This page is for the generalized impact of technological advances on society. The next page focuses on specific technologies.

Technology: the progressive's 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 economy into a manufacturing economy.

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 (over-developed amygdala). They didn't even notice the real problem: technology was starting the transformation of the United States from a manufacturing economy into a service economy.

The reactionaries started freaking out with the exodus of good-paying jobs from rural areas into the cities. Suddenly this wasn't a hypothetical ideological difference, it was threatening the reactionary's livelihood! But the reactionaries really started foaming at the mouth when technology gave us the internet. You might try censoring television shows, but with the internet You Can't Stop The Signal.

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)

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 (over-developed amygdala leading to optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment).

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 neophobes also become enraged at the neophiles. Those long-haired hippy freaks don't see anything wrong with accelerating change, they think it is great! What's worse, those dastardly neophiles are all too often helping with the acceleration: inventing car-building robots, the internet, smart phones, Facebook, and all those other subversive things.

You also see this in any hierarchical organization, such as a corporation or an academy of science. Physicist Max Planck observed "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." Or more tersely "Truth never triumphs—its opponents just die out."

Thomas Kuhn wrote about much the same thing in his award-winning monograph The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

The hidebound, fossilized, longtime, conservative members of such an organization are usually called the "Old Guard." The agile, free-thinking, new, innovative members of such an organization are usually called the "Young Turks." I remember some old aphorism about how a new idea will never become accepted until the last of the old guard opposing it has died of old age, but Google has failed me.

One of the potential problems with immortality is that the old guard never dies, which puts the brakes on progress.

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 demonstrated to be remarkably 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. When they refuse to accept evidence from what they derisivly call the "reality-based community" it is not demonstrating steadfastness, but rather the mental illness called Denialism.

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 to handwave a stop to technological progress so that the author can catch their breath and get the blasted novel written.


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: please note that this was written 1974, even though it might fool you into thinking it was written in 2019 )

      More than at any other time in history we are living today in an age of furious and bewildering change. Awareness of this fact, with all its disorganizing implications, is thrust upon us daily from all sides. Change permeates every aspect of our lives. In less than a single century we have moved from horse-and-buggy travel to supersonic transports and interplanetary vehicles. Simple bullets and limited battlefields have given way to hydrogen bombs and genocidal warfare. Our insular and agrarian society is rapidly vanishing, swept away by a burgeoning technology that spans oceans and continents. Our political institutions are in turmoil, our social values are shifting radically, and our ethical standards are under continuing attack. The environment of our planet is changing so rapidly that our very existence is threatened Serious men are seriously questioning our ability as a race to survive at all for very long; others question whether we deserve to survive, or even want to, considering the fearsome nature of the future world we may have to endure. Still others, more optimistic (or more stubborn), search diligently for ways to surmount the problems of change which seem increasingly insurmountable with every passing year.

     We know that much of this relentlessly accelerating change is rooted in the vast scientific and technological revolution that began three centuries ago and is still expanding today in exponential progression. We also know that different peoples have suffered differing impacts. In the underdeveloped nations today, change is suddenly uprooting whole societies and hurling millions of people overnight into an alien world they cannot begin to comprehend, much less adapt to. In such areas it has become the function of governments, for better or for worse, to force adaptation upon whole populations, and if the results have often been grisly, the need has been desperate. In our Western world the impact has been less catastrophic. For decades and centuries the winds of change have been accelerating slowly enough that orderly adaptation has been possible—up to a point. But now even here our capacity to adapt is being outpaced. We no longer have time for a slow, evolutionary assimilation of change into our daily lives. Multitudes of people are scrambling ever more frantically to find some kind of foot-hold, some place to stand, as they try to deal with a changing world which they can neither control nor comprehend. The popular term “future shock” is singularly appropriate: we are staggering beneath a rain of blows, both physical and emotional, as the juggernaut of technology grinds forward ever faster.

     There are two ways that man can respond to the change that is thrust upon him: he can resist it, or he can try to adapt to it. Throughout history there have always been some who have found change to be challenging and exhilarating. These people, stimulated by the challenge and regarding change as beneficial, or at the very least inevitable, have searched for ways to adapt to it—that is, to alter their lives in such a way as to accommodate or even utilize the changes that have occurred. The vast majority of people, however, have always found change to be frightening, bewildering, or demoralizing. These people, typifying the forces of reaction or conservatism within the society, have sought to ignore, prevent, or control the forces of change in order to maintain a status quo. In times when change was occurring in a slow and orderly or evolutionary fashion, these opposing forces of adaptation and resistance were more or less evenly balanced, and adaptation was comparatively easy. People had time to assimilate the changes, time to adjust themselves, time to work the implications of change into their lives, and then gently alter the way they were living to conform to the demands of change. Often the same individuals met change with both adaptation and resistance: they would adapt to change a step at a time, resisting further change until earlier change had been fully assimilated and then moving a small step further to assimilate the next change.

     We can see this type of successful adaptation to change exemplified in the manner in which the automobile, with its internal combustion engine, edged out the horse and carriage as a primary means of transportation from place to place—an evolutionary process that took place with comparatively little dislocation over a period of decades in the advanced industrial societies, and which is still proceeding today in less developed areas. But as the pace of change has accelerated with bewildering swiftness in recent decades, such orderly adaptation has become progressively more difficult. More and more people regard change as threatening and catastrophic. Without sufficient time to assimilate change in an orderly fashion, even the more adaptive individuals have drawn back into a shell of conservatism, consciously or unconsciously fighting change tooth and nail, seeking desperately to maintain the status quo, however precarious it might be, and responding to the changing world with a vast conservative inertia.

     Today we can see manifestations of this inertia on all sides of us. We see it, for example, in the continuing growth of huge and sprawling urban centers, spreading out unchecked into the suburban areas, while the city centers are increasingly beset with poverty, crime, and decay. We know, of course, that the cities have been vital to man’s development throughout most of his history, but the city of today is unlike anything ever before witnessed. There is ample reason to suspect that the sprawling metropolis containing tens of millions of people is no longer a serviceable or even a viable social entity, but rather that such cities today are in fact anti-survival and largely unnecessary considering the current state of our technology. Yet with enormous conservative inertia our society not only struggles to maintain existing megalopoli but allows them to enlarge further and seeks even to create new ones. In a related area, the forces of environmental destruction march on virtually unchecked by the token measures we have raised so far to block them, and any truly radical or imaginative approach to stemming or reversing these forces is met with a massive resistance. At the same time our society adheres doggedly to antediluvian values, complacently tolerating corrupt political institutions and ineffective or hypocritical ethical standards which cry out for reevaluation and true reform if the society that is founded on these principles is to survive.

     There was a time when conservative inertia and resistance to change were successful in maintaining a status quo; such change as there was came slowly, was bargained with, and was assimilated a bit at a time. But unfortunately the forces of change in our society today can no longer be negotiated. Change is occurring in an ever-accelerating cycle. There is no longer time to bargain, no quid pro quo possible. Change is going to continue no matter how man reacts to it, and it is going to change lives ever more swiftly and massively, whether men want their lives changed or not. It is no longer even appropriate for us to ask whether change can be prevented, minimized, or controlled; the appropriate question is how change can be dealt with in such a way that individuals and society can survive and prosper in the midst of it. Thus it is hardly surprising that in this past half century of accelerating change a singular popular literature has emerged which deals specifically with change and its impact on human lives.

     This popular literature, which we now know as science fiction, is by no means virgin to the twentieth century. Scholars can demonstrate that a literature of romantic fantasy has occupied its own special niche over the centuries. With its curious and rather special outlook on man’s relationship to nature and the world, it has always stirred the imagination and evoked a sense of wonder in the face of phenomena that were not clearly understood. But it was only in the first quarter of the twentieth century that science fiction began to distinguish itself by its recognition of science and technology as key factors molding our society. It was at the same time that science fiction became acutely concerned with rational speculation about the impact of science and technology on mankind, as opposed to the supernatural or mystical dream worlds previously explored in romantic fantasy. And just as modern science fiction has evolved side by side with the twentieth century’s scientific and technological revolution, it has begun to serve as an increasingly important and singularly effective device for adaptation to changes brought about by that revolution. Science fiction today is an excellent means for pinpointing and identifying the potential hazards that may face us in the future because of accelerating change; in addition, it is also an excellent means for testing or exploring possible future solutions. And it is in this area that science fiction has a surprising potential for preparing its readers to adapt to the swiftly accelerating speed of change, to survive the future shock that this change is bringing about and to modify the untoward effects of change.

     But how can a popular literature which is often regarded as “crazy” or “fantastic” by those least acquainted with it actually equip its readers to adapt to social, cultural, or technological change? First and foremost, science fiction prepares the minds of its readers with certain concepts or attitudes toward change that are not always widely shared by others. For example, the science fiction reader is powerfully acclimatized to the underlying idea that change is going to come about, come what may. There is no nonsense in his head about resisting, thwarting, or evading change. The science fiction stories he reads dwell upon future societies that have changed from the present. In these stories change is regarded as inevitable; indeed, science fiction frequently predicates rapid, radical, or abrupt change as probable in the pattern of the future. From his experience with the simple process of extrapolation—taking current trends and patterns and tracing them to their possible logical future implications—the science fiction reader knows that the changes proceeding about him today, however sweeping they may be, are as nothing compared to the changes that may be expected in the near and distant future.

     Second, the science fiction reader is encouraged by his reading not to fear or dread change, but rather to accept it as a fresh and exciting challenge. After all, science fiction seems to say, the winds of change—however violent they may seem—are of man's making in the first place, and it should be within man’s power to temper them. This is not to say that the science fiction reader necessarily likes the idea of change, or welcomes it, or even approves of it. He may well react quite negatively. He may elect to move heaven and earth in an effort to modify its impact, but total rejection is unlikely to enter his head. Rather, his thinking will be directed to identifying what might be wrong with a specific direction of change, which kinds of change to resist and which to applaud, what deleterious influences might come about as a result of change, and how those undesirable effects might be prevented from happening. Indeed, there are a number of prominent science fiction writers, and multitudes of their readers, who quite actively detest the process of technological change and the direction in which technology seems to be drawing mankind. But even the most adamantly pessimistic of these “anti-science” writers nevertheless recognize the inevitability of change and seek in their writings to modify its impact rather than to attempt to turn the clock back. And even at that, these writers and their readers are the exception rather than the rule. Most science fiction writers and readers approach the idea of change not with the negative mental set of “what can we do to halt it or minimize it?” but rather with the more optimistic mental set of “how can we use it, adapt to it, make our lives with it, around it, or in spite of it? How can we deal with it most effectively?"

     Third, science fiction readers in general are equipped by their reading to accept scientific and technological discovery and advancement as a major and potentially beneficial instrument forcing change. Rather than ask, “Why do we need this advancement?” they are asking, “Why haven't we had this advancement sooner? Why aren’t we applying it more widely? Why didn’t we recognize its potential twenty years ago, and why aren't we using these changes to better advantage?" There are very few “back to nature and the simple life" thinkers among science fiction readers, very few hand-wringers, very few indeed who are concentrating on past faults, failings, and frailties of mankind. Thus, for better or for worse, science fiction readers are probably more realistically oriented to the inevitable forces of change than most other people. At the same time, science fiction readers are prepared by their reading to cope with the natural ambivalence that scientific and technological change generates in people’s minds. These readers clearly recognize that all scientific and technological progress is not necessarily good, and that for every benefit of science there are likely to be hazards or disadvantages. Thus they are able to direct their thinking toward neutralizing or counteracting these hazards or disadvantages while at the same time nurturing and developing the benefits. And if worst comes to worst, science fiction readers are prepared to accept the worst and deal with it. They are long familiar with the ironic concept of Finagle’s First Law as scientists and engineers apply it to any scientific experiment in the laboratory: If something can go wrong, it will. But the science fiction reader is also aware that this perverse principle applies just as universally to life situations as it does to scientific or engineering experiments in the laboratory.

     In short, science fiction prepares its readers for successful adaptation to change first by accepting the fact of change, whether desirable or not, as inevitable; second, by seeking to adjust to the change wherever possible; and third by modifying the change when possible or necessary in order to reduce its negative impact on our lives. On the other hand, much adaptive failure arises, first, from refusing to accept change as an inescapable factor; second, fighting against all change, the good as well as the bad; and seeking to resist or negate changes in attempting to return to or to restore past circumstances that are more familiar and comfortable. The non-adaptive individual is frightened by the unfamiliar and seeks unsuccessfully to resist it. The science fiction reader is dealing constantly with the unfamiliar and is equally constantly, and successfully, seeking familiar patterns or trends in it.

     Thus we can say that science fiction engenders a positive adaptive attitude in the minds of its readers. What is more, it furthers adaptation toward change by developing in its readers the elasticity of mind—the sheer imaginative grasp—to enable them to grapple with change constructively. The typical science fiction reader is capable of conceiving many possible futures, each different from the other, and is comfortable dealing with change one step at a time in approaching these possible futures. Critical to constructive adaptive thinking is the sort of elasticity of mind typified by the concept of fairy chess—a modification of the classic game in which an already complex game operating within a rigid framework of rules is made even more mind-stretching by the simple expedient of arbitrarily modifying certain of the rules at the beginning of each game. Thus in fairy chess the players might agree that for the purposes of the game they are about to play the knight will always have the option of moving either two spaces forward and one to the side or three spaces forward and one to the side, thus significantly altering and extending the ordinary power of the chessboard knight. All other rules of the game remain unchanged from the classical pattern. In another game the players might agree that the pawns can move only on the diagonal and capture only straight ahead, directly the opposite of the classical rule. Each such minor modification presents the players with an unfamiliar context that still bears familiar patterns or trends. It also forces the players to stretch their minds beyond the limits of the normal chess game and to cope effectively with the unfamiliar. On a somewhat similar level, the introduction of wild cards into a poker game is a clear extension of the fairy chess concept, and players in such a game are forced with each declaration of a wild card to adjust their thinking with regard to the odds and the values of cards and hands. The adaptive player grapples with such unfamiliarity, learns to calculate the shifting odds, and wins; the non-adaptive player cannot cope with the change, gets his toenails trimmed, and returns to the more familiar classical pattern of the game as quickly as the deal comes his way.

     Science fiction readers are constantly playing fairy chess with their reading. The rules are ever-changing. The notion that “nothing is certain” or that “nothing is quite what it seems” becomes familiar and acceptable; the stretching of the mind is challenging and exhilarating, not frightening or demoralizing. Indeed, it is this very mind-stretching quality of science fiction that draws the great majority of i.ts readers to this literature.

     Consider for a moment how the rules for adaptation that we have been discussing might apply specifically to a broad and emotionally loaded area of change facing us as individuals in the future: the part that computerization is destined to play in the area of health care. To a non-adaptive the notion of introducing a machine, however complex, into the human equation of health care is anathema-a repugnant and threatening concept. It does not matter to the non-adaptive that the pattern for this change is already set, and that computerization of many areas of medical care is inevitable if universal, expert, and inexpensive health care services of high quality are to be made widely available. In spite of all this the non-adaptive fights doggedly to resist the change. He seeks to retain or to restore the ancient and comfortable concept of human ministration and laying-on-of-hands by the personal, concerned physician, even when it can be demonstrated that today's physician equipped with today’s medical knowledge cannot possibly do as good a job using only the classical techniques of medical art and science as he could do by availing himself of modern computerized services. The adaptive individual, on the other hand, sees clearly that computerization offers certain very major advantages and opens the door to immensely more competent, comprehensive, and scientifically thorough health-care services, together with certain built-in losses and disadvantages as well. He recognizes clearly that the human physician working in close partnership with the computer can practice a far superior quality of medicine than the physician working alone, but that certain human touches in the doctor-patient relationship, a certain element of human concern on the part of the physician for his individual patient will very probably be lost. The adaptive then says, “How can we avail ourselves of all the advantages while taking the rough edges off the disadvantages?"

     We can find many examples of science fiction-inspired adaptation to change both in the past and in the present. For example, very few science fiction readers indeed were startled at the launching of the first Sputnik in October of 1957. They may have been frustrated and disappointed that the first such earth-orbiting satellite should have been launched under the auspices of Soviet technology and not our own, but to these readers the accomplishment itself, in all its implications, had been taken for granted as an inevitable eventuality for decades. Science fiction readers, indeed, had gone from the first German buzz bombs of World War II to the orbiting-earth satellite in a single leap. These readers assumed and accepted this eventuality as a matter of time and nothing more; by the time it had occurred they knew and understood the physics and technology behind it; they were fully acquainted with the logistic requirements of such a shot; they had already explored—and largely discounted—the military implications of such an accomplishment (a widespread but superficial and shortsighted concern) and instead were quite accurately recognizing the Sputnik as a first solid step in man’s eventual exploration of the solar system beyond the earth. What is more, throughout the subsequent fifteen years that ultimately led to the first moon landing, science fiction readers were continuously far in advance of others in their thinking and acceptance of the implications of the space program. By the time the first exploring party finally did set foot on the moon, science fiction readers had long since been working out the logistics of permanent moon colonies, debating specific techniques for interplanetary exploration elsewhere in the solar system, and were chafing at the apparent physical limitations which seemed to make travel to other star systems something less than practical as a short-term goal.

     By the same token, few science fiction readers were seriously startled at the emergence of the uranium fission bomb on the scene in 1945, or at the subsequent staggering technological developments that made fission and fusion weapons such an unparalleled influence on the course of human affairs in the twentieth century. At the time the first fission bomb was released, science fiction readers were already fully aware of the unthinkable quantities of energy trapped in the atomic nucleus. Indeed, in their speculative explorations they had already moved on to consider not only the enormously horrifying military aspects of these power sources, but also the enormously beneficial aspects as well. They had been prepared by their reading to assimilate the concept of nuclear weaponry, on the one hand, and to adapt to the idea of nuclear power as an immensely important energy source of the future on the other hand.


(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 Shockies 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)

(ed note: I agree with this quote taken out of context, but I violently disagree with the rest of the author's writings since he was a racist bastard)

      A half-million years of experience in outwitting beasts on mountains and plains, in heat and cold, in light and darkness, gave your ancestors the equipment that we still desperately need we are to slay the dragon that roams the earth today, marry the princess of outer space, and live happily ever after in the deer filled glades of a world where everyone is young and beautiful forever.

     One final doubt mars this vision of paradise. The hunters who killed the mammoths and outwitted the beasts were young men, in their prime. Few lived to be fifty. Those who reached that ancient age spent their days by the campfire while their sons and grandsons carried in the meat. Their business was to teach young men the wisdom of ancient ways… They did not need flexible minds.

     Their descendants do. The graybeards who sit around the council fires of nations today need more than ancient wisdom. They must be able to shed the thought patterns of their youth as quickly as an Ona drops his robe when he kneels to shoot…

     Cannot these old men bring themselves to realize … that the passport to a new life is theirs for the asking, but only if they will discard the traditional caution of statesmen … and develop minds as bold and flexible as that of a hunter tracking a bear?

     Can they not realize that the alternative to cultural change is not a perpetuation of the status quo, but the failure of a cosmic experiment, the end of man’s great adventures?


(ed note: the movie is a pseudo-documentary based on the eponymous book, about how the Oakland Athletics baseball management used the new science of Sabermetrics to spot valuable players that the other ball teams couldn't see. Much like spotting interesting holes using a new framework. The conventional system of subjective talent scouts and obsolete metrics made the valuable players invisible. Using sabermetrics the Oakland team could spot and hire these players at bargain basement prices. Low prices because none of the other ball teams were bidding on them.

Naturally the Oakland team faced tremendous push-back from the established talent scouts, who were suddenly feeling like buggy-whip manufacturers. As it turned out, the talent scouts were right be afraid for their jobs.

Billy Beane is the manager of the Oakland Athletics. His problem is trying to hire winning players with a shoe-string budget. He discovers Sabermetrics expert Peter Brand, and hires him as the secret weapon to solve the problem.)

(ed note: Billy Beane meets Peter Brand. In private Billy asks Peter about baseball analysis. This leads to Billy hiring Peter)

Peter Brand: There is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what is really happening. And this leads people who run Major League Baseball teams to misjudge their players and mismanage their teams. I apologize.
Billy Beane: Go on.
Peter Brand: Okay. People who run ball clubs, they think in terms of buying players. Your goal shouldn't be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins. And in order to buy wins, you need to buy runs. You're trying to replace Johnny Damon. The Boston Red Sox see Johnny Damon and they see a star who's worth seven and half million dollars a year. When I see Johnny Damon, what I see is... is... an imperfect understanding of where runs come from. The guy's got a great glove. He's a decent leadoff hitter. He can steal bases. But is he worth the seven and half million dollars a year that the Boston Red Sox are paying him? No. No. Baseball thinking is medieval. They are asking all the wrong questions. And if I say it to anybody, I'm—I'm ostracized. I'm—I'm—I'm a leper. So that's why I'm—I'm cagey about this with you. That's why I... I respect you, Mr. Beane, and if you want full disclosure, I think it's a good thing that you got Damon off your payroll. I think it opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities.

Peter Brand: Billy, this is Chad Bradford. He's a relief pitcher. He is one of the most undervalued players in baseball. His defect is that he throws funny. Nobody in the big leagues cares about him, because he looks funny. (meaning that the subjective analysis of the talent scouts makes them ignore Bradford because he "looks funny." But objective sabermetrics reveals Bradford is incredibly effective) This guy could be not just the best pitcher in our bullpen, but one of the most effective relief pitchers in all of baseball. This guy should cost $3 million a year. We can get him for $237,000. (because none of the other ball teams are bidding on Bradford, because without sabermetrics he is invisible to them. Oakland's shoe-string budget can afford Bradford)

Peter Brand: It's about getting things down to one number. Using the stats the way we read them, we'll find value in players that no one else can see. People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws. Age, appearance, personality. Bill James (inventor of sabermetrics) and mathematics cut straight through that. Billy, of the 20,000 notable players for us to consider, I believe that there is a championship team of twenty-five people that we can afford, because everyone else in baseball undervalues them. Like an island of misfit toys.

(ed note: John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, tries to hire Billy Beane. He explains to Billy why the use of sabermetrics is the wave of the future, and why Billy faced so much push-back from the talent scouts and the baseball establishment. )

John Henry: For forty-one million, you built a playoff team. You lost Damon, Giambi, Isringhausen, Pena and you won more games without them than you did with them. You won the exact same number of games that the Yankees won, but the Yankees spent one point four million per win and you paid two hundred and sixty thousand. I know you've taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall. It always gets bloody, always. It's the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds it's threatening the game. But really what it's threatening is their livelihoods, it's threatening their jobs, it's threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it's the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people are holding the reins, have their hands on the switch. They go bat sh*t crazy. I mean, anybody who's not building a team right and rebuilding it using your model, they're dinosaurs. They'll be sitting on their ass on the sofa in October, watching the Boston Red Sox win the World Series.

From MONEYBALL (2011)

(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)

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 darnedest to stuff the Genie back into the bottle by outlawing the internet.

The tired old metaphor about companies bankrupted by technological disruption is buggy-whip manufacturers blind-sided by the advent of the Model-T Ford.

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 suppressing it, to forcing their bribed politicians to pass laws outlawing the disruptive technology. 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? Most likely a legend, but doesn't it seem all too possible that a corporation would be sending a stealth team of elite assassins to kill the researchers developing the technology and burn all the research notes?

On the other hand there are 'powerful people' wannabes 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 (because everybody likes a good "underdog vs big bully" story). 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 assassinated in revenge by the Power Syndicate.

Another science fiction example of disruptive technology used to destroy a corrupt establishment can be found in Gilpin's Space by Reginald Bretnor.

Eccentric but brilliant scientist Saul Gilpin invents a magic hyperspace faster-than-light propulsion system / antigravity surface-to-orbit gadget which can be cobbled together from parts available from your local hardware store. He mounts it on a submarine and has instant starship. Then he and the submarine depart for parts unknown.

This makes the totalitarian government very unhappy. They want to use this technology, they do not want citizens getting their hands on it. Makes it far to easy to escape the totalitarian state. Then they find out that Gilpin has mailed blueprints of the gadget to quite a few people, all over the world. Hilarity ensues.

A scifi Maguffin that destroys a corrupt government and frees the oppressed people is a very libertarian idea. Just keep in mind the drawbacks of libertarianism.


(ed note: the Makenzie family have established a virtual monopoly on hydrogen fuel for interplanetary spacecraft. Not because they patented the idea, more because no other company can afford the outrageous initial investment in infrastructure. The Makenzies are rudely surprised when they find the grim spectre of technological disruption coming to destroy their business model.

The problem is a conventional spacecraft uses ten thousand tons of hydrogen on a single flight, while the new Asymptotic Drive needs only 160 tons. Which means for every 1,000 grams of hydrogen the Makenzies used to sell, they will now sell only 16 grams. For every dollar they used to get, now they will only earn less than two cents.)

      “There is one other point,” said Malcolm (Makenzie) thoughtfully, “and it may be the most important of all. We may have only ten years in which to change the whole basis of our economy. If you can find an answer to this problem on your trip—even a hint of an answer!—you’ll be a hero when you come home. No one will criticize any of your other activities, public or private.”
     (Duncan Makenzie said) “That’s a tall order. I’m not a magician.”
     “Then perhaps you’d better start taking lessons. If the Asymptotic Drive isn’t pure magic, I don’t know what it is.”

     After three hundred years of spaceships that were mostly fuel tanks, Sirius was not quite believable. She seemed to have far too many windows, and there were entrance hatches in most improbable places, some of them still gaping open as cargo was loaded. At least she was taking on some hydrogen, thought Duncan sourly; it would be adding insult to economic injury if she made the round trip on a single fueling. She was capable of doing this, it was rumored, though at the cost of doubling her transit time.

(ed note: Duncan Makenzie is on a new Asymptotic Drive ship making a journey from Titan to Terra. He convinces Engineer Warren to show him the Drive)

     Yet the guilt was there, and he knew why. He was taking advantage of a friendship for secret purposes of his own, by suggesting that his interest in the Asymptotic Drive was no more than would be expected from anyone with a scientific or engineering background. But perhaps Warren was not as naïve as he seemed; he could hardly be unaware that the Drive posed a threat to the entire economy of Duncan’s society. He might even be trying to help, in a tactful way.

     “You may be disappointed,” said Warren as they passed through the bulkhead floor separating levels Three and Two. “There’s not much to see. But what there is is enough to give some people nightmares—which is why we discourage visitors.”
     Not the most important reason, thought Duncan. The Drive was not exactly a secret; there was an immense literature on the subject, from the most esoteric mathematical papers down to popularizations so elementary that they amounted to little more than: “You pull on your bootstraps, and away you go.” But it would be fair to say that Earth’s Space Transportation Authority was curiously evasive when it came down to the practical details, and only its own personnel were allowed on the minor planet where the Drive was assembled. The few photos of Asteroid 4587 were blurred telescopic shots showing two cylindrical structures, more than a thousand kilometers long, stretching out into space on either side of the tiny world, which was an almost invisible speck between them. It was known that these were the accelerators that smashed matter together at such velocities that it fused to form the node or singularity at the heart of the Drive; and this was all that anyone did know, outside the STA.

     Duncan was now floating, a few meters behind his guide, along a corridor lined with pipes and cable ducts—all the anonymous plumbing any vehicle of sea, air, or space for the last three hundred years. Only the remarkable number of handholds, and the profusion of thick padding, revealed that this was the interior of a ship designed to be independent of gravity.
     “D’you see that pipe?” said the engineer. “The little red one?”
     “Yes—what about it?” Duncan would certainly never have given it a second glance; it was only about as thick as a lead pencil.
     “That’s the main hydrogen feed, believe it or not. All of a hundred grams a second. Say eight tons a day, under full thrust.(for a 20 day trip that comes to 160 tons total. Conventional ship uses 10,000 tons)
     Duncan wondered what the old-time rocket engineers would have thought of this tiny fuel line. He tried to visualize the monstrous pipes and pumps of the Saturns that had first taken men to the Moon; what was their rate of fuel consumption? He was certain that they burned more in every second than Sirius consumed in a day. That was a good measure of how far technology had progressed, in three centuries. And in another three…?
     “Mind your head—those are the deflection coils. We don’t trust room-temperature superconductors. These are still good old cryogenics.”
     “Deflection coils? What for?”
     “Ever stopped to think what would happen if that jet accidentally touched part of the ship? These coils keep it centered, and also give all the vector control we need.”

     They were now hovering beside a massive—yet still surprisingly small—cylinder that might have been the barrel of a twentieth-century naval gun. So this was the reaction chamber of the Drive. It was hard not to feel a sense of almost superstitious awe at the knowledge of what lay within a few centimeters of him. Duncan could easily have encircled the metal tube with his arms; how strange to think of putting your arms around a singularity, and thus, if some of the theories were correct, embracing an entire universe….
     Near the middle of the five-meter-long tube a small section of the casing had been removed, like the door of some miniature bank vault, and replaced by a crystal window. Through this obviously temporary opening a microscope, mounted on a swinging arm so that it could be moved away after use, was aimed into the interior of the drive unit.
     The engineer clipped himself into position by the buckles conveniently fixed to the casing, stared through the eyepiece, and made some delicate micrometer adjustments.
     “Take a look,” he said, when he was finally satisfied. Duncan floated to the eyepiece and fastened himself rather clumsily in place. He did not know what he had expected to see, and he remembered that the eye had to be educated before it could pass intelligible impressions to the brain. Anything utterly unfamiliar could be, quite literally, invisible, so he was not too disappointed at his first view.

     What he saw was, indeed, perfectly ordinary—merely a grid of fine hairlines, crossing at right angles to form a reticule of the kind commonly used for optical measurements. Though he searched the brightly lit field of view, he could find nothing else; he might have been exploring a piece of blank graph paper.
     “Look at the crossover at the exact center,” said his guide, “and turn the knob on the left—very slowly. Half a rev will do—either direction.”
     Duncan obeyed, yet for a few seconds he could still see nothing. Then he realized that a tiny bulge was creeping along the hairline as he tracked the microscope. It was as if he was looking at the reticule through a sheet of glass with one minute bubble or imperfection in it.
     “Do you see it?”
     “Yes—just. Like a pinhead-sized lens. Without the grid, you’d never notice it.”
     “Pinhead-sized! That’s an exaggeration, if ever I heard one. The node’s smaller than an atomic nucleus. You’re not actually seeing it, of course—only the distortion it produces.”
     “And yet there are thousands of tons of matter in there.”
     “Well, one or two thousand,” answered the engineer, rather evasively. “It’s made a dozen trips and is getting near saturation, so we’ll soon have to install a new one. Of course it would go on absorbing hydrogen as long as we fed it, but we can’t drag too much unnecessary mass around, or we’ll pay for it in performance. Like the old seagoing ships—they used to get covered with barnacles, and slowed down if they weren’t scraped clean every so often.”

(ed note: Miniature black hole. In reality the little monster would be radiating like a continuous supernova due to Hawking radiation. Blasted thing would radiate 89 quintillion watts and have a lifespan of 673 seconds. Clarke is forgiven because Hawking radiation was discovered about the same time this novel was published)

     “What do they do with old nodes when they’re too massive to use? Is it true that they’re dropped into the sun?”
     “What good would that do? A node would sail right through the sun and out the other side. Frankly, I don’t know what they do with the old ones. Perhaps they lump them all together into a big granddaddy node, smaller than a neutron but weighing a few million tons.”
     There were a dozen other questions that Duncan was longing to ask. How were these tiny yet immensely massive objects handled? Now that Sirius was in free fall, the node would remain floating where it was—but what kept it from shooting out of the drive tube as soon as acceleration started? He assumed that some combination of powerful electric and magnetic fields held it in place, and transmitted its thrust to the ship.

     “What would happen,” Duncan asked, “if I tried to touch it?”
     “You know, absolutely everyone asks that question.”
     “I’m not surprised. What’s the answer?”
     “Well, you’d have to open the vacuum seal, and then all hell would break loose as the air rushed in.”
     “Then I don’t do it that way. I wear a spacesuit, and I crawl up the drive tunnel and reach out a finger…”
     “How clever of you to hit exactly the right spot! But if you did, when your finger tip got within—oh—something like a millimeter, I’d guess—the gravitational tidal forces would start to tear away at it. As soon as the first few atoms fell into the field, they’d give up all their mass-energy—and you’d think that a small hydrogen bomb had gone off in your face. The explosion would probably blow you out of the tube at a fair fraction of the speed of light.”

From IMPERIAL EARTH by Arthur C. Clarke (1975)

The facts were simple and implacable. Sweeney was an Adapted Man — adapted, in this instance, to the bitter cold, the light gravity, and the thin stink of atmosphere which prevailed on Ganymede. The blood that ran in his veins, and the sol substrate of his every cell, was nine-tenths liquid ammonia; his bones were Ice IV; his respiration was a complex hydrogen-to-methane cycle based not upon catalysis by an iron-bearing pigment, but upon the locking and unlocking of a double sulfur bond; and he could survive for weeks, if he had to, upon a diet of rock dust.

He had always been this way. What had made him so had happened to him literally before he had been conceived: the application, to the germ cells which had later united to form him, of an elaborate constellation of techniques — selective mitotic poisoning, pinpoint X-irradiation, tectogenetic micro-surgery, competitive metabolic inhibition, and perhaps fifty more whose names he had never even heard — which collectively had been christened “pantropy.” The word, freely re-translated, meant “changing everything” and it fitted.

Even the ultimate germ cells were the emergents of a hundred previous generations, bred one from another before they had passed the zygote stage like one-celled animals, each one biassed a little farther toward the cyanide and ice and everything nice that little boys like Sweeney were made of.

Item: the Authorities. Long before space travel, big cities in the United States had fallen so far behind any possibility of controlling their own traffic problems as to make purely political solutions chimerical. No city administration could spend the amount of money needed for a radical cure, without being ousted in the next elections by the enraged drivers and pedestrians who most needed the help.

Increasingly, the traffic problems were turned over, with gratitude and many privileges, to semi-public Port, Bridge and Highway Authorities: huge capital-investment ventures modelled upon the Port of New York Authority, which had shown its ability to build and/or run such huge operations as the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, Teterboro, LaGuardia, Idlewild and Newark airports, and many lesser facilities. By 1960 it was possible to travel from the tip of Florida to the border of Maine entirely over Authority-owned territory, if one could pay the appropriate tolls (and didn’t mind being shot at in the Poconos by embattled land-owners who were still resisting the gigantic Incadel project).

Item: the Tolls. The Authorities were creations of the states, usually acting in pairs, and as such enjoyed legal protections not available to other private firms engaged in interstate commerce. Among these protections, in the typical enabling act, was a provision that “the two said states will not … diminish or impair the power of the Authority to establish, levy and collect tolls and other charges …” The federal government helped; although the Federal Bridge Act of 1946 required that the collection of tolls must cease with the payment of amortization, Congress almost never invoked the Act against any Authority. Consequently, the tolls never dropped; by 1953 the Port of New York Authority was reporting a profit of over twenty million dollars a year, and annual collections were increasing at the rate of ten per cent a year.

Some of the take went into the development of new facilitiesm, most of them so placed as to increase the take, rather than solve the traffic problem. Again the Port of New York Authority led the way; it built, against all sense, a third tube for the Lincoln Tunnel, thus pouring eight and a half million more cars per year into Manhattan’s mid-town area, where the city was already strangling for want of any adequate ducts to take away the then-current traffic.

Item: the Port cops. The Authorities had been authorized from the beginning to police their own premises. As the Authorities got bigger, so did the private police forces.

By the time space travel arrived, the Authorities owned it.

They had taken pains to see that it fell to them; they had learned from their airport operations — which, almost alone among their projects, always showed a loss — that nothing less than total control is good enough. And characteristically, they never took any interest in any form of space-travel which did not involve enormous expenditures; otherwise they could take no profits from sub-contracting, no profits from fast amortization of loans, no profits from the laws allowing them fast tax writeoffs for new construction, no profits from the indefinitely protracted collection of tolls and fees after the initial cost and the upkeep had been recovered.

At the world’s first commercial spaceport, Port Earth, it cost ship owners $5000 each and every time their ships touched the ground. Landing fees had been outlawed in private atmosphere flying for years, but the Greater Earth Port Authority operated under its own set of precedents; it made landing fees for spacecraft routine. And it maintained the first Port police force which was bigger than the armed forces of the nation which had given it its franchise; after a while, the distinction was wiped out, and the Port cops were the armed forces of the United States. It was not difficult to do, since the Greater Earth Port authority was actually a holding company embracing every other Authority in the country, including Port Earth.

And when people, soon after spaceflight, began to ask each other, “How shall we colonize the planets?,” the Greater Earth Port Authority had its answer ready.

Item: Terraforming.

Terraforming — remaking the planets into near-images of the Earth, so that Earth-normal people could live on them.

Port Earth was prepared to start small. Port Earth wanted to move Mars out of its orbit to a point somewhat closer to the sun, and make the minor adjustments needed in the orbits of the other planets; to transport to Mars about enough water to empty the Indian Ocean — only a pittance to Earth, after all, and not 10 per cent of what would be needed later to terraform Venus; to carry to the little planet top-soil about equal in area to the state of Iowa, in order to get started at growing plants which would slowly change the atmosphere of Mars; and so on. The whole thing, Port Earth pointed out reasonably, was perfectly feasible from the point of view of the available supplies and energy resources, and it would cost less than thirty-three billion dollars. The Greater Earth Port Authority was prepared to recover that sum at no cost in taxes in less thap a century, through such items as $50 rocket-mail stamps, $10,000 Mars landing fees, $1,000 one-way strap-down tickets, 100-per-desert-acre land titles, and so on.

Of course the fees would continue after the cost was re-covered — for maintenance.

Alternative? Nothing but domes. The Greater Earth Port Authority hated domes. They cost too little to begin with, and the volume of traffic to and from them would always be miniscule.

Experience on the Moon had made that painfully clear. And the public hated domes, too; it had already shown a mass reluctance to live under them.

As for the governments, other than that of the United States, that the Authority still tolerated, none of them had any love for domes, or for the kind of limited colonization that the domes stood for. They needed to get rid of their populating masses by the bucket-full, not by the eye-dropper-full.

If the Authority knew that emigration increases the home population rather than cuts it, the Authority carefully reframed from saying so to the governments involved; they could rediscover Franklin’s Law for themselves. Domes were out; terraforming was in.

Then came pantropy.

If this third alternative to the problem of colonizing the planets had come as a surprise to the Authority, and to Port Earth, they had nobody to blame for it but themselves.

There had been plenty of harbingers. The notion of modifying the human stock genetically to live on the planets as they were found, rather than changing the planets to accommodate the people, had been old with Olaf Stapledon; it had been touched upon by many later writers; it went back, in essence, as far as Proteus, and as deep into the human mind as the werewolf, the vampire, the fairy changeling, the transmigrated soul.

But suddenly it was possible; and, not very long afterwards, it was a fact.

The Authority hated it. Pantropy involved a high initial investment to produce the first colonists, but it was a method which with refinement would become cheaper and cheaper.

Once the colonists were planted, it required no investment at all; the colonists were comfortable on their adopted world, and could produce new colonists without outside help. Pantropy, furthermore, was at its most expensive less than half as costly as the setting-up of the smallest and least difficult dome.

Compared to the cost of terraforming even so favorable a planet as Mars, it cost nothing at all, from the Authority’s point of view.

And there was no way to collect tolls against even the initial expense. It was too cheap to bother with.

(ed note: example of propaganda from The Authority. They had to kill pantropy dead; or it's bye-bye graft, kick-backs, and lucrative fees.)


If a number of influential scientists have their way, some child or grandchild of yours may eke out his life in the frozen wastes of Pluto, where even the sun is only a spark in the sky — and will be unable to return to Earth until after he dies, if then!

Yes, even now there are plans afoot to change innocent unborn children into alien creatures who would die terribly the moment that they set foot upon the green planet of their ancestors. Impatient with the slow but steady pace of man’s conquest of Mars, prominent ivory-tower thinkers are working out ways to produce all kinds of travesties upon the human form — travesties which will be able to survive, somehow, in the bitterest and most untamed of planetary infernos.

The process which may produce these pitiful freaks at enormous expense is called “pantropy.” It is already in imperfect and dangerous existence. Chief among its prophets is white-haired, dreamy-eyed Dr. Jacob Rullman, who…

From A TIME TO SURVIVE by James Blish (1956)

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.


(ed note: Quentyn Quinn is a racconan, a member of the Space Rangers. They are trouble-shooters on the boarder of the empire. Mostly they deal with smart crooks and civilizations undergoing technological disruption.)

(As the episode opens, Quentyn narrowly escapes assassination as a bomb hidden in a microwave oven explodes in his home. The would-be assassin, an orange sophont with yellow eyes from the planet Kallifrax, is quickly apprehended because their knowledge of hiding their tracks on the internet is amateurish. The sophont wants to kill Quentyn because they blame the Ranger for the collapse of the Kallifraxian civilization.

