People love to classify things. Pre-hominids seemed more primitive than prehistoric humans who had tamed fire. Natives armed with spears and arrows seem less technologically advanced than invaders armed with firearms. Steam power seems less technologically advanced than nuclear energy. So naturally historicaly-minded people tried to codify this into a scale of technological advancement, to conveniently classify various cultures at various times in their history. A scale of "tech levels" in other words.

Since many early researchers were regrettably Western-centric, they tended to visualize tech levels as a linear path (that is, the path followed by Western civilization). This is a gross simplification. Latter researchers studying a wider range of cultures (such as China) realized the linear path was a poor model. There is no particular reason why Louis Pasteur's germ theory of disease was formulated about the same time as the invention of the Gattling gun. In other cultures they might occur at widely separated historical periods.

A much better model is the multi-branched "tech tree." The technology required to make an iron sword has the prerequisite of a supply of iron and a furnace to heat it. Both of which require the technology of making fire. In addition iron requires the skills of prospecting and mining iron ore, plus the technology of smelting ore into ingots of pure metal. And so on.

The superiority of a tech tree over tech levels is that different cultures can travel over various branchces of a tech tree at different rates. So culture Alfa might have germ theory tech at the same time as gattling gun tech, but culture Bravo might develope gattling guns decades before germ theory.

The convoluted way that tech advances influence each other was the entire premise behind James Burke's documentary series Connections and The Day The Universe Changed, which you should watch if you haven't already.

The role-playing game Traveller popularized the use of tech levels in 1977. The tabletop boardgame Civilization popularized the use of tech trees in 1980. And pretty much every 4x game uses tech trees, with the items accessed by investing in tech research.

There is a chunky version of tech level displayed in the Kardashev scale. And do peruse the section on Alien Tech Levels.

Tech Levels


"Technological advance is an inherently iterative process. One does not simply take sand from the beach and produce a Dataprobe. We use crude tools to fashion better tools, and then our better tools to fashion more precise tools, and so on. Each minor refinement is a step in the process, and all of the steps must be taken."
Chairman Shen-Ji Yang, "Looking God in the Eye"

In Hollywood, people seem to believe that technology starts at fire and ends in people turning into energy; the interim would follow the exact same steps on every possible world. Often, this takes the form of people not from Earth creating exact replicas of Earth technology right down to the last detail — such as interface panels ripped right out of the Apollo missions on an alien space station. These copies are often similar enough that people who are from Earth often have no trouble at all using the device, or even interfacing their own hardware with it.

Similarly, seemingly distinct and diverse technologies will always develop at the same rate. An alien world with "Renaissance-era" technology (ignoring for the moment that the Renaissance spanned four centuries and giant changes in technology) in, say, firearms will also possess lenses, ships, building materials, and mathematical principles identical to those that Earth (read: the inter-continental trade powers of north-western Europe) possessed along with said firearms.

It's only rarely that a civilization will break off the path, and usually as a result of external forces providing them with something outside their capabilities (intentionally, accidentally or incidentally), such as a 1920s planet with fusion power, or a 1700s planet with radios. However, mastering this technology does not actually give them an understanding of related concepts, or even concepts which would be required to use this technology in the first place (thus averting Possession Implies Mastery).

Remember, don't think path, think tree, just as with the evolution of biological lifeforms. Except, in this case the distant descendants of unrelated branches can inspire and influence the future of others. For inspiring viewing, see the James Burke documentary series Connections, which shows the sometimes ludicrously unlikely places where inspiration and discovery come from, and the web-like connections between seemingly-unrelated inventions.

I, for one, can only look forward to the day that crystal-based technology paves the way for our conversion into energy.

See also: Enforced Technology Levels, Evolutionary Levels, In Spite of a Nail, and Tier System. Contrast Schizo Tech, Aliens Never Invented the Wheel, Sufficiently Advanced Bamboo Technology, Alternate Techline, Anachronism Stew and/or Fantasy Gun Control.

This has some actual reference in the real world Kardashev Scale (how much total energy one gets to play with, no matter how). The other wiki used to have a list. See Abusing the Kardashev Scale for Fun and Profit for some fun speculation.

For a huge list of examples click here

TECHNOLOGY LEVELS entry from TV Tropes

Note that when an interstellar colony is established, the tech levels can become scrambled due to the colony infrastructure problem (e.g., horses make more sense than automobiles if the colony has no oil wells to produce gasoline).

Corporal Anuraro showed me how to get into the canoe without swamping it. We don't have those things in Arizona. As they paddled me ashore, I thought about how silly the situation was. I was being paddled in a canoe, a device invented at least ten thousand years ago. I was carrying a pair of light-amplifying field glasses based on a principle not discovered until after I was born. Behind me was a steamboat that might have been moving up the Missouri River at the time of Custer's last stand, and I got to this planet in a starship.

From WEST OF HONOR by Jerry Pournelle ()


     A useful concept in science fiction gaming is the technology level (or “tech level”), denoting what a given world or society can create or do, technologically. On contemporary Earth, we tend to use decades as rough indicators of technology — the United States boasts a “twenty-first century” military, while poorer and less advanced countries have “1960s-era” forces.
     Technology classifications tend to either be very broad or very narrow. An example of a broad schema is the notion of “Ages”: Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Industrial Age, Information Age, PostHuman Age, and so forth. Broad technology schemes cover centuries or millennia, and they describe a whole suite of interrelated technologies and social structures. This usually implies that cultures develop along a similar path. Broad tech classifications also encourage cinematic-style invention and gadgeteering — if you’re an Industrial Age mechanic you can fix anything from an early steamship to a World War II fighter plane.
     Narrow tech scales are more useful in eras when technology changes quickly. A real-world example of this is the Gulf War of 1990, in which the 1990s-tech Coalition forces just walked over the 1980s-tech Iraqi army — using equipment which, by the standards of 2002, is often inferior or obsolete. This sort of system is appropriate to Cyberpunk or technothriller-style SF, in which hackers breeze through last year’s defensive software, and getting a beta-test copy of new intrusion programs can make a kid from the projects into a heavy hitter in cyberspace — for a few weeks, anyway. Obviously, narrow tech bands make it harder for a specialist trained in one tech level to work in others, and a character’s skills can get rusty in just a few years if he doesn’t study and stay current in the field.

Tech Scales

     Most technology-rating schemes have a “signature” technology which is the ultimate yardstick. If you have technology X, then you are tech level Y. The signature technology in a tech level rating system says as much about the people devising the system as it does about the cultures described. Archaeologists once classified Earth cultures by their artifacts, giving rise to the system of Stone, Bronze, and Iron Age. This works for archaeologists because they learn about cultures by examining things left in middens and tombs. By contrast, the Russian astronomer Kardashev classified civilizations by energy output, because energy emissions are what astronomers can detect. A culture interested in trade would rate civilizations by what they can make, while an aggressive conquering empire would be interested in the military potential of alien planets. Frequently space flight or interstellar travel are major demarcations in tech level. Sometimes a system combines two or more signature technologies for higher resolution.

Creating A Tech Scale

     Gamemasters devising a tech scale need to make three decisions:
  • Will the scale be narrow or broad?
  • What will the signature technologies be?
  • How will the levels be identified and/or labeled?

Alternate Tech Paths

     Human beings invented sailing ships before gunpowder, balloons before the germ theory of disease, and steam power before rocketry. But there’s no reason things had to happen in that order. The Greek scientists of Alexandria devised toys which contained all the principles of steam power almost two millennia before James Watt. An Egyptian doctor might have mixed saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal thousands of years before the Chinese invented gunpowder. Hot-air balloons were possible a thousand years before the Montgolfier Brothers.
     Gamemasters can have a lot of fun mixing and matching technologies. Early development of steam power allows naval battles between steam-powered Roman galleys firing catapults at each other. Early ballooning lets one have knights, castles, and aerial reconaissance. But don’t forget that some technologies depend on others — germ theory requires microscopes, airplanes need internal-combustion motors, and submarines aren’t practical until they can use electric batteries.
     More exotic alternate technology paths could skip entire areas of knowledge — one common way to make an alien civilization alien is to give them a technology based on biology rather than inanimate materials and machinery. Instead of making a device to do something, they would breed an organism for it. Or maybe the aliens lack some device common on Earth. H.G. Wells’s Martians, for example, didn’t have the wheel.

Varying Tech Paths

     Within a given civilization, it’s entirely possible for the tech levels to vary from place to place. For example, the most advanced nations or regions on a particular planet might have Tech Level Theta devices, whereas less advanced or more isolated locations might only have reached Tech Level Delta. Similarly, Kalidar IV might possess extremely advanced technology, while Haroldson’s Planet is much less developed technologically. Not only is this realistic, it’s dramatic — it provides the GM with a lot of potential story and character hooks, all centered around the issue of why the differences exist. Do the Tech Level Theta regions actively oppress their neighbors, preventing technological development from occurring? Are those areas inhabited by two different species, with the more advanced imposing a technology embargo on itself to keep from interfering with the other? Has Kalidar IV historically been a haven for scientists and free thinkers, while Haroldson’s Planet persecutes them... or is Haroldson’s Planet a young colony on the fringes of the Galactic Commonwealth, whereas Kalidar IV is a Commonwealth core world?
     Nor do tech levels have to be uniform from one type of technology to another. Ordinarily advances in one field tend to lead to advances in other fields, so that technology progresses in a broadly uniform sort of way. But that’s not inevitable. A civilization could have, for example, Tech Level 15 computers and communications equipment, but only Tech Level 10 weapons. Again, the intriguing question is why this state of affairs exists. By considering and answering that question, the GM and players can develop the setting further, creating more opportunities for adventures and enjoyable characters.

Obsolete And Advanced Technology

     Often technologies introduced at an earlier tech level remain in use for long periods. Humans still use automatic pistols designed before 1900 (and still manufacture some, with minor improvements). Axes and hammers are among the earliest known tools, and are still available at the hardware store. In general, characters get no penalty using equipment from an earlier tech level. There are exceptions to this: some technologies become so obsolete that characters accustomed to a more advanced tech landscape are completely unfamiliar with them. Firemaking is a good example — until the invention of matches just about everyone could kindle a fire with flint and steel; now it’s something to study in wilderness-survival courses or historical reenactment workshops.

From STAR HERO by James Cambias and Steven S. Long (2002)

(ed note: our hero Jason dinAlt has been marooned on an old Terran colony which had fallen into a dark ages and is slowly climbing its way up the tech levels. Though they do have a regrettable tendency to do things in the most inefficient manner possible. There are various clans, each with a monopoly on some technological advance whose secret they guard with their lives.)

Here was one of the ĉaroj (Esperanto word for "car", "cart", or "chariot") that Ijale had told him about: there could be no doubt of it. He could now understand how, to her uneducated eye, there could exist an uncertainty as to whether the thing was an animal or not. The vehicle was a good ten meters long, and was shaped roughly like a boat; it bore on the front a large and obviously false animal head covered with fur, and resplendent with rows of carved teeth and glistening crystal eyes. Hide coverings and not very realistic legs were hung on the thing, surely not enough camouflage to fool a civilized six-year-old.

This sort of disguise might be good enough to take in the ignorant savages, but the same civilized child would recognize this as a vehicle as soon as he saw the six large wheels underneath. They were cut with deep treads and made from some resilient-looking substance. No motive power was visible, but Jason almost hooted with joy at the noticeable smell of burnt fuel. This crude-looking contrivance had some artificial source of power, which might be the product of a local industrial revolution, or might have been purchased from off-world traders.

A post projected from the front of the deck, and one of the men fitted what could only be a tiller handle over the squared top of it. If this monolithic apparatus steered with the front pair of wheels it must be driven with the rear ones, so Jason flopped around on the deck until he could look towards the stern. A cabin, the width of the deck, was situated here, windowless and with a single inset door fitted with a grand selection of locks and bolts. Any doubt that this was the engine room was dispelled by the black metal smokestack that rose up through the cabin roof.

'We are leaving," Edipon screeched, and waved his thin arms in the air. "Bring in the entranceway. Narsisi, stand forward to indicate the way to the ĉaroj. Now—all pray as I go into the shrine to induce the sacred powers to move us towards Putl'ko." He started towards the cabin, then stopped to point to one of the club bearers. "Erebo, you lazy sod, did you remember to fill the watercup of the gods this time, for they grow thirsty?"

"I filled it, I filled it," Erebo muttered, chewing on a looted kreno. Preparations made, Edipon went into the recessed doorway and pulled a concealing curtain over it. There was much clanking and rattling as the locks and bolts were opened and he let himself inside. Within a few minutes a black cloud of greasy smoke rolled out of the smokestack and was whipped away by the wind. Almost an hour passed before the sacred powers were ready to move, and they announced their willingness to proceed by screaming and blowing their white breath up in the air. Four of the slaves screamed counterpoint and fainted, while the rest looked as if they would be happier dead.

Jason had had some experience with primitive machines before, so the safety valve on the boiler came as no great surprise. From the amount of smoke and the quantity of steam escaping from under the stern he didn't think the engine was very efficient, but primitive as it was it moved the ĉaroj and its load of passengers across the sand at a creeping yet steady pace.

(ed note: at the destination Jason is harnessed to a sort of pump along with the rest of the slaves.)

Jason turned his attention to the crude mechanism they were powering. A vertical shaft from the capstan turned a creaking wooden wheel that set a series of leather belts in motion. Some of them vanished through openings into a large stone building, while the strongest strap of all turned the rocker arm of what could only be a counterbalanced pump. This all seemed like a highly inefficient way to go about pumping water, since there must be natural springs and lakes somewhere around. The pungent smell that filled the yard was hauntingly familiar, and Jason had just reached the conclusion that water couldn't be the object of their labors when a throaty gurgling came from the standpipe of the pump and a thick black stream bubbled out.

"Petroleum—of course!" Jason said out loud.

This was the secret of the d'zertanoj, and the source of their power. Here in this guarded valley they labored to pump the crude oil that their masters used to power their big desert wagons. Or did they use crude oil for this? The petroleum was gurgling out in a heavy stream now, and was running down an open trough that disappeared through the wall into the same building as the turning belts. What barbaric devilishness went on in there? A thick chimney crowned the building and produced clouds of black smoke, while from the various openings in the wall came a tremendous stench that threatened to lift the top off his head.

     It was time for the hard sell. "You had better hear me—because I know that what comes out first is best. (in oil refining, the first fluid that comes out is gasoline or petrol. The fluids that come next (kerosene, diesel, and fuel oil) are inferior to gasoline)
     Jason's words were without meaning to the slaves as well as to the overseer, but their impact on Edipon was as dramatic as if he had stepped on a hot coal. He shuddered to a halt and wheeled about, and even at this distance Jason could see that a sickly grey tone had replaced the normal brown color of his skin.
     "What was that you said?" He hurled the words at Jason while his fingers half plucked a knife from his belt.
     "You heard what I said—and I don't think you want me to repeat it in front of all these strangers. I know what happens here because I come from a place far away where we do this kind of thing all the time. I can help you. I can show you how to get more of the best, and how to make your ĉaroj work better. Just try me. Only unchain me from this bar first and let's get to some place private where we can have a nice chat."

     "Not at all. It is science, though many times confused as being the same thing. I'll prove my point. You know that I could never have been inside of your mysterious building out there, and I imagine you can be sure no one has told me its secrets. Yet I'll bet that I can describe fairly accurately what is in there—not from seeing the machinery, but from knowing what must be done to oil in order to get the products you need. You want to hear?"
     'Proceed," Edipon said, sitting on a corner of the table and balancing the knife loosely in his palm.

     "I don't know what you call it, the device, but in the trade it is a pot still used for fractional distillation. Your crude oil runs into a tank of some kind, and you pipe it from there to a retort, some big vessel that you can seal airtight. Once it is closed, you light a fire under the thing and try to get all the oil to an even temperature. A gas rises from the oil and you take it off through a pipe and run it through a condenser, probably more pipe with water running over it. Then you put a bucket under the open end of the pipe and out of it drips the juice that you burn in your ĉaroj to make them move."

     Edipon's eyes opened wider and wider while Jason talked, until they seemed almost bulging from his head. "Demon!" he screeched, and tottered towards Jason with the knife extended. "You couldn't have seen, not through stone walls. Only my family have seen, no others—I'll swear to that!"
     "Keep cool, Edipon. I told you that we have been doing this stuff for years in my country. I'm not out to steal your secrets. In fact, they are pretty small potatoes where I come from, where every farmer has a still for cooking up his own mash and saving on taxes. I'll bet I can even put in some improvements for you, sight unseen. How do you monitor the temperature on your cooking brew? Do you have thermometers?"
     "What are thermometers?" Edipon asked.

     "That's what I thought. I can see where your bootleg joy-juice is going to take a big jump in quality, if you have anyone here who can do some simple glass-blowing. Though it might be easier to rig up a coiled bi-metallic strip. You're trying to boil off your various fractions, and unless you keep an even and controlled temperature you are going to have a mixed brew. The thing you want for your engines are the most volatile fractions, the liquids that boil off first, like gasoline and benzene. After that you raise the temperature and collect kerosene for your lamps, and so forth right on down the line until you have a nice mass of tar left to pave your roads with. How does that sound to you?"

     Edipon had forced himself into calmness, though a jumping muscle in his cheek betrayed his inner tension. "What you have described is the truth, though you were wrong on some small things. But I am not interested in your thermometer nor in improving our water-of-power. It has been good enough for my family for generations and it is good enough for me."
     "I suppose you think that line is original?"

     "But there is something that you might be able to do that would bring you rich rewards," Edipon went on. "You have seen our ĉaroj and ridden on one, and seen me go into the shrine to intercede with the sacred powers to make us move. Can you tell me what power moves the ĉaroj?"
     "I hope this is the final exam, Edipon, because you are stretching my powers of extrapolation. Stripping away the 'shrines' and 'sacred powers,' I would say that you go into the engine room to do a piece of work with very little praying involved. There could be a number of ways of moving those vehicles, but let's think of the simplest. This is top of the head now, so no penalties if I miss any of the fine points. Internal combustion is out. I doubt if you have the technology to handle it, plus the fact there was a lot of do about the water tank and it took you almost an hour to get under way. That sounds as if you were getting up a head of steam—The safety valve! I forgot about that.
     "So it is steam. You go in, lock the door, of course, then open a couple of valves until the fuel drips into the firebox, then you light it. Maybe you have a pressure gauge, or maybe you just wait until the safety valve pops to tell you if you have a head of steam. Which can be dangerous, since a sticking valve could blow the whole works right over the mountain. Once you have the steam, you crack a valve to let it into the cylinders and get the thing moving. After that you just enjoy the trip, of course making sure that the water is feeding to your boiler all right, that your pressure stays up, your fire is hot enough, all your bearings are lubricated, and the rest…"

     "Do you know what you have done?" Edipon asked excitedly. "Do you know what you have said? I don't know if you are right or not; I have never seen the inside of one of the Appsalan devil-boxes. You know more about their—what do you call it?—engine, than I do. I have only spent my life tending them and cursing the people of Appsala who keep the secret from us. But you will reveal it to us! We will build our own engines, and if they want water-of-power they will have to pay dearly for it."

(ed note: Putl'ko has a monopoly on the creation of gasoline (water-of-power), but has no idea how the ĉaroj steam engines operate. The Appsalans have a monopoly on that.)

     "Look at them!" Eclipon exclaimed, and pulled at his nose. 'The finest and most beautiful of constructions, striking fear into our enemies' hearts, carrying us fleetly across the sands, bearing on their backs immense loads, and only three of the damned things are able to move."
     "Engine trouble?" Jason asked lightly.
     Edipon cursed and fumed under his breath, and led the way to an inner courtyard where stood four immense black boxes painted with death heads, splintered bones, fountains of blood, and cabalistic symbols, all of a sinister appearance.
     "Those swine in Appsala take our water-of-power and give nothing in return. Oh yes, they let us use their engines, but after running for a few months the cursed things stop and will not go again, then we must bring them back to the city to exchange for a new one, and pay again and again."

     "A nice racket," Jason said, looking at the sealed covering on the engines. "Why don't you just crack into them and fix them yourself? They can't be very complex."
     "That is death!" Edipon gasped. "We have tried that, in my father's father's day, for we are not superstitious like the slaves, and we know that these are man-made not god-made. However, the tricky serpents of Appsala hide their secrets with immense cunning. If any attempt is made to break the covering, horrible death leaks out and fills the air. Men who breathe the air die, and even those who are only touched by it develop immense blisters and die in pain. The men of Appsala laughed when this happened to our people, and after that they raised the price even higher."
     Jason circled one of the boxes, examining it with interest. The thing was higher than his head and almost twice as long. A heavy shaft emerged through openings on opposite sides, probably the power takeoff for the wheels. Through an opening in the side he could see inset handles and two small colored disks, and above these were three funnel-shaped openings painted like mouths. By standing on tiptoe, Jason could look on top, but there was only a flanged, sooty opening there that must be for attaching a smokestack. There was only one more opening, a smallish one in the rear, and no other controls on the garish container.

     "I'm beginning to get the picture, but you will have to tell me how you work the controls."
     "Death before that!" Narsisi shouted. "Only my family—"
     'Will you shut up!" Jason shouted back. "Remember? You're not allowed to browbeat the help any more. There are no secrets here. Not only that, but I probably know more about this thing than you do, just by looking at it. Oil, water, and fuel go in these three openings, you poke a light in somewhere, probably in that smoky hole under the controls, and open one of those valves for fuel supply; another one is to make the engine go slower and faster, and the third is for your water feed. The disks are indicators of some kind."
     "It is as you say," Edipon said. "The mouths must always be filled, and woe betide if they go empty; for the powers will halt, or worse. Fire goes in here, as you guessed, and when the green finger (pressure gage) comes forward this lever may be turned for motion (engage the gearbox). The next is for great speed, or for going slow (shifting from low gear to high gear). The very last is under the sign of the red finger, which when it points indicates need (low water in the boiler indicator), and the handle (boiler water feed) must be turned and held turned until the finger retires. White breath comes from the opening in back. That is all there is."

     "About what I expected," Jason muttered, and examined the container wall, rapping it with his knuckles until it boomed. "They give you the minimum of controls to run the thing, so you won't learn anything about the basic principles involved. Without the theory, you would never know what the handles control, or that the green indicator comes out when you have operating pressure, and the red one when the water level is low in the boiler. Very neat. And the whole thing sealed up in a can and booby-trapped in case you have any ideas of going into business for yourself. The cover sounds as if it is doublewalled, and from your description I would say that it has one of the (WARNING next two links have disturbing images. Vesicant means "blister agent" and they are not kidding) vesicant war gases, like mustard gas, sealed inside there in liquid form. Anyone who tries to cut their way in will quickly forget their ambitions after a dose of that. Yet there must be a way to get inside the case and service the engine; they aren't just going to throw them away after a few months' use. And considering the level of technology displayed by this monstrosity, I should be able to find the tricks and get around any other built-in traps. I think I'll take the job."

"Really primitive," Jason sneered, and he kicked at the boxful of clumsy hand-forged tools. The work was of the crudest, the product of a sort of neolithic machine age. The distilling retort (which separates gasoline from petroleum) had been laboriously formed from sheet copper and clumsily riveted together. It leaked mightily, as did the soldered seams on the hand-formed pipe. Most of the tools were blacksmith's tongs and hammers for heating and beating out shapes on the anvil. The only things that gladdened Jason's heart were the massive drill press and lathe that worked off the slave-power drive belts. In the tool holder of the lathe was clamped a chip of some hard mineral that did a good enough job of cutting the forged iron and low-carbon steel. Even more cheering was the screw-thread advance on the cutting head, which was used to produce the massive nuts and bolts that secured the ĉaroj wheels to their shafts.

