in his voice.
     “Perhaps you can call it that. Thule III has been renamed. Now it is the Nobel, named for the nineteenth century Swede, Alfred Nobel, who gave the world dynamite and lived to regret it and to establish the prizes given in his name."
     “Nobel?” Andy repeated the man’s name. It sounded familiar.
     “Yes. And the most coveted prize conferred in his name was the Nobel Peace Prize. That will be our secret weapon, Andy."
     “What will? I don't understand."
     “Ballinger showed the Galaxy the violence we human beings are capable of and, if he has his way, will do so again. Nobel invented dynamite in the pre-atomic age and lived to see the world ravaged by terrible wars his invention made possible. Alfred Nobel established his peace prize to honor the greatest achievements of mankind in his time.” Freya finished, “The ship which is his namesake will take into space a record of humanity’s proudest achievements. Not achievements for war and destruction, Andy, but for peace. Our secret weapon will be the history of mankind. Despite the Genghis Khans and Neros and Hitlers and Stalins and Ballingers, we think it is a good history and a glorious one. We will offer it to the Galaxy as our answer to the Edict.”

     The high tundra country above the Arctic Circle had never seen anything like it. Even the sun, here in this summer of perpetual daylight, seemed to stand still in awe and watch.
     Mankind was assembling the strangest weapon ever devised.
     In the bustling camp south of Hammerfest on the North Cape, under the thrusting spire of the waiting spaceship Nobel, scientists from all over the world had come in answer to Frank Marlow’s and Lambert Strayer's summons. Their task: in a few short weeks to assemble a history of humanity to show the Star Brain and the other civilized races of the Galaxy as proof that Earth had eamed its place in the concert of worlds.

     “Because of the hundred worlds that have produced a reasonably high order of civilization in the Galaxy, we know absolutely nothing about the history of any of them. It is as if they have all appeared, full blown, with the advent of the interstellar spaceship." Dr. Seys was pacing in a rapid circle around Andy with his small, frail hands clasped behind his back. “Spaceships, bah. I hate them. They bring alien peoples together, they bridge unthinkable chasms of space — a hundred light years, two hundred, a thousand — and what do we know of each other? We know that the Arcturans can produce cobalt bombs as deadly as ours. We know that the Sirians have a vast store of nerve gas to contaminate the atmosphere of any world foolish enough to attack Sirius."
     “Yes, but…
     “We do not know one solitary fact about the past history of the Arcturans. We know nothing of the Sirians as a civilization. We do not know their past greatness or their future hopes. We do not know if their civilizations are as old as ours or older or only perhaps half so old." Dr. Seys took a deep breath. He had been talking so fast that, as far as Andy could tell, it was his first.
     “Once, long ago,” he went on, “a German wrote a book about the tyranny of Greece over Germany. We Germanic people…
     “I never knew Germany and Greece fought a war, Dr. Seys.”
     “War? Who is talking of war? The tyranny is a tyranny of the intellect. We Germanic peoples love it. We feel Periclean Greece was the bedrock of civilization on Earth, the solid foundation on which all subsequent civilizations have built. That is the tyranny I meant. But don't you see, Mr. Moran, if Greece gave Earth the high beginnings of so much of our philosophy and art and drama and architecture and law and morality, isn’t it possible that on Fomalhaut or Aldebaran or Centauri a parallel situation can be found? We know nothing of those people. Nothing. That is why I am doing this."
     “I beg your pardon," Andy said. “You lost me."
     “Because if we reach the Star Brain with the story of mankind’s past, the others from all the far-flung worlds of the Galaxy will come, too. To watch us, young man. And in watching they will leam about us. And if they learn about us, they may decide to let us learn about them. What I hope for, Mr. Moran, is the start of the first exchange of cultural information among the intelligent races of the Galaxy. What is Procyon’s Greece? Who were Deneb's Hellenes? What was it in the past of the Eriadnians which made them develop telepathy as a means of communications? Why is the number four of mystic significance to the Antarans?
     “Consider, Mr. Morgan. We human beings have been in space barely two hundred years. But subspace drive, making journeys among the stars possible, we didn't develop until two generations ago. To laymen on Earth, the distances are still unthinkable; young man, there are as yet no pleasure trips among the stars. Our ships were crammed with technicians, engineers, miners, each one with a specific job. The same is true of the ships of every other world. Not only that, but each world has always been jealous of the mining rights assigned to it by the Star Brain. And each has been even more afraid of the military might of all the others. I ask you, Mr. Morgan, is this a good basis for mutual understanding? It has been impossible under the circumstances. Through fear, through suspicion, through distrust and misunderstanding, we know no more about each other than we did before subspace travel made interstellar flights possible. We all are ostriches with our heads in the sand.
     “A hundred worlds, my boy, and a hundred million mysteries for us to solve. This can be the start of a new day in the Galaxy. That is why I am here." Dr. Seys took his second deep breath. “Are you clever with your hands?”
     “I’ll try to help, sir."
     And, in the days that followed, Andy tried. Under the part-time supervision of the volatile Austrian, he and five other ex-Cadets painstakingly built the plaster model of the Athenian High City from the collections of plans and pictures Dr. Seys had brought from Vienna to Norway. The indefatigable Dr. Seys was busy with a half-dozen other projects too. Once he paced past the plaster model and said to Andy’s back:
     “The good with the bad, we must show them everything. No lies, no half-truths, no brain-washing, Mr. Morgan. The High City is beautiful, yes? But all was not beautiful in the fourth century B.C. If Athens was the shining pinnacle of civilization, Sparta to the south never got over its militaristic ways. Sparta was an armed camp dedicated to its war goddess, Artemis Orthia. And in the hills to the north, in the rude savage cities of Macedon, Philip and his son Alexander after him waited patiently to pounce on the civilization Athens had produced. We are doing a map in plaster, too, my young friend. The ancient world from Greece to India, and the trail of Alexander’s conquests. We will show them the bad with the good. We will show them the Earth as it was. It is for them to decide whether Earth is to be judged by the philosophy of a Plato and the drama of a Euripides or the barracks-life of a Spartan and the swords and shields of an Alexander."
     Dr. Seys’s projects were ambitious, but they were just a few among the many that were being assembled in Norway. In plaster, in faithful reproductions of works of art, in translation of the world’s great literature into a dozen interstellar languages, in maps and drawings and books and microfilm, five thousand years of human history, all the glory and vanity and tragedy of a civilization — of all the civilizations that had brought Earth to this particular point in time and space — were being collected and systematized for their strange journey across the Galaxy.

     “You guessed it, Cadet. I’ve been a fool to believe in Reed Ballinger this long. He's not interested in Earth's returning to space … unless it returns with Captain Reed Ballinger leading the way.”
     “And you actually think that stuff Andy told me and Charlie Sands about Project Nobel can… "
     “It gives us a chance, Turk. Not just us. Not just Earthmen. Don't you see? Whether the Star Brain accepts a record of Earth's greatest achievements as a reason to give Earth a second chance in space is one thing and it's mighty important. But it can lead to something even more important. Do you know anything of the history of the Denebians?"
     “The Denebians? No, I don’t,” Turk said, puzzled.
     “Or the Antarans? The Formalhautians? The Sirians? The Centaurians?”
     “No, but… "
     “Well, they don't know anything about us either. "
     “We’ve had interstellar contact for the purposes of trade, but if one single worth-while idea has been exchanged among the Galactic races, I'm not aware of it. Do you think, if the Star Brain accepts Earth's record, the other races will just stand by and watch? You can bet your life they won’t. They'd all want to get into the act Turk. To get back on even cultural terms with Earth, they’ll all prepare their own histories. First for the Star Brain, then for each other.

(ed note: Our heros win through all the forces arrayed against them, and reach Canopus. The Star Brain gives them permission to present their historical information.)

     The Star Brain’s scanning mechanism was next. It was a long, vault-like chamber with a high ceiling and receiving screens on all four walls. High along one wall was a narrow catwalk patrolled by the guardians, and it was on this ramp that the guides took the Earth-men. They had come just in time to see the beginning of Earth’s case on its own behalf. Three Nobel anthropologists stood in the center of the room, preparing to project slides on one of the screens.
     Their leader was a Lebanese named Habib Malik, and while the Star Brain listened to and recorded his words, he said: “My name is Malik. I am an anthropologist from American University in Beirut, Lebanon, a small independent state in Western Asia, the largest of Earth’s continents. I am here to tell you of the earliest advent of premodem man on the planet Earth.
     “We do not know how long ago the prelizard-men of Capella first emerged from their native swamps, though we would like to. We do not know how long ago the prebirdmen of Sirius came down from their loftiest branches, though we would like to. We do not know how long ago the pre-intelligent ungulates of Arcturus left their meadows to build the cities of their civilization, though we would like to.
     “We believe, in short, that our presentation of the history and achievements — yes, and failures — of Earthmen can be a valuable beginning. Whatever your decision on the merits of Earth’s plea to be allowed to retum to space, at least this record we give you will become a part of your memory banks. If nothing else, we hope it instills a desire in the other members of the Confederacy to do the same and present their histories. We believe along this road lies the only sure way to permanent mutual understanding."
     Habib Malik, a small, bald, olive-skinned man of middle age, took a deep breath, stared at the blank unanswering screen, and went on: “Just as the physical sciences on all the worlds have, through new discoveries, constantly pushed back the date of the beginning of the physical universe of stars and nebulae so that now we can safely say the Galaxy is not less than twelve billion years old and may be a very great deal older than that, so the anthropologists of Earth, through new discoveries, have constantly pushed back the date of earliest man. By earliest man we mean clearly a member of genus homo rather than a half-man, half-ape. We would like to begin our story with this earliest true man, not yet homo sapiens as you see him standing before you, but more than an animal.
     “The distinction between animal and man, we anthropologists always have contended, is one of tool making. The first true men fashioned tools with a purpose — whether for hunting or the skinning of animals or, regrettably, warfare against his fellows — out of material at hand. He… "
     Andy’s guide, hearing the translation in his helmet, said excitedly, “Why, it is so on Capella, too! That is the very distinction we make."
     …tools culminating finally in the most complex device ever developed on any world,” Malik was saying. “And by this, of course, I mean the Star Brain. But if man and the other intelligent races had not started with simple flint knives and spearheads, the ultimate evolution to a Star Brain would have been impossible.
     “The earliest known true man's remains were found on the continent of Africa, in a place called Olduvi Gorge at the southem end of the Great Rift Valley. For this reason, we call him Olduvi man.
     “Geologically, he belongs to the Lower Pleistocene period. That is to say, Olduvi man was making his first crude tools in the Great Rift Valley six hundred thousand years ago.”
     “Remarkable!” exclaimed the Capellan. “We, too, on Capella date our earliest true ancestor back at least six hundred thousands of your years ago. It is as if our evolutions had started coevally across the gulf of light years." (actually, that is a rather suspicious coincidence. It suggests a local supernova destroyed all life in the vicinity and reset the development clock of both Sol and Capella to the same zero. Or maybe a wave of berserkers...)
     They waited on the catwalk, listening intently to Habib Malik's words. If anything, the Capellans, for the first time being granted a vision of Earth’s past, seemed more interested than their companions from Earth.
     When Malik finished his presentation, the second anthropologist began to speak. “If Olduvi man was the first true man, then Cro-Magnon man was the first full man. Thirty or forty thousand years ago, he appeared in Western Europe, a small peninsula jutting west from the great Asian land mass, and… "
     “I am afraid we must leave," the Capellan guide said with frank regret. “We must go on duty shortly, you see. But even if we don't guide you again, we’ll be back here. I for one want to learn more of this."
     It was, Andy told himself happily, a magnificent start. The Star Brain's objective interest was assured, but the curiosity of their Capellan guides was as unexpected as it was heartening.

     Later that day, Andy and Turk returned to the scanner room to see Dr. Seys stand before the four screens.
     “My name is Dr. Seys,” he said. “I am a historian of classic civilization at the University of Vienna in Austria, a small nation in the east of Europe.
     “You have now seen how man’s earliest, but admittedly barbaric and superstition-motivated, civilizations sprang up in the river valleys of the Indus, the Tigris-Euphrates, and the Nile. It is now my honor to introduce what many men of Earth consider the first true rational society. This was no hidebound civilization limited geographically by the extent of a river valley and morally by the totalitarian rule of a select group. For its citizens, this was the first attempt ever made at true democracy, and in some ways, though the franchise was limited, the attempt never has been surpassed.
     “The civilization I am introducing sprang up on the shores of a great sea, called the Mediterranean. Its peoples called themselves Hellenes. We today call them Greeks.
     “Three thousand years ago in one packed century and chiefly in one small city they built virtually out of chaos a civilization all Earth can look to with pride. The one small city was the city of Athens.
     “It produced in a span of less than a hundred years, three of the greatest dramatists the Earth ever has known. These were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and their works will be fed into the scanner later. It produced three philosophers without peer on Earth: Socrates, his disciple Plato; and Plato's disciple Aristotle. Its architecture…
     Andy listened, fascinated. He became aware of several Capellans joining him and Turk on the catwalk. They were guiding no Earthmen but had come because they wanted to hear.
     “…‘nothing in excess,’ ” Dr. Seys was saying. “But that is ironic, for though it was the guiding motto of these Hellenes of Athens, theirs was the most exuberant, active, Dionysian, excessive civilization the Earth was to know until Elizabethan England, which you shall hear about later. My point is that such a motto is revered precisely because it was the opposite of the exuberance confronting Socrates. But if the very excesses of the Greeks made possible a Socrates or a Euripides, we of Earth are thankful for it.”
     Dr. Seys spoke for fifteen minutes more, and then an historian Andy didn’t know began to speak of the conquest of Greece by the Macedonians and the spreading, by the sword of Alexander the Great, of Hellenic culture as far as India.
     “Incredible! ” said one of the Capellans.
     “Starting from one small city," said another.
     “Didn’t our earliest attempts at a moral democracy start in the small seacoast town of Erbodine?”

     “Data now sufficient,” boomed the Star Brain suddenly.
     More silence, then:
     “Yours is a fascinating story, men of Earth. But I gather it is not unique. I gather that if each of the many worlds that built me came here with its story I would learn similar histories of achievement and failure, of good and evil. Is that correct?"
     Andy heard the Capellans gasp. It was the first time the Star Brain ever had asked a question.
     “That's correct,” Captain Strayer said promptly.
     “I also gather,” said the Star Brain, “that you tried to deceive me. A second time I was close to bombing…and by the same man of Earth. Is this what you consider a guarantee of your good intentions?”
     Another question from the Star Brain. The Capellans were astonished. Captain Strayer glanced at Andy, who had told him what had happened in the power plant. Stepping forward, Captain Strayer said:
     “We never guaranteed our good intentions. You said it yourself: among humans there is achievement and failure, good and evil. We do what we can. We are not machines. We have emotions."

     There was a long silence. The Capellans looked at each other anxiously. Then the Star Brain said: “Earth’s motive in presenting Earth’s history was to be granted another chance in space. The question now is whether or not I will remove the Edict that has outlawed Earthmen from space.” Andy held his breath.
     “The answer is that I will. Earth is free to join the Confederacy as an active member again."
     A great shout went up, loud in Andy's helmet intercom. The listening Capellans contributed to it as much as the Earthmen.
     “Under one condition," said the Star Brain. “And that is this: every member of the Confederacy must prepare a history as Earth has done. I need more data. Repeat: I need more data. For what happened here proves that you creatures of protoplasm, my builders, from whatever world and in whatever shape, are no machines. You emote. Whether for good or for bad, only the future will tell. Repeat: I need more data.
     “But creatures of Earth and creatures of Capella, I can see a time when the sentient beings of the Galaxy, not their mechanical creations, must fully determine their own future. The sooner you all present your data, the sooner this time will come.
     “I can see a future in which the Brain you have built will be nothing but a clearing house for the mutual exchange of knowledge. I can see a Galactic civilization living in harmony from Ophiuchus to the Magellanic Clouds. I can see…
     “When?” shouted a Capellan.
     “Data insufficient," answered the Star Brain.

From SPACEMEN GO HOME by Milton Lesser (1961)


"Immortality" means being partially or fully immune to dying from old age. You can still die from starvation, being blown out an airlock with no spacesuit, or being drilled between the eyes by a laser rifle.

"Invulnerability" on the other hand is being remarkably difficult to kill. Having a body composed of diamond, Wolverine-levels of regeneration, resurrection like Count Dracula, that sort of thing.

Having one of these abilities does not necessarily mean you have the other. TV Tropes calls having both Complete Immortality.

Immortality is a perennial favorite, since practically nobody wants to die. I'm not kidding. The concept dates back at least to the The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2100 BCE) the earliest surviving great work of literature.

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."
— Woody Allen

Yes, we don't live forever. People and animals change as they age, and eventually catch disease and die.

Eternal life is ingrained in the collective human consciousness, having been present in literature and myths for as long as they've been around. Literally. The Epic of Gilgamesh (the oldest heroic epic known to the modern world) is, in large part, about the titular character's search for a way to live forever.

Of course, having been around for so long, Our Immortality Is Different, and comes in several flavours. These tropes are not mutually exclusive; there's plenty of room for overlap.


For general tropes relating to immortality, see This Index Will Live Forever.


      It was to this point that Chris returned after his upsetting argument with Piggy. “Sergeant, the other day you said that the Mayor was killing himself with overwork. But the City Fathers told me he's several centuries old. On the drugs, he ought to live forever, isn't that so?"
     "Absolutely not," Anderson said emphatically: "Nobody can live forever. Sooner or later, there'd be an accident, for one thing. And strictly speaking, the drugs aren't a ‘cure' for death anyhow. Do you know how they work?”
     "No," Chris admitted. "School hasn't covered them yet."

     "Well. the memory banks can give you the details—I’ve probably forgotten most of them. But generally. there are several antiagathics, and each one does a different job. The main one, ascomycin, stirs up a kind of tissue in the body called the reticuloendothelial system—the white blood corpuscles are a part of it—to give you what's called ‘nonspecific immunity.‘ What that means is that for about the next seventy years, you can't catch any infectious disease. At the end of that time you get another shot, and so on. The stuff isn't an antibiotic, as the name suggests. but an endotoxin fraction—a complex organic sugar called a mannose; it got its name from the fact that it's produced by fermentation, as antibiotics are.
     "Another is TATP — triacetyltriparanoi. What this does is inhibit the synthesis in the body of a fatty stuff called cholesterol; otherwise it collects in the arteries and causes strokes, apopiexy, high blood pressure and so on. This drug has to be taken every day, because the body goes right on trying to make cholesterol every day."
     "Doesn't that mean that it's good for something?" Chris objected tentatively.
     "Cholesterol? Sure it is. It’s absolutely essential in the development of a fetus, so women have to lay off TATP while they're carrying a child. But it's of no use to men—and men are far more susceptible to circulatory diseases than women.
     “There are still two more anti-agathics in use now, but they're minor; one, for instance, blocks the synthesis of the hormone of sleep, which again is essential in pregnancy but a thundering nuisance otherwise; that one was originally found in the blood of ruminant animals like cows, whose plumbing is so defective that they'd die if they lay down. "
     "You mean you never sleep?”
     "Haven't got the time for it." Anderson said gravely. "Or the need any longer. thank goodness. But ascomycin and TATP between them prevent the two underlying major causes of death: heart diseases and infections. If you prevent those alone. you extend the average lifetime by at least two centuries.

     "But death is still inevitable. Chris. If there isn't an accident, there may be cancer. which we can't prevent yet—oh, ascomycin attacks tumors so strongly that cancer doesn't kill people any longer, in fact the drug even offers quite a lot of protection against hard radiation; but cancer can still make life so agonizing that death is the only humane treatment. Or a man can die of starvation, or of being unable to get the anti-agathics. Or he can die of a bullet—or of overwork. We live long lives in the cities. sure: but more is no such thing as immortality. It's as mythical as the unicorn. Not even the universe itself is going to last forever."

From A LIFE FOR THE STARS by James Blish (1962)

Problems With Immortality

But the invention of any new technique of prolonging lifespan is guaranteed to create major problems in the society and political power structure.

For one thing, unless you pass laws about term limits and maximum age of political office, you've suddenly got a gerontocracy on your hands.

For another, if the lifespan lengthens to past about 500 years or so, you'd better limit the number of children allowed to a family or overpopulation will make a reappearance. Once you have death control you have to have birth control or you'll be standing on Zanzibar. Logically, the reason any species has the ability to procreate is because they are mortal. Otherwise the species would go extinct. Remove the mortality and you remove the need for procreation.

Naturally, this becomes less acute if immortality is not for everyone, but just for a privileged few. Even if that spoil-sport Immanual Kant says it is immoral to do something that is only bad if everybody does it.

TV Tropes calls this the Immortal Procreation Clause: The fertility of a species is inversely proportional to its lifespan. Thus, as a species approaches immortality, their birth rate approaches zero. This can be the result of natural infertility, or because they don't want to be up to their eyebrows in squalling babies so contraception is employed.

On a broader level there is the problem that reducing the birth rate also reduces the evolution rate of the species. No children, no evolution. Keeping in mind that the invention of modern medicine has already put a damper on evolution.

There are other problems with immortality, over and above the literary motive of saying it is just plain immoral for some reason or another.

A couple of time the science fiction author wanted to make the immorality rather stark black-and-white. The immortalty treatment requires the death of another person (sometimes of an alien species but still...). Stories include Ben Bova's Stars, Won't You Hide Me? and the Babylon 5 episode Deathwalker.

It has often been noted that in society "the rich get richer." At least nowadays the super rich eventually die so their wealth is divided among the children. But an immortal rich person is just going to keep getting richer. The same goes for a politically powerful immortal. They keep getting to be more powerful and are never removed by death (well natural death at any rate, I'm sure the descendants will be busy hiring assasins).

In "The Martyr" by Alan E Nourse the invention of immortality puts the breaks on progress. They can only give the treatment to 500 carefully selected people each year, but after a couple of decades the effect is quite noticeable. The starship project stalls because there is no motivation to get things done in a timely fashion. Since each treatment adds another sixty years to your life, why not spend yet another year on starship testing just to be absolutely sure? And the politicians start becoming permanent fixtures. With each decade they just add to their repertoire of dirty political tricks, new novice politicians don't stand a chance. Stagnation.

The "lack of pressure" drawback is also featured in Between The Strokes Of Night by Charles Sheffield, in chapter 29.

In Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun the Spacers have a lifespan of 400 years or so. They become hypercautious and terrified of disease, since they have so many more years to lose than a filthy Earthman with their three-score and ten. Spacers are also unbelievably conservative and resistant to change.