The sophont starts explaining, in the form of a flashback)


(ed note: A nasty Congressional committee orders an uppity ranch owner to testify. He does so, and on national TV describes how to easily construct in your home workshop a laser sidearm powerful enough to slice and dice an army tank using only materials commonly found in one's garage. The consequence is that such a weapon would allow libertarian minded people to hold off entire army battalions, and there are quite a few garage workshops in the US. As it turns out, this was precisely the reason that the ranch owner testified on national TV, since he was libertarian enough to want to render the US government impotent. He made sure by mailing a few hundred copies of the blueprints to various places. This is weaponized technological disruption.

Just keep in mind the drawbacks of libertarianism)

(ed note: William T. Custer goes to Washington to testify before the committee of the whole)

      “During last winter’s slack season,” Custer said, “two of my men and I worked on a project we’ve had in the works for three years—to develop a sustained-emission laser device.
     Custer opened his briefcase, slid out a fat aluminum tube mounted on a pistol grip with a conventional appearing trigger.
     “This is quite harmless,” he said. “I didn’t bring the power pack.”
     “That is… this is your weapon?” Tiborough asked.
     “Calling this a weapon is misleading,” Custer said. “The term limits and oversimplifies. This is also a brush-cutter, a substitute for a logger’s saw and axe, a diamond cutter, a milling machine…and a weapon. It is also a turning point in history.”
     “Come now, isn’t that a bit pretentious?” Tiborough asked.
     “We tend to think of history as something old and slow,” Custer said. “But history is, as a matter of fact, extremely rapid and immediate. A President is assassinated, a bomb explodes over a city, a dam break, a revolutionary device is announced.”
     “Lasers have been known for quite a few years,” Tiborough said. He looked at the papers the colonel had given him. “The principle dates from 1956 or thereabouts.”
     “I don't wish it to appear that I’m taking credit for inventing this device,” Custer said. “Nor am I claiming sole credit for developing the sustained-emission laser. I was merely one of a team. But I do hold the device here in my hand, gentlemen.”

     “Exhibit, Mr. Custer,” Plowers reminded him. “How is this an exhibit?”
     “May I explain first how it works?” Custer asked. “That will make the rest of my statement much easier.”
     Tiborough looked at Plowers, back to Custer. “If you will tie this all together, Mr. Custer,” Tiborough said. “I want to…the bearing of this device on our—we are hearing a particular bill in this room.”

     “Certainly, Senator,” Custer said. He looked at his device. “A ninety-volt radio battery drives this particular model. We have some that require less voltage, some that use more. We aimed for a construction with simple parts. Our crystals are common quartz. We shattered them by bringing them to a boil in water and then plunging them into ice water…repeatedly. We chose twenty pieces of very close to the same size—about one gram, slightly more than fifteen grains each."
     Custer unscrewed the back of the tube, slid out a round length of plastic trailing lengths of red, green, brown, blue and yellow wire.
     Wallace noted how the cameras of the TV men centered on the object in Custer’s hands. Even the senators were leaning forward, staring.
     We’re gadget crazy people, Wallace thought.
     “The crystals were dipped in thinned household cement and then into iron filings,” Custer said. “We made a little jig out of a fly-tying device and opened a passage in the filings at opposite ends of the crystals. We then made some common celluloid—nitrocellulose, acetic acid, gelatin and alcohol—all very common products, and formed it into a length of garden hose just long enough to take the crystals end to end. The crystals were inserted in the hose, the celluloid poured over them and the whole thing was seated in a magnetic waveguide, while the celluloid was cooling. This centered and aligned the crystals. The waveguide was constructed from wire salvaged from an old TV set and built following the directions in the Radio Amateur's Handbook.”
     Custer reinserted the length of plastic into the tube, adjusted the wires. There was an unearthly silence in the room with only the cameras whirring. It was as though everyone were holding his breath.
     “A laser requires a resonant cavity, but that’s complicated,” Custer said. “Instead, we wound two layers of fine copper wire around our tube, immersed it in the celluloid solution to coat it and then filed one end flat. This end took a piece of mirror cut to fit. We then pressed a number eight embroidery needle at right angles into the mirror end of the tube until it touched the side of the number one crystal.”
     Custer cleared his throat.
     Two of the senators leaned back. Plowers coughed. Tiborough glanced at the banks of TV cameras and there was a questioning look in his eyes.
     “We then determined the master frequency of our crystal series,” Custer said. “We used a test signal and oscilloscope, but any radio amateur could do it without the oscilloscope. We constructed an oscillator of that master frequency, attached it at the needle and a bare spot scraped in the opposite end of the waveguide.”

     “And this…ah… worked?” Tiborough asked.
     “No.” Custer shook his head. “When we fed power through a voltage multiplier into the system we produced an estimated four hundred joules emission and melted half the tube. So we started all over again.”
     “You are going to tie this in?” Tiborough asked. He frowned at the papers in his hands, glanced toward the door where the colonel had gone.
     “I am, sir, believe me,” Custer said.
     “Very Well, then,” Tiborough said.

     “So we started all over,” Custer said. “But for the second celluloid dip we added bismuth—a saturate solution, actually. It stayed gummy and we had to paint over it with a sealing coat of the straight celluloid. We then coupled this bismuth layer through a pulse circuit so that it was bathed in a counter wave—180 degrees out of phase with the master frequency. We had, in effect, immersed the unit in a thermoelectric cooler that exactly countered the heat production. A thin beam issued from the unmirrored end when we powered it. We have yet to find something that thin beam cannot cut.”
     “Diamonds?” Tiborough asked.
     “Powered by less than two hundred volts, this device could cut our planet in half like a ripe tomato,” Custer said. “One man could destroy an aerial armada with it, knock down ICBMs before they touched atmosphere, sink a fleet, pulverize a city. I’m afraid, sir, that I haven’t mentally catalogued all the violent implications of this device. The mind tends to boggle at the enormous power focused in…"

     “Shut down those TV cameras!”
     It was Tiborough shouting, leaping to his feet and making a sweeping gesture to include the banks of cameras, The abrupt violence of his voice and gesture fell on the room like an explosion. “Guards!” he called. “You there at the door. Cordon off that door and don’t let anyone out who heard this fool!” He whirled back to face Custer. “You irresponsible idiot!”
     “I'm afraid, Senator,” Custer said, “that you’re locking the barn door many weeks too late.”
     For a long minute of silence Tiborough glared at Custer, Then: “You did this deliberately, eh?”
     “Senator, if I'd waited any longer, there might have been no hope for us at all.”
     Tiborough sat back into his chair, still keeping his attention fastened on Custer. Plowers and Johnstone on his right had their heads close together whispering fiercely. The other senators were dividing their attention between Custer and Tiborough, their eyes wide and with no attempt to conceal their astonishment.
     Wallace, growing conscious of the implications in what Custer had said, tried to wet his lips with his tongue. This stupid cowpoke has sold us all down the river!
     Tiborough signaled an aide, spoke briefly with him, beckoned the colonel from the door. There was a buzzing of excited conversation in the room. Several of the press and TV crew were huddled near the windows on Custer’s left, arguing. One of their number—a florid-faced man with gray hair and horn-rimmed glasses, started across the room toward Tiborough, was stopped by a committee aide. They began a low-voiced argument with violent gestures.
     A loud curse sounded from the door. Poxman, the syndicated columnist, was trying to push past the guards there.
     Poxman!” Tiborough called. The columnist turned. “My orders are that no one leaves,” Tiborough said. “You are not an exception.” He turned back to face Custer. The room had fallen into a semblance of quiet, although here still were pockets of muttering and there was the sound of running feet and a hurrying about in the hall outside.
     “Two channels went out of here live,” Tiborough said. "Nothing much we can do about them, although we will trace down as many of their viewers as we can. Every bit of film in this room and every sound tape will be confiscated, however.” His voice rose as protests sounded from the press section. “Our national security is at stake. The President has been notified. Such measures as are necessary will be taken.”
     The colonel came hurrying into the room, crossed to Tiborough, quietly said something.
     “You should’ve warned me!” Tiborough snapped. “I had no idea that…”
     The colonel interrupted with a whispered comment.
     “These papers… your damned report is not clear!” Tiborough said.

     He looked around at Custer. “I see you’re smiling, Mr. Custer. I don’t think you’ll find much to smile about before long.”
     “Senator, this is not a happy smile,” Custer said. “But I told myself several days ago you’d fail to see the implications of this thing.” He tapped the pistol-shaped device he had rested on the table. “I told myself you’d fall back into the old, useless pattern.”
     “Is that what you told yourself, really?” Tiborough said.
     Wallace, hearing the venom in the senator’s voice, moved his chair a few inches farther away from Custer.
     Tiborough looked at the laser projector. “Is that thing really disarmed?”
     “Yes, sir.”
     “If I order one of my men to take it from you, you will not resist?”
     “Which of your men will you trust with it, Senator?” Custer asked.
     In the long silence that followed, someone in the press section emitted a nervous guffaw.

     “Virtually every man on my ranch has one of these things,” Custer said. “We fell trees with them, cut firewood, make fence posts. Every letter written to me as a result of my patent application has been answered candidly. More than a thousand sets of schematics and instructions on how to build this device have been sent out to varied places in the world.
     “You vicious traitor!” Tiborough rasped.
     “You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, Senator,” Custer said. “But I warn you I’ve had time for considerably more concentrated and considerably more painful thought than you’ve applied to this problem In my estimation, I had no choice. Every week I waited to make this thing public, every day, every minute, merely raised the odds that humanity would be destroyed by—”
     “You said this thing applied to the hearings on the grazing act,” Plowers protested, and there was a plaintive note of complaint in his voice.
     “Senator, I told you the truth,” Custer said. “There’s no real reason to change the act, now. We intend to go on operating under it—with the agreement of our neighbors and others concerned. People are still going to need food.”

     Tiborough glared at him. “You’re saying we can’t force you to…” He broke off at a disturbance in the doorway. A rope barrier had been stretched there and a line of Marines stood with their backs to it, facing the hall. A mob of people was trying to press through. Press cards were being waved.
     “Colonel, I told you to clear the hall!” Tiborough barked.
     The colonel ran to the barrier. “Use your bayonets if you have to!” he shouted.
     The disturbance subsided at the sound of his voice. More uniformed men could be seen moving in along the barrier. Presently, the noise receded.

     Tiborough turned back to Custer. “You make Benedict Arnold look like the greatest friend the United States ever had,” he said.
     “Cursing me isn’t going to help you,” Custer said. “You are going to have to live with this thing; so you’d better try understanding it.”
     “That appears to be simple,” Tiborough said. “All I have to do is send twenty-five cents to the Patent office for the schematics and then write you a letter."
     “The world already was headed toward suicide,” Custer said. “Only fools failed to realize—”
     “So you decided to give us a little push,” Tiborough said.

     “H. G. Wells warned us,” Custer said. “That’s how far back it goes, but nobody listened. Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe,’ Wells said. But those were just words. Many scientists have remarked the growth curve on the amount of raw energy becoming available to humans—and the diminishing curve on the number of persons required to use that energy. For a long time now, more and more violent power was being made available to fewer and fewer people. It was only a matter of time until total destruction was put into the hands of single individuals.

     “And you didn’t think you could take your government into your confidence.”
     “The government already was committed to a political course diametrically opposite the one this device requires,” Custer said. “Virtually every man in the government has a vested interest in not reversing that course."
     “So you set yourself above the government?”
     “I’m probably wasting my time,” Custer said, “but I'll try to explain it. Virtually every government in the world is dedicated to manipulating something called the ‘mass man.’ That’s how governments have stayed in power. But there is no such man. When you elevate the non-existent ‘mass man’ you degrade the individual. And obviously it was only a matter of time until all of us were at the mercy of the individual holding power.
     “You talk like a commie!”
     “They'll say I’m a goddamn’ capitalist pawn,” Custer said. “Let me ask you, Senator, to visualize a poor radio technician in a South American country. Brazil, for example. He lives a hand-to-mouth existence, ground down by an overbearing, unimaginative, essentially uncouth ruling oligarchy. What is he going to do when this device comes into his hands?”
     “Murder, robbery and anarchy.”
     “You could be right,” Custer said. “But we might reach an understanding out of ultimate necessity—that each of us must cooperate in maintaining the dignity of all.”

     Tiborough stared at him, began to speak musingly: “We’ll have to control the essential materials for constructing this thing…and there may be trouble for a while, but …”
     “You’re a vicious fool.”
     In the cold silence that followed, Custer said: “It was too late to try that ten years ago. I’m telling you this thing can be patch-worked out of a wide variety of materials that are already scattered over the earth. It can be made in basements and mud huts, in palaces and shacks. The key item is the crystals, but other crystals will work, too. That's obvious. A patient man can grow crystals…and this world is full of patient men.

     “I’m going to place you under arrest,” Tiborough said. “You have outraged every rule—”
     “You’re living in a dream world,” Custer said. “I refuse to threaten you, but I’ll defend myself from any attempt to oppress or degrade me. If I cannot defend myself, my friends will defend me. No man who understands what this device means will permit his dignity to be taken from him.”
     Custer allowed a moment for his words to sink in, then: “And don’t twist those words to imply a threat. Refusal to threaten a fellow human is an absolute requirement in the day that has just dawned on us.”
     “You haven’t changed a thing!” Tiborough raged. “If one man is powerful with that thing, a hundred are….”
     “All previous insults aside,” Custer said, “I think you are a highly intelligent man, Senator. I ask you to think long and hard about this device. Use of power is no longer the deciding factor because one man is as powerful as a million. Restraint—self-restraint is now the key to survival. Each of us is at the mercy of his neighbor’s good will. Each of us, Senator—the man in the palace and the man in the shack. We’d better do all we can to increase that good will—not attempting to buy it, but simply recognizing that individual dignity is the one inalienable right of …”

     “Don’t you preach at me, you commie traitor!” Tiberough rasped. “You’re a living example of …”
     It was one of the TV cameramen in the left rear of the room.
     “Let’s stop insulting Mr. Custer and hear him out,” the cameraman said.
     “Get that man’s name,” Tiborough told an aide. “If he…”
     ‘I'm an expert electronic technician, Senator,” the man said. “You can’t threaten me now.”
     Custer smiled, turned to face Tiborough.
     “The revolution begins,” Custer said. He waved a hand as the senator started to whirl away. “Sit down, Senator.”

     Wallace, watching the senator obey, saw how the balance of control had changed in this room.
     “Ideas are in the wind,” Custer said. “There comes a time for a thing to develop. It comes into being. The spinning jenny came into being because that was its time. It was based on countless ideas that had preceded it.”
     "And this is the age of the laser?” Tiborough asked.
     “It was bound to come,” Custer said. “But the number of people in the world who’re filled with hate and frustration and violence has been growing with terrible speed. You add to that the enormous danger that this might fall into the hands of just one group or nation or…” Custer shrugged.
     “This is too much power to be confined to one man or group with the hope they’ll administer wisely. I didn’t dare delay. Thats why I spread this thing now and announced it as broadly as I could.”
     Tiborough leaned back in his chair, his hands in his lap. His face was pale and beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead.
     "We won’t make it.”
     "I hope you're wrong, Senator,” Custer said. “But the only thing I know for sure is that we'd have had less chance of making it tomorrow than we have today.”

From COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE by Frank Herbert (1965)

(ed note: In the future, a nasty tyrant named Tyler used nuclear weapons to seize control of Terra and establish a global dictatorship called the "Square Deal" Directorate. Among other things he sent Interstellar Task Force One to a trans-Neptunian planet to mine and process thousands of tons of plutonium. Can't have too many atom bombs. Twenty years later the job is finished and the small fleet returns to Terra. Our heroes, Barstow and Cameron, have been accused by the Secret Police of conspiracy to commit mutiny, and are returning in chains.

However when the fleet nears Terra, it is silent. Admiral Hudd sends a scout ship to Fortress America on Luna, which finds it abandoned. But all the missiles with atomic warheads used to control Terra are still in their silos. Another scout is sent to investigate Terra, under command of an obnoxious runt bully named Lord, who is in the natural state of mankind {nasty, brutish and short}. Our Heroes are in the mission due to their technical expertise, but are closely guarded by the secret police due to their political unreliability. They land at the capital city of Americania only to find it abandoned as well. What is disturbing is the items left behind, such as sacks containing millions of dollars of currency.

As you read this keep in mind the drawbacks of libertarianism)

      “Civilians, huh ?” Sitting pygmy-like between his two husky guards, Lord turned condescendingly to Cameron. “But Mr. Hudd insisted you must come, so let’s have your expert opinion.”
     He stressed the adjective too strongly, but Cameron answered quietly: “I rather expect we’ll find the ultimate result of what the old economists used to call the division of labor.
     At the time, I failed to see the real significance of the interchange that followed, though it proved the key to much that happened later. I was merely annoyed at Cameron, and somewhat alarmed, because his talk plainly angered Lord.
     “Explain!” Lord rapped, imperiously.
     “If you like — though I'm afraid the historical principle runs counter to Squaredeal ideology.” Cameron was a little too grave. “Because I don’t believe the Directorate was created by Tyler’s unique statesmanship (i.e., nuclear blackmail), or even by the emergent dictatorship of the little man. It was. I think, just one of the end-products of the division of labor.”
     Lord blinked his heavy-lidded eyes, apparently uncertain whether this was double-talk or high treason. I kicked Cameron's foot, in a vain effort to suggest the wisdom of discretion.
     “Explain yourself,” Lord commanded sharply.
     “Nothing to it,” Cameron said easily. “The division of labor was hailed as something, wonderful—before its unpleasant final consequences came to light. One man made arrows, another hunted, and they both had more to eat. That was very fine, back in the Stone Age.
     Cameron stretched out his legs, cheerful and relaxed.
     “But it went a little farther, in the modern world. Division of labor divided mankind, and set special interests against the common good. It made specialists in mining coal, in scientific research, and even in political power, Mr. Lord. The specialists formed pressure groups, and fought to advance their own class interests—with weapons incidentally created by that same division of labor.
     “When specialists fight, the winners are apt to he the experts in war,” he continued brightly. “Thus government becomes a function of military technology, which of course derives from the basic industrial technology. The prevailing form of government, therefore—dictatorship or democracy—depends on the current status of the division of labor. That interesting relation of technology and politics was pointed out by the old philosopher, Silas McKinley.”
     Lord’s sleepy eyes glittered suspiciously. “He’s forbidden ! Where do you keep such pernicious literature ?”
     Cameron grinned, quizzically. “Once I had permission to do some research in Mr. Hudd’s very excellent library.”
     “And you’re apt to suffer for the dangerous ideas you acquired there,” Lord commented acidly. “Now what’s this nonsense, about technology and government?”

     “Political power reflects military power,” Cameron cheerfully explained. “When war is fought with cheap, simple weapons, easy for the amateur to use, then the military importance of the ordinary, citizen is reflected in his political freedom. Democracy in America was established by the flintlock, and maintained by Colt’s revolver.
     “But democracy is always threatened by any increase in specialization, especially military specialization. When weapons are expensive and complicated, requiring a class of military experts, then the ordinary man can’t defend his rights—and he therefore has no rights.
     "Democracy was murdered, on a desert in New Mexico, in 1945. Already, for a hundred years, the increasing division of labor had been forcing it into a slow decline. The same specialization that created the bomber and the tank had already reduced the free citizen to a pathetic little man, at the mercy of the corporation manager, the union leader, and the bureaucrat.
     “The atom bomb was the finish, to freedom. Because it was the final limit, to specialization. The most complicated and costly weapon, ever, its production and use required a fantastically complex division of labor. Politics had to follow the trend of technology, and totalitarian control destroyed the individual.
     Sitting half upright in the long reclining chair, Cameron gave the little Squaredealer his wry, sardonic grin.
     “Tyler thought he had conquered the world,” he concluded. “But really it was just division of labor that created the new technology of atomic war, and so destroyed the whole world’s freedom. It was just the trend of specialization that made the Directorate and flung Tyler to the top of it — no more responsible than a pebble flung up by a wave.”
     Pressed deep in the cushions, Lord sat peering back with confused suspicion in his yellow, heavy-lidded eyes. Fortunately for Cameron, he was now concerned with dangers more immediate than ideological heresy. His nasal voice rasped angrily:
     “Well? What happened—according to your theory?”
     Cameron answered his sharpness with an easy grin.
     “Quite likely, the division of labor broke down at last.”
     “Watch your manner, mister." Lord didn’t like his cool grin. “What could break it down?”
     “Rebellion, perhaps.” Cameron was properly respectful. “Fort America had a permanent garrison of nine thousand specialists in death. They were prepared to devastate any part of the Earth—or all of it. Perhaps they were just too thorough.”
     Uneasily, the little Squaredealer licked his thin lips.
     “Then why should, the fort itself be silent?”
     “Disease, perhaps—some biological agent out of control.” In Cameron’s blue eyes, I caught a faint glint of malicious amusement. “Or famine—maybe they left the Earth unable to feed them. Or cataclysm.”
     Lord fought the acceleration pressure, to sit bolt upright. His bleak narrow face was filmed with sweat of effort—and of fear.
     “Cataclysm?” He peered into Cameron’s lean, sardonic face. Explain!”
     “Twenty years at space has shown us the insensate hostility of the universe.” Now low and solemn, Cameron’s voice deepened my own unease. “Man lives at the mercy of blind chance, surviving only through a peculiar combination of improbable factors. Just suppose we find the Earth stripped of oxygen.” He grinned at Lord, satanically. “As efficiently as the planets of the Dark Star were robbed of uranium?”

(ed note: At the abandoned spaceport, one of the ships yields a log-book with a cryptic reference. It says the ship made a routine landing, then was abandoned due to something called "the equalizer." The crew left behind the ship's cargo, which was worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The scouts leave the city on foot, and soon discover a married couple living in a snug house in the country. The couple are using earth-movers, smelting equipment, and other machinery which uses huge amounts of electricity. Of course Lord and his thugs shoot them dead. He orders our heroes to examine the machines.

Our heroes are mightily puzzled because while the machines use huge amounts of electricity, there does not seem to be any power source. No power cables, no batteries, no broadcast power receptors, and certainly no nuclear reactors. But if you touch the wires you will get a nasty electrical shock.

Then Cameron notices each machine has a peculiar bit of wiring, a piece of plastic surrounded by a double coil of odd, unhelical turns.)

     Cameron came up out of the ravine, carrying something in his hand. It was a piece of thick copper wire, shaped into a double coil of oddly-shaped loops at odd-seeming angles, and held in shape with a transparent plastic rod.
     “This is it,” he said.
     The hushed elation of his low voice told more than his words. I stared at him—for something, I thought, had somehow transformed him. His emaciated body had grown proudly straight. His hollowed face was smiling, with a stern joy which almost frightened me.
     “Well?” Lord retreated a little, as if afraid of the look in Cameron’s blue eyes. His sleek black head made a quick nod, to bring his two gunmen back from the ends of the unfinished dam. “Quick—what is it?”
     Cameron held up that bit of wire on the plastic rod, with both his hands. His face had a look of solern awe—as if the thing in his hands had been, somehow, an utterly priceless treasure.
     “Speak up,” Lord rapped nervously. “What is it?”
     Cameron looked up at Lord again, with no awe at all. His blue eyes showed a sudden glint of ironic amusement. But still he held that bit of wire, as if it were a precious thing.
     “It’s what we’ve all been looking for.” Cameron’s voice held the eager ring of triumph. “It’s the reason men abandoned Fort America, and deserted the cities. It is what happened to the Directorate, and to Tyler.
     Cameron’s eyes turned sardonic.
     “It’s also what is going to happen to the Task Force,” he added softly. “And to Mr. Julian Hudd. And even to you, Mr. Lord.
     Lord’s sleepy yellow eyes slitted dangerously.
“I’ll tolerate no further insubordination,” be snapped savagely. “Just tell me what you’ve got.”
     Cameron ignored his sullenly boiling fury.
     “Chad, you remember that little gadget we called an induction furnace? Well, we were on the right track—if I hadn’t been afraid of blowing up the (spaceship) Great Director. And this is the thing we were looking for.”
     Generously, he gave me far too much credit. I had known, of course, that the device was something more than a furnace—for it made atomic changes in the metal samples we fused in it; and, instead of using power, it generated a dangerous surplus. That much I had known, and held my tongue about it.
     From me, Cameron turned impulsively to Doyle.
     “Listen for just ten minutes, captain, and you’ll be free of Lord and his sort.”
     Confusedly, Doyle shook his head.
     “Careful, Cameron.” I knew he was no friend of Lord’s, but loyalty was part of his being. His voice was shocked. “Watch yourself—that sounds like treason, you know.”
     Cameron gave him a brief, sardonic grin.
     “If there is such a thing, any longer.” His low voice turned grave again. “Though I imagine that this little device has repealed a lot of the old laws.”
     Little Lord was quivering with white-lipped fury. His hand hovered close to his gun. Yet caution or curiosity must have tempered his wrath, for he gestured sharply to halt his black-clad gunmen.
     “Explain this strange behavior, Cameron,” he snapped, “or I’ll have to shoot you down.”
     And Cameron turned back to him, with a gentle gravity.
     “No, I don’t think you’ll do that, Mr. Lord,” he said, very softly. “Because you’re an anachronism, now, along with the dinosaur and the atom bomb. Because technological advancement has passed you by.”

(ed note: Cameron walks away into the forest. Lord foams at the mouth and screams at his thugs to shoot Cameron in the legs and drag him into the brig. Cameron waves the little gizmo and a massive lightning bolt turns a giant tree near Lord into an explosion in a matchstick factory. When they pick themselves up Cameron has vanished into the forest. They all look dumbfounded as burning splinters rain out of the sky.

Lord reports to Admiral Hudd, who proceeds to ream Lord a second rectum. Hudd orders Lord to contact the inhabitants, and discover the location of their government. Then Hudd will turn it into radioactive glass with a nuclear bombardment. Hudd intends to reestablish the Directorate at all costs. Hudd lands the flagship at the location in order to take charge.

A helicopter arrives containing three inhabitants, and Cameron. They recover the bodies of the couple that Lord and his thugs had slain, and tell the scouts that they want to arrest Lord and his thugs on the charge of murder. Hudd lower the ship's ramp to come down to parlay. One of the inhabitants covers him with a hand weapon. Barstow is shocked to see that the weapon is not a pistol. It is a miniature guided missile launcher, that is it's a anti-ship weapon. He isn't covering Admiral Hudd, he's covering the flagship.

Admiral Hudd wants to know where the inhabitant's government is, and says they have to surrender or Fort America will plaster the place with atom bombs. He is astonished to learn that there is no government. And is told to fork over Lord and his thugs or face the consequences. The inhabitants do not seem to be concerned about a mere nuclear bombardment. Cameron asks the inhabitants for half an hour to try and explain the facts of life to Admiral Hudd, and grudgingly gets it. )

     Hudd sat down on a hummock of grass, breathing hard with the effort of moving his clumsy bulk. His massive shoulders bunched with bold defiance. Only the quick movements of his eyes betrayed the intense and desperate working of his mind—they were the eyes of a fighting animal, fearful, yet audacious, and altogether ruthless.
     “Now!” he gasped. “This equalizer ?”
     Cameron squatted on his heels, facing Hudd.
     “I heard the story last night. The beginning of the equalizer takes us back nearly twenty years.” Cameron’s tired, dark-smudged eyes came for a moment to me. "To your own father, Chad.”
     His haggard and yet animated face turned back to Hudd. “I think you remember Dane Barstow ?”
     "The traitor?” rumbled Hudd. "He died, I believe, in the labor camps.”
     "But he didn’t,” Cameron said. "Because Tyler learned that he was on the trail of something remarkable, and had him taken out of the camps, out to a solitary cell at Fort America. The SBI went to work on him there, with extreme interrogation (i.e., torture).”
     "Finally,” he went on, “Barstow talked. He told the SBI what he had done, and admitted all he had hoped to do. He even agreed to complete his interrupted work. Though he was half-blind and crippled from the extreme treatment, and sometimes out of his head, they took pretty drastic precautions. They kept him locked in that steel cell on the Moon. Two guards were always with him. He was allowed paper and pencil, but no other equipment. If he wanted calculations made, or any experiments tried, that was done for him by Atomic Service engineers.”
     Cameron briefly smiled, as if he shared my pride.
     “Yes, Chad, your old man was all right. Working under such difficult conditions, shattered as he was, he charted a new science and created a new technology. And then—when we (on their 20 year mission) had been out at space about two years with the Task Force—he overturned the Directorate.

     Hudd started ponderously, at Cameron's last words, and gasped heavily for his breath, and wheezed incredulously:
     "How could he do that?”
     “Not so hard, with the equalizer.” Cameron grinned at Hudd's blinking, startled stare. “Barstow smashed the Directorate, from his cell on the Moon. He didn’t need any weapons, or any equipment. All he had to do was tell his jailers what he had discovered.”
     Hudd made a hollow, croaking sound. "How’s that?”
     “The news of the equalizer spread, from one man to another,” Cameron said. “Those same engineers, who had been assigned to get the invention from him, set up a little illicit transmitter and beamed the details back to Earth with equalizer power, on every frequency they could get through the ionosphere.
     “That finished the Directorate.”

     Hudd picked up a red pebble and began nervously tapping the sod with it. “That’s too much!” His loud voice was harshly unbelieving. “No mere fact of science could defeat the Atomic Service, or wreck the Squaredeal Machine.”
     “Barstow’s equalizer did,” Cameron assured him gravely. “Perhaps because the old technology of the Atomic Age had already reached the breaking point of over-complexity and super-centralization. When Barstow created this new technology, there was a natural swing to the opposite extreme—to simplicity, individualism, and complete personal freedom.”

     “So?” Hudd thumped on 'the sod with his pebble, scowling at Cameron. “Just how does it work, this equalizer?”
     Cameron glanced doubtfully at Frank Enlow.
     “Tell him.” the gaunt man said. “Barstow wanted every man to know, and generally it has a good effect.” He glanced at a watch on his brown wrist. “But hurry—your time is running out.”
     And Cameron launched into his explanation. His fatigue seemed forgotten, and some inner excitement made his haggard face almost vivacious.

     “The old atomic power pile, you know, was an enormously clumsy and wasteful and dangerous way of doing an extremely simple thing. Pure energy exists in the atom, and that is what we want. But the pile used intractable and inadequate processes, to change kinetic and electrical and binding energy into heat, and then required expensive and inefficient machinery to turn a little of that heat back into electricity.
     “Even with all its elaborate complexity, the pile could tap only a little of the binding energy, which holds electrons and protons and neutrons together into atoms. The mass energy of the particles themselves, composing nearly all the actual energy of the atom, it couldn’t even reach.
     “Barstow’s dream—like my own—was merely a simple way of doing a simple thing. Material energy exists, as Einstein first demonstrated. Barstow dreamed of a simple way to let it flow. The equalizer is his dream, realized.”
     I couldn’t help the breathless interruption:
     “That piece of wire ?”
     “Just a solenoid.” Cameron nodded. “But wound in a certain way, not helically, so that its field slightly alters the co-ordinates of space, and slightly changes the interaction of mass and energy. The atomic particles of the solenoid are equalized, as your father termed the process, and the converted energy appears as direct current in the wire.
     “The fact is simple—even though the tensors of a new geometry are required to describe the solenoid field. That apparent complexity is more in the awkward description, however, than in the vital fact. The actual specifications of the equalizer can be memorized in five minutes.
     Cameron’s intent, elated eyes looked aside at me.
     “The safety feature is what threw us, Chad, with our induction furnace experiments,” he told me. “Our gadget annihilated matter — degenerating iron atoms into sodium — and produced electric current. The increased output intensified the conversion field, and the intensified field increased the output. An excellent arrangement, if you want a matter bomb—but highly unsafe for a power plant.
     “Your father solved that problem, Chad—very simply, too. Just a secondary solenoid, in series with the primary, which develops an opposing voltage as the equalizing field expands. It gives you a safe, guaranteed maximum voltage—the value determined by the way it’s wound.”

     Hudd’s deep-sunken eyes blinked skeptically.
     “You mean, you can generate electricity ?” he rasped. “With just a coil of wire?”
     “And a few stray ions to excite it,” Cameron told him. “A pound of copper solenoid would drive the cruiser, yonder, out to the Dark Star. Or iron, or silver—the metal doesn't matter; it’s only the precise shape and alignment and spacing of the turns of wire.
     Hudd shook his head, in massive unbelief.
     “Perpetual motion!” he scoffed.
     “Almost.” Cameron grinned. “Equalized mass is converted into energy, according to the Einstein equation. The solenoid wastes away—but slowly. One pound of solenoid will generate ten billion kilowatt hours of electricity.
     “If it’s all that simple,” Hudd objected shrewdly, “somebody would have stumbled on it, by accident.”
     “Very likely, men did,” Cameron agreed. “Not many—the shape of the coils is not one you would want, for anything else; and the turns must be very exactly formed and aligned, or else the regenerative effect is damped out. The few who did it must have been instantly electrocuted—because they didn’t also stumble on Barstow’s safety-winding.”

     “You have ten minutes to give up the killers, Mr. Hudd,” drawled Frank Enlow. “Or you’ll see a better demonstration.”
     Hudd snorted: a blast of defiance.
     “I’ll wait for it,” he gasped. “You can’t bluff me.”

     A shadow came over Cameron’s haggard face. His tired eyes closed for a moment, and I saw the blue stains under them. He sat back on his heels, his emaciated body sagging as if from a punishing blow.
     “It’s no bluff, Mr. Hudd.” He paused as if to gather himself for a weary and yet vehement protest. “You just don’t grasp what the equalizer means. It ended the Atomic Age. The Directorate was part of that lost era. You can’t hope to restore it, now, any more than you could revive a fossil tyrannosaur. You can only cause needless bloodshed and death.

     Hudd’s mouth hardened, with an unconvinced hostility.
     “Tyler spilled plenty of blood, building the first Directorate,” he commented coldly. “Perhaps I’ll have to pay the same price again, but I expect to win. Maybe Tyler's men mutinied, when they heard about this wonderful equalizer. But mine have better discipline—and they won’t hear about it.”
     “It wasn't mutiny, Mr. Hudd,” Cameron insisted. “There was no fighting. The Directorate wasn’t overthrown—it simply ceased to exist. When the equalizer happened, there was no more reason for Fort America than there is for arrow makers. The officers recognized that, as well as the men. The garrison just packed up and came home.
     “Home to what?” Hudd challenged, scowling shaggily. “The people here were already deserting the cities, leaving nearly everything they owned. There must have been something else—perhaps some frightful biotoxin, loose—to cause such panic.”
     “You still don’t get it.” Cameron shook his head, with a tired impatience. “The equalizer freed the city dwellers, just as it did the garrison. Because most people didn’t live in cities by choice. They were huddled into them by the old division of labor-specialized cogs in a social machine grown ruinously complex.
     “But the equalizer abolished the division of labor—at least in military technology. Every man with a piece of wire became a complete military specialist, competent to defend himself. With the new control of atomic and molecular processes, he could also provide for nearly all his own ordinary wants. Complexity was replaced with stark simplicity.
     “Take the couple who lived here.” He nodded regretfully at the empty house behind us. “They built their own home, made their own food and clothing. They were setting up this dam, when they were murdered, to save their own land from erosion. They weren’t slaves of any single skill, or prisoners of any class; and they had no reason to hate or fear their neighbors—until we came along.”

     Hudd blinked, still doubtful.
     “But why were the cities so utterly abandoned?” he questioned. “And all that money left behind, as Lord reports?”
     Cameron glanced up at the great frowning ship, uneasily.
     “The cities were a product of the old technology, and they died with it,” he argued doggedly. “The day of the equalizer, workers walked out and services stopped. There was no food, no power, no water, no sewage disposal. City life was impossible, without division of labor.
     “As for money, paper dollars were only shares in the extinct Atomic Age. Metal was still useful—but the equalizer must have made it easier to refine new metal than to wreck the cities.
     “Don’t you have worse criminals?” Hudd demanded. “Those who do use the equalizer?”
     Enlow shook his head.
     “The users of the equalizer have very little economic reason for crime,” he said. “And people armed with it aren’t very likely victims. It’s just because crime has become so rare, that the Hawkinses weren’t alert.”

     Hudd pulled absently at his thick lower lip.
     “If you’ve got no government,” his harsh rasp came, “then I think you’ve got a madhouse—and all the madmen armed with insane weapons.”
     Enlow shook his dark head, with a lean dignity.
     “You’re living under a false philosophy, Mr. Hudd,” he said softly. “You believe that men are evil, that they have to be driven. Fortunately, that philosophy is mistaken—because men with equalizers can’t be driven.”

(ed note: Lord thinks that Hudd is about to hand him over to be tried for murder. Lord panics. He shoots his thugs, kicks them out the hatch, and tries to escape in the scoutship. One of the thugs is only wounded, but both are incinerated by the rocket exhaust. The scoutship starts to vanish in the distance. Enlow sighs, and shoots his miniature guided missile launcher. Lord and the entire scoutship are vaporized by the miniature missile.

Hudd freaks out and runs back to the flagship, vowing to carpet bomb the place with atomic bombs. Only to discover that the crew won't let him in. It seems that Cameron had helped the inhabitants get into radio contact with the task force crew and explained how to make equalizers. All the crews of all the ships in the task force have joined the inhabitants. )

From THE EQUALIZER by Jack Williamson (1947)

(ed note: Seetee is antimatter (from the work Contraterrene or C.T.) In the story it can be found in antimatter meteor drifts in the asteroid belt. The Brand Transmitter is a species of power broadcast. Naturally the powers that be are angry at this threat to their monopoly on fission power because no empire has ever survived an energy-related phase shift with its full power intact.)

      A dull, hopeless anger took hold of Jenkins. He hated the stubborn stupidity of old Bruce O’Banion, and raged against the anonymous leaders of the, Free Space Party. He detested the complacent aristocracy of the Interplanet directors, despised the sordid greed of the Mandate bureaucrats, and bitterly scorned the cynical schemes of his uncle.
     All humanity, it seemed to him, impelled by its confusion of ignorant fears and blind desires, was somehow involved in a monstrous conspiracy against the bright dream of the Fifth Freedom. The engineering problems of the Brand transmitter were solved long ago, but the human difficulties loomed gigantic, complex beyond solution. The great barrier to human progress stood revealed as the nature of man himself.
     Urgently, he tugged at O’Banion’s arm.
     “Listen!” he whispered. “Your revolt has failed—but the Brand transmitter hasn’t. It can still bring peace and freedom to the people of the rocks—and all the planets.”

     “Physical power is the basis of political power,” he went on grimly. “The Mandate is able to oppress you because the governments of its member planets bave joined to establish a monopoly of the fissionable elements and fission energy. Your rebellion has failed to break that monopoly of power. But there is another way to do it, with a new power-source—the seetee drift!”
     They still listened, their lean, battle-soiled faces bleakly mistrustful.
     “Free power!” he whispered huskily. “Just look at the actual meaning of that. The Brand transmitter, that we’re trying to build on Freedonia, can supply free seetee energy to all men everywhere. That will mean economic freedom, and economic freedom will create political freedom. Our Freedonia plant can set you free of the Mandate and also from the rule of your own Party leaders.”

(ed note: The protagonist is dying from Seetee Shock: radiation sickness caused by being too close to a matter-antimatter explosion)

     But he towed them into place. He aligned them, with painful care. Groggily, swaying at the task, he tightened the connections and brazed them with condulloy metal. He inspected the assembly, tested all the circuits, and straightened triumphantly in the chafing confinement of his armor.
     The Brand transmitter was finished!

     Awkward now in the powered suit, he missed the high control platform. He plunged on past it, fumbling feebly at the control studs, toward the untouchable metal of the upper hemisphere and the red signs that warned: SEETEE—KEEP OFF!
     The steel rails of the terrene barrier caught him. His trembling fingers found the studs again, and he alighted at last on the platform. Abruptly ill, he vomited again. Darkness came down upon him, and he thought he was blind.
     He lay a long time, merely clinging to the platform rail, until he found that he could see again. Nearly too weak to move the stiff armor, he drew himself erect. He waited for his head to clear, and make meaning come back to the gauges and controls before him. He pressed buttons and pulled switches.
     The generator ran.
     A green indicator light told him that the Levin-Dahlberg field was functioning. The fuel-milling machines ran silently in that airless space, grinding terrene and seetee rock to dust. Separator coils refined the fuel, and paragravity injectors metered it into the reaction field.
     Matter was annihilated there, but Jenkins saw no frightful fire. He heard no ultimate crash. He was not destroyed. For the reaction field contained that raving energy, and converted it into a silent tide of power flowing in the condulloy coils.
     Meter needles crept over, as that river of tamed energy flooded higher. They steadied, as full output of the generator built up the power field extending beyond the far sun to the limits of the solar system. They dropped back suddenly, as the full potential was established and automatic relays shut off the flow of fuel.
     Swaying over the board, Jenkins pressed one final button. Fever was burning his body. Unquenchable thirst consumed him. He felt the drip of unstaunchable blood from his nose. Illness crushed him down, until only the cruel stiffness of the armor supported him. Yet he clung to consciousness, and tried to listen.