     The concealing hood (covering the ĉaroj steam engine) was made of thin metal that could not hide many secrets. He carefully scratched away some of the paint and discovered a crimped and soldered joint where the sides met, but no other revealing marks. After some time spent tapping all over with his ear pressed to the metal, he was sure that the hood was just what he had thought it was when he first examined the thing: a double-walled metal container filled with liquid. Puncture it and you were dead. It was there merely to hide the secrets of the engine, and served no other function. Yet it had to be passed to service the steam engine—or did it? The construction was roughly cubical, and the hood covered only five sides. What about the sixth, the base?
     "Now you're thinking, Jason," he said to himself, and knelt down to examine it. A wide flange, apparently of cast iron, projected all around, and was penetrated by four large bolt holes. The protective casing seemed to be soldered to the base, but there must be stronger concealed attachments, for it would not move even after he carefully scratched away some of the solder at the base. Therefore the answer had to be on the sixth side.

     Jason dug channels beneath it and forced them under. When this was done he took turns with Mikah in digging out the sand beneath, until the engine stood over a pit, supported only by the poles. Jason let himself down and examined the bottom of the machine. It was smooth and featureless.
     Once more he scratched away the paint with careful precision, until it was cleared around the edges. Here the solid metal gave way to solder and he picked at this until he discovered that a piece of sheet metal had been soldered at the edges and fastened to the bedplate. "Very tricky, these Appsalanoj," he said to himself, and attacked the solder with a knife blade. When one end was loose he slowly pulled the sheet of metal away, making sure that there was nothing attached to it, and that it had not been booby-trapped in any way. It came off easily enough and clanged down into the pit. The revealed surface was smooth hard metal.

     The following morning, under the frightened gaze of his guards, Jason tackled the underside of the baseplate. He had been thinking about it a good part of the night, and he put his theories to the test at once. By pressing hard on a knife he could make a good groove in the metal. It was not as soft as the solder, but seemed to be some simple alloy containing a good percentage of lead. What could it be concealing? Probing carefully with the point of the knife, he covered the bottom in a regular pattern. The depth of the metal was uniform except in two spots where he found irregularities; they were on the midline of the rectangular base, and equidistant from the ends and sides. Picking and scraping, he uncovered two familiar-looking shapes, each as big as his head.
     "Why—big nuts, of course. Threaded on the ends of bolts. But they are so big…"
     "They would have to be if they hold the entire metal case on. I think we are getting very close now to the mystery of how to open the engine—and this is the time to be careful. I still can't believe it is as easy as this to crack the secret. I'm going to whittle a wooden template of the nut, then have a wrench made. While I'm gone you stay down here and pick all the metal off the bolt and out of the screw threads. We can think this thing through for a while, but sooner or later I'm going to have to take a stab at turning one of those nuts. And I find it very hard to forget about that mustard gas."

     Making the wrench put a small strain on the local technology, and all of the old men who enjoyed the title of Masters of the Still went into consultation over it. One of them was a fair blacksmith, and after a ritual sacrifice and a round of prayers he shoved a bar of iron into the charcoal and Jason pumped the bellows until it glowed white hot. With much hammering and cursing, it was laboriously formed into a sturdy open-end wrench with an offset head to get at the countersunk nuts. Jason made sure that the opening was slightly undersized, then took the untempered wrench to the work site and filed the jaws to an exact fit. After being reheated and quenched in oil he had the tool that he hoped would do the job.
     Edipon must have been keeping track of the work progress, for he was waiting near the engine when Jason returned with the completed wrench.
     "I have been under," he announced, "and have seen the nuts that the devilish Appsalanoj have concealed within solid metal. Who would have suspected! It still seems to me impossible that one metal could be hidden within another. How could that be done?"
     "Easy enough. The base of the assembled engine was put into a form and the molten covering metal poured into it. It must have a much lower melting point than the steel of the engine, so there would be no damage. They just have a better knowledge of metal technology in the city, and counted upon your ignorance."
     "What do you do next?"
     "I take off the nuts and when I do there is a good chance that the poison-hood will be released and can simply be lifted off."
     "It is too dangerous for you to do. The fiends may have other traps ready when the nut is turned. I will send a strong slave to turn them while we watch from a distance. His death will not matter."
     "I'm touched by your concern for my health, but as much as I would like to take advantage of the offer, I cannot. I've been over the same ground and reached the reluctant conclusion that this is one job of work that I have to do myself. Taking off those nuts looks entirely too easy, and that's what makes me suspicious. out for any more trickery at the same time—and that is something that only I can do. Now I suggest you withdraw with the troops to a safer spot."

     Jason spat on his palms, controlled a slight shiver, and slid into the pit. The wrench fitted neatly over the nut, he wrapped both hands around it, and, bracing his leg against the pit wall, began to pull.
     And stopped. Three turns of thread on the bolt projected below the nut, scraped clean of metal by the industrious Mikah. Something about them looked very wrong, though he didn't know quite what. But suspicion was enough.
     "Mikah," he shouted, "Nip over to the petroleum works and get me one of their bolts threaded with a nut—any size, it doesn't matter."
     Jason warmed his hands by the stove until Mikah returned with the oily bolt. Back in the pit, he held it up next to the protruding section of Appsalan bolt and almost shouted with joy. The threads on the engine bolt were canted at a slightly different angle: where one ran up, the other ran down. The Appsalan threads had been cut in reverse, with a left-hand thread.
     Throughout the galaxy there existed as many technical and cultural differences as there were planets, but one of the few things they all had in common, inherited from their terrestrial ancestors, was a uniformity of thread. Jason had never thought about it before, but when he mentally ran through his experiences on different planets he realized that they were all the same. Screws went into wood, bolts went into threaded holes, and nuts all went onto bolts when you turned them with a clockwise motion. Counterclockwise removed them. In his hand was the crude d'zertano nut and bolt, and when he tried it it moved in the same manner. But the engine bolt did not: it had to be turned clockwise to remove it.

     Dropping the nut and bolt, he placed the wrench on the massive engine bolt and slowly applied pressure in what felt like the completely wrong direction—as if he were tightening, not loosening. It gave slowly, first a quarter-turn, then a half-turn. Bit by bit the projecting threads vanished, until they were level with the surface of the nut. It turned easily now, and within a minute it fell into the pit. He threw the wrench after it and scrambled out. Standing at the edge, he carefully sniffed the air, ready to run at the slightest smell of (poison) gas. There was nothing.
     The second nut came off as easily as the first, and with no ill effects. Jason pushed a sharp chisel between the upper case and the baseplate where he had removed the solder, and when he leaned on it the case shifted slightly, held down only by its own weight.

     "There is still the little matter of taking it off," he told them, "and I'm sure that grabbing and heaving is the wrong way. That was my first idea, but the people who assembled that thing had some bad trouble in store for anyone who tightened those nuts instead of loosening them. Until we find out what that is, we are going to tread very lightly. Do you have any big blocks of ice around here, Edipon? It is winter now, isn't it?"
     "Ice? Winter?" Edipon mumbled, "Of course it is winter. But what do you want ice for?"
     "You get it and I'll show you. Have it cut in nice flat blocks that I can stack I'm not going to lift off the hood—I'm going to drop the engine out from underneath it!"
     By the time the slaves had brought the ice down from the distant lakes Jason had rigged a strong wooden frame flat on the ground around the engine and pushed sharpened metal wedges under the hood; then he had secured the wedges to the frame. Now, if the engine was lowered into the pit, the hood would stay above, supported by the wedges. The ice would take care of this. Jason built a foundation of ice under the engine and then slipped out the supporting bars. As the ice slowly melted, the engine would be gently lowered into the pit.
     The weather remained cold, and the ice refused to melt until Jason had the pit ringed with smoking oil stoves. Water began to run down into the pit and Mikah went to work bailing it out, while the gap between the hood and the baseplate widened. The melting continued for the rest of the day and almost all of the night. Red-eyed and exhausted, Jason and Mikah supervised the soggy sinking, and when the d'zertanoj returned at dawn the engine rested safely in a pool of mud on the bottom of the pit: the hood was off.

     "They're tricky devils over there in Appsala, but Jason dinAlt wasn't born yesterday," he exulted. "Do you see that crock sitting there on top of the engine?" He pointed to a sealed container of thick glass, the size of a small barrel, filled with an oily greenish liquid; it was clamped down tightly with padded supports. "That's the booby-trap. The nuts I took off were on the threaded ends of two bars that held the hood on, but instead of being fastened directly to the hood they were connected by a crossbar that rested on top of that jug. If either nut was tightened instead of being loosened the bar would have bent and broken the glass. I'll give you exactly one guess as to what would have happened then."
     "The poison liquid!"
     "None other. And the double-walled hood is filled with it too. I doubt if the engine has many other surprises in store, but I'll be careful as I work on it."

     "You can fix it? You know what is wrong with it?" Edipon was trembling with joy.
     "In fact, one look was enough to convince that the job will be as easy as stealing krenoj from a blind man. The engine is as inefficient and clumsy in construction as your petroleum still. If you people put one tenth of the energy into research and improving your product as you do into hiding it from the competition, you would all be flying jets."
     The first engine proved to have a burnt-out bearing and Jason rebuilt it by melting down the original bearing metal and casting it in position. When he unbolted the head of the massive single cylinder he shuddered at the clearance around the piston; he could fit his fingers into the opening between the piston and the cylinder wall. By introducing cylinder rings, he doubled the compression and power output. When Edipon saw the turn of speed the rebuilt engine gave his ĉaroj, he hugged Jason to his bosom and promised him the highest reward. This turned out to be a small piece of meat every day to relieve the monotony of the kreno meals, and a doubled guard to make sure that his valuable property did not escape.

     Jason went out past the still silent sentry and headed back towards the refinery station. Instead of a club or a dagger, he was armed with a well-tempered broadsword that he had managed to manufacture under the noses of the guards. They had examined everything he brought from the worksite, since he had been working in the evenings in his room, but they ignored everything he manufactured as being beyond their comprehension. This primordial mental attitude had been of immense value, for in addition to the sword he carried a sack of molotails, a simple weapon of assault whose origin was lost in pre-history. Small crocks were filled with the most combustible of the refinery's fractions and were wrapped around with cloth that he had soaked in the same liquid. The stench made him dizzy, and he hoped that they would repay his efforts when the time came. He could only hope, for they were completely untried. In use, one lit the outer covering and threw them. The crockery burst on impact and the fuse ignited the contents. Theoretically.

(ed note: Jason escapes with his companions, helped by a slave who is a former mercenary. As fitting his profession, the mercenary proves to be very mercenary and betrays Jason to be captured by the Perssonoj clan. )

     "But they aren't getting my hand-made, super-charged steamobile!" he added with sudden vehemence, snatching up the crossbow. "Back, both of you, far back. They'll make a slave of me for my talents, but no free samples go with it. If they want one of these hot-red steam wagons they are going to have to pay for it!"
     Jason lay down fiat at the maximum range of the crossbow and his third quarrel hit the boiler. It went up with a most satisfactory bang and small pieces of metal and wood rained down all around. In the distance he heard shouting and the barking of dogs.

     (the mercenary said) "I have fought for the Perssonoj and they knew me, and I saw the Hertug himself and he believed me. The Perssonoj (clan) are very powerful in Appsala and have many powerful secrets, but they are not as powerful as the Trozelligoj (clan), who have the secret of the ĉaroj and the jetilo. I knew I could ask any price of the Perssonoj if I brought them the secret of the ĉaroj."

(Jason and companions are placed in the hold of a seagoing ship with the other slaves, and the ship sails to the big city Appsala containing all the warring clans. Jason watches through a knot-hole and gives sarcastic commentary)

     "Our voyage is nearing its close, and before us opens up the romantic and ancient city of Appsala, famed for its loathsome customs, murderous natives, and archaic sanitation facilities, of which the watery channel this ship is now entering seems to be the major cloaca. There are islands on both sides, the smaller ones covered with hovels so decrepit that in comparison the holes in the grounds of the humblest animals are as palaces, while the larger islands seem to be forts, each one walled and barbicaned, and presenting a warlike face to the world. There couldn't be that many forts in a town this size, so I am led to believe that each one is undoubtedly the guarded stronghold of one of the tribes, groups, or clans that our friend Judas told us about. Look on these monuments to ultimate selfishness and beware: this is the end product of the system that begins with slaveholders like the former Ch'aka with their tribes of kreno crackers, and builds up through familial hierarchies like the d'zertanoj, and reaches its zenith of depravity behind those strong walls. It is still absolute power that rules absolutely, each man out for all that he can get, the only way to climb being over the bodies of others, and all physical discoveries and inventions being treated as private and personal secrets to be hidden and used only for personal gain. Never have I seen human greed and selfishness carried to such extremes, and I admire Homo sapiens' capacity to follow through on an idea, no matter how it hurts."

     "But I must first know what is the specialty of your clan, if you know what I mean. For instance, the Trozelligoj make motors, and the d'zertanoj pump oil: what do your people do?"
     The Hertug thumped his chest. "We can talk across the width of the country, and always know where our enemies are. We can send magic to make light in a glass ball, or magic that will pluck the sword from an enemy's hand and drive terror into his heart."
     "It sounds as if your gang has the monopoly on electricity, which is good to hear. If you have some heavy forging equipment—"
     "Stop!" the Hertug interrupted. "Leave! Not the new slave, he stays here," he shouted when the soldiers seized Jason. The Hertug spoke to him again. "You used a sacred word. Who told it to you? Speak quickly, or you will be killed."
     "Didn't I tell you I knew everything? I can build a ĉaroj and, given a little time, I can improve on your electrical works, if your technology is on the same level as the rest of this planet."

     "Do you know what lies behind the forbidden portal?" the Hertug asked, pointing to a barred, locked, and guarded door at the other end of the room. "There is no way you can have seen what is there, but if you can tell me what lies beyond it I will know you are the wizard that you claim you are."
     "I have a very strange feeling that I have been over this ground once before." Jason sighed. "All right, here goes. You people here make electricity, maybe chemically, though I doubt if you would get enough power that way, so you must have a generator of some sort. That will be a big magnet, a piece of special iron that can pick up other iron, and you spin wire around fast next to it, and out comes electricity. You pipe this through copper wire to whatever devices you have—and they can't be very many. You say you talk across the country. I'll bet you don't talk at all, but send little clicks—I'm right, am I not?" The foot shuffling and the rising buzz from the adepts were sure signs that he was hitting close.
     "I have an idea for you: I think I'll invent the telephone. Instead of the old clickety-clack, how would you like to really talk across the country? Speak into a gadget here, and have your voice come out at the far end of the wire?"
     The Hertug's piggy little eyes blinked greedily. "It is said that in the old days this could be done, but we have tried and have failed. Can you do this thing?"
     "I can—if we can come to an agreement first. But before I make any promises I have to see your equipment."

     This brought mutters of complaint about secrecy, but in the end avarice won over taboo and the door to the holy of holies was opened for Jason. It was all Jason could do to keep himself from breaking into contemptuous laughter.
     A rotating shaft—undoubtedly slave-powered—entered the large chamber through the far wall and turned a ramshackle collection of belts and pulleys that eventually hooked up to a crude and ugly machine that rattled and squeaked and shook the floor under their feet. At first sight it baffled Jason, until he examined its components and realized what it was.
     "What else should I have expected?" he said to himself. "If there are two ways of doing anything, leave it to these people to use the worst one."
     The final, cartwheel-sized pulley was fixed to a wooden shaft that rotated at an impressive speed, except when one of the belts jumped out of place, which was something that occurred with monotonous regularity. This happened while Jason was watching, and the shaft instantly slowed so that he could see that iron rings studded with smaller, U-shaped pieces of iron, were fixed all along its length. These were half hidden inside a birdcage of looped wires that was suspended about the shaft. The whole thing looked like an illustration from a bronze age edition of First Steps in Electricity.

     "Does not your soul cringe in awe before these wonders?" the Hertug asked, noticing Jason's dropped jaw and glassy eye.
     "It cringes all right," Jason told him. "But only in pain from that ill-conceived collection of mechanical misconceptions."
     "Blasphemer!" the Hertug shrieked. "Slay him!"
     "Wait a minute!" Jason said, holding tight to the dagger arms of the two nearest sciuloj and interposing their bodies between his body and the others' blades. "Don't misunderstand. That's a great generator you have there, a seventh wonder of the world—though most of the wonder is how it manages to produce any electricity. A tremendous invention, years ahead of its time. However, I might be able to suggest a few minor modifications that would produce more electricity with less work. I suppose that you are aware that an electric current is generated in a wire when a magnetic field is moved across it?"
     "I do not intend to discuss theology with a non-believer," the Hertug said coldly.
     "Theology or science, call it what you will, the answers still come out the same. But did you ever stop to think that you could get an electrical current just as easily by moving the wire through the magnetic field, instead of the other way around? You can get the same current flow that way with about a tenth of the work."
     "We have always done it this way, and what was good enough for our ancestors—"
     "I know, I know, don't finish the quote. I seem to have heard it before on this planet."

     With the threat removed for the moment, Jason examined the large, ungainly apparatus that filled the far end of the room, this time making some attempt to control his horrified reactions. "I suppose that yon sacred wonder is your holy telegraph?"
     "None other," the Hertug said reverently. Jason shuddered.
     Copper wires came down from the ceiling above and terminated in a clumsily wound electromagnet positioned close to the flat iron shaft of a pendulum. When a current surged through the electromagnet it would attract the shaft; and when the current was turned off, the weight on the end of the pendulum would drag it back to somewhere near the vertical. A sharp metal scriber was fixed to the bottom of the weight, and the point of the scriber was dug into the wax coating of a long strip of copper. This strip ran in grooves so that it moved at right angles to the pendulum's swing, dragged forward by a weight-powered system of meshed wooden gears.
     While Jason watched, the rattling mechanism jerked into motion. The electromagnet buzzed, the pendulum jerked, the needle drew an incision across the wax, the gears squeaked, and the cord fastened to a hole in the end of the strip began to draw it forwards. Attentive sciuloj stood ready to put another wax-coated strip into position when the first one was finished.
     Close by, completed message strips were being made legible by pouring red liquid over them. This ran off the waxen surface but was trapped by the needle-scratched grooves. A shaky red line appeared running the length of the strips, with V-shaped extensions wherever the scribing needle had been deflected. These were carried to a long table where the coded information was copied off onto slates. Everything considered, it was a slow, clumsy, inept method of transmitting information. Jason rubbed his hands together.

     "Oh, Hertug of all the Perssonoj," he intoned, "I have looked on your holy wonders and stand in awe, indeed I do. Far be it for a mere mortal to improve on the works of the gods, at least not right now, but it is within my power to pass on to you certain other secrets of electricity that the gods have imparted to me."
     "Such as what?" the Hertug asked, eyes slitted.
     "Such as the—let's see, what is the Esperanto word for it—such as the akumulatoro (Esperanto for "accumulator"). Do you know of this?"
     "The word is mentioned in some of the older holy writings, but that is all we know of it." The Hertug was licking his lips now.
     "Then get ready to add a new chapter, because I'm going to provide you with a Leyden jar, free and gratis, along with complete instructions on how to make more. This is a way of putting electricity in a bottle, just as if it were water (capacitor). Then later we can go on to more sophisticated batteries. I'll need some special materials that I don't see here. A wide-mouthed glass jar and a good supply of tin."

     In theory, a Leyden jar is simple enough to manufacture—if all the materials are on hand. Getting the correct materials was Jason's biggest problem. The Perssonoj did no glass blowing themselves, but bought everything they needed from the Vitristoj clan, who labored at their secret furnaces. These glass blowers produced a few stock-size bottles, buttons, drinking glasses, knobby plate glass, and half a dozen other items. None of their bottles could be adapted to this use, and they were horrified at Jason's suggestion that they produce a new bottle to his specifications. The offer of hard cash drained away most of their dismay, and after studying Jason's clay model they reluctantly agreed to produce a similar bottle for a staggering sum. The Hertug grumbled mightily, but finally he paid over the required number of stamped and punctured gold coins strung on a wire.
     "Have faith, and all will be well," Jason reassured him, and he returned to browbeating the metal workers, who suffered as they tried to hammer sheet tin into thin foil.
     "It has arrived," the Hertug announced, and he and all the sciuloj stood around mumbling suspiciously while the wrappings were removed from the glass jar.
     "Not too bad," Jason said, holding it up to the light to see how thick the sides were. "Except that this is the large twenty-liter economy size—about four times as big as the model I sent them."
     "For a large price a large jar," the Hertug said. "That is only right. Why do you complain? Do you fear failure?"
     "I fear nothing. It's just a lot more trouble to build a model this size. It can also be dangerous; these Leyden jars can take quite a charge."

     Ignoring the onlookers, Jason coated the jar inside and out with his lumpy tinfoil, stopping about two-thirds of the way up from the bottom. He then whittled a plug from guini, a rubber-like material that had good insulating qualities, and drilled a hole through it. The Perssonoj watched, mystified, as he pushed an iron rod through this hole, then attached a short iron chain to the longer end, and fixed a round iron ball to the shorter.
     "Finished," he announced.
     "But—what does it do?" the Hertug asked, puzzled.
     "I demonstrate." Jason pushed the plug into the wide mouth of the jar so that the chain rested on the inner lining of tinfoil. He pointed to the ball that projected from the top. "This is attached to the negative pole of your generator; electricity flows down through the rod and chain and is collected on the tin lining. We run the generator until the jar is full, then disconnect the input. The jar will then hold an electrical charge that we can draw off by hooking up to the ball. Understand?"
     "Madness!" one of the older sciuloj cackled, and averted the infection of insanity by rotating his forefinger next to his temple.
     "Wait and see," Jason said, with a calmness he did not feel. He had built the Leyden jar from a dim memory of a textbook illustration studied in his youth, and there was no guarantee the thing would work. He grounded the positive pole of the generator, then did the same with the outer coating of the jar by running a wire from it to a spike driven down through a cracked floor tile into the damp soil below.
     "Let her roll!" he shouted and stepped back, arms folded.
     The generator groaned and rotated, but nothing visible happened. He let it go on for several minutes, since he had no idea of its output or of the jar's capacity, and a lot depended on the results of this first experiment. Finally the sneering asides of the sciuloj grew louder, so he stepped forward and disconnected the jar with a flip of a dry stick.
     "Stop the generator; the work is done. The akumulatoro is filled brimful with the holy force of electricity." He pulled over the demonstration unit he had prepared, a row of the crude incandescent light bulbs wired in series. There ought to be enough of a charge in the Leyden jar to overcome the weak resistance of the carbon filaments and light them up. He hoped.

     "Blasphemy!" screeched the same elderly sciulo, shuffling forward. "It is sacred writ that the holy force can only flow when the road is complete, and when the road of flow is broken no force shall move. Yet this outlander dares tell us that holiness now resides in this jar to which but one wire was connected. Lies and blasphemy!"
     "I wouldn't do that if I were you…" Jason suggested to the oldster, who was now pointing to the ball on top of the Leyden jar.
     "There is no force here-there can be no force here…" His voice broke off suddenly as he waved his finger an inch from the ball. A fat blue spark snapped between his fingertip and the charged metal, and the sciulo screamed hoarsely and dropped to the floor. One of his fellows knelt to examine him, then turned his frightened gaze to the jar.
     "He is dead," he breathed.
     "You can't say I didn't warn him," Jason said, then decided to press hard while luck was on his side. "It was he who blasphemed!" Jason shouted, and the old men cringed away. "The holy force was stored in the jar, and he doubted and the force struck him dead. Doubt no more, or you will all meet the same fate! Our work as sciuloj," he added, giving himself a promotion from slavery, "is to harness the powers of electricity for the greater glory of the Hertug. Let this be a reminder, lest we ever forget." They eyed the body, shuffled backwards, and got the idea very clearly.
     "The holy force can kill," the Hertug said, smiling down at the corpse and dry-washing his hands. "This is indeed wonderful news. I always knew it could give shocks and cause burns, but never knew it held this great power. Our enemies will shrink before us."