In many science fiction stories the supreme enemy of an immortal being is boredom. After ten-thousand years or so it is almost impossible for an immortal to find anything new, or even anything they've only encountered five hundred times before. In The Lost Worlds of 2001 Arthur C. Clarke said "There were few things that an immortal welcomed and valued more greatly than surprise; when there was none left in the universe, it would be time to die." This is explored in Raymond Z. Gallun's The Eden Cycle and Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time sequence where the protagonists must go to extreme and absurd lengths to keep ennui at bay.

In the role playing game The Burning Wheel, the Elves are immortal. As a consequence they are elegiac, tragic, and constantly grief-stricken. After all, the longer you live, the larger the number of friends you have seen die (generally in combat). Us older people have experienced a mild version of this: the older you get, the more of your beloved TV and movie actors you loved from childhood depart for that big silver screen in the sky. Especially in the year 2016.

In the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End Captain Teague tells Jack Sparrow: "It's not just about living forever, Jackie. The trick is living with yourself forever."

In Glen Cook's The Dragon Never Sleeps people periodically make brain recordings as a backup. If they are killed, a new cloned body can be quickly warmed up and impressed with the latest recording for an instant resurrection. Sort of like playing a computer role playing game and saving the game periodically in case your player character unexpectedly dies. In fact, if the body of the dear departed has a brain that is not too damaged, it can be scanned to proved a back up more recent than the last brain recording.

However, since the powerful Houses in the novel are about as peaceful and innocent as the ones in The Game of Thrones, assassination is commonplace. So much so that a specialized weapon was developed: the skull-splitter. It fires a bullet of compressed metallic sodium which will totally fry the victim's brain beyond all hope of scanning. In other words is it a weapon specifically optimized to screw up the target's resurrection. Granted, it only eliminates the person's memories between now and the last backup recording, but that can be useful in carefully crafted political plots.

But immortality is not all bad. It comes in handy with slower-than-light space travel. Or even faster-than-light, the "anti-agathic" immortality drugs of James Blish's Cities In Flight series were developed because star travel at 20c still consumes a huge chunk of one's lifespan. In Robert Forward's Rocheworld, the drug No-Die slows the aging process to one-fourth the normal rate. Unfortunately it temporarily lowers intelligence by roughly the same factor. It is needed because the STL laser light-sail is going to take 42 years to fly to Barnard's Star, and a crew of retirement-age astronauts would do an exceedingly poor job of exploration.

Science fiction authors are also fond of teasing the reader about immortality. In Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo? by Gerald Kersh the protagonist meets the eponymous Cuckoo who was born in 1507. He suffered a severe head trauma, and was treated by mad doctor Ambroise Paré with The Digestive (a concoction of oil of roses, honey, turpentine, and egg whites). This makes Cuckoo both immortal and invulnerable. Cuckoo wants to buy a farm to produce the needed ingredients so he can make a fortune selling The Digestive.

The protagonist torpeodes Cuckoo's plan by pointing out the wide variations in bee honey, eggs, et al. The chances of recreating the formula by using such organic ingredients is zilch.


Both men recognize the epithet. They interogate Na'toth, who claims the victim is Jha'Dur, more commonly known as Deathwalker, a notorious mass murderer and diabolical medical researcher who murdered her grandfather, among many others. Na'Toth's family has taken a bloodoath against her grandfather's killer. Sinclair is skeptical that the victim can be the same person, as the Dilgar War (where Deathwalker gained her infamy) was over thirty years earlier—the real Deathwalker would have to be an old woman, not the middle aged woman Na'Toth attacked. Nevertheless, Na'Toth insists she made no error.

Sinclair checks on the victim in Medlab. Dr. Franklin reports that she is healing well--and at a remarkable rate. Sinclair recognizes her species as Dilgar, despite the common belief that the entire Dilgar race was wiped out when their sun went nova at the end of the Dilgar War. This fact, coupled with both archival images as well as a Dilgar uniform Garibaldi finds aboard her ship suggest she is in fact Jha'dur, the Deathwalker. Garibaldi also recovers an elixir from the ship, one that Sinclair orders Franklin to investigate.

The woman finally awakens in Medlab. She angrily retrieves the elixir from Franklin (calling it her "life's work") and demands to meet with Sinclair.

Once in Medlab, Sinclair speaks to the woman privately. She confirms her identity as Jha'dur "Deathwalker." When he asks how she can be so young and vital, she explains that the elixir is an antiagapic, a serum that halts the aging process and makes the user immune to all diseases. She declares that with the help of the Earth Alliance, she will bring it to all corners of the galaxy.

As she prepares to leave, Jha'Dur is approached by Sinclair, who asks why she would be willing to give Earth such a miracle cure when Earth was responsible for turning the tide of the Dilgar's invasion. Jha'Dur explains that her race is gone and both her name and her people's are cursed throughout the galaxy—but her discovery will ensure that this will not remain their legacy.

Once again, Jha'Dur prepares to leave the station. She explains the truth about her formula: a key ingredient cannot be synthesized, but must be taken from a living being. In other words, for one person to live forever, another must die. She predicts this will cause humanity and every other race to "fall on one another like wolves," and the genocide that will result will be the true testament to her work. Her legacy will be to turn those who hate the Dilgar into worse criminals than they were.

Babylon 5 episode DEATHWALKER

      The Final Battle had been lost. On a million million planets across the galaxy-studded universe, mankind had been blasted into defeat and annihilation. The Others had returned from across the edge of the observable world, just as man had always feared. They had returned and ruthlessly exterminated the race from Earth.
     The Final Battle, from which Holman was fleeing, had been fought near an exploded galaxy billions of light-years from the Milky Way and Earth. There, with the ghastly bluish glare of uncountable shattered stars as a backdrop, the once-mighty fleets of mankind had been arrayed. Mortals and Immortals alike, men drew themselves up to face the implacable Others.
     The enemy won. Not easily, but completely. Mankind was crushed, totally. A few fleeing men in a few battered ships was all that remained. Even the Immortals, Holman thought wryly, had not escaped. The Others had taken special care to make certain that they were definitely killed.

     “And all you did was watch?”
     We tried to warn you from time to time. We tried to advise you. But the warnings, the contacts, the glimpses of the future that we gave you were always ignored or derided. So you boiled out into space for the second time, and met other societies at your own level of understanding — aggressive, proud, fearful. And like the children you are, you fought endlessly.
     “But the Others… what about them?”
     They are your punishment.
     “Punishment? For what? Because we fought wars?”

     No. For stealing immortality.
     “Stealing immortality? We worked for it. We learned how to make humans immortal. Some sort of chemicals. We were going to immortalize the whole race… I could’ve become immortal. Immortal. But they couldn’t stand that… the Others. They attacked us.”
     He sensed a disapproving shake of the head.
     “It’s true,” Holman insisted. “They were afraid of how powerful we would become once we were all immortal. So they attacked us while they still could. Just as they had done a million years earlier. They destroyed Earth’s first interstellar civilization, and tried to finish us permanently. They even caused Ice Ages on Earth to make sure none of us would survive. But we lived through it and went back to the stars. So they hit us again. They wiped us out. Good God, for all I know I’m the last human being in the whole universe.”

     Your knowledge of the truth is imperfect. Mankind could have achieved immortality in time. Most races evolve that way eventually. But you were impatient. You stole immortality.
     “Because we did it artificially, with chemicals. That’s stealing it?”
     Because the chemicals that gave you immortality came from the bodies of the race you called the Flower People. And to take the chemicals, it was necessary to kill individuals of that race.
     Holman’s eyes widened. “What?”
     For every human made immortal, one of the Flower Folk had to die.
     “We killed them? Those harmless little…” His voice trailed off.
     To achieve racial immortality for mankind, it would have been necessary to perform racial murder on the Flower Folk.
     Holman heard the words, but his mind was numb, trying to shut down tight on itself and squeeze out reality.
     That is why the Others struck. That is why they had attacked you earlier, during your first expansion among the stars. You had found another race, with the same chemical of immortality. You were taking them into your laboratories and methodically murdering them. The Others stopped you then. But they took pity on you, and let a few survivors remain on Earth. They caused your Ice Ages as a kindness, to speed your development back into civilization, not to hinder you. They hoped you might evolve into a better species. But when the opportunity for immortality came your way once more, you seized it, regardless of the cost, heedless of your own ethical standards. It became necessary to extinguish you, the Others decided.

From STARS, WON'T YOU HIDE ME? by Ben Bova (1966)

(ed note: In this story, the galactic emperor is immortal. Which sounds like it would be dangerously easy to wind up with an empire ruled eternally by an undying tyrant. But luckily there is an unplanned safeguard.

The galactic emperor rules justly and with due concern for all those affected by his decisions. Because if not, the emperor dies.

You see every few decades, the emperor undergoes immortality treatments. These prevent the emperor from dying from old age. But there is a side effect. During the treatment, the emperor sees every single thing they have done in their life. With intense recall.

If the emperor has made too many decisions which were without empathy, which were cruel to those under the emperor's rule, the replay of those memories will kill him.)

". . . The Just, the All-powerful, the All-knowing, His Celestial Majesty, Tate the First!"

He sat down.

Nobody moved anywhere. This was no ordinary function, where he granted audiences or issued the decrees which could alter the destiny of whole stellar systems. This was the time when he had to prove his fitness to rule, or die. In utter silence he pressed one of the two studs set in the arm of his throne, and tried to relax as golden bands of beautifully worked metal closed around his limbs, chest, and head, holding him rigid.

When given before the age of forty and renewed every twenty years, the Immortality Treatment prevented the disease of senility and death from occurring in life based on the carbon series of compounds—which meant practically all forms of life. There were thousands of dogs, cats, and monkeys to prove that it worked. But in beings of higher intelligence—human or otherwise—it did not work at all, unless the being in question was mentally very, very tough.

The radiation which stimulated the regenerative centers produced other effects as well, some of them good, others quite fatally bad. The treatment increased the I.Q., and gave to the mind a perfect, eidetic memory. It also, for the few seconds duration of the treatment, so intensified the effects of what had come to be called the "area of conscience" that any being having sufficient intelligence to base his actions on a moral code had to take three seconds of the most frightful psychological torture ever known. He had to live with the cruel, debased, and utterly nauseous creature that was himself.

Many preferred to die rather than take three seconds of it. Most had no such choice—their life force was obliterated with the first, savage blast of self-knowledge.

This secondary effect of the treatment was experienced in a complete reliving of the past, with each incident diamond-sharp in visual, auditory, and tactile sense recall. But not only that. The mind was given a terrifying insight into the end results of that being's most trivial-seeming actions. Unthinking words or gestures made over the years and forgotten, when blown up by the triple stimulus of perfect memory, increased I.Q., and a hypersensitive "conscience" became lethal as a suicide's bullets. The mind just could not take such an overwhelming blast of self-guilt, even for three seconds, so it, and the body containing it, died.

Only one person had successfully undergone the Immortality Treatment.

Tate, though he had lived—with thirty-seven previous treatments—for seven hundred and sixty-eight years, still took only three seconds. And there was no blurring or telescoping of events. Each incident was complete, and though it occupied only microseconds of time, each bore its charge of guilt potential.

From DYNASTY OF ONE by James White (1955)

      ‘It’s not as simple as that. What I’m telling you now I’ve discovered slowly—usually when I’ve been dreaming or slightly drunk. You may say that invalidates the evidence, but I don’t think so. At first it was the only way I could break through the barrier that separates me from Omega—I’ll tell you later why I’ve called him that. But now there aren’t any obstacles: I know he’s there all the time, waiting for me to let down my guard. Night and day, drunk or sober, I’m conscious of his presence. At times like this he’s quiescent, watching me out of the corner of his eye. My only hope is that he’ll grow tired of waiting, and go in search of some other victim.’
     Connolly’s voice, calm until now, suddenly came near to breaking.
     ‘Try and imagine the horror of that discovery: the effect of learning that every act, every thought or desire that flitted through your mind was being watched and shared by another being. It meant, of course, the end of all normal life for me. I had to leave Ruth and I couldn’t tell her why. Then, to make matters worse, Maude came chasing after me. She wouldn’t leave me alone, and bombarded me with letters and phone calls. It was hell. I couldn’t fight both of them, so I ran away. And I thought that on Syrene, of all places, he would find enough to interest him without bothering me.’

     ‘Now I understand,’ said Pearson softly. ‘So that’s what he’s after. A kind of telepathic Peeping Tom—no longer content with mere watching….’
     ‘I suppose you’re humouring me,’ said Connolly, without resentment. ‘But I don’t mind, and you’ve summed it up pretty accurately, as you usually do. It was quite a while before I realised what his game was. Once the first shock had worn off, I tried to analyse the position logically. I thought backward from that first moment of recognition, and in the end I knew that it wasn’t a sudden invasion of my mind. He’d been with me for years, so well hidden that I’d never guessed it. I expect you’ll laugh at this, knowing me as you do. But I’ve never been altogether at ease with a woman, even when I’ve been making love to her, and now I know the reason. Omega has always been there, sharing my emotions, gloating over the passions he can no longer experience in his body.

     ‘The only way I kept my control was by fighting back, trying to come to grips with him and to understand what he was. And in the end I succeeded. He’s a long way away and there must be some limit to his powers. Perhaps that first contact was an accident, though I’m not sure.
     ‘What I’ve told you already, Jack, must be hard enough for you to believe, but it’s nothing to what I’ve got to say now. Yet remember—you agreed that I’m not an imaginative man, and see if you can find a flaw anywhere in this story.

     ‘I don’t know if you’ve read any of the evidence suggesting that telepathy is somehow independent of time. I know that it is. Omega doesn’t belong to our age: he’s somewhere in the future, immensely far ahead of us. For a while I thought he must be one of the last men—that’s why I gave him his name. But now I’m not sure; perhaps he belongs to an age when there are a myriad different races of man, scattered all over the universe—some still ascending, others sinking into decay. His people, wherever and whenever they may be, have reached the heights and fallen from them into the depths the beasts can never know. There’s a sense of evil about him, Jack—the real evil that most of us never meet in all our lives. Yet sometimes I feel almost sorry for him, because I know what has made him the thing he is.
     ‘Have you ever wondered, Jack, what the human race will do when science has discovered everything, when there are no more worlds to be explored, when all the stars have given up their secrets? Omega is one of the answers. I hope he’s not the only one, for if so everything we’ve striven for is in vain. I hope that he and his race are an isolated cancer in a still healthy universe, but I can never be sure.
     ‘They have pampered their bodies until they are useless, and too late they have discovered their mistake. Perhaps they have thought, as some men have thought, that they could live by intellect alone. And perhaps they are immortal, and that must be their real damnation. Through the ages their minds have been corroding in their feeble bodies, seeking some release from their intolerable boredom. They have found it at last in the only way they can, by sending back their minds to an earlier, more virile age, and becoming parasites on the emotions of others.
     ‘I wonder how many of them there are? Perhaps they explain all cases of what used to be called possession. How they must have ransacked the past to assuage their hunger! Can’t you picture them, flocking like carrion crows around the decaying Roman Empire, jostling one another for the minds of Nero and Caligula and Tiberius? Perhaps Omega failed to get those richer prizes. Or perhaps he hasn’t much choice and must take whatever mind he can contact in any age, transferring from that to the next whenever he has the chance.

     ‘It was only slowly, of course, that I worked all this out. I think it adds to his enjoyment to know that I’m aware of his presence. I think he’s deliberately helping—breaking down his side of the barrier. For in the end, I was able to see him.’
     Connolly broke off. Looking around, Pearson saw that they were no longer alone on the hilltop. A young couple, hand in hand, were coming up the road toward the crucifix. Each had the physical beauty so common and so cheap among the islanders. They were oblivious to the night around them and to any spectators, and went past without the least sign of recognition. There was a bitter smile on Connolly’s lips as he watched them go.
     ‘I suppose I should be ashamed of this, but I was wishing then that he’d leave me and go after that boy. But he won’t; though I’ve refused to play his game any more, he’s staying to see what happens.’
     ‘You were going to tell me what he’s like,’ said Pearson, annoyed at the interruption. Connolly lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply before replying.

     ‘Can you imagine a room without walls? He’s in a kind of hollow, egg-shaped space—surrounded by blue mist that always seems to be twisting and turning, but never changes its position. There’s no entrance or exit—and no gravity, unless he’s learned to defy it. Because he floats in the centre, and around him is a circle of short, fluted cylinders, turning slowly in the air. I think they must be machines of some kind, obeying his will. And once there was a large oval hanging beside him, with perfectly human, beautifully formed arms coming from it. It could only have been a robot, yet those hands and fingers seemed alive. They were feeding and massaging him, treating him like a baby. It was horrible….
     ‘Have you ever seen a lemur or a spectral tarsier? He’s rather like that—a nightmare travesty of mankind, with huge malevolent eyes. And this is strange—it’s not the way one had imagined evolution going—he’s covered with a fine layer of fur, as blue as the room in which he lives. Every time I’ve seen him he’s been in the same position, half curled up like a sleeping baby. I think his legs have completely atrophied; perhaps his arms as well. Only his brain is still active, hunting up and down the ages for its prey.
     ‘And now you know why there was nothing you or anyone else could do. Your psychiatrists might cure me if I was insane, but the science that can deal with Omega hasn’t been invented yet.’

     ‘Your story’s as logical as mine, but neither of us can convince the other. If you’re right, then in time I may return to “normal”. You can’t imagine how real Omega is to me. He’s more real than you are: if I close my eyes you’re gone, but he’s still there. I wish I knew what he was waiting for! I’ve left my old life behind; he knows I won’t go back to it while he’s there. So what’s he got to gain by hanging on?’ He turned to Pearson with a feverish eagerness. ‘That’s what really frightens me, Jack. He must know what my future is—all my life must be like a book he can dip into where he pleases. So there must still be some experience ahead of me that he’s waiting to savour. Sometimes—sometimes I wonder if it’s my death.’

     He never saw the flash of the gun or heard the feeble but adequate explosion. The world he knew had faded from his sight, and around him now were the fixed yet crawling mists of the blue room. Staring from its centre—as they had stared down the ages at how many others?—were two vast and lidless eyes. They were satiated for the moment, but for the moment only.

From THE PARASITE by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

      "I'll ask a question, you try to answer it. Between us, we may come up with something. Look, obviously the Norms didn't arrange this because they got the roughest deal of the lot. The Delinks did very little better and, come to think of it, the stinkers didn't rake off any cream, which leaves us with the Geeks. Think it's the Geeks?"
     "No," flatly.
     "Why not?"
     "For the very obvious reason that until six years ago there were no Geeks. This business has been going on for over three centuries."
     Gammon said "Damn!" explosively. "That leaves us with the unpleasant thought that this is the work of outsiders—aliens. Sounds a bit melodramatic."
     "Unfortunately, melodramatic or otherwise, it is the most logical conclusion."

     Gammon's eyes narrowed. "I agree up to a point but there are holes in the theory through which I could drive a brigade of armor-floats in battle formation. Take our invader, call him 'Ugly.' Ugly arrives here with enough gimmicks and telepathic what-have-yous to conquer the entire world in six weeks flat, coffee breaks included. At the end of three hundred years, however, he still appears to be fumbling around trying to figure out what to do next. It doesn't make sense and, on top of this, while wearing himself to death on this divide-and-destroy-when-I-get-around-to-it technique, he permits a new dispensation to arise… an advanced breed of man who might, in the long run, kick him clean off the planet."
     "Or," said Toynbee, softly, "do the final destroying job for him."
     Gammon blanched. "I wish you hadn't brought that up. You're right, of course, too right, and because of it I'm going to have some damn sleepless nights. On the other hand, this easy-plan, long-term credit invasion still doesn't make sense."

     IN THE FORT, Gammon's cigarette twitched at the corner of his mouth as he read through Craig's latest report.
     Finally he put it down. "From a scientific angle this is completely without merit. Every fact mentioned is derived from this group's peculiar talents. I'm inclined to distrust this crystal ball viewpoint."
     Toynbee looked at him. "I have the feeling that you are talking to convince yourself."
     Gammon frowned. "There are occasions when I think we have worked together too damn long. All right, damn you, the report may not be scientific, maybe these Stinkers did just sit around feeling things, but the conclusions are logical."

     Toynbee grinned. "Suppose you summarize—just for a change."
     Gammon smiled twistedly. "As you wish." He tossed across a sheet of paper. "That is what the Stinkers think the invaders looked like. It was drawn by one of them, a man named Miguel."
     Toynbee studied it and shuddered slightly. "I think I'd prefer to sit down with a Stinker." He looked again at the round head with its triangular eyes and curled proboscis. The thing had a barrel body, squat legs and long thin supple arms which almost reached the ground.
     Gammon, watching his expression, said, "Pity it."
     "Pity it!"
     "You heard me. According to what the Stinkers felt, it was a gentle, peace-loving and highly advanced life-form. It came here under duress, bluntly, at gun point. The skeletons we found, some odd hundred thousand, were all that remained of a once thriving civilization."
     Toynbee frowned at him. "You're not making very much sense."
     "Not yet I'm not. Listen, the Stinkers think these unfortunate creatures were carriers for some sort of parasite." He paused and looked at the other directly. "Look, just as a kind of confirmation and assuming the conclusions are correct, could you carry on from there?"
     "You mean draw logical conclusions from the data so far to hand?"

     "Well—" Toynbee frowned. "Assuming these creatures were, as you suggest, parasites,, one must conclude, since they needed carriers, they were comparatively helpless."
     "Go on, you're doing fine."
     "The parasites, then, were the real invaders and they got here using the advanced technology of another life-form. Let's see now, since they were comparatively helpless, they needed that advanced technology both to establish themselves and to construct a hideout and/or hideouts from which they could operate."
     Toynbee paused and paled slightly. "I'm not sure I care for my own logic."
     "Never mind that—I don't care for it either. So far you're bearing out everything Craig has said."
     "Thanks for nothing. Where was I? Oh, yes. Conclusion one. Having established themselves, they then concealed the means of their invasion by the telepathic illusion of a Texas mountain. There is a subsidiary and unpleasant conclusion to be drawn from that. Having played their part, I am quite sure that the carriers did not destroy themselves in a wild orgy of self-loathing. I think they were ordered to destroy themselves, their technology and all clues as to their planet of origin in case, subsequently, that same technology might be used against them or provide a clue as to the whereabouts of the parasites themselves."
     "How do you mean—ordered?"
     "You would bring that one up, wouldn't you? I think the invaders exercised intense telepathic control over their carriers."