     “People of all the planets—”

     Those triumphant words came faintly from the speaker in his helmet, spoken in the deep voice of old Jim Drake. A red photophone light was flickering on the board, and his mind could see the powerful automatic photophone and ultra-wave beam transmitters above, sweeping every rock and planet in the ecliptic with that recorded announcement, as Freedonia turned.

     “The Fifth Freedom has arrived!” Drake’s canned voice proclaimed—for he had planned and toiled against this crucial hour. “Free power is flowing out from our contraterrene plant, and all you who hear can tap the power field with simple tri-polar receptors.
     “Receptor voltage is set by the dimensions of the elements, current output limited only by circuit resistance. Specifications are—”

     Jenkins vomited again, into the rubber bag beneath his chin. Sweat was clammy on his body, and the vast, untouchable machines beyond the barriers blurred and dimmed. But he tried to listen, and he heard Drake’s recorded voice again.

     “… benefit all men. But there are men too blind to see the good. There are a few selfish men and women, anxious to preserve their cruel old monopoly of power, who will attempt to stop the Brand transmitter. We beg all common men, everywhere, not to let that happen.”

     A pause, and then the tape repeated:

     “People of all the planets—

     “Open this.” Smiling mysteriously, she gave him a little package. “Ann wanted me to bring flowers, but Rick said you’d like this better. Even if it’s just a toy.”
     Eagerly, he opened the box. He found a small light bulb and another tiny gadget made of insulating plastic, sheet copper, and a few turns of wire. Peering at it, he caught his breath.
     “A Brand receptor !” he whispered. “Does it work?”
     “Try it.”
     Anxiously, he twisted the bulb into the gadget. It lit—and its tiny glow was enough to show him the illimitable might of the Brand power field, pervading all the planets of man. It was a searchlight, probing feebly into the misty splendor of a new human era.

From SEETEE SHOCK by Jack Williamson (1949)

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. 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.

Somebody observed: "Life in a fully automated world is going to be pretty awesome. For those few who survive the riots and mass starvation leading up to it..."

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."


"Scanners Live in Vain" is a science fiction short story by American writer Cordwainer Smith (pen name of American writer Paul Linebarger), set in his Instrumentality of Mankind future history. It was originally published in the magazine Fantasy Book in 1950. It was judged by the Science Fiction Writers of America to be one of the finest short stories prior to 1965 and was included in the anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964. A revised text, based on Linebarger's original manuscript, appears in the 1993 NESFA Press collection The Rediscovery of Man (where it is accompanied by a facsimile of his original cover letter) and the 2007 collection When the People Fell. The story was nominated for a Retro-Hugo award in 2001. It has been published in Hebrew, Italian, French, German and Dutch translations.

Plot summary

The story is set circa A.D. 6000. Humanity has colonized planets around other stars, but interstellar travel is constrained by the mysterious "First Effect", which causes the "Great Pain of Space" and induces a death wish in humans. Passengers on interstellar voyages are stored in cold sleep, while the crew of the spaceship is composed of Habermans: convicts and other riff-raff who have undergone an operation in which the brain is severed from all sensory input except that from the eyes. This blocks the Pain of Space but puts them somewhere between human and machine, with zombie-like behavior and disturbed psyches, dependent on constant monitoring and adjustment of their vital functions via implanted dials and regulatory instruments.

The Habermans are supervised in space by Scanners, who undergo the operation voluntarily; they are permitted, unlike the Habermans, to monitor themselves and are respected by themselves and others as essential to keeping the space lanes open and uniting the Earths of Mankind. The Scanners live a horribly lonely and difficult life, punctuated by brief intervals of cranching—use of a device that temporarily restores normal neural connectivity. They compensate by maintaining a fanatically elitist confraternity, with secret rituals and body language, absolute loyalty, and a demand for autonomy maintained by the threat that "No ships go" if any Scanner is wronged. No Scanner has ever killed another Scanner.

The protagonist of the story is Scanner Martel, set apart by his marriage to a normal woman. At the start of the story he has cranched and is trying to relax at home, but is ordered to an emergency meeting of the confraternity (such a major emergency that it even over-rides the protocol permitting a cranched member to decline to attend). The leader of the Scanners, Vomact (a member of the vom Acht or Vomact family which plays a prominent role through much of Smith's Instrumentality future history), informs the meeting that one Adam Stone is about to make public a method to prevent the Pain of Space in normal people, thereby rendering Scanners obsolete. The Scanners vote to kill Stone, and only Martel in his cranched state and his friend Chang (the only Scanner who, via long practice, can appear "normal" when not cranched) can grasp the moral and practical wrongness of this decision. When they are the only two dissenters to the murder vote, Martel tries to reach Stone before the appointed assassin and warn him. In order to enter the city where Stone lives without revealing himself to be a Scanner, Martel breaks off his specially formed fingernail, used by scanners to communicate by writing on a board attached to their chests, and symbolic of the status of being a scanner.

Martel succeeds in warning Stone, who reveals that he has also developed a new surgery that will return Scanners to normal. At this point the assassin arrives, who turns out to be Martel's other best friend, Parizianski. In a high-speed battle, Martel ends up killing Parizianski before lapsing into unconsciousness from the pain of operating in high-speed while cranched. When he awakens, he finds that he is the first Scanner that Stone has restored to normality; the Instrumentality plans to appoint all of them to be spaceship pilots, allowing them to maintain their guild, and they have agreed, albeit some reluctantly. At the very end, Martel learns from his unsuspecting wife that people have been told that Parizianski died because he was so happy upon learning the truth from Stone that he forgot to self-monitor.

From the Wikipedia entry for SCANNERS LIVE IN VAIN

Rank Has Its Privileges. That had never been more true than during the first decades of space development. One odd and predictable—yet unexpected—consequence of automation and excess productive capacity had been the re-emergence of the class system. The old aristocracy, diminished (but never quite destroyed) during the days of world-wide poverty and experimental social programs, had returned; and there were some curious additions to their ranks.

It had been surprising, but inevitable. When all of Earth's manufacturing moved to the computer-controlled assembly lines, employment needs went down as efficiency went up. Soon it was learned that in the fuzzy areas of "management" and "government," most business and development decisions could also be routinely (and more effectively) handled by computer. At the same time, lack of results and impatience with academic studies had squeezed education to a few years of mandatory schooling.

The unemployment rate grew to ninety percent. The available jobs on Earth called for no special skills—so who would get them?

Naturally, those with well-placed friends and relatives. There had been a wonderful blossoming of nepotism, unmatched within the previous thousand years. Many positions called for prospective employees to possess a "stable base of operations and adequate working materials." With living accommodations and family possessions passed on across the generations, the advantage lay always with those from the old families.

Meanwhile, away from Earth there was a real need for people. The solar system was ripe for development. It offered an environment that was demanding, dangerous, and full of unbounded opportunities. And it had a nasty habit of cancelling any man-made advantage derived from birth, wealth, or spurious academic "qualifications." Cancelling permanently.

The rich and the royal were not without their own shrewdness. After a quick look at space, they stayed home on Earth, the one place in the system where their safety, superiority, and status were all assured. It was the low-born, seeing no upward mobility on Earth, who took the big leap—outward.

The result was too effective to be the work of human planners. The tough, desperate commoners fought their way to space, generation after generation. The introduction of the Mattin Link quadrupled the rate of exodus, and the society that was left on Earth became more and more titled and self-conscious. Well-protected from material want and free from external pressures, it naturally developed an ever-increasing disdain for the emigrants— "vulgar commoners" spreading their low-born and classless fecundity through the solar system and out to the stars. Earth was the place to be for the aristocrats. The only place to be, on the Big Marble itself. Where else could anyone live who despised crudity, esteemed breeding and culture, and demanded a certain sophistication of life-style?

King Bester was a king, a genuine monarch who traced his line across thirty-two generations to the House of Saxe-Coburg. He was one of seventeen thousand royals reigning on and under Earth's surface. He regarded Tatty Snipes, Princess Tatiana Sinai-Peres of the Cabot-Kasnoggi's, as rather an upstart. She had only six centuries and twenty-two generations in her lineage. He did not say it, of course, in her presence—Tatty would have knocked the side of his royal head in with one blow of her carefully-manicured and aristocratic fist. But he certainly thought it.

And King Bester, like Tatty, was nobody's fool. He realized very well that the real power had moved away from Earth. The Quarantine operated by Solar Security applied only to people moving outward from Earth. Bester could sense the brawling, raw strength that lay in people like Luther Brachis. It ran right through the off-planet culture, and he was afraid of it. Far better to stay home, operate within the familiar rituals of the Big Marble, and take a little when the opportunity came from visitors like Mondrian and his colleagues. Those visitors were far more numerous than System government liked to admit, and they came down to Earth for reasons rarely shown on any travel permits.

From THE MIND POOL by Charles Sheffield (1993)

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 psychopaths)

(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-sighted 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)

by Zach Weinersmith

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Smart Crooks

For dishonest people, technological advances can provide new and improved ways to steal money. A fact learned the hard way by the victims of internet fraud, since the internet was not commonly available prior to 1993.

While some crimes are just an updating of age-old scams (the Nigerian Email fraud is a re-hash of the 1800's "Spanish Prisoner" confidence trick), some are new. Such as credit card skimmers and ransomware style cyberattacks.

The point is that such cutting edge scams require intelligent criminals; since they have to quickly learn the new techology, spot weak points to adapt to a scam, and implement the attack. Since such attacks seem to explode with each technological advance, the implication is that there are lots and lots of smart crooks.


Ever since people have invented things, other people have found ways to put those things to criminal use.

"It is a well-known fact that no other section of the population avail themselves more readily and speedily of the latest triumphs of science than the criminal class," declared Inspector John Bonfield, a Chicago policeman, to the Chicago Herald in 1888. "The educated criminal skims the cream from every new invention, if he can make use of it."

The telegraph was no exception. It provided unscrupulous individuals with novel opportunities for fraud, theft, and deception.

From THE VICTORIAN INTERNET by Tom Standage (1998)

(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.)

She reached up, twitched the button out of his ear, and tossed it onto a table. "Will you please lay off of that stuff for a minute, Dick?" she demanded. "I'm fed up to the eyeballs with this business of you killing yourself with all time work and no time sleep. You never had any such horrible black circles under your eyes before and you're getting positively scrawny. You've got to quit it: Can't you let somebody else carry some of the load? Delegate some authority?"

"I'm delegating all I possibly can already, Red-Top." Seaton absently rubbed his ear.

Until Dorothy had flipped it away, the button had been carrying to him a transcription of the taped reports of more than one hundred Planetary Observers from the planet of Norlamin, each with the IQ of an Einstein and the sagacity of an owl. The last report had had to do with plentiful supplies of X metal that had been turned up on a planet of Omicron Eridani, and the decision to dispatch a fleet of cargo-carrying ships to fetch them away.

But he admitted grudgingly to himself that that particular decision had already been made. His wife was a nearer problem. Paying full attention to her now, he put his arm around her and squeezed.

"Converting a whole planet practically all at once to use fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-order stuff is a job of work, believe me. It's all so new and so tough that not too many people can handle any part of it. It takes brains. And what makes it extra tough is that altogether too many people who are smart enough to learn it are crooks. Shysters-hoodlers-sticky- fingers generally. But I think we're just about over the hump. I wouldn't wonder if these Norlaminian Observers'—snoopers, really—from the Country of Youth will turn out to be the answer to prayer."

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.

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

Since we were falling free in a 24-hour circular orbit, with everything weightless and floating, you'd think that shooting craps was impossible. But a radioman named Peters figured a dodge to substitute steel dice and a magnetic field. He also eliminated the element of chance, so we fired him.

From DELILAH AND THE SPACE-RIGGER by Robert Heinlein (1949)

My life is so different from that of the overwhelming majority of people in our society that I doubt if I could even explain it to them. They exist in a fat, rich union of worlds that have almost forgotten the, meaning of the word crime. There are few malcontents and even fewer that are socially maladjusted. The few of these that are born, in spite of centuries of genetic control, are caught early and the aberration quickly adjusted. Some don’t show their weakness until they are adults, they are the ones who try their hand at petty crime — burglary, shoplifting or such. They get away with it for a week or two or a month or two, depending on the degree of their native intelligence. But sure as atomic decay — and just as predestined — the police reach out and pull them in.

That is almost the full extent of crime in our organized, dandified society. Ninety-nine per cent of it, let’s say. It is that last and vital one per cent that keeps the police departments in business. That one per cent is me, and a handful of men scattered around the galaxy. Theoretically we can’t exist, and if we do exist we can’t operate — but we do. We are the rats in the wainscoting of society — we operate outside of their barriers and outside of their rules. Society had more rats when the rules were looser; just as the old wooden buildings had more rats than the concrete buildings that came later. But they still had rats. Now that society is all ferroconcrete and stainless steel there are fewer gaps between the joints, and it takes a smart rat to find them. A stainless steel rat is right at home in this environment.

It is a proud and lonely thing to be a stainless steel rat — and it is the greatest experience in the galaxy if you can get away with it. The sociological experts can’t seem to agree why we exist, some even doubt that we do. The most widely accepted theory says that we are victims of delayed psychological disturbance that shows no evidence in childhood when it can be detected and corrected and only appears later in life. I have naturally given a lot of thought to the topic and I don’t hold with that idea at all.

From THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT by Harry Harrison (1961)

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)

Some humans would do anything to see if it was possible to do it. If you put a large switch in some cave somewhere, with a sign on it saying 'End-of-the-World Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH', the paint wouldn't even have time to dry.

From THIEF OF TIME by Terry Pratchett (2001)
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 disintegrators 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.

Note that this can also apply to a human primitive extraterrestrial colony, as well as primitive aliens. Say a Lost Colony or a former planet of the Terran Galactic Empire that followed the empire into the Long Night.

The Prime Directive

The danger of screwing up the development of primitive natives 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. The concept also appears in Ursula K. Le Guin's THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS (1969) under the name Law of Cultural Embargo: "nothing is to be given to a people until they evolve to the point where they are ready for it." Though the unanswered question is "Who decides if the people have evolved enough or not?"

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 spontaneously develop psionic powers.


(ed note: In the future there is a interstellar-wide organized crime syndicate who the police called "the enemy." Protagonist Maynard has some undetermined ability that could be of use to the police to fight the enemy. The police give him a battery of tests to try and find out what his ability is.)

      "One more question, do your dreams, generally, make sense?"
     "About half and half."
     "Fifty per cent, a high average." One of them rose. "Mr. Maynard, we are fumbling in the dark but your dreams are the only lead we have to this unspecified deviation. We therefore, propose putting you to sleep for a short period. We shall give a small hypnotic pill and, under its influence, you will tell us your dream as you dream it."
     "How can you be sure I shall dream?"
     "Dreams take place at certain levels of sleep well known to science. The drug ensures that your sleep state will be maintained in that level."
     One of them came forward. "Now if you will just swallow this please — take a sip of water, fine. Now, if we adjust your chair so — just relax, Mr. Maynard, nothing to worry about, nothing at all — "

     He drifted into sleep and into the dream in an almost leisurely way. He knew as soon as it began that it was a dream and yet at the same time it was so vivid, it seemed like waking elsewhere.
     The first things he saw were the stars in a night sky and the stars were myriad and brilliant. He had never seen stars like that before and yet, in some odd way, they were familiar. Somewhere there was the slap and sigh of water and a creaking noise — rigging! He was on a ship! A high-bridged wooden sailing ship with the sloping sails of the ancient Arab dhow.

     Later when trying to recall the dream, he tried to pinpoint the time when he lost his identity but was never able to do so. One minute he was Maynard, asleep and knowing he was dreaming, and the next Matt Kern, and Matt Kern had never heard of Maynard.
     He walked to the rail nervously and looked down at the water. Still brightly phosphorescent, no sign of King-spinner which so often tore ships apart. In which case, of course, they would make Terrentis at dawn with everything in their favour. Well, almost everything, the sun would be in the eyes of the land gunners and Portis Royal fleet.
     He fingered his knife nervously. The Royal fleet, seventy six men-of-war and thirty heavily armed Speedsails. This lot plus all the shore batteries which surrounded Terrentis harbour they were going to take on with one ship. He shivered. He didn't mind a fight, a fight in which he stood a chance but this was suicide. Unless — he looked uneasily forward — unless the gun worked.

     KERN edged forward, looking uneasily at the long, slender barrel with its sort of funnel end. It didn't even look like a gun and those brass coloured things were certainly not cannon balls or chain-shot. In truth he suspected that the gun was some kind of sorcery. It was rumoured that the Monarch had made a pact with the devils who dwelt in the dark mountains. Devils whose dancing lights could be seen from the high towers of the keep on a dark night.
     He realized abruptly that it was growing light, it would of course be some time yet but — It did not seem like some time, it seemed to come all too quickly with the great yellow sun rising rapidly above the sloping green land of Terrentis.

     To the left of the harbour a thin column of black smoke began to climb skywards to be joined almost immediately by another on the right. Signal fires! Already the intruder had been sighted, the bright scarlet sails determining its identity. Enemy vessel approaching under full sail! Even as he thought, the booming of warning gongs rolled faintly to them across the water. The garrison, the town and the entire fleet were now alert and waiting. So much for the advantage of surprise.

     They sailed on steadily and, in the harbour, sails began to climb the masts of the Royal fleet. He could imagine winches turning and anchors rising from the green water. More important, at the moment, however, were the coastal and harbour defences. Black powder being poured into squat cannon, naked men ramming down ball and chain shot with long poles.

     "Heave to!"
     Kern stiffened. Heave to? Had he heard aright? Yet the sails were coming down and sea-anchors were being tossed over the side. They needed another four hundred lengths at least before they could begin to fight. Worse, three Royal men-of-war were breasting the harbour side by side, vessels which out-ranged and out-gunned their own by a good twelve lengths.

     It was then that the sky seemed to split. Kern was hardened to the noise of cannon but not a sound such as this. It was like someone striking an enormous gong with an iron hammer too quickly to follow.
     Open-mouthed he saw the leading man-of-war literally fall apart in a geyser of red flame and black smoke. The mainmast, complete with sail, rose high in the air and fell with a splash into the green sea. Before he could take it in, fire and smoke ripped the entire side out of the second vessel which immediately keeled over and began to sink. He saw nothing happen to the third vessel but, when he looked for it, it was a mastless wreck, down by the stern and blazing furiously.

     Maynard woke slowly and was surprised to see that the three experts had increased to ten.
     They began to fire questions at him before he had fully reoriented himself.
     "How big was this vessel? Describe, if you can, the appearance of the stars."
     Even as he answered, he could hear others talking quickly: "Cisterine, undoubtedly, it explains the additional stocks of Cuderium, no wonder shares fell by twelve points. Our friends have been mining it wholesale."
     "How did they get past the patrols?"
     "Your guess is as good as mine. What riles me, however, is the fact that they had to play God to pass the time."
     Another, rather ageing voice, said: "Oh, indeed, no, not merely to pass the time, take a look at this — "
     One of his original questioners came over. "Well, Maynard, undoubtedly, you have blown the roof off something as you can see. In the meantime, a few words in private, this way, please."

     He paused and glanced at his watch. "Time we had something to eat, after which some relaxation, we have to watch popular dimensional (TV show in the three-dimensional television). I have one in my quarters, the programme should prove most interesting."
     "Friday Night Spectacular." Reed flicked on the switch with his index finger. "This is a blood and thunder gigantic with all the stops pulled out and has a high popularity rating among the masses. It varies between the ancient western, tongue-in-the-cheek cops and robbers and space opera."
     There were the usual commercials and then the spectacular. It was space opera, great ships descending on a primitive planet. He watched with growing boredom for twenty minutes then jerked upright. He knew that harbour! Terrentis! The Royal fleet riding at anchor in the harbour and, far out, a tiny speck with bright red sails.
     "I think you've seen enough." Reed cut the picture. "Come along to the operations room, for once the Enemy is going to take quite a clobbering."

     He paused and indicated a chair. "Do sit down, make yourself comfortable." He sat down facing them. "As you know from history, four hundred years ago, there was a war of independence among our stellar colonies. During that war, four recently colonized planets were completely cut off. Vessels carrying vital equipment failed to arrive and, in the hundred-year combat which followed, the colonists on these worlds lost their technology. Superstition replaced knowledge. They slipped to a period roughly approximating sixteenth-century earth which was pretty good considering that they had only memory, records, and the clothes they stood up in with which to build. Every time someone died, knowledge died with them, you get the picture.

     "It was felt, when the first cautious surveys were made, that it would be in the interests of these cultures generally, if they climbed to a period roughly approaching the twentieth century before being united with the Empire. The experts felt that too early a contact might have dangerous repercussions on these cultures. Further, with the growing strength of the Enemy they would undoubtedly be exploited, turned into side-shows and perhaps perish as individual and vital off-shoots of mankind's climb to the stars.
     "Warning monitors were therefore placed in orbit round these planets and regular patrols instituted. It was known, needless to say, that Cisterine, the planet in question, was rich in Cuderium and here precautions were doubled.
     "The Enemy, however, has some ingenious scientists on its payroll and they managed to by-pass the monitors and evade the patrols without triggering the alarms. Judging by figures to hand, they had mined and ferried out a couple of billions worth of Cuderium before they were discovered.

     "While this was going on, the executives in charge became bored. They therefore decided to amuse themselves, playing God.
     "The peoples of the planet's two continents, if not friends, had never been overt enemies, so the executives drummed up a little war to make their stay more interesting. It was then that some bright spark had the idea of making a profit out of it. Why not hook up some cameras? Make a good spectacular and profit out of indulgence appealed to them greatly.
     "The spectacular (a popular TV show), as you did not see all of it, is worth mentioning. It depicted an heroic spaceman marooned on a primitive planet. He falls among a noble race whose lands and seaboards are being constantly ravished and plundered by the brutal Royal fleets of the adjacent continent. Out of love of the people and, incidentally, unlikely local materials, he builds a quick-firing gun and sallies forth in their only available ship to do battle for them. Needless to say, the battle scenes were impressive and the backgrounds so skilfully disguised that, but for your 'dream' we should never have put two and two together."

From BUTTERFLY PLANET by Philip E. High (1971)

One of the many Things Mr. Welch Is No Longer Allowed To Do in an role-playing-game is: give feuding tech-level 1 tribes some tech-level 12 weapons and post the results on Pay-Per-View.

(ed note: see above)


"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)

In the later Roman Empire, slaves actually outnumbered citizens. This interesting situation caused the Romans a number of problems throughout their history. In 73 BC, a Thracian slave named Spartacus led a slave revolt in what came to be known as the Third Servile War. Spartacus’s revolt scared the Romans as nothing else had done in hundreds of years. After they put down the insurrection, they crucified those slaves they captured, lining the Appian Way with their bodies for miles. (Contrary to the 1960 movie starring Kirk Douglas, Spartacus died in the final battle and was not crucified.)

After such a close call, you would think that Rome would give up the dangerous practice of enslaving their neighbors. They not only didn’t give it up; they increased the number of slaves in the empire! It wasn’t that they didn’t understand the danger. Rather, they couldn’t afford to end slavery. The Roman economy depended on slave labor, all because they somehow failed to discover one of the great inventions of all time — the horse collar.

“THE HORSE COLLAR!” you groan. “Surely you can’t be serious. What do horse collars have to do with slavery?”

They have everything to do with it. The Romans harnessed their horses by wrapping a leather strap around their necks. When the horses attempted to pull a heavy load, the strap cut off their supply of air, and the horses eased up enough to breathe. The result of using neck straps was to severely limit a horse’s pulling power. Human physiology allowed slaves to be harnessed such that they took the load through their shoulders and could use their full power without affecting their breathing. The result was that in Roman times, a slave could win a tug- of-war with a horse! Since human slaves were able to pull heavier loads, could be fed table scraps or garbage (horses eat grain), and are generally more intelligent than equines, they became the prime means for doing work in the Roman Empire. And like any other prized possession, the Romans worked to increase their numbers, despite the ever-present danger of a revolt.

There are numerous other examples of basic inventions the Romans did not have the foresight to invent, including the steel plowshare or stirrups for their saddles. A little known fact is that the Middle Ages were substantially more advanced from a technological standpoint than was the Roman Empire. What medieval man lacked, however, was the large-scale organizational ability of the Romans. No king, duke, or earl had control of a sufficient number of subjects to build anything approaching a Roman road, even if he had the knowledge of how to build a better one. Which brings us to the reason why Rome was able to conquer the known world and keep it in subjugation for more than a thousand years.

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

(ed note: The interstellar flying cities are sort of like migrant laborers of space. They find human colony worlds and perform services in exchange for valuable minerals and such. Services include things like large scale mining and establishing industrial infrastructure.

The cities have to answer to the Earth Cops if they violate Earth laws, such as changing a colony's social system. Such changes might take a hundred years, but since both the Earth Cops and the cities use immortality drugs, the city perpetrators will still be alive and the cops have long memories.)

      Chris suspected that most of the citizens found the newscasts almost as dim-witted and uninformative as he did. What little meaningful information he was able to garner, he got from Sgt. Anderson, and that was not very much, for the perimeter sergeant was hardly ever home now; he was too busy consolidating the beachhead on Heaven. Nevertheless, Chris picked up a few fragments, mostly from conversations between the sergeant and Carla:

     “What they want us to do is to help them industrialize the planet. It sounds easy, but the kicker is that their social setup is feudal—the sixty-six thousand people they call the Elect are actually only free landholders or franklins, and below them there’s a huge number of serfs — nobody’s ever bothered to count them. The Archangels want it to stay that way even after they’ve got their heavy industries established.”
     “It sounds impossible,” Carla said.
     “It is impossible, as they’ll find out when we’ve finished the job. But that’s exactly the trouble. We’re not allowed to change planets’ social systems, but we can’t complete this contract without starting a revolution—a long, slow one, sure, but a revolution all the same. And when the cops come here afterward and find that out, we’ll have a Violation to answer for.”

     Carla laughed musically. “The cops! My dear, is that still a three-letter word for you? What else are you? How many more centuries is it going to take you to get used to it?”
     “You know what I mean,” Anderson said, frowning. “So all right, I’m a cop. But I’m not an Earth cop. I’m a city cop, and that makes all the difference. Well, we’ll see. What’s for lunch? I’ve got to go in half an hour.”

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

(ed note: Ronald Bronston has been accepted in the bureau of interplanetary security of the United Planets. He is being briefed by his new boss, Ross Metaxa.)

      “To get back to Section G. We’re Interplanetary Security. In short, Department Cloak and Dagger. Now, shut up till I give you some background. You’re probably full of a lot of nonsense you picked up in school.”
     “It seems that most of the times man gets a really big idea, he goes off half cocked. Just one example. Remember when the ancient Hellenes exploded into the Mediterranean? A score of different City-States began sending out colonies, which in turn sprouted colonies of their own. Take Syracuse, on Sicily. Hardly was she established than, bingo, she sent off colonists to Southern Italy, and they in turn to Southern France, Corsica, the Balearics. Greeks were exploding all over the place, largely without adequate plans, without rhyme or reason. Take Alexander. Roamed off all the way to India, founding cities and colonies of Greeks all along the way.”
     The older man shifted in his chair. “You wonder what I’m getting at, eh? Well, much the same thing is happening in man’s explosion into space, now that he has the ability to leave the solar system behind. Dashing off half cocked, in all directions, he’s flowing out over this section of the galaxy without plan, without rhyme or reason. I take that last back, he has reasons all right—some of the screwist. Religious reasons, racial reasons, idealistic reasons, political reasons, altruistic reasons and mercenary reasons.
     “Inadequate ships, manned by small numbers of inadequate people, setting out to find their own planets, to establish themselves on one of the numberless uninhabited worlds that offer themselves to colonization and exploitation.”

     Ronny cleared his throat. “Well, isn’t that a good thing, sir?”
     Ross Metaxa looked at him and grunted. “What difference does it make if it’s good or not? It’s happening. We’re spreading our race out over tens of hundreds of new worlds in the most haphazard fashion. As a result, we of United Planets now have a chaotic mishmash on our hands. How we manage to keep as many planets in the organization as we do, sometimes baffles me. I suppose most of them are afraid to drop out, conscious of the protection UP gives against each other.”
     He picked up a report. “Here’s Monet, originally colonized by a bunch of painters, writers, musicians and such. They had dreams of starting a new race”—Metaxa snorted—“with everybody artists. They were all so impractical that they even managed to crash their ship on landing. For three hundred years they were uncontacted. What did they have in the way of government by that time? A military theocracy, something like the Aztecs of Pre-Conquest Mexico. A matriarchy, at that. And what’s their religion based on? That of ancient Phoenicia including plenty of human sacrifice to good old Moloch. What can United Planets do about it, now that they’ve become a member? Work away very delicately, trying to get them to at least eliminate the child sacrifice phase of their culture. Will they do it? Hell no, not if they can help it. The Head Priestess and her clique are afraid that if they don’t have the threat of sacrifice to hold over the people, they’ll be overthrown.”

     Ronny was surprised. “I’d never heard of a member planet like that. Monet?”
     Metaxa sighed. “No, of course not. You’ve got a lot to learn, Ronny, my lad. First of all, what’re Articles One and Two of the United Planets Charter.”
     That was easy. Ronny recited. “Article One: The United Planets organization shall take no steps to interfere with the internal political, socio-economic, or religious institutions of its members planet. Article Two: No member planet of United Planets shall interfere with the internalpolitical, socio-economic or religious institutions of any other member planet." He looked at the department head. “But what’s that got to do with the fact that I was unfamiliar with even the existence of Monet?”
     “Suppose one of the advanced planets, or even Earth itself,” Metaxa growled, “openly discussed in magazines, on newscasts, or wherever, the religious system of Monet. A howl would go up among the liberals, the progressives, the do-gooders. And the howl would be heard on the other advanced planets. EventuaUy, the citizen in the street on Monet would hear about it and be affected. And before you knew it, a howl would go up from Monet’s government. Why? Because the other planets would be interfering with her internal affairs, simply by discussing them.”
     “So what you mean is,” Ronny said, “part of our job is to keep information about Monet’s government and religion from being discussed at all on other member planets.”
     “That’s right,” Metaxa nodded. “And that’s just one of our dirty little jobs. One of many. Section G, believe me, gets them all. Which brings us to your first assignment.”

     “I’m sending you out after a legend, Ronny. You’re fresh, possibly you’ll get some ideas older men in the game haven’t thought of.”
     “A legend?”
     “I’m sending you to look for Tommy Paine. Some members of the department don’t think he exists. I do.”
     “Tommy Paine?”
     “A pseudonym that somebody hung on him way back before even my memory in this Section. Did you ever hear of Thomas Paine in American history?”
     “He wrote a pamphlet during the Revolutionary War, didn’t he?”
     “ ‘Common Sense,’ ” Metaxa nodded. “But he was more than that. He was born in England but went to America as a young man and his writings probably did as much as anything to put over the revolt against the British. But that wasn’t enough. When that revolution was successful he went back to England and tried to start one there. The government almost caught him, but he escaped and got to France where he participated in the French Revolution.”
     “He seemed to get around,” Ronny Bronston said.
     “And so does this namesake of his. We’ve been trying to catch up with him for some twenty years. How long before that he was active, we have no way of knowing. It was some time before we became aware of the fact that half the revolts, rebellions, revolutions and such that occur in the United Planets have his dirty finger stirring around in them.”
     “But you said some department members don’t believe in his existence.” Metaxa grunted. “They’re working on the theory that no one man could do all that Tommy Paine has laid to him. Possibly it’s true that he sometimes gets the blame for accomplishments not his. Or, for that matter, possibly he’s more than one person. I don’t know.”
     “Don’t read into the United Planets organization more than there is. It’s a fragile institution with practically no independent powers to wield. Every member planet is jealous of its prerogitives, which is understandable. It’s no mistake that Articles One and Two are the basic foundation of the Charter. No member planet wants to be interfered with by any other or by United Planets as an organization. They want to be left alone.”

(ed note: Ronald is sent to be briefed by his immediate supervisor, Sid Jakes)

     “Sure, sure,” Jakes said. “This deal of mine was on one of the Aldebaran planets. A bunch of nature boys had settled there.”
     “Nature boys?”
     “Um-m-m. Back to nature. The trouble with the human race is that it’s got too far away from nature. So a whole flock of them landed on this planet. They call it Mother, of all things. They landed and set up a primitive society. Absolute stone age. No metals. Lived by the chase and by picking berries, wild fruit, that sort of thing. Not even any agriculture. Wore skins. Bows and arrows were the nearest thing they allowed themselves in the way of mechanical devices.”
     “Good grief,” Ronny said.
     “It was a laugh,” Jakes told him. “I was assigned there as Section G representative with the UP organization. Picture it. We had to wear skins for clothes. We had to confine ourselves to two or three long houses. Something like the American Iroquois lived in before Columbus. Their society on Mother was based on primitive communism. The clan, the phratry, the tribe. Their religion was mostly a matter of knocking into everybody’s head that any progress was taboo. Oh, it was great.”
     “Well, were they happy?”
     “What’s happiness? I suppose they were as happy as anybody ever averages. Frankly, I didn’t mind the assignment. Lots of fishing, lots of hunting.”

     Ronny said, “Well, where does Tommy Paine come in?”
     “He snuck up on us. Started way back in the boondocks away from any of the larger primitive settlements. Went around putting himself over as a holy man. Cured people of various things from gangrene to eye diseases. Given antibiotics and such, you can imagine how successful he was.
     “Well, what harm did he do?”
     “I didn’t say he did any harm. But in that manner he made himself awfully popular. Then he’d pull some trick like showing them how to smelt iron, and distribute some corn and wheat seed around and plant the idea of agriculture. The local witch doctors would try to give him a hard time, but the people figured he was a holy man.
     “Well, what happened finally?” Ronny wasn’t following too well.
     “Communications being what they were, before he’d been discovered by the central organization—they had a kind of Council of Tribes which met once a year—he’d planted so many ideas that they couldn’t be stopped. The young people’d never go back to flint knives, once introduced to iron. We went looking for friend Tommy Paine, but he got wind of it and took off. We even found where he’d hidden his little space cruiser. Oh, it was Paine, all right, all right.”
     “But what harm did he do? I don’t understand,” Ronny scowled.
     “He threw the whole shebang on its ear. Last I heard, the planet had broken up into three main camps. They were whaling away at each other like the Assyrians and Egyptians. Iron weapons, chariots, domesticated horses. Agriculture was sweeping the planet. Population was exploding. Men were making slaves out of each other, to put them to work. Oh, it was a mess from the viewpoint of the original nature boys.”

     “Look,” Ronny said in disgust one day after a particularly unbelievable siege with two agents recently returned from a trouble spot in a planetary system that involved three aggressive worlds which revolved about the same sun. “Look, it’s impossible for one man to accomplish all this. He’s blamed for half the coups d'etats, revolts and upheavals that have taken place for the past quarter century. It’s obvious nonsense. Why, a revolutionist usually spends the greater part of his life toppling a government. Then, once it’s toppled, he spends the rest of his life trying to set up a new government—and he’s usually unsuccessful.”
     One of the others was shaking his head negatively. “You don’t understand this Tommy Paine’s system, Bronston.”
     “You sure don’t,” the other agent, a Nigerian, grinned widely, “I’ve been on planets where he’d operated.”
     Ronny leaned forward. The three of them were having a beer in a part of the city once called Baltimore. “You have?” he said. “Tell me about it, eh? The more background I get on this guy, the better.”
     “Sure. And this’ll give you an idea of how he operates, how he can get so much trouble done. Well, I was on this planet Goshen, understand? It had kind of a strange history. A bunch of colonists went out there, oh, four or five centuries ago. Pretty healthy expedition, as such outfits go. Bright young people, lots of equipment, lots of know-how and books. Well, through sheer bad luck everything went wrong from the beginning. Everything. Before they got set up at all they had an explosion that killed off all their communications technicians. They lost contact with the outside. O.K. Within a couple of centuries they’d gotten into a state of chatel slavery. Pretty well organized, but static. Kind of an Athenian Democracy on top, a hierarchy, but nineteen people out of twenty were slaves, and I mean real slaves, like animals. They were at this stage when a scout ship from the UP Space Forces discovered them and, of course, they joined up.”
     “Where does Tommy Paine come in?” Ronny said. He signaled to a waiter for more beer.
     “He comes in a few years later. I was the Section G agent on Goshen, understand? No planet was keener about Articles One and Two of the UP Charter. The hierarchy understood well enough that if their people ever came to know about more advanced socio-economic systems it’d be the end of Goshen’s Golden Age. So they allowed practically no intercourse. No contact whatsoever between UP personnel and anyone outside the upper class, understand? All right. That’s where Tommy Paine came in. It couldn’t have taken him more than a couple of months at most.
     Ronny Bronston was fascinated. “What’d he do?”
     “He introduced the steam engine, and then left.”
     Ronny was looking at him blankly. “Steam engine?”
     “That and the fly shuttle and the spinning jenny,” the Nigerian said. “That Goshen hierarchy never knew what hit them.”
     Ronny was still blank. The waiter came up with the steins of beer, and Ronny took one and drained half of it without taking his eyes from the storyteller.
     The other agent took it up. “Don’t you see? Their system was based on chattel slavery, hand labor. Given machinery and it collapses. Chattel slavery isn’t practical in a mechanized society. Too expensive a labor force, for one thing. Besides, you need an educated man and one with some initiative—qualities that few slaves possess—to run an industrial society.”
     Ronny finished his beer. “Smart cooky, isn’t he?”
     “He’s smart all right. But I’ve got a still better example of his fouling up a whole planetary socio-economic system in a matter of weeks. A friend of mine was working on a planet with a highly developed feudalism. Barons, lord, dukes, counts and no-accounts, all stashed safely away in castles and fortresses up on the top of hills. The serfs down below did all the work in the fields, provided servants, artisans and foot soldiers for the continual fighting that the aristocracy carried on. Very similar to Europe back in the Dark Ages.
     “So?” Ronny said. “I’d think that’d be a deal that would take centuries to change.
     The Section G agent laughed. “Tommy Paine stayed just long enough to introduce gunpowder. That was the end of those impregnable castles up on the hills .

From PLANETARY AGENT X by Mack Reynolds (1961)

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: The exploration ship Stardust is exploring Cyrene. The life forms look like half-meter cubes who can teleport and talk telepathically. They all have perfectly square bodies in various colors. The brutish gray cubes who are invading are crude and have irregular shapes. A battle is coming, and the perfect cubes ask the Stardust crew for help.)

     “I’ve felt since yesterday that we’ve dropped in on a crisis on this planet. Ridiculous, isn’t it? A soundless, motionless crisis. Our boys here are not quite sure what to do about it. I think, since we’ve been identified as intelligent and disciplined, that we represent hope. I think we’re being asked for help.”
     “And how in the ever-loving—” Pegleg paused, glanced at the cube, and then fixed me with a cold eye. “Suppose we could do something, though what, at this moment, I wouldn’t have an idea. But I do know the basic regulation under which the Stardust operates, and so do you. No interference! We discover, we observe, we record and collate data, we make recommendations, but we keep hands off. We don’t take sides. We don’t sit in judgment. We don’t play God!”

     For the first time, I felt a slight pulse from the cube. There was dismay in it, and, I am sure, a plea for further hearing. That, it should have realized, was unnecessary. Nothing could have kept us from finding out everything we could about this unusual situation. But Pegleg’s warning was apropos. We could defend ourselves, but we were forbidden to interfere in the affairs of any aware species.
     I turned back to the cube. I explained that advice—that most plentiful commodity in the Galaxy—was our limit. But if it wanted the benefit of our vast and varied experience, it was available for the asking.
     “Boy, you’re comy," Pegleg said, and I guess I was.

     The cube was gratified, though. Apparently it hadn’t expected or even wanted anything more. And at this point it quit serving as solitary ambassador to us, the Earth visitors. It asked for, and got, assistance.
     “One more thing!” Pegleg’s narrow face was interested and intent, and I’d have sworn he had forgotten all about the no-interference rule. At any rate, he was taking sides as much as I was. “What can you do in your own defense? You must have been able to handle them once, since your ancestors confined them to the Island in the first place."
     The answer was not clear. It was evident that the cubes themselves didn’t know. But they seemed to feel that theirs was a far more refined energy output and control, that weight unit for weight unit they could beat down the grays into permanent disintegration. The size factor made it tricky.
     “Then don‘t go down on the beaches at all,” Pegleg advised. “Keep to the dunes and the slopes back of them. Let the wheels sweep the beaches. And when the grays materialize on the slopes, attack them with organized groups of fours, one from each of the four sides. They’ll probably be scattered enough to make that possible, and four of you can take one of them, can’t you?”
     The wave of comprehending wonderment that washed over us was something I can’t describe. It was like the delighted look on a child’s face when he first is shown how two and two make four.