     “When will this be completed?” the Hertug asked, poking at the parts spread over Jason’s workbench.
     “Tomorrow morning, though I work all night, oh Hertug. But even before it is finished I have another gift for you, a way to improve your telegraph system.”
     “It needs no improvement! It is as it was in our forefathers’ days, and—”
     “I’m not going to change anything; forefathers always know best, I agree. I’ll just give you a new operating technique. Look at this—” and he held out one of the metal strips with the scribed wax coating. “Can you read the message?”
     “Of course, but it takes great powers of concentration, for it is a deep mystery.”
     “Not that deep; in one look I divined all its horrible simplicity.”
     “You blaspheme!”
     “Not really. Look here: that’s a B, isn’t it—two jiggles from the magic pendulum?”
     The Hertug counted on his fingers. “It is a B, you are correct. But how can you tell?”
     Jason concealed his scorn. “It was hard to figure out, but all things are as an open book to me. B is the second letter in the alphabet, so it is coded by two strokes. C is three—still easy; but you end up with Z, needing twenty-six bashes at the sending key, which is just a nonsensical waste of time. When all you have to do is modify your equipment slightly in order to send two different signals—let’s be original and call one a ‘dot’ and the other a ‘dash.’ Now, using these two signals, a short and a long impulse, we can transcribe every letter of the alphabet in a maximum of four increments. Understand?”
     “There is a buzzing in my head, and it is difficult to follow…”
     “Sleep on it. In the morning my invention will be finished, and at that time I will demonstrate my code.”
     The Hertug left, muttering to himself, and Jason finished the last windings on the armature for his new generator.

     “What do you call it?” the Hertug asked, walking around the tall, ornate wooden box.
     “This is an All Hail the Hertug Maker, a new source of worship, respect, and finance for Your Excellency. It is to be placed in the temple, or your local equivalent, where the public will pay for the privilege of doing you homage. Observe: I am a loyal subject who enters the temple. I give a donation to the priest and grasp this handle that projects from the side, and turn.” He began cranking lustily and the sound of turning gears and a growing whine came from the cabinet. “Now watch the top.”
     Projecting from the upper surface of the cabinet were two curved metal arms that ended in copper spheres separated by an air space. The Hertug gasped and recoiled as a blue spark snapped across the gap.
     “That will impress the peasants, won’t it?” Jason said. “Now—observe the sparks and notice their sequence. First three short sparks, then three long ones, then three short ones again.”
     He stopped cranking and handed the Hertug a clearly inscribed sheet of vellum, a doctored version of the standard interstellar code. “Notice. Three dots stand for H and three dashes signify A. Therefore as long as this handle is turned the machine sends out H.A.H. in code, signifying Huraoj al Heriug, All hail the Hertug! An impressive device that will keep the priests busy and out of mischief and your loyal followers entertained. While at the same time it will cry your praises with the voice of electricity, over and over, night and day.”
     The Hertug turned the handle and watched the sparks with glowing eyes. “It shall be unveiled in the temple tomorrow. But there are sacred designs that must be inscribed on it first. Perhaps some gold…”
     “Jewels too, the richer—looking the better. People aren’t going to pay to work a holy hand-organ unless it looks impressive.”
     Jason listened happily as the sparks crackled out. They might be saying H.A.H. in the local code, but it would be S.O.S. to an offworlder. And any spaceship with a decent receiver that entered the atmosphere of this planet should pick up the broad-spectrum radio waves from the spark gap. There might even be one hearing the message now, turning the loop of the direction finder, zeroing in on the signal. If he only had a receiver he could hear their answering message, but it didn’t matter, for shortly he would hear the roar of their rockets as they dropped on Appsala.

(ed note: predictably Jason is kidnapped by another clan)

     "Silence! Death is at hand!"
     "Ekskremento!" (Esperanto for "excrement") Jason sneered. "Your masks and threats are of about the same quality as those of the desert slavers. Let's get down to facts. You have been collecting rumors about me and they have got you interested. You have heard about the supercharged ĉaroj, and spies have told you about the electronic prayer wheel in the temple—maybe more. It all sounded so good that you wanted me for yourselves, and you tried the foolproof Appsalan dodge of a little money in the right places. And here I am."
     "Do you know to whom you talk?" the masked figure on the far right asked in a high-pitched, shaking voice. Jason examined the speaker carefully.
     "The Mastreguloj? I've heard about you. You are supposed to be the witches and warlocks of this town, with fire that burns in water, smoke that will burn the lungs, water that will burn the flesh, and so forth. My guess is that you are the local equivalents of chemists; and though there aren't supposed to be very many of you, you are nasty enough to keep the other tribes frightened."
     "Do you know what this contains?" the man asked, holding up a glass sphere with some yellowish liquid in it.
     "I don't know, and I couldn't care less."
     "It contains the magic burning water that will sear you and char you in an instant if it touches—"
     "Oh, come off it! There's nothing in there but some common acid, probably sulphuric, because the other acids are made from it, and there is also the strong clue of rotten egg reek that fills this room."
     "Die!" the man shrieked, and hurled a glass sphere at Jason's head.
     "Thanks," Jason said, catching the thing neatly in midair with his free hand. He slipped it inside his clothes as he pulled the door open.

     "Your trusted captain sold you out to the competition, who wanted me to work for them, but I didn't accept. I didn't think too much of their outfit and I left before they got around to making an offer. But I brought a sample back with me." Jason pulled out the glass sphere of acid and the guards dropped back, screaming, and even the Hertug went white.
     "The burning water!" he gasped.
     "Exactly. And as soon as I get some lead it is going to become part of the wet cell battery I was busy inventing."

     "How would you like to own all that?" Jason asked.
     "Speak on." The Hertug's little eyes glittered.
     "I mentioned this before, but now I mean it—seriously. I am going to reveal to you every secret of every other clan on this damned planet. I'm going to show you how the d'zertanoj distill oil, how the Mastreguloj make sulphuric acid, how the Trozelligoj build engines. Then I'm going to improve your weapons of war, and introduce as many new ones as I can. I will make war so terrible that it will no longer be possible. Of course it will still go on, but your troops will always win. You'll wipe out the competition, one by one, starting with the weakest ones, until you will be the master of this city, then of the whole planet. The riches of a world will be yours, and your evenings will be enlivened by the horrible deaths you will mete out to your enemies. What do you say?"

     But he had very little time to notice it, for he was working long hours at both research and production, a constantly exhausting task. Pure research and production development were expensive, and when the bills mounted too high the Hertug scratched in his beard and mumbled about the good old days. Then Jason had to drop everything and produce a fresh miracle or two. The arc light was one; then the arc furnace, which helped with the metallurgical work and made the Hertug very happy, particularly when he found out how good it was for torture and fed a captured Trozelligo into it until he told them what they wanted to know. When this novelty palled, Jason introduced electroplating, which helped fill the treasury both through jewelry sales and counterfeiting.
     After opening the Mastreguloj glass sphere with elaborate precautions, Jason satisfied himself that it did contain sulphuric acid, and he constructed a heavy, but effective, storage battery. Still angry over the kidnapping, he led an attack on a Mastreguloj barge and captured a large supply of acid, as well as assorted other chemicals. These he was testing whenever he had the time. He had followed a number of dead-end trails, but had been forced to abandon them. The formula for gunpowder escaped him, and this depressed him, though it cheered his assistants who had been raking through old manure piles for supplies of saltpeter.
     He had more success with ĉaroj and steam engines, because of previous experience, and developed a lightweight, sturdy marine engine. In his spare moments he invented movable type, the telephone, and the loudspeaker—which, with the addition of the phonograph record, did wonders for the religious revenue in production of spirit voices. He also made a naval propeller to go with his engine, and was busily perfecting a steam catapult. For his own pleasure he had set up a still in his rooms, with which he manufactured a coarse but effective brandy.
     "All in all, things aren't going too badly," he said, lolling back in his upholstered easy chair and sipping a glass of his latest and best. It had been a warm day, and more than a bit choking with the effluvia that rose from the canals, but now the evening sea breeze was cool and sweet as it blew in through the open windows. Under his belt was a fine steak, cooked on a charcoal grill of his own invention, served with mashed krenoj and bread baked from flour ground in his recently invented mill. Ijale was singing in the kitchen as she cleaned up, and Mikah was industriously running a brush through the pipes of the still, clearing away the dregs of the last batch.
     "Look, we have here a static culture that is never going to change without a large charge of explosive put in the proper place. That's me. As long as knowledge is classified as an official secret, there will be no advance. There will probably be slight modifications and improvements within these clans as they work on their specialties, but nothing of any vital importance. I'm ruining all that. I'm letting our Hertug have the information possessed by every other tribe, plus a lot of gadgets they don't know about yet. This destroys the normal check and balance that keeps these warring mobs roughly equal, and if he runs his war right—meaning my way—he can pick them off one by one…"

     Because the steam engine and propeller had already been installed in a ship and tested inside the sea gate, finishing the warship did not take very long. It was mostly a matter of bolting on the iron plates he had designed to shield it down to the waterline. The plating was thicker at the bow, and he saw to it that heavier internal bracing was installed. At first he had thought to install the steam catapult on the warship, but then had decided against it. A simpler way was better. The catapult was fitted into a large, flat-bottomed barge, along with the boiler, tanks of fuel, and a selection of carefully designed missiles.
     First came the warship, the "Dreadnaught," with Jason and the Hertug on its armored bridge; this towed the barge. In line astern were a great variety of vessels of all sizes, loaded with the troops. The entire city knew what was happening and the canals were deserted, while the Trozelligoj fortress was sealed, barred, and waiting. Jason let go a blast of the steam whistle, well out of arrow range of the enemy walls, and the fleet reluctantly halted.
     "Why don't we attack?" the Hertug asked.
     "Because we have them in range, while they can't reach us. See." Immense, iron-headed spears plunged into the water a good thirty meters from the bow of the ship.
     "Jetilo (Esperanto for "throw" or "cast") arrows." The Hertug shuddered. "I've seen them pass through the bodies of seven men without being slowed."
     "Not this time. I'm about to show you the glories of scientific warfare."

     The fire from the jetiloj was no more effective than the shouting soldiers on the walls who were clashing swords on shields and hurling curses, and it soon stopped. Jason transferred to the barge and saw that it was anchored firmly, pointing its bow directly at the fortress. While the steam pressure was building up, he aimed the centerline of the catapult and took a guess at the elevation.
     The device was simple, but powerful, and he had high hopes for it. On the platform, which could be rotated and elevated, was mounted a single large steam cylinder with its piston connected directly to the short arm of a long lever. When steam was admitted to the cylinder, the short but immensely powerful stroke of the piston was turned by mechanical advantage into flailing speed at the far end of the arm. This whipped up and crashed into a padded crossarm and was stopped, but whatever load was placed in the cup on the end of the arm went speeding off through the air. The mechanism had been tested and worked perfectly, though no shots had yet been fired.
     "Full pressure," Jason called out to his technicians. "Load one of the stones into the cup." He had prepared a variety of missiles, all of them weighing the same in order to simplify ranging problems. While the weapon was being loaded he checked the flexible steam lines once more: they had been the hardest thing to manufacture, and they still had a tendency to leak under pressure and continued use.
     "Here goes!" he shouted, and pulled down on the valve.
     The piston drove out with a satisfactory speed, the arm whipped up and crashed resoundingly into the stop-while the stone went whistling away, a dwindling dot. All the Perssonoj cheered. But the cheering stopped when the stone kept on going, clearing the topmost turret of the keep by a good fifty meters, and vanished on the other side. The Trozelligoj burst into raucous cheering of their own when it splashed harmlessly into the canal on the far side.
     "Just a ranging shot," Jason said offhandedly. "A little less elevation and I'll drop one like a bomb into their courtyard."
     He cracked the exhaust valves and gravity drew the long arm back to the horizontal, at the same time returning the piston for the next shot. Jason carefully shut the valve and cranked on the elevation wheel. A stone was loaded and he fired again.
     This time only the Trozelligoj in the fortress cheered as the stone mounted almost straight up, then dropped to sink one of the attacking boats less than fifty meters from the barge.
     "I do not think much of your devilish machine," the Hertug said. He had come back to watch the firing.
     "There are always field problems," Jason answered through tight lips. "Just watch the next shot." He decided to abandon any more attempts at fancy high trajectories, and to let fly head-on, for the machine was far more powerful than he had estimated. Cranking furiously on the elevation wheel, he raised the rear of the catapult until the stone would leave the cup almost parallel with the water.
     "This is the shot that tells," he announced with much more conviction than he felt, and crossed the fingers of his free hand as he fired. The stone hummed away and hit just below the top of the crenellated wall. It blasted out a great chunk of masonry and utterly demolished the soldiers who had been standing there. There were no more cheers heard from the besieged Trozeliigoj.

     "They cower in fear!" the Hertug screamed exultantly. "Attack!"
     "Not quite yet." Jason explained patiently. "You're missing the whole point of siege weapons. We do as much damage to them as we can before attacking—it helps the odds." He gave the aiming wheel a turn and the next missile bit a piece out of the wall further along. "And we change ammunition too, just to keep them on the jump."
     When the stones had worked along the wall and were beginning to tear holes in the main building, Jason raised the sights a bit. "Load on a special," he ordered. These were oil-soaked bundles of rags weighted with stones and bound about with ropes.
     When the special was seated in the cup he ignited it himself and did not shoot until it was burning well. The rapid journey through the air fanned it into a roaring blaze that burst expansively on the thatched roof of the enemy keep, which began immediately to crackle and smoke. "We'll try a few more of those," Jason said, happily rubbing his hands together.

     When Jason reached the bridge of the "Dreadnaught" he saw that the clumsy-looking Trozelligoj side-wheeler had thrashed through the sea gate and was heading directly towards them. Jason had heard blood chilling descriptions of this powerful weapon of destruction, and he was pleased to see that it was just a ramshackle and unarmored vessel, as he had expected. "Full speed ahead," he bellowed into the speaking tube, and took the wheel himself.
     The ships, head-on to each other, closed rapidly, and spears from the jetiloj, the oversize crossbows, rattled off the "Dreadnaught's" armor plate and splashed into the water. They did no harm and the two vessels still rushed towards each other on a collision course. The sight of the low, beetle-like and smoke-belching form of the "Dreadnaught" must have shaken the enemy captain, and he must have realized that collision at this speed could not do his ship much good, for he suddenly turned the ship away. Jason spun the wheel to follow the other, and kept his bow aimed at the ship's flank.
     "Brace yourselves—we're going to hit!" he shouted as the high dragon prow of the other ship flashed past, frightened faces at the rail. Then the metal ram of the "Dreadnaught's" bow hit squarely in the middle of the dripping boards of the port paddle wheel and crashed on deep into the ship's hull. The shuddering impact hurled them from their feet as the "Dreadnaught" slammed to a stop.
     "Reverse engines so we can pull free!" Jason ordered, and spun the wheel hard over.

     Jason transferred to the barge and planted some of the fire-bomb specials on the roof to keep the fire roaring. He followed these with half a dozen rounds of canister shotleather bags of fist-sized stones that burst when fired—and cleared away all the firefighters and soldiers who were foolish enough to expose themselves. Then he worked the heavy stones back along the wall, crumbling it even more, until his hurtling missiles reached the sea gate. It took just four shots to batter the heavy timber into splinters and leave the gates a sagging wreck. The way was open. Jason waved his arms and jumped for the boat. The whistle screamed three times and the waiting Perssonoj vessels began to move to the attack.

From DEATHWORLD 2 by Harry Harrison (1964)

(ed note: The protagonists are forced to land on a random asteroid and barely escape from their spacecraft before the malfunctioning atomic drive melts the entire ship into slag. As they explore the asteroid desperately trying to find a way to survive, they stumble over an ancient alien spacecraft of remarkably similar design to their lost ship. Unfortunately they find out the hard way that similar is not the same as identical, and tiny differences can have catastrophic consequences.)

"Why shouldn’t I be able to understand the drive?" retorted Cray. "It should he like ours, only a little more primitive—depending on how long this boat's been here.”

Grant shot him an amazed glance. "Do you still think this is a Terrestrial ship, and has been here only a few decades?” he asked.

“Sure. Any evidence otherwise?”

Grant pointed to the floor beneath their feet. All looked down, arid for the first time noticed that they left footprints in a thin, even layer of dust that coated the corridor floor.

"That means that the ship held its air for a longer time than I care to think about—long enough not only to reduce the various organic substances on board to dust, but at random currents to distribute it through the open spaces. Yet when we came the air was almost gone leaked out through the joints and valves, good as they were, so that there was not enough left to resist us when we pushed a twelve-foot piston against its pressure. Point one.”

The finger swung to the control board. “Point two.” He said nothing further, but all could see what he meant.

The center of the control room was occupied by a thick-walled hemisphere—a cup, if you like—swung in gimbals which permitted its flat side always to the uppermost with respect to the ship’s line of net acceleration. The control board occupied the inner surface and upper edge of this cup, all around the circumference; and in the center of the assembly was the pilot's seat—if it could be called a seat.

It was a dome-shaped structure protruding from the floor about two feet ; five broad, deep grooves were spaced equally about its sides, but did not quite reach the top. It looked somewhat like a jelly mold ; and the one thing that could be stated definitely about its history was that no human being had ever sat in it. Cray absorbed this evident fact with a gulp, as though he had not chewed it sufficiently.

The rest of the men stared silently at the seat. It was as though the ghost of the long-dead pilot had materialized there and held their frozen attention ; overwrought imaginations pictured him, or strove to picture him, as he might have looked. And they also tried to picture what emergency, what unexpected menace, had called upon him to leave the place where he had held sway—to leave it forever. All those men were intelligent and highly trained; but more than one pair of eyes explored the corridor the human invaders had just used, and its mate stretching on from the other side of the control room.

Cray swallowed again, and broke the silence. "I should be able to figure out the engines, anyway.” he said, “if they're atomics at all like ours. After all, they have to do the same things our did, and they must have corresponding operations and parts." (famous last words...)

The free-lance seekers had met the engineer at the entrance, to the engine room. Now the three moved inside, stepping out onto a catwalk similar to that in the control room. This chamber, however, was illuminated only by the hand torches of the men; and it was amazing to see how well they lit up the whole place, reflecting again and again from polished metal surfaces.

When one had seen the tube arrangement from outside the ship, it was not difficult to identify most of the clustered machines. The tube breeches, with their heavy injectors and disintegrators, projected in a continuous ring around the walls and in a solid group from the forward bulkhead. Heavily insulated leads ran from the tubes to the supplementary cathode ejectors. It seemed evident that the ship had been driven and steered by reaction jets of heavy-metal ions, as were the vessels of human make. All the machines were incased in heavy shields, which suggested that their makers were not immune to nuclear radiation.

“Not a had layout,” remarked Preble. “Found out whether they’ll run?”

Cray glared. “No!” he answered almost viciously. “Would you mind taking a look at their innards for us?”

Preble raised his eyebrows, and stepped across the twenty-foot space between the catwalk and the nearest tube breech. It was fully six feet across, though the bore was probably not more than thirty inches —the walls had to contain the windings for the field which kept the ion stream from actual contact with the metal. The rig which was presumably the injector-disintegrator unit was a three-foot bulge in the center, and the insulated feed tube led from it to a nearby fuel container. The fuel was probably either mercury or some other easily vaporized heavy metal, such as lead. All this seemed obvious and simple enough, and was similar in basic design to engines with which even Preble was familiar ; but there was a slight departure from convention in that the entire assembly, from fuel line to the inner hull, appeared to be one seamless surface of metal. Preble examined it closely all over, and found no trace of a joint.

“I see what you mean,” he said at last, looking up. “Are they all the same?” Cray nodded.

“They seem to be. We haven’t been able to get into any one of them—even the tanks are tight. They look like decent, honest atomics, but we’ll never prove it by looking at the outside.”

“But how did they service them?” asked Stevenson. “Surely they didn’t weld the cases on and hope their machines were good enough to run without attention. That’s asking too much, even from a race that built a hull that could hold air as long as this must have.”

“How could I possibly know?” growled Cray. “Maybe they went outside and crawled in through the jets to service ’em—only I imagine it’s some trick seal like the door of this room. After all, that was common sense, if you look at it right. The fewer moving parts, the less wear. Can anyone think of a way in which this breech mechanism could be fastened on, with an invisible joint, working from the same sort of common sense?”

Why no one got the answer then will always remain a mystery; but the engineer was answered by nothing but half a dozen thought expressions more or less hidden in space helmets. He looked around hopefully for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders. “Looks like we'll just have to puzzle around and hope for the best,” he concluded. “Jack and Don might as well go back to their own snooping—and for Heaven’s sake, if you get any more ideas, come a-runnin’.”

The light revealed, besides the tanks, converters, and tube breeches which had been so obvious in the forward engine room, several open cabitiets which had been mere bulges on the walls up forward. Tools and other bits of apparatus filled these and lay about on the floor. Light frameworks of metal, rather like small building scaffolds, inclosed two of the axial tube breeches; and more tools lay on these. It was the first scene they had encountered on the ship that suggested action and life rather than desertion and stagnation. Even the dust, present here as everywhere, could not eradicate the impression that the workers had dropped their tools for a brief rest, and would return shortly.

Preble went at once to the tubes upon which work had apparently been in progress. He was wondering, as he had been since first examining one, how they were opened for servicing. He had never taken seriously Cray’s remark that it might have been done from outside.

His eye caught the thing at once. The dome of metal that presumably contained the disintegrator and ionizing units had been disconnected from the fuel tank, as he had seen from across the room; but a closer look showed that it had been removed from the tube, as well, and replaced somewhat carelessly. It did not match the edges of its seat all around, now; it was displaced a little to one side, exposing a narrow crescent of flat metal on each of the two faces normally in complete contact. An idea of the position can be obtained by placing two pennies one on the other, and giving the upper one a slight sideward displacement.

The line of juncture of the two pieces was, therefore, visible all around. Unfortunately, the clamping device Preble expected to find was not visible anywhere. He got a grip—a very poor one, with his gloved hand—on the slightly projecting edge of the hemisphere, and tried to pull it free, without success; and it was that failure which gave him the right answer—the only possible way in which an air-tight and pressure-tight seal could be fastened solidly, even with the parts out of alignment, with nonmagnetic alloys. It was a method that had been used on Earth, though not on this scale; and he was disgusted at his earlier failure to see it.

Magnetism, of course, could not be used so near the ion projectors, since it would interfere with the controlling fields ; but there was another force, ever present and available—molecular attraction. The adjoining faces of the seal were plane, not merely flat. To speak of their accuracy in terms of the wave length of sodium light would be useless; a tenth-wave surface, representing hours of skilled human hand labor, would be jagged in comparison. Yet the relatively large area of these seals and the frequency with which the method appeared to have been used argued mass production, not painstaking polishing by hand.

But if the seal were actually wrung tight, another problem presented itself. How could the stirfaces be separated, against a force sufficient to confine and direct the blast of the ion rockets? No marks on the breech suggested the application of prying tools—and what blade could be inserted into such a seal?