     Gammon paled. "If I didn't know otherwise I'd say you read this damn report over my shoulder. Anything else?"
     "One other point, the most frightening of all. The invaders are still here and still taking over. I think, by our standards, they are well-nigh immortal and can afford to take their time."
     Gammon nodded. "It fits and not only fits but confirms the Stinkers' conclusions. I have an uncomfortable feeling, however, drawing on my limited knowledge of parasites, that these things, having sucked us dry of whatever they want, will move on. In a couple of million years, maybe, the one hundred thousand remaining humans will be dumping these creatures on some other unfortunate planet. Whereupon, having carried out all their orders, they will be telepathically forced to destroy themselves."

     "I wish you'd shut up," said Toynbee uneasily. He sighed. "The Stinkers don't know where these parasites are?"
     "No. They are working on it but these flying things in the sky are fouling up the wavelengths or whatever they use."
     "That's neat too," said Toynbee bitterly. "These things sit around in armchairs with their presumed legs crossed and let their mechanical gimmicks divide humanity up for the slaughter. No, that's wrong; they don't want to slaughter us. They want some of us here to use. Not only are they parasites, but sooner or later, they'll want carriers again."
     He rose, abruptly. "Gammon, we've got to find them. If we have to drain the oceans and sift every grain of sand in existence we've got to find them."

     Before he could pause to study them, however, malevolence seemed to strike him with almost physical force and his eyes were drawn to the contents of the room.
     Tanks, row upon row of square transparent tanks, filled to the top with a darkish liquid. Above each tank was a sort of framework and from framework hung…
     Gammon looked again and shuddered. The thing looked like a huge and partly skinned bat, and it hung half in and half out of the liquid. It had no eyes, no wings but its resemblance to a huge bat was unmistakable. The things pulsed slowly and regularly like the throats of toads.
     Gammon turned to the Commander, who was staring almost pop-eyed at the scene.
     "Bring down the Seventh Weapon," he said softly. "Dump it smack in the middle of this lot, set the timing for reasonable evacuation and seal this place up." He looked about him. "God, I'm going to enjoy watching this lot fry. I can feel no pity whatever."
     Five hours later, an area of ground which had once held Fort Knox heaved like the back of a wounded animal. Jets of vapor hissed from sudden fissures and abruptly ignited into five hundred foot geysers of flame. The surface of the earth smoked, became a red crust and crumbled into an ever widening crater.

     "What I don't understand," said Gammon, after broaching his subject, "is what these damn parasites got out of it. They were completely helpless, blind and presumably disinterested in the planet they had conquered. Why did they do it?"
     Craig smiled. "You're almost answering the question yourself but, as it's somewhat involved, I'd better explain."
     He paused to smile at his wife sitting some distance away. "I don't know how these creatures began but presumably they evolved to their present state of outward helplessness. Not that helplessness mattered, since they could always enslave some other unfortunate life-form to take care of their wants."
     "I'm afraid," said Toynbee, "I am unable to perceive any particular elation in hanging upside down in a tank of fluid even if someone does take care of your needs."
     Craig laughed. "I'm afraid you're both missing the point. Our invader, specifically, was not blind, not helpless. He was enjoying every possible physical experience and, at the same time, drinking the most intoxicating wine of all—absolute power."

     They stared at him blankly. Finally Toynbee said, "How?"
     "Through his host, of course. The invader was telepathic. Everything the host experienced the parasite experienced and, if he liked that particular experience, he could do a little mental manipulation to get some more."
     "The invader saw, but through the eyes of his hosts, moved and felt through the same medium and, each time, absorbed a quota of knowledge from the same source."
     "I assume and I can only assume, mind you, that after a time it paled. The invader had run through the whole range of the host's experiences, wearied of that particular world and wanted to move on."
     Craig sighed and shook his head. "The last time that happened, they gave their usual tele-hypnotic orders and the hosts went out to find one for them. Unfortunately they found us and the parasites moved on."

From INVADER ON MY BACK by Philip E. High (1968)

      WELT'S THOUGHTS were interrupted by Bridgeman, his alleged aide.
     Bridgeman placed a pile of reports on the desk, dropped into the nearest chair and scowled at his fingernails. "Damn bad. "Welt didn't answer. He looked at the reports, at Bridgeman, and, suddenly weary, tried to decide which he hated most. Not that he had anything against the man directly, it was just that his very presence set him on edge. The cropped head, the bulging vacuous blue eyes, the short thick neck—after an association of a century and a half you couldn't help hating a man, could you? Bridgeman's nervous pomposity, the "fat" voice, his infuriating habit of clearing his throat noisily in mid-sentence, his inexhaustible repertoire of banalities.
     Welt sighed inwardly. It was the same with everything, wasn't it? Like his last wife, the one before and the one before that. You not only knew what they were going to say but how they were going to say it. You got to know them so well that life became a series of endless and wearisome repetitions. Somehow, suddenly and frighteningly, you were trapped by longevity; you were afraid to die but burdened with living; the years stretched endlessly ahead apparently with no goal.

     He was not alone in this feeling, all of them—that was another thing.
     He had gone to the Supreme about that.

     "You demanded longevity. I gave it to you."
     "Many of us are suffering nervous reactions."
     "Did you, at the time of your demand, inquire as to possible side effects?"
     "No, we had no idea that—"
     "Then the omission was yours, not mine. The subject is closed."

     Welt shivered, recalling many such interviews, and, more as an escape than anything else, he reached for the reports.

From REALITY FORBIDDEN by Philip E. High (1967)

It had been a serious mistake, Dr Bose often thought, to put the United Planets Headquarters on the Moon. Inevitably, Earth tended to dominate the proceedings—as it dominated the landscape beyond the dome. If they had to build here, perhaps they should have gone to the Farside, where that hypnotic disc never shed its rays.

But, of course, it was much too late to change, and in any case there was no real alternative. Whether the colonies liked it or not, Earth would be the cultural and economic overlord of the solar system for centuries to come.

Dr Bose had been born on Earth, and had not emigrated to Mars until he was thirty, so he felt that he could view the political situation fairly dispassionately. He knew now that he would never return to his home planet, even though it was only five hours away by shuttle. At 115, he was in perfect health, but he could not face the reconditioning needed to accustom him to three times the gravity he had enjoyed for most of his life. He was exiled for ever from the world of his birth; not being a sentimental man, this had never depressed him unduly.

What did depress him sometimes was the need for dealing, year after year, with the same familiar faces. The marvels of medicine were all very well—and certainly he had no desire to put back the clock—but there were men around this conference table with whom he had worked for more than half a century. He knew exactly what they would say and how they would vote on any given subject. He wished that, some day, one of them would do something totally unexpected—even something quite crazy.

And probably they felt exactly the same way about him.

From RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA by Arthur C. Clarke (1973)

Decadent Population

Tales of technology turning civilizations into worthless decadent people dates back at least to H. G. Well's The Time Machine (1895), with the pathetic Eloi and brutal Morlocks. Things have only accelerated since then. Some such stories have become quaint, overtaken by events. E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops (1901) has people living in little cubbies, their only activity is using a sort of video conferencing machine to communicate with others. Sounds to me like present day guys living in their mother's basement, doing little else besides trolling Facebook and Twitter.

I remember people predicting the downfall of Western Civilization due to the invention of the TV remote control. Just think about a generation of couch potatos too lazy to get up, walk to the TV set, and change the channel. Actually, such predictions were not far off the mark.


(ed note: Trellises are sort of fractal polymer carbon that Star God races use as disposable packing material. Sort of like hyper-advanced styrofoam packing peanuts. Some aliens covet the stuff for inexplicable alien reasons. Therefore this Star God refuse can be used as a trade item. Our heroes hope to trade some with the Tusk-legs in exchange for some Regrowth Agent to repair their spaceship. So they have arrived at the star system called "Harmoniuos Repose" aka "Rest In Peace" or RIP. "Automation" is a sort of non-sentient ultra-AI used to take care of things.)

Harmonious Repose. An ugly name, thought Ravna. Pham's "light-hearted" translation was worse: Rest In Peace. In the Beyond, almost everything habitable was in use. Civilizations were transient and races faded ... but there were always new people moving up from Below. The result was most often patchwork, polyspecific systems. Young races just up from the Slowness lived uneasily with the remnants of older peoples. According to the ship's library, RIP had been in the Beyond for a long time. It had been continuously inhabited for at least two hundred million years, time for ten thousand species to call it home. The most recent notes showed better than one hundred racial terranes. Even the youngest was the residue of a dozen emigrations. The place should be peaceful to the point of being moribund.

This secondary harbor was not really part of the tusk-leg race's terrane. The inside of the arc was far different from what they had seen on the Skroderiders' first trip. There were no exterior views. Cramped passages wound between irregular walls pocked with dark holes. Insects flew everywhere, often covering parts of the camera balls. To Pham, the place looked filthy.

There was no evidence of the terrane's owners—unless they were the pallid worms that sometimes stuck a featureless head(?) up from a burrow hole. Over his voice link, Blueshell opined that these were very ancient tenants of the RIP system. After a million years, and a hundred transcendent emigrations, the residue might still be sentient, but stranger than anything evolved in the Slow Zone. Such a people would be protected from physical extinction by ancient automation, but they would also be inward turning, totally cautious, absorbed in concerns that were inane by any outside standard. It was the type that most often lusted after trellis work.

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

      Sid Throndyke overrode his respirator to heave a deep sigh.
     "Wow!" he said, flipping to his wife's personal channel. "A tough day on the Office channel."
     The contact screens attached to his eyeballs stayed blank: Cluster was out. Impatiently, Sid toed the console, checking the channels: Light, Medium and Deep Sitcom; auto-hypno; Light and Deep Narco; four, six, and eighty-party Social; and finally, muttering to himself, Psychan. Cluster's identity symbol appeared on his screens.
     "There you are," he grieved. "Psychan again. After a hard day, the least a man expects is to find his wife tuned to his channel—"
     "Oh, Sid; there's this wonderful analyst. A new model. It's doing so much for me, really wonderful. . . ."
     "I know," Sid grumped. "That's all I hear. I'd think you'd want to keep in touch with the Sitcoms, so you know what's going on; but I suppose you've been tied into Psychan all day—while I burned my skull out on Office."
     "Now, Sid; didn't I program your dinner and everything?"
     "Um." Mollified, Sid groped with his tongue for the dinner lever, eased the limp plastic tube into his mouth. He sucked a mouthful of the soft paste—
     "Cluster! You know I hate Vege-pap. Looks like you could at least dial a nice Prote-sim or Sucromash. . . ."
     "Sid, you ought to tune to Psychan. It would do you a world of good. . . ." Her sub-vocalized voice trailed off in the earphones. Sid snorted, dialed a double Prote-sim and a Sucromash, fuming at the delay. He gulped his dinner, not even noticing the rich gluey consistency; then, in a somewhat better mood, flipped to the Light Sitcom.

     The stylized identity-symbol of the Pubinf announcer flashed on Sid's screens, vibrating in resonance with the impersonal voice of the Official announcer:
     " . . . . cause for concern. CentProg states that control will have been re-established within the hour. Some discomfort may result from vibration in sectors north of Civic Center, but normalcy will be restored shortly. Now, a word on the food situation."

     "Listen," a hoarse voice said. "Everybody, listen. We're blanketing all the channels this time—I hope. This is our last try. There's only a few of us. It wasn't easy getting into here—and there's no time left. We've got to move fast."
     The voice stopped as the man on the screen breathed hoarsely, swallowed. Then he went on:
     "It's the ice; it's moving down on us, fast, a god-awful big glacier. The walls can't stand much longer. It'll either wipe the city off the map or bury it. Either way, anybody that stays is done for.
     "Listen; it won't be easy, but you've got to try. Don't try to go down. You can't get out below because of the drifts. Go up, onto the roofs. It's your only chance—you must go up."
     The image on Sid's contact screens trembled violently, then blanked. Moments later, Sid felt a tremor—worse, this time. His cocoon seemed to pull at him. For a moment he was aware of the drag of a hundred tiny contacts grafted to the skin, a hundred tiny conductors penetrating to nerve conduits—
     An almost suffocating wave of claustrophobia swept over him. The universe seemed to be crushing in on him, immobile, helpless, a grub buried in an immense anthill—
     The shock passed. Slowly, Sid regained a grip on himself. His respirator was cycling erratically, attempting to match to his ragged breathing impulses. His chest ached from the strain. He groped with a toe, keyed in Cluster's identity pattern.

     CentProg was still dark. Sid was staring at the blank screens when a new shock sent heavy vibrations through his cocoon. Sid gasped, tried to keep cool. It would pass; it wasn't anything, it couldn't be. . . .
     The vibrations built, heavy, hard shocks that drove the air from Sid's lungs, yanked painfully at arms, legs, neck, and his groin. . . .
     It was a long time before the nausea passed. Sid lay, drawing breath painfully, fighting down the vertigo. The pain—it was a help, in a way. It helped to clear his head. Something was wrong, badly wrong. He had to think now, do the right thing. It wouldn't do to panic. If only there wouldn't be another earthquake. . . .
     Something wet splattered against Sid's half-open mouth. He recoiled, automatically spitting the mucky stuff, snorting—
     It was Vege-pap, gushing down from the feeding tube. Sid averted his face, felt the cool semi-liquid pattering against the cocoon, spreading over it, sloshing down the sides. Something was broken. . . .
     Sid groped for the cut-off with his tongue, gagging at the viscous mess pouring over his face. Of course, it hadn't actually touched his skin, except for his lips; the cocoon protected him. But he could feel the thick weight of it, awash in the fluid that supported the plastic cocoon. He could sense it quite clearly, flowing under him, forcing him up in the chamber as the hydrostatic balance was upset. With a shock of pain, Sid felt a set of neuro contacts along his spinal cord come taut. He gritted his teeth, felt searing agony as the contacts ripped loose.
     Half of the world went dark and cold. Sid was only dimly aware of the pressure against his face and chest as he pressed against the cell roof. All sensation was gone from his legs now, from his left arm, his back. His left contact screen was blank, unseeing. Groaning with the effort, Sid strained to reach out with a toe, key the emergency signal—
     Hopeless. Without the boosters he could never make it. His legs were dead, paralyzed. He was helpless.

     He tried to scream, choked, fought silently in the swaddling cocoon, no longer a euphorically caressing second skin but a dead, clammy weight, blinding him. He twisted, feeling unused muscles cramp at the effort, touched the lever that controlled the face-plate. He'd had a reputation as an open-air fiend once—but that had been—he didn't know how long. The lever was stiff. Sid lunged against it again. It gave. There was a sudden lessening of pressure as the burden of Vege-pap slopped out through the opening. Sid sank away from the ceiling of the tiny cubicle, felt his cocoon ground on the bottom.
     For a long time Sid lay, dazed by pain and shock, not even thinking, waiting for the agony to subside. . . .
     Then the itching began. It penetrated Sid's daze, set him twitching in a frenzy of discomfort. The tearing loose of the dorsal contacts had opened dozens of tiny rents in the cocoon; a sticky mixture of the supporting water bath and Vege-pap seeped in, irritating the tender skin. Sid writhed, struggled to scratch—and discovered that, miraculously, the left arm responded now. The motor nerves which had been stunned by the electroneural trickle-flow through the contacts were recovering control. Feebly, Sid's groping hand reached his inflamed hip—and scrabbled against the smooth sheath of plastic.
     He had to get out. The cocoon was a confining nightmare, a dead husk that had to be shed. The face-plate was open. Sid felt upward, found the edge, tugged—
     Slippery as an eel, he slithered from the cocoon, hung for an instant as the remaining contacts came taut, then slammed to the floor a foot below. Sid didn't feel the pain of the fall; as the contacts ripped free, he fainted.

     When Sid recovered consciousness, his first thought was that the narco channel was getting a little too graphic. He groped for a tuning switch—
     Then he remembered. The earthquake, Mel, the canned announcement—
     And he had opened his face-plate and fought to get out—and here he was. He blinked dully, then moved his left hand. It took a long time, but he managed to peel the contact screens from his eyes. He looked around. He was lying on the floor in a rectangular tunnel. A dim light came from a glowing green spot along the corridor. Sid remembered seeing it before, a long time ago. . . . the day he and Cluster had entered their cocoons.
     Now that he was detached from the stimuli of the cocoon, it seemed to Sid, he was able to think a little more clearly. It had hurt to be torn free from the security of the cocoon, but it wasn't so bad now. A sort of numbness had set in. But he couldn't lie here and rest; he had to do something, fast. First, there was Cluster. She hadn't answered. Her cocoon was situated right next to his—
     Sid tried to move; his leg twitched; his arm fumbled over the floor. It was smooth and wet, gummy with the Vege-pap that was still spilling down from the open face-plate. The smell of the stuff was sickening. Irrationally, Sid had a sudden mouth-watering hunger for Prote-sim.
     Sid fixed his eyes on the green light, trying to remember. He and Cluster had been wheeled along the corridor, laughing and talking gaily. Somehow, out here, things took on a different perspective. That had been—God! Years ago. How long? Maybe—twenty years? Longer. Fifty, maybe. Maybe longer. How could you know? For a while they had tuned to Pubinf, followed the news, kept up with friends on the outside. But more and more of their friends had signed contracts with CentProg. The news sort of dried up. You lost interest.
     But what mattered now wasn't how long, it was what he was going to do. Of course, an attendant would be along soon in any case to check up, but meanwhile, Cluster might be in trouble—

     The tremor was bad this time. Sid felt the floor rock, felt the hard paving under him ripple like the surface of a pond. Somewhere, a rumbling sound rolled, and somewhere something heavy fell. The green light flickered, then burned steadily again.
     A shape moved in the gloom of the corridor; there was the wet slap of footsteps. Sid sub-vocalized a calm "Hi, fellows." The silence rang in his ears. My God, of course they couldn't hear him. He tried again, consciously vocalizing, a tremendous shout—
     A feeble croak, and a fit of coughing. When he recovered his breath, a bare and hairy face, greenish white, was bending over him.
     " . . . . this poor devil," the man was saying in a thin choked voice.
     Another face appeared over the first face's shoulder. Sid recognized them both. They were the two that had been breaking into decent channels, with their wild talk about a glacier. . . .
     "Listen, fellow," one of the bare-faced men said. Sid stared with fascinated disgust at the clammy pale skin, the sprouting hairs, the loose toothless mouth, the darting pink tongue. God, people were horrible to look at!
     " . . . . be along after a while. Didn't mean to stir up anybody in your shape. You been in too long, fellow. You can't make it."
     "I'm. . . . good. . . . shape. . . ." Sid whispered indignantly.
     "We can't do anything for you. You'll have to wait till the maintenance unit comes along. I'm pretty sure you'll be okay. The ice's piled itself up in a wall now, and split around the city walls. I think they'll hold. Course, the ice will cover the city, but that won't matter. CentProg will still handle everything. Plenty of energy from the pile and the solar cells, and the recycling will handle the food okay. . . ."
     " . . . . Cluster. . . ." Sid gasped. The bare-faced man leaned closer. Sid explained about his wife. The man checked nearby face-plates. He came back and knelt by Sid. "Rest easy, fellow," he said. "They all look all right. Your wife's okay. Now, we're going to have to go on. But you'll be okay. Plenty of Vege-pap around, I see. Just eat a little now and then. The Maintenance machine will be along and get you tucked back in."
     "Where. . . . ?" Sid managed.
     "Us? We're heading south. Matt here knows where we can get clothes and supplies, maybe even a flier. We never were too set on this Vital Programming. We've only been in maybe a few years and we always did a lot of auto-gym work, keeping in shape. Didn't like the idea of wasting away. . . . Matt's the one found out about the ice. He came for me. . . ."
     Sid was aware of the other man talking. It was hard to hear him.
     A sudden thought struck Sid. " . . . . how long. . . . ?" he asked.

     It took three tries, but the bare-faced man got the idea at last.
     "I'll take a look, fellow," he said. He went to Sid's open face-plate, peered at it, called the other man over. Then he came back, his feet spattering in the puddled Vege-pap.
     "Your record says. . . . 2043," he said. He looked at Sid with wide eyes. They were red and irritated, Sid saw. It made his own eyes itch.
     "If that's right, you been here since the beginning. My God, that's over. . . . two hundred years. . . ."
     The second bare-faced man, Matt, was pulling the other away. He was saying something, but Sid wasn't listening. Two hundred years. It seemed impossible. But after all, why not? In a controlled environment, with no wear and tear, no disease, you could live as long as CentProg kept everything running. But two hundred years. . . .
     Sid looked around. The two men were gone. He tried to remember just what had happened, but it was too hard. The ice, they had said, wouldn't crush the city. But it would flow around it, encase it in ice, and the snow would fall, and cover it, and the city would lie under the ice.
     Ages might pass. In the cells, the cocoons would keep everyone snug and happy. There would be the traditional sitcoms, and Narco, and Psychan. . . .
     And up above, the ice.

From COCOON by Keith Laumer (1962)

      The First Electronic Age, Peyton knew, had begun in 1908, more than eleven centuries before, with De Forest’s invention of the triode. The same fabulous century that had seen the coming of the World State, the airplane, the spaceship, and atomic power had witnessed the invention of all the fundamental thermionic devices that made possible the civilisation he knew.
     The Second Electronic Age had come five hundred years later. It had been started not by the physicists but by the doctors and psychologists. For nearly five centuries they had been recording the electric currents that flow in the brain during the processes of thought. The analysis had been appallingly complex, but it had been completed after generations of toil. When it was finished the way lay open for the first machines that could read the human mind.
     But this was only the beginning. Once man had discovered the mechanism of his own brain he could go further. He could reproduce it, using transistors and circuit networks instead of living cells.

     Toward the end of the twenty-fifth century, the first thinking machines were built. They were very crude, a hundred square yards of equipment being required to do the work of a cubic centimetre of human brain. But once the first step had been taken it was not long before the mechanical brain was perfected and brought into general use.
     It could perform only the lower grades of intellectual work and it lacked such purely human characteristics as initiative, intuition, and all emotions. However, in circumstances which seldom varied, where its limitations were not serious, it could do all that a man could do.

     The coming of the metal brains had brought one of the great crises in human civilisation. Though men had still to carry out all the higher duties of statesmanship and the control of society, all the immense mass of routine administration had been taken over by the robots. Man had achieved freedom at last. No longer did he have to rack his brains planning complex transport schedules, deciding production programmes, and balancing budgets. The machines, which had taken over all manual labour centuries before, had made their second great contribution to society.

     The effect on human affairs was immense, and men reacted to the new situation in two ways. There were those who used their new-found freedom nobly in the pursuits which had always attracted the highest minds: the quest for beauty and truth, still as elusive as when the Acropolis was built.