     Maybe we shouldn’t have done it. Perhaps it was wrong. For there is no doubt that with our simple battle plan we interfered with the logical progress and ultimate end of the life of a planet, a decimating process that already had reduced the myriad ancestral species to four life forms. Had we not involved the wheels, it is likely that the gray imperfects would have overrun the mainland and swallowed up or completely contaminated the rainbow race. With their lack of awareness of the deadliness of the wheels, they may in their turn have been harried out of existence. Then the wheels would have become extinct, for they couldn’t exist on the lettuce alone.
     But that’s second-guessing. That’s looking back. Technically, or at least physically, we didn’t interfere. Advice was our limit. And when we had given it and the satisfaction and relief had welled up around us, suddenly we were alone on the crest of the little slope. A feeling of thanks lingered in the air.



Earth Calendar A.D. 2123. Log entry 41. Roscoe Kissinger, bcologist. Also Dr. Linda Kissinger, Microbiologist and Dr. Pegleg Williams, Geologist.

Twenty-sixth day, post landing.

     Well, we did it.

     It was a judgment thing and maybe we bent the letters of the ISC ruling that says: No interference with the lives or the activities of an aware species. For they are aware. No doubt about that. More than aware. Highly intelligent, with a social structure undoubtedly satisfying and effective.
     They have an ecologically balanced economy that Earth might take note of. And they had—note had—an economic problem. And that’s where we bent the letter. We solved it for them.
     Technically we have an out, I suppose. Without any interference, three crew members would have had to move lively to save the skin of at least one of them. Being that one, I’d have to say that it would have been tricky. But Lindy is good with that laser.
     We didn‘t have to kill the thing. Our hand lasers could have— and did—cause it to cast off appendages. Like its normal species-mates, it probably would have regenerated them in time. But that would have called for more food. And that, I think, was the problem.
     The thing was a mutant, a mutant crab-being. How old it was is an interesting speculation, but we have no data at all. Undoubtedly it grew in proportion to the amount of food they brought it, and every molt upped its requirements for nourishment. And finally its need was greater than the environment could produce. That was why it ran amok.
     I think we saved a race from serious damage or destruction—a civilization, of sorts. I agree that that’s no part of our function. The Galaxy must be full of disintegrating ecosystems. And it could be that maybe we just postponed destruction, because the intense hard radiation in the sun’s rays must cause many a mutation. They may recognize these and do something about them. If so, the giant got away from them.
     It may be judged interference, but I’ll never regret the demise of the mutant. If the International Space Council rules that we've exceeded our mandate, we’ll just have to take our lumps. What do they know? A varmint as tall as a hill, with a diameter as great as the length of a football field, sopping up the biomass of a whole ecosystem and giving nothing but its wastes in retum—uh-uh! If the aware life of this part of the planet were to survive, he had to go. He couldn’t have persisted much longer anyhow.

From THE STARDUST VOYAGES by Stephen Tall (1975)

      ‘No,’ Falcon answered, after switching to the highest power of the telescope. ‘But here’s something odd. Do you see this pattern? Check back on the earlier images. l’m sure it wasn’t there before.
     A broad, mottled band had appeared along the side of the medusa. It formed a startlingly regular checkerboard, each square of which was itself speckled in a complex subpattern of short horizontal lines. They were spaced at equal distances in a geometrically perfect array of rows and columns.
     ‘You’re right,’ said Dr Brenner, with something very much like awe in voice. ‘That’s just appeared. And I’m afraid to tell you what I think it is.’
     ‘Well, I have no reputation to lose, at least as a biologist. Shall I give my guess?’
     ‘Go ahead.’
     ‘That’s a large meter-band radio array. The sort of thing they used back at the beginning of the twentieth century.
     ‘I was afraid you’d say that. Now we know why it gave such a massive echo.’
     ‘But why has it just appeared?’
     ‘Probably an aftereffect of the discharge.
     ‘I’ve just had another thought,’ said Falcon, rather slowly. ‘Do you ppose it’s listening to us?’
     ‘On this frequency? I doubt it. Those are meter, no, decameter antennas judging by their size. Hmm... that an idea!’
     Dr Brenner fell silent, obviously contemplating some new line of thought. pesently he continued: ‘I bet they’re tuned to the radio outbursts! That’s something nature never got around to doing on Earth.... We have animals with sonar and even electric senses, but nothing ever developed a radio sense. Why bother where there was so much light? But it’s different here. Jupiter is drenched with radio energy. It’s worth hue using it, maybe even tapping it. That thing could be a floating power plant!’

     A new voice cut into the conversation.
     ‘Mission Commander here. This is all very interesting, but there’s a much more important matter to settle. Is it intelligent? If so, we’ve got to consider the First Contact directives.’
     ‘Until I came here,’ said Dr Brenner, somewhat ruefully, ‘I would have sworn that anything that could make a shortwave antenna system must be intelligent. Now, I’m not sure. This could have evolved naturally. I suppose its no more fantastic than the human eye.
     ‘Then we have to play safe and assume intelligence. For the present, therefore, this expedition comes under all the clauses of the Prime directive.

     There was a long silence while everyone on the radio circuit absorbed the implications of this. For the first time in the history of space flight, the rules that had been established through more than a century of argument, might have to be applied. Man had, it was hoped, profited from his mistakes on Earth. Not only moral considerations, but also his own self-interest demanded that he should not repeat them among the planets. It could be disastrous to treat a superior intelligence as the American settlers had treated the Indians, or as almost everyone had treated the Africans.
     The first rule was: keep your distance. Make no attempt to approach, or even to communicate, until ‘they’ have had plenty of time to study you. Exactly what was meant by ‘plenty of time’, no one had ever been able to decide. It was left to the discretion of the man on the spot.
     A responsibility of which he had never dreamed had descended upon Howard Falcon. In the few hours that remained to him on Jupiter, he might become the first ambassador of the human race.
     And that was an irony so delicious that he almost wished the surgeons had restored to him the power of laughter.

(ed note: because Howard Falcon is a cyborg, and has been having doubts lately if he was still a member of the human race)

     Suddenly, with startling power, he heard the sound that had come booming out of the Jovian night, the throbbing beat that grew more and more rapid, then stopped in mid-crescendo. The whole capsule vibrated with it like a pea in a kettledrum.
     Falcon realised two things almost simultaneously during the sudden, aching silence. This time the sound was not coming from thousands of miles away, over a radio circuit. It was in the very atmosphere around him.
     The second thought was even more disturbing. He had quite forgotten, it was inexcusable, but there had been other apparently more important things on his mind, that most of the sky above him was completely blanked out by Kon-Tikj’s gasbag. Being lightly silvered to conserve its heat, the great balloon was an effective shield both to radar and to vision.
     He had known this, of course, it had been a minor defect of the design, tolerated because it did not appear important. It seemed very important to Howard Falcon now as he saw that fence of gigantic tentacles, thicker than the trunks of any tree, descending all around the capsule.

     He heard Brenner yelling: ‘Remember the Prime directive! Don’t alarm it!’ Before he could make an appropriate answer that overwhelming drumbeat started again and drowned all other sounds.
     The sign of a really skilled test pilot is how he reacts not to foreseeable emergencies, but to ones that nobody could have anticipated. Falcon did not hesitate for more than a second to analyse the situation. In a lightning-swift movement, he pulled the rip cord.
     That word was an archaic survival from the days of the first hydrogen balloons, on Kon-Tiki, the rip cord did not tear open the gasbag, but merely operated a set of louvres around the upper curve of the envelope. At once the hot gas started to rush out, Kon-Tiki, deprived of her lift, began to fall swiftly in this gravity field two and a half times as strong as Earth’s.

     Falcon had a momentary glimpse of great tentacles whipping upward and away. He had just time to note that they were studded with large bladders or sacs, presumably to give them buoyancy, and that they ended in a multitude of thin feelers like the roots of a plant. He half expected a bolt of lightning but nothing happened.
     His precipitous rate of descent was slackening as the atmosphere thickened and the deflated envelope acted as a parachute. When Kon-Tiki had dropped about two miles, he felt that it was safe to close the louvres again. By the time he had restored buoyancy and was in equilibrium once more, he had lost another mile of altitude and was getting dangerously near his safety limit.
     He peered anxiously through the overhead windows, though he did not expect to see anything except the obscuring bulk of the balloon. But he had sideslipped during his descent, and part of the medusa was just visible a couple of miles above him. It was much closer than he expected and it was still coming down, faster than he would have believed possible.

     Mission Control was calling anxiously. He shouted: ‘I’m OK, but it’s still coming after me. I can’t go any deeper.’
     That was not quite true. He could go a lot deeper, about one hundred and eighty miles. But it would be a one-way trip, and most of the journey Would be of little interest to him.
     Then, to his great relief, he saw that the medusa was levelling off, not quite a mile above him. Perhaps it had decided to approach this strange intruder with caution, or perhaps it, too, found this deeper layer Uncomfortably hot. The temperature was over fifty degrees centigrade, and Falcon wondered how much longer his life-support system could handle matters.

     Dr Brenner was back on the circuit, still worrying about the Prime directive.
     ‘Remember, it may only be inquisitive!’ he cried, without much conviction. ‘Try not to frighten it!’
     Falcon was getting rather tired of this advice and recalled a TV discussion he had once seen between a space lawyer and an astronaut. After the full implications of the Prime directive had been carefully spelled out, the incredulous spacer had exclaimed: ‘Then if there was no alternative, I must sit still and let myself be eaten?’ The lawyer had not even cracked a smile when he answered: ‘That’s an excellent summing up.’
     It had seemed funny at the time, it was not at all amusing now.

From A MEETING WITH MEDUSA by Arthur C. Clarke (1971)

Why, even the department head at Cram-brief had envied her this chance. And it was only because she was Offlas Keil's niece that she had it. The expedition to Clio would be a family affair—Project Director Keil, his son Sandar, and Roane. She tried to breathe evenly and slowly, to keep her eyes shut, forget where she was now, and think only of the goal before her.

Maybe once in a hundred, no, closer to a thousand times, did something like this happen. And she was so lucky to be a part of it. Only right now, even her brain felt tired. All that cramming! She— Well, it was like being an osbper sponge set in a pool and given the command to absorb. Only she could not swell the way those did; she had to pack it all behind bone and flesh which was not able to expand. By rights her head ought to be so heavy with all that the briefing computers had hammered into it that she could not hold it upright.

Clio was one of the sealed planets. Yet because of the circumstances Uncle Offlas had definite orders to land there, to stay as long as it would take them to locate the treasure. Treasure! The very word gave one a shiver-though this treasure was nothing that anyone but a member of the Service would want.

Real treasure—precious, beautiful things—would not interest Offlas Keil at all. He might glance over it to classify it by historical period, but to him such would be toys. However, knowledge of the Forerunners—that was something else. And this treasure had been pinpointed by a hint there, a clue here, stretching over years of sifting, to a single general area on Clio.

Because Clio was a sealed world, the final stages of their search must be conducted in complete secrecy, as quickly as possible, using Service devices. And the Project demanded as small a task force as was necessary. Which had sent Roane to Cram-brief to learn as much of Clio as she might need to know.

She wondered what it would be like to live on a closed planet (not for the period of days they would set down there but for a lifetime). Of course, the whole theory which had established the closed planets was wrong; such manipulation of human beings broke the Four Laws. Clio had been settled two, maybe three hundred years ago when the Psychocrats dominated the Confederation, before the Overturn of 1404. It was the third such experimental planet rediscovered, though there were rumors that there had been more, no one knew how many. The blasting of the Forqual Center during the revolt of the Overturn had destroyed most records.

All those worlds had been chosen as sites for projects which were the particular interest of one of the Hierarchy of the Psychocrats. The original colonists, braincleared, given false implanted memories, were settled in communities which to their briefed minds seemed natural to their new worlds. They were then left to work out new types of civilization, or a lack of civilization—to be watched secretly at intervals.

When such inhabited test planets were now rediscovered, they were declared closed. For none of the authorities could be sure what the impact of the truth might do to their peoples. Less advanced they were, as well as mutated on at least one planet. But on Clio the inhabitants were entirely human, though they were living in an archaic way, much as Roane's ancestors had lived several hundred years before space flight

What the Psychocrat who had established Clio had been aiming for was now not certain. But the Service thought he had set up something akin to the old Europa plan known on Terra. The large eastern continent had been divided into an irregular pattern of small kingdoms. The two western continents had been otherwise "seeded" with "natives" at a far more primitive level of culture—wandering tribes of hunters. And then they had all been left to their own devices.

On the eastern continent a series of wars for territorial expansion had ended with the establishment of two large nations, fronting each other uneasily across a border of small buffer states which still possessed their freedom, mainly because the two great powers were as yet unready to strike at each other. Intrigues, minor skirmishes, the rise and fall of dynasties were all a part of life on Clio. It was, to an onlooker from the stars, a giant game, though one in which lives were lost by a badly managed stroke of play.

In the west the tribesmen, too, fought each other; but since they remained on a more primitive level, the cost in blood had not yet been so great. However, Roane need not consider them. It was on the eastern land mass that her party would make their secret landing, in one of those small buffer states between the great powers.

From ICE CROWN by Andre Norton (1970)

I should probably throw in a qualifier — I’ve always enjoyed Star Trek but am hardly a rabid fan, getting most of my science fiction not from film or TV but novels and short stories. So this is a bit of a jeu d’esprit, one that acknowledges that the show has indeed spun out provocative and often controversial scenarios.

The Prime Directive embodies a flawed but useful ethical principle that should remain in place, though not without extensive revision. To understand why we need to re-think some aspects of the Prime Directive, let’s consider the context in which it operates. Because it grew out of ‘Star Trek,’ we have to posit a universe much like that one to illuminate the regulation’s strictures. Let’s assume, then, that humans become a spacefaring civilization on not just an interplanetary but an interstellar scale. That means that through whatever means, we have acquired ways of getting to the stars in short time frames, and that an organization has emerged within which this exploration continues, an analogue to the Federation behind the directive.

Why would the Prime Directive emerge in the first place? Here it is important to remember that in the ‘Star Trek’ universe, the directive is actually a regulation that applies only to Starfleet. Indeed, the series shows us that if a citizen of the Federation has decided on his or her own volition to interfere with another civilization, Starfleet is powerless to prevent such actions. The regulation doubtless was called for because the outermost wave of human expansion would be the exploring arm embodied in Star Fleet itself. What happens after a given region of space is first charted and explored is up to individual action, but the people most likely to be involved in first contact with an alien culture are those operating under Federation regulations.

All of this seems like logical extrapolation, and it is a tribute to the ‘Star Trek’ universe that despite the number of television episodes in various configurations and movies using many of the same characters, the storyline has been kept relatively consistent. If we ever do develop a way of sending human crews to other worlds, we will ponder the question of how we interact with any intelligent species we find there. And it’s likely we’ll consider a principle something like “the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution,” a phrase pulled from the text of the Prime Directive. What we are looking at is the development of ‘metalaw,’ a term devised by attorney Andrew Haley in 1956 to specify a system of laws that apply not just to human beings but to all relationships between intelligent species.

Evolving Metalaw and Human Culture

Why not simply resolve to treat alien cultures using the principles of the Golden Rule — treat aliens as we would wish to be treated by them? Haley went on to point out the problem with this approach in a paper called “Space Law and Metalaw – A Synoptic View,” recognizing that aliens are different from ourselves in ways we may not begin to understand. Treating them as we would like to be treated might cause them injury or even destroy them. Haley revised the Golden Rule this way: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” Robert Freitas, who has written thoughtfully on the subject of metalaw, notes that this ‘Great Rule’ has its own problems: “…in practice the Great Rule would be as difficult to apply as the concepts of noninterference and physical security. If we are to ascertain the desires of the other party, we must interact with them to a certain degree – and this may cause sociocultural damage. We still are left with the problem of developing nonconflicting, serviceable metalegal rules.”

We are in the earliest stages of developing ‘metalaw’ today, but a widening sphere of human activity among the stars will eventually force us to move the concept forward. Aerospace engineer Giancarlo Genta (Politecnico di Torino) has examined these questions in his book Lonely Minds in the Universe (Copernicus, 2007), studying the entire question of whether an alien being in today’s world could be considered a ‘person.’ An interesting legal issue would arise if we suddenly found ourselves face to face with a being from another world. We may believe in extending equal rights to all humans no matter their origin, but an extraterrestrial who walked out of a spaceship after landing on Earth would not necessarily be recognized by law as a ‘person.’ Would this creature be considered an animal? If so, would an alien animal have rights under existing law?

The Prime Directive can be assumed to have grown out of discussions exactly like these, and it hinges on the extension of the idea of personhood to alien intelligences. In his paper “Metalaw and Interstellar Relations” (cited above) Robert Freitas sees two routes to personhood:

  • The use of a clear morality; i.e., the ability of the beings in question to make moral or ethical judgments, even if those judgments do not necessarily coincide with our own
  • The presence of self-awareness, of being separate from one’s surroundings.

The presence of either morality or self-awareness is seen as the key to personhood. Here we seem to be splitting hairs in legalistic fashion, but the issue is important because human law revolves around the concept of the person. Metalaw, in other words, leads us invariably to the thinking that leads to the Prime Directive, which we can now quote in more extended form:

As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely. Star Fleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship, unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.

A Silence Between Civilizations?

We now find ourselves in a quandary, for the Prime Directive must be interpreted, just as any body of law or regulation must be understood and acted upon by those affected by it. If we read the text closely, we have no choice but to conclude that the only contact possible between two alien civilizations would happen when the two civilizations are at precisely the same point of development, or as Giancarlo Genta phrases it, the same cultural level. A right is assumed in the Prime Directive for each species to proceed through a ‘normal’ cultural evolution, one which cannot be interfered with by introducing superior knowledge or technologies.

A civilization less advanced than our own in terms of technology, then, would be one we could not contact directly. A civilization more advanced than our own would, if acting under the principles of a similar Prime Directive, be unable to contact us. If the Prime Directive were a universal principle, no species would be able to contact another unless it encountered one so similar to itself that the contact would be considered harmless. Given the wide variation in stellar ages around us in the Milky Way, it seems spectacularly unlikely that we would find a species this similar to ourselves, and all studies of alien cultures would have to be conducted with maximum secrecy to avoid contaminating the alien civilization in question.

This seems an unwise outcome on various levels, but there’s more. What do we mean by the ‘same cultural level?’ Culture is what we recognize around us in the form of the familiar accouterments of society and the technologies we use to provide and service them. But the very idea of an alien culture presupposes a development unlike our own. We could not assume that a culture that seemed similar to our own at the level it was at in the time of ancient Greece would necessarily undergo a similar period of imperial expansion on its planet, a gradual awakening to other cultures across its oceans, a period when learning was lost and an eventual renaissance. Nor could we assume that the beings who live within this culture operate with the same set of principles that we do, or that they would develop technologies comparable to our own.

Note the other flaw in the Prime Directive statement above. We are told that interference consists of introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world ‘whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely.’ The statement implies that if a society is deemed capable of handling these advantages with wisdom, the strictures of the Prime Directive to not apply. But who is to make the decision as to the wisdom of an alien civilization, and how accurate can such an assessment be given the short periods involved in a first contact scenario? And what does the Prime Directive mean by not interfering with the ‘normal and healthy development’ of another culture? To understand what is normal and healthy for an alien civilization may be an impossible accomplishment, and certainly not one we could achieve without extensive study. No, the Prime Directive binds us too severely and limits any contact.

More Supple Rules of Contact

Where to go from here? We need a revised Prime Directive based on an evolving metalaw, one that recognizes that each encounter with an extraterrestrial civilization is going to be different from any other. Genta cites the eleven rules of metalaw compiled by the Austrian lawyer `Ernst Fasan, drawing on the earlier work of Andrew Haley. These are drawn from Fasan’s book Relations with Alien Intelligences: The Scientific Basis of Metalaw (1970), and contain the seeds of a future Prime Directive that should prove more flexible:

1. No partner of metalaw may demand an impossibility.

2. No rules of metalaw must be complied with when compliance would result in the practical suicide of the obliged race.

3. All intelligent races of the Universe have in principle equal rights and values.

4. Every partner of metalaw has the right to self-determination.

5. Any act that causes harm to another race must be avoided.

6. Every race is entitled to its own living space.

7. Every race has the right to defend itself against any harmful act performed by another race.

8. The principle of preserving one race has priority over the development of another race.

9. In case of damage, the damager must restore the integrity of the damaged party.

10. Metalegal agreements and treaties must be kept.

11. To help the other race by one’s own activity is not a legal but a basic ethical principle.

Here we have a set of guiding principles that do not exclude contact between civilizations of different levels of development and complexity. Instead, Fasan’s ideas form a framework that a future commander of an interstellar mission could consult to make decisions about the level of contact appropriate for that situation. Fasan cannot answer all our questions — in particular, we have the conundrum that the ethical concepts embedded here may be profoundly anthropocentric, and we certainly have no idea whether other intelligent races would agree or abide by such ideas. But the scant work that has thus far been done on metalaw points us to the need for an enhanced, more carefully thought-out Prime Directive, one that does not entangle an exploring party far from home with legalities that could compromise a beneficial first contact.

Here it is time to quote Genta directly:

Such rules are without doubt a good starting point on which to build the laws and ethics or relationships between species, but they have been elaborated by one of the sides only — and it could not be otherwise, since it is not even certain that the other sides exist. Moreover, if it is true that the other species with which we could come in contact are much more ancient than ourselves, it is likely that they already faced this problem and established rules for relationships among species.

The reality is that as we expand to nearby stars and beyond, we will learn from our early contacts with other civilizations — if indeed they exist — and shape our metalaw flexibly from each of these encounters. Metalaw cannot be other than an evolving set of principles, incapable of setting down as a Prime Directive that does not grow with our knowledge over time. The Prime Directive offers us a wonderful way to consider the issues. But we need to be aware that it is a template only, and that what we find among the stars will help us shape its future direction. We must also be thinking about these matters long before we actually get to the stars. As Robert Freitas reminds us, “When intelligent extraterrestrial life is discovered, mankind must be prepared, for in all of human history there will be but one first contact.”


Fasan, E, Relations with Alien Intelligences: The Scientific Basis of Metalaw, Berlin Verlag, Berlin, 1970. See also his paper “Discovery of ETI: Terrestrial and Extraterrestrial Legal Implications,” Acta Astronautica 21 (2) (1990), pp. 131-135.

Freitas, R, “Metalaw and Interstellar Relations,” Mercury 6 (March-April, 1977), pp. 15-17 (available online)

Genta, G. Lonely Minds in the Universe. New York: Copernicus, 2007.

Haley, A “Space law and Metalaw – A Synoptic View,” Harvard Law Record 23 (November 8, 1956).

From TOWARD A NEW PRIME DIRECTIVE by Paul Gilster (2012)

(ed note: this is talking about SETI)

Even if star travel is impossible; "mere" communications could do a lot of damage. After all, this is the basis on which all censors act. A really malevolent (interstellar) society could destroy another one quite effectively by a few items of well-chosen information (sent by radio). ("Now, kiddies, after you’ve prepared your uranium hexafluoride…")

Fred Hoyle has expressed the view that there may be a kind of Galactic communications network, linking thousands or millions of worlds. Within a very few centuries, we may be clever enough to plug ourselves into the circuit; it may take us a little longer to understand what the other subscribers are saying.

The possibilities opened up even by one-way communication (passive eavesdropping) are almost unlimited. The signals would certainly contain visual material—not necessarily real-time TV—which it would be rather easy to reconstruct. And then, across the light-years, we would be able to look at other worlds and other races…

The things we could learn might change our own society beyond recognition. It would be as if the America of Lincoln’s time could tune into the TV programs of today; though there would be much that could not be understood, there would also be clues that could leapfrog whole technologies into the future. (Ironically enough, the commercials would contain some of the most valuable information!) Nineteenth-century views would see that heavier-than-air machines were possible, and simple observation would reveal the principles of their design. The still unimagined uses of electricity would be demonstrated (the telephone, the electric light…), and this would be enough to set scientists on the right track. For knowing that a thing can be done is more than half the battle.

As signals from the stars could be received only by nations possessing very large radio telescopes, there would be the opportunity—and the temptation—to keep them secret. Knowledge is the most precious of all commodities, and it is a strange thought that the balance of power may one day be shifted by a few micromicrowatts collected from the depths of space. Yet it should no longer surprise us; for who dreamed, fifty years ago, that the faint flicker of dying atoms in a physics lab would change the course of history?

Glimpses of supercivilizations could have either stimulating or stultifying effects on our society. If the technological gulf was not too great to be bridged, and the programs we intercepted contained hints and clues that we could understand, we would probably rise to the challenge. But if we found ourselves in the position of Neanderthalers confronted by New York City, the psychological shock could be so great that we might give up the struggle. This appears to have happened on our own world from time to time, when primitive races have come into contact with more advanced ones. We will have a good chance of studying this phenomenon in a very few years, when communications satellites start beaming our TV programs into such places as the Amazon jungle. This is the last century during which widely disparate cultures will exist on Earth; would-be students of astrosociology should make the most of their opportunity before it vanishes forever. And no one will be surprised to hear that Margaret Mead is intensely interested in space flight…

From WHEN THE ALIENS COME by Arthur C. Clarke (1968)

(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)

(ed note: In Andre Norton's novel FORERUNNER, there is an amusing example of the Prime Directive rebounding in a sort of "turnabout is fair play" "right-back-atcha" manner.

The protagonist is a young woman named Simsa living on a medieval level planet, in the ancient city of Kuxortal. She is humanoid, but of an unknown species, and the elderly lady who raised her died of old age before telling revealing her origin.

The planet is irregularly visited by Terran starships who trade for some local items, but mostly use the place for money laundering and transshipping illegal cargoes hidden from the eyes of the the Patrol. There is a Prime-Directive technology-embargo against selling high-tech Terran equipment to the natives, since They Are Not Ready.

The punch line comes when Simsa and her fellow protagonist discover in the desert of death a zillion year old Forerunner site with lots of Forerunner spacecraft and ultra-high-tech Forerunner technology. Which is a bad thing since it is being looted by Terran criminals ("Jacks", short for hijack), especially the Forerunner ultra-high-tech weapons. These will be sold to the highest bidder.

The reason people know this is bad is because they have found former Forerunner planets where such weapons had been used. These are commonly called "Burnt-Off planets" due to their resemblance to a planet-sized charcoal briquette.

In other words, the high-tech Terrans Are Not Ready for Forerunner weapons, so the Terrans need to be subject to a Prime-Directive technology-embargo on Forerunner tech.)

(ed note: Simsa and Thorn the Terran arrive at the edge of the desert of death in a little sail boat. Simsa is rather upset when she discovers that Thorn had cut up the sail in order to make some contraption. This means they are marooned, the boat is now worthless.)

      The mad off-worlder! While she had been lazing away the day he had done this!
     Not only had he stripped away most of the decking on the main portion of the boat, but he had taken the sail, slit it into strips. To make what? The thing which rested on the shingle was a monstrous mixture of hide-cloth from the sail, pieces of wood ripped and then retied into what looked like a small boat—except that it was flat of bottom. To it, while she had been unconscious, he had also transferred and lashed into place the rest of their food hampers, and now he was coming for the water jars.
     Did the alien propose to drag that thing of his? Or would he harness the both of them to it and work her as well until they both yielded to heat and exhaustion?
     If that was his plan, he would discover that she was not going to beg off—she would keep with him stride by stride as long as she could—or he would drive them both to the impossible. So when she came to stand beside him she looked for the drag ropes. There was only one—a single strand which she believed could not take the weight of the thing he had built.

     He asked no help of her, but faced the drag carrier front on. His hand touched his belt for a moment. Then, to her amazement, the impossible happened before her eyes. There was a trembling of the carrier. It arose from the gravel and hung in the air—actually in the air—at least the height of her own knee. Picking up the lead rope, Thorn set off along the narrow beach and the thing floated after him as if it were some huge wingless zorsal, as obedient to his will as her own birds were to hers.

     For a long moment, she simply watched what she still could not believe. Then she took off in a hurry, lest he vanish from sight. What new wonders he might bring into their service she could not guess, but now she would willingly accept all the strange tales which were told of the starmen and what they could do. Even though they never, as far as she knew, had demonstrated any such powers on this world before.
     Her anger lost in her need to know how such a thing might be, Simsa slipped and slid, forgetting her drained strength until she came even with Thorn who walked steadily ahead, leading his floating platform.
     “What do you do?” she got out between gasps of breath as she caught up. “What makes it hang so in the air?”

     She heard him actually give a chuckle and then the look he turned on her was alive with sly humor.
     “If you told those at the port what you now see, they would send me back to my home world, sentenced to stay out of space forever,(because of the Prime Directive) he told her, though he seemed only amused at being able to explain what must be a crime among his kind. “I have merely applied to this problem something common on other planets—ones more advanced than yours. And that is a deadly crime according to the laws by which we abide. There is a small mechanism I planted at the right spot back there—” he pointed with his thumb over his shoulder but did not turn his head, “which nullifies gravity to a small extent—”

     “Nullifies gravity,” she repeated, trying to give the strange words the same sound as he had. “I do not know—some people believe in ghosts and demons, but Ferwar said they are mainly what those who believe in them make for themselves by their own fears—that you can believe in any bad dream or thing if you turn your full mind to it. But this is no ghost nor demon.”
     “No. It is this.” They were into the cut of the valley now. The sea wind behind them made the passage more bearable now than she could ever have believed it could be when she had seen it by day. Now as he halted for a moment, it was still not too dark for her to make out what he pointed to as he repeated, “It is this.”
     “This” was what appeared as a black box no bigger than could be covered by his hand were he to set that palm down over it. The thing rested directly in the middle of his drag carrier and now she could see that the cargo on board had been carefully stacked in such a way that the load must weigh evenly along the full length, leaving open only that one spot in the exact center vacant, the place in which sat the box.
     “You toss a stone into the air and it falls,” he said, “it is the attraction of the earth which pulls it down. But if that attraction could be broken sufficiently—then your stone would float. On my world, we wear belts with such attachments which give us individual flying power when they are mated with another force. We can move also much heavier things than this with little trouble. Unfortunately, I could not smuggle through the field guards as large a nullifier as I wanted. This is limited; you see how close to the ground the weight holds it.
     “There is this also—the power is limited. However, it is solar powered and here the sun can renew it, at least for the space in which I think we shall have need of it.”

     Simsa could understand his words easily enough, but the concept they presented was so far from anything she had known that his speech was akin to a wild travel tale, such as the river traders might use to scare off the gullible from their own private ports of trade, as was well known they were apt to do. She thought of such a thing being attached to a belt so that one could share the sky with such as the zorsal and the uses one could put such skill to.
     “The Thieves Guild,” she spoke aloud her own train of thought. “What they would not give for such as that! No,” a shiver which was not from the cooling of the wind shook her, “no, they would kill for that!

     He pushed himself up on the ledge to look out and down. Simsa could not see past the width of his shoulders and he said nothing, did not move. At last she could stand the suspense no longer.
     “What is it?” She reached out to catch at the arm which wore the cuff, pull at the sleeve so tightly molded against the flesh.
     “The end of a world, perhaps.” His words meant very little, but he moved aside so that she could look down in turn.
     Almost she cried out, but not quite. Then his hand slid across her lips as an additional seal upon secrecy.

     Here there was no forest of green—instead a strip so wide its outer edges were almost lost to sight. In places it was blackened, scarred. While on it—
     At first she thought they looked down upon a starship landing field with a fleet in port—a fleet of more ships than had ever come to Kuxortal in a season—in two seasons. Then she saw that most of these ships did not stand erect as if they had landed, as was customary, fins down, noses sky pointed. Two had fallen on their sides, plainly great damaged. Beyond them was a third which was of an entirely different shape altogether than that of the small traders she knew, a round globe from under which protruded a congealed mass of metal: a second ship upon which it had crashed. None of them were—
     But, yes, there was one still standing, stark, sky saluting, some distance away. Its sides were smooth and clean where there were the marks of fire, wounds cutting across the others. It looked as if it would be ready to take off at any moment.

     But if this was a graveyard for starships which could no longer fly, it was not deserted. Simsa saw what could only be men, men who wore suits like the dead guardians, but who moved, if clumsily. Several sat on carts which went apparently on their own power from one of the wrecked ships to another. Others walked, so slowly in those heavy body coverings, to pile things they had brought out of the wrecks, sorting them.
     Thorn’s arm shot out. He was holding the strip (Geiger counter) which he had told her meant the level of death (ionizing radiation) which lay in such places. She could see that red line, which had been near the middle of the strip when he had first shown it to her, was now a finger-width farther up.
     “A deadly place.”
     His voice was low, as if he were awed or shocked by the scene they watched.
     “But they—”
     “Are suited (with anti-radiation suits),” he pointed out. “Still, so much danger; what could be worth such exposure?”

     “Your weapons of fire? (laser rifle)
     “Not just to trade to any little lordlings here,” he returned. “Nor could your Lord Arfellen (though I have some idea he knows something of this) dare to come near what is being gathered. This is what is left of a war command.”
     “Your (nuclear) war—did some of your people flee after all their cities were destroyed?” (i.e., are these Terran ships that fled the nuclear war?)
     He was shaking his head. “These are not ships I know, and they are so old—maybe even Forerunner!”

     His eyes were wide. “Forerunner arms! Yes! There would be fools on half a hundred worlds who would pay high for such knowledge, even if they could not touch the weapons themselves. You see these can be taken apart, studied, their ways of making taped. Then those who made this find—a find that would be blasted into nothingness if it were public knowledge—would have something to sell such as has never been sold before! This is a treasure of evil past any reckoning. We have found burned-off planets, but never before a fleet—or even one ship—which fought such wars! Arms to be studied and copied, the ships themselves. These looters can find buyers in plenty and it will mean ruin and death around the galaxy!”

(ed note: so the Terrans need to be subject to a new Prime Directive, because they Are Not Ready for Forerunner tech)

From FORERUNNER by Andre Norton (1980)

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 "stasis 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)

(ed note: In Andre Norton's novel THE TIME TRADERS, the United States and the Soviet Union discover time travel. Somehow the Soviets start finding bits of incredibly high tech equipment and the U.S. wants to know the source so America can gets some. As it turns out it is from about 2.58 million years ago during the last ice age. Apparently there was an alien galactic empire back then, a few of their starships crashed on Terra for some reason, and the Soviets were looting them.

Ashe and Ross are U.S. time agents sent back in time, and manage to discover this. And along the way they accidentally tip off the galactic empire that some Terrans are looting the alien's ships.

The aliens are not amused. They show up in the ice age and obliterate the Soviet time-travel base. Then the aliens travel gradually up time and systematically destroy all the Soviet time bases in each historical era, ending with the one in the "present." Then they leave.

In Andre Norton's GALACTIC DERELICT; Ashe, Ross, Travis,and Renfry are part of a tentative U.S. time-travel operation to snag yet another crashed alien starship about twelve thousand years ago. Because the U.S. just can't get enough of that sweet sweet alien high tech. They are trying to be real careful, because the last thing they want is for the alien galactic empire to discover what they are doing.

They try a short-cut and build a time machine over the ship, so they can transfer it intact to the "present." Unfortunately this triggers the alien ship's autopilot, and it takes off under control of an autopilot course tape. Our heroes are stuck inside the starship until it reaches its destination. At least the fact they are twelve hundred years after the last contact with the alien galactic empire means the empire is probably long dead.

As the weeks go by they study the starship and sit around brainstorming.)

      "I read a book once," Ross said suddenly with the slightly embarrassed air of one admitting to a minor social error, "that had a story in it about some Dutch sea captain who swore he'd get around the horn in one of those old-time sailing ships. He called up the Devil to help him and he never got home—just went on sailing through the centuries."
     "The Flying Dutchman," Ashe identified.
     "Well, we haven't called up any Devil," Renfry remarked.

     "Haven't we?" Travis had spoken his thoughts, without realizing until they all stared at him that he was done so aloud.
     "Your Devil being?" Ashe prompted.
     "We were trying to get knowledge out of this ship—and it wasn't our kind of knowledge," he floundered a little, attempting to put into words what he now believed.
     "Scavengers getting their just desserts?" Ashe summed up. "If you follow that line of reasoning, yes, you have a point. The forbidden fruit of knowledge. That was an idea planted so long ago in mankind's conscience that it lingers today as guilt."

     "Planted," Ross repeated the word thoughtfully, "planted…"
     "Planted!" Travis echoed, his mind making one of those odd jumps in sudden understanding of which he had only recently become conscious. "By whom?"
     Then glancing around at the alien ship which was both their transport and their prison, he added softly, "By these people?"
     "They didn't want us to know about them." Ross's words came in a rush. "Remember what they did to that Russian time base—traced it all the way forward and destroyed it in every era. Suppose they did have contacts with primitive man on our world—planted ideas—or gave them such a terrifying lesson at one time or other that the memory of it was buried in all their descendants?"

     "There are other tales beside your Flying Dutchman, Ross," Ashe squirmed a little in his seat. None of the chairs in the ship quite fitted the human frame or provided comfort. "Prometheus and the fire—the man who dared to steal the knowledge of the gods for the use of mankind and suffered eternally thereafter for his audacity, though his fellow benefited. Yes, there are clues to back such a theory, faint ones." His eagerness grew as he spoke. "Maybe—just maybe—we'll find out!"

From GALACTIC DERELICT by Andre Norton (1959)

Technological Ideology

A human or alien civilization could be at the same technology level as our human protagonists from the Terran empire. But tech levels are the clunky one-dimensional way of measuring the relative technological advancement of a given culture. All the cool science fiction writers are using Tech Trees in their novels.

Tech trees give far more flavor to various cultures. Culture Alfa may have advanced relatively far down the subatomic physics branch of the tree, but be relatively ignorant of the organic chemistry branch. For Culture Bravo the situation may be the reverse. Compare this to the dull situation where according to tech levels, both Alfa and Bravo are exactly the same at Tech Level Six.

In other words, different cultures emphasize different branches of the tech tree. In contemporary culture here on Terra the current state of nuclear physics and computer science is pretty darn advanced, but the state of sociology and psychology is woefully primitive.

In fact, some cultures might be altogether unaware of the existance of certain branches.

A popular trend in science fiction (and sometimes in the real world) are underlying philosophies and ideologies setting the direction of technological advance. For example, from the real world we have the debate over fossil-fuel energy as opposed to renewable energy.

Since science fiction is literature, and commonly has a theme of conflict, there are often two major ideologies and they don't like each other very much.

Bruce Sterling (perhaps inspired by Freeman Dyson's essay "The Greening of the Galaxy" found in his book Disturbing the Universe) created his Shaper/Mechanist universe. Both factions are posthuman civilizations. The Shapers direction of technology is advancement by manipulating the human body: genentic engineering and psychological training. Mechanists on the other hand direct their technology along the lines of cybernetic implants, computer software, drugs, and permanently implanted space suits. The third faction is the traditionalists who like human bodies the way they are right now, thank you very much, and do not like either the Shapers nor the Mechanists.

In Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space universe most of the factions are reasonably human, except for the Conjoiners. They use technology to augmenting human consciousness, creating group minds and amplyfing intelligence. They actually created a mini-Singularity called the Transenlightenment. Of course this triggered a war with the other more conventional-human factions. The Conjoiners eventually lost the war, fled the solar system, and colonized other systems.


(ed note: Carl Donnan is visiting one of the colonized planets of the Monwaing aliens, and is being taken to an important meeting by his alien friend Ramri. They are riding a drastically genetically engineered animal. Human and Monwaing tech levels are close to each other, but Human tech emphasizes the "physics" branch of the tech tree while Monwaing emphasizes "biology" )

      Ramri glanced at him, once, and then concentrated on steering the ground-runner. After his years on Earth and in space, the avian found it a little disconcerting to ride on the chair-like humps of a twenty-foot, eight-legged mammaloid and control it by touching spots that were nerve endings. Such vehicles had been obsolescent on Kafidnu even when he left. The paragrav boats that flitted overhead were more to Tanthai liking. But today he and Donnan where bound from his home to the Resident, who was of the Laothaung Society. Paying a formal call on a high official from that culture, and arriving in dead machinery, would have been an insult.

     After a while, Donnan mastered himself He fumbled with his pipe. The devil take tobacco rationing. . . just now. . . especially since Ramri assured him that the creation of an almost identical leaf would be simple for any genetic engineer on any Monwaingi planet.

     Even to the naked eye, the similarities of grass and foliage and flowers were superficial. Biochemical analysis showed how violently those life forms differed from himself He had needed anti allergen shots before he could even leave the space flitter and step on Katkinuan soil. The odours blown down the wind were spicy, mostly pleasant, but like nothing he had ever known at home. Along this road (paved, if that was the word, with a thick mossy growth, intensely green) walked blue parrot-faced creatures carrying odd-shaped tools and bundles. Houses, widely scattered, each surrounded by trees and a brilliant garden, were themselves vegetable: giant growths shaped like barrel cacti, whose hollow interiors formed rooms of nacreous beauty. A grain-field was being cultivated by shambling octopids, mutated and bred for one purpose—like the thing on which he rode.

     He said quickly: “You’d better put me straight on the situation here. I’m still vague on details. As I understand your system, each planet colonized by your people has a governor-general from Monwaing, the mother world. Right?”