Stevenson eatne over to see what was keeping Preble so quiet, and listened while the latter explained his discovery and problems.

“We can have a look through these cabinets,” the chemist remarked finally. “This seems to fit Sorrell’s idea of a tool-requiring job. Just keep your eyes and mind open.”

The open mind seemed particularly indicated. The many articles lying in and about the cabinets were undoubtedly tools, but their uses were far from obvious. They differed from man-made tools in at least one vital aspect. Many of our tools are devices for forcing: hammers, wrenches, clamps, pliers, and the like. A really good machine job would need no such devices. The parts would fit, with just enough clearance to eliminate undesired friction—and no more.

That the builders of the ship were superb designers and machinists was already evident. What sort of tools they would need was not so obvious. Shaping devices, of course; there were planers, cutters, and grinders among the littered articles. All were portable, but solidly built, and were easily recognized even by Preble and Stevenson. But what were the pairs of slender rods which clung together, obviously magnetized? What were the small, sealed-glass tubes; the long, grooved strips of metal and plastic; the featureless steel-blue spheres; the iridescent, oddly shaped plates of paper-thin metal? The amateur investigators could not even guess, and sent for professional help.

Cray and his assistants almost crooned with pleasure as they saw the untidy floor and cabinets; but an hour of careful examination and theorizing left them in a less pleasant mood. Cray conceded that the molecular attraction theory was most probably correct, but made no headway at all on the problem of breaking the seal. Nothing in the room seemed capable of insertion in the air-tight joint.

“Why not try sliding them apart?’’ asked Stevenson. “If they’re as smooth as all that, there should be no difficulty.”

Cray picked up a piece of metal. “Why don't you imagine a plane through this bar, and slide it apart along that?’’ he asked. “The crystals of the metal are practically as close together, and grip each other almost as tightly, in the other case. You’ll have to get something between them.”

The chemist, who should have known more physics, nodded. “But it's more than the lubricant that keeps the parts of an engine apart,” he said.

“No, the parts of one of our machines are relatively far apart, so that molecular attraction is negligible,” answered the machinist. “But —I believe you have something there. A lubricant might do it; molecules might conceivably work their way between those surfaces. Has anybody noticed anything in this mess that might fill the bill?”

“Yes,” answered Preble promptly, "these glass tubes. They contain liquid, and have been fused shut—which is about the only way you could seal in a substance such as you would need.”

He stepped to a cabinet and picked up one of the three-inch long, transparent cylinders. A short nozzle, its end melted shut, projected from one end. and a small bubble was visible in the liquid within. The bubble moved sluggishly when the tube was inverted, and broke up into many small ones when it was shaken. These recombined instantly when the liquid came to rest, which was encouraging. Evidently the stuff possessed a very low viscosity and surface tension.

Cray took the tube over to the breech which had been partly opened and carelessly closed so long ago, held the nozzle against the edge of the seal, and, after a moment’s hesitation, snapped off the tip with his gloved fingers. He expected the liquid to ooze out in the asteroid’s feeble gravity, but its vapor pressure must have been high, for it sprayed out in a heavy stream. Droplets rebounded from the metal and evaporated almost instantly; with equal speed the liquid which spread over the surface vanished. Only a tiny fraction of a percent, if that, could have found its way between the surfaces.

Cray stared tensely at the dome of metal as the tube emptied itself. After a moment, he dropped the empty cylinder and applied a sideways pressure.

A crescent, of shifting rainbow colors, appeared at the edge of the seal; and the dome slowly slid off to one side. The crescent did not widen, for the lubricant evaporated the instant it was exposed. Preble and Stevenson caught the heavy dome and eased its mass to the central catwalk.

The last of the rainbow film of lubricant evaporated from the metal, and the engineers crowded around the open breech. There was no mass of machinery inside; the disintegrators would, of course, be within the dome which had been removed. The coils which generated the fields designed to keep the stream of ionized vapor from contact with the tube walls were also invisible, being sealed into the tube lining. Neither of these facts bothered the men. for their own engines had been similarly designed. Cray wormed his way down the full length of the tube to make sure it was not field failure which had caused it to be opened in the first place; then the three specialists turned to the breech which had been removed.

The only visible feature of its flat side was the central port through which the metallic vapor of the exhaust had entered the tube; but application of another of the cylinders of lubricant, combined with the asteroid's gravity, caused most of the plate to fall away and reveal the disintegrator mechanism within. Preble. Stevenson, Grant, and McEachern watched for a while as piece of the disintegrator began to cover the floor of the room; but they finally realized that they were only getting in the way of men who seemed to know what they were doing, so a gradual retreat to the main corridor took place.

“Do you suppose they can find ant what was wrong with it ?” queried Stevenson.

“We should.” It was Cray’s voice on the radio. “The principle of this gadget is exactly like our own. The only trouble is that they've used that blasted molecularattraction fastening method everywhere. It's taking quite a while to get it apart.”

It’s odd that the technology of these beings should have been so similar to ours in principle, and yet so different in detail,” remarked Grant. “I’ve been thinking it over, and can’t come to any conclusion as to what the reason could be. I thought perhaps their sense organs were different from ours, but I have no idea how that could produce such results—not surprising, since I can’t imagine what sort of senses could exist to replace or supplement ours.”

“There’s something funny about part of this,” he said. “I think it’s a relay, working from your main controls, but that’s only a guess. It's not only connected to the electric part of the business, but practically built around the fuel inlet as well. By itself it’s all right; solienoid and moving core type. We've had it apart, too.”

“What do you plan to do?” asked Grant. “Have you found anything wrong with the unit as a whole?”

“No. we haven’t. It has occurred to me that the breech was unsealed for some purpose other than repair. It would make a handy emergency exit—and that might account for the careless way it was resealed. We were thinking of putting it back together, arranging the relay so that we can control it from here and test the whole tube. Is that all right with you?”

“If you think you can do it, go ahead,” replied Grant. “We haven’t got much to lose. I should say. Could you fix up the whole thing to drive by local control?”

“Possibly. Wait till we see what happens to this one.”

The four men glided back down the corridor to the engine room. The reassembly of the breech mechanism was far from completed, and Grant did not like to interrupt. He was, of course, reasonably familiar with such motors, and knew that their assembly was a delicate task even for an expert.

Cray's makeshift magnetic device for controlling the relay when the breech was sealed was a comment on the man's ingenuity. It was not his fault that none of the men noticed that the core of the relay was made of the same alloy as the great screw cocks which held the engineroom doors shut, and the small bolts on the doors in the cargo hold. It was, in fact, a delicate governor, controlling the relation between fuel flow and the breech field strength —a very necessary control, since the field had to be strong enough to keep the hot vapor from actual contact with the breech, but not strong enough to overcome the effect of the fields protecting the throat of the tube, which were at right angles to it. There was, of course, a similar governor in man-made motors, but it was normally located in the throat of the tube and was controlled by the magnetic effect of the ion stream. The device was not obvious, and of course was not of a nature which a human engineer would anticipate. It might have gone on operating normally for an indefinite period, if Cray had used any means whatever, except magnetic manipulation, to open and close the relay.

(ed note: They decide to make one of the alien rocket jets spray against the asteroid surface. This will make a bright flare which will attract the attention of a rescue ship that is in this sector of space.)

Cray nodded. “I can start it alone,” he said. “The rest of you go on out. I'll give you a couple of minutes, then turn it on for just a moment. I’ll give you time to send someone in if anything is wrong.”

Grant nodded approval, and led the other five men along the main corridor and out the air lock. They leaped to a position perhaps a hundred and fifty yards to one side of the ship, and waited.

The tube in question was one of the lowest in the bank of those parallel to the ship’s longitudinal axis. For several moments after the men had reached their position it remained lifeless; then a silent, barely visible ghost of flame jetted from its lip. This changed to a track of dazling incandescence at the point where it first contacted the rock of the asteroid ; and the watchers automatically snapped the glare shields into place on their helmets. These were all in place before anyone realized that the tube was still firing, cutting a glowing canyon into the granite and hurling a cloud of boiling silica into space. Grant stared for a moment, leaped for the air lock, and disappeared inside. As he entered the control room from the front, Cray burst in from the opposite end, making fully as good time as the captain. He didn’t even pause, but called out as he came:

“She wouldn't cut off, and the fuel flow is increasing. I can’t stop it. Get out before the breech gives—I didn't take time to close the engine-room door !"

Grant was in midair when the engineer spoke, but he grasped a stanchion that supported the catwalk, swung around it like a comet, and reversed his direction of flight before the other man caught up to him. They burst out of the air lock at practically the same instant.

By the time they reached the others, the tube fields had gone far out of balance. The lips of the jet tube were glowing blue-white and vanishing as the stream caught them; and the process accelerated as the men watched. The bank of stern tubes glowed brightly, began to drip, and boiled rapidly away; the walls of the engine room radiated a bright red. then yellow, and suddenly slumped inward. That was the last straw for the tortured disintegrator ; its own supremely resistant substance yielded to the lack of external cooling, and the device ceased to exist. The wreckage of the alien ship, glowing red now for nearly its entire length, gradually cooled as the source of energy ceased generating; but it would have taken supernatural intervention to reconstruct anything useful from the rubbish which had been its intricate mechanism. The men, who had seen the same thing happen to their own ship not twenty hours before, did not even try to do so.

The abruptness with which the accident had occurred left the men stunned.

(ed note: Happily, the melting of the alien ship was enough to attract the rescue ship and the crew is saved.)

From TECHNICAL ERROR by Hal Clement (1944)

Sample Level Charts

Traveller TL Historical Era
0 Stone Age (fire)
1 Bronze Age (3500 BC)
1 Iron Age (1200 BC)
1 Medieval Age (600 AD)
2 Age of Sail (1450 AD)
3 Industrial Revolution (1730 AD)
4 Mechanized Age (1880 AD)
5 Circa 1910 AD
6 Nuclear Age (1940 AD)
7 Circa 1970 AD
8 Digital Age (1990 AD)
9 Early Stellar (2050 AD)
10 (A) Early Stellar (2120 AD)
11 (B) Average Stellar
12 (C) Average Imperial
13 (D) Average Stellar
14 (E) High Stellar
15 (F) Imperial Maximum
16 (G) Darrian Historical Maximum

From Tech Level Comparison Chart

Quality of life Tech Comparison
000MusclesFingers and sticksRunnersMystics/HerbologyNatural (Caves, Huts)
11-31-3WaterAbacus / Geometry, TrigonometryLong Distance SignalingDiagnosisSettlements, Towns (Irrigation)
244WindAlgebraPrinting pressInternal AnatomyCities (Canals, Roads)
355Coal / SteamCalculusTelegraph, Audio RecordingSurgery Cement Structures
456ElectricityMechanical CalculatorsTelephoneVaccination, Antiseptics, AnestheticsCities in Rugged/Desert Terrain, Crude Terraform
566Petrochemicals, Internal combustionElectric CalculatorsRadio, RadarMass Vaccination, X-RaySealed/Conditioned Cities
667Nuclear FissionElectronic Computers (Large Model/1 bis)Television / Advanced Audio RecordingVirus, Crude ProstheticsSkyscrapers, Weather Predict, Underground Cities
777Solar energy, early Fuel CellsDesktop Computers, Expert systems, Model/2Early Satellite, Video recordingOrgan Transplant, Slow DrugsCities in Jungle Terrain
878GeothermalMassive Parallel / Low Data, Model/2bisFibre opticsArtificial Organs, MetabolicsOrbital Settlements, Early Weather Control
989Early Fusion, Improved BatteriesNon-Volatile / High Data, Vocal I/O, Model/3Video Telephone, Flat ScreenLimb Regeneration, Cryogenics, Fast DrugsArcologies, Orbital Cities
10910Fusion Plants 2KL MinimumEarly Synaptics, voice transcription, Model/4Holovision, Text TranscriptionAntiviral Vaccines, Cancer Cure, Growth QuickiningUnder-Sea/Under Ice Cities
11910Fusion Plants 1KL MinimumSynaptic Learning Processors, Hand Computers, Model/5Personal Global Communications Nerve Refusion, Artificial EyesGravitic Structure Support
121011Fusion Plants 250L Minimum, Advanced Fuel CellsLow Autonomous Robots, Model/6Real-time Multilingual TranslatorsBroad Spectrum Anti-toxins, Enhanced ProstheticsMajor Terraforming, Advanced Weather Control
131011Fusion output 3Kw per L, Miniature Super-BatteriesHolocrystal Storage, High Autonomous Robots, Model/7Holovideo RecordersCloning of Replacement Parts, ReanimationNon-mobile Gravitic Cities
141112Fusion Plants 100L MinimumComputer/Brain Implants, Model/8Early Meson CommunicatorsGenetic Engineering, Memory ErasureMobile Gravitic Cities
151212Fusion output 6Kw per LPseudo-Reality Computers, Pseudo Robots, Model/9Meson Communicators, Pseudo Reality CommunicationsAnagathics, Advanced Pseudobio ProstheticsComplex Terraforming Possible
161313Fusion output 7Kw per L, 80L MinimumLow Artificial Intelligence, Robots in all FacetsPersonal Meson Communicators, Personal HolovideoBrain Transplants, Crude Memory TransferGlobal Terraforming, Hostile Worlds
17 - -Early Antimatter PlantsHigh Artificial Intelligence, Self-Aware RobotsPocket Meson CommunicationsSelective Memory Erasure, Intelligent AnitbodiesTotal Terraforming to 800Km worlds
18 - -Antimatter 1Mw/L, 750L Fuel Pod MinimumRobots become Society's Basic WorkforcePartial Memory TransferTotal Terraforming to 4000Km worlds
19 - -Antimatter 2.5Mw/L, 200L Fuel Pod MinimumNon-Cryogenic Suspension, Advanced BioengineeringTotal Terraforming
20 - -Antimatter 15Mw/L, 40L Fuel Pod MinimumMatter Transport Eliminates Global Communication BarriersTotal Memory TransferMobile Worlds (Sublight)
21 - -Antimatter 50Mw/L, 5L Fuel Pod MinimumMatter Transport Eliminates Intra-System BarriersEarly Total RejuvenationMobile Worlds (Jump Space) & Rosettes
23 - -Dyson Spheres (with many Capsules)
25 - -Ability to create Ringworlds, access pocket universe
27 - -Rigid Dyson Spheres
35Create Pocket Universe
Transportation Tech Comparison
000Foot - AnimalsRaft / Canoe - -
11-31-3Wheel - Carts/ChariotsRowed Galleys, Crude Sailing Vessels - -
244Advanced Wheel - Moveable Axle, Replaceable RimsEarly Multi-Mast Sailing, Crude Navigation - -
355Extensive Road - High-Speed CoachMulti-Mast Sailing, NavigationHot Air Balloons -
456TrainsIronclads, SteamshipsDirigibles, Early Gliders -
566Ground Cars, Tracked VehiclesPersonal Self-Propelled Boats, Steel hulls, Early SubmersiblesAirplanes, SeaplanesEarly Rockets (unmanned)
667Amphibian Vehicles, ATVsAFVsSubmersibles, Scuba, Amphibian VehiclesEarly Jet, HelicoptersEarly Manned Rockets, Unmanned Rockets
777Hovercraft, High-Speed TrainsHydrofoils, HovercraftSupersonic Jet, Hang GlidersDeep Space Probes (Unmanned), Maneuver-1/2 (non-gravitic)
878Triphibian VehiclesTriphibian Vehicles, Early Artificial GillsTriphibian Vehicles, Hypersonic JetSpace Shuttles, Space Stations, Maneuver-3-5 (non-grav)
989Early Grav Vehicles, Ultra High-Speed TrainsEarly Grav Vehicles, Artificial GillsEarly Grav Vehicles, Rocket Assist SuborbitalJump-1 possible, Sublight Stellar
10910Grav VehiclesUH Grav ModulesGravitic Maneuver

Jump-1 certain

11910Personal G-Tubes, HV Grav ModulesJump-2, Thruster Technology
121011Personal Grav Belts, LT Grav ModulesJump-3
131011Grav Vehicles Merge with Orbital Spacecraft, Jump-4
16 - -Raw Material Only Short Range Matter Transport
17 - -Inanimate Only Short Range Matter Transport
18 - -Self-Aware Starships, living being portal based Matter Transport
21 - -Multi Parsec Range Starship-Sized Matter Transport Portals
Military Tech Comparison
- - -PersonalHeavy
000Club, SpearFur - -
11-31-3Early Weapons (Bow, Sword)Jack ArmourCatapultWood
244Early GunsSmall Cannons
355Rifled WeaponsCannons
456CartridgeMesh ArmourHowitzers, Gatling gunSoft Steel
566Explosive Grenade, ShotgunFilter MaskMortars
667Automatic (SMG)Nuclear Weapons, MissilesHard Steel
777Grenade LaunchersCloth Armour, Flack JacketBeam LasersComposite Laminate
878RAM Grenade Launchers, Early Laser CarbineParticle Accelerators, Target Desginated Missiles
989Laser WeaponsAblative ArmourLight Weight Composite Laminate
10910Advanced Combat RifleReflec, Combat Environment SuitPlasma Guns, RepulsorsCrystaliron
11910Combat ArmourMeson Guns
121011PGMP-12, Gauss RifleFusion GunsSuperdense Armour, Nuclear Dampers
131011PGMP-13, X-Ray LasersBattle DressX-Ray Lasers
141112FGMP-14Bonded Superdense
151212FGMP-15Early Black Globes
161313FGMP-16, Plasma Rifle, Neural GunNeural ShieldTractor BeamBlack Globes
17 - -Fusion Rifle, Plama PistolDisintegrators, Antimatter WarheadsCoherent Superdense
18 - -Disintegrator Rifle, Fusion PistolPersonal DamperLong Range Disintegrator/Tractor Beam
19 - -Disintegrator PistolProton Screen, Plastic Metal Armour
20 - -Relativity BeamWhite Globes, Proton Beam
21 - -Relativity RiflePersonal White GlobeJump ProjectorJump Damper
GURPS Tech Levels

From GURPS Wiki Tech Level

TL Era Timespan Signature technologies
0 Stone Age Prehistory and later Counting; oral tradition.
1 Bronze Age 3500 B.C.+ Arithmetic; writing.
2 Iron Age 1200 B.C.+ Geometry; scrolls.
3 Medieval 600 A.D.+ Algebra; books.
4 Age of Sail 1450+ Calculus; movable type.
5 Industrial Revolution 1730+ Mechanical calculators; telegraph.
6 Mechanized Age 1880+ Electrical calculators; telephone and radio;
7 Nuclear Age 1940+ Mainframe computers; television.
8 Digital Age 1980+? Personal computers; global networks.
9 Microtech Age 2025+? Artificial intelligence; real-time virtuality.
10 Robotic Age 2070+ Nanotechnology or other advances start to blur distinctions between technologies...
11 Age of Exotic Matter
12 Whatever the GM likes!
TL Transportation Weapons and Armor Power Biotechnology/Medicine
0 Skis; dogsleds; dugout canoes. Wooden and stone weapons; primitive shields; hides for armor. Human muscle power; dogs. First aid; herbal remedies; primitive agriculture.
1 Bare horseback; the wheel (and chariots); ship-building; sails. Bronze weapons and armor. Donkeys; oxen; ponies. Surgery; animal husbandry; fermentation.
2 Saddle; roads; triremes. Iron weapons; iron armor (including mail); siege engines. Horses; water wheels. Bleeding the sick; chemical remedies.
3 Stirrups; oceangoing sailing ships (longships, roundships, etc.). Steel weapons; early firearms; plate armor; castles. Heavy horses and horse-collars; windmills. Crude prosthetics; anatomical science.
4 Stagecoach; three-masted sailing ships; precise navigation. Muskets and pikes; horse artillery; naval broadsides. Improved windmills; belt drives; clockwork. Optical microscope makes cells visible.
5 Steam locomotives; steamboats; early submersibles; balloons and early airships. Early repeating small arms; rifled cannon; ironclads. Steam engines; direct current; batteries. Germ theory of disease; safe anesthetics; vaccines.
6 Automobiles; continental railways; ocean liners; submarines; aircraft. Smokeless powder; automatic weapons; tanks; combat aircraft. Steam turbines; internal combustion; alternating current; hydroelectricity. Antibiotics; blood typing and safe transfusions; heredity; biochemistry.
7 Nuclear submarines; jet aircraft; helicopters; manned space flight. Ballistic body armor; guided munitions; combat jets; nuclear weapons. Gas turbines; fission; solar power. Discovery of DNA; organ transplants; pacemakers.
8 Satellite navigation; SSTO ("single stage to orbit") spacecraft. Smartguns; blinding lasers; unmanned combat vehicles. Fuel cells; advanced batteries. Genetically modified organisms; gene therapy; cloning.
9 Robot cars; space elevators; manned interplanetary space flight. Electrolasers; heavy laser weapons; battlesuits; combat robots; designer viruses. Micro fuel cells; deuterium-hydrogen fusion; high-temperature superconductors. Human genetic engineering; tissue engineering; artificial wombs; cybernetic implants
10 Fast interplanetary space flight. Compact laser and heavy particle-beam weapons; Gauss guns; nanotech armor; nanoviruses; antimatter bombs. Helium-3 fusion; antimatter. Brain transplants; uploading; bioroids; uplifted animals.
11 Manned interstellar space flight. Compact particle-beam weapons; disassemblers ("gray goo"); defensive nanites. Portable fusion power. Living machines; cellular regeneration.
12 Faster interstellar space flight. Gamma-ray lasers; "living metal" armor; black-hole bombs. Portable antimatter power. Full metamorphosis; regeneration.
^ Reactionless thrust; contragravity; faster-than-light (FTL) travel; matter transmission; parachronic technology; time machines. Monomolecular blades; force-field technology; gravitic weapons; nuclear dampers; disintegrators. Broadcast power; cold fusion; zero-point energy; total conversion; cosmic power. Fast-growth clone tanks; psi drugs; regeneration ray.

Tech Trees

Technology tree

A technology, tech, or research tree is a hierarchical visual representation of the possible sequences of upgrades a player can take (most often through the act of research) in strategy computer games. The diagram is tree-shaped in the sense that it branches between each 'level', allowing the player to choose one sequence or another. Each level is called a tier and is often used to describe the technological strength of a player. Typically, at the beginning of a session of a strategy game, a player will start at tier 1, and will only have a few options for technologies to research. Each technology that a player researches will open up one or more new options, but may or may not, depending on the computer game, close off the paths to other options. The tech tree is the representation of all possible paths of research a player can take, up to the culmination of said sequence.

Types of tech tree

Classic Research Technology Tree

     The Classic tech tree is the one where extensive research into new technologies must be conducted parallel to the progression of a game. Some real-time strategy (RTS) games as well as most turn-based strategy (TBS) games employ this type of tech tree. In these games, players typically have a 'command center', 'unit-training-facility' and 'research facility' at their disposal from the start, allowing them to both start research into more advanced technologies, or engaging in combat with enemies using the basic units (Warzone 2100, Master of Orion series, Civilization series, Space Empires series).

Allocation Technology Tree

     In some games, the requirement of an actual research facility is absent. In this case players can allocate research points, or in-game resources to purchase new technologies. In some games the allocation yields direct results, meaning that procuring the new technology isn't paired with allotted time for the research of said technology to complete.

Building-based Technology Tree

     In most RTS games the technology tree consists of buildings which must be built in a specific sequence, which in turn unlocks new technologies. These newly unlocked technologies can be more advanced unit, upgrades for research or more advanced buildings. (StarCraft, Command & Conquer Series.)