     But there were others who thought differently. At last, they said, the curse of Adam is lifted forever. Now we can build cities where the machines will care for our every need as soon as the thought enters our minds—sooner, since the analysers can read even the buried desires of the subconscious. The aim of all life is pleasure and the pursuit of happiness. Man has earned the right to that. We are tired of this unending struggle for knowledge and the blind desire to bridge space to the stars.

     It was the ancient dream of the Lotus Eaters, a dream as old as Man. Now, for the first time, it could be realised. For a while there were not many who shared it. The fires of the Second Renaissance had not yet begun to flicker and die. But as the years passed, the Decadents drew more and more to their way of thinking. In hidden places on the inner planets they built the cities of their dreams.
     For a century they flourished like strange exotic flowers, until the almost religious fervour that inspired their building had died. They lingered for a generation more. Then, one by one, they faded from human knowledge. Dying, they left behind a host of fables and legends which had grown with the passing centuries.
     Only one such city had been built on Earth, and there were mysteries about it that the outer world had never solved. For purposes of its own, the World Council had destroyed all knowledge of the place. Its location was a mystery. Some said it was in the Arctic wastes; others believed it to be hidden on the bed of the Pacific. Nothing was certain but its name—Comarre.

From THE LION OF COMARRE by Arthur C. Clarke (1949)

      "We are too rich," said Webster. "We have too much. Everything was left for us—everything and nothing. When Mankind went out to Jupiter the few that were left behind inherited the Earth and it was too big for them. They couldn't handle it. They couldn't manage it They thought they owned it, but they were the ones that were owned. Owned and dominated and awed by the things that had gone before."
     She reached out a hand and touched his arm.
     "Poor Jon," she said.
     "We can't flinch away from it," he said. Some day some of us must face the truth, must start over again—from scratch."

     "Yes, what is it, Sara?"
     "I came here to say good-by."
     "I'm going to take the Sleep."
     He came to his feet, swiftly, horrified. "No, Sara!"
     She laughed and the laugh was strained. "Why don't you come with me, Jon. A few hundred years. Maybe it will all be different when we awake."
     "Just because no one wants your canvases. Just because—"
     "Because of what you said just a while ago. Illusion, Jon. I knew it, felt it, but I couldn't think it out."
     "But the Sleep is illusion, too."
     "I know. But you don't know it's illusion. You think it's real You have no inhibitions and you have no fears except the fears that are planned deliberately. It's natural, Jon—more natural than life. I went to the Temple and it was all explained to me."
     "And when you awake?"
     "You're adjusted. Adjusted to whatever life is like in whatever era you awake. Almost as if you belonged, even from the first. And it might be better. Who knows? It might be better."
     "It won't be," Jon told her, grimly. "Until, or unless, someone does something about it. And a people that run to the Sleep to hide are not going to bestir themselves.
     She shrank back in the chair and suddenly he felt ashamed.
     "I'm sorry, Sara. I didn't mean you. Nor any one person. Just the lot of us."

From HOBBIES by Clifford Simak (1946)

It had been scarcely two months since Helen had disappeared under the cowl. Two months by our reckoning, at least. From her perspective it could have been a day or a decade; the Virtually Omnipotent set their subjective clocks along with everything else.

She wasn't coming back. She would only deign to see her husband under conditions that amounted to a slap in the face. He didn't complain. He visited as often as she would allow: twice a week, then once. Then every two. Their marriage decayed with the exponential determinism of a radioactive isotope and still he sought her out, and accepted her conditions.

On the day the lights came down, I had joined him at my mother's side. It was a special occasion, the last time we would ever see her in the flesh. For two months her body had lain in state along with five hundred other new ascendants on the ward, open for viewing by the next of kin. The interface was no more real than it would ever be, of course; the body could not talk to us. But at least it was there, its flesh warm, the sheets clean and straight. Helen's lower face was still visible below the cowl, though eyes and ears were helmeted. We could touch her. My father often did. Perhaps some distant part of her still felt it.

But eventually someone has to close the casket and dispose of the remains. Room must be made for the new arrivals—and so we came to this last day at my mother's side. Jim took her hand one more time. She would still be available in her world, on her terms, but later this day the body would be packed into storage facilities crowded far too efficiently for flesh and blood visitors. We had been assured that the body would remain intact—the muscles electrically exercised, the body flexed and fed, the corpus kept ready to return to active duty should Heaven experience some inconceivable and catastrophic meltdown. Everything was reversible, we were told. And yet—there were so many who had ascended, and not even the deepest catacombs go on forever. There were rumors of dismemberment, of nonessential body parts hewn away over time according to some optimum-packing algorithm. Perhaps Helen would be a torso this time next year, a disembodied head the year after. Perhaps her chassis would be stripped down to the brain before we'd even left the building, awaiting only that final technological breakthrough that would herald the arrival of the Great Digital Upload.

We donned the hoods that served as day passes for the Unwired, and we met my mother in the spartan visiting room she imagined for these visits. She'd built no windows into the world she occupied, no hint of whatever utopian environment she'd constructed for herself. She hadn't even opted for one of the prefab visiting environments designed to minimize dissonance among visitors. We found ourselves in a featureless beige sphere five meters across. There was nothing in there but her.

From BLINDSIGHT by Peter Watts (2006)

Casual FTL Travel

Many science fiction stories with faster-than-light starships feature civilian commercial starships that can ship freight over interstellar distances at about the same transport cost as modern-day cargo aircraft.

While an era where long-established starships exists makes for a safe and familiar sci-fi background for the readers, authors should keep in mind that in the historical era where casual FTL starships are first invented, times are going to be stark raving nuts. Disruptive innovation is putting it mildly.

For instance, corporations found it most lucrative back in the days of company mining and logging camps. The employees were not paid in money, but instead in company scrip. The company scrip could only be spent in the company store. Due to this Truck system, the employees more often than not wound up owing their soul to the company store.

With casual FTL travel, they can set up company planets. Located light-years beyond the jurisdiction of any Terran nation. Most disruptive indeed.

Casual interplanetary travel may be similar on a smaller scale. However, sharing the same solar system as Terra means warships from various nations will be closer at hand to keep corporations et al on a shorter leash.

"If you know how warp drive actually works, stop wasting time writing science fiction and get thee to a patent attorney as fast as possible so you can begin to enjoy your reign as the Bill Gates of faster-than-light travel."
Phillip Athans and R. A. Salvatore, Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

In real life, so far as we can tell, interstellar travel is an epic undertaking. The distances involved are vast, and so for a timely journey, your speed must be equally colossal. To accelerate a ship to near light-speed and then to decelerate it again would necessarily require a huge quantity of energy. Not to mention the fact that, at those speeds, the tiniest dust particle becomes a deadly hazard. And if anything goes wrong, you're stuck hurtling through the depths of space with no chance of being rescued and no hope of escape. Although the popular idea of the speed of light imposing a kind of universal speed limit upon your travels is a misconception, you can forget maintaining any connection to your home planet; if you did ever decide to return after zipping around the galaxy, you would find that centuries had passed with everybody you knew long dead and gone. Not a prospect for the faint of heart.

In some Speculative Fiction settings, interstellar travel is depicted as expensive and at least moderately time-consuming, being mostly limited to governments and major commercial operations. But that's not here.

With this trope, interstellar travel is no more complex than booking a flight is today. In some cases, it's the equivalent of driving a car down a paved road.

Some stories use a teleportation network, while others simply decide that ships capable of traveling thousands or millions of times the speed of light are available to every Tom, Richard, and Harry.

This is usually part and parcel of stories that treat planets like towns; interstellar voyages are thus little more than like intercontinental flights or at worst, like crossing an ocean in a steamship. If the Sci Fi Writers Have Any Sense Of Scale, then the scale of civilization surpasses our one planet easily. And probably mocks the Mundane Manifesto while it's at it.

This is usually done deliberately; works that use it err on the softer side of SF.

Related to Conveniently Close Planet. Sister Trope to Casual Interplanetary Travel.

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


(ed note: In the future, Terra has a kind of world government called "The Communion". Actually it is more like a glorified better business bureau but I digress. About 300 years ago they send a slower-than-light starship to establish an interstellar colony, which seemingly fails. However, they suddenly show up at Terra after 300 years of silence, with a faster-than-light starship.

The first Terran they meet is Chryse Haller, who happens to be owner and CEO of Haller Associates, the biggest manufacturer of spacecraft. The daughter of the starship captain, Terra Braedon, becomes fast friends with Chryse.

The Communion is not happy with the appearance of the FTL starship, since this will upset the status quo. Big time.)

      Terra blushed, but to Chryse’s surprise, agreed.
     “Before we do, though, may I ask you a question?” Terra asked.
     “Go ahead.”
     “The government people who arranged my flight up from Santiago didn’t seem too happy when I told them I was coming here.” (a big party being thrown by Haller Associates)
     Chryse laughed. “I’m not surprised.
     “Because, my dear, the Communion doesn’t totally trust my father and me. They know Haller Associates is interested in getting into the business of building starships. Not just ships for your expedition, but commercial vessels, too. This worries them.”
     “Why should it?”

     “Because star travel will mean a return to the days of the space pioneer and unlimited expansion. The universe will not be a safe and predictable place anymore. It won’t have the precisely defined limits that are so attractive to the swaddling cloth mentality that afflicts a lot of Communion functionaries.”

     “But what has that to do with my coming here?”
     “They probably think we arranged this party as a bribe to get an inside track on our competitors.”
     “And did you?” Terra asked.
     Chryse regarded her young guest with a serious expression. “Star travel is much too important to be monopolized … by anybody!”

From PROCYON'S PROMISE by Michael McCollum (1985)

(ed note: Richard Seaton and Martin Crane invented a power source that delivers electricity at a ridiculously inexpensive rate, and a faster-than-light spaceship drive. They are startled at the effect these have on the economy of Terra. Tellus=Terra. Arenak, dagal, and inoson are technobabble unreasonably strong materials.)

WHEN Seaton and Crane had begun to supply the Earth with ridiculously cheap power, they had expected an economic boom and a significant improvement in the standard of living. Neither of them had any idea, however, of the effect upon the world's economy that their space-flights would have; but many tycoons of industry did.

They were shrewd operators, those tycoons. As one man they licked their chops at the idea of interstellar passages made in days. They gloated over thoughts of the multifold increase in productive capacity that would have to be made so soon; as soon as commerce was opened up with dozens and then with hundreds of Tellus-type worlds, inhabited by human beings as human as those of Earth. And when they envisioned hundreds and hundreds of uninhabited Tellus-type worlds, each begging to be grabbed and exploited by whoever got to it first with enough stuff to hold it and to develop it... they positively drooled.

These men did not think of money as money, but as their most effective and most important tool: a tool to be used as knowledgeably as the old-time lumberjack used his axe.

Thus, Earth was going through convulsions of change more revolutionary by far than any it had experienced throughout all previous history. All those pressures building up at once had blown the lid completely off. Seaton and Crane and their associates had been working fifteen hours a day for months training people in previously unimagined skills; trying to keep the literally exploding economy from degenerating into complete chaos.

They could not have done it alone, of course. In fact, it was all that a thousand Norlaminian "Observers" could do to keep the situation even approximately in hand. And even the Congress—mirabile dictu!—welcomed those aliens with open arms; for it was so hopelessly deadlocked in trying to work out any workable or enforceable laws that it was accomplishing nothing at all.

All steel mills were working at one hundred ten per cent of capacity. So were almost all other kinds of plants. Machine tools were in such demand that no estimated time of delivery could be obtained. Arenak, dagal, and inoson, those wonder-materials of the construction industry, would be in general supply some day; but that day would not be allowed to come until the changeover could be made without disrupting the entire economy. Inoson especially was confined to the spaceship builders; and, while every pretense was being made that production was being increased as fast as possible, the demand for spaceships was so insatiable that every hulk that could leave atmosphere was out in deep space.

Multi-billion-dollar corporations were springing up all over Earth. Each sought out and began to develop a Tellus type planet of its own, to bring up as a civilized planet or merely to exploit as it saw fit. Each was clamoring for and using every possible artifice of persuasion, lobbying, horse-trading, and out-and-out bribery and corruption to obtain spaceships, personnel, machinery light and heavy, office equipment, and supplies. All the employables of Earth, and many theretofore considered unemployable, were at work.

Earth was a celestial madhouse...

From SKYLARK DUQUESNE by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1966)


The idea is that every person will be given a computerized device at birth which will will stay with them, teaching them and learning their owner's personality. They could even take over dull routine tasks like answering the telephone. They would also record more or less everything their user sees, hears, and otherwise experiences for their entire life. Sort of a backup memory.

Stealing such a device would be tandamount to stealing a person's entire life. Example: movie Taking Care of Business, except more so. There will also have to be laws against the police subpoenaing a person's electronic companion, something along the lines of spousal privilege.

Also, the device could assist a child while growing up; example: the nanotechnology educational book given to Nellodee in The Diamond Age. Such a device could also mold and brainwash a child; example: I Always Do What Teddy Says.

With respect to an electronic companion substituting for you over the telephone, there was a recent article titled: Tired of texting? Google tests robot to chat with friends for you. The version of the headline was "Google tests robot to chat with friends for you, so you could be dead for weeks before they know it"


One of the ways in which thinking machines will be able to help us is by taking over the humbler tasks of life, leaving the human brain free to concentrate on higher things. (Not, of course, that this is any guarantee that it will do so.) For a few generations, perhaps, every man will go through life with an electronic companion, which may be no bigger than today’s transistor radios. It will “grow up” with him from infancy, learning his habits, his business affairs, taking over all the minor chores like routine correspondence and income-tax returns and engagements. On occasion it could even take its master’s place, keeping appointments he preferred to miss, and then reporting back in as much detail as he desired. It could substitute for him over the telephone so completely that no one would be able to tell whether man or machine was speaking; a century from now, Turing’s “game” may be an integral part of our social lives, with complications and possibilities which I leave to the imagination.

You may remember that delightful robot, Robbie, from the movie Forbidden Planet. (One of the three or four movies so far made that anyone interested in science fiction can point to without blushing; the fact that the plot was Shakespeare’s doubtless helped.) I submit, in all seriousness, that most of Robbie’s abilities—together with those of a better known character, ]eeves—will one day be incorporated in a kind of electronic companion-secretary-valet. It will be much smaller and neater than the walking jukeboxes or mechanized suits of armor which Hollywood presents, with typical lack of imagination, when it wants to portray a robot. And it will be extremely talented, with quick-release connectors allowing it to be coupled to an unlimited variety of sense organs and limbs. It would, in fact, be a kind of general purpose, disembodied intelligence that could attach itself to whatever tools were needed for any particular occasion. One day it might be using microphones or electric typewriters or TV cameras; on another, automobiles or airplanes—or the bodies of men and animals.

From THE OBSOLESCENCE OF MAN by Arthur C. Clarke (1961)

We’ve had single-purpose robots for a long time—ever since human elevator operators were replaced by a panel of buttons. But robots that can actually make decisions based on changing circumstances require sophisticated software, what we erroneously call “artificial intelligence.” It’s not intelligence; it’s information processing. It’s pattern recognition at the service of problem-solving.

A true robot will be capable of many different tasks—and it will have the ability to learn new tasks as needed. I should be able to say, “Robbie, make me eggs Benedict for breakfast,” and Robbie will respond, “I am downloading the recipe now,” and possibly even, “We are out of eggs. I have ordered some from the store. Delivery will take 30 minutes.” Robbie will have to know how to read a recipe, understand it, inventory the ingredients needed, and order those that are not in the pantry.

The robot will require a level of data gathering, pattern recognition, information processing, and decision making that will surpass that of a human assistant.

At that point, the robot becomes the life manager. Cleaning house will be the least of its responsibilities. The robot will connect to all of your wireless devices and monitor what TV shows you want to watch, what toppings you want on the pizza you order, what bills you pay, and more. It will likely manage your finances as well, so that filling out your tax forms will be as simple as saying, “Robbie, file my tax return.”

All of this is already in development, or at least envisioned. The tech is there. It’s primarily a software challenge. (That, and a standardized language of data exchange.)

But there’s something else to consider.

Beyond a digital assistant

The more sophisticated a robot’s information processing ability, the more it will develop a personality tuned to the user. It will become a companion. It will become an electronic friend. It will play games, matching its ability to yours. It will offer suggestions and advice. It will be a good listener—like those old Eliza programs. It will even have a certain therapeutic function for those needing comfort. It will be an appropriate aide and companion for those with diminished mental abilities.

The robot teddy bear will be a toddler’s first friend. It will listen, it will respond, it will teach, and it will monitor the child’s health, reporting any irregularities to the parents. It will even sound an alarm in case the child stops breathing.

As the child grows, the teddy bear will evolve as well, becoming an ever-more sophisticated and robust playmate. The bear will be more than a playmate. It will play catch, helping the child develop motor skills. It will respond to “please” and “thank you,” helping the child develop better social skills. It will eventually demonstrate a sophisticated repertoire of emotional behaviors as well—happiness when the child demonstrates good behavior, and sadness and disappointment when the child demonstrates antisocial behavior.

Adolescence and adulthood will represent a whole other challenge for robot companions. But robots could become tutors and coaches throughout high school and college. Elsewhere in life, robots will be convenient in ways limited only by the needs of humans. They will become dance partners, they will play basketball, they will pace joggers, they will walk dogs, they will take on any task that can be defined by a specific set of rules. Robots will assist with the care of the sick and the elderly (see The Electric Grandmother). They may even end up delivering the mail.

Robots will certainly have military uses, but even more important, robots will be able to function in environments too hazardous for humans—firefighting, for example, and other rescue operations. Remote operators will be able to advise robots on specific goals within that hazardous environment.


      The little boy lay sleeping. The moonlight effect of the picture-picture window threw a pale glow across his untroubled features. He had one arm clutched around his teddy bear, pulling the round face with its staring button eyes close to his own. His father, and the tall man with the black beard, tiptoed silently across the nursery to the side of the bed.
     "Slip it away," the tall man said. "Then substitute the other.”
     "No, he would wake up and cry," Davy's father said. "Let me take care of this. I know what to do.” With gentle hands he laid the second teddy bear down next to the boy, on the other side of his head. His sleeping cherub face was framed by the wide-eared unsleeping masks of the toys. Then he carefully lifted the boy's arm from the original teddy and pulled it free. This disturbed Davy without waking him. He ground his teeth together and rolled over, clutching the substitute toy to his cheek. Within a few moments his soft breathing was regular and deep again. The boy's father raised his forefinger to his lips and the other man nodded; they left the room without making a sound, closing the door noiselessly behind them.

     "Now we begin," Torrence said, reaching out to take the teddy bear. His lips were small and glistened redly in the midst of his dark beard. The teddy bear twisted in his grip and the black-button eyes rolled back and forth.
     "Take me back to Davy," it said in a thin and tiny voice.
     Now he took the toy animal and led the way to the shielded room deep in the house where Eigg was waiting.
     "Give it here—here!” Eigg snapped when they came in, reaching for the toy. Eigg was always like that, in a hurry, surly, square and solid with his width of jaw and spotless white laboratory smock. But they needed him.
     "Gently," Numen said, but Eigg had already pulled it from his grasp. "It won't like it, I know …”
     "Let me go … let me go…!” the teddy bear said with a hopeless shrill.

     "It is just a machine," Eigg said coldly, putting in face down on the table and reaching for a scalpel. "You are a grown man, you should be more logical, have your emotions under greater control. You are speaking with your childhood memories, seeing your own boyhood teddy who was your friend and companion. This is only a machine.” With a quick slash he opened the fabric over the seam seal and touched it: the plastic-fur back gaped open like a mouth.
     "Let me go … let me go …” the teddy bear wailed while its stumpy arms and legs waved back and forth. Both of the onlookers went white.
     "Must we… ?”
     "Emotions. Control them," Eigg said and probed with a screwdriver. There was a click and the toy went limp. He began to unscrew a plate in the mechanism. He was silent for a moment while he removed the capsule of the memory spools. The two government specialists could only sit back and watch while Eigg inserted the capsule into the bulky machine that he had assembled in the room.
     "Let me go…” the tiny voice said from the wall speaker, then was interrupted by a burst of static. "Let me go … bzzzzzzt … no, no Davy, Mummy wouldn't like you to do that … fork in left, knife in right … if you do you'll have to wipe … good boy good boy good boy …” The voice squeaked and whispered and went on and on, while the hours on the clock went by, one by one. Of them all Eigg showed no strain or fatigue, working the controls with fingers regular as a metronome. The reedy voice from the capsule shrilled thinly through the night like the memory of a ghost.
     "It is done," Eigg said, sealing the fabric with quick surgeon's stitches.
     "We must get the teddy back," Torrence broke in. "The boy just moved.”

     Davy was a good boy and, when he grew older, a good student in school. Even after he began classes he kept teddy around and talked to him while he did his homework.
     "How much is seven and five, teddy?” The furry toy bear rolled its eyes and clapped stubby paws. "Davy knows … shouldn't ask teddy what Davy knows …” "Sure I know — I just wanted to see if you did. The answer is thirteen.” "Davy … the answer is twelve … you better study harder Davy … that's what teddy says …” "Fooled you!” Davy laughed. "Made you tell me the answer!” He was finding ways to get around the robot controls, permanently fixed to answer the question of a younger child. Teddies have the vocabulary and outlook of the very young because their job must be done during the formative years. Teddies teach diction and life history and morals and group adjustment and vocabulary and grammar and all the other things that enable men to live together as social animals. A teddy's job is done early in the most plastic stages of a child's life. By the very nature of its task its conversation must be simple and limited. But effective. By the time teddies are discarded as childish toys their job is done.

     By the time Davy became David and was eighteen years old, teddy had long since been retired behind a row of books on a high shelf. He was an old friend who had outgrown his useful days. But he was still a friend and certainly couldn't be discarded. Not that David ever thought of it that way. Teddy was just teddy and that was that. The nursery was now a study, his cot a bed and with his birthday past David was packing because he was going away to the university. He was sealing his bag when the phone bleeped and he saw his father's tiny image on the screen.
     "David …”
     "What is it, Father?”
     "Would you mind coming down to the library now. There is something rather important.” David squinted at the screen and noticed for the first time that his father's face had a pinched, sick look. His heart gave a quick jump.
     "Is something wrong?” he asked.
     "Not wrong, Davy," his father said. He must be upset, David thought, he hasn't called me that in years. "Or rather something is wrong, but with the state of the world, has been for a long time.”