     Ramri scratched his crest. “Well, no,” he answered. “Or yes. A semantic question. And not one that can ever be resolved fully. After all, since Resident Wandwai is a Laothaungi, he speaks another language from mine, lives under different laws and customs, enjoys art forms strange to me. So what he understands by the term Subo— ‘Resident’, you say—is not identical with what a Tanthai like myself understands. Such differences are sometimes subtle, sometimes gross, but a!ways present. He doesn’t even use the same phonetic symbols.”

     “Huh? I never realized—I mean, I assumed you’d at least agree on an alphabet and number signs.”

     “Oh, no. Some Societies do, to be sure. But Laothaung, for instance, which makes calligraphy a major art, finds our Tanthai characters hideous. All Monwaingi writing does go from left to right, like English or Erzhuat, and not from right to left like Japanese or Vorlakka. But otherwise there is considerable variation from Society to Society. Likewise with mathematical ideograms. . . . Naturally, any cultured person tries to become familiar with the language and traditions of the more important foreign Societies. Wandwai speaks fluent Tanthai. But I fear I am quite ignorant of Loathaungi. My interests were directed elsewhere than the arts. In that, I am typical of this planet Katkinu. We Tanthai have taken far more interest in physical science and technology than most other Monwaingi civilizations. Some, in fact, have found such innovations extremely repugnant. But physics proved welcome to the Tanthal world-view.”

     “Hey,” Donnan objected, “your people must have had some physics even before the galactics discovered Monwaing. Otherwise you could never have developed these systematic plant and animal mutations, let alone build spaceships yourselves.”

     “Yes, yes. There was considerable theoretical physics on Monwaing when the Urn explorers arrived. And it found a certain amount of practical application. The emphasis lay elsewhere, though. Your recent development on Earth was almost a mirror image of Monwaing two centuries past. You knew far more biological theory than you had yet put into engineering practice because your intellectual and economic investments were already heaviest in physical, inanimate matter. Our situation was the reverse.

     “Really, Carl-my-friend, despite our many talks in the past, I do not believe you know what an impact Terrestrial ideas have had on the Monwaingi. You benefitted us not simply by selling us raw materials and machine parts and so on— your engineers, in effect, working cheaper than ours for the sake of learning modern techniques—but you presented us with your entire philosophy. Tantha in particular had looked upon itself as rather reactionary and anti-scientific. You made us realize that technology per se did not conflict with our world-view, only biological technology. The inherent callousness of manipulating life.” His gesture at the beast they rode was eloquent, like a man’s grimace.

     “That ruthlessness was spreading into the psychotechnical field too,” he went on. “In other Societies, talk was being heard of adjusting the personality to suit—like the genes of any domestic animal! Such concepts alarmed us. Yet if we Tanthai failed to keep pace with innovation, we would dwindle, impotent.... Then, suddenly, on Earth and especially in America, we found a socio-economic system based on physics rather than biology. It was less subtle, perhaps, than the traditional Monwaingi approach; but potentially it was of far greater power. . . and humaneness. We were eager to adopt what we had seen. Do you know, even I am astounded at how far change has progressed on Katkinu in my absence. Why, in my own house, fluorescent panels! When I left, glowfly globes were still the only artificial light. And that is a trivial example. I tell you, your species has inspired my Society.”

From AFTER DOOMSDAY by Poul Anderson (1961)

      In everything we undertake, either on earth or in the sky, we have a choice of two styles, which I call the gray and the green. The distinction between gray and green is not sharp. Only at the extremes of the spectrum can we say without qualification, this is green and that is gray. The difference between green and gray is better explained by examples than by definitions. Factories are gray, gardens are green. Physics is gray, biology is green. Plutonium is gray, horse manure is green. Bureaucracy is gray, pioneer communities are green. Self-reproducing machines are gray, trees and children are green. Human technology is gray, {Nature's} technology is green. Clones are gray, clades are green. Army field manuals are gray, poems are green.

     Why should we not say simply, gray is bad, green is good, and find a quick path to salvation by embracing green technology and banning everything gray? Because to answer the world’s material needs, technology has to be not only beautiful but also cheap. We delude ourselves if we think that the ideology of “Green Is Beautiful” will save us from the necessity of making difficult choices in the future, any more than other ideologies have saved us from difficult choices in the past.

     Here on earth, solar energy is one of the great human needs. Every country, rich or poor, is bathed in an abundance of solar energy, but we have no cheap and widely available technology for converting this energy into the fuel and electricity that our daily life requires. To convert sunlight into fuel or electricity is a scientifically trivial problem. Many different technologies can in principle make the conversion. But all the existing technologies are expensive. We cannot afford to deploy these technologies on a large enough scale to shift a major fraction of our energy consumption away from our rapidly diminishing reserves of natural gas and oil.

     Ted Taylor, after he finished his work on nuclear theft and nuclear safeguards, decided to devote the rest of his working life to the problems of solar energy. He has worked out a design for a system of solar ponds that might possibly, if all goes well, turn out to be radically cheaper than any existing solar energy technology. The idea is to dig large ponds enclosed by dikes and covered with transparent plastic air mattresses, so that the water is heated by sunlight and insulated against cooling winds and evaporation. The water stays hot, summer and winter. Its heat energy can be used for domestic heating, or converted into electricity or into energy of chemical fuels by simple heat engines that are commercially available. If everything works according to plan, the whole system will convert the energy of sunlight falling on the ponds into fuel and electricity with an efficiency of about five percent and at a cost competitive with coal and oil.

     I am not making any prediction that Ted’s scheme will actually work. Innumerable engineering problems, not to speak of economic and legal snags, must be overcome before we can know whether the scheme's theoretical promise is realizable. I make only the hypothetical statement that if it should happen that everything works as we hope, these ponds will turn the energy economy of the world upside down. Countries with abundant sunshine and water, in particular the poor countries of the humid tropics, will in time become as wealthy as the oil-exporting countries are today. And their wealth will be self-sustaining, not based on a finite store of irreplaceable resources.

     Fortunately, this economic transformation of the world does not depend on the success of Ted Taylor’s plans. It does not matter much whether Ted’s particular idea works or not. Ted is only one man with one design for a solar energy system. Around the world there are hundreds of other groups with other ideas and other designs. All we need to transform the world is one cheap and successful system. It does not have to be Ted's. We should only be careful to give all the groups who come forward with ideas a chance to show what they can do. None of them should be discouraged or excluded on ideological grounds.

     Ted's technology is gray rather than green, designed for utility rather than beauty. It is interesting to picture what Ted’s solar energy system will do to the physical appearance of our planet, if it should happen that it achieves economic success and is developed on a large scale. We may imagine, as an extreme and unlikely contingency, that the whole world might decide to build enough solar ponds to generate all the energy that is now consumed each year, replacing entirely our present consumption of oil, gas, coal and uranium. This would require that we cover with ponds and plastic about one percent of the land area of the planet. This is about equal to the fraction of the area of the United States now covered with paved highways. The capital costs of the entire solar energy system would also be comparable with the cost of an equal area of highways. In other words, to provide a permanently renewable energy supply for the whole world would only require us to duplicate on a worldwide scale the environmental and financial sacrifices that the United States has made for the automobile. The people of the United States considered the costs of the automobile to be acceptable. I do not venture to guess whether they would consider the same costs worth paying again for a clean and inexhaustible supply of energy. It is likely that in many poorer countries, where energy consumption is smaller and alternative sources of supply are unavailable, people would consider Ted’s ponds a great bargain. Some people might even prefer plastic ponds to highways. At least you can walk between ponds more easily than you can walk across highways.

     So gray technology is not without value and not without promise. It offers a hope of escape from poverty for the tropical countries around the Caribbean Sea and the Indian Ocean. It is possible to imagine it achieving a major shift of United States energy consumption from fossil fuels to solar energy within twenty-five years, roughly the time it took to build our national highway system. It is important for many reasons that this shift be made rapidly, before the world’s supply of oil runs out.

     But if we look further ahead than twenty-five or fifty years, green technology has an even greater promise. Especially in the area of solar energy, everything that gray technology can do, green technology can ultimately do better. Long ago {Nature} invented the tree, a device for converting air, water and sunlight into fuel and other useful chemicals. A tree is more versatile and more economical than any device our gray technology has imagined. The main drawback of trees as solar energy systems is that we do not know how to harvest them without destroying them and damaging the landscape in which they are growing. The process of harvesting is economically inefficient and aesthetically unpleasant. The chemicals that trees naturally produce do not fit easily into the patterns of use and distribution of an oil-based economy.

     Imagine a solar energy system based upon green technology, after we have learned to read and write the language of DNA so that we can reprogram the growth and metabolism of a tree. All that is visible above ground is a valley filled with redwood trees, as quiet and shady as the Muir Woods below Mount Tamalpais in California. These trees do not grow as fast as natural redwoods. Instead of mainly synthesizing cellulose, their cells make pure alcohol or octane or whatever other chemical we find convenient. While their sap rises through one set of vessels, the fuel that they synthesize flows downward through another set of vessels into their roots. Underground, the roots form a living network of pipelines transporting fuel down the valley. The living pipelines connect at widely separated points to a nonliving pipeline that takes the fuel out of the valley to wherever it is needed. When we have mastered the technology of reprogramming trees, we shall be able to grow such plantations wherever there is land that can support natural forests. We can grow fuel from redwoods in California, from maples in New Jersey, from sycamores in Georgia, from pine forests in Canada. Once the plantations are grown, they may be permanent and self-repairing, needing only the normal attentions of a forester to keep them healthy. If we assume that the conversion of sunlight to chemical fuel has an overall efficiency of one-half percent, comparable with the efficiency of growth in natural forests, then the entire present energy consumption of the world could be supplied by growing fuel plantations on about ten percent of the land area. In the humid tropics, less land would be needed for the same output of fuel.

     Ted Taylor has proposed a plan for building a solar pond system to supply domestic heat, hot water, electricity and air conditioning to a hundred apartments that are used to house the families of the visiting members who come to work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He hopes that he can build such a system for a total cost of about five thousand dollars per family. The existing oil-heating system would be kept on standby so that the institute members will not freeze when the solar ponds run into difficulties. This plan for a hundred-family demonstration is not just a scaled-down pilot-plant experiment. It is a full-scale test of the solar pond system. One of the beauties of Ted’s idea is that solar ponds are cost effective at a hundred-family scale. There is no advantage in going to larger centralized units. Even if the whole world were to be fueled by solar ponds, the system would still be decentralized, with individual units of about the size we are hoping to build in Princeton.

     We are not at present contemplating any plan to turn our institute woods into a plantation of artificial trees to supply fuel for the institute’s needs. That will come much later, if it ever comes at all. Most of us, given the choice, would rather walk among trees than among plastic ponds. But the technology of artificial trees will take a long time to develop. It may take fifty years, or a hundred, or two hundred. It will probably be a difficult and controversial development, with many mistakes, many failures, many experiments that go well at first but then run into obscure and complicated difficulties. To master the genetic programming of a single species will be only the first step. To make artificial trees survive and flourish in the natural environment, the programmer will need to understand their ecological relationships with thousands of other species that live on their leaves and branches or in the soil among their roots. Perhaps the programming and breeding of artificial trees will always remain an art rather than a science. Perhaps the people who grow fuel plantations will need green thumbs in addition to a knowledge of DNA and computer software. That is another of the advantages of green technology. But the need of mankind for solar energy is urgent. We cannot wait a hundred years for it. If plastic ponds can do the job quicker, we must dig our plastic ponds and leave the trees for our grandchildren.

     When mankind moves out from earth into space, we carry our problems with us. The utilization of solar energy will remain one of our central problems. In space as on earth, technology must be cheap if it is to be more than a plaything of the rich. In space as on earth, we shall have a choice of technologies, gray and green, and the economic constraints that limit our choice on earth will have their analogs in space.

Our existing technology for using solar energy in space is based on photo-voltaic cells made of silicon. These are excellent for powering scientific instruments but far too expensive for ordinary human needs. Solar ponds may be cheap and efficient on earth but are not an appropriate technology for use in space.

     It happens that the solar system is divided rather sharply into two zones: an inner zone close to the sun, where sunlight is abundant and water scarce; and an outer zone away from the sun, where water is abundant and sunlight scarce. The earth is on the boundary between the two zones and is the only place, so far as we know, where both sunlight and water are abundant. That is presumably the reason why life arose on earth. It is also the reason why solar ponds are more likely to be useful on earth than anywhere else in the solar system.

(ed note: Earth seems anomalous, and it is. The giant-impact hypothesis postulates that Luna was formed when a small planet (named Theia) smacked into the young Earth. Earth and Theia merged and Luna condensed out of the debris.

A recent scientific study found evidence that Theia originally formed in the outer solar system. That is, in the abundant water/scarce sunlight section. That is why Earth has so much freaking water.)

     We should be looking for technologies that will radically transform the economics of going into space. We need to reduce the costs of space operations, not just by factors of five or ten but by factors of a hundred or a thousand, before the large-scale expansion of mankind into the solar system will be possible. It seems likely that the appropriate technologies will be different in the inner and outer zones. The inner zone, with abundant sunlight and little water, must be a zone of gray technology. Great machines and governmental enterprises can flourish best in those regions of the solar system that are inhospitable to man. Self-reproducing automata built of iron, aluminum and silicon have no need of water. They can proliferate on the moon or on Mercury or in the spaces between, carrying out gigantic industrial projects at no risk to the earth’s ecology. They will feed upon sunlight and rock, needing no other raw material for their growth. They will build in space free-floating cities for human habitation. They will bring oceans of water from the satellites of the outer planets, where it is to be had in abundance, to the inner zone, where it is needed.

     The proliferation of gray technology in the inner zone of the solar system can alleviate in many ways the economic problems of mankind on earth. The resources of matter and sunlight available in the inner zone exceed by many powers of ten the resources available on the earth’s surface. Earth may be directly supplied from space with scarce minerals and industrial products, or even with food and fuel. Earth may be treasured and preserved as a residential parkland, or as a wilderness area, while large-scale mining and manufacturing operations are banished to the moon and the asteroids. Emigration of people from earth will not by itself solve earth’s population problem. Earth's population problem must be solved on earth, one way or another, whether or not there is emigration. But the possibility of emigration may indirectly help a great deal to make earth’s problem tractable. It may be psychologically and politically easier for the people who remain on earth to accept strict limits on the growth of their population if those who feel an irrepressible emotional commitment to the raising of large families have another place to which they can go.

     Where will the emigrants go? Gray technology does not provide a satisfactory answer to this question. Gray technology can build colonies in space in the style of‘O’Neill’s “Island One,” cans of metal and glass in which people live hygienic and protected lives, insulated from both the wildness of earth and the wildness of space. We will be lucky if the people in these metal-and-glass cans do not come to resemble more and more as time goes on the people of Huxley’s Brave New World. Humanity requires a larger and freer habitat. We do not live by bread alone. The fundamental problem of man’s future is not economic but spiritual, the problem of diversity. How do we find room for diversity, either on our crowded earth or in the metal-and-glass cans that our existing space technology provides as living space?

     Diversity on the social level means preserving a multiplicity of languages and cultures and allowing room for the growth of new ones, in the face of the homogenizing influences of modern communications and mass media. Diversity on the biological level means allowing parents the right to use the technology of genetic manipulation to raise children healthier or longer-lived or more gifted than themselves. The consequence of allowing to parents freedom of genetic diversification would probably be the splitting of mankind into a clade of non-interbreeding species. It is difficult to imagine that any of our existing social institutions would be strong enough to withstand the strains that such a splitting would impose. The strains would be like the strains caused by the diversity of human skin color, only a hundred times worse. So long as mankind remains confined to this planet, the ethic of human brotherhood must prevail over our desire for diversity. Cultural diversity will inexorably diminish, and biological diversity will be too dangerous to be tolerated.

     In the long run, the only solution that I see to the problem of diversity is the expansion of mankind into the universe by means of green technology. Green technology pushes us in the right direction, outward from the sun, to the asteroids and the giant planets and beyond, where space is limitless and the frontier forever open. Green technology means that we do not live in cans but adapt our plants and our animals and ourselves to live wild in the universe as we find it. The Mongolian nomads developed a tough skin and a slit-shaped eye to withstand the cold winds of Asia. If some of our grandchildren are born with an even tougher skin and an even narrower eye, they may walk bare-faced in the winds of Mars. The question that will decide our destiny is not whether we shall expand into space. It is: shall we be one species or a million? A million species will not exhaust the ecological niches that are awaiting the arrival of intelligence.

     If we are using green technology, our expansion into the universe is not just an expansion of men and machines. It is an expansion of all life, making use of man's brain for her own purposes. When life invades a new habitat, she never moves with a single species. She comes with a variety of species, and as soon as she is established, her species spread and diversify still further. Our spread through the galaxy will follow her ancient pattern.

     To make a tree grow on an asteroid in airless space by the light of a distant sun, we need to redesign the skin of its leaves. In every organism the skin is the crucial part which must be delicately tailored to the demands of the environment. This also is not a new idea.

My conversation with the natives:
“Where do you come from?" I asked them. “We migrated from another planet.” “How did you happen to come here and live in a vacuum, when your bodies were designed for living in an atmosphere?" “I can’t explain how we got here, that is too complicated, but I can tell you that our bodies gradually changed and adapted to life in a vacuum in the same way as your water-animals gradually became land-animals and your land-animals gradually took to flying. On planets, water-animals generally appear first, air-breathing animals later, and vacuum-animals last." “How do you eat?” “We eat and grow like plants, using sunlight.” “But I still don’t understand. A plant absorbs juices from the ground and gases from the air, and the sunlight only converts these things into living tissue.” “You see these green appendages on our bodies, looking like beautiful emerald wings? They are full of chloroplasts like the ones that make your plants green. A few of your animals have them too. Our wings have a glassy skin that is airtight and watertight but still lets the sunlight through. The sunlight dissociates carbon dioxide that is dissolved in the blood that flows through our wings, and catalyzes a thousand other chemical reactions that supply us with all the substances we need. . .

     The quotation is from Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s Dreams of Earth and Sky, published in Moscow in 1895, seven years before Wells's lecture on the discovery of the future.

     We do not yet know what the asteroids are made of. Many of them are extremely dark in color and have optical characteristics resembling those of a kind of meteorite called carbonaceous chondrite. The carbonaceous chondrites are made of stuff rather like terrestrial soil, containing a fair fraction of water and carbon and other chemicals essential to life. It is possible that we shall be lucky and find that the black asteroids are made of carbonacous chondrite material. Certainly there must be some place in the solar system from which the carbonaceous chrondrites come. If it turns out that the black asteroids are the place, then we have millions of little worlds, conveniently accessible from earth, where suitably programmed trees could take root and grow in the soil as they find it. With the trees will come other plants, and animals, and humans, whole ecologies in endless variety, each little world free to experiment and diversify as it sees fit.

     Man's gray technology is also a part of nature. It was, and will remain, essential for making the jump from earth into space. The gray technology was nature’s trick, invented to enable life to escape from earth. The green technology of genetic manipulation was another trick of nature, invented to enable life to adapt rapidly and purposefully rather than slowly and randomly to her new home, so that she could not only escape from earth but spread and diversify and run loose in the universe. All our skills are a part of nature’s plan and are used by her for her own purposes.

     Where do we go next after we have passed beyond the asteroids? The satellites of Jupiter and Saturn are rich in ice and organic nutrients. They are cold and far from the sun, but plants can grow on them if we teach the plants to grow like living greenhouses. There is no reason why a plant cannot grow its own greenhouse, just as a turtle or an oyster grows its own shell. Moving out beyond Jupiter and Saturn, we come to the realm of the comets. It is likely that the space around the solar system is populated by huge numbers of comets, small worlds a few miles in diameter, composed almost entirely of ice and other chemicals essential to life. We see one of these comets only when it happens to suffer a perturbation of its orbit which sends it plunging close to the sun. Roughly one comet per year is captured into the region near the sun, where it eventually evaporates and disintegrates. If we assume that the supply of distant comets is sufficient to sustain this process over the billions of years that the solar system has existed, then the total population of comets loosely attached to the sun must be numbered in the billions. The combined surface area of these comets is then at least a thousand times that of earth. Comets, not planets, may be the major potential habitat of life in the solar system.

     It may or may not be true that other stars have as many comets as the sun. We have no evidence one way or the other. If the sun is not exceptional in this regard, then comets pervade our entire galaxy, and the galaxy is a much friendlier place for interstellar travelers than most people imagine. The average distance between habitable islands in the ocean of space will then not be measured in light-years but will be of the order of a light-day or less.

     Whether or not the comets provide convenient way stations for the migration of life all over the galaxy, the interstellar distances cannot be a permanent barrier to life’s expansion. Once life has learned to encapsulate itself against the cold and the vacuum of space, it can survive interstellar voyages and can seed itself wherever starlight and water and essential nutrients are to be found. Wherever life goes, our descendants will go with it, helping and guiding and adapting. There will be problems for life to solve in adapting itself to planets of various sizes or to interstellar dust clouds. Our descendants will perhaps learn to grow gardens in stellar winds and in supernova remnants. The one thing that our descendants will not be able to do is to stop the expansion of life once it is well started. The power to control the expansion will be for a short time in our hands, but ultimately life will find its own ways to expand with or without our help. The greening of the galaxy will become an irreversible process.

From THE GREENING OF THE GALAXY by Freeman Dyson (1979)

The Shaper/Mechanist universe is the setting for a series of science fiction short stories (and the novel Schismatrix) written by the author Bruce Sterling. The stories combined cover approximately 350 years of future history, for the period ranging from AD 2200-2550. (Note: All years given are taken from "A Shaper/Mechanist Chronology" in the book Schismatrix Plus, which includes all the Shaper/Mechanist material.)

The stories deal with a posthuman society spread across the solar system—primarily in fragile orbiting colonies around planetary bodies like the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn and the Sun. The Earth and its inhabitants have been abandoned by these citizens of the so-called Schismatrix, and no communication is performed or attempted with them. Humanity has largely polarized into two competing factions:

The Shapers attempt to push the limits by manipulating the human body itself, through genetic modification and highly specialized psychological training. The Shapers are aristocratic, placing heavy emphasis on "gene-lines"—to be "unplanned" (i.e., born) is considered a serious disadvantage. Their methods could best be described as "organic." Shaper society, based around the Military-Academic complex, is described as fascist.

In contrast, the Mechanists have disdain for the Shapers' methods and instead prefer to use cybernetic augmentation, advanced computer software, technical expertise, and drugs to achieve their goals. The "Lobsters" are Mechanists who permanently seal their bodies into life-support shells allowing them to live and work in deep space. Some Mechanists even go as far as to become "wireheads"—individuals with no corporeal body who are simply manifested as computer simulations. The Mechanist philosophy favors individualism more than the collectivist Shapers.

This uneasy duality is transformed and complicated by the arrival of the Investors, lizardlike aliens that trade with both factions (who consequently compete for the aliens' favor).

One recurring theme in the Shaper/Mechanist universe is that of the commodification of humanity. Both Shapers and Mechanists often treat individuals as if they were technology—subject to ownership, control, obsolescence, etc. There is a continual tension between people attempting to express their individuality and human feelings, and the political, economic and technological forces that compel them to suppress their humanity.

From the Wikipedia entry for SHAPER/MECHANIST UNIVERSE


Conjoiners or the Conjoined (pejoratively referred to by outsiders as spiders) are a faction based around mental augmentation and communication, and the advancement of the human mind. Early experiments by the Conjoiner matriarch Galiana and her group on Mars in the early 22nd century with the uses of technology in augmenting consciousness prompted her to begin experimenting with allowing her subject's implants to communicate — triggering the event known as the Transenlightenment, and the beginnings of the Mother Nest and of the Conjoiners. After losing a war with the remainder of humanity, the first Conjoiners later escape the Solar System with the help of Nevil Clavain and colonise other star systems. They then progress to a technological level considerably ahead of the rest of humanity, although still far behind many alien cultures in nearby space. The Conjoiners function as a single society for centuries, before the events of Redemption Ark result in them splintering into numerous factions and disappearing from the affairs of baseline humanity by the time of Absolution Gap, by which point they are engaged in the war with the Inhibitors. With the "Rise of the Greenfly", other human factions are wiped out, leaving an isolated enclave of Conjoiners as the last humans in the galaxy, along with the Ultranaut Irravel. Even they are forced to flee eventually, as the Greenflies' grip on the galaxy increases.

Conjoiners use technology to create a localised group mind. Individual identities are retained, but the group generally functions as a single unit working harmoniously toward its goals. All Conjoiners possess, at the minimum, a net of nanomachines that mimic their host's brain structure and augment the host's neural capabilities. Artificial enhancements such as vision overlays are not uncommon, and Conjoiners can communicate neurally through fields generated by their implants, which may or may not be amplified by background systems depending on the situation. Most Conjoiners use only neural communication with other Conjoiners and do not physically speak or visibly emote. Their implants also offer them a host of other abilities, such as the ability to interface with, hack into, and otherwise use a considerable amount of computerised machinery; they had little trouble overriding most software security protocols save their own, and any computer-embedded device (which, in Revelation Space, is virtually all extant technology) that was not strictly air gapped (and even some that were otherwise simply vulnerable to remote tampering via electromagnetic fields) were vulnerable to control or takeover by even Conjoiner children.

Many Conjoiner technologies were designed in unusual ways that grew from Conjoiners' cybernetically augmented brains, as well: while most Demarchist technology was heavily computerised — and thus "smart" in interacting with humans —, most Conjoiner technology was borderline sentient, with simulated personalities making them interesting companions to their Conjoiner users. Another such design involved the usage of interior space within Conjoiner ships and habitats: while Demarchist and Ultranaut starships and interplanetary shuttles were often bulked with interior volume, including large, empty living quarters, Conjoiner ships, especially smaller ones, would dispense with such luxurious spaces, with the Conjoined wedging their bodies into unlit, compacted compartments, jammed in with machinery; in such cases, the Conjoined would voluntarily neurologically shut down their own proprioception so as not to experience claustrophobia (this also had the added benefit of preventing their bodies from floating around or banging into surfaces during ship maneouvres). In extreme cases of this principle, the Conjoined would even (though it was not common knowledge among baseline humans) have their living brains removed and embalmed in cushioning gel, hooked up to elaborate life-support systems, and in this state would take all of their necessary stimulation and interaction with the world cybernetically through their implants.

Possibly the most significant application of the Conjoiner mental enhancement programme was known as Exordium. This was a technology which allowed the Conjoined to place their implants into a quantum superposition of all their possible brain states; allowing, among other things, Conjoiners to glean information about all other quantum alternative instances of themselves, and thus, of all Conjoiners living in parallel quantum universes. They also typically modify their own bodies (often using muscle fibres based on those of chimpanzees) to make themselves physically stronger. Also, at least by the 26th century, more modern Conjoiners possessed a cranial crest. As well as being aesthetically pleasing, it allows dissipation of the huge amounts of thermal energy their super-charged brains produce.

Most Conjoiners perceived the cultural barrier between themselves and baseline humans as essentially insurmountable, and insisted that the indescribable experience of being Conjoined, as well as the vastly elevated states of consciousness associated with Transenlightenment, are by definition incomprehensible to non-Conjoined humans. Episodes where baseline humans experience Transenlightenment (or even just its glimpses) seem to confirm this. Once a person experienced Transenlightenment, they always proved incapable of resuming life as an un-Conjoined individual. Indeed, among themselves they pejoratively referred to the un-Conjoined collectively as the retarded, and regarded the prospect of leaving the Conjoined hive as akin to losing all of one's senses and faculties and permanently vegetating in unbearable, utter isolation. Even the thought of leaving temporarily and returning to the hive was regarded with abhorrence, and taking back a once disconnected Conjoiner was regarded as an act of sacrificial, condescending mercy, as the desolate pain of the temporary isolation would permeate through the Transenlightenment and all of the Conjoined would know a little more deeply the trauma and depression experienced by their formerly excommunicated comrades. Though Transenlightenment was regarded by those who experienced it as a previously unimaginable boon, and an endlessly rich source of intellectual, social, and personal stimulation and a permanent eudaimonic wellspring, corollarily, its subsequent absence would be felt as inhuman deprivation.

This cultural barrier sometimes backfired on the Conjoiners as a collective as well, as it was often difficult or impossible for any non-Conjoined human to truly understand the intentions, thoughts, or motivations of one of the Conjoined — this being a constant source of tension. One of the major causes of the initial schism between the baseline humans of Earth and the Mother Nest of Conjoiners on Mars was the miscommunication over the nature of Transenlightement. During the early stages of the Transenlightenment, Galiana's Conjoiners believed so sincerely that the new gestalt consciousness they had become was so self-evidently superior to, and desirable over, earlier forms of human experience that they sought to covertly uplift all humans remotely by subtly commandeering their ordinary neural implants, broadcasting a "viral" network signal which was perceived by the non-Conjoined as a massive, concerted effort at species-wide brainjacking. Given the fact that these new Conjoiners, including all those whose ordinary implants were subverted by the initial "attack", immediately took on their characteristic peculiarities (elective mutism, total lack of visible external affect, etc.), the un-Conjoined humans believed their kin to have been virtually enslaved by Galiana and her cult of Martian cybernetic fanatics. When these newly Conjoined were restrained and their implants forcibly removed (effectively amputating them from the broader Conjoined hive), they proved incapable of resuming their original lives, instead living out the rest of their (usually short) days in traumatic shock over their inability to experience Transenlightenment, begging and pleading to be allowed to leave their families and homes and travel to the Mother Nest, trying to convince the un-Conjoined to voluntarily join the Mother Nest, and ultimately, invariably, taking their own lives. The horrific toll this took on many families and communities on Earth was invisible to the Conjoiners, while the agony of isolation from the Transenlightenment was unimaginable to the un-Conjoined. All of this contributed to the formation on Earth of the Coalition for Neural Purity, whose undisguised policy was genocide against the Conjoiners of Mars.

Even many centuries later, when the normally sympathetic (and politically/economically allied) Demarchy of Yellowstone invited the Conjoiner Mother Nest in that system to aid in rebuilding Chasm City after the Melding Plague devastated it, only a few decades transpired before the radical social and technological changes introduced by the massive influx of Conjoiner population to the City resulted in escalating tensions, leading eventually to a war between the Demarchists and the Conjoined. Even though there were no subversive or clandestine efforts to spread Transenlightenment by the Mother Nest, the dawning realisation that Chasm City, the jewel of Demarchist culture across many star systems, was now largely peopled, designed, and run by a group which was, to those outside it, invincibly opaque and alien, was enough to lead to the violent expulsion of all Conjoined in the Yellowstone planetary system, best-intentions or not.

Conjoiners are typically so used to being part of a group mind, that most experience disquiet or worse if cut off from other Conjoiners even to a modest degree. Even a sufficiently small group of the Conjoined, if isolated and left without the sort of intelligent computer networks used in all of their technology, would grow disturbed at the void they felt where they would usually experience the gestalt thoughts of many others. As such it was very rare for Conjoiners to ever voluntarily travel in groups of less than three or some other small multiple, as even high Demarchist abstraction was unable to replicate the experience of Transenlightenment, designed as it was, even at its height of sophistication, merely to entertain and exercise baseline unenhanced human singletons. The few Conjoiners who were capable of operating by themselves were viewed with ambivalence by the rest of Conjoiner society, and they themselves were specially trained to withhold themselves from the fullness of Transenlightenment when doing so would protect the hive, even though doing so hurt them privately — a recursive difficulty for Conjoiners, to whom private suffering, let alone self-imposed private suffering, was a vastly alien and ugly concept. Notable individuals with this capability include Clavain, Khouri, Skade, and Remontoire. Clavain and Khouri joined at older ages than normal, and Clavain had early generation implants (though not uniquely so); Skade was trained in isolated operation, and later was supported by the alien construct known as Mademoiselle.

Although Conjoiners seemed monolithic and a dronelike hive mind to outsiders, they each possessed their own varied and distinct personalities and deep divisions of thought and opinion still persisted amongst them. Clavain later told other characters that each Conjoiner is in fact different and has a different mind as all humans do; baseline humans simply cannot see it. Similarly, though their particular characteristics, such as mutism and flat affect, seem to baseline humans to be signs of inward disorder or antisociality, among the Conjoined the physical expression of inner psychological states was regarded as purely superfluous. Conjoiners experienced all the richness of human existence and more; their lives were, in fact, endlessly rewarding and stimulating, with every Conjoined person permanently entranced in a psychological flow state, at any time achieving somewhere in the vicinity of their full potential — always richly socialised and never lonely, never bored, always putting their minds to interesting tasks, and always, always learning. This gestalt of communal activity, known as the Transenlightenment, was simply invisible except on wavelengths beyond the sight of unaugmented human eyes. When Clavain was first incepted by Transenlightenment, his experience (as Conjoiner nanomachines repaired and restructured his nervous system) was in seeing that the apparently drab, grey, and barren domiciles of Galiana's Mother Nest on Mars, were, in fact, suffused with light.

The Conjoiners were first introduced in the short story "The Great Wall of Mars", which was first published in Spectrum SF #1, in February 2000, but republished in the collection of short Novellas, Galactic North (2006). At this point, the Conjoiners lived on Mars and the Transenlightenment was relatively recent. The story includes Nevil Clavain, initially an outsider, meeting Galiana and Remontoire, and then joining the Conjoiners. The Conjoiners are barely mentioned in the novels Revelation Space (2000) and Chasm City (2001), but are the centre of the short story "Glacial", first published in Spectrum SF #5 in March 2001, again republished in Galactic North (2006), which takes place at humanity's first interstellar colony. The Conjoiners are the central focus of the next novel, Redemption Ark (2002), and feature prominently in the following novel, Absolution Gap (2003).

In the afterword of Galactic North, Alastair Reynolds comments that the Conjoiners are not an entirely new concept, and may owe some of their origin to the Human Hive-mind culture from Michael Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers.

From the Wikipedia entry for FACTIONS IN REVELATION SPACE

Planned Obsolescence


Planned obsolescence, or built-in obsolescence, in industrial design and economics is a policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life, so that it becomes obsolete (i.e., unfashionable, or no longer functional) after a certain period of time. The rationale behind this strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases (referred to as "shortening the replacement cycle").

Producers that pursue this strategy believe that the additional sales revenue it creates more than offsets the additional costs of research and development, and offsets the opportunity costs of repurposing an existing product line. In a competitive industry, this is a risky policy, because consumers may decide to buy from competitors instead if they notice the strategy.

Planned obsolescence tends to work best when a producer has at least an oligopoly. Before introducing a planned obsolescence, the producer has to know that the consumer is at least somewhat likely to buy a replacement from them. In these cases of planned obsolescence, there is an information asymmetry between the producer, who knows how long the product was designed to last, and the consumer, who does not. When a market becomes more competitive, product lifespans tend to increase. For example, when Japanese vehicles with longer lifespans entered the American market in the 1960s and 1970s, American carmakers were forced to respond by building more durable products.

History and origins of the phrase

In the United States, automotive design reached a turning point in 1924 when the American national automobile market began reaching saturation. To maintain unit sales, General Motors head Alfred P. Sloan Jr. suggested annual model-year design changes to convince car owners that they needed to buy a new replacement each year, an idea borrowed from the bicycle industry, though the concept is often misattributed to Sloan. Critics called his strategy "planned obsolescence". Sloan preferred the term "dynamic obsolescence".

This strategy had far-reaching effects on the auto business, the field of product design, and eventually the American economy. The smaller players could not maintain the pace and expense of yearly re-styling. Henry Ford did not like the constant stream of model-year changes because he clung to an engineer's notions of simplicity, economies of scale, and design integrity. GM surpassed Ford's sales in 1931 and became the dominant company in the industry thereafter. The frequent design changes also made it necessary to use a body-on-frame rather than the lighter, but less easy to modify, unibody design used by most European automakers.

The origins of phrase planned obsolescence go back at least as far as 1932 with Bernard London's pamphlet Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence.> The essence of London's plan would have the government impose a legal obsolescence on consumer articles, to stimulate and perpetuate consumption. However, the phrase was first popularized in 1954 by Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer. Stevens was due to give a talk at an advertising conference in Minneapolis in 1954. Without giving it much thought, he used the term as the title of his talk. From that point on, "planned obsolescence" became Stevens' catchphrase. By his definition, planned obsolescence was "Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary."

The phrase was quickly taken up by others, but Stevens' definition was challenged. By the late 1950s, planned obsolescence had become a commonly used term for products designed to break easily or to quickly go out of style. In fact, the concept was so widely recognized that in 1959 Volkswagen mocked it in an advertising campaign. While acknowledging the widespread use of planned obsolescence among automobile manufacturers, Volkswagen pitched itself as an alternative. "We do not believe in planned obsolescence", the ads suggested. "We don't change a car for the sake of change." In the famous Volkswagen advertising campaign by Doyle Dane Bernbach, one advert showed an almost blank page with the strapline "No point in showing the 1962 Volkswagen, it still looks the same".

In 1960, cultural critic Vance Packard published The Waste Makers, promoted as an exposé of "the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals". Packard divided planned obsolescence into two sub categories:

  • obsolescence of desirability; and
  • obsolescence of function.

"Obsolescence of desirability", a.k.a. "psychological obsolescence", referred to marketers' attempts to wear out a product in the owner's mind. Packard quoted industrial designer George Nelson, who wrote: "Design... is an attempt to make a contribution through change. When no contribution is made or can be made, the only process available for giving the illusion of change is 'styling!'"


Contrived durability

Contrived durability is a strategy of shortening the product lifetime before it is released onto the market, by designing it to deteriorate quickly. The design of all consumer products includes an expected average lifetime permeating all stages of development. Thus, it must be decided early in the design of a complex product how long it is designed to last so that each component can be made to those specifications. Since all matter is subject to entropy, it is impossible for any designed object to retain its full function forever; all products will ultimately break down, no matter what steps are taken. Limited lifespan is only a sign of planned obsolescence if the lifespan of the product is made artificially short by design.

The strategy of contrived durability is generally not prohibited by law, and manufacturers are free to set the durability level of their products.

A possible method of limiting a product's durability is to use inferior materials in critical areas, or suboptimal component layouts which cause excessive wear. Using soft metal in screws and cheap plastic instead of metal in stress-bearing components will increase the speed at which a product will become inoperable through normal usage and make it prone to breakage from even minor forms of abnormal usage. For example, small, brittle plastic gears in toys are extremely prone to damage if the toy is played with roughly, which can easily destroy key functions of the toy and force the purchase of a replacement. The short life expectancy of smartphones and other handheld electronics is a result of constant usage, fragile batteries, and the ability to easily damage them.

Prevention of repairs

The ultimate examples of such design are single-use versions of traditionally durable goods, such as disposable cameras, where the customer must purchase an entire new product after using them a single time. Such products are often designed to be impossible to service; for example, a cheap "throwaway" digital watch may have a casing which is simply sealed in the factory, with no designed ability for the user to access the interior without destroying the watch entirely. Manufacturers may make replacement parts either unavailable or so expensive that it makes the product uneconomic to repair. For example, inkjet printers made by Canon incorporate a print head which eventually fails. However, the high cost of a replacement forces the owner to scrap the entire device.

Other products may also contain design features meant to frustrate repairs, such as Apple's "tamper-resistant" pentalobe screws that cannot easily be removed with common consumer tools. Front loading washing machines often have the drum bearing - a critical and wear-prone mechanical component - permanently molded into the wash tub, or even have a sealed outer tub, making it impossible to renew the bearings without replacing the entire tub. The cost of this repair may exceed the residual value of the appliance, forcing it to be scrapped.

According to Kyle Wiens, co-founder of an online repair community, a possible goal for such design is to make the cost of repairs comparable to the replacement cost, or to prevent any form of servicing of the product at all. In 2012, Toshiba was criticized for issuing cease-and-desist letters to the owner of a website that hosted its copyrighted repair manuals, to the detriment of the independent and home repair market.

Non-user-replaceable batteries

Some products, such as mobile phones, laptops, and electric toothbrushes, contain batteries that are not replaceable by the end-user after they have worn down, therefore leaving an aging battery trapped inside the device. While such a design can help make the device thinner, it can also make it difficult to replace the battery without sending the entire device away for repairs or purchasing an entirely new device. On a device with a non-openable back cover (non-user-replaceable battery), a manual (forced) battery replacement might induce permanent damage, including loss of water-resistance due to damages on the water-protecting seal. The manufacturer or a repair service might be able to replace the battery. In the latter case, this could void the warranty on the device.

The practice in phone design started with Apple's iPhones and has now spread out to most other mobile phones, notably Samsung Mobile starting in 2015 with the Galaxy S6. Earlier mobile phones (including water-resistant ones such as the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the Sony Xperia V) had back covers that could be opened by the user in order to replace the battery.

Perceived obsolescence

Obsolescence of desirability or stylistic obsolescence occurs when designers change the styling of products so customers will purchase products more frequently due to the decrease in the perceived desirability of unfashionable items.