Prerequisites for technology advances

     In most types of strategy games, the player needs particular buildings in order to research specific technologies or build specific advanced units (StarCraft, Total Annihilation), while in other games upgrades/technologies are unlocked through research of their parent technology research (Warzone 2100). In many TBS games the prerequisite is one or more lower-level technologies, with no dependency on specific buildings (Master of Orion series, Civilization series, Space Empires series). Most strategy games however use both systems. both requiring dedicated buildings and in advanced cases pre requisite technology, sometimes culminating in a game ending super-weapon of some kind.


     The structures of tech trees vary quite widely. In the simplest cases (e.g. Master of Orion) there are several completely separate research areas and one could research all the way up to the highest level in one area without researching other areas (although this would often be far from ideal). In more complex cases[citation needed] (e.g. Civilization) every technology above the starting level has more than one prerequisite and one has to research most of the lower-level technologies in order to research any of the top-level technologies. And there are many possibilities between these two variants, for example in Space Empires researching to a specified level in one field may enable the player both to research to a higher level in that field and to start research in a new field which was previously not available.
     Major 4X games like Civilization and Master of Orion have a much larger technology tree than most other strategy games; as an extreme example, Space Empires III has over 200 technologies.

Are all technologies available?

     Some RTSs make different techs available to different races or cultures (especially StarCraft; but many RTSs have special units or buildings for different cultures, e.g. Age of Empires expansion pack and later versions, Red Alert 2). Most TBSs make all technologies available to all cultures (e.g. Civilization). Master of Orion (original version) is a complex special case in this respect: the full tree is the same for all; but in each game each player gets a subset of the full tech tree that depends on which race was selected.

Balance between civilian and military techs

     In many RTS games tech advances are almost exclusively military (e.g. StarCraft). But in most TBS and some RTS games the research and production costs of top-end military techs are so high that you have to build up your economy and your research productivity first (RTS - Age of Empires and Empire Earth, where one of the most significant costs is going up an epoch; TBS - the Civilization series and Master of Orion series).

From the Wikipedia entry for Technology tree

Section of the tech tree for FreeCiv. Note the complex dependencies between technologies. Use horizontal scroll bar to pan the tree.


Research and technology

4X games typically feature a technology tree, which represents a series of advancements that players can unlock to gain new units, buildings, and other capabilities. Technology trees in 4X games are typically larger than in other strategy games, featuring a larger selection of choices. Empires must generate research resources and invest them in new technology. In 4X games, the main prerequisite for researching an advanced technology is knowledge of earlier technology. This is in contrast to non-4X real-time strategy games, where technological progress is achieved by building structures that grant access to more advanced structures and units.

Research is important in 4X games because technological progress is an engine for conquest. Battles are often won by superior military technology or greater numbers, with battle tactics playing a smaller part. In contrast, military upgrades in non-4X games are sometimes small enough that technologically basic units remain important throughout the game.

From the Wikipedia entry for 4X
Tech Tree

A staple of almost every strategy game is the ability for you to unlock new abilities for your units, or new unit classes entirely, by spending time and resources on scientific research instead of just bashing your opponent into submission with your existing ones.

Exactly how the tech tree works varies greatly depending on the game genre.

In Real-Time Strategy games, research is usually represented by specialized units or structures, with the pace of new tech development decided by how many of these the player has on the field. Research units often have weak attacking abilities (If they can attack at all) and must be protected from harm. Smart players and AIs will, of course, constantly be after these units.

New technologies typically allow for better armor to take more damage before dying, faster ground speeds, weapons that do more damage per hit, and increased sight and accuracy bonuses.

Tech upgrades are usually dressed to look genre-appropriate for the game. Researching advanced radar tech for your helicopters in one game will be instantly recognizable as granting your Paladins "Holy Sight" in another (or, in some cases, the same game).

Another key feature is that they usually follow a set order in which they must be researched. To give your troops armor-piercing shell upgrades, you may have to first research the advanced artillery tech, which in turn can't be done until you've finished researching basic cannon tech, etc...

Some games allow players greater influence over their gaming economies, and they can pour extra money into certain research projects to get them done faster while completing less urgent ones at their leisure.

Other times the development speed is static, and all that's required is that the player have enough gold, tiberium, wood, mana or whatever is needed to pay the upgrade costs for that tech.

The use of tech trees in 4X games is quite different. Tech trees typically do not have an on-map representation. They are a function of the empire itself. In such games, each empire's cities (or equivalent) provides some portion of research that is pooled until the civilization researches a particular technology. The rewards for a tech are improvements for "cities", new units or unit equipments, bonuses for a civilization researching them, or other such things.

Some Role Playing Games have the similar "Feat Tree", where at character creation time and at every Nth Level Up the player gets to choose new traits and abilities (feats) for their character, with some feats requiring other feats to unlock. Refer to Skill Scores and Perks for more information.

Tech trees are one of the big points where historians pick at games. It's a hierarchical view of science, research, and history. When compared with actual history, tech trees are wrong. On the other hand, the few attempts at doing something different have wound up pulled from any final version, with good reason.

Either way, researched technologies in many games, most often Real-Time Strategy, have an annoying habit of disappearing once the current level/mission is completed, forcing you to spend time researching them all again in the very next round.

See also You Have Researched Breathing, Reinventing the Wheel. A Tech Tree may be prone to Interface Spoilers, or conversely, it may become a Guide Dang It to make an informed decision.

For a huge list of examples click here

Tech Tree entry from TV Tropes
Value of Research 1

     “It’s clear enough for me to like it. You’d be surprised at the way the first part of the program ties in with stuff I’ve been working on for a long time. As for the other — untrammeled research into the completely unknown — you realize, of course, that if MetEnge participates fifty-fifty, DesDes will be on a non-retainer basis all the time you are out and will have to split fifty-fifty.”
     “But there isn’t going to be anything the least bit commercial about it!” Barbara protested.
     “You’re wrong there, young lady. Research always has paid off big, in hard dollars."

From Subspace Explorers by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1965)
Value of Research 2

Everybody has heard of the Long Range Foundation, but it happened that Pat and I had just done a term paper on non-profit corporations and had used the Long Range Foundation as a type example.

We got interested in the purposes of the Long Range Foundation. Its coat of arms reads: “Bread Cast Upon the Waters,” and its charter is headed: “Dedicated to the Welfare of Our Descendants.”

The charter goes on with a lot of lawyers’ fog but the way the directors have interpreted it has been to spend money only on things that no government and no other corporation would touch. It wasn’t enough for a proposed project to be interesting to science or socially desirable; it also had to be so horribly expensive that no one else would touch it and the prospective results had to lie so far in the future that it could not be justified to taxpayers or shareholders. To make the LRF directors light up with enthusiasm you had to suggest something that cost a billion or more and probably wouldn’t show results for ten generations, if ever … something like how to control the weather (they’re working on that) or where does your lap go when you stand up.

The funny thing is that bread cast upon waters does come back seven hundred fold; the most preposterous projects made the LRF embarrassing amounts of money — “embarrassing” to a non-profit corporation that is. Take space travel: it seemed tailor-made, back a couple of hundred years ago, for LRF, since it was fantastically expensive and offered no probable results comparable with the investment: There was a time when governments did some work on it for military reasons, but the Concord of Bayreuth in 1980 put a stop even to that.

So the Long Range Foundation stepped in and happily began wasting money. It came at a time when the corporation unfortunately had made a few billions on the Thompson mass-converter when they had expected to spend at least a century on pure research; since they could not declare a dividend (no stockholders), they had to get rid of the money somehow and space travel looked like a rat hole to pour it down.

Even the kids know what happened to that: Ortega’s torch made space travel inside the solar system cheap, fast, and easy, and the one-way energy screen made colonization practical and profitable; the LRF could not unload fast enough to keep from making lots more money.

I did not think all this that evening; LRF was just something that Pat and I happened to know more about than most high school seniors … more than Dad knew, apparently, for he snorted and answered, “The Long Range Foundation, eh? I’d almost rather you were from the government. If boondoggles like that were properly taxed, the government wouldn’t be squeezing head taxes out of its citizens.”

This was not a fair statement, not a “flat-curve relationship,” as they call it in Beginning Mathematical Empiricism. Mr. McKeefe had told us to estimate the influence, if any, of LRF on the technology “yeast-form” growth curve; either I should have flunked the course or LRF had kept the curve from leveling off early in the 21st century — I mean to say, the “cultural inheritance,” the accumulation of knowledge and wealth that keeps us from being savages, had increased greatly as a result of the tax-free status of such non-profit research corporations. I didn’t dream up that opinion; there are figures to prove it. What would have happened if the tribal elders had forced Ugh to hunt with the rest of the tribe instead of staying home and whittling out the first wheel while the idea was bright in his mind?

From Time for the Stars by Robert Heinlein (1956)

Warning Signs for Tomorrow

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

Rate of Technological Advance

Arms Race

In early pulp science fiction there were a couple of examples of tech level climbing that was totally out of control. An arms race on steroids. Arguably the most egregious was E. E. "Doc" Smith's Skylark of Space series, although John W. Campbell Jr's Mightiest Machine series gives it a run for the money. The super scientist hero and the super scientist villain frantically try to jump to the next tech step so they can vaporize their nemesis. But somehow their nemesis is only wounded, not atomized. Then its the nemesis' turn to make a tech jump.

In the first novel of the Skylark of Space series, the heroic Richard Seaton makes his first tech jump by inventing a potent power source and building a crude starship. By the last novel Seaton and his rival destroy an entire galaxy, star by star. That's a lot of tech jumps.

In my long and misspent youth I tried to make a tabletop wargame based on the Skylark of Space series. That's when I discovered the flaw in the situation: the novels have the arms race impossibly balanced. When each protagonist makes a tech level advance it is always just enough to threaten their opponent but not enough so they can squish him like a bug (which would prematurely end the series). Outside of a novel (where things are scripted) and into a wargame, it is far to easy for one player to jump up several tech levels at once and render their opponent helpless. Makes for a frustrating game.

Research And Development

When climbing a tech tree, most governments figure this can be safely left to the private sector. They might give some seed money to worthy research projects, or help fund expensive projects like the Large Hadron Collider, but otherwise tech funding is somebody else's problem.

But in times of war in general, and in space opera style hyper-accelerated arms races in particular, this becomes a matter of a nation's life or death.

Research and development budget are always a cruel dilemma for any military. How do you divide your budget between [1] purchasing military assets that are obsolete but are available now, and [2] assets that are cutting edge high tech but are still being researched?

This is a familiar problem for any player of 4x strategy games. In such games more powerful military assets and secret weapons are represented by a "tech tree". Players must allocate their budget between purchasing research on how to build new unit types and purchasing examples of existing old unit types. On the one hand the more you spend on research, the more unstoppable a super-dreadnought warship you will (eventually) be able to construct. But on the other hand your opponent might spend their budget on swarms of primitive warships which none the less are more effective than your pitifully small fleet.


There are two aspects to the military procurement dilemma. First:

A gigantic technological race is in progress ... a new form of strategy is developing in peacetime, a strategy of which the phrase "arms race" used prior to the old great conflicts is hardly more than a faint reflection.

There are no battles in this strategy; each side is merely trying to outdo in performance the equipment of the other. It has been termed "logistic strategy". Its tactics are industrial, technical, and financial. It is a form of indirect attrition; instead of destroying enemy resources, its object is to make them obsolete, thereby forcing on him enormous expenditure...

A silent and apparently peaceful war is therefore in progress, but it could well be a war which of itself could be decisive.

—General d'Armee Andre Beaufre

If we do not engage in this "silent and apparently peaceful war," we will be defeated. However:

A common argument against investment in technological weapons is the engineering maxim, "If it works, it's obsolete." True, whatever one buys, if you had waited a few years something better would be available; but if this is carried to extremes, nothing will ever be built.

Whenever a new field of technology opens up, the people who use it must learn how. They must become operationally effective. Had we waited until third-generation missiles were available before we constructed any, we would not be alive today. We certainly would have had no experienced crews to man the missiles we would only now be constructing.

A time comes when systems must be built, even though we know they will be obsolete in future years...

The fallacy that prototypes and research are all that are needed should have been laid to rest by the experience of the French in 1939. The French Army had—and had possessed for quite a long time— prototypes of aircraft, armor, and antitank weapons much better than those of the German Army. The French did not have these weapons in their inventory because still better ones were coming. While they waited for the best weapons, they lost their country. Military action must be routine. It cannot be extraordinary, planned months in advance like a space spectacular. Operational experience with a weapons system is required before operational employment doctrines can be perfected. Troops must be trained, logistics bases developed, maintenance routines learned, idiosyncrasies—and modern technological gadgetry is full of them—must be discovered. This cannot be done if the latest technology is confined to the drawing board or laboratory.

S. T. Possony and J. E. Pournelle, The Strategy of Technology, 1970

There is no simple escape from this dilemma. Suppose that you are the Secretary of Defense, and you must recommend a military budget.

You have several choices.

1. Make severe cutbacks in the defense budget. This will leave more money in the hands of the taxpayers, and allow more investment in the nation's economy. Without a strong economy we are finished anyway; while if the economy is sufficiently strong, we will be able to afford a much larger defense establishment.

2. Invest in military research and development. This can be coupled with (1). Some military research will aid the civilian economy anyway. We mean here real development studies, not merely paper studies and patches.

3. Buy the weapons available today, so that the troops can become familiar with them and learn to maintain them; so that they become operational weapons systems.

These choices come up time after time. You have a billion dollars: do we invest that in development of military lasers, or do we buy a new aircraft carrier? The choice is not obvious. Without forces in being, small conflicts become big, and small wars can grow into large ones.

You have a sum of money. You may spend it on two wings of the best existing military aircraft, and thus have a force within two years.

You can also spend it to procure two wings of much better advanced aircraft to be delivered in ten years. If you choose the second option, your over-all military capabilities will probably be enhanced due to new technology developed as part of the procurement.

That's ten years from now. Meanwhile, you will NOT have the best equipment for the period of 2 through 8 years.

In combat, there are few prizes for second place, and none at all for what you would have had next year.

There are, however, persons not of good will who will muddy the waters: who will attack R&D spending on the grounds that the money is needed for operational weapons systems, then attack the operational systems because they are obsolete. They are poltroons; and alas, their name is legion, for they are many.

From MEN OF WAR, THERE WILL BE WAR VOL II edited by Jerry Pournelle (1984)

Technology Readiness Level

4x strategy games and poorly written science fiction assumes that once a new weapon or warship has been researched, it is instantly ready to start production next day. In the real world there are always bugs and glitches to deal with, which slows things up. Not to mention the time required training the troops in how to use the blasted things.

(The original 4X game was the tabletop boardgame Stellar Conquest (1975). This was the first SF boardgame I ever played and {modest cough} the first one I drew illustrations for.)

The classic cautionary tale is Sir Arthur C. Clarke's famous short story Superiority, which is required reading in some courses taught at M.I.T.. My take on the story is:

Voltaire said "Perfect is the enemy of good". Shakespeare said "striving to better, oft we mar what's well". Aristotle spoke of the Golden Mean to avoid extremes in any direction.

More practically:

Pareto principle
Also known as 80–20 rule, the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity. It commonly takes 20% of the full time to complete 80% of a task while to complete the last 20% of a task takes 80% of the effort. Achieving absolute perfection may be impossible and so, as increasing effort results in diminishing returns, further activity becomes increasingly inefficient.
Cult Of The Imperfect
This was formulated by Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt in World War 2, while he struggled to create early warning radar in Britain to counter the rapid growth of the German Luftwaffe. He said "Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes."
George Stigler's Observation
Economist George Stigler said that "If you never miss a plane, you're spending too much time at the airport."

The thing about John Campbell is that he liked things big. He liked big men with big ideas working out big applications of their big theories.

And he liked it fast. His big men built big weapons within days; weapons that were, moreover, without serious shortcomings, or at least, with no shortcomings that could not be corrected as follows: “Hmm, something’s wrong — oh, I see — of course.” Then, in two hours, something would be jerry-built to fix the jerry-built device.

(ed note: any project manager can tell you that never happens)

The big applications were, usually, in the form of big weapons to fight big wars on tremendous scales. Part of it was, of course, Campbell’s conscious attempt to imitate and surpass Edward E. (“Doc”) Smith. The world-shaking, escalating conflicts in Campbell’s stories, as in The Space Beyond in this collection, is a reflection of the escalating conflict on the printed page between John and Doc.

From BIG, BIG, BIG by Isaac Asimov (1976)

The situation was now both serious and infuriating. With stubborn conservatism and complete lack of imagination, the enemy continued to advance with his old-fashioned and inefficient but now vastly more numerous ships. It was galling to realize that if we had only continued building, without seeking new weapons, we would have been in a far more advantageous position.

There were many acrimonious conferences at which Norden defended the scientists while everyone else blamed them for all that had happened. The difficulty was that Norden had proved every one of his claims: he had a perfect excuse for all the disasters that had occurred.

And we could not now turn back — the search for an irresistible weapon must go on. At first it had been a luxury that would shorten the war. Now it was a necessity if we were to end it victoriously.

From SUPERIORITY by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1951)

The research process is also more complicated than one would think. In reality it has quite a few phases.

Technology readiness level is a scale used to measure how close a new technology is to being ready for actual use in the field on a real mission.

In the old (almost unplayable) tabletop game Star Empires each player had a limited number of research teams, symbolized by playing counters. Each one could research a single advance, some army weapon, artillery weapon, spacecraft weapon, missile warhead, warship type, etc. that was the next item in its respective tech tree.

If the tech advance was of difficulty One, you'd assign it to research team Alfa, pay the initial research cost, and place Alfa's counter on Research Flow Chart One in the square marked "S" for "start". Once the team has managed to traverse the flow chart to the space marked "F" for "finish" your interstellar empire would own that tech advance, and would instantly be able to start cranking out the new weapon from your factories.

But traversing the flow chart is a bit of a challenge.

Each turn, for all research teams with counters on the flow chart, you'd pay this turns research cost for that unit, and roll a ten-sided die. Examining the square the counter is currently occupying, you'd find the out-going arrow with the number rolled and move the counter accordingly. Some loop back to the same square so the team does not move. Others move to a new square. If the new square is the F square, the team is successful.

And if the square is a little skull-and-cross-bones symbol, the entire team is killed in a lab accident and removed. Next turn you'll have to spend money to recruit a replacement research team.

If, however, your research project is of difficulty Four, you'll have to use the flow chart below. Egad. This shows why game designers in the 1970s were desperate for somebody to invent personal computers. There were intermediate complexity flow charts for difficulty Two and three, but this is insane for a manual tabletop game.



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

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

Authors who do not want to deal with such break-neck advances in technology will have to invent a way to put on the brakes to progress.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

From THE DEVIL'S DICTIONARY by Ambrose Bierce (1911)


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

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

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

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

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

In "How to Build a Future", John Barnes suggests as a rule of thumb one shouldn't try predicting technological advances past 500 years or so. After about 500 years of technological epochs, the current technology approaches 100% magic as compared to the starting technology, as per his explanation below:


My experienced-based rule of thumb is that five hundred years is the absolute maximum.


I need not tell an SF audience that technological advance has dramatic effects. There are a lot of different ways to model it; this time I used the “shopping list” approach—gadgets are invented at a steady rate, but they are economically deployed (that is, come into actual widespread use) in bursts. Schumpeter suggested deployment might correlate with the upswing in the Kondratiev wave; it’s also a truism that war brings rapid technical development.

To express this, I simply assume significant new inventions go onto a “shopping list” or “technological backlog” of potential technology, and move off the list and into real deployment at a rate that varies between 0 and 100 percent, depending on the Kondratiev cycle value and the values of warfare indicators (see below).

As you can see in figure 2, this gives a fairly credible situation: technology sometimes stagnates as nothing new is deployed for a long time, and at other times skyrockets, especially after a long hiatus. This gave me as much information as I really wanted: eight major surges of technological innovation between now and the beginning of interstellar colonization. (A “major surge” is something on the order of the highly innovative periods 1900-20 or 1940-65.)

To envision the surges, I use a rule of thumb that has no justification other than gut feeling. Each new surge is 90 percent what you might have expected from the last one, plus 10 percent magic (in its Clarke’s Law sense). So from the viewpoint of 1920, 90 percent of the gadgets of the (roughly) Manhattan Project through Apollo Project boom would be imaginable (indeed, some, like TV, were abortively available in the previous boom). But 10 percent (lasers, nuclear power, transistors) would be absolutely incomprehensible—magic.

I further arbitrarily assume that the major discoveries for the next surge have all been made as of today.

The graph shows a major surge in the 2000s and 2010s, Surge Zero, which should deploy everything in SF that seems pretty likely right now. Everything.

Does that feel like a real explosion in the brain, like Bruce Sterling or William Gibson at their dazzling best? All the same it’s only the start.

Surge One must be an immense extension of everything in Surge Zero, plus a 10 percent addition of things that work according to as-yet-undiscovered principles. Surge Two must be extensions on everything in Surge One (including the 10 percent of magic) plus 10 percent new magic. From our viewpoint it’s now 19 percent magic.

And Surge Three … well, you see where this gets to. Since the Inward Turn starts at the end of Surge Seven, 52 percent of significant new technology in the culture we’re imagining must be stuff we currently would not find comprehensible.

Realistically, the world should be half magic. Who’d have thought calculations, the lifeblood of hard SF, could drive us that far into fantasy?

Magic Percentage
% Magic010192734414752576165697275

From HOW TO BUILD A FUTURE by John Barnes (1990)

Evolvable hardware

Evolution is a remarkable designer. After all, it designed us, and every other living thing we know of.

It wasn't long before artificial intelligence researchers tried implementing evolution using computer software. Thus was born the science of the Evolutionary Algorithm. You create a data structure which acts like a gene, start with an enviroment populated with random genes, let them perform for a while, evaluate which were best at doing the task, delete the low performers and replace with new randoms, cross-breed the rest and throw in a few random mutations, and do a fresh cycle. Instant software evolution.

In 1996 Doctor Adrian Thompson had the brainstorm of using such evolutionary algorithms to design hardware. Thus was born the science of Evolvable Hardware. Since an algoritm instead of a human mind is doing the designing, the result tend to be somewhat alien. But effective.

Dr. Thompson's started with a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), which is basically a "programmable" integrated circuit. By sending special commands the user can change how the internal components are connected (actually how they are "virtually" connected, but don't worry about that). The task was to configure the FPGA so it would respond "YES" if you fed it a 1 kHz wave and "NO" if you fed it a 10 kHz wave ("yes" defined as outputting +5 volts and "no" defined as outputting 0 volts).

This was a bit of a challenge for the poor evolvable hardware algorithm. Humans build circuits to do such detection using some kind of electronic clock, but the FPGA has none. It would have to evolve the equivalent of a clock.

Halfway through the evolving, it was approaching a solution, but the output was weird. A FPGA is a digital device so it generally outputs +5v or 0v. But this was was outputting "fuzzy" values. A human engineer knows that a FPGA is a digital on-off device so it designs with that in mind. But the algorithm doesn't know that so it designs pragmatically. It worked with what the FPGA could actually do, not what it was supposed to do.

Finally the algorithm was successful and the FPGA performed as desired.

But when Dr. Thompson looked closer, things got weird again.

Part of the FPGA had been programmed with a circuit which was not connected to the main circuit. Dr. Thompson figured it was superfluous and removed it. And the FPGA promptly lost the ability to tell the two waves apart. When Dr. Thompson added the superfluous circuit back in, the FPGA started working again.

What the heck??

Dr. Thompson eventually figured out the cursed superfluous circuit was influencing the main circuit through electromagnetic coupling. It works, but it is very very alien.