     "Oh, the Panstentialists," David said, and relaxed a little. He had been hearing about the evils of Panstentialism as long as he could remember. It was just politics; he had been thinking something very personal was wrong. "Panstentialism is an oppressing philosophy and one that perpetuates itself in power.”
     "Exactly. And one man, Barre, is at the heart of it. He stays in the seat of power and will not relinquish it and, with the rejuvenation treatments, will be good for a hundred years more.”
     "Barre must go!” Eigg snapped. "For twenty-three years now he has ruled — and forbidden the continuation of my experiments. Young man, he has stopped my work for a longer time than you have been alive, do you realize that?”
     "Exactly!” Numen sprang to his feet and began to pace agitatedly up and down the room. "If that wasn't true, wasn't the heart of the problem, I would never consider being involved. There would be no problem if Barre suffered a heart attack and fell dead tomorrow.” The three older men were all looking at David now, though he didn't know why, and he felt they were waiting for him to say something.

     "Well, yes — I agree. A little coronary embolism right now would be the best thing for the world that I can think of. Barre dead would be of far greater service to mankind than Barre alive has ever been.” The silence lengthened, became embarrassing, and it was finally Eigg who broke it with his dry mechanical tones.
     "We are all then in agreement that Barre's death would be of immense benefit. In that case, David, you must also agree that it would be fine if he could be … killed…”
     "Not a bad idea," David said, wondering where all this talk was going. "Though of course that is a physical impossibility. It must be centuries since the last … what's the word, 'murder' took place. The developmental psychology work took care of that a long time ago. As the twig is bent and all that sort of thing. Wasn't that supposed to be the discovery that finally separated man from the lower orders, the proof that we could entertain the thought of killing and discuss it, yet still be trained in our early childhood so that we would not be capable of the act. Surely, if you can believe the textbooks, the human race has progressed immeasurably since the curse of killing has been removed. Look—do you mind if I ask you what this is all about… ?”

     "Barre can be killed," Eigg said in an almost inaudible voice. "There is one man in the world who can kill him.”
     "Who?” David asked and in some terrible way he knew the answer even before the words came from his father's trembling lips.
     "You, David … you…” He sat, unmoving, and his thoughts went back through the years, and a number of things that had been bothering him were now made clear. His attitudes so subtly different from his friends', and that time with the airship when one of the rotors had killed a squirrel. Little puzzling things — and sometimes worrying ones that had kept him awake long after the rest of the house was asleep. It was true, he knew it without a shadow of a doubt, and wondered why he had never realized it before. But, like a hideous statue buried in the ground beneath one's feet, it had always been there but had never been visible until he had dug down and reached it. It was visible now with all the earth scraped from its vile face, all the lineaments of evil clearly revealed.

     "You want me to kill Barre?” he asked.
     "You're the only one who can … Davy … and it must be done. For all these years I have hoped against hope that it would not be needed. That the … ability you have would not be used. But Barre lives. For all our sakes, he must die.”
     "There is one thing I don't understand," David said, rising and looking out the window at the familiar view of the trees and the glass canopied highway. "How was this change made? How could I miss the conditioning that is a normal part of existence in this world?”
     "It was your teddy bear," Eigg explained. "It is not publicized, but the reaction to killing is established by the tapes in the machine that every child has. Later education is just reinforcement, valueless without the earlier indoctrination.”
     "Then my teddy… ?”
     "I altered its tapes, in just that one way, so this part of your education would be missed. Nothing else was changed.”

     "It was enough, Doctor.” There was a coldness to his voice that had never existed before. "How is Barre supposed to be killed?”
     "With this.” Eigg removed a package from the table drawer and opened it.
     "This is a primitive weapon removed from a museum. I have repaired it, then charged it with the projectile devices called shells.” He held the sleek, ugly, black thing in his hand. "It is fully automatic in operation. When this device, the trigger, is depressed a chemical reaction propels a copper and lead weight named a bullet directly from the front orifice. The line of flight of the bullet is along an imaginary path extended from these two niches on the top of the device. The bullet of course falls by gravity. But in a minimum distance, say a meter, this fall is negligible.” He put it down suddenly on the table. "It is called a gun.”
     David reached over slowly and picked it up. How well it fitted into his hand, sitting with such precise balance. He raised it slowly, sighted across the niches and pulled the trigger. It exploded with an immense roar and jumped in his hand. The bullet plunged into Eigg's chest just over his heart with such a great impact that the man and the chair he had been sitting in were hurled backwards to the floor. The bullet also tore a great hole in his flesh and Eigg's throat choked with blood and he died.

     "David! What are you doing?” His father's voice cracked with uncomprehending horror.
     David turned away from the thing on the floor, still unmoved by what he had done.
     "Don't you understand, Father? Barre and his Panstentialists are indeed a terrible weight. Many suffer and freedom is abridged, and all the other things that are wrong, that we know should not be. But don't you see the difference? You yourself said that things would change after Barre's death. The world would move on. So how is his crime to be compared to the crime of bringing this back into existence?” He shot his father quickly and efficiently before the older men could realize the import of his words and suffer with the knowledge of what was coming. Torrence screamed and ran to the door, fumbling with terrified fingers at the lock. David shot him too. But not very well since he was so far away, and the bullet lodged in his body and made him fall. David walked over and ignoring the screamings and bubbled words, took careful aim at the man's twisting head and blew out his brains.

     Now the gun was heavy and he was very tired. The lift shaft took him up to his room and he had to stand on a chair to take teddy down from behind the books on the high shelf. The little furry animal sat in the middle of the large bed and rolled its eyes and wagged its stubby arms.
     "Teddy," he said, "I'm going to pull up flowers from the flower bed.”
     "No Davy … pulling up flowers is naughty … don't pull up the flowers.” The little voice squeaked and the arms waved.
     "Teddy, I'm going to break a window.”
     "No, Davy … breaking windows is naughty … don't break any windows …”
     "Teddy, I'm going to kill a man.”
     Silence, just silence. Even the eyes and the arms were still.

     The roar of the gun broke the silence and blew a ruin of gears, wires and bent metal from the back of the destroyed teddy bear.
     "Teddy … oh, teddy …. you should have told me," David said and dropped the gun and at last was crying.

From I ALWAYS DO WHAT TEDDY SAYS by Harry Harrison (1965)

“Good.” With just the ghost of a smile, the Admiral continued: “In keeping with your appointment, and its responsibilities, it is my pleasure to announce your promotion from Commander, Pact Naval Forces, to General, Pact Marine Corps. The full text of your orders is being downloaded to your AID.”

Like all officers, Merikur carried an Artificial Intelligence Device, (AID) in his belt pouch. Besides the standard programming provided them at “birth,” AID’s could learn from experience, and sometimes developed rudimentary personalities. Merikur’s was almost fifteen standard years old and a bit irreverent. Annoying though it sometimes was, and rather too revelatory of some aspects of his own personality, Merikur’s AID was also very perceptive, and he couldn’t bring himself to wipe it and start all over. Besides, he liked the little bastard. Hearing itself mentioned, Merikur’s AID buzzed his auditory implant and said, “Orders received, your Generalship!”

“Yes,” Admiral Oriana added awkwardly, as if suddenly unsure of himself. “Citizen Ritt came all the way from Terra to brief you.”

Something cold settled in Merikur’s gut. Kona Tatsu. The Pact’s security service. And this one was working out of Terra HQ itself. He should have guessed from the uniform. The Kona Tatsu wore military uniforms without badges of rank, and went by the title “citizen,” although it understated their power.

Merikur felt a soft buzz in his ears and heard his implant say, “She’s toting enough shielded electronics to open a store. Chances are you’re being recorded in stereo.”

Merikur saw the two ratings were about to explode into laughter. The story would be all over the ship within an hour. “Yes. Tell one of these ratings to carry my gear and show me to my quarters.”

“Yyyesss sir. Nolte, you heard the general. Help him with his luggage and take him to his cabin. It’s number four on B deck.”

Merikur felt his implant buzz. “The Bremerton is a standard Port Class Cruiser. For full schematics, plug me into any printer. ” Well aware of the ship’s layout right down to the smallest crawlway, Merikur ignored his AID and asked, “Your name, Ensign?”

The humans laughed and Windsor said, “Speaking of Cernia &helllip; Why don’t you give the general a quick briefing. I’m sure he’ll sleep better.”“I have the most recent intelligence estimates on file,” Merikufs AID volunteered. “Not that they’ll do you much good unless you take the time to read them.”

From that point on Merikur immersed himself in his work. There was plenty to keep him busy from the moment the ship broke orbit until its arrival in Harmony Cluster.

First there was his AID to debrief, including a line-by-line reading of his voluminous official orders, and an endless series of intelligence reports on the Harmony Cluster. Lacking any sort of faster-than-ship communication, the material was probably outdated; but it did give him a base line against which to judge more current information when it became available.

From CLUSTER COMMAND by William C. Dietz and David Drake (1989)

Intelligence Amplification


Drugs that amplify intelligence (temporarily or permanently) are called Nootropics (aka smart drugs, memory enhancers, neuro enhancers, cognitive enhancers, and intelligence enhancers).

Examples from science fiction include R-47 from Gordon Dickson's THE R-MASTER, “VC” (viral coefficient) from John Brunner's THE STONE THAT NEVER CAME DOWN, "Hormone K Treatment" from Ted Chiang's UNDERSTAND, Methuen Treatment from L. Sprage de Camp's THE EXHALTED, NZT-48 from the movie LIMITLESS and CPH4 from the movie LUCY.


THE IQ BOOSTERS WORKED SWIFTLY, SURGING UP through the arteries in her neck, seeking the outer layers of the neocortex. Manufactured from algae that had been genetically tricked into producing human enzymes, one set of boosters more than tripled the rate at which nerves recharged and fired, while other substances increased the growth of new nerve connections and modulated energy efficiency. It was the increase in firing frequency that had the first and most profound effect. After only two days on the boost, Tarn and her crew were connecting disparate and seemingly unrelated facts faster than they had ever before in their entire lives, possibly faster than any human beings since the beginning of time.

One side effect of her newly acquired abilities was that she could now clearly see the flicker of her liquid crystal display pad, which usually cycled too quickly for the human eye to register. Watching the pad (especially in the 3-D mode) became an activity guaranteed to trigger migraine, and she worried that there might be other unanticipated effects. Yet they were all being forced to think faster, to redesign their own brain chemistries, and, whenever necessary, to experiment upon themselves. They had no choice.

From THE KILLING STAR by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski


A Brain-Computer Interface replaces the standard interaction between person and computer via monitor, keyboard, and mouse with something a little more intimate. The comptuter is connected direcly to your brain via implanted electrodes or something like that. Imagine a USB port in your skull. See the above link for details.

In the intelligence amplification category, such an interface can allow such IQ accelerating techniques as querying Google at the speed of thought and providing a math coprocessor for your brain.

In William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive are datachips called "skill softs." If you need to speak Mandarin Chinese, pop in a Mandarin skill soft into the chip port on your skull. Ditto nuclear physics, cordon bleu chief, or military strategist. Skill softs for physical skills like karate, sharpshooting, and jet fighter pilot will require additional interfaces to your reflex nervous system. Skill softs are Upgrade Artifacts.

In James White Sector General science fiction novels if for instance, a human surgeon had to operate on a Melfan patient, the surgeon would be temporarily imprinted with an appropriate memory tape. This is a brain recording of an alien surgeon who is an expert in the required surgery. The trouble is the brain recording is not just the surgical skill, it is all the alien's memories. So the poor surgeon has an alien split-personality as long as they are imprinted. The memory tape is erased from the surgeon's brain immediately afterwards. Diagnosticians are entities who have such mental stability that they can hold multiple brain recordings simultaneously. They use this cross-knowledge to do original research.

The movie Brainstorm noted how such an interface can be used to record an experience on tape and play it back so another person can experience the same things. Eating a meal at a five-star restaurant, sky-diving, traveling to exotic places. Not to mention pornographic applications. They didn't go into it in the movie but such an interface can be used to directly connect two people together, creating a sort of computer assisted telepathy.


From the person's standpoint, it appears like their mind is moved out of their meat body and transferred into a computer.

From an outside view it looks more like an incredibly advanced computer program is written which can perfectly simulate your memories, thoughts, and personality. The meat person still exists, they are a little dubious about this perfect simulation software running in the computer in the next room. Yes, this opens a screaming can of flailing worms full of questions about what is identity and related matters.

This is part of the Digital Crew Concept for slower-than-light starships, since uploaded people only require a computer, they have no mass and require no consumables.

Note this can result in the extinction of the human race by Existential Risk 6.1 Take-over by a transcending upload.



You are in an operating room. A robot brain surgeon is in attendance. By your side is a potentially human equivalent computer, dormant for lack of a program to run. Your skull, but not your brain, is anaesthetized. You are fully conscious. The surgeon opens your brain case and peers inside. Its attention is directed at a small clump of about 100 neurons somewhere near the surface. It determines the three dimensional structure and chemical makeup of that clump non-destructively with neutron tomography, phased array radio encephalography, and ultrasonic radar. It writes a program that models the behavior of the clump, and starts it running on a small portion of the computer next to you. Fine wires are run from the edges of the neuron assembly to the computer, providing the simulation with the same inputs as the neurons. You and the surgeon check the accuracy of the simulation. After you are satisfied, tiny relays are inserted between the edges of the clump and the rest of the brain. Initially these leave brain unchanged , but on command they can connect the simulation in place of the clump. A button which activates the relays when pressed is placed in your hand. You press it, release it and press it again. There should be no difference. As soon as you are satisfied, the simulation connection is established firmly , and the now unconnected clump of neurons is removed.

The process is repeated over and over for adjoining clumps, until the entire brain has been dealt with. Occasionally several clump simulations are combined into a single equivalent but more efficient program. Though you have not lost consciousness, or even your train of thought, your mind (some would say soul) has been removed from the brain and transferred to a machine.

In a final step your old body is disconnected. The computer is installed in a shiny new one, in the style, color and material of your choice. You are no longer a cyborg halfbreed, your metamorphosis is complete.

Advantages become instantly apparent. Your computer has a control labelled speed. It had been set to slow, to keep the simulations synchronized with the old brain, but now you change it to fast. You can communicate, react and think a thousand times faster. But that’s just a start.

The program in your machine can be read out and altered, letting you conveniently examine, modify, improve and extend yourself. The entire program may be copied into similar machines, giving two or more thinking, feeling versions of you. You may choose to move your mind from one computer to another more technically advanced, or more suited to a new environment. The program can also be copied to some future equivalent of magnetic tape. If the machine you inhabit is fatally clobbered, the tape can be read into a blank computer, resulting in another you, minus the experiences since the copy. With enough copies, permanent death would be very unlikely.

As a computer program, your mind can travel over infor- mation channels. A laser can send it from one computer to another across great distances and other barriers. If you found life on a neutron star, and wished to make a field trip, you might devise a way to build a neutron computer and robot body on the surface, then transmit your mind to it. Nuclear reactions are a million times quicker than chemistry, so the neutron you can probably think that much faster. It can act. acquire new experiences and memories, then beam its mind back home. The original body could be kept dormant during the trip to be reactivated with the new memories when the return message arrived. Alternatively, the original might remain active. There would then be two separate versions of you, with different memories for the trip interval.

Two sets of memories can be merged, if mind programs are adequately understood. To prevent confusion, memories of events would indicate in which body they happened. Merging should be possible not only between two versions of the same individual but also between different persons. Selective mergings, involving some of the other person's memories, and not others, would be a very superior form of communication, in which recollections, skills, attitudes and personalities can be rapidly and effectively shared.

(ed note: the process should be familiar with computer programmers who worked on a large project with many programmers. They use a version control system. If two programmers work on the same segment of the program at the same time, the two version must be merged )

Your new body will be able to carry more memories than your original biological one, but the accelerated infomiation explosion will insure the impossibility of lugging around all of civilization’s knowledge. You will have to pick and choose what your mind contains at any one time: There will often be knowledge and skills available from others superior to your own, and the incentive to substitute those talents for yours will be overwhelming. In the long run you will re- member mostly other people’s experiences, while memories you originated will be floating around the population at large. The very concept of you will become fuzzy, replaced by larger, communal egos.

Mind transferral need not be limited to human beings. Earth has other species with brains as large, from dolphins, our cephalic equals, to elephants, whales, and giant squid, with brains up to twenty times as big. Translation between their mental representation and ours is a technical problem comparable to converting our minds into a computer program. Our culture could be fused with theirs , we could incorporate each other’s memories, and the species boundaries would fade. Non-intelligent creatures could also be popped into the data banks. The simplest organisms might contribute little more than the infonnation in their DNA. In this way our future selves will benefit from all the lessons leamed by terrestrial biological and cultural evolution. This is a far more secure form of storage than the present one, where genes and ideas are lost when the conditions that gave rise to them change.

Our speculation ends in a super-civilization, the synthesis of all solar system life, constantly improving and extending itself, spreading outwards from the sun, converting non-life into mind. There may be other such bubbles expanding from elsewhere. What happens when we meet? Fusion of us with them is a possibility, requiring only a translation scheme between the memory representations. This process, possibly occurring now elsewhere, might convert the entire universe into an extended thinking entity, a prelude to even greater things.

by Hans P. Mouravec (1978)

Mind Control

Mind control, now there's a concept guaranteed to frighten almost every rational being. The concept of brainwashing has been around since the 1950s. The concept of deprogramming a person back to quote "Normal" unquote is more recent. The fear is that future advances in technology will make brainwashing easier and more efficient.

There are also zillions of science fiction stories about alien parasites that burrow into a victim's body and take over control of their brain. Examples include the neural parasite from ST:TNG Conspiracy, The Invisibles from The Outer Limits, the slug from The Hidden, the energy being from Kronos, and Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters.

The movie Invaders from Mars used a less efficient technique, they surgically emplanted mind-control crystals into Earthlings to transform them into brainwashed agents. A similar technique was used in the movie Uchū Daisensō (Battle in Outer Space) to mind-control Dr. Ahmed.

In Babylon 5 people convicted of a capital crime were not put to death. Instead they suffered "Death Of Personality", where their personality was erased and imprinted with an artificial personality. The new personality was slanted to altruism and public service, so the new person would in a small way repay their debt to society. The old personality was gone, executed.

In the novel Dune, "Imperial Conditioning" rendered a person almost incapable of taking a human life. Such people were highly prized by leaders who have to deal almost daily with assasination attempts. Nice to have at least one person around that you can turn your back on.

In Damon Knight's Analogues series asocial behavior is dealt with by giving the person an "analogue", a mental imprint of an authority figure that intervenes whenever violent or otherwise harmful acts are contemplated. What you wind up with is a society where everybody is foaming-at-the-mouth insane on the inside, but their analogue forces them to act like they are sane. Things get really bad when the world splits into smaller nations, each with different definitions of what constitutes "asocial behavior." In one, not maxing out your credit card is considered asocial by the powers that be.

In Robert Heinlein's Coventry convicted criminals can undergo brainwashing or they can be sent to Coventry. This is a huge walled-off area where the rule of law does not apply. Dog-eat-dog, every man for themself.

In Tom Corbett: On The Trail Of The Space Pirates, people convicted of serious crimes have a choice of undergoing psychotherapeutic readjustment or exile for life on the Prison Asteroid. The asteroid dwellers can opt for psychoadjustment at any time, but most are such hard bitten criminals that they'd rather die.

In the ST:TAS Mudd's Passion at the end of the episode interstellar rogue Harcourt Fenton Mudd resignedly tells Mr. Spock he supposes he'll get rehabilitation therapy for his crimes, again. Spock says that he can guarantee it.

In Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange the sociopathic protagonist is convicted of first-degree murder. In exchange for commuting the rest of his prison sentence he agrees to undergo the Ludovico Technique. This is a species of aversion therapy to condition him to become severely ill at the mere thought of violence. Hilarity ensues.

In the Star Wars movies, Jedi Knights and Sith can use the force to implant suggestions into minds of the weak-willed. "These are not the droids you are looking for…"

In Phillip High's The Prodigal Sun, the police state control malcontents by brain programming. They are given a little book called Programme. It lists all the things they are forbidden to do or think. If they transgress, their brain programming gives them ten seconds of agonizing pain. They then have to frantically leaf through the book to figure out what they did wrong. By simple operant conditioning they will become perfect little police state drones after a couple of years of this.


      “As you collect more data, things happen within the data set that improves the quality of the model, which in turn improves the quality of the service,”
     Managing all of this data is Skinner, an artificial intelligence software named after the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner, that monitors different prompts it’s making to the customers on apps… Skinner’s all about learning what works for improving usage on an app or getting returning customers, and it optimizes those notifications as customers continue to use the app.
     The technology previously had a Bayesian assumption about how that strategy of reinforcement would work. “It updates its probability scenarios (beliefs) about how likely causal its past decisions were to create today’s behavior and then tweaks a parameter. At the 30-day mark, when experiments on all of our users turn over, it determines what appeared to matter and what could be changed to improve.”
     Essentially, the software now can learn how to improve user retention itself in each of the apps it’s working with…
     …If all of that sounds creepy, don’t worry… it is.
     There’s a lingering question in the back of my head about the morality of mind-gaming customers into coming back to an app or a site. Already, the industry struggles with the darker side of app and screen addiction.
     …founders argue that they reserve the right to deny service to specific companies whose work seems to be off the level, but, as with most tech these days, that’s a lot of power to put in one person’s hands.

Charles Stross said:

     Good grief.
     This technology is so unethical it needs to be criminalized globally, before it evolves into a Fermi Paradox solution.
     ... And I generally DON'T think banning technologies is a good idea. But this is like a neuroscience homebrew dirty nuke.
     Right now it's being used on games, taxi, social apps.
     But it could work even better on gambling apps. Radicalization tools for neo-Nazis, Islamic State. Political campaigns mobilizing glassy-eyed zombie footsoldiers. Cryptocurrencies engineered for addiction. Pyramid schemes.
     Which just cut the cost of entry from $BIGNUM (and employ your own PhD team) to plug-in-an-app-library-and-go.

by Jonathan Shieber (2017)

(ed note: Our hero Junior Lieutenant Flandry is given a boring space scouting mission. He is contacted by an alien named Ammon who is an organized crime kingpin of Flandary's acquaintance. Ammon has an illegal but lucrative deal. The alien wants Flandry to do a side jaunt to check out a barren planet rumored to have valuable deposits of minerals. Flandry accepts. Ammon will send an agent named Djana with Flandry to keep him honest. Djana is a low-ranking geisha.

Meanwhile Ammon's rival Rax, another crime kingpin, has gotten wind of the scheme. He surprises Djana, and gives her an offer. Lots of money in exchange for betraying Ammon and Flandry, and giving the scout results to Rax.