Many products are primarily desirable for aesthetic rather than functional reasons. An obvious example of such a product is clothing. Such products experience a cycle of desirability referred to as a "fashion cycle". By continually introducing new aesthetics, and retargeting or discontinuing older designs, a manufacturer can "ride the fashion cycle", allowing for constant sales despite the original products remaining fully functional. Sneakers are popular fashion industry where this is prevalent - Nike's Air Max line of running shoes is a prime example where a single model of shoe is often produced for years, but the color and material combination ("colorway") is changed every few months, or different colorways are offered in different markets. This has the upshot of ensuring constant demand for the product, even though it remains fundamentally the same.

To a more limited extent this is also true of some consumer electronic products, where manufacturers will release slightly updated products at regular intervals and emphasize their value as status symbols. The most notable example among technology products are Apple products. New colorways introduced with iterative “S” generation iPhones (e.g. the iPhone 6S’ “Rose Gold”) entice consumers into upgrading and distinguishes an otherwise identical-looking iPhone from the previous year's model.

Some smartphone manufacturers release a marginally updated model every 5 or 6 months compared to the typical yearly cycle, leading to the perception that a one-year-old handset can be up to two generations old. A notable example is OnePlus, known for releasing T-series devices with upgraded specifications roughly 6 months after a major release device. Sony Mobile utilised a similar tactic with its Z-series smartphones.

Systemic obsolescence

Planned systemic obsolescence is the deliberate attempt to make a product obsolete by altering the system in which it is used in such a way as to make its continued use difficult. Common examples of planned systemic obsolescence include not accommodating forward compatibility in software, or routinely changing screws or fasteners so that they cannot easily be operated on with existing tools. This may either be designed to intentionally cause obsolescence, or by interface standards being superseded by better standards that were not available when the product was designed. An example of the latter would be computer peripherals that are equipped with a PS/2 connector. Even if the devices themselves are functioning perfectly well, they are not directly compatible with modern computers, and therefore considered obsolete.

Programmed obsolescence

In some cases, notification may be combined with the deliberate disabling of a product to prevent it from working, thus requiring the buyer to purchase a replacement. For example, inkjet printer manufacturers employ smart chips in their ink cartridges to prevent them from being used after a certain threshold (number of pages, time, etc.), even though the cartridge may still contain usable ink or could be refilled (with ink toners, up to 50 percent of the toner cartridge is often still full). This constitutes "programmed obsolescence", in that there is no random component contributing to the decline in function.

In the Jackie Blennis v. HP class action suit, it was claimed that Hewlett Packard designed certain inkjet printers and cartridges to shut down on an undisclosed expiration date, and at this point consumers were prevented from using the ink that remained in the expired cartridge. HP denied these claims, but agreed to discontinue the use of certain messages, and to make certain changes to the disclosures on its website and packaging, as well as compensating affected consumers with a total credit of up to $5,000,000 for future purchases from HP.

Samsung produces laser printers that are designed to stop working with a message about imaging drum replacing. There are some workarounds for users, for instance, that will more than double the life of the printer that has stopped with a message to replace the imaging drum.

Software lock-out

Another example of programmed obsolescence is making older versions of software (e.g. YouTube's Android application) unserviceable deliberately, despite they would technically be able to keep working as intended.

This could be a problem, because some devices, despite being equipped with appropriate hardware, might not be able to support the newest update without modifications such as custom firmwares.

Additionally, updates to newer versions might have introduced undesirable side effects, such as removed features or non-optional changes which might be unsolicited and undesired by specific users.

Software companies sometimes deliberately drop support for older technologies as a calculated attempt to force users to purchase new products to replace those made obsolete. Most proprietary software will ultimately reach an end-of-life point - usually because the cost of support exceeds the revenue generated by supporting the old version - at which the supplier will cease updates and support. As free software and open source software can always be updated and maintained by somebody else, the user is not at the sole mercy of a proprietary vendor. Software that is abandoned by the manufacturer with regard to manufacturer support is sometimes called abandonware.

Advantages and disadvantages

Estimates of planned obsolescence can influence a company's decisions about product engineering. Therefore, the company can use the least expensive components that satisfy product lifetime projections.

Also, for industries, planned obsolescence stimulates demand by encouraging purchasers/putting them under pressure to buy sooner if they still want a functioning product. These products can be bought from the same manufacturer (a replacement part or a newer model), or from a competitor who might also rely on planned obsolescence. Especially in developed countries (where many industries already face a saturated market), this technique is often necessary for producers to maintain their level of revenue.

While planned obsolescence is appealing to producers, it can also do significant harm to the society in the form of negative externalities. Continuously replacing products, rather than repairing them, creates more waste and pollution, uses more natural resources, and results in more consumer spending. Planned obsolescence can thus have a negative impact on the environment in aggregate. Even when planned obsolescence might help to save scarce resources per unit produced, it tends to increase output in aggregate, since due to laws of supply and demand, decreases in cost and price will eventually result in increases in demand and consumption. However, the negative environmental impacts of planned obsolescence are dependent also on the process of production, as well as technical details pertaining to product disposal. Products that are difficult to disassemble can be very difficult to recycle properly.

There is also the potential backlash of consumers who learn that the manufacturer invested money to make the product obsolete faster; such consumers might turn to a producer (if any exists) that offers a more durable alternative.

See also

From the Wikipedia entry for PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE

(ed note: in the novel, the future is a post-apocalyptic Mad-Max like hell-scape. And it all came about due to Planned Obsolescence.

The protagonists Ventnor is a primitive tribesman, but with a genius level of gadgeteering. He is adopted by a covert group of scientists who are masquerading as another tribe of primitive people, but are actually trying to un-do the damage. Ventnor is give a history less on how the world got to be in such a sorry state.)

      (Ventnor said) "I don't quite understand why."
     "I don't suppose you do," Stein sighed. "I suppose I must fill you in on history otherwise it will affect your future education. I'll give it to you a bit at a time so you get a clear picture."
     He led the way down a narrow side tunnel and continued the conversation over his shoulder.
     "I'll give you the basic picture first and then I'll give you a session on the Recreator—I'll explain that when we use it."

     They came to a room dominated by a huge machine on a raised platform.
     "This is our local museum." Stein informed him.
     Ventnor was still staring at the machine. He presumed it was some sort of vehicle, but it suggested both beauty and engineering perfection.
     "What is it?"
     Stein laughed softly. "Call it a symbol of courage. A vehicle built for endurance in the age of intransience. When the world was embracing short-life construction the people who built this refused to conform. They preferred their own integrity to easy profits. They perished but the symbol of their courage remains. As you can see, it's a vehicle—it was known as a Rolls Royce."
     He sighed: "I understand Germany displays a Volkswagen, America a scalpel—a tribute to a certain manufacturer of surgical instruments who also refused to conform."

     He sighed and led the way into another room. "Stand by, we are about to visit the age of intransience—
     In the second room were numerous articles on shelves in plastic containers.
     Stein pointed. "Read the inscription on that—aloud, please."
     "The Winsom Throw-Away Shirt."
     "Fine, there is an article from the age of intranscience. A shirt you wore once and threw away. If you wore it more than eight hours it fell to pieces on your body."
     He paused and squatted uncomfortably on the edge of one of the shelves. "I'd better explain that the entire world had adopted the metric system although most of them retained their original symbols. America had always called their chief unit a dollar. We adopted the same system but still called our chief unit a pound—one hundred shillings to the pound. It is important to bear this in mind because these shirts were six a shilling."

     "To be brief, the demand for manufactured goods was constantly increasing but, with the increase, the cost of producing goods rose also. Thus prices were constantly rising and people could not afford to buy. To avoid stagnation, wages had to be increased to meet the rising cost of living which, in turn, raised the cost of goods again—following me? Good. Obviously this continuous spiral would end in economic chaos but fortunately, or unfortunately, an industrial research group came up with 'short-life'. That is to say, substances such as plastics and metals which were cheap to manufacture and could be arranged to last only a short time."
     "The trend had begun decades before with vehicles constructed to last only three years. Now, with the new cheap substances, the trend spread to almost every manufactured article. The politicians must have been delighted because the cost of living arrowed downwards and production rose to incredible heights. History shows, however, that this was a mistake."

     Stein sighed and shook his head. "Sorry to bore you with dry facts, but let me give you a brief picture at the height of this economic 'boost' for that is all it was. You could, as I have said, buy six throw-away shirts for a shilling. An automobile, designed to last exactly three months, for twenty pounds. There were 'five-year-houses', 'ten-year-tenements' and 'six-week-washing-machines'. Even canned food was sold in short-life containers designed to last only a few weeks so that the purchasers would eat quickly and buy again."
     "Needless to say, manufacturers and industrialists were reaping fantastic profits while the masses enjoyed unheard of luxury. In an effort to make more profit, the industrialists centralized and, in the end, the world's entire production was pouring from six great centers only."

     "Centralization proved to be the primary mistake. In Europe, unexpected floods put one out of commission and, by a singular stroke of ill-fortune, a landslide cut the power supply of another."
     "At the same time, in the United States, an airliner crashed out of control on a third wrecking the automatic control unit."
     "The remaining three were compelled to supply not only the demands of the entire world but, at the same time, supply and dispatch vital spares and replacements for those out of commission. The auto-brains of two of these centers already over-loaded and over-taxed and, for that matter, over-programmed beyond their capacity, burned out under the strain. That was the beginning of the end. Efforts were made to get the centers moving again but as soon as one was repaired, another broke down casting an additional strain upon the rest. Since the products of one were dependent upon the products of another, the situation became hopeless. The food center was producing food but had received no bags or cans in which to pack it. In any case the transport center had not yet resumed production and, owing to short-life materials, existing methods of conveyance were failing every day."

     Stein rose. "Have you followed me?"
     "Yes, I think so."
     "I hope you have, because I am now going to give you a session in the Recreator—this way."
     The final room was small and, in the center of it, was a peculiar-looking high backed chair.
     Stein waved to it. "Sit down, you are about to visit the past." He smiled as he attached sucker-terminals to Ventnor's wrists, his forehead and the back of his neck. "Do not be alarmed, you will not lose your identity. You will merely observe a period of history through another's eyes and another's faculties. You will become, for a brief period, a character we call Mr. Smith."
     "This particular Mr. Smith, never truly existed. He is a composite character we put together for educational purposes. His experiences are composed of on-the-spot news shots, mock-ups and a large number of emotional tapes recovered from the period, doctored in the continuity department and put together to create a precise character."
     "Comfortable?" He patted Ventnor's shoulder but did not wait for an answer. "Fine, now relax, give yourself to the impressions which will flood your mind."
     There was a faint click but Stein did not stop talking: "For your personal information, you are about to become a gadgeteer, the sort of gadgeteer that Megellon got a bug about. You will experiment with chemistry but you are not a chemist. You will try—and make—weapons—but—you—not—"

     Strangely Stein's voice seemed to become a low humming and Ventnor experienced a momentary giddiness. An impression of light and shadow seemed to dance before his eyes and then he was staring at a circle.
     The circle thickened, grew spokes
there was a feeling of movement, of buildings rushing by and the humming sound persisted.
     Good God, he was driving a car—not—Mr. Smith was driving the car but he, Ventnor, was a passenger in Mr. Smith's mind. He knew what Smith felt, feared and had experienced. He shared his memories, knowledge, doubts, dreams and apprehensions. And, at this time, at this morning, a burden of fear crouched in the back of Smith's mind.

     Thank God, they'd sent the children up north—there was more food up there. Better not think of food—of course, the government would solve the problem, no doubt about that. There was this protege thing for instance. It was a kind of cabbage according to the news reports and contained all the necessary vitamins of well balanced meal. The thing could be planted on Monday and grew so quickly it was ready to harvest the following week.
     Then there was the tuber, didn't grow so quickly, but was still a full meal and could be stored for months. Oh yes, most certainly the government would solve it—wouldn't they?

     A thought struck him and he leaned forward and touched a small button on the dash. A light appeared and, in front of it, the numerals 10.
     Ten days! Only ten days! He thought he had two weeks at the very least. Smith/Ventnor felt a cold wave of apprehension. At the end of ten days the service life of his car would be finished and, once finished it would either stop dead or refuse to budge from the garage.
     There was, of course, another one on order. It had been on order for several months, but with things as they were—
     There was public transport but that, too, was nearing the end of its short-life existence. Every day there were fewer buses on the roads and every day the monorail cut its services. What would he do without transport, how would he get to work?

     The houses he was passing began to decrease in size and, within a few minutes he was in a residential area. He felt an illusory suggestion of safety as he turned the car into his own drive and nosed into the garage.
     Safety, security—God, for how long? The house had only another six month's life.
     It had seemed such a good idea once, modern, progressive, even visionary. Live in a house three years, move to a new modem residence for three more years. You were always ahead, always keeping up, but living cheaply—one hundred and fifty pounds every three years.
     The houses you had left simply collapsed in a cloud of dust and the local council came along with a sucker-machine and cleared it away. If there was any modernization or street widening to be done, the council simply took advantage of the vacant space.
     Smith/Ventnor scowled as he climbed out of the car. Yes, it had seemed a good idea once, had been when a three-year-house could be erected in eight hours, now, looking back, it was insanity. The people had nothing durable to fall back on. Even the tools and instruments of construction were short-life.

     He entered the house conscious of hunger pains in his stomach, pains which reminded him that his breakfast had consisted of a single biscuit. Well, he was going to make a hog of himself now. He had one tin of beans which he had been hoarding for days. Once opened, it wouldn't keep so he'd have to eat it all—thank God.
     He almost ran to the food cupboard and slid open the door.
     Smith/Ventnor stared into the cupboard for several minutes then he put his head in his hands and cried.
     The short-life can had fallen into pieces and the spilled mess on the floor of the cupboard was already giving forth an unpleasant smell.
     After a time he shut the cupboard slowly and began to pace up and down. God, he was starving and he'd used his ticket for the sustenance ration, maybe there was some grass somewhere.
     He shook his head, he'd seen too many people heading for the public parks with auto-mowers.

     When Smith reached the center of the town he became aware of drastic and frightening changes. Stalled cars, their life run out, littered the streets. Squads of men were pushing them to the side of the road but he was compelled to weave between the remaining cars.
     The biggest shock, however, were the gaps in the familiar street. The 'Safety And Life' assurance building was a huge heap of dust which had spilled itself half-way across the road. 'General Purveyors' had also gone; 'Speedsafe Motors Inc', a warehouse. When he arrived at his place of work—a finance company—the entire staff was standing outside.
     "All right, you can go home, the computers have packed in." The area manager mopped his head despairingly. "We can get neither pens, papers or ledgers, so you can't even carry on with the simple stuff. In any case, half the sectors have sent us no figures to work on."
     He suddenly glowered and waved his arms. "It's no damn good looking at me like that. I can't help it—go home."

     Smith drove back slowly. There seemed more cars in the road and another building had collapsed.
     An ambulance stood waiting in the road while a squad of volunteers dug desperately in the dust.
     He stopped by one of several watching policemen. "What happened?"
     "Obvious, isn't it?" The man looked at him as if he hated him. "There were thirty people still in the building, they knew its life was up but they couldn't believe it. In any case they had nowhere to go."
     He thrust his chin forward suddenly. "Unless you can contribute something helpful, get out of here."
     "Can I help?"
     "We have a hundred volunteers but only twenty shovels—get moving."

From THESE SAVAGE FUTURIANS by Philip E. High (1967)

Organic Technology

RocketCat sez

It's sad, really sad. A scifi writer wants their outer-space aliens to dazzle the readers with their mind-blowing alien-ism. "I've got it!" the hack writer exclaims. "I'll give the aliens..." {cue Forbidden Planet theremin music} "...ORGANIC TECHNOLOGY!! That'll wow them!"

Not so fast, Jules Verne. Since you just learned about organic tech last Thursday you think it is all new and trendy. Sorry to burst your bubble but the concept dates back at least to 1935. Modern it ain't.

It's also craptastic compared to ordinary technology. Arthur C. Clarke said that cameras are vastly superior to the organic eyeballs used by the living creatures, despite a hundred million of years of evolution. Because unlike Mother Nature, we could build cameras out of something besides Jell-O.

And it gets worse. Yes, your box of tools in the garage may get a bit rusty, but at least you can mostly ignore them when you ain't using 'em. Not so organic tech. Each and every tool and machine are living creatures. Just imagine if all the tool in the toolbox had to be fed, watered, and taught how to use a litter box. Every single day. Plus they are probably slimy and smell bad. Imagine trying to tighten a bolt with a tool which wants to squirt out of your hand and go bouncing around the room like a super ball. All while stinking like used gym-socks.

And you won't catch me setting foot inside a living spaceship. Yes, the blasted thing can heal damage, but due to the nature of the beast the habitat module will have to be located in its small intestine or something.

This is a age-old sci-fi trope. The idea is: why make tools and gadgets by hammering metal and soldering electronics when you can genetically engineer animals into living tools?

Science fiction writers tend to equip their aliens with organic technology just to make them unique and different, not because it makes any sense. Unfortunately this has been used so often that it has its own entry in TV Tropes. So much for "unique and different"

About the only use case where organic technology makes sense is for use by an alien species that lives underwater. It is real hard to smelt iron when fire doesn't burn underwater, and equally hard to use electronics when the blasted seawater keeps short-circuiting everything. But existing aquatic creatures can be genetically engineered to be tools or electronics, and work just fine underwater.

The other advantage associated with organic tech is that broken machines can try to heal themselves. This generally appears in science fiction in the form of a organic living starship recovering from damage inflicted by meteors or hostile weapons fire.

Thirdly, instead of manufacturing tools and machines, with organic tech you might be able to breed them.

RocketCat points out some of the draw-backs.


  • The Greening of the Galaxy

  • Pentapods from 2300AD RPG: "an amphibious species with a preference for aquatic environments, with a biotechnological technical infrastructure (including starships that are massive living beings)". Their equipment works very well, but is usually damp and has to be regularly given food and water.

  • Tyranids from the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Imagine if the Xenomorphs from the Alien movies had genetically engineered themselves to produce living starships, combat creatures, and weapons. Tyranid organic technology has the classic "warm, moist, skooshy and drips goo everywhere" along with a side order of "far too many sharp pointy bits."

  • Z'ensam from Rogue Powers by Roger MacBride Allen. Though the Z'ensam aliens appear to have only a medieval level of technology, that is only with conventional technology. Their covert organic technology is terrifyingly powerful. You see, the species somehow actually has the innate power of Lamarckism. Changes in an individual Z'ensam will be passed on genetically to its offspring. Including surgical changes. In other words they discovered genetic engineering before they discovered how to use fire or chip flint. The bad guys think that the Z'ensam are just lizard cave-men who are good at biological warfare, so they contract them to make some combat germs. The bad guys find out too late that they are at the Z'ensam's mercy.

  • Tnuctip from Larry Niven's Known Space series. These were an alien species, enslaved by the Thrints. Covertly they used genetic engineering to create things that were apparently of value to their masters, but turned out to be harmful. Items included Stage Trees (trees that created a core of rocket fuel as they grew, to make cheap rocket boosters), Sunflowers (tall plants whose silver parabolic flowers can focus sunlight into deadly beams, used to protect Thrint households), and Bandersnatchi (thought to be non-sentient food beasts, they were actually both sentient and immune to the Thrint telepathic slavery)

  • Living Spaceships. Another well-used troup

  • The Crucible of Time by John Brunner. The pneumatic aliens of the saga use bio-engineered animals for most of their technological history. But they are not above using metal-based tech when they start building rocket ships.

  • Lords of the Psychon by Daniel Galouye. Aliens who are energy creatures conquer Terra. Their technology is based on a weird energy called "psychon plasma", which can only be controlled by thought. The aliens periodically hunt and kill humans in order to harvest bits of their brain. So if the aliens want a support truss for a machine, they take a bit of still-living human brain tissue, force it to constantantly think of being a support truss, and link it to a measure of psychon plasma. Instant support truss.

  • Gaean series by John Varley. The titanic ring-like structures around Saturn appear to be space habitats. They are, but they are made from organic-tech, not metal-tech. And they are intelligent too.

  • Amnion from The Gap Cycle by Stephen Donaldson. All their tools and artifacts are manufactured by genetically engineered organisms. This is one of the few science fiction stories where it is made clear that organic tech is inferior to human technology.

  • Yilanè from West of Eden by Harry Harrison. Everything they use on a daily basis is a genetically modified creature.

  • Davey Jones' Ambassador by Raymond Gallun. The squid-people who live on the ocean floor are forced to use organic aquatic tech for the usual reasons. They bio-engineer organisms to serve as everything from transportation to weapons to architectural elements, and produce whatever substances they need as secretions from these creatures.

  • Early Bird by Theodore R. Cogswell and Theodore L. Thomas.
         On a very weird planet, the local apex predator has internal organic weapons: lasers, missiles, particle beams, that sort of thing. Momma creature lays an egg (about the size of an aircraft hangar) then broadcasts on the mating frequency. All male creatures in range elevate their artillery and fire off a volley of sub-orbital spermatozoon missles, targeting the egg. Momma creature sets up an anti-missile barrage, because she only wants the missile with the highest combat skill to survive and fertilize her egg.
         Our hero is in a fighter spacecraft, at war with some hostile aliens. He passes nearby the egg. Momma creature is astonished at the combat power of the space fighter. She uses a tractor-beam to grab the fighter and causes it to crash into her egg and fertilize it.
         The egg hatchs, and our hero wakes to find that his space fighter has been hybridized into the ultimate war machine, using organic tech. He finds the rest of his fighter wing and has them fertilize other eggs. The hybrid fighters then fly off and proceed to kick the living snot out of the entire hostile alien armada.

  • The Flintstones. Any machine not made out of rock is made out of a re-purposed dinosaur


If a society in Science Fiction isn't either following Technology Levels or magic, then you can rest assured that they're making use of organic technology.

Cars, planes, phones, computers, buildings, space ships, and everything else required for a proper Sci-Fi story will be provided in the form of something that is warm, moist, skooshy and drips goo everywhere. Often, this will go so far as to include a convenient thought-based interface. Advanced nanotechnology will often be depicted in a similar fashion.

This type of tech is a common feature of sea-dwelling sapients. Not only are cities entirely made out of cool-looking coral, it's a technological evolutionary path that does not start with the step "set something on fire" or "throw wheels on it." Nor would excessive humidity cause important stuff to short out.

Civilizations who use this technology are also frequently users of Sufficiently Advanced Bamboo Technology. Depending on the aesthetic choices of the depiction, the organic technology may seem Ambiguously Robotic as well.

Often crosses over with LEGO Genetics and is depicted as a Sculpted Physique. See Living Ship for one specific example. Compare Bio-Augmentation, which could be Organic Technology applied to the human body in new and fun ways. Contrast Mechanical Lifeforms, which are organisms that happen to be mechanical in nature. Often creates the Womb Level in games. A Hive Caste System is based on using naturally evolved biology rather than technology made from biology. Applied to agriculture, the end result of this trope is often a Multipurpose Monocultured Crop.

This is becoming an actual thing. Interestingly, Real Life synthetic biology seems to be going the reverse direction of this trope: making biology look more like chemistry and nanotechnology, rather than making technology more like biology. Whether we'll get our meaty jetpacks remains to be seen.

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


      Beside him that squat brown Rudder grinned permanently from his porpoise’s head like a cheerful gnome. Rudder was a biological robot designed for a specific purpose — to steer a ship — and he looked it.
     Fully four feet long, his serpentine arms ended in a pair of horny mittens. The rest of his smoothskinned body was roughly apelike with two remarkable exceptions. One was the deep bone-rimmed cup between his shoulder blades, the other an equally bony shelf that ran all the way around his hips.
     When in service Rudder would stand at the stern of his ship facing forward and spread his huge arms wide across the deck to grab the wooden gunwales. Then he’d back up until the end of the tiller bar fit snugly into the cup on his back. In this position he steered the ship by heaving one way or the other with those awesome arms. When at rest they coiled loosely about his waist, resting on the hipshelf.
     But while biobots like Rudder were common on Isolde where metal was so scarce that machinery cost twice its weight in gold, Rudder himself was anything but common. Intelligent, good natured and in his own way even witty, he’d become more Luke’s friend than his servant.
     Down in the engine room, Luke prodded the various flanks of the biological muschine to a more vigorous pace. He sensed the bow rise as the ship surged forward. Donald McKay would be amazed at all this, he mused as he checked the huge muscles.
     Along the centerline of the hull was a well that opened into the ocean below. Masses of flesh churned half-submerged in the pool like gargantuan swimmings. Luke made his way down the line, giving a pat here, a prod there, looking for cuts and fatigue and swollen veins.
     Every now and then he stopped and inserted a sensor needle in the unfeeling flesh and reeled wire from it along the deck, to the console near the aft bulkhead. After several such trips he settled at the console and flicked it on.
     The metallic click was an alien sound to Luke, whose world revolved on wood and muscle; it reminded him that the gadget was worth a fortune and he’d better not lose it when the muschine berserked. If it did.
     This powerplant was a tried and true spoked-crank type. A massive laminated Ash crankshaft ran from one end of the open pool to the other, and then out through the stern to the propeller. There were six throws on the crank, each ringed by five radial spokes of pure muscle. Each of these was ten feet long and three thick and altogether awesome. Their outer ends were fixed to the ribs and timbers of the ship and gave the below-decks area a distinctly anatomical look, like the ribcage of a giant.
     Reflections from the turbulent water danced on the long wooden bulkheads. With the rhythm of strongbacks pounding a circus-tent stake, the blue-veined, sweating flesh heaved round and round. Pervading the room was the mingle of stable and ocean smells that Luke had come to regard as one of the very few really unpleasant aspects of his profession.
     Luke wasn’t particularly happy to hear the request. It meant they’d soon be at the Bore’s western mouth where the trouble usually began. But after all, he told himself as he returned the console, that’s why I’m here, isn’t it?
     As Deputy of Biotechnics in Isolde’s colonial government, he was supposed to find out what was upsetting all the muschines over here. It had begun a year ago. For about a mile in all directions from the Bore’s west end, the big biological engines of passing ships behaved oddly. Some twitched, some stopped momentarily, some stumbled out of synch — and last week one had gone wild, wrecking the ship and causing the death of a sailor.
     It happened that that particular sailor had been a friend of Luke’s, Nikos Sperakos, and the lanky biotech felt the loss personally. But beyond that it was a matter of national importance, for Isolde paid her way in galactic trade with the fish from her oceans. No fish crop for even a month meant national poverty, for like most colonies Luke’s home was far from self-sufficient And you couldn’t bring back much of a catch in a wrecked boat.
     Blinking redly, the console informed him it was warmed up so he cut in the recorders. Thinking again of Nikos, Luke wondered about the shipwreck that had killed his friend. Sailors weren’t noted for their historical accuracy, but even allowing for that, some of the tales told by the survivors were fantastic. In essence, the main drive muschine — like the big six-by-five Luke babysat now — had simply gone berserk and torn itself to shreds. The ship had gone to shreds with it.
     Afterwards Governor Sedlarik had ordered all other ships out of the area and sent Luke to find out what was going on. It was a shoestring operation like everything else on Isolde. With only ten thousand inhabitants to tax, the government couldn’t afford much else. Luke’s knowledge was limited, and he knew it. If he couldn’t handle the problem they’d have to send back to Earth for technical assistance, a measure everyone wanted to avoid. Terran consultants never failed. It was legendary — and just as legendary were the fees they charged. Man’s home planet’s only export was technology, and she lived fatly off her colonies from it.
     Donning his earphones, Luke scanned the rudimentary brains of the thirty muscles driving his ship. What he was after was a clue to what upset them. At first there was nothing out of the ordinary.
     Not that what was ordinary was too pleasant. Cephscan ("brain-scan") another human and you hear pretty much what he’s thinking; it isn’t an alien sensation at all. Cephscan a biobot like Rudder and it’s nearly the same thing, though more sensual and less coherent. In a way the more intense sensuality is refreshing.
     But cephscan one of these moronic, subanimate muschines and you’re in for something else. Most people couldn’t stand it. Luke managed only from years of professional practice. These test-tube monstrosities didn’t think, they felt.
     Usually an overwhelming sense of power would flow in through the headphones, making every fiber in his body want to burst. Nothing else, just power. Normally. But because what few wits they had were strictly proportional to their size the big ones weren’t always normal. When individual muscles exceeded a ton or so, higher feelings came into play, even a weirdly telepathic sense of communication with others of their own kind.
     Ego, pain and purpose came through too. A fraction of these higher feelings flitted among the mists of raw power that Luke heard now, but not much. These muschines were safely under the size where they had any minds of their own, to speak of. But as always the tiniest voice at the back of his mind asked “what if —,” even now as he worked in such concentration.
     Feeling the change in current through the seat of his pants, Luke simultaneously picked up a new note in the headphones. He bent tightly over the console and checked the readings of half a dozen dials. Sense of power was full on as usual. Intellect hovered down near zero as usual. But the dial labeled communication began to twitch a bit off its lower peg. Pain, zero. Pleasure, zero. Luke was forced to concentrate on the dials as a point of reference. If he relied on the cephscanner’s headphones there was a good chance of getting lost “in there.”
     As the communication indicator rose to two per cent, Luke had a definite physical sensation of wonder, a what-where feeling. And outward signs began to appear. Almost imperceptibly the huge muscles of the engine slowed the became slightly arhythmic. Shudders of imbalance thrilled through the planking. It got steadily worse, becoming noticeable even to Rudder up on deck.
     “Boss? You all right?” When Luke didn’t answer immediately he raised his voice. “Hey, Luke — ”
     “Shut up, will you?” drifted up through the hatchway. “I’m trying to listen.”
     In his simple way Rudder welcomed the reproof. Things were okay after all. He was about to shout “Sorry,” when Luke yelled, “Stand by, here it comes!”
     The dials warned Luke, and Luke warned Rudder, and it was just as well. Every muscle in the muschine stopped dead. The reaction torque nearly spun the ship over on its side. Her huge rudder flapped in free air, and the uncompensated weight of it tore into the biobot’s socket. He howled in pain and shrugged out of the tiller, nearly tumbling over the gunwale which was now awash.
     But it was worse by far on Luke. The cephscanner poured a gutwrenching sensation of exhaustion through the headphones, and he flung them down, feeling like he’d swallowed molten lead. The pain gauge was jammed right off the scale.
     From the downcast phones came a low moaning, like the deepchested protest of a bull at slaughter. The entire muschine was fibrillating; it pulled frantically at its moorings. Timbers snapped, and even the massive laminated crank began to yield. Then it let go like a gunshot and filled the air with smoking splinters.
     In writhing silent agony one great muscle, larger than the rest, ripped itself explosively away from its fragment of the crank. Blood spouted from the wound and sprayed the deck with thick scarlet. Dropping heavily into the well, it squirmed downward, then out into the open ocean. Several others followed.
     In two minutes the wreckage was over. A half dozen dead and dying muscles hung limp and exhausted from the timbers they were unable to break. The once graceful hull was no longer a whole vessel but a riddled parody of one. Whole planks were gone, and Luke found himself waist deep in seconds.

     When their horsecart pulled up at the ramshackle hotel that was Isolde’s capitol building two hours later, Emil Sedlarik was out on the porch waiting for them. Sedlarik was the planet’s governor, an ex-Terran spacepilot of sixty who reminded Luke of nothing so much as a sawed-off shotgun. He took one look at the biotech’s tattered jersey and Rudder’s limp and snorted, “Well, scratch one ship.”
     ‘Too true,” Luke admitted as he slogged up the wooden steps, “but I’ve got a full recording in here.” He tapped the cephscanner that dangled heavily from its shoulder strap.
     “Good. Let’s take a look.”
     “Looks bad, Emil, I'll tell you that much right away. Why don’t you set up the scanner, there? I’ll only be a minute.”
     The tough little man grunted and stubbed out his cigar. Taking the cephscanner over to Luke’s desk, he opened it and removed the tapes. Orienting them all to time zero, he lit the gas torch behind the viewer and cranked them slowly by. Luke joined him, a fish-and-cheese monstrosity in his hand.
     They watched five meandering penlines drift across the screen. ‘That’s the spot,” Luke said, pointing. Intellect spiked twice, then held steady at twenty. Communication began to wander all over the page in some kind of repetitive pattern. And pain surged to maximum. Luke grimaced, remembering. Then all five traces dropped back to zero.
     Luke studied the communication graph for a minute, then hauled down a big gray dictionary-like book from over his desk. Riffling back and forth through the pages, he occasionally stopped to refer to the graph. After several minutes of this Sedlarik got fidgety and lit a fresh stogie. “Hurry up, will you?”
     “It’s tough. I’ve got to convert this all to Walton-Siegal, and then to English. But the gist is, let’s see — Stop hurting me and leave this place. Escape. Escape
     “Sounds a little articulate for a muschine, doesn’t it?” the governor said sourly.
     Luke pursed his lips and leaned away from the desk. “Sure, but look at that IQ. Twenty. That’s supergenius level for a muschine. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
     “Which means we’ll have to call in a Terran consultant?” the little man asked.
     Luke shrugged helplessly. “You know how they run those colonial schools on Terra. They never tell you anything about emergencies. Hell no, or their fat consultants would be out of a job.”
     Sedlarik snorted and shifted his cigar to the other side of his mouth. “Naturally. And they’ll soak us for twenty thousand credits, which is about all there is in the treasury.” He sighed and pushed himself away from the desk. “But I guess we’d better call them.”

     One week later a Terran space yacht settled down in Capitol Town’s harbor, and a man got out. His crisp green uniform would have cost a fortune on Isolde, and other portions of his costume would literally have been priceless. With buttons, rings, a watch and even a zipper, the man carried more metal on him than most Isoldans saw in a year.
     And as he waited for the rowboat that had headed out to meet him, Ambrose Swager was irritatedly mulling over that fact and others like it. He hadn’t wanted this assignment, but they’d stuck him with it anyway. Isolde indeed. The godforsaken little planet was the galactic equivalent of a nineteeth-century fishing village.
     “But here,” Luke was saying as he wound up his story, “You can look for yourself.” He led Swager over to the graph.
     The Terran cranked through it once, nodding silently. “It’s gone a bit far.”
     “You sound as if this problem crops up all the time.”
     “I does. Stock in trade for a biotechnical consultant, you might say.”
     ‘Tell me,” Swager asked thoughtfully. “Was there a shipwreck, a natural one, in the general area of the disturbance?”
     “Why, yes. Dolan’s ferry went down last year when he hit the Bore wrong. But what’s that — ?”
     “Only this. The muschinery that drove the ferry survived. It crawled off and started growing wild somewhere on the bottom. As you know, the stuff lives on seawater, and it’s grown way beyond regulation size. It’s got a mind of its own, now.”
     Swager took a sip of coffee, grimaced and went on. “It’s capable of the same things it does when it’s domesticated, only more so. The telepathic link with its brothers develops first. It not only knows that every other piece of muschinery on the planet thinks, it feels what they feel. Or rather what they would feel if they were as sensitive as it was.”
     Luke traced little circle on the arm of his chair. “So that explains the message, 'Stop hurting me and get out of there.' Even though the muschine in my ship was too undeveloped to feel any fatigue, the big glob of wild muschinery did.”
     “Exactly,” said the Terran. “That wild glob, as you call it, will do whatever it can to stop every piece of muschinery on Isolde. Every ship that floats causes pain to the thing.”
     “Its other talent is mimicry,” Swager went on. “It can duplicate nearly anything it finds from its own flesh, like fish for instance, and send them off on errands under telepathic control. As a rule these puppets are clumsy jobs, but effective.”
     Luke looked up angrily. “Listen, I’m supposed to have had good Terran training. How come I never even heard about all this?”
     The sleek-featured Earthman shrugged. “Call it job protection. The main thing is we’ve got to find that thing and kill it before it grows completely out of hand.” He rose and stretched. “We can start tomorrow morning.”

From THE MUSCHINE by Burt K. Filer (1968)

(ed note: Rob is an engineer, who built the Taiwan Bridge with a span of 140 kilometers. To help, he created a construction machine called a "spider", which spins red-hot alloy into cables. Regulo hires him because he needs spiders to help make the world's first space elevator. Rob takes Regulo's daughter Corrie to show her some equipment.)

      "This is it," Rob said. He glanced at his watch and nodded. "Any time now. Take a look through the opening, and keep watching along that corridor."
     The circular window looked out onto a horizontal shaft about four feet high, leading away into the depths of the black rock. The lights from the car cast their reflection just a few yards along the dark tunnel. Corrie, her skin prickling with anticipation, stared out into the darkness. Suddenly she saw a faint movement at the limit of visibility, deep in the corridor. She strained to see it more clearly. A dark shape was moving out of a side shaft to the main tunnel. The form was long and flat, a little more than three feet tall. She could see a blind, stubby head, and as her eyes adjusted to the dim light she could gain an idea of its size. The body appeared to be endless, approaching them silently on broad, black feet. It came closer and closer, shuffling along the tunnel. Finally she could see the whole beast. It was supported on eight pairs of short legs, and formed a long, black-furred cylinder. The rear end of the animal had not one tail but five, long sinewy tentacles. Each lifted above the broad back and ended in a ringed orifice. Corrie judged the whole creature to be about ten meters long. As it continued to come closer, she stepped back from the window.
     "Don't worry," said Rob. "It's harmless. Keep looking."

     Corrie turned to him in sudden comprehension. "I know what it is! It must be a Coal Mole."
     "Quite right." Rob was grinning in triumph. "I told you you'd have something to see down here. When I called from the ship I wanted to check whether there would be one of them anywhere near the Way Down shaft. When I found that there was, I called Chernick and asked if he would direct it here at the right time for us to take a look."
     Corrie was staring at the Coal Mole in fascination. "I've never seen anything like it in my whole life."
     "I believe you. Very few people have."
     "But what does it live on? I know Chernick says that he breeds them, but I thought that was just a funny way of describing their manufacture. It looks like a real animal, but surely it can't be?"
     Rob shrugged. "If you'll define a real animal, I might be able to tell you if it is one. The Coal Moles feed, they move, they reproduce, but they can't function without Chernick's microcircuitry inside them. They couldn't exist in Nature without the inorganic components that humans have added—but lots of pets couldn't survive in the wild, either."
     "How does it mine the coal?" asked Corrie. The Mole, having come within a couple of meters of the window, was now backing silently away again down the tunnel.
     Rob nodded his head at the receding creature. "See the rear end there? Those tentacles handle the narrow seams. One of them can chew along a layer that's only a few centimeters thick. The head end handles the big seams. As you'd expect, the teeth regenerate continuously—it's tough work, crunching up coal, but I suppose it's not much different from a beaver, chewing through wood. The Mole stores the ground-up coal in the main body pouch, and when it's full it takes it back to a central storage area and dumps it."
     "And it eats, like an ordinary animal? What does it feed on?"
     "Mostly coal—what would you expect? It takes about one percent of what it mines to drive its own metabolism, so it's very efficient. It's a bit like a bee, eating some of the nectar and taking most of it back to the hive. The only other thing it needs is water, and there's a supply of that at the storage areas." Rob put his hands to the controls. "Ready to descend the rest of the way? There's nothing more to see here, or until we get to Way Down."

     Corrie nodded, but she was still gazing along the tunnel where the Mole had disappeared into the darkness. "Won't it be coming back to mine?"
     "Not here. They don't mine coal this close to the Way Down shafts. I asked Chernick to send it towards us, just so we could see it. He grumbled a bit—said it wasn't kind to the Mole, it's not happy if you take it away from its job. It's on the way back to the seam now, a mile or two away. Chernick rotates the Moles among the different coal types, he says that for some reason they do better if they're rotated. One week on anthracite, one on bituminous, one on lignite. I suppose they pick up different trace elements they need from different types of coal. I'll have to ask him about it sometime—he almost thinks like a Coal Mole himself."
     "But if the Moles don't like to stop, why was Chernick willing to send one over here for you?" Corrie had turned from the window and was looking at Rob with big, pale eyes.
     "I suppose it's all right to tell you." Rob felt a sudden desire to impress her. "But I'd rather you didn't talk about it to other people. Chernick feels he owes me. He uses one of my patented ideas in the Coal Moles, and he says he could never have got it from anyone else. It makes the whole idea of the Moles possible."

     He was surprised by her reaction. Corrie's face lit with a quick flash of total comprehension.
     "The Spider," she said. "The thing that you developed for the extrusion process. I know that Regulo has been trying to decide how it works for years, and he's failed. It's partly biological and partly machine, isn't it? In the same way that the Coal Moles are mainly animal but part electronic. The Spider is a machine with a biological component."
     Rob had seen that lightning flash of understanding illumine her face, and been shocked by it. He drew in a deep breath, rubbed at his dark beard and looked with new respect at those alert, pale-blue eyes.
     "I'll bet people do that all the time with you," he said wryly. "You look about eighteen, and you stare at them with those big eyes and ask innocent questions. They want to show off a bit, the way I did a moment ago, and before they know what's happening they've spilled something important. Well, the damage is done. I won't deny it, even though it has been a well-kept secret. The Spider has a key bio component where logically there would be a computer. I suspect that Regulo's people have been going mad trying to come up with a microprocessor with a high enough level of parallel processing—that was my bottleneck for about six months. Who are you going to tell?"
     Corrie looked demure—another part of her trap, Rob thought, at the same time as he admired it.
     "I wouldn't dream of spreading it about," she said. "Though if you don't mind too much I'd like to tell Regulo. He's been stewing on that gadget for years, and he's too proud to ask when he thinks he ought to be able to deduce something for himself."