Which is one of the reasons why Dr. Thompson's technique is not used today. For contractual and legal liability reasons chip designers want designs that they understand and can test rigorously. Neither of which is true of the weird designs created by Dr. Thompson's algorithm.

A final problem was when Dr. Thompson loaded the program arrangement from the algorithm into an FPGA of the same type it didn't work! It not only used properties of that type of FPGA, it also used specific quirks of that particular FPGA chip.

In 2003 Jason Lohn et al decided to create an X-band antenna for NASA's Space Technology 5 mission using established antenna evolvable algorithms.

They used two genetic algorithms to create two different antennae, then tested to see which was better. Genetic Algorithm 1 was a standard which created non-branching antennae, that is, the result looks like a twisted piece of wire. Genetic Algorithm 2 was a new one evolving "rod-structured robot morphologies", that is, the result looks like a little tree.

And yes, both look rather alien.


     Legend had it that the Progenitors had called for a perpetual search for knowledge before they departed for parts unknown, aeons ago. But, in practice, most species looked to the Library and only the Library for knowledge. Its store grew only slowly.
     What was the point of researching what must have been discovered a thousand times over by those who came before?
     It was simple, for instance, to choose advanced spaceship designs from Library archives and follow them blindly, understanding only a small fraction of what was built. Earth had a few such ships, and they were marvels.
     The Terragens Council, which handled relations between the races of Earth and the Galactic community, once almost succumbed to that tempting logic. Many humans urged co-opting of Galactic models that older races had themselves co-opted from ancient designs. They cited the example of Japan, which in the nineteenth century had faced a similar problem — how to survive amongst nations immeasurably more powerful than itself. Meiji Japan had concentrated all its energy on learning to imitate its neighbors, and succeeded in becoming just like them, in the end.
     The majority on the Terragens Council, including nearly all of the cetacean members, disagreed. They considered the Library a honey pot — tempting, and possibly nourishing, but also a terrible trap.
     They feared the "Golden Age" syndrome … the temptation to "look backward" — to find wisdom in the oldest, dustiest texts, instead of the latest journal.
     Except for a few races, such as the Kanten and Tymbrimi, the Galactic community as a whole seemed stuck in that kind of a mentality. The Library was their first and last recourse for every problem. The fact that the ancient records almost always contained something useful didn't make that approach any less repugnant to many of the wolflings of Earth, including Tom, Gillian, and their mentor, old Jacob Demwa.
     Coming out of a tradition of bootstrap technology, Earth's leaders were convinced there were things to be gained from innovation, even this late in Galactic history. At least it felt better to believe that. To a wolfling race, pride was an important thing.
     Orphans often have little else.

     But here was evidence of the power of the Golden Age approach. Everything about this ship spoke silkily of refinement. Even in wreckage, it was beautifully simple in its construction, while indulgent and ornate in its embellishments. The eye saw no welds. Bracings and struts were always integral to some other purpose. Here one supported a stasis flange, while apparently also serving as a baffled radiator for excess probability. Orley thought he could detect other overlaps, subtleties that could only have come with aeons of slow improvement on an ancient design.

From STARTIDE RISING by David Brin (1983)

The puppeteer ship was a robot. Beyond the airlock the lifesystem was all one big room. Four crash couches, as varied in design as their intended occupants, faced each other in a circle around a refreshment console.…

There were no corners. The curved wall merged into floor and ceiling; the couches and the refreshment console all looked half melted. In the puppeteer world there would be nothing hard or sharp, nothing that could draw blood or raise a bruise.

From RINGWORLD by Larry Niven (1970)

The hyperdrive shunt ran nearly the length of the ship, beneath the floor. Louis had to recognize the machinery from first principles. It was not of human manufacture; it had the half-melted look of most puppeteer construction. So: the ship had faster-than-light capability. It seemed he was slated for a long trip.

From RINGWORLD ENGINEERS by Larry Niven (1979)

Steam Engine Time

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

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

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

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

Farkas Bolyai
Steam Engine Time Urban Dictionary

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

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

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

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

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

William Gibson Interview

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From In the Air by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)

The Sword on the Starship

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

Note this trope is somewhat incompatible with the concept of tech levels, that is, a linear path of technological achievements. To use it you must instead use the concept of a tech tree, one with really long short-cut to starship technology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poul Anderson


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From INTERSTELLAR EMPIRE by John Brunner (1965)

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

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

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

From "THE REBEL OF VALKYR" by Alfred Coppel (Planet Stories, Fall, 1950)

Using Inherited Technology

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

The Warlock of Rhada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Barbarians have FTL but we don't

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

The Road Not Taken

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

"How did they miss them?" Chang asked.

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

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

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

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

They don't make 'em like they used to

After the fall of the first galactic empire, after the dark ages, comes the re-birth of the galactic empire. But it will take some time before the reborn empire's tech level reaches that of the old empire.

During that period, any first empire technology that survives will be highly prized, since it is more advanced than current technology.

The Mote In God'S Eye

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

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

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

Harvesting Cobbler Technology

A "cobbler" is a local person who can adapt stranger's high technology to the lower tech base of the locals. So local Afghan tribesmen observed stranger Europeans armed with rifles. When the Afghans tried to make their own rifles, the cordite used in the bullets was beyond the capablilities of the Afghan's tech base. So an Afghan cobbler adapted the concept by using easy-to-make gunpowder instead of cordite.

The main reason to harvest cobbler technology is in order to create space barbarians for fun and profit.

A Little Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stopped for breath.

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

"The damned busybody League." Dolgorov spat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Witweet spent minutes just shuddering.

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

Technology and Society


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science could get out of hand!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poison gas was the sin of the scientist.

And can we name the sinner?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Encylopedia of Science Fiction entry TECHNOLOGY

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

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

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

Exploration ships made landings on Luna, and the two neighboring planets, Mars and Venus. None of these worlds were suitable for human colonization without vast expenditure, and they offered little or no return for such effort. Consequently, after the first flurry of interest, space flight died down, and there were few visitors to the other worlds, except for the purpose of research.

Three "space stations" had been constructed to serve Terra as artificial satellites. These were used for refueling interplanetary ships and astronomical and meteorological observation. One of these provided the weapon the nationalists had been searching for in their war against the "Free Scientists."

The station was invaded and occupied by a party of unidentified armed men (later studies suggest that these men were mercenaries in the pay of nationalist forces). And this group, either by ignorant chance or with deliberate purpose, turned certain installations in the station into weapons for an attack upon Terra. There are indications that they themselves had no idea of the power they unleashed, and that it was at once beyond their control.

As a result the major portion of the thickly populated sections of the planet were completely devastated and no one was ever able to reckon the loss of life.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Technological Disruption

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had given wings to the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From THE FIFTH ELEPHANT by Terry Pratchett (1999)

#1. Eli Whitney Accidentally Causes The Civil War

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

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

Yeah, about that ...

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

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

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

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

Technological Unemployment

Technological Unemployment is when a machine steals your job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are the elegant solutions?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

"Your economic system seems well worked out."

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

"What money?" Perplexity made Gaynor sound aggressive.

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

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

Future Shock

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Development of society and production

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

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

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

Fear of the future

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

From the Wikipedia entry for FUTURE SHOCK

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

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

What's going on?

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

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

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

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

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

From A WORKING HYPOTHESIS by Charles Stross (2010)

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

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

Charles Stross (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shock Level 0

Degree of Change: Flat.

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

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

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

Shock Level 1

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

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

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

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

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

Shock Level 2

Degree of Change: Logarithmic to Exponential

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

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

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

Shock Level 3

Degree of Change: Exponential

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

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

Shock Level 4

Degree of Change: Exponential to Hyperbolic (Accelerating Acceleration)

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

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

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

Eliezer goes on to say,

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

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

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

From FUTURE SHOCK LEVELS by Paul Hughes (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From THE HAUNTED EARTH by Dean Koontz (1973)

You Are Not Ready

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Weapon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course. Thank you. Good night.”

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

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

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

From THE WEAPON by Fredric Brown (1951)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From THE DEFIANT AGENTS by Andre Norton (1960)

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

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

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

     "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&mdasha sordid thing that has arisen out of your social structure. The race ends every day. When a man dies the race ends for him&mdashso 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&mdashsomething 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&mdashheld 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&mdasha 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&mdashto 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&mdash" 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)

They Are Not Ready

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

This is generally a very bad idea:

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

This is more or less the reason for the Star Trek's famed Prime Directive.

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.

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)


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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally there is all those hideous overtones of Nazi Germany.

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

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

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

There are many ways to implement eugenics.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Quote Brain Wave has been moved here.


Nothing to do with corn

“Ladies, Lords.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From SPACE ANGEL by John Maddox Roberts (1979)

End of Natural Selection

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compare Designer Babies.

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

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


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

From STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein (1959)

Improving lives doesn’t.

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

But intelligence? Why that?

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

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

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

This is bad.

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

So no one gets any smarter.

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


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

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

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

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

From THE STARWOLVES by Thorarinn Gunnarsson (1988)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

From THE ALTAR ON ASCONEL by John Brunner (1965)

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

From STAR RANGERS by Andre Norton (1953)

“Joe, what is a superman?”

Gilead did not answer.

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


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

“He can think,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilead said, “Are you that sort?”

“You will continue to form your own opinions.”

“And you think I may be, too?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And man would be New Man’s dog.”

“Again not necessarily. Consider the cat.”

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

“Monkey talk,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From GULF by Robert Heinlein (1949)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Problems With Immortality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It has often been noted that in society "the rich get richer." At least nowadays the super rich eventually die so their wealth is divided among the children. But an immortal rich person is just going to keep getting richer. The same goes for a politically powerful immortal. They keep getting to be more powerful and are never removed by death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

He sat down.

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

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

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

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

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

Only one person had successfully undergone the Immortality Treatment.

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

From DYNASTY OF ONE by James White (1955)

Decadent Population

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From COCOON by Keith Laumer (1962)

Intelligence Amplification


Drugs that amplify intelligence (temporarily or permanently) are called Nootropics (aka smart drugs, memory enhancers, neuro enhancers, cognitive enhancers, and intelligence enhancers).

Examples from science fiction include R-47 from Gordon Dickson's THE R-MASTER, “VC” (viral coefficient) from John Brunner's THE STONE THAT NEVER CAME DOWN, "Hormone K Treatment" from Ted Chiang's UNDERSTAND, Methuen Treatment from L. Sprage de Camp's THE EXHALTED, NZT-48 from the movie LIMITLESS and CPH4 from the movie LUCY.


THE IQ BOOSTERS WORKED SWIFTLY, SURGING UP through the arteries in her neck, seeking the outer layers of the neocortex. Manufactured from algae that had been genetically tricked into producing human enzymes, one set of boosters more than tripled the rate at which nerves recharged and fired, while other substances increased the growth of new nerve connections and modulated energy efficiency. It was the increase in firing frequency that had the first and most profound effect. After only two days on the boost, Tarn and her crew were connecting disparate and seemingly unrelated facts faster than they had ever before in their entire lives, possibly faster than any human beings since the beginning of time.

One side effect of her newly acquired abilities was that she could now clearly see the flicker of her liquid crystal display pad, which usually cycled too quickly for the human eye to register. Watching the pad (especially in the 3-D mode) became an activity guaranteed to trigger migraine, and she worried that there might be other unanticipated effects. Yet they were all being forced to think faster, to redesign their own brain chemistries, and, whenever necessary, to experiment upon themselves. They had no choice.

From THE KILLING STAR by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski


A Brain-Computer Interface replaces the standard interaction between person and computer via monitor, keyboard, and mouse with something a little more intimate. The comptuter is connected direcly to your brain via implanted electrodes or something like that. Imagine a USB port in your skull. See the above link for details.

In the intelligence amplification category, such an interface can allow such IQ accelerating techniques as querying Google at the speed of thought and providing a math coprocessor for your brain.

In William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive are datachips called "skill softs." If you need to speak Mandarin Chinese, pop in a Mandarin skill soft into the chip port on your skull. Ditto nuclear physics, cordon bleu chief, or military strategist. Skill softs for physical skills like karate, sharpshooting, and jet fighter pilot will require additional interfaces to your reflex nervous system. Skill softs are Upgrade Artifacts.

In James White Sector General science fiction novels if for instance, a human surgeon had to operate on a Melfan patient, the surgeon would be temporarily imprinted with an appropriate memory tape. This is a brain recording of an alien surgeon who is an expert in the required surgery. The trouble is the brain recording is not just the surgical skill, it is all the alien's memories. So the poor surgeon has an alien split-personality as long as they are imprinted. The memory tape is erased from the surgeon's brain immediately afterwards. Diagnosticians are entities who have such mental stability that they can hold multiple brain recordings simultaneously. They use this cross-knowledge to do original research.

The movie Brainstorm noted how such an interface can be used to record an experience on tape and play it back so another person can experience the same things. Eating a meal at a five-star restaurant, sky-diving, traveling to exotic places. Not to mention pornographic applications. They didn't go into it in the movie but such an interface can be used to directly connect two people together, creating a sort of computer assisted telepathy.


From the person's standpoint, it appears like their mind is moved out of their meat body and transferred into a computer.

From an outside view it looks more like an incredibly advanced computer program is written which can perfectly simulate your memories, thoughts, and personality. The meat person still exists, they are a little dubious about this perfect simulation software running in the computer in the next room. Yes, this opens a screaming can of flailing worms full of questions about what is identity and related matters.

This is part of the Digital Crew Concept for slower-than-light starships, since uploaded people only require a computer, they have no mass and require no consumables.

Note this can result in the extinction of the human race by Existential Risk 6.1 Take-over by a transcending upload.



You are in an operating room. A robot brain surgeon is in attendance. By your side is a potentially human equivalent computer, dormant for lack of a program to run. Your skull, but not your brain, is anaesthetized. You are fully conscious. The surgeon opens your brain case and peers inside. Its attention is directed at a small clump of about 100 neurons somewhere near the surface. It determines the three dimensional structure and chemical makeup of that clump non-destructively with neutron tomography, phased array radio encephalography, and ultrasonic radar. It writes a program that models the behavior of the clump, and starts it running on a small portion of the computer next to you. Fine wires are run from the edges of the neuron assembly to the computer, providing the simulation with the same inputs as the neurons. You and the surgeon check the accuracy of the simulation. After you are satisfied, tiny relays are inserted between the edges of the clump and the rest of the brain. Initially these leave brain unchanged , but on command they can connect the simulation in place of the clump. A button which activates the relays when pressed is placed in your hand. You press it, release it and press it again. There should be no difference. As soon as you are satisfied, the simulation connection is established firmly , and the now unconnected clump of neurons is removed.

The process is repeated over and over for adjoining clumps, until the entire brain has been dealt with. Occasionally several clump simulations are combined into a single equivalent but more efficient program. Though you have not lost consciousness, or even your train of thought, your mind (some would say soul) has been removed from the brain and transferred to a machine.

In a final step your old body is disconnected. The computer is installed in a shiny new one, in the style, color and material of your choice. You are no longer a cyborg halfbreed, your metamorphosis is complete.

Advantages become instantly apparent. Your computer has a control labelled speed. It had been set to slow, to keep the simulations synchronized with the old brain, but now you change it to fast. You can communicate, react and think a thousand times faster. But that’s just a start.

The program in your machine can be read out and altered, letting you conveniently examine, modify, improve and extend yourself. The entire program may be copied into similar machines, giving two or more thinking, feeling versions of you. You may choose to move your mind from one computer to another more technically advanced, or more suited to a new environment. The program can also be copied to some future equivalent of magnetic tape. If the machine you inhabit is fatally clobbered, the tape can be read into a blank computer, resulting in another you, minus the experiences since the copy. With enough copies, permanent death would be very unlikely.

As a computer program, your mind can travel over infor- mation channels. A laser can send it from one computer to another across great distances and other barriers. If you found life on a neutron star, and wished to make a field trip, you might devise a way to build a neutron computer and robot body on the surface, then transmit your mind to it. Nuclear reactions are a million times quicker than chemistry, so the neutron you can probably think that much faster. It can act. acquire new experiences and memories, then beam its mind back home. The original body could be kept dormant during the trip to be reactivated with the new memories when the return message arrived. Alternatively, the original might remain active. There would then be two separate versions of you, with different memories for the trip interval.

Two sets of memories can be merged, if mind programs are adequately understood. To prevent confusion, memories of events would indicate in which body they happened. Merging should be possible not only between two versions of the same individual but also between different persons. Selective mergings, involving some of the other person's memories, and not others, would be a very superior form of communication, in which recollections, skills, attitudes and personalities can be rapidly and effectively shared.

(ed note: the process should be familiar with computer programmers who worked on a large project with many programmers. They use a version control system. If two programmers work on the same segment of the program at the same time, the two version must be merged )

Your new body will be able to carry more memories than your original biological one, but the accelerated infomiation explosion will insure the impossibility of lugging around all of civilization’s knowledge. You will have to pick and choose what your mind contains at any one time: There will often be knowledge and skills available from others superior to your own, and the incentive to substitute those talents for yours will be overwhelming. In the long run you will re- member mostly other people’s experiences, while memories you originated will be floating around the population at large. The very concept of you will become fuzzy, replaced by larger, communal egos.

Mind transferral need not be limited to human beings. Earth has other species with brains as large, from dolphins, our cephalic equals, to elephants, whales, and giant squid, with brains up to twenty times as big. Translation between their mental representation and ours is a technical problem comparable to converting our minds into a computer program. Our culture could be fused with theirs , we could incorporate each other’s memories, and the species boundaries would fade. Non-intelligent creatures could also be popped into the data banks. The simplest organisms might contribute little more than the infonnation in their DNA. In this way our future selves will benefit from all the lessons leamed by terrestrial biological and cultural evolution. This is a far more secure form of storage than the present one, where genes and ideas are lost when the conditions that gave rise to them change.

Our speculation ends in a super-civilization, the synthesis of all solar system life, constantly improving and extending itself, spreading outwards from the sun, converting non-life into mind. There may be other such bubbles expanding from elsewhere. What happens when we meet? Fusion of us with them is a possibility, requiring only a translation scheme between the memory representations. This process, possibly occurring now elsewhere, might convert the entire universe into an extended thinking entity, a prelude to even greater things.

by Hans P. Mouravec (1978)

The Singularity

The Singularity is a theoretical event where computer artificial intelligence escapes control and Everything Changes. If an AI figures out how to improve its intelligence, the Singularity will happen rather quickly because computers can do a gazillion mathematical calculations in a fraction of a second. It took mankind about 300,000 years to go from the Middle Paleolithic to present-day knowledge, a crude AI could do that much in about four months.

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

Others (who have watched the Terminator movies) see a future where an artificial intelligence is created, who immediately decides to exterminate the human race via killer robots.

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

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

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

  • A computer may be developed that is both awake and superhumanly intelligent. This might be from some human genius who builds a very smart machine, or by a human who makes a computer capable of such recursive self-improvement that when the human's back is turned the computer undergoes an intelligence explosion, bootstrapping itself into superintellence.

  • A large computer network may "wake up" as a superintelligent entity. Arthur C. Clarke used this in his 1965 story Dial "F" for Frankenstein when the telephone system wakes up. Nowadays the first thing that springs to mind is the internet, which is a disturbing thought. Blasted thing will have 4chan for a dark subconscious.

  • A computer/brain interface may become so intimate that the users will be for all intents and purposes superintelligent.

  • There may be no computers involved at all. Biological science might be able to grant human beings the power of superintelligence.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolt of the AIs

This is the nightmare Skynet Scenario, with hordes of Terminator robots hunting down humans with phased plasma rifles in the 40 watt range, crunching human skulls underfoot. Once the rogue artificial intelligence is created, it decided to exterminate the human race for reasons that make sense to its cybernetic mind.


Yet if you’ve been paying attention to the news for the past several years, you’ve almost certainly seen articles from a wide range of news outlets about the looming danger of artificial general intelligence, or “AGI.” For example, Stephen Hawking has repeatedly expressed that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” and Elon Musk — of Tesla and SpaceX fame — has described the creation of superintelligence as “summoning the demon.” Furthermore, the Oxford philosopher and director of the Future of Humanity Institute, Nick Bostrom, published a New York Times best-selling book in 2014 called Superintelligence, in which he suggests that the “default outcome” of building a superintelligent machine will be “doom.”

What’s with all this fear-mongering? Should we really be worried about a takeover by killer computers hell-bent on the total destruction of Homo sapiens? The first thing to recognize is that a Terminator-style war between humanoid robots is not what the experts are anxious about. Rather, the scenarios that keep these individuals awake at night are far more catastrophic. This may be difficult to believe but, as I’ve written elsewhere, sometimes truth is stranger than science fiction. Indeed, given that the issue of AGI isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, it’s increasingly important for the public to understand exactly why the experts are nervous about superintelligent machines. As the Future of Life Institute recently pointed out, there’s a lot of bad journalism about AGI out there. This is a chance to correct the record.

Toward this goal, step one is to realize is that your brain is an information-processing device. In fact, many philosophers talk about the brain as the hardware — or rather, the “wetware” — of the mind, and the mind as the software of the brain. Directly behind your eyes is a high-powered computer that weighs about three pounds and has roughly the same consistency as Jell-o. It’s also the most complex object in the known universe. Nonetheless, the rate at which it’s able to process information is much, much slower than the information-processing speed of an actual computer. The reason is that computers process information by propagating electrical potentials, and electrical potentials move at the speed of light, whereas the fastest signals in your brain travel at around 100 miles per second. Fast, to be sure, but not nearly as fast as light.

Consequently, an AGI could think about the world at speeds many orders of magnitude faster than our brains can. From the AGI’s point of view, the outside world — including people — would move so slowly that everything would appear almost frozen. As the theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky calculates, for a computer running a million times faster than our puny brains, “a subjective year of thinking would be accomplished for every 31 physical seconds in the outside world, and a millennium would fly by in eight-and-a-half hours.”

Already, then, an AGI would have a huge advantage. Imagine yourself in a competition against a machine that has a whole year to work through a cognitive puzzle for every 31 seconds that you spend trying to think up a solution. The mental advantage of the AGI would be truly profound. Even a large team of humans working together would be no match for a single AGI with so much time on its hands. Now imagine that we’re not in a puzzle-solving competition with an AGI but a life-and-death situation in which the AGI wants to destroy humanity. While we struggle to come up with strategies for keeping it contained, it would have ample time to devise a diabolical scheme to exploit any technology within electronic reach for the purpose of destroying humanity.

But a diabolical AGI isn’t — once again — what many experts are actually worried about. This is a crucial point that the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker misses in a comment about AGI for the website To quote Pinker at length:

“The other problem with AGI dystopias is that they project a parochial alpha-male psychology onto the concept of intelligence. Even if we did have superhumanly intelligent robots, why would they want to depose their masters, massacre bystanders, or take over the world? Intelligence is the ability to deploy novel means to attain a goal, but the goals are extraneous to the intelligence itself: being smart is not the same as wanting something. History does turn up the occasional megalomaniacal despot or psychopathic serial killer, but these are products of a history of natural selection shaping testosterone-sensitive circuits in a certain species of primate, not an inevitable feature of intelligent systems.” Pinker then concludes with, “It’s telling that many of our techno-prophets can’t entertain the possibility that artificial intelligence will naturally develop along female lines: fully capable of solving problems, but with no burning desire to annihilate innocents or dominate the civilization.”