      "After Flandry is your prisoner, you will steer the boat through a volume whose coordinates will be given you," Rax finished. "This will bring you within detection range of a ship belonging to us, which will make rendezvous and take you aboard. Your reward will go to a million credits."
     "I see." Djana sat a while longer, thinking her way forward. At last she looked up and said: "You do tempt me. But I'll be honest, I'm scared. I know damn well I'm being watched, ever since I agreed to do this job, and Leon might take it into his head to give me a narcoquiz. You know?"
     "This has also been provided for." Rax pointed. "Behind yonder door is a hypnoprobe with amnesiagenic attachments. I am expert in its use. If you agree to help us for the compensation mentioned, you will be shown the rendezvous coordinates and memorize them. Thereafter your recollection of this night will be driven from your consciousness."
     "What?" It was as if a hand closed around Djana's heart. She sagged back into her chair. The cigarette dropped from cold fingers.
     "Have no fears," the goblin said. "Do not confuse this with zombie-making. There will be no implanted compulsions, unless you count a posthypnotic suggestion making you want to explore Flandry's mind and persuade him to show you how to operate the boat. You will simply awaken tomorrow in a somewhat disorganized state, which will soon pass except that you cannot remember what happened after you arrived here. The suggestion will indicate a night involving drugs, and the money in your purse will indicate the night was not wasted. I doubt you will worry long about the matter, especially since you are soon heading into space."
     "I—well—I don't touch the heavy drugs, Rax—"
     "Perhaps your client spiked a drink. To continue: Your latent memories will be buried past the reach of any mere narcoquiz. Two alternative situations will restimulate them. One will be an interview where Flandry has told Ammon Wayland is worthless. The other will be his telling you, on the scene, that it is valuable. In either case, full knowledge will return to your awareness and you can take appropriate action."
     Djana shook her head. "I've seen … brain-channeled … brain-burned—no," she choked. Every detail in the room, a checkerboard pattern on a lounger, a moving wrinkle on Rax's face, the panels of the inner door, stood before her with nightmare sharpness. "No. I won't."
     "I do not speak of slave conditioning," the other said. "That would make you too inflexible. Besides, it takes longer than the hour or so we dare spend. I speak of a voluntary bargain with us which includes your submitting to a harmless cue-recall amnesia."
     Djana rose. The knees shook beneath her. "You, you, you could make a mistake. No. I'm going. Let me out." She reached into her purse.
     She was too late. The slugthrower had appeared. She stared down its muzzle. "If you do not cooperate tonight," Rax told her, "you are dead. Therefore, why not give yourself a chance to win a million credits? They can buy you liberation from what you are."

From A CIRCUS OF HELLS by Poul Anderson (1970)

(ed note: David Falkayn, Adzel, and Chee Lan are one of the best trader teams employed by Nicholas van Rijn. David is human, Adzel looks like a horse-sized dragon, Chee looks like a large cat. David visits Serendipity Incorporated (SI) on behalf of van Rijn, hiring them to find something commercially valuable. They find something so valuable that they kidnap David and brain scrub him in order to keep the secret. Adzel and Chee get worried after a week and contact van Rijn)

      "What else could we do?" Adzel groaned. "David may be under psychocontrol. We suspect it, Chee and I. But we have no proof. For anyone who does not know him personally, the weight of credibility is overwhelming on the opposite side, so great that I myself can reach no firm conclusion about what has really happened. More is involved than Serendipity's established reputation. There is the entire covenant. Members of the League do not kidnap and drug each other's agents. Not ever!"
     "I doubt if we have a month, regardless," Chee said. "Think. Suppose Dave has been brainscrubbed. They'll've done it to keep him from reporting to you what he learned from their damned machine. They'll pump him for information and advice too. Might as well. But he is evidence against them. Any medic can identify his condition and cure it. So as soon as possible — or as soon as necessary — they'll get rid of the evidence. Maybe send him off in a spaceship, with his new fiancée to control him. Maybe kill him and disintegrate the body. I don't see where Adzel and I had any alternative except to investigate as we did. Nevertheless, our investigations will probably cause SI to speed up whatever timetable it's laid out for Captain Falkayn."

(ed note: van Rijn send Adzel and Chee to do a raid on SI's lunar castle. Adzel wears a combat space suit and penetrates the castle. As the guards run around in confusion he quietly follows the SI lady Thea Beldaniel, who leads him straight to David)

     She came to a door and flung it wide. Adzel peeked around the jamb. Falkayn sat in the chamber beyond, slumped into a lounger. The woman hurried to him and shook him. "Wake up!" she cried. "Oh, hurry!"
     "Huh? Uh. Whuzza?" Falkayn stirred. His voice was dull, his expression dead.
     "Come along, darling. We must get out of here."
     "Uhhh…" Falkayn shambled to his feet.
     "Come, I say!" She tugged at his arm. He obeyed like a sleepwalker. "The tunnel to the spaceport. We're off for a, a little trip, my dear. But run!"
     Adzel identified the symptoms. Brainscrub drugs, yes, in their entire ghastliness. You submerged the victim into a gray dream where he was nothing but what you told him to be. You could focus an encephaloductor beam on his head and a subsonic carrier wave on his middle ear. His drowned self could not resist the pulses thus generated; he would carry out whatever he was told, looking and sounding almost normal if you operated him skillfully but in truth a marionette. Otherwise he would simply remain where you stowed him.
     In time, you could remodel his personality.
     Adzel trod full into the entrance. "Now that is too bloody much!" he roared.
     Thea Beldaniel sprang back. Her scream rose, went on and on. Falkayn stood hunched.
     A yell answered, through the hallways. My mistake, Adzel realized. Perhaps not avoidable. But the guards have been summoned, and they have more armament than I do. Best we escape while we may.
     Nonetheless, van Rijn's orders had been flat and loud. "You get films of our young man, right away, and you take blood and spit samples, before anything else. Or I take them off you, hear me, and not in so polite a place neither!" It seemed foolish to the Wodenite, when death must arrive in a minute or two. But so rarely did the old man issue so inflexible a directive that Adzel decided he'd better obey.
     "Excuse me, please." His tail brushed the shrieking woman aside and pinned her gently but irresistibly to the wall. He tabled his camera, aimed it at Falkayn, set it on Track, and left it to work while he used needle and pipette on the flesh that had been his comrade. (And would be again, by everything sacred, or else be honorably dead!) Because he was calm about it, the process took just a few seconds. He stowed the sample tubes in a pouch, retrieved the camera, and gathered Falkayn in his arms.

(ed note: flying away from the castle with their rescued comrade, Adzel and Chee are agast when van Rijn tells them not to go to a hospital. Instead he orders Adzel to go to Luna city, and Chee to fly with David in their starship to the place SI was trying to steal. van Rijn tells Chee that she can cure David on the trip out.)

     "Look here, you fat pirate, my shipmate's drugged, hurt, sick! If you think for one picosecond he's going anywhere except to a hospital, I suggest you pull your head — the pointed one, that is — out of a position I would hitherto have sworn was anatomically impossible, and — "
     "Whoa down, my furry friendling, easy makes it. From what you describe, his condition is nothing you can't cure en route. We fixed you with a complete kit and manual for unscrubbing minds and making them dirty again, not so? And what it cost, yow, would stand your hair on end so it flew out of the follicles! Do listen. This is big. Serendipity puts its whole existing on stake for whatever this is. We got to do the same."

(ed note: Long before they reach their destination David is cured. But he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.)

     Stop that, you nit! Falkayn told himself. You're getting spooked. Understandable, when Chee had to spend most of our voyage time nursing me out of half-life —
     His mind halted. He gasped for air. The horror of what had been done to him came back in its full strength. All stars receded to an infinite radius. He crouched alone in blackness and ice.
     And yet he could not remember clearly what the enslavement of his mind had been like. It was as if he tried to reconstruct a fever dream. Everything was vague and grotesque; time twisted smokily about, dissolved and took new evanescent shapes; he had been trapped in another universe and another self, and they were not his own, and he could not bring himself to confront them again in memory, even were he able. He had desired Thea Beldaniel as he had desired no other woman since his first youth; he had adored the undefined Elder Race as he had adored no gods in his life; he had donned a cool surface and a clear logical mind at need, and afterward returned to his dim warm abyss. Yet somehow it was not he who did these things, but others. They used him, entered and wore him…How could he find revenge for so inward a rape?
     That last thought was born as a solitary spark in his night. He seized it, held it close, blew his spirit upon it and nursed it to flame. Fury followed, blinding as yonder great sun, burning him clean again. He might have been reliving ancient incarnations as he swung a Viking ax, galloped torch in hand on a Tartar pony, unleashed the guns that smash cities to rubble. It gave strength, which in turn gave sanity.
     Minutes after the seizure began, he was calm once more. His muscles slackened their hurtful knots, pulse and breath slowed, the sweat dried on him though he was aware of its lingering sourness.
     Falkayn turned to Chee Lan, who hunkered in her own chair — it looked more like a spiderweb — on his right. She must have sensed it when the horror came upon him but, characteristically, decided not to intervene.

From SATAN'S WORLD by Poul Anderson (1968)

(ed note: The Borthud are nasty aliens who have a shortage of trained starship crewmen. So they have instituted a policy of capturing human starships and brainwashing the crews into working for them. Torres is the leader of the human starship crew union, and they are fed up with their brothers and sisters being kidnapped and mind controlled. He is presenting an ultimatum to Nicholas van Rijn, the CEO of Solar Spice and Liquor.)

Torres' temper snapped across. "Go flush your dirty financial calculations! Try thinking about human beings for once. We'll face meteoroid swarms, infrasuns, rogue planets, black holes, radiation bursts, hostile natives— but have you met one of those impressed men? I have. That's what decided me, and made me take a lead in getting the Brotherhood to act. I'm not going to risk it happening to me, nor to any lodge sibling of mine. Why don't you and your fellow moneymen conn the ships personally?"

"Ho-o-o," murmured van Rijn. He showed no offense, but leaned across the desk on his forearms. "You tell me, ha?"

Torres must force the story out. "Met him on Arkan III— on the fringe of the Kossaluth, autonomous planet, you recall. We'd put in with a consignment of tea. A ship of theirs was in too, and you can bet your brain we went around in armed parties, ready to shoot any Borthudian who might look like a crimp. Or any Borthudian at all; but they kept to themselves. Instead, I saw him, this man they'd snatched, going on some errand. I spoke to him. My friends and I even tried to capture him, so we could bring him back to Earth and get reversed what that electronic hell-machine had done to him— He fought us and got away. God! He'd've been more free if he were in chains. And still I could feel how he wanted out, he was screaming inside, but he couldn't break the conditioning and he couldn't go crazy either— "

Torres grew aware that van Rijn had come around the desk and was thrusting a bottle into his hand. "Here, you drink some from this," the merchant said. The liquor burned the whole way down. "I have seen a conditioned man myself once, long ago when I was a rough-and-tumbler. A petty native prince had got it done to him, to keep him for a technical expert when he wanted to go home. We did catch him that time, and took him back for treatment." He returned to his chair and rekindled his pipe. "First, though, we got together with the ship's engineer and made us a little firecracker what we blew off at the royal palace." He chuckled. "The yield was about five kilotons."

From MARGIN OF PROFIT by Poul Anderson (1956)

(ed note: Captain Steve Strong and the three space cadets travel to the Prison Asteroid to ask questions of criminal mastermind Bull Coxine.)

      "What's your business here?" demanded the voice again.
     "Interrogation of one of your prisoners. We have sent a coded message, under code Z for Zebra to your prison commandant, Major Alan Savage. If you'll check with him, you'll find everything in order," said Strong.
     "Very well," replied the voice crisply, and then added, "Remain where you are. Do not move from your present position or attempt to send any messages. If you fail to comply with these conditions you will be blasted!"
     "Very well," said Strong, "conditions are understood."
     "Boy," chimed in Roger, as he climbed down the ladder from the radar bridge, "they sure don't want any company here."
     "And for good reason," said Strong. "The most vicious criminals in the whole universe are confined here. Every one of them is capable of committing any crime in the solar code. And most of them have. The men here are the worst. They have refused psychotherapeutic readjustment to make them into new men."
     "But I thought they had to go through it, sir?" said Tom.
     "No," replied Strong. "Even criminals have certain rights in our society. They can either remain criminals and stay here, or be psychoadjusted and given new personalities. The ones that refuse are the ones on this Rock."
     "You mean," gasped Roger, "that the men on this asteroid deliberately chose to remain criminals?"
     "Yes, Manning," said Strong. "Rather than become healthy citizens of the system, they prefer to stay here and waste their lives in isolation with no hope of ever returning to society."
     "Can they change their minds after they get here?" asked Tom.
     "Any time. But when they get this far, they usually stay here. The men on Prison Rock didn't surrender easily. They are the toughest, most ruthless men in the universe."

From ON THE TRAIL OF THE SPACE PIRATES by Carey Rockwell (1953)

(ed note: The police state control malcontents by brain programming)

      He, himself, had no cause for complaint. The authorities had not only granted him second-class citizenship, but had bent over backwards to find him suitable employment. The move was, he suspected, a deliberate policy of appeasement. Keep the returning veterans happy until such a time as we can deal with them as individuals.
     Gaynor found that his hands were clenched nervously. One day they'd come for him. He'd seen enough and heard enough to know what would happen.
     There would be no violence, no threats, no shouting, no rubber truncheons.
     The two quiet callers—there were always two—would seem to vie with each other in unnatural politeness: "If you would be good enough to accompany us, sir;" or "The district Supervisor would be grateful…"
     No one knew quite what happened after that. The unfortunate man or woman left the Security building apparently normal and without worry, sometimes, even, looking happy and relieved. When one paid a visit the next day, however, the apartment would be occupied by a stranger. There would be no message and no forwarding address.
     Oh, yes, you knew what had happened then, your friend had been programed and, if you were wise, you departed hastily lest you be branded as an associate.
     No one of the normal population quite knew what programing was. You knew it was something the psych boys had cooked up. You knew it was a kind of conditioning. But after that you could only guess.
     Where did they go? There were no concentration camps, but yes there were the untouchables, the lowest strata of society, but these, apparently were free or at least they walked the streets like other men.
     There was another story he had heard. On programing you were given a little black book, a little black book with the word "Programme" on the cover. You clung to the book as if its possession meant more than food or drink or the air you breathed. Cynics referred to it as "The Bible of the Damned."

(ed note: the security guard Hengist happens to be present when the Kraft, head of the Secret Police, is humiliated. Unbeknown to Hengist, Kraft lashes out by condemning Hengist to be programmed. Hengist thinks he just dosed off in a chair, but actually he has been brain programmed. He doesn't realize it until he opens his packet of orders. )

     In the hutch-like, all-purpose room he pulled out the recessed table and the wall-chair and sat down. Might as well look at the official junk before he dialed a quick meal. Usually officialdom justified its existence by repetition and pompously phrased orders designed to impress the recipient officer with the sternness of his task.
     Hengist sighed, slit the end of the long official envelope and tipped out the contents.
     There were no official forms, only blank folded sheets of paper. What the hell?
     He leaned forward, between two of the sheets was a small printed card. He picked it up, held it between thumb and forefinger, and studied it, frowning:
The enclosed booklet is your assurance of well-being. It is provided to help you adjust to the new conditions you will be compelled to face. Its possession assures of an answer to any question which may arise in your mind. It is a guide to your future mental and physical behavior patterns.
     The card slipped from Hengist's fingers and fluttered to the floor. He was conscious of a prickling dampness on his forehead and a remote constricting coldness in his stomach. His body felt detached as if he were controlling it at a distance and his vision seemed blurred and out of focus.
     With numb fingers he pushed the blank faceless papers shakily to one side. Beneath them was a small black book. Printed in red on the cover was the single word: PROGRAMME.
     Hengist stared fixedly at the black book with the curious feeling he was unable to move his eyes from side to side.
     Programed? Apart from shock he felt no different but he was suddenly aware that even he had no idea what programing was.
     Fumblingly he turned back the cover.
     Printed on the flysheet was a short note of identification and grim advice:
This book is the property of David Korvin Hengist (here—in after known as the patient), non-citizen, P-5-228G. The patient must understand that because of his inability to conform to present society he is mentally sick and has, therefore, been referred for treatment. This treatment is not a punishment for misdemeanor but a comprehensive therapy designed to restore him to normal society.
It is advised, therefore, that the patient familiarize himself with this book for his own immediate well-being and a swift return to normal life.
Period of treatment: Seven Years.
     Hengist closed the book slowly and sat down. Gradually his mind was losing its numbness and beginning to function normally. In the waiting room it had been done, during the period when he thought he'd been dozing. A whiff of hypno-gas through the conditioner and he'd been trussed and ready.
     A sudden anger rose within him. They'd known but they'd acted slyly, creeping up behind him to steal his life and never told him why.
     And Ralston had smiled. Smiled because he knew, because he was a sadist, because it pleased him to smile and because he was enjoying the joke.
     He'd been with Ralston on a tour of inspection when a man had gone berserk in the street and hurled himself at Ralston with a length of pointed metal in his hand.
     He, Hengist, had interposed his own body between the berserk and his superior officer and club-gunned the man just in time but he'd taken three inches of pointed metal in his own shoulder.
     Ralston had smiled—smiled. He wished he'd helped the berserk man. He wished…
     The pain seemed to start in the center of his brain and press downward against the back of his eyes. His vision blurred, panting he fell to his knees, both hands pressed to the sides of his head.
     Slowly the pain turned to a dull burning and he pulled himself shakily to his feet. His whole body was soaked with perspiration and he was beset with an unnatural weakness.
     He leaned against the wall, slowly beginning to understand. This was part of what they had done to him. This was—part of the programme. Somewhere within the pages of the small black book this pain had meaning.
     Numbly he reopened it. Pain, where was pain? On the first page he found a printed index.
     Pain: Causes of…62…
     He turned the pages almost in a frenzy. The patient experiences psychosomatic pain when his thoughts, actions or emotions are contrary to the therapeutic plan designed to restore him to health and his rightful place in society.
     To determine the exact cause of pain, the patient must recall his thoughts or actions at time of onset. In all cases he will discover that he, himself, induced the attack by thought or action contrary to the plan for his recovery. It is advised, therefore, that the patient read the book thoroughly in order to determine his point of departure from the programme of rehabilitation.
     Hengist sat down in the hard chair and turned over the pages. It took him nearly four minutes to find the answer. The patient is forbidden to harbor thoughts of revenge against society, Security Officers or registered officials. All Officers of the Administration work for the patient's well-being.
     In order to aid his recovery the patient must learn to reject these sick thoughts and cultivate the correct ones of appreciation and gratitude.
     Gratitude! Hengist felt his face flush with impotent fury. Of all the cynical hypocritical…
     This time he whimpered when he fell to his knees. When he climbed unsteadily to his feet some three minutes later he picked up the book and forced himself to begin at the beginning.
     The patient will vacate his living quarters within five hours and report to the nearest rehabilitation center. (A list of such centers may be found on page 210 of appendix). The patient will list his personal possessions and surrender them to the rehabilitation officer.
     Hengist's mouth twisted bitterly. No one would come to remove him. Procedure demanded that he throw himself out on his ear. Something would hit him right between the eyes if he didn't.
     Give up all his possessions—did that include his gun? He'd be glad to give that up to the first creep he met. He'd have his finger ready on the trigger.
     The agonizing cramp which suddenly twisted his arm almost out of shape brought a moan of pain from his lips.
     The patient is forbidden to possess weapons.
     Shaking with ,the aftermath of pain, he dialed for a stiff drink. How much of this sort of thing was a man supposed to take?
     With some difficulty he brought the glass to his lips and tipped the liquor down his throat.
     The pain which hit his stomach almost folded him in half. Sweat trickled down his face as he vomited the liquor back.
     The patient is forbidden the use of drugs, stimulants or alcohol.
     Holding himself upright by the table, he fumbled a cigarette from his breast pocket. He dropped it twice before he was able to flick off the plastic tip. God, much more of this and…
     He coughed at the first puff. He coughed until the tears were running from his eyes and the air wheezed painfully in his lungs.
     The patient may not smoke.
     Wearily he sat down. The pattern was clear now—compulsive conditioning. Whatever he did or, for that matter, considered doing was contrary to the 'programme.' It triggered off a pain reaction. Under hypnosis his future conduct had been shaped for him within a comprehensive reflex action. If he departed from the programme in thought or deed, pain would kick him back again.
     In six months he would be walking and thinking as delicately as a cat on a high wire, afraid to digress from his impressed conduct pattern by a fraction of an inch.
     Within a year he would believe it was for his own good.
     In two years he would be begging permission to thank both Kaft and Ralston for their kindness in referring him for treatment.
     At the end of his treatment it wouldn't matter. He'd be fixed in a thought and behavior pattern which nothing could break until the end of his life.
     He straightened. They thought. Not to him, definitely not to him. He still had the gun, he'd lived by it now, damn them, he'd get the last laugh by dying by it.
     The convulsion arched him backwards, twisted his limbs and tossed him helpless and whimpering into the corner of the room. Finger nails scrabbled at the floor, froth trickled from the corners of his mouth…
     Attempts at self-destruction are primary symptoms of the patient's mental state and must be resisted with every effort of the will.

     "That I believe." Gaynor nodded quickly. "The Administration is so terrified of its own shadow that it is programing some of its best men."
     "I agree up to a point but in that respect it would be unwise to take the narrow view. The Administration, in this sphere, is singularly efficient and far-seeing instrument of policy. Have you considered that in five years the Administration will have ten million organic robots quite single-minded and incapable of revolt. In ten years it will have thirty million, fanatically determined to do what they're told and, for that matter, incapable of doing otherwise."

From THE PRODIGAL SUN by Philip E. High (1964)


There is a tradition in science fiction stories of people pretending that they have magic powers but are actually using high-tech devices hidden about their person. TV Tropes calls this Magic from Technology. To give them their due, some use tech that is so high it invokes Clarke's Third Law, so the question of whether this is fakery or not is moot. If a technomage can point their finger and the target is incinerated by lightning, does it matter if it was done with a magic spell or with a miniaturized particle beam weapon? Incinerated is incinerated.

A related concept is Magitek.