From THE WEB BETWEEN THE WORLDS by Charles Sheffield (1979)

Organic Spacecraft

Spacecraft that are partially or totally composed of a living creature are a neat-oh, keen-oh, golly-gee-whiz science fiction idea that apparently was invented by Robert Sheckley in 1953. The concept turns up occasionally when the author wants to throw in something weird to remind their readers that they ain't in Kansas any more. Justifications include:

  • The organic ship can be "spawned" as a tiny sprat and automatically grown to full size by feeding it, instead of requiring a spacecraft graving dock in a shipyard and large numbers of skilled workers to build the blasted thing
  • Component breakage and combat damage can be "healed" instead of requiring the ship to be towed to a repair yard
  • The author insists for handwaving reasons that organic ships are somehow much better than conventional dead metal ships, even though that does not make logical sense.

RocketCat says if you want something organic you can go look in his litter box.

Another common type of organic spacecraft is a Space Tree equipped with an engine. Those are listed here because most space tree are stationary.


A bioship is a type of spacecraft or starship described in science fiction. Bioships differ from other types of spacecraft in that they are composed, either predominantly or totally, of biological components, rather than being constructed from manufactured materials. Because of this, they nearly always have a distinctively organic look.

Bioships are usually quite powerful, and can often regenerate or heal damaged parts. Some bioships are intelligent or sentient, and some are considered to be lifeforms. Like most organic beings, many bioships contain large amounts of "scaffolding" materials to keep their shape, such as the xylem in trees or bone and chitin in animals.

In fiction

In the science fiction short story "Specialist" by Robert Sheckley, published in 1953 in Galaxy magazine, it is revealed that many galactic races are actually capable of symbiotic cooperation to become bioships, with each race forming a different part. Earth, apparently, is one of the planets inhabited by creatures that are supposed to function as FTL drives (Pushers), and, it is stated that all the conflicts and discontent of humanity are due to the fact that, while they have matured, they have nowhere to apply their true purpose. This story is perhaps the first mention of a bioship in science fiction.

Volume 322 of the German Perry Rhodan magazine series, first published in November 1967, marks another very early appearance of the bioship concept in science fiction. The Dolans are powerful bioengineered combat spaceships that are grown from the same synthetic genetic material as their extraterrestrial commanders. Different types of bioships are a recurrent feature in later stages of the Perry Rhodan universe.

The Night's Dawn Trilogy: the Edenist Voidhawk and Mercenary Blackhawk are both advanced bioships (the latter being a genetic tailoring for combat of the former). Both types employ mental bonding to the captain. In the case of Voidhawks this is done by both the craft and captain gestating together and maintaining mental contact during their formative years. Blackhawks however are purchased as eggs and are bonded to the buyer who will become captain when the Blackhawk matures.

In the first novel of Julian May's Pliocene series, The Many-Colored Land (1982), the backstory of two races of alien refugees living in the Earth's Pliocene epoch describes their hard landing in a bioship. The bioship was emotionally bonded to one of the aliens (the "shipwife") and sacrificed its own life to safely deliver its passengers to the planet surface.

See also

From the Wikipedia entry for BIOSHIP
"I'm lost in some distant part of the universe on a ship — a living ship — full of strange alien life forms..."
John Crichton, Farscape

You know what's cooler than a Cool Ship? A cool organic ship. A ship that lives and grows and heals any space battle damage as you go.

These ships can run the gamut from being completely non-intelligent (generally comparable to plants) to having animal like instincts (the crew often serves more as handlers than as pilots, in this case) or being completely intelligent and self aware.

The exact nature of the ships ranges from being merely Cyborgs, to fully Organic Technology. How organic they actually look varies greatly. These types of ships tend to be grown more often than made in a shipyard. Sometimes they'll even go so far and have the ship be a Space Whale.

The great thing about both the organic and semi-organic living ships is that they're a very easy way to make your series seem ultra science-fictiony by encasing organic bodies in sleek metal shells. If you want to go for something more alien, then you can take the Organic Technology route and have corridors that look like great big arteries.

The idea of a living ship also opens up plenty of story opportunities, simultaneously funny and serious. Imagine a show where the biological ship catches a cold, runs a fever, and keeps sneezing its occupants into space.

Not to be confused with Setting as a Character where the ship is only treated as alive by the cast. Or Mechanical Life Forms which are living machines. If the ship is a machine except for a "brain", it's Wet Ware CPU. Can overlap with Sapient Ship, though a living ship isn't necessarially sapient and a sapient ship isn't necessarially biologically alive. If it's a Living Cool Airship, then it's probably also a Living Gasbag.

Super Trope to Tree Vessel.

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


The Fallacy of Organic Technology

     It is integral to the nature of SF(defined in the strictest sense) that the technology it portrays is advanced, or in some way unusual.  It is, after all, the reason that many people read SF over other genres.  Partially because of this biotechnology has become rampant in SF, never achieving widespread attention in the way that hyperdrives or blasters have, but appearing in many and varied works throughout the history of the genre.  Biotechnology of the kind needed to produce a spacecraft, or even part of one, is so far beyond current human understanding that it sets the story firmly in the far future, or ensures that a alien race is seen as more advanced.  And therein lies the problem, although a problem that only hard SF fans such as myself may object to.

     In almost all works biotechnology — especially bioships, which will be my focus — are far more powerful/effective than any comparable tech.  The Yuuzhan Vong(Star Wars), Species 8472(Star Trek), Edenists(Night's Dawn Trilogy), Shadows(Babylon 5), Wraith(Stargate Atlantis), Tyranids(WarHammer 40K), to name a few, all had spacecraft superior or equivalent to those that they faced.  Even when their superiority is not demonstrated through combat the organic spacecraft are often seen as more advanced than their mechanical counterparts, like the TARDIS from Doctor Who, or Moya from Farscape.  And although we have very little knowledge of how a bishop might function it seems certain that it would not be faster, be more resilient, have better weapons, etc than a mechanical ship.

     When confronted with this unfortunate truth the reaction of a SF addict is often to state that "its the future, they know things we don't", or "they're aliens and more advanced", or "its a story".  Of these only the last is a real excuse, and even then is only valid when writing 'soft SF'.  Why is this the case?  Mostly it is due to the difference between the structure of biological and nonbiological materials at a molecular scale, along with several restrictions imposed by the growth of the ship.  Because the non-biological structure is constructed externally it does not have to have provision for growth or del repair — instead of single cells it can be homogenous or structured solely to maximise a particular trait.  The result of this is that any material assembled biologically will be inferior to a nonbiological material.  It is not that simple however, the biological materials will have different properties and so designs will be different to make use of them, somewhat negating the less optimal materials.  The small applies to larger structures or constructs.

     Take rocket engines, or example.  A nuclear thermal rocket, at the low end of practical space travel in term of materials science, uses refractory metals and active cooling to keep from melting, not to mention the effects of radiation.  Any comparable biological system will have to withstand temperatures ranging from the cryogenic to thousands of K, be highly conductive to heat, have good mechanical strength, etc.  It will also need pumps to cycle the cryogenic liquid gas used as reaction mass or suffer the performance penalty associated with water or similar.  For their first requirements they are all characteristics that are increased by the homogeneity of the material, making an organic 'grown' substance unlikely.  For the pump not only does it have to cope with massive torques and insanely high rotational speeds but with the cryogenic temperatures.  Any living tissue will freeze solid and die at those temperatures, and if it is a dead material you loose the biggest advantage of a biological system — self repair.  The same applies to weapons, sensors, etc.  So while it may no be impossible to build a bioship it is unlucky that either the components or the whole will have greater performance than a purely technological system.

     So why bother?  Are there any reasons a bioship could be used?  To answer this it is important to consider this: biological systems are not inferior or superior to technological ones, they are merely optimised for a different scenario.  And this is their advantage.  A standard metal-and-composite hull would take a far amount of technology, resources, and effort to construct, making it an expensive item.  Likewise repairs are probably difficult without the resources used in construction, and may never return full strength or performance.  A bioship side-steps these disadvantages.  For construction it might need only a vat of nutrients, and can self repair to a high standard.  More advanced types might literally grow from eggs or embryos placed in the correct environment, like the Voidhawks of the Night's Dawn Trilogy who grow to maturity in the rings of a gas giant.  If so a fleet could require only time to construct, vasty reducing the const and increasing the huber of vessels available.  In a realistic space war, where it is likely that most hits will disable or destroy a ship, quantity may well be more important than quality.  And of course the whole ship does not have to biological; the Brumallian bioships in Neal Asher's Hilldiggers had implanted fusion drives.

Biological, symbiote, biomechanoid, cyborg?

     Bioships do not come in a single flavour.  As posited above they will not have the performance of a tech ship they do have the potential advantage of being much cheaper.  The disadvantage can be combated by adding modules of technology — engines, weapons, sensors — but this decreases the advantage.  As it turns out there are four main approaches to this trade-off, each with advantages and disadvantages.  Note that in practice these categories overlaps, some components of a single spacecraft falling under different classifications.


     In a fully biology-based bioship the spacecraft is one living organism.  It is still alive, perhaps even growing, and requires no external technology to function.  As such it is more an animal than a machine, and may even posses intelligence.  While this is one of the more common variations in SF it is the least likely.  Foremost is the lack of propulsion tech comparable with biological systems, often explained away by giving the bioship the ability to manipulate gravity(Voidhawks and the ships of the Yuuzhan Vong).  If these did occur in 'Real Life' they would likely live in the rings of a gas giant or in its moon system where energy and resources are potentially cheap while deltaV costs are low compared to interplanetary flight.  A fully biological organism could also be used as the basis of an artificial space-based ecosystem, harvested for their concentrated resources by humans or higher level animals.

     While they have the potential to require no human input in growth these bioships suffer from the most flaws.  Not only are they weak in terms of performance they need the most time to grow, need feeding, can get sick, be attacked with biological or chemical agents, and it intelligent suffer mental problems.


     A symbiotic spaceship is similar to a fully organic one except that it is composed of a colony of different organisms rather than single entity, similar to the Portuguese Man 'O War jellyfish.  It has the same disadvantages as the previous version of a bioship with only a few advantages.  The primary advantage is that by dividing the ship into separate 'subsystems' it is more robust against injury or attack, and it one segment fails — a drive unit, sensor cluster, etc. — there is the potential for it to be quickly replaced rather than regrown.  Although, of course, communication and commonality between the segments could be a problem.

     It is also important to realise that any of the other classifications can also be constructed of separately grown systems, although in that case it becomes a mere example of biotechnological engineering rather than a true bioship.


     Biomechanical is a term that is often used to describe the work of H. R. Giger, who designed the alien from the Alien franchise, along with the derelict spacecraft in the first movie.  According to wikipedia it is also a term meaning the same thing as a cyborg.  Its actual meaning — or the most rigorous definition — is a living organism that incorporates elements of mechanical systems, but not as implants in the way a cyborg does.  In other words it is a biological system that rather than finding its own solution to a problem, utilises one that is a at least visually similar to the more technological approach.

     They are the most effective kind of bioship, and probably the hardest to create.  Although grown they are not necessarily still alive, wither in part or whole.  Because of this they can have greater performance.  Structures can be 'layered' in a kind of biological 3D printing.  Coral-like material could be used in rockets, reinforced by fibres on the outside, and cooled by transpiration.  It also makes them more resistant to temperature, radiation, and damage.  They don't need feeding, medical care, or a controlled environment.  And I imagine it is far more comfortable for the crew than  the inside of a living organism.  Of course it loses the ability to heal, but as this is going to be slow in any case, the loss is probably worth the improvement in performance.  It might also be possible to 'reactivate' parts of the ship when they are damaged.  Of greater concern is the fact that many biological materials loose strength when dead.  Many devices such as rotary pumps can be used, which would be hard in a living system, and weapons in particular should be easier.  Sensors and drives should also benefit by the greater degree of optimisation offered by not having living material.


     Self explanatory for any fan of SF the cyborg bioship is probably the most likely ever to be developed or used as it combines the strong points of both biological and mechanical systems.  This approach is exemplified by the Edenist Voidhawks from The Night's Dawn Trilogy, which were sentient bioengineered creatures with the ability to manipulate gravity, and who carried a technological crew compartment, weapons, etc.  While the organism should be alive for it to be a cyborg in the strictest sense a combination of technology and biomechanical systems seems a good approach.  Structure, armour, remass systems, life support, these could all be biological while drives, sensors, communications, and weapons are technological.  The disadvantage is of course the added complexity of getting a biological and mechanical system to interface, and having components that must be manufactured rather than grown.

Aspects of Design

     For bioships in general there are several things to think about, points and suggestions for the way that they could be designed/grown.

Lifespan  Does the bioship age?  Does it have a childhood?  This probably applies only to sentient bioships, but raises interesting questions about how they are 'retired'.  Immaturity might also be a problem with young bioships.

Sickness   Can the bioship get sick?  Even if it cannot there is the possibility of biological attack.  The ship will probably have a immune system of some kind, although it may be closer to a diagnostic system than the immunological setup of a human.  Do they have allergies?  Can they get drunk?  These questions will add interest to any SF 'Verse, and have potential to push the plot in a particular direction without overt handwaving.

Crew   In SF it is common for bioships to 'bond' with a particular individual who then acts as their captain, even to the extent that Voidhawks gestate alongside their future partner.  More realistically the bioship's metabolism could provide life support for the crew or passengers, producing oxygen, food, and warmth, as well as processing waste.

Intelligence   Many bioships in SF are intelligent, making them a character in the story and allowing for many and varied plot twists.  This also brings up somewhat darker questions.  Can the ship feel pain?  Can it have emotions, does it choose its crew?  Do bioships have legal rights, or are they property/enslaved?  This is heavily dependant on the level of sentience — a dog-level ship can be euthanised if injured, but a sapient(human level) ship is another kettle of fish entirely.

Another fact to consider is the bioship's piloting ability.  If it is sentient, and especially if part of a self-sustaining population, it is likely to be a far greater pilot than any human.  In the way that a bird can fly in winds no aircraft can face the bioship's mind and 'body' are perfectly suited to a 3D environment and the vagaries of orbital mechanics.  Even a AI might have trouble keeping up with them.

Sensorium   While there is no stealth in space a bioship's sensors are likely to be almost pathetically weak if organic in nature.  While 'giant eyeballs' could provide decent optical imaging other frequencies will be difficult to observe.  Communications will also be limited, especially since emitters of any kind of energy, even if possibly, are likely to be weak.  Biological systems do not like high power flows.  However, there is an advantage over tech systems in that sensors should be no more expensive to grow than other modules, allowing high redundancy.  Brightness filters could be in the form of translucent 'nictitating membranes'

Weapons   DEW are going to be impossible to grow, mostly due to the waste heat involved in lasers and the magnetic fields in particle beams.  For the same reason, along with power demand, electromotive weapons — railguns — are unlikely.  Missiles are presumably possible and the ability to grow them in large numbers makes one of their largest current problems, cost, invalid.  Distilling fuel might prove an issue, however.  Chemical guns might be possible, and of course any system can be added as a cybernetic implant.

Landing   While asteroids, low gravity moons, and comets will provide little difficulty to a bioship they are at a disadvantage in a gravity well or atmosphere.  This is to do with the greater performance required, specially in the acceleration area, and brings up another interesting problem.  While most spacecraft can be designed to hold up under far greater acceleration than the crew, a bioship might be limited to the ~5 g that living creatures can stand for short periods.  Reentry into an atmosphere could also pose a challenge.

Drives   Anything using magnetic fields, directed energy, or massive power requirements is a no go.  Thermal rockets will be the oder of the day, the most powerful being variations of a fission thermal rocket.  Being able to 'digest' a asteroid and extract fissionables could allow a ready supply of fuel and remass is only as far away as the next chunk of ice.  Chemical drives are much more likely, and provide adequate perforce for a bioship living in the ring system of a gas giant.  Solar sails are a possibility, although I see no way for the reflective surface to be formed.

Carboneering   Carboneering, the study and use of carbon allotropes and composites is at the forefront of modern material science, and unlike metallurgy and ceramics might be comparable with a biological system.  If carbon nanotubes and graphene sheets can be grown the strength and performance of a bioship will receive a massive boost.

     Doubtless there are many many more aspects to be considered, imagination is really the only limit.  For soft SF anything goes, and for reasonably hard SF all that needs be kept in mind is the poor performance Vs flexibility and cheap production of an organic system.


     Most of these have already been covered, things like the susceptibility to biological attack, possibility of sentience, etc.  Most of the ways they differ from a conventional spacecraft are immediately obvious, as are the consequences.  Also, most of these consequences do not extend beyond the environment in which the bioships are employed.  External effect will be mostly the same as those that a technological ship of similar performance, price, etc would have.  The implications of such advanced biotechnology are wider-reaching, and will be the focus of another post.


As if on cue the mile-wide bulk of the Governor's Spline flagship slid into his view, dwarfing the flitter and eclipsing Earth. Parz could not help but quail at the Spline's bulk. The flagship was a rough sphere, free of the insignia and markings that would have adorned the human vessels of a few centuries earlier. The hull was composed—not of metal or plastic—but of a wrinkled, leathery hide, reminiscent of the epidermis of some battered old elephant. This skin-hull was punctured with pockmarks yards wide, vast navels within which sensors and weapons glittered suspiciously. In one pit an eye rolled, fixing Parz disconcertingly; the eye was a gleaming ball three yards across and startlingly human, a testament to the power of convergent evolution. Parz found himself turning away from its stare, almost guiltily. Like the rest of the Spline's organs the eye had been hardened to survive the bleak conditions of spaceflight—including the jarring, shifted perspectives of hyperspace—and had been adapted to serve the needs of the craft's passengers. But the Spline itself remained sentient, Parz knew; and he wondered now how much of the weight of that huge gaze came from the awareness of the Spline itself, and how much from the secondary attention of its passengers.

There was a lengthy silence then; Parz peered through the port of the flitter at the unblinking eye of the Spline.

Suddenly there was motion at the edge of Parz's vision. He shifted in his seat to see better.

The Spline freighter was changing. A slit perhaps a hundred yards long had opened up in that toughened epidermis, an orifice that widened to reveal a red-black tunnel, inviting in an oddly obscene fashion.

"I need your advice and assistance, Ambassador," the Governor said. "You'll be brought into the freighter."

Anticipation, eagerness, surged through Parz.

The flitter nudged forward. Parz strained against his seat restraints, willing the little vessel forward into the welcoming orifice of the Spline.

The flitter passed through miles, it seemed, of unlit, fleshy passages; vessels bulging with some blood-analogue pulsed, red, along the walls. Tiny, fleshy robots—antibody drones, the Governor called them—swirled around the flitter as it traveled. Parz felt claustrophobic, as if those bloodred walls might constrict around him; somehow he had expected this aspect of the Spline to be sanitized away by tiling and bright lights. Surely if this vessel were operated by humans such modifications would be made; no human could stand for long this absurd sensation of being swallowed, of passing along a huge digestive tract.

At last the flitter emerged from a wrinkled interface into a larger chamber—the belly of the Spline, Parz instantly labeled it. Light globes hovered throughout the interior, revealing the chamber to be perhaps a quarter mile wide; distant, pinkish walls were laced with veins.

Emerging from the bloody tunnel into this strawberry-pink space was, Parz thought, exactly like being born.

Still, that brief period of first contact had provided humanity with most of its understanding about the Qax and their dominion. For instance, it had been learned that the Spline vessels employed by the Qax were derived from immense, sea-going creatures with articulated limbs, which had once scoured the depths of some world-girdling ocean. The Spline developed spaceflight, traveled the stars for millennia. Then, perhaps a million years earlier, they had made a strategic decision.

The Spline rebuilt themselves.

They plated over their flesh, hardened their internal organs—and rose from the surface of their planet like mile-wide, studded balloons. They had become living ships, feeding on the thin substance between the stars.

The Spline had become carriers, earning their place in the universe by hiring themselves out to any one of a hundred species.

It wasn't a bad strategy for racial survival, Parz mused. The Spline must work far beyond the bubble of space explored by humankind before the Qax Occupation—beyond, even, the larger volume worked by the Qax, within which humanity's sad little zone was embedded.

Someday the Qax would be gone, Parz knew. Maybe it would be humanity that would do the overthrowing; maybe not. In any event there would be trade under the governance of a new race, new messages and matériel to carry between the stars. New wars to fight. And there would be the Spline, the greatest ships available—with the probable exception, Parz conceded to himself, of the unimaginable navies of the Xeelee themselves—still plying between the stars, unnoticed and immortal.

"Open the damn eyelid."

The walls of the Spline's huge eyeball trembled, sending small shock waves through the heavy entoptic fluid; the waves brushed against Jasoft's skin like light fingers. Muscles hauled at sheets of heavy flesh, and the eyelid lifted like a curtain. Through the rubbery grayness of the Spline's cornea salmon-pink light swept into the eyeball like a false dawn, dwarfing the yellow glow of Jasoft's light globe, and causing his slender, suspended form to cast a blurred shadow on the purple-veined retina behind him. Jasoft swam easily to the inside face of the pupil; feeling oddly tender about the Spline's sensations he laid his suited hands carefully on the warm, pliant substance of the lens.

The huge lens turned the outside universe into a blurred confusion of pink, gunmetal-gray, and baby-blue; Jasoft kept his eyes steady, giving his eyes' image-enhancing software time to work. After a few seconds deconvolution routines cut in with an almost audible click, transforming the blurred patches to objects of clarity and menace.

There was Jupiter, of course: cyclones larger than Earth tracked across its bruised, purple-pink countenance. Another ship glided past—a second Spline, its pore pits bristling with sensors and weaponry. The eyeball Parz inhabited rotated to follow the second ship, and swirls in the entoptic fluid buffeted Parz, causing him to bounce gently against the lens.

Now Parz's Spline turned, driven by some interior flywheel of flesh, blood, and bone; the eye swept away from Jupiter and fixed on the baby-blue patch he'd seen earlier, now resolved into a tetrahedron of exotic matter.

Abruptly the veinlike tunnel opened out around Jasoft. He drifted into empty space, his light globe following patiently. The white light of the globe shone feebly over the walls of a cavern that Poole, peering carefully forward from the tunnel, estimated to be about a quarter mile across. The walls were pink and shot through with crimson veins as thick as Poole's arms; blood-analogue still pulsed along the wider tubes, he noticed, and quivering globes of the blood substance, some of them yards across, drifted like stately galleons through the darkness.

But there was damage. In the dim light cast by the globe lamp, Poole made out a spear of metal yards wide that lanced across the chamber, from one ripped wall to another: the spine of the embedded Crab. The lining of the chamber had done its best to seal itself around the entrance and exit wounds, so that a tide of flesh lapped around the Crab spine at each extremity. And even now Poole could make out the fleeting shadows of drones—dozens of them—drifting around the spine, sparking with reaction jets and laser light as they toiled, too late, to drive out this monstrous splinter. Poole stared up at the immense intrusion, the huge wounds, with a kind of wonder; even the spine's straight lines seemed a violation, hard and painfully unnatural, in this soft place of curved walls and flesh.

He unwrapped a line from his waist and fixed one end to the pulsing wall of the chamber. As the jaws of the clip bit, Poole found himself wincing, but he forced himself to tug at the clip, feeling its strong teeth tear a little into the Spline's flesh, before he felt confident enough to push himself away from the wall after Parz.

Parz, propelled by some subtle reaction-pack built onto the spine of his skinsuit, swam with a stiff grace around the chamber. His skinsuit was slick with gobbets of blood-analogue, Poole noticed, giving Parz the odd and obscene appearance of something newborn. "This is the stomach chamber," Parz said. "The Spline's main—ah—hold, if you will. Where the Qax would customarily reside. At least, the Occupation-era Qax I have described; the turbulent-fluid beings."

Poole glanced around the dim recesses of the space; it was like some ugly, fleshy cathedral. "I guess they needed the elbow room."

Parz glanced across at Poole; the shadows cast by the floating globe threw the age lines of his face into sharp relief. His green eyes glimmered, startling. "You shouldn't be surprised to feel uncomfortable, moving through this Spline, Mr. Poole. It's not a human environment. No attempt has been made to adapt it to human needs, or human sensibilities." His face seemed to soften, then, and Poole tried to read his expression in the uncertain light. "You know, I'd give a lot to see the Spline of a few centuries from now. From my time," he corrected himself absently. "After the overthrow of the Qax, when human engineers adapt the Splines for our own purposes. Tiled vein corridors; metal-walled stomach chambers—"

From TIMELIKE INFINITY by Stephen Baxter (1992)

Aquatic Technology

Most science fiction authors and many real scientists are of the opinion that any alien race that live underwater are going to have a real problem trying to advance out of the stone age and develop science. All that water is a problem. For one thing the water is most counter-productive if one is trying to discover fire and all the technology it enables.

The standard science fiction dodge is to postulate the aquatic aliens using organic technology. Aquatic aliens do not need to figure out how to make fire burn underwater in order to smelt steel, not if they can genetically engineer the local equivalent of whales into living submarines. Living things can be created without fire, and water is their natural element.

In lieu of aquatic aliens using organic technology, the fallback science fiction dodge is that some air-breathing aliens (like humans) visit the aquatic aliens and give (or sell) them enough air-based tech so that they can bootstrap themselves. Tech like remote control robot drones that can be use to mine metals and build factories on islands, while the aquatic aliens can control the drones from the comfort of adjacent lagoons. This same dodge is often used to give high technology to aliens living in the atmospheres of gas giant planets. Such aliens are not handicapped by living in water, but they do have a problem with a lack of land area to lay their tools and equipment on.

The other major drawback that science fiction authors love to harp on is that aquatic spacecraft life-support systems are difficult. You see, with gas breathing mix like we humans use, the gas can be compressed into tanks so it takes up less room. Sadly, water is almost totally uncompressible. The aquatic breathing mix tanks are going to be huge.

For computers and digital devices, slebetman and Journeyman Geek are of the opinion that the logical thing for an aquatic race to do is use Fluidics aka "fluid logic". This uses pneumatics and hydraulics instead of electronics to do analog and digital operations. Note that such devices are more or less immune to electromagnetic interference, ionizing radiation, and EMP; unlike electronic devices. Fluidics also will not suffer catastrophic electrical short circuits if immersed in sea water, also unlike electronic devices.

One of the main draw-backs of fluidic computers is the maximum clock frequency is only a tens of kilohertz, as compared to the gigahertz typical to computers such as the one you are using to read this website. This means an aquatic race using fluidics would try the parallel, multi-core approach much sooner than we did.

The second-most serious drawback is fluidics cannot be miniaturized anywhere near the scale of electronics. At a rough guess a halfway powerful computer will fill a room, much like old vacuum tube computers.

Before aquatic aliens developed digital fluidics, they might start with fluid analog computers such as water integrators and the Phillips Hydraulic Computer.

After the limits of fluidic computing were reached, it would be relatively easy to make the conceptual leap to optical computing.


Many possible variants of aquatic civilization have been named by xenosociologists. Amphibious littoral civilizations, for instance, may inhabit the seashore. Pelagic civilizations would occupy the water mass and the surface of the sea. Benthic or abyssal civilizations may live in the extreme ocean depths and sea floor of other worlds. Estuarial civilizations may make their homes in bays, fiords and river waters. Limnic cultures could live in lakes.

But are aquatic technical civilizations possible at all? There has been much written on this point, and most writers seem to have reached a negative conclusion. (See Anderson,63 Hoyle,1559 Livesay,2723 MacGowan and Ordway,600 Macvey,49 and Strong.50) But this author believes the majority is wrong.

Consider the requirement of motivation. Many water-dwelling lifeforms on Earth employ technologies (e.g., artifacts) to assist in their survival. One of the most primitive is the archer fish (Toxotes jaculatrix), which carefully aims and spits blobs of water at its prey (insects and spiders) to knock them into the water where they can be caught in the fish’s mouth. Another example, considerably more sophisticated, is the octopus. This intelligent invertebrate gathers stones, chips, and metal scraps to build small cavelike houses in which it resides. Another unusual example is the sea otter (Enhydra lutris). This semiaquatic mammal collects stones and shells from the ocean bottom. Then, while floating on its back at the surface, the otter places these objects on its stomach and uses them as anvils against which to pound and crack open mussels and other hard-shelled molluscs.565 It appears that many sea creatures on this planet are strongly motivated to try their luck at technology. If Earth is typically exotic, water worlds elsewhere in the Galaxy should fare no worse.

What about manipulators? The lack of manipulative organs in the most intelligent seagoing animals -- the cetaceans -- implies that their intelligence "cannot be worked out in technology,"1365,15 unless they have outside help. But this may just be an evolutionary fluke. Elephants seals, a genus of "returned mammals" closely related to the cetaceans, still retain the in credibly delicate, 5-digit "flipper fingers" that their cousins the dolphins must once have possessed. On another world, brains and hands may coincide.*

Of course, there is no reason why boneless tentacles could not serve as technologically useful appendages in the absence of hands and fingers. The cephalopods, which include the octopus, cuttlefish and squid, have from 8-10 limbs surrounding their mouths. These probably evolved from whiskerlike projections near the food cavities of more ancient molluscan forms. The fact that intelligent octopoids do not dominate the seas of Earth may be, again, merely an evolutionary fluke. First, octopuses have hemocyanin blood, which is less efficient than hemoglobin. The animal tires easily and has little appetite for sustained heavy labor. Second, octopuses have ganglionic nervous systems which may have limited their sentience on Earth. But there is nothing fundamentally wrong with a tentacular intelligence. The convergence with certain well-known land forms (prehensile-tailed monkeys, elephants) strongly suggests that tentacles may build technologies on other worlds.

How about physical resources? Clays and mud are available for ceramics and pottery, sand for glass, and there is a tremendous variety of organic materials available for chemical industry -- dyes, acids, drugs, etc. Stone masonry is quite possible, since concrete can be mixed that can set underwater. Nodules littering the continental shelves and ocean floors could be harvested for their nickel, cobalt and manganese. Fantastic quantities of metals are afloat in seawater itself. For example, a kilogram of iron can be harvested by filtering 50,000 m3 of ordinary seawater past a simple magnetic lodestone. (The liquid volume involved is only about as much as a single shark breathes in a month.) Marine lifeforms could devise an advanced biological technology including "cold light" streetlamps using luminiferous bacteria, architectural coral, and "slave fishes."

Where do we get the energy to work all these resources? Aquatic ETs may discover superheated underwater volcanoes -- these exist in great numbers on Earth’s ocean floors and should be even more numerous on larger, more massive pelagic worlds. Submarine oil deposits may be found in sedimentary strata. Natural gas and other combustible vapors upwelling from the planetary interior could be trapped in special containers and burned using oxygen imported from the surface. Lacking combustion, bubblewheels could be erected over regions of submarine helium gas effluence and the rotary power used to turn mechanical flywheels.

There is no bar to the full development of electrical power generation. Electric eels could be domesticated for this purpose, or simply cannibalized for their organic batteries. Alternatively, marine extraterrestrials could build their own batteries using pieces of carbon, tankards of seawater and some other electrolyte, and a small bit of metal. The electricity thus obtained might then be used to perform electrolysis on water, splitting each molecule into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This gaseous mixture is a potent fuel, and could conceivably be used to power smelters, streetlights, seacars and seabuses, 2800 °C oxyhydrogen blowtorches, turbines and jet-propelled devices, and even rockets.

There is little that man has accomplished technologically on land that could not be repeated in some analogous fashion by a race of marine lifeforms on a pelagic world elsewhere in our Galaxy.

* It is interesting to note that cetacean intelligence soared following its return to the sea, reaching a level of "encephalization" equal to that of modern-day humans 10 million years ago.2910 There is no truth to the assertion that the sea is incapable of bringing forth high intelligence, for it was the seagoing dolphins, not humans, who first made it to the top. Ethologist John Eisenberg correctly points out that the assumption that the marine environment is homogeneous is false: "There are currents and different temperature and pressure regimes which make it very exciting."3241

49. John W. Macvey (internationally. known writer on astronomy, fellow of BIS), Whispers From Space, Macmillan Publ. Co., Inc.; 1973.
50. Games G. Strong (B. Sc. (Eng.) A.C.G.I., A.F.R.Ac.S., F.B.I.S), Flight to the Stars: An Inquiry into the Feasibility of Interstellar Flight; Hart Publ. Co., Inc.; N. Y., 1965.
63. Poul Anderson, Is There Life on Other Worlds?; (Crowell-Collier Press, N. Y.; 1963). With intro. by Isaac Asimov.
600. Roger A. MacGowen (Computation Center, Army Missile Command, Huntsville, Alabama, USA), Frederick I. Ordway, III (General Astronautics Research Corporation, London Corporation, London, England); Intelligence in the Universe; (Prentice - Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey; 1966).
1559. Fred Hoyle; Of Men and Galaxies; (University of Washington Press, Seattle; 1964).
2723. R. J. Livesay; "Criteria for Evolution of Technology on Planets Supporting a Biosphere"; Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 18 (1977):54-59.
2910. Harry J. Jerison; "Paleoneurology and the Evolution of Mind"; Scientific American 234 (January 1976):90-101.
3241. Mark A. Stull, ed.; Workshop on Cultural Evolution (Minutes); (Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, C. A.; Nov. 24-25, 1975). Joshua Lederberg, Chairman.

Technology could develop, arguably would automatically, if aquatic creatures reached a certain brain size.


The first major impediment to the formation of technology underwater is the lack of oxygen. Water in general is not an efficient solvent of oxygen for example, a human would need gills several times their body area IIRC something over 15 square meters in order to exact enough oxygen from even well oxygenated water. There are plastics that form osmotic membranes in water that selectively pass gasses but not water. Ordinary polystyrene will do this. But you need such a large surface area that nobody had been able to make a practical breather.

There is also the problem that oxygen content varies significantly with depth and vertical and lateral currents. Sometimes, fish hit a dead zone and simply suffocate before they can swim out.

That's the biggest brains in the sea belong to aquatic air breathing mammals. Gils just won't cut it. The biggest non-mammal brains belong to octopi who "breathe" by inhaling a lot of water, compressing it then jetting it out again. Even so, they are limited to brains much smaller than mammals.

Postulating alternative chemistries really doesn't help because such chemistries won't have the energy flow of an oxygen based one and therefore couldn't support large, energy intensive brains. An ecology based on sulfur compounds, like those in "black smoker vents" won't likely support large brains.

Better to postulate an alternate neurology which use a different and lower energy mechanism than electrically charged membranes. Can't think of plausible one off the top of my head.

So, you're probably looking at something that is air breathing or as some other means of obtaining excess oxygen e.g. has symbiotic plants that generate or cache oxygen for it in a form like hemoglobin. Air breathing doesn't require land. Many surface dwelling fish have a primitive air breathing system from absorbing oxygen from swallowed air. Lung fish breath through their gas bladders which are attaches to their digestive track. Something similar could evolve eventually to air breathing "fish" with no land ancestry.

The other problem is the vast majority of the ocean floor is a desert. Once you get down passed 60-70 meters, there is no light for photosynthesis and away from the continents, there isn't a lot of minerals, like iron, floating around. The seas both in terms of area and volume, are relatively dead.

So, the planet would need broad, shallow (<100 meters or so) oceans like those which dominated earth in the Permian.

Hands or manipulators are not much of problem. If you look at fish, octopi, anemone and other organisms that live in and on coral reefs in shallow water, it's clear that streamlining isn't much of selection pressure. Speed is important in the open but in more confined spaces, the ability to maneuver precisely, anchor and push-off seems more important. Octopi, for example, have manipulators on par with human hands.

Besides there are options to hands. You could have a hive species that uses swarm tactics, like bees, ants etc do, using the coordination motion of dozens of individuals to provide all the control vectors. Swarm robots are all the rage now because it's a lot easier to control and object with a lot of small controlled shoved that trying to control it with large vectors arising from a single point, e.g. a human shoulder joint giving rise to all the vectors of the arm and fingers.

So, once you have big brains and manipulators what could you make?

Aquatic species primary senses would likely be those that work best underwater, sonar, electrical fields, combined smell/taste, ambient vibration detection etc. Visible light vision would be a secondary sense. The underwater senses would likely give a sentient species something close to x-ray vision. Dolphins and whales appear able to scan the insides of living animals with their sonar. Likewise they can detect buried objects. Electrical field detection likewise gives the ability to detect living organisms and some structures in sand and coral. Smell and taste sensors wouldn't be limited to the mouth or nose but could be spread out all over the body or concentrated in manipulators.

In short an aquatic species could extract a lot more detail about objects in their environment, especially the chemical, electrical and internal structure, than air/land based could.

So, they could examine their environment and manipulate, the question is why bother? As much as we like to flatter ourselves, intelligence isn't always an automatic game winner, especially when it comes from such high metabolic overheard. It requires a payoff. For humans, it was cooperative hunting/scavenging for meats and fats, combined with stone tools to cut up tissues and bones that our muscles, jaws and teeth could not. Lastly, fire let us digest a wider range of nutrients without any metabolic or structural specialization similar to that found e.g. in vultures.

It really looks like the primary driver of large brains is not technology, but social coordination. Large brains let animals work in larger and more effective teams. E.g. wolves, meerkats, dolphins etc all have large brains compared equivalent more solitary species but they don't use technology as we think of it. (Dolphins seem to use their large brains to plan and carry out gruesome coordinated military campaigns against other dolphins, largely for kidnapping females. Most dolphins are killed by other dolphins instead of predators. Those scars are from bar fights. "Flipper" they ain't.)

In the same way, large brains might get started in an aquatic environment because of a need for coordination. That could be some form of hunting but it could also be obtaining oxygen or creating reefs for symbiotic food species and defense.

Imagine a bunch of air breathing octopi, whose primary primitive technology was building coral reef structures to provide air, food and shelter. From there, they could figure out how to make cutting weapons from coral.

Tools underwater would be much different than we think of them. For example, swinging a lever like an hammer or axe, is not efficient under water because water resistance robs all the energy. Plus, rapid high energy motions stir up silt and generate vibrations that telegraph one's position.

Instead, grinding, raking and drilling would be the orders of the day. Repetitive motions over short ranges would work better than rapidly moving levers. Water jets, with or without injected abrasives, could take the place of knives and saws.

Various forms of bicarbonate and biosilicate would likely take the place of stones. Likely, a form of coral topiary would be an early technology on par with making mud bricks was for humans.

Rocks, especially specific types like flint, might be hard to find because in the sea, everything gets covered with silt and biomatter. On land, plants needs a certain minimal amount of soil and won't grow on bare rock save in very humid conditions. In the ocean, however, plants, fungi and sessile animals simply use hard objects as anchor points. On land, a pile of flint will have not plants it and will be easy to spot. In the sea, it will be covered up with something. Nothing will just laying around.

On the other hand, as noted above, sentient sea life can probably probe through materials so perhaps it wouldn't be that much of problem.

It's important to remember that you don't need as strong of materials to build underwater as on land. Building on land requires materials with great compressive strength because air is compressible and provides little buoyancy. Air provides no structural support at all. All the strength comes from the materials. (Foams with trapped air are an exception but they are weak because they compress.) On land, to lift something you have to put a lot of compression resistant mass under it e.g. stone, steel etc. Under the water, you attach a balloon to it and lift it up. If you want something to resist compression, you make a sealed cell of a high tension material and then let the incompressibility of water carry the load.

The structures of an underwater civilization would likely be lightly constructed and gain strength from buoyancy and incompressibility. The equivelent of a skyscraper could be just a bunch of netting will a balloon of gas or low density oil at the top. The problem wouldn't be keeping it up, but floating away.

Fire is not as important as we think. It's important to humans but that is because humans used fire to pre-digest foods and for light. In the sea, Pre-digestion could be done chemically (like a ceviche) or by enzymes borrowed from symbioses. Light would not be a big benefit because sight would be a secondary sense and in any case, could be generated by bioluminescent sources.

Neither is metal. Modern humans existed for 40,000 years at least before the first metals, and the civilizations of Meso-America built vast cities without using metals for anything but decoration. Metals are not necessary to technology. The primary use of metals was as wedges of different forms, e.g. knives, plows etc., but with slow motions like sawing, grinding, raking etc being the primary means of transferring energy, a wedge would not be quite as important. Hydraulic pressure could take the place of wedges when needed, especially if speed was not as important.

But, an aquatic species could develop metallurgy using electrochemistry which would be easier to develop in seawater, especially given they have electrical field senses to begin with. Magnesium is abundant in sea water and easy to extract with even primitive electrodes.

One could postulate a sentient species that has a anemone like symbiotic that radiates a powerful electrical detection field. The sentient starts out just anchoring the symbiotic around as a kind of early warning system. Selective breeding leads to stronger and strong field generation until they end up with something like an electric eel. (Which is how electric eels evolve.) Now they have a powerful, controllable and regenerative source of electricity. They would already be aware of calcium carbonate and silica precipitation by electrical fields so electrical metallurgy would be a short step.