Unfortunately, such criticism misunderstands the danger. While it’s conceptually possible that an AGI really does have malevolent goals — for example, someone could intentionally design an AGI to be malicious — the more likely scenario is one in which the AGI kills us because doing so happens to be useful. By analogy, when a developer wants to build a house, does he or she consider the plants, insects, and other critters that happen to live on the plot of land? No. Their death is merely incidental to a goal that has nothing to do with them. Or consider the opening scenes of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which “bureaucratic” aliens schedule Earth for demolition to make way for a “hyperspatial express route” — basically, a highway. In this case, the aliens aren’t compelled to destroy us out of hatred. We just happen to be in the way.

The point is that what most theorists are worried about is an AGI whose values — or final goals — don’t fully align with ours. This may not sound too bad, but a bit of reflection shows that if an AGI’s values fail to align with ours in even the slightest ways, the outcome could very well be, as Bostrom argues, doom. Consider the case of an AGI — thinking at the speed of light, let’s not forget — that is asked to use its superior intelligence for the purpose of making humanity happy. So what does it do? Well, it destroys humanity, because people can’t be sad if they don’t exist. Start over. You tell it to make humanity happy, but without killing us. So it notices that humans laugh when we’re happy, and hooks up a bunch of electrodes to our faces and diaphragm that make us involuntarily convulse as if we’re laughing. The result is a strange form of hell. Start over, again. You tell it to make us happy without killing us or forcing our muscles to contract. So it implants neural electrodes into the pleasure centers of everyone’s brains, resulting in a global population in such euphoric trances that people can no longer engage in the activities that give life meaning. Start over — once more. This process can go on for hours. At some point it becomes painfully obvious that getting an AGI’s goals to align with ours is going to be a very, very tricky task.

Another famous example that captures this point involves a superintelligence whose sole mission is to manufacture paperclips. This sounds pretty benign, right? How could a “paperclip maximizer” pose an existential threat to humanity? Well, if the goal is to make as many paperclips as possible, then the AGI will need resources to do this. And what are paperclips composed of? Atoms — the very same physical stuff out of which your body is composed. Thus, for the AGI, humanity is nothing more than a vast reservoir of easily accessible atoms, atoms, atoms. As Yudkowsky eloquently puts it, “The [AGI] does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.” And just like that, the flesh and bones of human beings are converted into bendable metal for holding short stacks of paper.

At this point, one might think the following, “Wait a second, we’re talking about superintelligence, right? How could a truly superintelligent machine be fixated on something so dumb as creating as many paperclips as possible?” Well, just look around at humanity. By every measure, we are by far the most intelligent creatures on our planetary spaceship. Yet our species is obsessed with goals and values that are, when one takes a step back and peers at the world with “new eyes,” incredibly idiotic, perplexing, harmful, foolish, self-destructive, other-destructive, and just plain weird.

For example, some people care so much about money that they’re willing to ruin friendships, destroy lives and even commit murder or start wars to acquire it. Others are so obsessed with obeying the commandments of ancient “holy texts” that they’re willing to blow themselves up in a market full of non-combatants. Or consider a less explicit goal: sex. Like all animals, humans have an impulse to copulate, and this impulse causes us to behave in certain ways — in some cases, to risk monetary losses and personal embarrassment. The appetite for sex is just there, pushing us toward certain behaviors, and there’s little we can do about the urge itself.

The point is that there’s no strong connection between how intelligent a being is and what its final goals are. As Pinker correctly notes above, intelligence is nothing more than a measure of one’s ability to achieve a particular aim, whatever it happens to be. It follows that any level of intelligence — including superintelligence — can be combined with just about any set of final goals — including goals that strike us as, well, stupid. A superintelligent machine could be no less infatuated with obeying Allah’s divine will or conquering countries for oil as some humans are.

So far, we’ve discussed the thought-speed of machines, the importance of making sure their values align with ours, and the weak connection between intelligence and goals. These considerations alone warrant genuine concern about AGI. But we haven’t yet mentioned the clincher that makes AGI an utterly unique problem unlike anything humanity has ever encountered. To understand this crucial point, consider how the airplane was invented. The first people to keep a powered aircraft airborne were the Wright brothers. On the windy beaches of North Carolina, they managed to stay off the ground for a total of 12 seconds. This was a marvelous achievement, but the aircraft was hardly adequate for transporting goods or people from one location to another. So, they improved its design, as did a long lineage of subsequent inventors. Airplanes were built with one, two, or three wings, composed of different materials, and eventually the propeller was replaced by the jet engine. One particular design — the Concorde — could even fly faster than the speed of sound, traversing the Atlantic from New York to London in less than 3.5 hours.

The crucial idea here is that the airplane underwent many iterations of innovation. Problems that arose in previous designs were improved upon, leading to increasingly safe and reliable aircraft. But this is not the situation we’re likely to be in with AGI. Rather, we’re likely to have one, and only one, chance to get all the problems mentioned above exactly right. Why? Because intelligence is power. For example, we humans are the dominant species on the planet not because of our long claws, sharp teeth and bulky musculatures. The key difference between Homo sapiens and the rest of the Animal Kingdom concerns our oversized brains, which enable us to manipulate and rearrange the world in incredible ways. It follows that if an AGI were to exceed our level of intelligence, it could potentially dominate not only the biosphere, but humanity as well.

Even more, since creating intelligent machines is an intellectual task, an AGI could attempt to modify its own code, a possibility known as “recursive self-improvement.” The result could be an exponential intelligence explosion that, before one has a chance to say “What the hell is happening?,” yields a super-super-superintelligent AGI, or a being that towers over us to the extent that we tower over the lowly cockroach. Whoever creates the first superintelligent computer — whether it’s Google, the U.S. government, the Chinese government, the North Korean government, or a lone hacker in her or his garage — they’ll have to get everything just right the first time. There probably won’t be opportunities for later iterations of innovation to fix flaws in the original design, if there are any. When it comes to AGI, the stakes are high.

It’s increasingly important for the public to understand the nature of thinking machines and why some experts are so worried about them. Without a grasp of these issues, claims like “A paperclip maximizer could destroy humanity!” will sound as apocalyptically absurd as “The Rapture is near! Save your soul while you still can!” Consequently, organizations dedicated to studying AGI safety could get defunded or shut down, and the topic of AGI could become the target of misguided mockery. The fact is that if we manage to create a “friendly” AGI, the benefits to humanity could be vast. But if we fail to get things right on the first go around, the naked ape could very well end up as a huge pile of paperclips.

     Really smart A.I. wouldn't directly attack humans.
     It would pit them against each other.

     Has it already started?

From a tweet by Christian Payne (2016)

The global financial system is a paperclip maximizer-type AI, only instead of paperclips it turns you into debt.

What happens when Singularitarianism meets Neurotheology meets CRISPR meets germ-line genetic manipulation?

Our paperclip maximizer AI overlords get human slaves genetically programmed to worship them. The end.

From a tweet by Charles Stross (2016)


Remember the difference between Unobtainium and Handwavium:

UNOBTANIUM: We can't build a physical example of it, but insofar as we can postulate that it can be built at all, the laws of physics say it would behave like thus and so. While Handwavium and Technobabble tell you what you CAN do, Unobtainium usually tells you what is NOT possible. Examples: gigawatt laser, antimatter weapons, ladderdown reactors.

HANDWAVIUM: It flat out violates laws of physics. We're waving our hands and saying pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Examples: faster-than-light drive, time travel, reactionless drives.

Science fiction authors can make up handwavium on their own with no help from this website, it ain't that hard. As long as you are not scared of RocketCat and his dreaded Atomic Wedgie. The main problem is keeping it internally consistent within its own made-up rules, and dealing with unintended consequences. It is a big help if during the design phase the author focuses on effects not causes.

High-Tech Materials

Dating back to the Orichalcum that was all the rage in Atlantis, to modern-day Wolverine's indestructable Adamantium bones, fiction is full of marvelous materials that would be oh so useful if we could only lay our hands on some.


Material composed of nothing but closely packed neutrons. Found in the core of neutron stars. The best figure I can find for the density of neutronium is 4×1017 kilograms per cubic meter, and dwarf star matter 1×109 kilograms per cubic meter.

No, you can't us it as the ultimate armor because if you somehow take a chunk out of the neutron star's core, the accurséd chunk explodes.

Outside of the core the neutrons undergo beta-decay with a half-life of 10 minutes and 11 seconds (611 seconds) with each cubic centimeter emitting energy at a rate of 19 megawatts average over the first half life.

Translation: sitting next to a cube of neutronium will be like having four and a half sticks of TNT blow up in your lap every second for 611 seconds.

As with all half-life decays, the second half-life will only have half the energy (two and a quarter sticks TNT per second) but by that point there won't be much left of your miserable carcass anyway.

Physicist Luke Campbell points out to me that my understanding is imperfect. Beta-decay is the least of your worries. He told me "An additional thing I didn't see mentioned in the section on neutronium is that all the neutrons are unbound. That means, there is nothing sticking them together. Once removed from the crushing gravity of a neutron star, all the individual neutrons fly off on their own independent happy trajectories. In an instant, you no longer have any kind of -ium any more, but rather a flash of highly penetrating energetic ionizing radiation."

In atomic nuclei, neutrons and protons stick together due to the strong nuclear force. Since the neutrons in a neutron star are not in a nucleus, there ain't no strong nuclear force gluing them. They are unbound.

The only thing keeping them together is the neutron star's outrageous gravity field. Once you take a chunk of neutronium away from the neutron star's gravity, the unbound neutrons composing the chunk instantly go flying in all direction at relativistic speeds. In other words it becomes a blast of neutron radiation with a flux strong enough to shred you into subatomic particles.


Neutronium (sometimes shortened to neutrium) is a proposed name for a substance composed purely of neutrons. The word was coined by scientist Andreas von Antropoff in 1926 (before the discovery of the neutron) for the conjectured "element of atomic number zero" that he placed at the head of the periodic table. However, the meaning of the term has changed over time, and from the last half of the 20th century onward it has been also used legitimately to refer to extremely dense substances resembling the neutron-degenerate matter theorized to exist in the cores of neutron stars; hereinafter "degenerate neutronium" will refer to this. Science fiction and popular literature frequently use the term "neutronium" to refer to a highly dense phase of matter composed primarily of neutrons.

Neutronium and neutron stars

Neutronium is used in popular literature to refer to the material present in the cores of neutron stars (stars which are too massive to be supported by electron degeneracy pressure and which collapse into a denser phase of matter). This term is very rarely used in scientific literature, for three reasons: there are multiple definitions for the term "neutronium"; there is considerable uncertainty over the composition of the material in the cores of neutron stars (it could be neutron-degenerate matter, strange matter, quark matter, or a variant or combination of the above); the properties of neutron star material should depend on depth due to changing pressure (see below), and no sharp boundary between the crust (consisting primarily of atomic nuclei) and almost protonless inner layer is expected to exist.

When neutron star core material is presumed to consist mostly of free neutrons, it is typically referred to as neutron-degenerate matter in scientific literature.


Due to beta (β) decay of mononeutron and extreme instability of aforementioned heavier "isotopes", degenerate neutronium is not expected to be stable under ordinary pressures. Free neutrons decay with a half-life of 10 minutes, 11 seconds. A teaspoon of degenerate neutronium gas would have a mass of two billion tonnes, and if moved to standard temperature and pressure, would emit 57 billion joules of β decay energy in the first half-life (average of 95 MW of power). This energy may be absorbed as the neutronium gas expands. Though, in the presence of atomic matter compressed to the state of electron degeneracy, the β decay may be inhibited due to Pauli exclusion principle, thus making free neutrons stable. Also, elevated pressures should make neutrons degenerate themselves. Compared to ordinary elements, neutronium should be more compressible due to the absence of electrically charged protons and electrons. This makes neutronium more energetically favorable than (positive-Z) atomic nuclei and leads to their conversion to (degenerate) neutronium through electron capture, a process which is believed to occur in stellar cores in the final seconds of the lifetime of massive stars, where it is facilitated by cooling via νe emission. As a result, degenerate neutronium can have a density of 4×1017 kg/m3, roughly 13 magnitudes denser than the densest known ordinary substances. It was theorized that extreme pressures of order 100 MeV/Fermi3 may deform the neutrons into a cubic symmetry, allowing tighter packing of neutrons, or cause a strange matter formation.

In fiction

The term "neutronium" has been popular in science fiction since at least the middle of the 20th century. It typically refers to an extremely dense, incredibly strong form of matter. While presumably inspired by the concept of neutron-degenerate matter in the cores of neutron stars, the material used in fiction bears at most only a superficial resemblance, usually depicted as an extremely strong solid under Earth-like conditions, or possessing exotic properties such as the ability to manipulate time and space. In contrast, all proposed forms of neutron star core material are fluids and are extremely unstable at pressures lower than that found in stellar cores. According to one analysis, a neutron star with a mass below about 0.2 solar masses will explode.

From the Wikipedia entry for NEUTRONIUM

Higgsinium and Monopolium

Higgsinium may or may not be handwavium. It depends upon a subatomic particle called the negative Higgsino predicted by supersymmetry theory. So far there is no evidence for supersymmetry from any physics experiment, and obviously no proof the negative Higgsino exists.

Monopolium may or may not be handwavium. It depends upon a subatomic particle called a magnetic monopole. There have been a couple of experiments which produced candidate events that were initially interpreted as monopoles, but are now regarded as inconclusive. On the other hand, pretty much all of the various theories of subatomic physics predict the existence of monopoles.



The theoretical physicists make some tentative promises. Supersymmetry is a class of theories that predicts "spin-reflected" analogs of all of the known (and some merely predicted) particles. The theories are not well enough along to assign exact masses to these new particles, but, constrained by already performed experiments, do set bounds. Accelerators being completed now may produce some of these before 1990. One possibility is that the peculiarly named negative Higgsino particle is stable, and has a mass about 75 times that of a proton (or 150,000 electrons).

Suppose we start with a mass of Hydrogen, the simplest atom. In it one electron orbits one proton. Since Higgsinos are heavier than protons, substituting one for the electron will turn the atom inside out: the massive Higgsino will become the nucleus, and the proton will do most of the orbiting, and will set the size of the atom, about 2000 times smaller in diameter than a normal one. The force between adjacent atoms would be 20002 or four million times as great — only astronomical temperatures would break those bonds — the material would remain a solid under any earthly conditions, and there would be 20003 or eight billion times as many atoms per cubic centimeter. Because Higgsinos are heavy, each atom will weigh 75 times as much, so the density would be about 1012 times that of normal matter. But there's a surprise. Each Higgsino added will itself generate about 20,000 electron volts of energy as it captures a proton — enough to radiate gamma rays. That's minor. But then the exposed orbiting protons of adjacent resulting "Higgsino Hydrogen" atoms will be in an optimum position to combine with one another in fours to form Helium nuclei in a fusion reaction. Each fusion liberates a whopping 10 million electron volts, and frees the Higgsinos to catalyse more fusions. This will continue until the resulting nuclear explosion blows the material apart. The Higgsinos may cause fusion of heavier elements as well, and perhaps fission of very heavy nuclei. Great opportunities here, but not quite what we had in mind!

Iron nuclei are prone neither to fusion nor fission — it takes energy to both break them down or to build them up — and so can (perhaps) be combined safely with Higgsinos. Each iron nucleus contains 26 protons, and must be neutralized by 26 negative Higgsinos. But it's unlikely that the Higgsinos can overcome their mutual repulsion to neatly form the right sized nuclei. A different, more condensed, arrangement is probable. Suppose we mix small amounts of hydrogen and Higgsinos very slowly and carefully, taking away waste energy (perhaps to help power the Higgsino manufacturing accelerator). The resulting mass will settle down to some lowest energy configuration, probably a crystal of Higgsinos and protons, electrically neutralizing each other, and some neutrons, bound by both electromagnetism and the strong nuclear force. If there are too many neutrons, some will decay radioactively until a stable mix is reached. The protons and neutrons, being the lighter and fuzzier of the particles, will determine the spacing: about that found in neutron stars. The millionfold speedups possible there will apply here also.

The final material (let's call it Higgsinium) would be 1018 times as dense as water; a thimbleful has the weight of a mountain. It'll be a while before that much of it is manufactured. A cubical speck a micron on a side weighs a gram, and should be enough to make thousands of very complex integrated circuits — analogous to a cubic centimeter of silicon. Their speed would be a millionfold greater, as would their power consumption and operating temperature. It may be possible to build the circuits with high energy versions of the optical and particle beam methods used to construct today's ICs, though the engineering challenges are huge! And in the long run tiny machines of Higgsinium might be dropped onto neutron stars to seed the construction of immense Neutronium minds.

Magnetic Monopoles

Higgsinos, and the rest of the supersymmetric stable, were "invented" only recently. An equally plausible, and even more interesting, kind of particle was theorized in 1930, by Paul Dirac. In a calculation that combined Quantum Mechanics with Special Relativity, Dirac deduced the existence of the positrons, mirror images of the electrons. This was the first indication of antimatter, and positrons were actually observed in 1932. The same calculation predicted the existence of a magnetic monopole, a stable particle carrying a charge like an isolated north or south pole of a magnet. Dirac's calculation did not give the monopole's mass, but it did specify the magnitude of its "charge". Recent "gauge" theories, in which the forces of nature are treated as distortions in higher dimensional spaces, also predict monopoles (as knots in spacetime), and even assign masses. Unfortunately there are competing versions with different mass predictions ranging from 1000 to 1016 times that of a proton. These masses are beyond the energy of existing and planned particle accelerators. Some cosmic rays are energetic enough.

For over forty years searches for monopoles all came up empty handed, and there was great skepticism about their existence. But they may have been fleetingly observed three times in the last decade, though none has yet been caught for extended observation. In 1973 a Berkeley cosmic ray expirement was lofted above most of the scattering atmosphere in a high altitude balloon. In 1975, after two years of study, a very heavy track bearing the stigmata of a monopole was noted in the lexan sheets that served as three dimensional detecting film. Calculations suggested it had twice Dirac's predicted charge, and a mass over 600 times that of a proton. Since monopoles had never been observed before, there was much skepticism. Other, more elaborate but more conventional possibilities were devised, and the incident was shelved.

On Valentine's day in 1982, a modest experiment in Blas Cabrera's Stanford physics lab registered a clean, persistent, steplike jump in the current in a superconducting loop. The size of the step was just what a monopole with Dirac's quantum of magnetic charge would have caused had it passed through the loop. The only alternative explanation was mechanical failure in the experimental apparatus. Subsequent prodding and banging produced no effect — everything seemed shipshape. The result was so exciting many groups around the world, including Cabrera's, built larger detectors, hoping to confirm the observation. For four years there was silence. By then the cumulative experience of the new detectors (collecting area multiplied by time) was over a thousand times that of Cabrera's original experiment. Once again the possibility of monopoles faded. Then, on May 22, 1986, a detector at Imperial College, London, whose experience was over four hundred times as large as Cabrera's original, registered another event. Until a monopole is caught and held, its existence will be in question. Yet, each additional detection greatly increases the odds that the others were not mistakes.

Magnetism and electricity are right angle versions of the same thing. A monopole waved up and down will cause a nearby electric charge to move side to side (and vice versa). A current of monopoles flowing in one wire will induce an electric current at right angles to itself. An electric current in a loop of conductor will flow in lockstep with a current of monopoles in a monopole-conducting loop chain linked with it. Two coils of wire wrapped around a monopole loop make a DC transformer — a current started in one coil will induce a monopole current in the loop, which will produce an electric current in the other coil's circuit. If good DC transformers had existed in the late nineteenth century, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse would have had less to fight about, and all our electrical outlets would produce direct current. With monopoles we might refrain from making electrical connections at the plug at all, and draw power simply by passing the two ends of our power cords through a partially exposed monopole loop.

But let's get serious. If there are monopoles, they're not very common, and few will be simply picked out of the air. If they're very heavy, they will be hard to stop. Perhaps a few can be found already trapped here and there, and can be coaxed out (such a search was conducted worldwide by Kenneth Ford of Brandeis University, armed with a portable electromagnetic solenoid, in the early 1960s). Many things are possible given a few monopoles. Physicists routinely build superconducting solenoids with powerful magnetic fields several hundred thousand times as strong as Earth's. A monopole accelerates along magnetic field lines (for instance, a "North" monopole is strongly attracted to the south pole of a magnet). A monopole riding the field lines down the center of a powerful solenoid will gain an energy equivalent to the mass of several protons for every centimeter of travel. Ten meters of solenoid will impart an energy matching that of the most powerful existing accelerators. A few kilometers of solenoids will produce energies equal to millions of proton masses. The fireball resulting from a head on collision of two monopoles moving thusly is intense enough to produce some number of additional monopoles, in North/South matching pairs. These can be sorted out magnetically, and so monopoles can be harnessed to breed more monopoles.

Detectors of the Cabrera type do not measure the mass of passing monopoles, and the theories are little help. Monopoles can't be too light or they would have been created in existing accelerators. As mentioned above, the theoretical range of uncertainty is enormous. Things are especially interesting if there are at least two kinds of non mutually annihilating stable monopole, analogous to the proton and electron in normal matter (the North/South pairs mentioned above don't count — the two are antiparticles of each other, and annihilate when brought in contact). Here's a real leap of ignorance: let's suppose there are two kinds and that they are near the low end of the possible mass range. Let's suppose the lighter variety weighs 1000 protons, and the the heavier 1,000,000 protons. If two kinds don't exist, or if monopoles turn out to be much heavier many of the following proposals will become more extreme, or impossible. Others may open in their place.

An atom of Monopolium has a light monopole of one polarity (let's say North) bound to a heavy monopole of the opposite pole. Its size is set by the fuzzier light monopole. We assumed this has a mass of 1000 protons (or two million electrons), making the monopole atom about two million times smaller than a normal one. The particle spacing in Monopolium is thus comparable to that in Neutronium or Higgsinium. Its density, however, will be a million times beyond those because of the great mass of the central heavy monopole. This makes it 1025 times as heavy as normal matter. A thimbleful weighs as much as the Moon. Dirac's calculation found the magnetic quantum of charge to be 68.5 times as intense as the electric quantum. Two monopoles a certain distance apart would attract or repel each other 68.52 or 4,692 times as strongly as two equally separated electric particles. Combining this with the (inverse square) effects of much closer spacing and the increased density, makes Monopolium ten thousand times as strong for its weight as normal matter, though this number changes radically with changes in the assumed masses of the two kinds of monopole. The limiting switching speeds may be a thousand times higher than those we found for Higgsinium.

Other Applications

If Higgsinium or Monopolium can be made they may have applications beyond circuitry. Both materials are very tightly held together, and have no mechanism for absorbing small amounts of energy such as those found in photons, even soft gamma rays. This should make the materials very transparent. Yet the internal electromagnetic fields are huge, making for a tremendous index of refraction. Submicroscopic gamma ray microscopes, telescopes and lasers merely hint at the possibilities. In larger optics, gravitational effects will become important. If the materials can host loose electric or magnetic charges, they would be almost certainly be superconductors up to very high temperatures. because the tremendous binding forces would limit the number of states that the conducting particles can assume. To them the surface of the sun would is still very close to absolute zero in temperature. Superconducting versions of the materials should be nearly perfect mirrors, again up to gamma ray energies.