Examples include:

THE SIXTH COLUMN by Robert Heinlein (under name Anson MacDonald)
     This was Heinlein re-working an unpublished story called "All" by John W. Campbell.
     The United States is conquered by an Asian Empire called PanAsia. But at the last moment, a hidden military lab makes a scientific breakthrough. The lab now has the secret to weapons of Doc Smithian power and other cool gadgets. Unfortunately they are only seven men in a nation occupied by zillions of PanAsia troops. What can they do?
     The scientists want to start an underground rebellion. But you need large groups to spread the conspiracy, and the Empire has forbidden large gatherings. However there is one loophole: religious worship allows large gatherings. The asians know how touchy an occupied nation is about their religions.
     So the scientists invent a crazy religion with ridiculous deities. The asians don't notice anything odd since this new religion looks just as inscrutable as the other US religions. The occupied populance can see this is odd, but the religious services offer a free lunch. The high tech devices can do things like cure cancer and other diseases, which also attracts "worshipers." The congregations soon notice things such as all the hymns are being to the tune of forbidden US patriotic songs. And the sermons are full of dog-whistles about undercover resistance. The priests are on the look out for particularly intelligent and motivated members of the congregation. They are vetted and recruited into the rebellion.
     For "religious" reasons the priests have to wear large floppy robes with turbans, to allow more space to hide high-tech devices hidden about their person. The turbans conceal communciation devices, and a bit of tech that makes the illusion of a halo. Their sacred walking staffs are energy projectors, emitting rays that can heal, transmute lead into gold, and disintegrate. Since the staffs are important to the religion this gets around the PanAsian ban on weapons. Their belts contain a force field generator.
     When the final battle occurs, there is a particularly striking image. For psychological purposes, they use a holographic feature to create the illusion of one of the priests as tall as a skyscraper, sending rays of death and destruction into the PanAsia troops.
ALL by John W. Campbell, Jr.
This is Campbell story that Heinlein reworked into The Sixth Column. In Heinlein's version the rebellion is using a scam religion as a cover. In Campbell's version the leaders of the rebellion actually seem to believe that their made-up religion is true, and they are the incarnation of the made-up deities. Heinlein included one of the leaders going insane and believing they are a god, perhaps as a commentary on Campbell's version. Also of significance is Heinlein naming the character "Calhoun". As editor of Astounding, Campbell would not accept science fiction stories where space aliens were in any way superior to Earthmen.
In the Babylon 5 TV show, Technomages use high-tech to create the illusion of magic. But since their technology can do things like spy on everybody within several kilometers, cure disease, vaporize people with balls of fire, infiltrate and hack any computer system in existence, and create killer nanotechnology; it is safest to just treat them like real wizards.
In the Captain Future universe, our hero's arch enemy is Ul Quorn, the Magician of Mars. This super villain creates all sorts of high tech weapons and gadgets with effects that seem like magic. All the better to impress the superstitious rubes.
DEATHWORLD 2 by Harry Harrison
On the old abandoned Terran colony the level of technology has regressed to about medieval level. But some of the clans have "magic" powers, jealously guarded. The d'zertanoj clan alone knows how to pump petroleum and distill gasoline from it (though they call it the Water-of-Power). The Trozelligoj clan alone has the secret of building gasoline steam-engine powered carts (the engines contain containers of poison gas to discourage reverse-engineering). The Hertug clan has a monopoly on electricity, so can send telegraph messages, yank soldier's swords with electromagnets, and make crude electric lights. The Mastreguloj clan knows chemistry so they can make fire that burns in water, smoke that will burn the lungs, water that will burn the flesh (acid), and so forth.
THE FIRES OF PARATIME by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
The Time Guards (who have names like Loki and Odinthor) have wrist gauntlets that can throw deadly thunderbolts and carry miniature antimatter bombs. However, since they have the inate ability to travel in time and teleport, it becomes debatable whether they are pretend or real wizards.
The extragalactic alien Korob appears to be a human dressed in wizard robes and possessing magical powers. In reality he is a one decameter tall creature with a squid face. And all his magic powers come from a magic wand shaped technological item called a Transmuter.
Arguably Oz the Great and Terrible falls into this catagory. Certainly the giant head with shooting flames qualifies as a prop designed to convince people you have magic powers.

(ed note: Ul Quorn, the evil Magician of Mars, is the arch-enemy of the heroic Captain Future {Curt}. Future has disguised himself as one of Quorn's crew {Xexel} using blue skin-dye. Unfortunately Quorn suspects Future.)

      A bright yellow light suddenly played around Curt Newton's head. He turned, surprised Ul Quorn was holding a tubular lamp whose yellow beam was turned on Curt’s face.
     “Why, what —" Curt started to ask bewilderedly in shrill tones.
     Ul Quorn handed the lamp to N’Rala, its yellow beam continuing to bathe Curt's head. A triumphant flare lit the eyes of the mixed breed.
     “So we finally meet again, Captain Future," he said softly.
     "Are you crazy, Chief? " blurted Thikar amazedly. "That's old Xexel."
     " Look at his face,” snapped Quorn. "The fluoric beam cuts through the inorganic blue stain he's put on it. You can see for yourself. "

     Curt realized that his imposture was a thing of the past. Under the fluoric yellow beam, his own tanned face showed through the blue stain. Instantly, Curt snatched for the proton pistol inside his jacket.
     Captain Future's draw was legendary in its phenomenal swiftness. But this time, Ul Quorn was swifter.
     The Magician of Mars drew no weapon. Instead, he simply extended his hands toward Curt. From his outstretched fingers shot red rays of crackling energy. They struck Captain Future, and he felt a paralyzing electric shock that froze him in the very act of drawing his weapon.

     “Get his gun, Thikar,” snapped Quorn. “And then cover him — he'll recover in about ten minutes.”
     The brutal Jovian snatched the proton pistol from Curt’s hand. And Curt could not resist. His whole body was paralyzed by that shock. Ul Quorn stood enjoying his triumph a striking figure in his striped Martian turban and yellow-sleeved purple robe.

     “Your famous draw is slow compared to my electrostatic finger rays, Captain Future,” he mocked. "They're my newest weapon. The charge of energy comes from a compact electrostatic battery inside my robe. When I extend my hands full length, a contact is made which allows the electric charge to flash along wires in my sleeves, and radiate from tiny wires that are attached on the under side of my fingers.

     “You see, a weapon like this is not only swift — it enormously impresses people by its seeming magic.

     Curt Newton made no answer. He could not speak, paralyzed as his muscles were by the stunning electric shock. But his gray eyes flamed.

From THE MAGICIAN OF MARS by Edmond Hamilton (1969)

(ed note: In the novel the protagonist and the villain use an amusing bit of technobabble called the Release Flame. It is a handwaving method of converting iron into energy. I suppose Campbell chose Iron-56 because it is at the basin of the binding energy curve, but I digress. The point is the handwaving Release Flame produces unreasonable amounts of energy and can be set to produce the energy in convenient forms: electricity, magnetism, electromagnetic waves, gravity waves, etc.

Anyway anti-hero Atkill manages to get his ship thrown through a space warp to an alien solar system and all his release flames are snuffed out. The ship has no power, though he manages to jury-rig a solar power unit. If there are technologically inclined aliens in the system who have space ships, they can rescue him. Assuming he can convince them that Atkill is a superior being and not something the aliens can butcher for food.

So Atkill is making Release Flame powered miniature gadgets that he will hide about his person in order to fool the aliens into thinking he is some kind of demigod with magic powers.)

      And curiously, from that time Atkill’s observations became fewer and fewer. He spent all his time in the machine shop now. Making something. Texas watched quietly, and played cards. It was evidently a release-flame apparatus — but a tiny thing. Scarcely larger than a book.
     “Be any power in that when you get through?” he asked once.
     “Not unless I can get it started somehow after we are picked up. Then about thirty thousand horsepower. The Flame could give more. A million or so. The apparatus wouldn’t handle it.”
     Atkill worked on, refining and adding to the tiny mechanism, calculating fields and effects and building it into the apparatus. He changed the entire apparatus finally, and made it almost hemispherical, with a depression on the flat side. On one side however seven tiny openings appeared, and one cup-shaped device the size of a quarter-dollar. Nine thin wires dangled from it to a broad, thick bracelet of silver, set with a score of brilliant colored bits of stone cut with infinite pains on a device he set up himself. The rings and stickpins of the dead gangsters had furnished those stones. His own magnificent emerald stickpin had gone into it too. And also several synthetic stones he made by fusing aluminum oxide and adding minute traces of various materials — chromium, nickel, cobalt — He smiled to himself as he worked and hummed a tune softly. Week followed week as he worked lovingly over his little mechanism. He seemed to expect great things of it.

(ed note: Atkill cannot ignite his release-flame because it needs a 16 megavolt electrical discharge but biggest open space inside the ship is only 10 meters. And they have no airlock. However, over the last month the huge star they are orbiting has bombarded the ship with solar electrons so the hull has quite a charge. Atkill rigs a discharge rod attached to his release-flame apparatus. When an alien ship comes, it will have to touch its equivalent of a discharge rod to Atkill's, and the charge will ignite Atkill's release flame.

When the alien ships show up, Atkill makes hurried arrangements.)

     Atkill was busy with something else now. A robe he had made. It was made of the thick, strong silk sheets he had brought with him. They were pure white, beautifully clear, and the robe was made with a surprising skill. It draped about his powerful figure gracefully, caught at arms and shoulder with three clasps of highly polished stainless steel, set with more of the magnificent gems he had synthesized, and cut.
     On one side lay a turban-like head-dress he had made, wound of silk dyed with a slightly fluorescent dye, with the result that in the light of this sun, rich as it was in ultra-violet, it shone of its own accord with a rich, brilliant scarlet. It was a magnificent headpiece.
     Finally a sash was added, one of magnificent, deep purple, clasped with a metal device shaped like twin crocodile heads, their eyes four gleaming stones as deep in color as the sash, touched with a trace of pomegranate.
     “I heard some sky-pilot say that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like this here guy. I don’t know who this Solomon was right well, but you sure got him beat,” grinned Texas. “That what you been working on so hard?”
     Atkill looked at him pityingly. “It’s a shame to disturb his mind. Tex, brace yourself. You’ve got to wear a rig like this too.”
     “Me? Me wear that? Hombre, you got wrong ideas,” affirmed Texas.
     “Tex, if you don’t wear one of these, we are extremely apt to die promptly and unpleasantly. I’d rather convince the populace that we are strange and wonderful gods than have them believe us strange and delectable foods, perhaps. You know, they may have a domestic animal that looks something like us, and is considered a delicacy — like chicken or something. In that case we would be in an unpleasant situation unless we could change their opinions.
     “So stimulate that thing you call your ability to reason, and don these garments.” Atkill extended a similar turban and robe to Texas, but these were made of fine linen instead of silk. The turban was not-unpleasant green, and the sash black as night, held with a stainless steel clasp set with a single blood-red stone.

(ed note: the discharge ignites the release-flame. Both Atkill's ship and the high-tech devices hidden about his person now have full power)

     Atkill straightened instantly, ripped off the five leads, dropped them into a box, and ran to his room — dove, rather, for the ship was still weightless. In an incredibly short time he had fixed his little rounded mechanism to clamps in the framework of the turban, snapped the lead-wires into their jacks, concealed the wires in his loose sleeve, and donned the jeweled bracelet.
     He was a magnificent figure of a man, the white robe, the brilliant turban glowing softly with scarlet light, his tall, powerful body erect and commanding. His features were powerful and rugged, his black eyes snapping with life and energy. Slowly he lowered his arms and beckoned to the strange ship.
     “Now what in hell is that thing?” demanded the horrified Tex.
     “That is our new friend,” replied, Atkill calmly. “He saved your life — course he didn’t mean to, but he did. Now remember what your mother told you, Tex, never stare at freaks. Be grateful to the little — monstrosity, shall we say? He did you a good turn, and I plan to be the high Muckamuck among them presently. You are about to see the powers of my new head-dress. Never learned what it was for, did you? Watch!”
     Atkill folded his powerful arms across his chest, and scowled. He scowled at a chair that was clamped to the floor near him. About his head a misty, bluish light appeared; it projected forward somewhat — but hung close to his head. And suddenly — half the chair puffed away into nothingness! “Now that — thair’s a right cute trick,” said Texas in admiration. “If I didn’t know the secret it shore would take me in. Got any more?”
     Atkill’s face relaxed, his arms fell to his sides, and he laughed. “Lots, Tex, lots. It will work a lot quicker when I want it to.

     Atkill lowered his ship in a swift dive, then turned abruptly and landed like a feather just beside the cradle. Instantly a troop of guards arranged themselves about the ship, a small party of higher officers in resplendent clothes marched forward.
     “I greet you, High Rulers, but greet me, for I am Atkill!”
     The officers looked at him skeptically, their eyes wandering over him disconcertingly. Their long, flexible necks craned in a way that required all Atkill’s control to prevent laughter.
     Atkill looked back at the ship suddenly. An officer of some sort was headed for the still open door.
     “Stop!” roared Atkill. His voice was a deep, powerful bass, and the tone of command brought the man to a sliding stop. Atkill walked angrily forward. “Away!” he ordered, and waved the man away. The officer hesitated. A ring of guards had hastily drawn up around Atkill. The man seemed to make up his mind, for he bowed his long neck several times and started firmly forward.
     Atkill folded his arms and scowled at the man’s back. A glow sprang suddenly into being about his head, flashed bright for an instant — and died. The officer slumped slowly and gently to the ground without a sound. There was a sudden movement among the guards as they sprang toward him calling. Atkill merely swept his glance around them and they fell like ripe grain, to lie motionless where they had fallen.
     Weapons were appearing now in the hands of guards further away, but now the officer, first affected, moved, rolled over, and jumped suddenly to his feet. Atkill waved him away with calm assurance and walked back to the assembled generals.
     He had scarcely moved when a score of men rushed him from behind the curve of the ship. Their soft feet were almost soundless on the smooth metal. Atkill turned and scowled again, pointing his left hand at them in anger. They hesitated, slowed and vanished! A slight shimmer in the sunlight, a few sparkling dots of light, and the clink of metal objects that had been’ in their pockets was all that remained.
     The physicist turned once more and walked toward the officers. The richly garbed men were fleeing rapidly toward the nearest ship.
     “Halt!” roared Atkill. The men turned, jerking weapons from their pockets, and simultaneously a dozen crackling explosions sounded. Atkill had stopped with folded arms. He smiled, and waited. The air before him was suddenly filled with bright explosive flame, and smoke. It blew away and left him standing with eyes closed, his brows contracted in concentration.
     The officers returned slowly at his gesture now. Frightened and worried. They came hesitantly before him. “Down!” snapped Atkill, pointing. They sank on their flexible, double-jointed legs, and looked up at him.
     “I am Atkill!” he roared at them.
     “Ahut-Kuhl!” they whistled uncertainly.

     Tex wrinkled in annoyance. “I don’t mind that there heat thing so much, nor the knock-out thing. But that thing that makes a man burn like a barrel of gas gets me, and that thing that makes ‘em just go poof and they ain’t gets me, it makes my belly wiggle.”
     Atkill smiled. “Get over it. We are gods. The gods do as they will, and are not disputed. The knock-out is just a paralysis ray — and quite harmless. It is a warning. The thing that makes them burn is a cosmic that turns them into hydrogen and they burn. The other is just a simple transmutation field. I could make them change to hydrogen with that if I wished, but I usually change them to oxygen.
     Tex looked unhappy. “What th’ hell did yuh do to that guy that tried to stab yuh yesterday? Uh — he just turned stiff, and then went all brown, and glowed — and just blew away like a brown gas, and stank.”
     “That,” said Atkill sharply, “was a warning. That was the tenth assassin I had after me that one day, and I was getting peeved. I have a little electro-static balance in the apparatus you know — an idea borrowed from Warren by the way — that tells me when some one comes near. So when that fellow tried creeping up on me, I got peevish, and turned him into bromine.
     Atkill suddenly stiffened as a red light began to glow on the panel before him. “Damn!” he muttered. He snapped on a screen, that glowed in dark, somber red, and black. Three strange long-necked Bay-Raonii (aliens) were training some sort of a weapon on the ship. Atkill stepped to the open lock and through it, and looked toward the men. He could not see them in the dark, but suddenly they began to glow in weird, greenish colors. Their startled faces looked up stupidly.
     “Your masters are stupid,” said Atkill calmly, in perfect Bay-Raonii. “I am Atkill.”
     The figures of the men began to glow more vividly. They stiffened suddenly immobile. The one on the left began to shake violently; his outline grew hazy and a scream rang out from his open mouth. Presently it stopped, and he slumped suddenly downward; but as he fell, the light that shone from him grew brilliant, and the clothes he wore, and the flesh of his body, melted like snow in the path of a heat-ray, and a skeleton fell to the ground surrounded by bits of metal and glass and crystal.
     The one on the right shrieked, trembled, and melted as had the first, till a bare skeleton fell to the ground.
     “Go, and tell your masters I am Atkill!” roared the Terrestrian. Something gripped the remaining Bay-Raonii in a vise of force and hurled him half a mile away, to land dripping in a small lake.

     “I have learned to quench the Eternal Flame — see!” Atkill stood upright, his eyes staring at the little pinpoint of white flame over the gigantic ruby. An aura of faint violet light built up about his head as his brows drew together, and his chest heaved. His breath came harshly (to cover the slight sound of the straining Flame within his turban) and his cheeks paled.

From THE SPACE BEYOND by John W. Campbell, Jr. (1976)

      “Just a moment, Major.” It was Dr. Brooks, who had been sitting quietly, as usual, while the others talked. ” I think it would be a good idea if we waited a day or two, until Scheer can make certain changes in the power units of the staffs.”
     “What sort of changes?”
     “You will remember that we established experimentally that the Ledbetter effect could be used as a sterilizing agent?”
     “Yes, of course.”
     “That is why we felt safe in predicting that we would help the sick. As a matter of fact we underestimated the potentialities of the method. I infected myself with anthrax earlier this week—”
     “Anthrax! For God’s sake, Doctor, what in the world do you mean by taking a chance like that?”
     Brooks turned his mild eyes on Ardmore. “But it was obviously necessary,” he explained patiently. “The guinea pig tests were positive, it is true, but human experimentation was necessary to establish the method. As I was saying, I infected myself with anthrax and permitted the disease to establish itself, then exposed myself to the Ledbetter effect in all wave lengths except that band of frequencies fatal to warm-blooded vertebrates. The disease disappeared. In less than an hour the natural balance of anabolism over catabolism had cleared up the residue of pathological symptoms. I was well.”
     “I’ll be a cross-eyed intern! Do you think it will work on other diseases just as quickly?”
     ” I feel sure of it. Not only has such been the result with other diseases in the animal experimentation that I have conducted, but because of another unanticipated, though experimentally predictable, result. I’ve suffered from a rather severe cold in the head lately, as some of you may have noticed. The exposure not only cured the anthrax, it completely cleared up my cold. The cold virus involves a dozen or more known pathogenic organisms, and probably as many more unknown ones. The exposure killed them all, indiscriminately.”
     “I’m delighted to get this report, Doctor,” Ardmore answered. “In the long run this one development may be of more importance to the human race than any military use we may make of it now. But how does it affect the matter of establishing the branch church in Denver?”

     “Well, sir, perhaps it doesn’t. But I took the liberty of having Scheer modify one of the portable power units in order that healing might be conveniently carried on by any one of our agents even though equipped only with the staff. I thought you might prefer to wait until Scheer could add the same modification to the staffs designed to be used by Thomas and Howe.”
     “I think you are right, if it does not take too long. May I see the modification?
     Scheer demonstrated the staff he had worked over. Superficially it looked no different from the others. A six-foot rod was surmounted by a capital in the form of an ornate cube about four inches through. The faces of the cube were colored to correspond with the sides of the great temple. The base of the cube and the staff itself were covered with intricate designs in golden scroll-work, formal arabesques, and delicate bas-relief-all of which effectively concealed the controls of the power unit and projector located in the cubical capital.
     Scheer had not changed the superficial appearance of the staff; he had simply added an additional circuit internally to the power unit in the cube which constrained it to oscillate only outside the band of frequencies fatal to vertebrate life. This circuit controlled the action of the power unit and projector whenever a certain leaf in the decorative design of the staff was pressed.
     Scheer and Graham had labored together to create the staff’s designing and redesigning to achieve an integrated whole in which mechanical action would be concealed in artistic camouflage. They made a good team. As a matter of fact their talents were not too far apart; the artist is two-thirds artisan and the artisan has essentially the same creative urge as the artist.

     “I would suggest,” added Brooks, when the new control had been explained and demonstrated, “that this new effect be attributed to Tamar, Lady of Mercy, and that her light be turned on when it is used.
     “That’s right. That’s the idea,” Ardmore approved. “Never use the staff for any purpose without turning on the color light associated with the particular god whose help you are supposed to be invoking. That’s an invariable rule. Let ‘em break their hearts trying to figure out how a simple monochromatic light can perform miracles.”
     “Why bother with the rigamarole?” inquired Calhoun. “The PanAsians can’t possibly detect the effects we use in any case.”
     “There is a double reason, Colonel. By giving them a false lead to follow we hope to insure that they will bend their scientific efforts in the wrong direction. We can’t afford to underestimate their ability. But even more important is the psychological effect on nonscientific minds, both white and yellow. People think things are wonderful that look wonderful. The average American is completely unimpressed by scientific wonders; he expects them, takes them as a matter of course with an attitude of 'So what? That’s what you guys are paid for.'
     “But add a certain amount of flubdub and hokum and don’t label it 'scientific’ and he will be impressed. It’s wonderful advertising.”
     “Well,” said Calhoun, dismissing the matter, “no doubt you know best-you have evidently had a great deal of experience in fooling the public. I’ve never turned my attention to such matters; my concern is with pure science. If you no longer need me here, Major, I have work to do.”

From THE SIXTH COLUMN by Robert Heinlein (1951)

"We are dreamers, shapers, singers, and makers. We study the mysteries of laser and circuit, crystal and scanner, holographic demons and invocations of equations. These are the tools we employ and we know — many things." —Elric the Technomage to Captain Sheridan

"The true secrets, the important things. Fourteen words to make someone fall in love with you forever. Seven words to make them go without pain, or to say goodbye to a friend who is dying. How to be poor, how to be rich, how to rediscover dream the world has stolen from you." —Elric the Technomage to Captain Sheridan

"I do think there are some things we don't understand. If we'd be back in time a thousand years, trying to explain this place (the Babylon 5 space colony) to people, they could only accept it in terms of magic." —Captain Sheridan

"Then perhaps it is magic. The magic of the human heart, focused and made manifest by technology. Every day you here create greater miracles than a burning bush." —Elric the Technomage


(ed note: In the Babylon 5 universe, the Technomages use science to create the appearance of magic. Technmages are implanted with alien technology called "The Tech" which they use for their most powerful "spells." Apprentices use a training wheel version of the Tech called a "chrysalis"

Techomages have to create their own customized "spell language" that is used to communicate with The Tech. Some use words as incantations, some use gestures, some use music, one even uses knitting and weaving of cloth

Galen is a novice apprenticed to Elric the Technomage. As part of the graduation ceremony, an apprentice is to demonstrate a new spell of their own devising. Galen is having trouble thinking of something original.)