They would also have an advantage in long distance communications. Sonics carry for hundreds of miles in the oceans and can carry multiple bands at the same time. Even at very primitive levels, they might coordinate millions of individuals over tens of thousands of hectares with the ease of which humans coordinate a small village.

I could imagine a civilization of highly cooperative, air breathing, squid-like critters, who used swarms to carry out manipulations and with strong division of labor e.g. that might have some dedicated to shuttling air bubbles, or a chemical oxygen store, to and from the surface, all coordinated over long distances and in large numbers by electrical fields and sonar.

Their primary structures would be made of carbonate and biosilicate foams, made buoyant with waste gases and strong by filling the cells with water or oil.

For mechanical energy, they could harness currents like a combination waterwheel, windmill.

Humans are so sight oriented that we have dull senses of smell, taste, hearing and touch compared even to other mammals. It takes us centuries to divine chemical compositions but a sentient species that evolved in salt water would be like living chem lab equipment by comparison. They would use those sense to develop a bioelectrical and enzyme based technology.

They would probably skip over iron and other ferric metals and instead go to aluminum and magnesium alloys, then perhaps various graphemes.

Their technology would emphasize skill, senses and complexity, all made possible by living in seawater, over velocity, shock and heat like most human technologies.

They might have trouble getting into to space because of their relatively low energy technology but then again they might try alternate technology like balloons that could rise to the edge of space and then form into sails to catch the solar winds and the planets magnetic fields. (There are similar designs tossed about here on earth but we haven't bothered thus far because we know a lot about fire.)

Once in space, they would have an easier time of it because living underwater is closer to microgravity than living in air.

So, yes it's fairly easy to postulate a plausible technological species once you stop seeing fire as something special and necessary. Once they have enough oxygen or other source of energy, the need to grow big brains for organization, manipulative organs and something to profitably manipulate, off they go.


Mechanical engineers Carmel Majidi and James Wissman of the Soft Machines Lab at Carnegie Mellon University have been looking at new ways to create electronics that are not just digitally functional but also soft and deformable. Rather than making from rigid metals like copper or silver, they use a special metal alloy that is liquid at room temperature. This alloy, made by mixing indium and gallium, is a non-toxic alternative to mercury and can be infused in rubber to make circuits that are as soft and elastic as natural skin.

Teaming up with Michael Dickey at North Carolina State University, they recently discovered that electronics are not only useful for stretchable circuit wiring but can also be used to make . These fluidic transistors work by opening and closing the connection between two liquid metal droplets. When a voltage drop is applied in one direction, the droplets move towards each other and coalesce to form a metallic bridge for conducting electricity. When voltage is applied in a different direction, the droplets spontaneously break apart and turn the switch to open. By quickly alternating between an open and closed and open switch state with only a small amount of voltage, the researchers were able to mimic the properties of a conventional transistor.

The team came to this result by exploiting a capillary instability. "We see capillary instabilities all the time," says Majidi. "If you turn on a faucet and the flow rate is really low, sometimes you'll see this transition from a steady stream to individual droplets. That's called a Rayleigh instability."

The researchers had to find a way to induce this instability in the liquid metal such that it could seamlessly transition from one droplet to two. After performing a series of tests on droplets within a sodium hydroxide bath, they realized that the instability was driven by the coupling between an applied voltage and an electro-chemical reaction. This coupling caused a gradient in the droplet's surface oxidation, which then resulted in a gradient in the droplet's surface tension, which finally drove the separation of the two droplets.

The team calls it a liquid metal transistor because it has the same kind of circuit properties found in a conventional circuit transistor. "We have these two that are analogous to source and drain electrodes in a field-effect transistor, and we can use this shape programmable effect to open and close the circuit," says Majidi. "You could eventually use this effect to create these physically reconfigurable circuits."

The applications for this type of programmable matter are endless. If materials can be programmed to change shape, they can potentially change their function depending on their configuration, or even reconfigure themselves to bypass damage in extreme environments. "It could be on a structure that's undergoing some very large physical deformations, like a flying robot that mimics the properties of a bird," says Majidi. "When it spreads its wings, you want the circuitry on the wings to also deform and reconfigure so that they remain operational or support some new kind of electrical functionality."

Other applications could include liquid computers for uses in technologies of the future. Think of miniature computers that interface with biological material to monitor disease in the body or restore brain function to a stroke survivor. Imagine search and rescue robots that can self-assemble new parts when damaged. Although it sounds like science fiction, liquid computing might one day be as commonplace as today's laptops.

Wissman, Dickey, and Majidi summarized their research in a paper published in the journal Advanced Science.

by Carnegie Mellon University Mechanical Engineering (2017)

     Technion researchers have demonstrated, for the first time, that laser emissions can be created through the interaction of light and water waves. This “water-wave laser” could someday be used in tiny sensors that combine light waves, sound and water waves, or as a feature on microfluidic “lab-on-a-chip” devices used to study cell biology and to test new drug therapies.
     For now, the water-wave laser offers a “playground” for scientists studying the interaction of light and fluid at a scale smaller than the width of a human hair, the researchers write in the new report, published November 21 in the journal Nature Photonics.
     The study was conducted by Technion-Israel Institute of Technology students Shmuel Kaminski, Leopoldo Martin, and Shai Maayani, under the supervision of Professor Tal Carmon, head of the Optomechanics Center at the Mechanical Engineering Faculty at Technion. Carmon said the study is the first bridge between two areas of research that were previously considered unrelated to one another: nonlinear optics and water waves.
     A typical laser can be created when the electrons in atoms become “excited” by energy absorbed from an outside source, causing them to emit radiation in the form of laser light. Professor Carmon and his colleagues now show for the first time that water wave oscillations within a liquid device can also generate laser radiation.
     The possibility of creating a laser through the interaction of light with water waves has not been examined, Carmon said, mainly due to the huge difference between the low frequency of water waves on the surface of a liquid (approximately 1,000 oscillations per second) and the high frequency of light wave oscillations (1014 oscillations per second). This frequency difference reduces the efficiency of the energy transfer between light and water waves, which is needed to produce the laser emission.
     To compensate for this low efficiency, the researchers created a device in which an optical fiber delivers light into a tiny droplet of octane and water. Light waves and water waves pass through each other many times (approximately one million times) inside the droplet, generating the energy that leaves the droplet as the emission of the water-wave laser.
     The interaction between the fiber optic light and the miniscule vibrations on the surface of the droplet are like an echo, the researchers noted, where the interaction of sound waves and the surface they pass through can make a single scream audible several times. In order to increase this echo effect in their device, the researchers used highly transparent, runny liquids, to encourage light and droplet interactions.
     Furthermore, a drop of water is a million times softer than the materials used in current laser technology. The minute pressure applied by light can therefore cause droplet deformation that is a million times greater than in a typical optomechanical device, which may offer greater control of the laser’s emissions and capabilities, the Technion scientists said.


      There was no vision transmission. Only a harsh, gargly voice in heavily accented English: ‘Yu-o met-sage retseeved, Ar-go. Yu-ah sed-u-ahl its con-feermed. Pro-tseed ahs de-reck-tsed. Celery pie.’

(ed note: Your message received, Argo. Your schedule is confirmed. Proceed as directed. Celery pie? Standing by?)

     ‘Celery pie, my foot,’ Dr Langer said under his breath. ‘Jerry, they’ve been studying your cooking! Hello, the Hegemony base? Do you have new co-ordinates for us? We don’t seem to be anywhere near your system.’
     ‘Yu-o ah ahn dze bound-ah-dzer-eetz ahv owoo my-ahn-feeyelt,’ the gargly voice said. ‘Close-ah ap-proatschtz its for-beedy-en. Tzis its a meeleo-tzaireo air-eeoo. Pro-tseed.’

(ed note: You are on the boundary of our mine field. Close approch is forbidden. This is a military area. Proceed.)

     ‘As directed.’ Dr Langer replied. ‘But we are getting rather low on water.’
     ‘Dzat wazt ahn-teezupatted. Yu-o veal pie cheeven wah-tzer aht ohe nachst kon-stagt pooncht. End tzans-muttzon.’

(ed note: That was anticipated. You will be given water at the next contact point. End transmission.)

     There was a loud snap and the carrier wave went dead.
     ‘Celery pie to you, too!’ Dr Langer said. ‘And also — owoo and och! But I guess the instructions are clear enough, despite that molasses-coated bogus Armenian accent. We go on and we get water at the next stop. Take your posts. The course plan leaves us only an hour to get back into overdrive. Unless I misunderstood the instructions completely, we’re actually to touch down on the next planet. And I certainly hope so. I don’t see how we’ll refill our water tanks otherwise. Let’s get cracking. If we don’t hit the next touchdown precisely, we’ll have dry throats for a long time thereafter. Posts!’

     Dry throats, however, did not turn out to be the problem. There was indeed water where they were going — plenty of water.
     In fact, over the whole surface of the planet, they could see nothing else.
     Even a close approach, in orbit about the planet, did not modify this impression more than slightly. The world was Earth-like in size, atmosphere, and distance from its sun, which, in turn, was very like Sol, but it had no continents at all, nor did it have polar ice caps. The universal ocean which covered it was so heat-conservative that its climate was uniformly subtropical. Even the closest observation — not an easy matter, since about 80 per cent of the surface was always obscured by masses of clouds — disclosed no breaks in the rolling sea except for a number of what looked to be coral atolls. They were big ones by earthly standards, but not even the biggest could properly be dignified with the name of island. And anyhow, they were deserted and bare.
     All the same, from the planet to the Argo poured a steady stream of information and directions, in machine-translated and hence readily understandable English. There was a civilization here, a civilization with an advanced technology, and one with access to the knowledge and resources of the Heart Stars. But where was it?

     Obviously it was under water. Jack had immediately suspected a dominant creature something like Earth’s dolphins but with flukes sufficiently modified to handle and make tools, and with a civilization centred, most probably, around underwater cities built inside the lagoons formed by the atolls. But the picture that gradually emerged contradicted his idea at almost every point.
     There were whale-like mammals here, all right, but they were not the planet’s rulers, were not, in fact, as far advanced as their parallels on Earth. The dominant creature was actually not even a vertebrate. It was a mollusk or something very like one.

     The closest resemblance to an earthly animal Jack could think of was the octopus, which has marvellously developed eyes rivalling those of any mammal and is capable in a crude way of learning from experience. There was nothing crude about the decapod squids of this planet, however. They were vastly intelligent in a quite inhuman way — garrulous, solemn, self-important, seemingly quite without humour or any sense of beauty.
     ‘That’s not an unknown combination of character traits among human beings,’ Dr Langer said when Jack reported this impression, for it was to Jack that the task of talking to the decapods had been assigned. ‘But I agree that among humans it’s never been wide-spread. All the same it’s common elsewhere. All hive cultures are like that.’
     This is a hive culture?’ Sandbag said in astonishment ‘How could such a thing evolve among free-swimming animals?’
     ‘Bees are free-flying,’ Dr Langer pointed out
.     ‘Yes, but they go through the whatyoumaycallum insects go through — the metamorphosis. They’re born as grubs that have to be protected.’
     ‘Well, something like that is going on here,’ Dr Langer said. ‘What do you make of those big hydra-like things, like animated trees or giant sea anemones, that build the coral reefs?’
     ‘Just what you just said,’ Jack said promptly. ‘They’re hydroids; they belong to the coelenterates, not to the mollusks. They’re as far away from the decapods on the evolutionary line as the decapods are from us.’
     ‘Jerry, do you agree? No connection between the atoll creatures and the decapods?’

     ‘I can’t see any,’ Sandbag said. These atolls sure aren’t the squid cities we first guessed they were.’
     ‘But they are,’ Dr Langer said calmly. ‘We were just using the wrong definition of a city.’

     There’s nothing in them, sir,’ Jack objected. ‘Nothing in the lagoons but fish, and nothing on the reefs but the hydroids. The decapods have their machinery scattered all over the ocean floor; they ignore the reefs entirely.
     True,’ Dr Langer said. ‘Because the reefs are hives, not centres of commerce or thought. A hive is a breeding machine. You see, gentlemen — to put a complicated matter as simply as it allows — we were guilty of thinking too rigidly in terms of what we know on Earth, where there’s a long distance between the mollusk and the coelenterate. But evolution didn’t follow the same course here as it did on Earth, and here there’s no such firm distinction. Here the decapods and the hydras are both the same creature.’
     ‘But, sir,’ Jack said. The hydras are just vegetables! I don’t mean that they’re plants. But they’re rooted to the spot; they don’t do anything but catch fish; they don’t even have a brain!’
     ‘And they reproduce by budding,’ Dr Langer added, ‘all true enough. They are a little like the bee grubs Jerry mentioned. The life-cycle of these creatures is what we call “alternation of generation”. The hydras reproduce without sex, by budding. But they also produce sexual buds, male on one individual, female on another. Out of the fertilized egg comes a free-swimming form, the medusoid stage. This swims around for the balance of its lifetime, then settles down, roots itself, turns into a hydroid — and starts a new colony, a new atoll. Thus far, what I’ve said would apply equally well to Earth’s coral polyps … but here the medusoid stage is not a jellyfish but a squid — a molluskoid, if you like. They do the thinking and the organizing. The hydroid forms are the breeders.’
     ‘And the reefs are the hives,’ Jack said. ‘It fits, all right. But what about the central lagoons of the atolls? They can’t have been formed by Darwin’s system, because this planet never had any low volcanic islands to sink into the sea. Still, these atolls look as if they were built up on the run of a crater. How come?’

     ‘That’s the clue that got me started thinking about this in the first place,’ Dr Langer said. ‘Why the similarity of shape when the mechanism couldn’t be the same? But the crucial difference turns out to be one of size. The reefs we have here are very large and built on drowned plateaus of what’s essentially a rather shallow sea. They have plenty of room to expand, and they do. But coral isn’t a strong structural material; it’s just a loose network of glassy splinters that won’t bear a lot of weight. As the atoll here spreads out, its centre gets crushed down by the weight of trapped water, silt, and additional coral, and there you have your lagoon.
     ‘Notice, by the way, that this process very much favoured the way evolution has gone here. The polyps are sessile — fixed to one spot — so they can’t hunt fish; the fish have to come to them, something that even fish would have better sense than to do. On the other hand, if the molluskoid forms had to herd fish for the benefit of their sessile parents, they’d have no time to develop a civilization, especially since herding fish is by no means so easy as herding sheep. The lagoon solves that problem: fish get trapped in there by storms, by tides, by sheer blundering, and in an emergency, schools of fish can be herded in there. Thus, the hydroid stage of the creature can largely feed itself from the warehouse, so to speak, and the free-swimming form can prosecute other concerns. One of those concerns, I would guess, is protecting the defenceless hydroids from being picked off by natural enemies — sharks or whatever the local equivalent is.’

     ‘One thing still bothers me, sir,’ Sandbag said. ‘The whole set-up sounds to me like it would last for ever. The creatures don’t have nations, they don’t have wars. In a word, they’ve got it made. Why do they need to belong to the Hegemony? What good does it do them? I don’t think any other planet would bother trying to conquer a thawed-out snowball like this.’
     ‘No. Water-breathing races don’t develop space flight in the first place, because they never see the sky,’ Dr Langer agreed. ‘So these people don’t need military protection from possible predators. But, Jerry, highly stable cultures are just what the Heart Stars are interested in most of all. It’s not only that they won’t admit unstable cultures; they can’t afford not to take in the stable ones for the sake of the overall stability of the Hegemony. I suspect that this planet joined the Heart Stars because it had to, not to protect itself from some single rival but in self-protection against the Hegemony itself.’

From MISSION TO THE HEART STARS by James Blish (1965)

It was perhaps inevitable that when the long-awaited indication of intelligent life at last appeared the majority of the ship's observers were looking somewhere else, that it did not appear in the batteries of telescopes that were being trained on the surface or on the still and cine films being taken by Descartes' planetary probes, but on the vessel's close approach radar screens.

In Descartes' control room the Captain jabbed a button on his console and said sharply, "Communications...

"We have it, sir," came the reply. "A telescope locked onto the radar bearing-the image is on your repeater screen Five. It is a two- or three stage chemically fueled vehicle with the second stage still firing. This means we will be able to reconstruct its flight path and pinpoint the launch area with fair accuracy. It is emitting complex patterns of radio frequency radiation indicative of high-speed telemetry channels. The second stage has just cut out and is falling away. The third stage, if it is a third stage, has not ignited. . . It's in trouble!"

The alien spacecraft, a slim, shining cylinder pointed at one end and thickened and blunt at the other, had begun to tumble. Slowly at first but with steadily increasing speed it swung and whirled end over end.

"Ordnance?" asked the Captain.

"Apart from the tumbling action," said a slower, more precise voice, "the vessel seems to have been inserted into a very neat circular orbit. It is most unlikely that this orbit was taken up by accident. The lack of sophistication-relative, that is-in the vehicle's design and the fact that its nearest approach to us will be a little under two hundred miles all point to the conclusion that it is either an artificial satellite or a manned orbiting vehicle rather than a missile directed at this ship.

"If it is manned," the voice added with more feeling, "the crew must be in serious trouble ...

"Yes," said the Captain, who treated words like nuggets of some rare and precious metal. He went on, "Astrogation, prepare intersecting and matching orbits, please. Power Room, stand by."

As the tremendous bulk of Descartes closed with the tiny alien craft it became apparent that, as well as tumbling dizzily end over end, the other vessel was leaking. The rapid spin made it impossible to say with certainty whether it was a fuel leak from the unfired third stage or air escaping from the command module if it was, in fact, a manned vehicle.

The obvious procedure was to check the spin with tractor beams as gently as possible so as to avoid straining the hull structure, then defuel the unfired third stage to remove the fire hazard before bringing the craft alongside. If the vessel was manned and the leak was of air rather than fuel, it could then be taken into Descartes' cargo hold where rescue and first contact proceedings would be possible—at leisure since Meatball's air was suited to human beings and the reverse, presumably, also held true.

It was expected to be a fairly simple rescue operation, at first...

"Tractor stations Six and Seven, sir. The alien spacecraft won't stay put. We've slowed it to a stop three times and each time it applies steering thrust and recommences spinning. For some reason it is deliberately fighting our efforts to bring it to rest. The speed and quality of the reaction suggests direction by an on-the-spot intelligence. We can apply more force, but only at the risk of damaging the vessel's hull—it is incredibly fragile by present-day standards, sir."

"I suggest using all necessary force to immediately check the spin, opening its tanks and jettisoning all fuel into space then whisking it into the cargo hold. With normal air pressure around it again there will be no danger to the crew and we will have time to..."

"Astrogation, here. Negative to that, I'm afraid, sir. Our computation shows that the vessel took off from the sea-more accurately, from beneath the sea, because there is no visible evidence of floating gantries or other launch facilities in the area. We can reproduce Meatball air because it is virtually the same as our own, but not that animal and vegetable soup they use for water, and all the indications point toward the crew being water breathers."

For a few seconds the Captain did not reply. He was thinking about the alien crew member or members and their reasons for behaving as they were doing. Whether the reason was technical, physiological, psychological or simply alien was, however, of secondary importance. The main thing was to render assistance as quickly as possible.

If his own ship could not aid the other vessel directly it could, in a matter of days, take it to a place which possessed all the necessary facilities for doing so. Transportation itself posed only a minor problem—the spinning vehicle could be towed without checking its spin by attaching a magnetic grapple to its center of rotation, and with the shipside attachment point also rotating so that the line would not twist-shorten and bring the alien craft crashing into Descartes' side. During the trip the larger ship's hyper-drive field could be expanded to enclose both vessels.

His chief concern was over the leak and his complete ignorance of how long a period the alien spacecraft had intended to stay in orbit. He had also, if he wanted to establish friendly relations with the people on Meatball, to make the correct decision quickly.

He knew that in the early days of human space flight leakage was a quite normal occurrence, for there had been many occasions when it had been preferable to carry extra air supplies rather than pay the severe weight penalty of making the craft completely airtight. On the other hand the leak and spinning were more likely to be emergency conditions with the time available for their correction strictly limited. Since the alien astronaut or astronauts would not, for some odd reason, let him immobilize their ship to make a more thorough investigation of its condition and because he could not reproduce their environment anyway, his duty was plain. Probably his hesitancy was due to misplaced professional pride because he was passing responsibility for a particularly sticky one to others.

From MAJOR OPERATION by James White (1966)

(ed note: on the planet Ranta, the aquatic natives build everything by using a super-adhesive. )

He (Cunningham) splashed along the feeder that had taken Creak (a local alien) to the aqueduct and reached the more solid and heavy wall of the main channel.

The going was rough, since the Rantans did not appear to believe in squaring or otherwise shaping their structural stone. They simply cemented together fragments of all sizes down to fine sand until they had something watertight. Some of the fragments felt a little loose underfoot, which did not help his peace of mind. Getting away with his life from one dam failure seemed to be asking enough of luck.

However, he traversed the thirty or forty meters to the dam without disaster, turned to his right, and made his way across the arch supporting the wooden valve. This, too, reflected Rantan workmanship. The reedlike growths of which it was made had undergone no shaping except for the removal of an outer bark and— though he was not sure about this—the cutting to some random length less than the largest dimension of the gate. Thousands of the strips were glued together both parallel and crossed at varying angles, making a pattern that strongly appealed to Cunningham’s artistic taste.

(ed note: Cunningham levitates his ship using technbabble antigravity hover technology and floats it to the city)

They might not even have noticed his ship just now. He was certainly visible from the city; but the natives, Creak had told him, practically never paid attention to anything out of water unless it was an immediate job to be done.

Cunningham had watched Creak and Nereis for hours before their first actual meeting, standing within a dozen meters of them at times while they were underwater. Creak had not seen him even when the native had emerged to do fresh stonework on the top of the dam; he had been using a lorgnette with one eye, and ignoring the out-of-focus images which his other eyes gave when out of water; though, indeed, his breathing suit for use out of water did not cover his head, since his breathing apparatus was located at the bases of his limbs. Creak had simply bent to his work.

It had been Nereis, still underwater, who saw the grotesquely refracted human form approaching her husband and hurled herself from the water in between the two. This had been simple reflex; she had not been on guard in any sense. As far as she and Creak appeared to know, there was no land life on Ranta.

Rantan cement, he had come to realize, was generally remarkable stuff—another of the mysteries now awaiting solution in his mental file. The water dwellers could hardly have fire or forges, and quite reasonably he had seen no sign of metal around Creak’s home or in his tools. It seemed unlikely that the natives’ chemical or physical knowledge could be very sophisticated, and the surprise and interest shown by Creak and Nereis when he had been making chemical studies of the local rocks and their own foodstuffs supported this idea. Nevertheless, their glue was able to hold rough, unsquared fragments of stone, and untooled strips of wood, with more force than Cunningham’s muscles could overcome. This was true even when the glued area was no more than a square millimeter or two. On one of his early visits to Creak’s home, Cunningham had become entangled in the furniture and been quite unable to break out, or even separate a single strand from its fellows.

None of the workers seemed to notice the man, and he wondered when some local genius would conceive the idea of spectacles attached over the eyes to replace the lorgnettes used to correct out-of-water refraction. Perhaps with so many limbs (34), the Rantans were not highly motivated to invent something which would free one more for work. It did not occur to him that lens-making was one of the most difficult and expensive processes the Rantans could handle, and one very mobile lens per worker was their best economic solution to the problem.

(the alien Cunningham dubbed "Hinge" said) “Well, hasn’t he ever told you how stupid people were ever to move out of the ocean?”…

…He (Cunningham) used the don’t-understand signal again, and the native quickly narrowed it down to the man’s curiosity about why Creak didn’t live in the ocean if he so disapproved of cities.

“No one can live in the ocean for long; it’s too dangerous. Food is hard to find, there are animals and plants that can kill—a lot of them developed by us long ago for one purpose or another. Producing one usually caused troubles no one foresaw, and they had to make another to offset its effects, and then the new one caused trouble and something had to be done about that. Maybe we’ll hit a balance sometime, but since we’ve moved into land-based cities no one’s been trying very hard. Creak could tell you all this more eloquently than I; even he admits we can’t go back tomorrow. Now, my friend, it takes a lot of time to converse this way—enjoyable as it is—and I have work to finish. So—"

Cunningham gave the affirmative gesture willingly; he had just acquired a lot to think about. It had never occurred to him that an essentially biological technology, which the Rantans seemed to have developed, could result in industrial pollution as effectively and completely as a chemical-mechanical one. Once the point was made, it was obvious enough.

And what was Hinge’s point about the glue failing? Why should that be a problem? There were all sorts of ways to fasten things together.

(Cunningham said) “I agree that your people probably need that kick— excuse me, push—that you suggest. I’m afraid it will be a long time before you really get back to Nature, but you should at least keep moving. No race I know of ever got back there until its mastery of science was so complete that no one really had to work anymore at the necessities of life. You have a long, long way to go, but I’ll be glad to help with the push…

“Look, I have to go back to the ship. I’m betting Creak won’t expect me back tonight, and the guarding won’t be too much of a problem—you folks sleep at night, too. I have to get something from the ship, which I should have been carrying all along—you’re not the only ones who get too casual. Then I’ll come back here, and if you’re willing to sacrifice your furniture to the cause, I’ll make something that will do what you and Creak want. I guarantee it.”

(Nereis said) “Why do you have to get something from your ship in order to make something from my furniture? I have all the glue you could possibly need.”

“That’s the last thing I want. You depend too much on the stuff, and it’s caused your collective craftsmanship to die in the—the egg. Glue would make what I want to do a lot easier, but I’m not going to use it. You’ll see why in a few days, when I get the job done.

Cunningham relaxed for a few minutes, ate, and then looked over his supply of hand equipment. He selected a double-edged knife, thirty-five centimeters in blade length, cored with vanadium steel and faced with carbide. Adding a sheath and a diamond sharpener, he clipped the lot to his belt, reflecting that the assemblage could probably be called one tool without straining the term.

(ed note: Creak and a team of workers are traveling to repair the dam, where the cement gave out. They are surprised by Cunningham with his…artifact)

A kilometer north of the wall they met something that startled Creak more than his first sight of Cunningham and the (spaceship) Nimepotea six months before. He could not even think of words to describe it, though he had managed all right with man and spaceship.

The thing consisted of a cylindrical framework, axis horizontal, made of strips of wood. Creak did not recognize the pieces of his own furniture. The cylinder contained something like an oversized worksack, made of the usual transparent fabric, which in turn contained his wife, obviously well and happy.

At the rear of the framework, on the underside, was a heavy transverse wooden rod, and at the ends of this were—Creak had no word for “wheels.” Under the front was a single, similar disk-shaped thing, connected to the frame by an even more indescribable object which seemed to have been shaped somehow from a single large piece of wood.

The human being was pulling the whole arrangement without apparent effort, steering it among the rocks by altering the axial orientation of the forward disk.

The Rantans were speechless—but not one of them had the slightest difiiculty in seeing how the thing worked.

“Principles are an awful nuisance, Creak,” the man remarked. “I swore I wasn’t going to use a drop of your glue in making the wagon. Every bit of frame is tied together—I should think that people with your evolutionary background would at least have invented knots; or did they go out of style when glue came in? Anyway, the frame wasn’t so bad, but the wheels were hell. If I’d given up and used the glue, they’d have been simple enough, and I’d have made four of them, and had less trouble with that front fork mount—though I suppose steering would have been harder then. Making bundles for the rims was easy enough, but attaching spokes and making them stay was more than I’d bargained for.”

“Why didn’t you use the glue?” Creak asked. He was slowly regaining his emotional equilibrium.

“Same reason I left the ship down by the city, and lived on emergency food. Principle. Your principle. I wanted you and your people to be really sure that what I did was nice and simple and didn’t call for any arcane knowledge or fancy tools. Did you ever go through the stone-knife stage?” He displayed the blade. “Well, there’s a time for everything, even if the times are sometimes a little out of order. You just have to learn how to shape material instead of just sticking it together. Get it?”

(ed note: most tools fall into one of two categories. They cut one thing into two or they join two things into one. They subtract or add. The ancient alchemists called it "Solve et coagula", or analysis and synthesis. written on the arms of the Sabbatic Goat in the famous illustration by Eliphas Levi. In this case the knife cuts one thing into two and the cement joins two things into one.)

“Well … I think so.”

“Good. And I saved my own self-respect as Well as yours, I think, so everyone should be happy. Now you get to work and make some more of these wagons—only for heaven’s sake do use glue to speed things up…

…“I’m afraid that’s right,” the man admitted. “Once you tip the balance, you never get quite back on dead center. You started a scientific culture, just as my people did. You got overdependent on your glue, just as we did on heat engines (engines that burn coal, gasoline, natural gas, and uranium)—I’ll explain what those are, if you like, later. I don’t see how that information can corrupt this planet.

From STUCK WITH IT by Hal Clement (1976)

A drumming noise resounded through the waters. A hundred or more swimmers came into view, in formation. They wore skull helmets and scaly leather corselets, they were armed with obsidian-headed spears, axes, and daggers...

...For the people (he didn't like using the Kursovikian name "Siravo" in their own home, and could certainly never again call them Seatrolls) lived in a different conceptual universe from his. And thought they were handicapped—fireless save for volcanic outlets where glass was made as a precious material, metalless, unable to develop more than a rudimentary astronomy, the laws of motion and gravity and light propagation obscured for them by the surrounding water—they had thought their way through to ideas which not only made sense but which drove directly toward insights man had not had before Planck and Einstein.

To them, vision was not the dominant sense that it was for him. No eyes could look far undersea. Hence they were nearsighted by his standards, and the optical centers of their brains appeared to have slightly lower information-processing capability. On the other hand, their perception of tactile, thermal, kinesthetic, olfactory, and less familiar nuances was unbelievably delicate. The upper air was hostile to them; like humans vis-a-vis water, they could control but not kill an instinctive dread.

So they experienced space as relation rather than extension. For them, as a fact of daily life, it was unbounded but finite. Expeditions which circumnavigated the globe had simply given more weight and subtlety to that apprehension.

From ENSIGN FLANDRY by (1966)

(ed note: The main character are human colonists developed by pantropy, microscopic in size and living an aquatic existence. The scientists who created the colonists died, so the colonists have no idea that most human beings live in air, not water.)

     “The past four Shars discovered that we won’t get any farther in our studies until we learn how to control heat. We’ve produced enough heat chemically to show that even the water around us changes when the temperature gets high enough or low enough, that we knew from the beginning. But there we’re stopped.”
     “Because heat produced in open water is carried off as rapidly as it’s produced. Once we tried to enclose that heat, and we blew up a whole tube of the castle and killed everything in range; the shock was terrible. We measured the pressures that were involved in that explosion, and we discovered that no substance we know could have resisted them. Theory suggests some stronger substances — but we need heat to form them!
     “Take our chemistry. We live in water. Everything seems to dissolve in water, to some extent. How do we confine a chemical test to the crucible we put it in? How do we maintain a solution at one dilution? I don’t know. Every avenue leads me to the same stone door. We’re thinking creatures, Lavon, but there’s something drastically wrong in the way we think about this universe we live in. It just doesn’t seem to lead to results.”...

     ...Nor, for that matter, does a culture which has to dig each letter of its simple alphabet into pulpy water-logged wood with a flake of stonewort encourage the keeping of records in triplicate.

From SURFACE TENSION by James Blish (1952)

Of these worlds, one, an immense and very aqueous sphere, produced in time a dominant race which was not a single species but an intimate symbiotic partnership of two very alien creatures. The one came of a fish-like stock. The other was in appearance something like a crustacean. In form it was a sort of paddle-footed crab or marine spider...

...The two species had then come into contact, and had grappled desperately. Their battle-ground was the shallow coastal water. The "crustaceans," though crudely amphibian, could not spend long under the sea; the "fish" could not emerge from it. The two races did not seriously compete with one another in economic life, for the "fish" were mainly vegetarian, the "crustaceans" mainly carnivorous; yet neither could tolerate the presence of the other. Both were sufficiently human to be aware of one another as rival aristocrats in a subhuman world, but neither was human enough to realize that for each race the way of life lay in cooperation with the other. The fish-like creatures, which I shall call "ichthyoids," had speed and range of travel. They had also the security of bulk. The crab-like or spider-like "crustaceans," which I shall call "arachnoids," had greater manual dexterity, and had also access to the dry land. Cooperation would have been very beneficial to both species, for one of the staple foods of the arachnoids was parasitic to the ichthyoids.

In spite of the possibility of mutual aid, the two races strove to exterminate one another, and almost succeeded. After an age of blind mutual slaughter, certain of the less pugnacious and more flexible varieties of the two species gradually discovered profit in fraternization with the enemy.

This was the beginning of a very remarkable partnership. Soon the arachnoids took to riding on the backs of the swift ichthyoids, and thus gained access to more remote hunting grounds.

As the epochs passed, the two species molded one another to form a well-integrated union. The little arachnoid, no bigger than a chimpanzee, rode in a snug hollow behind the great "fish's" skull, his back being stream-lined with the con-tours of the larger creature. The tentacles of the ichthyoid were specialized for large-scale manipulation, those of the arachnoid for minute work. A biochemical interdependence also evolved. Through a membrane in the ichthyoid's pouch an exchange of endocrine products took place. The mechanism enabled the arachnoid to become fully aquatic. So long as it had frequent contact with its host, it could stay under water for any length of time and descend to any depth. A striking mental adaptation also occurred in the two species. The ichthyoids became on the whole more introvert, the arachnoids more extrovert...

...Both had contributed equally to the culture of their world, though not equally at all times. In creative work of every kind one of the partners provided most of the originality, the other most of the criticism and restraint. Work in which one partner was entirely passive was rare. Books, or rather scrolls, which were made from pulped seaweed, were nearly always signed by couples. On the whole the arachnoid partners dominated in manual skill, experimental science, the plastic arts, and practical social organization. The ichthyoid partners excelled in theoretical work, in literary arts, in the surprisingly developed music of that submarine world, and in the more mystical kind of religion....

...It passed rapidly through the phase of inter-tribal strife, during which the nomadic shoals of symbiotic couples harried one another like hosts of submarine-cavalry; for the arachnoids, riding their ichthyoid mates, attacked the enemy with bone spears and swords, while their mounts wrestled with powerful tentacles. But the phase of tribal warfare was remarkably brief. When a settled mode of life was attained, along with submarine agriculture and coral-built cities, strife between leagues of cities was the exception, not the rule. Aided no doubt by its great mobility and ease of communication, the dual race soon built up a world-wide and unarmed federation of cities. We learned also with wonder that at the height of the pre-mechanical civilization of this planet, when in our worlds the cleavage into masters and economic slaves would already have become serious, the communal spirit of the city triumphed over all individualistic enterprise. Very soon this world became a tissue of interdependent but independent municipal communes.

At this time it seemed that social strife had vanished forever. But the most serious crisis of the race was still to come.

The submarine environment offered the symbiotic race no great possibilities of advancement. All sources of wealth had been tapped and regularized. Population was maintained at an optimum size for the joyful working of the world...

...In a submarine world the possibility of obtaining mechanical power was remote. But the arachnoids, it will be remembered, were able to live out of the water. In the epochs before the symbiosis their ancestors had periodically emerged upon the islands, for courtship, parenthood, and the pursuit of prey. Since those days the air-breathing capacity had declined, but it had never been entirely lost. Every arachnoid still emerged for sexual mating, and also for certain ritual gymnastic exercises. It was in this latter connection that the great discovery was made which changed the course of history. At a certain tournament the friction of stone weapons, clashing against one another, produced sparks, and fire among the sun-scorched grasses.

In startlingly quick succession came smelting, the steam engine, the electric current. Power was obtained first from the combustion of a sort of peat formed on the coasts by congested marine vegetation, later from the constant and violent winds, later still from photo-chemical light traps which absorbed the sun's lavish radiation. These inventions were of course the work of arachnoids. The ichthyoids, though they still played a great part in the systematization of knowledge, were debarred from the great practical work of scientific experiment and mechanical invention above the seas. Soon the arachnoids were running electric cables from the island power-stations to the submarine cities. In this work, at least, the ichthyoids could take part, but their part was necessarily subordinate. Not only in experience of electrical engineering but also in native practical ability they were eclipsed by their arachnoid partners.

For a couple of centuries or more the two species continued to cooperate, though with increasing strain. Artificial lighting, mechanical transport of goods on the ocean floor, and large-scale manufacture, produced an immense increase in the amenities of life in the submarine cities. The islands were crowded with buildings devoted to science and industry. Physics, chemistry, and biology made great progress. Astronomers began to map the galaxy. They also discovered that a neighboring planet offered wonderful opportunities for settlement by arachnoids, who might without great difficulty, it was hoped, be conditioned to the alien climate, and to divorce from their symbiotic partners. The first attempts at rocket flight were leading to mingled tragedy and success. The directorate of extra-marine activities demanded a much increased arachnoid population.

Inevitably there arose a conflict between the two species, and in the mind of every individual of either species...

...Victory would in the long run have gone to the arachnoids, for they controlled the sources of power. But it soon appeared that the attempt to break the symbiotic bond was not as successful as it had seemed. Even in actual warfare, commanders were unable to prevent widespread fraternization between the opposed forces...

...The arachnoids suffered more from the neuroses than from the weapons of the enemy. On the islands, moreover, civil wars and social revolutions made the manufacture of munitions almost impossible.

The most resolute faction of the arachnoids now attempted to bring the struggle to an end by poisoning the ocean. The islands in turn were poisoned by the millions of decaying corpses that rose to the sea's surface and were cast up on the shores. Poison, plague, and above all neurosis, brought war to a standstill, civilization to ruin, and the two species almost to extinction. The deserted sky-scrapers that crowded the islands began to crumble into heaps of wreckage. The submarine cities were invaded by the submarine jungle and by shark-like sub-human ichthyoids of many species. The delicate tissue of knowledge began to disintegrate into fragments of superstition.

Now at last came the opportunity of those who advocated a modernized symbiosis. With difficulty they had maintained a secret existence and their individual partnerships in the more remote and inhospitable regions of the planet. They now came boldly forth to spread their gospel among the unhappy remnants of the world's population. There was a rage of interspecific mating and remating. Primitive submarine agriculture and hunting maintained the scattered peoples while a few of the coral cities were cleared and rebuilt, and the instruments of a lean but hopeful civilization were refashioned. This was a temporary civilization, without mechanical power, but one which promised itself great adventures in the "upper world" as soon as it had established the basic principles of the reformed symbiosis...

...The first stage was the reinstatement of power stations on the islands, and the careful reorganization of a purely submarine society equipped with power. But this reconstruction would have been useless had it not been accompanied by a very careful study of the physical and mental relations of the two species. The symbiosis had to be strengthened so that interspecific strife should in future be impossible...

...Gradually and very cautiously all the industrial operations and scientific researches of an earlier age were repeated, but with a difference. Industry was subordinated to the conscious social goal. Science, formerly the slave of industry, became the free colleague of wisdom.

From STAR MAKER by Olaf Stapledon (1937)

The possible advantages of space can best be appreciated if we turn our backs upon it and return, in imagination, to the sea. Here is the perfect environment for life—the place where it originally evolved. In the sea, an all-pervading fluid medium carries oxygen and food to every organism; it need never hunt for either. The same medium neutralizes gravity, insures against temperature extremes, and prevents damage by too intense solar radiation—which must have been lethal at the Earth’s surface before the ozone layer was formed.

When we consider these facts, it seems incredible that life ever left the sea, for in some ways the dry land is almost as dangerous as space. Because we are accustomed to it, we forget the price we have had to pay in our daily battle against gravity. We seldom stop to think that we are still creatures of the sea, able to leave it only because, from birth to death, we wear the water-filled space suits of our skins.

Yet until life had invaded and conquered the land, it was trapped in an evolutionary cul-de-sac—for intelligence cannot arise in the sea. The relative opacity of Water, and its resistance to movement, were perhaps the chief factors limiting the mental progress of marine creatures. They had little incentive to develop keen vision (the most subtle of the senses. and the only long-range one) or manual dexterity. It will be most interesting to see if there are any exceptions to this, elsewhere in the universe.

Even if these obstacles do not prevent a low order of intelligence from arising in the sea, the road to further development is blocked by an impossible barrier. The difference between man and animals lies not in the possession of tools, but in the possession of fire. A marine culture could not escape from the Stone Age and discover the use of metals; indeed, almost all branches of science and technology would be forever barred to it.

Perhaps we would have been happier had we remained in the sea (the porpoises seem glad enough to have returned, after sampling the delights of the dry land for a few million years), but I do not think that even the most cynical philosopher has ever suggested we took the wrong road. The world beneath the waves is beautiful, but it is hopelessly limited, and the creatures who live there are crippled irremediably in mind and spirit. No fish can see the stars; but we will never be content until we have reached them.

From SPACE FLIGHT AND THE SPIRIT OF MAN by Arthur C. Clarke (1961)


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End of Natural Selection

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Stratified Cities

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The Death of Cities

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Decadent Population

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Casual FTL Travel

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Intelligence Amplification

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Mind Control

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The Singularity

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Revolt of the AIs

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