     He’d studied those great spells extensively. One difficulty every mage faced, though, was translating the work of other mages into his own spell language. Each mage had to discover and develop his own spell language, because a spell that worked for one mage would not work for another. Elric had explained that the tech was so intimately connected with one’s body and mind that conjuring became shaped by the individual. Since each person’s mind worked differently, mages achieved the best results in different ways. An apprentice trained to achieve clarity of thought, and his preferred method of thought formed his spell language. His chrysalis learned to respond to the spell language, and when he received his implants, this knowledge was passed to them through the old implant at the base of his skull.
     Galen’s spell language was that of equations. Elric had been concerned at first as Galen’s language had developed. Most spell languages were more instinctive, less rigid, less rational. But Galen wasn’t a holistic, lateral thinker who jumped from one track to another, drawing instinctive connections. His thoughts plodded straight ahead, each leading logically and inexorably to the next. Elric had expressed fear that Galen’s language would be cumbersome and inflexible. Yet as Elric had worked with Galen on the language and seen how many spells Galen had been able to translate, his reservations had seemed to fade.
     Translation was one of the most difficult tasks facing any mage. It was only after looking at many spells that Galen was able to understand how another mage’s spell language related to his, then translate those conjuries. He had managed to translate most of Wierden’s and Gali-Gali’s spells, as well as many spells of other mages. With different levels of success, he had translated spells to create illusions, to make flying platforms, to conjure defensive shields, to generate fireballs, to send messages to other mages, to control the sensors that would soon be implanted into him, to access and manipulate data internally, to access external databases, and much more.
     He had memorized them all.
     But since each spell language possessed its own inherent strengths and weaknesses, he found it impossible to translate some spells, such as those for healing. Others, such as the spells used to generate defensive shields, he believed he had translated correctly, yet when he cast them, the results he achieved were weak, inferior.
     Galen wondered, and not for the first time, if his spell language hampered his attempt to conjure something original. As his thoughts plodded straight ahead, so did his spells, equation after orderly equation. In his language, it made no sense to simply make up a spell. An equation must be sensible in order to work; all the terms must possess established identities and properties. So how could he discover an equation that somehow reflected him, revealed him? He had been uncomfortable with the idea of revealing himself, but now that hesitance faded to insignificance beside the undeniable necessity: he could not disappoint Elric.
     Galen brought up a different section of text on the screen, his translations of some of the spells of Wierden. They varied in complexity and involved many different terms, some of which were used in multiple spells, others used only once. Again it seemed to him that there could be no truly original spells, only more complicated ones. Frustrated, Galen started to reorder the spells on the screen, from simplest to most complex. As he did, he noticed that some of the spells formed a progression. A spell with two terms conjured a translucent globe. A spell with those same two terms, and one more, conjured a globe with energy inside. A spell with those same three terms, and yet another, conjured a globe with the energy given the form of light. Add another term, and it conjured a globe filled with light and heat. And on it went.
     Several of Gali-Gali’s spells furthered the complexity. If he could work his way to the last spell in the progression, could he think of one that would go beyond it?
     But wasn’t this just what others were doing, building ever more elaborate spells without really creating something new? He didn’t know if the other mages thought of it this way; since they didn’t formulate their spells as equations, their spells didn’t have multiple terms in them. Elric, he knew, simply visualized what he wanted to happen, and if it was within his power, it happened. One simple visualization for any spell.
     Galen’s eyes went back to the top of the list, to the spell containing only two terms. Why was there no spell with only one term? No such spell existed in Wierden’s work, or, as he thought about it, in any of the mages’ conjuries he’d yet translated. Most of them had many, many terms. In fact, he couldn’t even remember another equation with only two.
     Perhaps spells had to have more than one term. But why? He stared at the two terms that began the progression. If there was an initial spell in the series, a spell with only one term, which term was it?
     The first of the two terms was common, used in this progression and elsewhere. Galen had come to think of it as a sort of cleanup term, necessary for everything to balance, but having negligible impact.
     The second term, on the other hand, existed only within the spells of this progression. As far as he knew, at least. That seemed very odd. Surely it could have other uses.
     That second term, then, seemed the defining characteristic of the progression, and the obvious choice for the first equation in it. But what would the term do when used alone?
     Perhaps it would have the same effect as the second equation, conjuring a translucent sphere. If the cleanup term truly was negligible, that’s what would happen. The sphere itself, as he’d discussed it with Elric, was an odd construct, not a force field as it first had seemed. It didn’t really hold things in, or keep things out. It simply demarcated a space within which something would be done.
     If removing the cleanup term did have an effect, what might it be? Perhaps the sphere wouldn’t form at all. Perhaps it would be opaque or have some other property. Or perhaps it would be deformed in some way. In any case, it wouldn’t be very impressive.

     Carvin’s spell language was that of the body; specific, precise movements and their accompanying mental impulses comprised her spells.

(ed note: As part of his apprentice demonstration, Galen tries doing a one-term spell. To everybody's surprise, it starts to make a planet-devouring sphere of force. The one-term spell is far more powerful than any other known spell. Galen's teacher Elric manages to shut down the spell. Later in private they talk.)

     Elric set a mug of water on the table in front of Galen, which at last brought him to life. He looked up at Elric with large, hungry eyes. “What was it?” he asked.
     “I do not know.”
     “It was dangerous.”
     “So it seemed. With a power greater than any I’ve sensed from a conjury.”
     “I didn’t lose control.”
     “That,” Elric said, “is the most troubling aspect of it.” At the beginning of their training, chrysalis-stage apprentices often lost control and generated violent bursts of energy. But that wasn’t what Elric had observed today. Galen’s spell had been focused, controlled. This hadn’t been some outburst of undisciplined violence. It had been a carefully crafted, directed, outpouring of huge power. Elric had barely been able to stop it in time.
     Galen shook his head. “I didn’t know… what it would do.”
     “I realize that. Tell me how you arrived at this spell.”
     Galen brought his screen from his bedroom and led Elric through a progression of equations that he had derived from translating the works of Wierden and Gali-Gali. As Galen spoke, Elric was glad to see him become more animated.
     “I realized there was no first equation in the progression, with only one term. That is what I conjured.”
     Elric sat beside him. “The idea of a first equation in the progression. It makes perfect sense in your spell language. Yet there is no equivalent in mine.” Galen was a genius for coming up with it. Although Elric had helped Galen formulate and develop his spell language, it was vastly different from Elric’s: much more complex, much more regimented. Elric had thought this would limit Galen’s abilities; he had never imagined it would lead to new discoveries.
     “I thought it might be a fluke of my language, that it might do nothing. But it did… do something.”
     A spell like this might explain some of the mysteries in techno-mage history. But the implications disturbed Elric. “It gathered great energy and instability.”
     Galen’s hands tightened around the screen. He was still troubled about what he had done, and how he had come to do it. “The second term must stabilize the first. Perhaps it creates an opposing force of some kind.”
     “The result of the spell could not have been anticipated,” Elric said.
     Galen turned to him, brilliant blue eyes needy, unblinking. “How is it that my spell language led to this?
     “The same way that the study of the atom led to the atomic bomb, or the study of light to the laser. The potential was there. You discovered it.”

(ed note: As it turns out, Galan has discovered one of the five primal root spells encoded into the Tech by the creators of the Tech. The point is that no other technomage in history had discovered these, due to the nature of their spell languages. Galan's spell language had revealed an interesting hole.)

From CASTING SHADOWS by Jeanne Cavelos (2001)

The Singularity

The Singularity is a theoretical event where computer artificial intelligence escapes control and Everything Changes. If an AI figures out how to improve its intelligence, the Singularity will happen rather quickly because computers can do a gazillion mathematical calculations in a fraction of a second. It took mankind about 300,000 years to go from the Middle Paleolithic to present-day knowledge, a crude AI could do that much in about four months.

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

Others (who have watched the Terminator movies) see a future where an artificial intelligence is created, who immediately decides to exterminate the human race via killer robots.

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

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

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

  • A computer may be developed that is both awake and superhumanly intelligent. This might be from some human genius who builds a very smart machine, or by a human who makes a computer capable of such recursive self-improvement that when the human's back is turned the computer undergoes an intelligence explosion, bootstrapping itself into superintellence.

  • A large computer network may "wake up" as a superintelligent entity. Arthur C. Clarke used this in his 1965 story Dial "F" for Frankenstein when the telephone system wakes up. Nowadays the first thing that springs to mind is the internet, which is a disturbing thought. Blasted thing will have 4chan for a dark subconscious.

  • A computer/brain interface may become so intimate that the users will be for all intents and purposes superintelligent.

  • There may be no computers involved at all. Biological science might be able to grant human beings the power of superintelligence.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolt of the AIs

This is the nightmare Skynet Scenario, with hordes of Terminator robots hunting down humans with phased plasma rifles in the 40 watt range, crunching human skulls underfoot. Once the rogue artificial intelligence is created, it decided to exterminate the human race for reasons that make sense to its cybernetic mind.

Less evil but still deadly is death by paper-clip maximizer. Here the AI is not actively trying to exterminate humanity. Instead it has a goal (the thought experiment has the goal of manufacturing as many paper-clips as possible). The problem is that the AI sees planets, ecosystems, and human beings themselves to just be convenient sources of raw materials for paper-clip manufacture.

Even less evil abet still deadly (and terribly selfish) is death by indifference. When humans decide to build an appartment complex, they give zero consideration to all the ant-hills and ants that will be totally annhilated by the project. For the most part they do not even notice that the ant-hills exist. By the same token, an AI trying to build a hyperspace by-pass will give zero consideration to Terra and all the humans living on it if the planet has to be demolished because it is in the way.


      Wow, ain't it strange that—boffins have been predicting that truly humanlike artificial intelligence oughta be “just a couple of decades away..." for eighty years already?
     Some said AI would emerge from raw access to vast numbers of facts. That happened a few months after the Intemet went public. But ai never showed up.
     Others looked for a network that finally had as many interconnections as a human brain, a milestone we saw passed in the teens, when some of the crimivirals—say the Ragnarok worm or the Tornado botnet—infested-hijacked enough homes and fones to constitute the world’s biggest distributed computer. far surpassing the greatest “supercomps” and even the number of synapses in your own skull!
     Yet, still, ai waited.
     How many other paths were tried? How about modeling a human brain in software? Or modeling one in hardware. Evolve one. in the great Darwinarium experiment! Or try guiding evolution, altering computers and programs the way we did sheep and dogs, by letting only those reproduce that have traits we like—say, those that pass a Turing test, by seeming human. Or the ones swarming the streets and homes and virts of Tokyo, selected to exude incredible cuteness?
     Others, in a kind of mystical faith that was backed up by mathematics and hothouse physics. figured that a few hundred quantum processors. tuned just right. could connect with their counterparts in an infinite number of parallel worlds. and just-like-that, something marvelous and God-like would pop into being.
     The one thing no one expected was for it to happen by accident, arising from a high school science fair experiment.
     I mean, wow ain’t it strange that a half-brilliant tweak by sixteen-year-old Marguerita deSilva leaped past the accomplishments of every major laboratory, by uploading into cyberspace a perfect duplicate of the little mind, personality, and instincts of her pet rat, Porfirio?
     And wow ain’t it strange that Porfirio proliferated, grabbing resources and expanding, in patterns and spirals that remain—to this day—so deeply and quintessentially ratlike?
     Not evil, all-consuming, or even predatory—thank heavens. But insistent.
     And Wow, AIST there is a worldwide betting pool. now totaling up to a billion Brazilian reals—over whether Marguerita will end up bankrupt, from all the lawsuits over lost data and computer cycles that have been gobbled up by Porflrio? Or else, if she'll become the world's richest person—because so many newer ais are based upon her patents? Or maybe because she alone seems to retain any sort of influence over Porfirio, luring his feral. brilliant attention into virtlayers and comers of the Worldspace where he can do little harm? So far.
     And WAIST we are down to this? Propitiating a virtual Rat God—(you see, Porfirio., I remembered to capitalize your name, this time)—so that he'll be patient and leave us alone. That is. until humans fully succeed where Viktor Frankenstein calamitously failed?
     To duplicate the deSilva Result and provide our creation with a mate.

From EXISTENCE by David Brin (2012)

Yet if you’ve been paying attention to the news for the past several years, you’ve almost certainly seen articles from a wide range of news outlets about the looming danger of artificial general intelligence, or “AGI.” For example, Stephen Hawking has repeatedly expressed that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” and Elon Musk — of Tesla and SpaceX fame — has described the creation of superintelligence as “summoning the demon.” Furthermore, the Oxford philosopher and director of the Future of Humanity Institute, Nick Bostrom, published a New York Times best-selling book in 2014 called Superintelligence, in which he suggests that the “default outcome” of building a superintelligent machine will be “doom.”

What’s with all this fear-mongering? Should we really be worried about a takeover by killer computers hell-bent on the total destruction of Homo sapiens? The first thing to recognize is that a Terminator-style war between humanoid robots is not what the experts are anxious about. Rather, the scenarios that keep these individuals awake at night are far more catastrophic. This may be difficult to believe but, as I’ve written elsewhere, sometimes truth is stranger than science fiction. Indeed, given that the issue of AGI isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, it’s increasingly important for the public to understand exactly why the experts are nervous about superintelligent machines. As the Future of Life Institute recently pointed out, there’s a lot of bad journalism about AGI out there. This is a chance to correct the record.

Toward this goal, step one is to realize is that your brain is an information-processing device. In fact, many philosophers talk about the brain as the hardware — or rather, the “wetware” — of the mind, and the mind as the software of the brain. Directly behind your eyes is a high-powered computer that weighs about three pounds and has roughly the same consistency as Jell-o. It’s also the most complex object in the known universe. Nonetheless, the rate at which it’s able to process information is much, much slower than the information-processing speed of an actual computer. The reason is that computers process information by propagating electrical potentials, and electrical potentials move at the speed of light, whereas the fastest signals in your brain travel at around 100 miles per second. Fast, to be sure, but not nearly as fast as light.

Consequently, an AGI could think about the world at speeds many orders of magnitude faster than our brains can. From the AGI’s point of view, the outside world — including people — would move so slowly that everything would appear almost frozen. As the theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky calculates, for a computer running a million times faster than our puny brains, “a subjective year of thinking would be accomplished for every 31 physical seconds in the outside world, and a millennium would fly by in eight-and-a-half hours.”

Already, then, an AGI would have a huge advantage. Imagine yourself in a competition against a machine that has a whole year to work through a cognitive puzzle for every 31 seconds that you spend trying to think up a solution. The mental advantage of the AGI would be truly profound. Even a large team of humans working together would be no match for a single AGI with so much time on its hands. Now imagine that we’re not in a puzzle-solving competition with an AGI but a life-and-death situation in which the AGI wants to destroy humanity. While we struggle to come up with strategies for keeping it contained, it would have ample time to devise a diabolical scheme to exploit any technology within electronic reach for the purpose of destroying humanity.

But a diabolical AGI isn’t — once again — what many experts are actually worried about. This is a crucial point that the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker misses in a comment about AGI for the website To quote Pinker at length:

“The other problem with AGI dystopias is that they project a parochial alpha-male psychology onto the concept of intelligence. Even if we did have superhumanly intelligent robots, why would they want to depose their masters, massacre bystanders, or take over the world? Intelligence is the ability to deploy novel means to attain a goal, but the goals are extraneous to the intelligence itself: being smart is not the same as wanting something. History does turn up the occasional megalomaniacal despot or psychopathic serial killer, but these are products of a history of natural selection shaping testosterone-sensitive circuits in a certain species of primate, not an inevitable feature of intelligent systems.” Pinker then concludes with, “It’s telling that many of our techno-prophets can’t entertain the possibility that artificial intelligence will naturally develop along female lines: fully capable of solving problems, but with no burning desire to annihilate innocents or dominate the civilization.”

Unfortunately, such criticism misunderstands the danger. While it’s conceptually possible that an AGI really does have malevolent goals — for example, someone could intentionally design an AGI to be malicious — the more likely scenario is one in which the AGI kills us because doing so happens to be useful. By analogy, when a developer wants to build a house, does he or she consider the plants, insects, and other critters that happen to live on the plot of land? No. Their death is merely incidental to a goal that has nothing to do with them. Or consider the opening scenes of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which “bureaucratic” aliens schedule Earth for demolition to make way for a “hyperspatial express route” — basically, a highway. In this case, the aliens aren’t compelled to destroy us out of hatred. We just happen to be in the way.

The point is that what most theorists are worried about is an AGI whose values — or final goals — don’t fully align with ours. This may not sound too bad, but a bit of reflection shows that if an AGI’s values fail to align with ours in even the slightest ways, the outcome could very well be, as Bostrom argues, doom. Consider the case of an AGI — thinking at the speed of light, let’s not forget — that is asked to use its superior intelligence for the purpose of making humanity happy. So what does it do? Well, it destroys humanity, because people can’t be sad if they don’t exist. Start over. You tell it to make humanity happy, but without killing us. So it notices that humans laugh when we’re happy, and hooks up a bunch of electrodes to our faces and diaphragm that make us involuntarily convulse as if we’re laughing. The result is a strange form of hell. Start over, again. You tell it to make us happy without killing us or forcing our muscles to contract. So it implants neural electrodes into the pleasure centers of everyone’s brains, resulting in a global population in such euphoric trances that people can no longer engage in the activities that give life meaning. Start over — once more. This process can go on for hours. At some point it becomes painfully obvious that getting an AGI’s goals to align with ours is going to be a very, very tricky task.

Another famous example that captures this point involves a superintelligence whose sole mission is to manufacture paperclips. This sounds pretty benign, right? How could a “paperclip maximizer” pose an existential threat to humanity? Well, if the goal is to make as many paperclips as possible, then the AGI will need resources to do this. And what are paperclips composed of? Atoms — the very same physical stuff out of which your body is composed. Thus, for the AGI, humanity is nothing more than a vast reservoir of easily accessible atoms, atoms, atoms. As Yudkowsky eloquently puts it, “The [AGI] does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.” And just like that, the flesh and bones of human beings are converted into bendable metal for holding short stacks of paper.

At this point, one might think the following, “Wait a second, we’re talking about superintelligence, right? How could a truly superintelligent machine be fixated on something so dumb as creating as many paperclips as possible?” Well, just look around at humanity. By every measure, we are by far the most intelligent creatures on our planetary spaceship. Yet our species is obsessed with goals and values that are, when one takes a step back and peers at the world with “new eyes,” incredibly idiotic, perplexing, harmful, foolish, self-destructive, other-destructive, and just plain weird.

For example, some people care so much about money that they’re willing to ruin friendships, destroy lives and even commit murder or start wars to acquire it. Others are so obsessed with obeying the commandments of ancient “holy texts” that they’re willing to blow themselves up in a market full of non-combatants. Or consider a less explicit goal: sex. Like all animals, humans have an impulse to copulate, and this impulse causes us to behave in certain ways — in some cases, to risk monetary losses and personal embarrassment. The appetite for sex is just there, pushing us toward certain behaviors, and there’s little we can do about the urge itself.

The point is that there’s no strong connection between how intelligent a being is and what its final goals are. As Pinker correctly notes above, intelligence is nothing more than a measure of one’s ability to achieve a particular aim, whatever it happens to be. It follows that any level of intelligence — including superintelligence — can be combined with just about any set of final goals — including goals that strike us as, well, stupid. A superintelligent machine could be no less infatuated with obeying Allah’s divine will or conquering countries for oil as some humans are.

So far, we’ve discussed the thought-speed of machines, the importance of making sure their values align with ours, and the weak connection between intelligence and goals. These considerations alone warrant genuine concern about AGI. But we haven’t yet mentioned the clincher that makes AGI an utterly unique problem unlike anything humanity has ever encountered. To understand this crucial point, consider how the airplane was invented. The first people to keep a powered aircraft airborne were the Wright brothers. On the windy beaches of North Carolina, they managed to stay off the ground for a total of 12 seconds. This was a marvelous achievement, but the aircraft was hardly adequate for transporting goods or people from one location to another. So, they improved its design, as did a long lineage of subsequent inventors. Airplanes were built with one, two, or three wings, composed of different materials, and eventually the propeller was replaced by the jet engine. One particular design — the Concorde — could even fly faster than the speed of sound, traversing the Atlantic from New York to London in less than 3.5 hours.

The crucial idea here is that the airplane underwent many iterations of innovation. Problems that arose in previous designs were improved upon, leading to increasingly safe and reliable aircraft. But this is not the situation we’re likely to be in with AGI. Rather, we’re likely to have one, and only one, chance to get all the problems mentioned above exactly right. Why? Because intelligence is power. For example, we humans are the dominant species on the planet not because of our long claws, sharp teeth and bulky musculatures. The key difference between Homo sapiens and the rest of the Animal Kingdom concerns our oversized brains, which enable us to manipulate and rearrange the world in incredible ways. It follows that if an AGI were to exceed our level of intelligence, it could potentially dominate not only the biosphere, but humanity as well.

Even more, since creating intelligent machines is an intellectual task, an AGI could attempt to modify its own code, a possibility known as “recursive self-improvement.” The result could be an exponential intelligence explosion that, before one has a chance to say “What the hell is happening?,” yields a super-super-superintelligent AGI, or a being that towers over us to the extent that we tower over the lowly cockroach. Whoever creates the first superintelligent computer — whether it’s Google, the U.S. government, the Chinese government, the North Korean government, or a lone hacker in her or his garage — they’ll have to get everything just right the first time. There probably won’t be opportunities for later iterations of innovation to fix flaws in the original design, if there are any. When it comes to AGI, the stakes are high.

It’s increasingly important for the public to understand the nature of thinking machines and why some experts are so worried about them. Without a grasp of these issues, claims like “A paperclip maximizer could destroy humanity!” will sound as apocalyptically absurd as “The Rapture is near! Save your soul while you still can!” Consequently, organizations dedicated to studying AGI safety could get defunded or shut down, and the topic of AGI could become the target of misguided mockery. The fact is that if we manage to create a “friendly” AGI, the benefits to humanity could be vast. But if we fail to get things right on the first go around, the naked ape could very well end up as a huge pile of paperclips.

     Really smart A.I. wouldn't directly attack humans.
     It would pit them against each other.

     Has it already started?

From a tweet by Christian Payne (2016)

The global financial system is a paperclip maximizer-type AI, only instead of paperclips it turns you into debt.

What happens when Singularitarianism meets Neurotheology meets CRISPR meets germ-line genetic manipulation?

Our paperclip maximizer AI overlords get human slaves genetically programmed to worship them. The end.

From a tweet by Charles Stross (2016)

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