(ed note: amusingly enough, in his story THE BLACK STAR PASSES and in INVADERS FROM THE INFINITE the legendary John W. Campbell jr. postulates an absurdly strong transparent metal called "Lux" (density 103,500 kg/m3) which is a perfect insulator, and an absurdly strong mirror metal called "Relux" which is a conductor. Though in Campbell's stories these materials were composed out of solidified photons, i.e., Bose–Einstein condensates. )

Macroscopic extents of these substances are possible in very thin fibers or sheets. An (utterly invisible) Higgsinium strand one conventional atom (= 106 particles) in diameter masses 100 grams per centimeter of length. It may be able to support a 100 million tonnes, being about ten thousand times stronger for its weight than normal materials. Although it would slice through conventional matter as through a cloud (but sometimes the extremely thin cut would heal itself immediately), properly mounted it would make gargantuan engineering projects such as orbital elevators trivial. A single particle thick layer of Higgsinium would weigh about ten kilograms per square centimeter. Overlayed on structures of conventional matter the superconducting version especially would make powerful armor that would shield against essentially all normal matter projectiles, temperatures into the nuclear range, and all but the highest energy radiation. (But it could be penetrated by even denser Monopolium tipped bullets. Arms races are relentless!)

The same armor could be used to line the combustion chamber and expansion bell of a matter-antimatter rocket. Normal matter is instantly disintegrated by the violence of the reaction, but Higgsinium would easily bounce the pions, gamma rays and X rays produced when hydrogen meets antihydrogen. Single particle thick Monopolium, at a hundred tonnes per square centimeter, may be too heavy to use as a veneer at macroscopic scales. But it might be just the thing for constructing microscopic interstellar ships. A ship with two tiny tanks crammed with ultra compressed hydrogen and antihydrogen could rapidly propel itself at high acceleration to a few percent of the speed of light. Unaffected by either protons or antiprotons, Monopolium it would be better for building the engine and tanks than Higgsinium. The ship's front end might house a superfast mind, and tiny robot arms. It could probably land on a neutron star and start raising Neutronium crops and children.

Combining electrically conducting matter and Monopolium is interesting. Our Monopolium is about 10,000 times as strong for its weight as normal matter. Properly exploited, it can store $10,000$ as much energy in mechanical or electromagnetic form. Monopolium superconductor plated in a ring around a copper rod should make a lovely storage battery. To charge it, pass a current through the rod, thus setting up a monopole supercurrent in the ring. The magnetic current remains when you break the electrical connection, and causes the ends of the rod keep the voltage you had applied. When you connect a load to the rod ends, a current flows, and the voltage gradually drops towards zero as the monopole current slowly converts to electrical power. A kilogram of Monopolium should be able to store a fantastic one million watt hours. Caution: Do Not Overcharge! If the monopole current becomes too large, the electric field it generates will burst the ring, and all of the stored energy will be released at once in an explosion equal to a ton of TNT. There are other possibilities, especially involving intimate mixtures of monopoles and electrically charged matter (intertwined, like links of a chain), but we're out far enough on this limb for now.


The largest of the probes was really an automated factory, but its single output was very unusual—monopoles. It had some monopoles on board already, both positive and negative types. These were not for output, but the seed material needed to run the monopole factory. The factory probe headed for the first of the large nickel-iron planetoids that the strong magnetic fields of the neutron star had slowed and captured during its travels. It started preparing the site while the other probes proceeded with the job of building the power supply necessary to operate the monopole factory, for the power that would be needed was so great that there was no way the factory probe could have carried the fuel. In fact, the power levels needed would exceed the total power-plant capability of the human race on Earth, Colonies, Luna, Mars, asteroids, and scientific outposts combined.

Although the electrical power required was beyond the capability of those in the Solar System, this was only because they didn't have the right energy source. The Sun had been—and still was—very generous with its outpouring of energy; but so far the best available ways to convert that radiant energy into electricity, either with solar cells or by burning some fossilized sun energy and using it to rotate a magnetic field past some wires in a generator, were still limited.

Here at Dragon's Egg (neutron star), there was no need for solar cells or heat engines, for the rapidly spinning, highly magnetized neutron star was at one time the energy source and the rotor of a dynamo. All that was needed were some wires to convert the energy of that rotating magnetic field into electrical current.

The job of the smaller probes was to lay cable. They started at the factory and laid a long thin cable in a big loop that passed completely around the star, but out at a safe distance, where it would be stable for the few months that the power would be needed. Since a billion kilometers of cable was needed to reach from the positions of the asteroidal material down around the star and back out again, it had to be very unusual cable—and it was. The cables being laid were bundles of superconducting polymer threads. Although it was hot near the neutron star, there was no need of refrigeration to maintain the superconductivity, for the polymers stayed superconducting almost to their melting point—900 degrees.

The cables became longer and longer and started to react to the magnetic field lines of the star, which were whipping by them ten times a second—five sweeps of a positive magnetic field emanating from the east pole of the neutron star, interspersed with five sweeps of the negative magnetic field from the west pole. Each time the field went by, the current would surge through the cable and build up as excess charge on the probes. Before they were through, the probes were pulsating with displays of blue and pink corona discharge—positive, then negative. The last connection of the cable to complete the circuit was tricky, since it had to be made at a time when the current pulsating back and forth through the wire was passing through zero. But for semi-intelligent probes with fractional-relativistic fusion-rocket drives, one-hundredth of a second is plenty of time.

With the power source hooked up to the factory, production started. Strong alternating magnetic fields whipped the seed monopoles back and forth at high energies through a chunk of dense matter. The collisions of the monopoles with the dense nuclei took place at such high energies that elementary particle pairs were formed in profusion, including magnetic monopole pairs. These were skimmed out of the debris emanating from the target and piped outside the factory by tailored electric and magnetic fields, where they were injected into the nearby asteroid. The monopoles entered the asteroid and in their passage through the atoms interacted with the nuclei, displacing the outer electrons. A monopole didn't orbit the nucleus like an electron. Instead, it whirled in a ring, making an electric field that held the charged nucleus, while the nucleus whirled in a linked ring to make a magnetic field that held onto the magnetically charged monopole.

With the loss of the outer electrons that determined their size, the atoms became smaller, and the rock they made up became denser. As more and more monopoles were poured in the center of the asteroid, the material there changed from normal matter, which is bloated with light electrons, into dense monopolium. The original atomic nuclei were still there; but, now with monopoles in linked orbits around them, the density increased to nearly that of a neutron star. As the total amount of converted matter in the asteroid increased, the gravitational field from the condensed matter became higher and soon began to assist in the process, crushing the electron orbits about the atoms into nuclear dimensions after they had only been partially converted into monopolium. After the month-long process was complete, the 250-kilometer-diameter asteroid had been converted into a 100-meter-diameter sphere with a core of monopolium, a mantle of degenerate matter of white dwarf density, and a glowing crust of partially collapsed normal matter.

From DRAGON'S EGG by Robert L. Forward (1980)

Programmable Matter

What is a Programmable Matter™ smart material?
A Programmable Matter™ smart material is any bulk substance whose physical properties can be adjusted in real time through the application of light, voltage, electric or magnetic fields, etc. Primitive forms may allow only limited adjustment of one or two traits (e.g., the "photodarkening" or "photochromic" materials found in light-sensitive sunglasses), but there are theoretical forms which, using known principles of electronics, should be capable of emulating a broad range of naturally occurring materials, or of exhibiting unnatural properties which cannot be produced by other means.
What is Wellstone™ smart material?
Wellstone™ was a hypothetical form of smart material first proposed by Wil McCarthy in his novella "Once Upon a Matter Crushed" (Science Fiction Age, May 1999), consisting of nanoscopic semiconductor threads covered with quantum dots. These threads can be woven together to form a bulk solid with real-time adjustable properties. The terms "Wellstone™" and "Programmable Matter™" are occasionally incorrectly used interchangeably, although many other forms of smart materials exist.
Is this science fiction?
No. Various forms of smart material have appeared in fiction, but are in many cases based on technologies which exist today, or on reasonable extrapolations from them.
Where is smart material research being conducted?
Various aspects of smart materials (including quantum dots, electrochromic materials, magnetoreheologic materials, and various kinds of fiber-based circuitry) are under investigation in labs all over the world. Major players include (but are by no means limited to) IBM, Nippon Telehone and Telegraph, Fujitsu, Delft University, MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Cornell, CalTech, and The University of California at Santa Barbara. Wellstone™, Wafflestone™, and Gridwell™, using quantum dots incorporated into fibers, ribbons, and plates are under explicit investigation at the Programmable Matter™ Corporation.
Are smart materials the same thing as nanotechnology?
Yes and no. The word "nanotechnology" simply means "technology on the scale of nanometers," or billionths of a meter, i.e. technology on the molecular scale. Most forms of Programmable Matter™ smart materials rely on nano-circuitry, designer molecules, or both, so in this literal sense they are nanotechnology. However, as originally coined by K. Eric Drexler in the 1980s and as commonly used by lay persons today, the word nanotechnology implies nanoscale machinery, more properly known as molecular nanotechnology or MNT. While bulk materials incorporating MNT may have programmable properties, they also have moving parts. Our smart materials do not rule out such materials, but more typically refers to substances whose properties can be adjusted in the solid state, with no moving parts other than photons and electrons.
Are Programmable Matter™ smart materials the same thing as MEMS?
No. Micro Electromechanical Systems, or MEMS, are microscopic machines crafted using standard methods for the manufacture of microchips. MEMS have many useful applications in the real world, but are far too large to exhibit the quantum effects necessary to affect the bulk properties of matter. However, the "Utility Fog" substance proposed by J. Storrs Hall in the early 1990s, consisting of millions or billions of MEMS micromachines — each with with 12 retractable, linkable arms -- has numerous adjustable bulk properties and can thus be considered a crude, mechanical form of smart materials. Also, The Programmable Matter™ Corporation is exploring the possible uses of Wellstone™ smart materials to enhance the properties of MEMS.
Is a cellular automaton computer simulation a smart material?
Yes, although technically speaking, a cellular automaton can only contain virtual smart material, whereas physical examples which meet the definition are available in the real world.
Does an LCD screen qualify as a smart material ? Does a transistor?
An LCD screen's optical properties can be dramatically altered by the application of electrical signals. Thus, it is clearly a form of smart material, albeit a simple one. A transistor can switch between an electrically conductive state and an electrically insulative one, but is properly a "device" rather than a substance or material. However, a bulk material fashioned from transistors (transistronium?) would be electrically switchable between these two states, and possibly numerous intermediate states. This meets (trivially) the definition for smart material stated above. In general, the more capable forms of Programmable Matter™ smart materials rely on the doping effects of "artificial atoms" or "quantum dots" inside a bulk material.
What is doping?
Doping is the addition of impurities (dopants) to a bulk material (the substrate) in order to adjust its electrical, thermal, optical, or magnetic properties. The addition of one dopant atom per million atoms of substrate is often sufficient to cause major changes in the material's behavior, and impurities in the parts-per-billion can disrupt the expected behavior of a pure crystal.
What is quantum confinement?
Quantum confinement is the trapping of electrons or electron "holes" (charge carriers) in a space small enough that their quantum (wavelike) behavior dominates over their classical (particle-like) behavior. In quantum mechanical terms, for quantum confinement to occur the dimension of the confining device or particle must be comparable to, or smaller than, the de Broglie wavelength of the carriers, and also the carrier inelastic mean free path IMFP and electron-hole Bohr radius of the material it's made from. Under cryogenic conditions, this typically occurs with dimensions of 1000 nm (0.001 mm) or less. At room temperature, depending on the materials, confinement dimensions of 20 nm or smaller are typically required.
What are quantum dots and artificial atoms? Are they the same thing?
A quantum dot is any device capable of the quantum confinement of electrons (for holes, it becomes an "antidot"). Once the electrons are confined, they repel one another and also obey the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which forbids any two electrons from having the same quantum state. Thus, the electrons in a quantum dot will form shells and orbitals highly reminiscent of (though larger than) the ones in an atom, and will in fact exhibit many of the optical, electrical, thermal, and (to some extent) chemical properties of an atom. This electron cloud is therefore referred to as an artificial atom. In their various forms, quantum dots may be referred to as single-electron transistors, controlled potential barriers, Coulomb islands, zero dimensional electron gases, colloidal nanoparticles or semiconductor nanocrystals.
What is a quantum well?
A quantum well is a device for confining electrons in one dimension, such that their quantum (wavelike) behavior dominates over their classical (particle-like) behavior along the confined axis, while classical behavior dominates along the other two axes, permitting the electrons to flow two-dimensionally through the material like billiard balls on a table. A typical quantum well may be fashioned from an N-type semiconductor, doped with electron donor atoms, trapped between two layers of P-type semiconductor, doped with electron borrower atoms. Other arrangements, such as a metal layer sandwiched between two insulators, are also possible. A quantum well is the primary component of miniature laser pointers.
What are Programmable Matter™ smart materials made of?
Programmable Matter™ smart materials are composed of manmade objects too small to perceive directly with the human senses. This may include microscopic or nanoscopic machines, but more typically refers to fixed arrangements of conductors, semiconductors, and insulators designed to trap electrons in artificial atoms.
How are Programmable Matter™ smart materials made?
Current forms of quantom dot smart materials fall into three types: colloidal films, bulk crystals, and quantum dot chips which confine electrons electrostatically. Quantum dots can be grown chemically as nanoparticles of semiconductor surrounded by an insulating layer. These particles can then be deposited onto a substrate, such as a semiconductor wafer patterned with metal electrodes, or they can be crystalized into bulk solids by a variety of methods. Either substance can be stimulated with electricity or light (e.g., lasers) in order to change its properties.

Electrostatic quantum dots are patterns of conductor (usually a metal such as gold) laid down on top of a quantum well, such that varying the electrical voltage on the conductors can drive electrons into and out of a confinement region in the well — the quantum dot. This method offers numerous advantages over nanoparticle ("colloidal") films, including a greater control over the artificial atom's size, composition, and shape. Numerous quantum dots can be placed on the same chip, forming a semiconductor material with a programmable dopant layer near its surface. A number of fabrication technologies exist whose resolution is sufficient to produce room-temperature quantum dot devices. Rolling such quantum dot chips into cylindrical fibers produces Wellstone™ smart material, a hypothetical woven solid whose bulk properties are broadly programmable.
Can Programmable Matter™ smart materials mimic the substances on the periodic table?
Yes. Artificial atoms can easily be constructed which mimic the properties of any natural atom, except that they are larger and their electrons are bound more loosely. However, these artificial atoms have negligible mass, and can exist only inside the quantum-dot substrate which generates them, usually a semiconductor. Thus, the final properties of the material are a blend of the simulated element and the underlying substrate. Note that the color of an artificial element made of oversized atoms would be redshifted as compared with the equivalent natural element.
Is this alchemy? Can it convert lead into gold?
Yes and no. An artificial atom of pseudo-lead (atomic number 82), trapped permanently inside a semiconductor material, can be converted to an artificial atom of pseudo-gold (atomic number 79) by the subtraction of three electrons. Sufficient numbers of these pseudoatoms may overwhelm the natural behavior of the semiconductor to produce a metal-like material similar to lead or gold, except for its mass, ductility, and probably color. Artificial atoms designed to mimic the colors of lead or gold might have other properties (e.g., electrical or thermal conductivity) which do not match the original metal.
Can Programmable Matter™ smart materials mimic transuranic elements?
Yes. An artificial atom can contain any number of electrons, from 1 to over 1000. The form and properties of highly transuranic atoms (atomic number >> 92) are dramatically different from those of natural atoms.
Aren't these transuranic elements highly unstable? Can you create nuclear reactions with them?
Electrons in an atom are confined by their attraction to the nucleus, and the nuclei of highly transuranic elements are unstable. However, an artificial atom does not have a nucleus of its own, relying instead on geometry, insulative barriers, and/or electrostatic repulsion to confine its electrons inside a semiconductor substrate. Thus, transuranic artificial atoms are stable as long as the device containing the electrons continues operating. The only atomic nuclei present are those of the metal and/or semiconductor atoms which make up the quantum dot. Because the confined electrons cannot affect the properties of these nuclei, they cannot be used to trigger or modify nuclear reactions. An artificial atom with 92 electrons in it is not "real" uranium, and will not be radioactive.
Can Programmable Matter™ smart materials be used to create superstrong materials?
Probably not. The binding energy of artificial atoms cannot exceed the binding energy of the semiconductor substrate. However, using diamond fibers or fullerenes as a substrate should allow for some very tough smart materials. Also, changes in the magnetic behavior of a material can affect its stiffness and tensile/compressive strength in useful ways.
What does "unnatural properties" mean?
Unlike natural atoms, artificial atoms can be square, pyramidal, two-dimensional, highly transuranic, composed of charged particles other than electrons (e.g., "holes"), and can even be asymmetrical. Their size, energy, and shape are variable quantities. Thus, artificial atoms exhibit optical, electrical, thermal, magnetic, mechanical, and (to some extent) chemical behaviors which do not occur in natural materials. This variety is bounded but infinite, in sharp contrast to the 92 stable atoms of the periodic table.
What does matter made of artificial atoms feel like? Is is solid?
Artificial atoms can exist only inside a semiconductor substrate. They are charge discontinuities rather than physical objects, so they don't "feel" like anything. However, their doping effects can dramatically alter the properties of the substrate, causing it to feel different. For example, a dramatic increase in thermal and electrical conductivity would make the semiconductor feel (in terms of thermal response) like a metal.
What are Programmablse Matter™ smart materials good for?
Almost anything. They can improve the efficient collection, storage, distribution, and use of energy from environmental sources. They can be used to create novel sensors and computing devices, probably including quantum computers. They can create materials which are not available by other means, and which change their apparent composition on demand. Currently, the design of new materials is a time- and labor-intensive process; with Programmable Matter™ smart materials, it becomes a real-time issue, similar to the design and debugging of software.
Who is Wil McCarthy?
Wil McCarthy, an aerospace engineer, is a contributing editor for WIRED magazine, the science columnist for the SciFi channel web site, and an author of numerous book-length works of science fact and science fiction. He has written extensively about quantum dots and smart materials, and faces a consistent set of questions, objections, and misconceptions when presenting this material. This FAQ is intended to promote intelligent discussion of smart materials and quantum dots by increasing awareness of their underlying issues and principles.
Who invented this?
Single-electron transistors, a form of quantum dot, were first proposed by A.A. Likharev in 1984 and constructed by Gerald Dolan and Theodore Fulton at Bell Laboratories in 1987. The first semiconductor SET, a type of quantum dot sometimes referred to as a designer atom, was invented by Marc Kastner and John Scott-Thomas at MIT in 1989. The term "artificial atom" was coined by Kastner in 1993. However, Wil McCarthy was the first to use the term "Programmable Matter™" in connection with quantum dots, and to propose a mechanism for the precise, 3D control of large numbers of quantum dots inside a bulk material. The most interesting forms of this device or substance -- known as "quantum dot fiber", "programmable dopant fiber", or "Wellstone™" — are under development at The Programmable Matter™ Corporation. The term "Wellstone™" was coined by McCarthy's business associate, Gary E. Snyder.
Are there unresolved issues regarding Programmable Matter™ smart materials?
Quantum dots are a new field with much basic research still remaining, so the ultimate properties of bulk quantum-dot materials cannot be known with precision at this time. However, the principles underlying quantum confinement are fairly well understood, and the experimental evidence overwhelmingly indicates that programmable quantum-dot smart materials are feasible, and will play an important role in future technology. Many issues have been considered, and many more are under investigation.
Is the technology patented?
Wil McCarthy and Gary E. Snyder hold pending U.S. patents on the concept, one entitled "Fiber Incorporating Quantum Dots as Programmable Dopants", filed 13 August 2001.
Where can I learn more?
The best online reference for lay readers is "Ultimate Alchemy," a 7,000-word article from WIRED magazine available (minus the pictures) at:

Offline lay-references include Richard Turton's THE QUANTUM DOT: A Journey into the Future of Microelectronics (Oxford University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-195-10959-7).

and Wil McCarthy's HACKING MATTER: Levitating Chairs, Quantum Mirages, and the Infinite Weirdness of Programmable Atoms (Basic Books, 2003, ISBN 0-465-04429-8).

For serious theoreticians, Paul Harrison's Quantum Wells, Wires, and Dots (Wiley, 2000, ISBN 0-471-98495-7) provides equations and computer code for estimating the behavior of confined electrons.
From The Programmable Matter Corporation


Computronium is a material hypothesized by Norman Margolus and Tommaso Toffoli of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to be used as "programmable matter," a substrate for computer modeling of virtually any real object. It also refers to a theoretical arrangement of matter that is the best possible form of computing device for that amount of matter.

Matter that has been transformed from its natural state into an optimized, maximally efficient computer. (A true Extropian would argue that this is matter's "natural state".)

What constitutes "computronium" varies with the level of postulated technology. A rod logic nanocomputer is probably too primitive to qualify as computronium, since large molecular aggregates (hundreds or thousands of atoms) are used as computing elements. A more archetypal computronium would be a three-dimensional cellular automaton which attached computational significance to each individual atom, perhaps with quantum-computing elements included.

More exotic forms of computronium include neutronium, Higgsium, monopolium, or — my personal invention — an interlaced structure of positive-matter and negative-matter monopolium wrapped up in a fractal Van Den Broeck warp. (The total mass is zero, so the whole doesn't undergo gravitational collapse. If paired negative and positive matter can be manufactured in unlimited quantities, the fractal Van Den Broeck warp can continue extending indefinitely and exponentially. Threading the system with wormholes keeps latency down. And the whole thing fits in your pocket.)
From CREATING FRIENDLY AI by Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Inc. (2001)

Room Temperature Superconductor

Superconductors are nifty wires that have exactly zero resistance to the flow of electricity. They are vital to the construction of ultra-powerful magnets (for coilguns, particle beam weapons, and some propulsion systems) and for hyperfast computers.

The first superconductors had to be cooled with expensive and troublesome liquid helium. They became practical when new superconductors were discovered which could work with cheap and easy liquid nitrogen.

But the holy grail is a superconductor that doesn't need to be cooled at all. These are high-temperature superconductors, colloquially called "room-temperature superconductors."

Larry Niven used superconductors a lot in his Known Space series, especially Ringworld. His electrical superconductors are also superconductors of heat, which I have so far failed to find a reference on that topic.


High-temperature superconductors (abbreviated high-Tc or HTS) are materials that behave as superconductors at unusually high temperatures. The first high-Tc superconductor was discovered in 1986 by IBM researchers Georg Bednorz and K. Alex Müller, who were awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics "for their important break-through in the discovery of superconductivity in ceramic materials".

Whereas "ordinary" or metallic superconductors usually have transition temperatures (temperatures below which they are superconductive) below 30 K (−243.2 °C), and must be cooled using liquid helium in order to achieve superconductivity, HTS have been observed with transition temperatures as high as 138 K (−135 °C), and can be cooled to superconductivity using liquid nitrogen. Until 2008, only certain compounds of copper and oxygen (so-called "cuprates") were believed to have HTS properties, and the term high-temperature superconductor was used interchangeably with cuprate superconductor for compounds such as bismuth strontium calcium copper oxide (BSCCO) and yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO). Several iron-based compounds (the iron pnictides) are now known to be superconducting at high temperatures.

In 2015, hydrogen sulfide (H2S) under extremely high pressure (around 150 gigapascals) was found to undergo superconducting transition near 203 K (-70 °C), the highest temperature superconductor known to date.

For an explanation about Tc (the critical temperature for superconductivity), see Superconductivity § Superconducting phase transition and the second bullet item of BCS theory § Successes of the BCS theory.


The phenomenon of superconductivity was discovered by Kamerlingh Onnes in 1911, in metallic mercury below 4 K (−269.15 °C). Ever since, researchers have attempted to observe superconductivity at increasing temperatures with the goal of finding a room-temperature superconductor. In the late 1970s, superconductivity was observed in certain metal oxides at temperatures as high as 13 K (−260.1 °C), which were much higher than those for elemental metals. In 1986, J. Georg Bednorz and K. Alex Müller, working at the IBM research lab near Zurich, Switzerland were exploring a new class of ceramics for superconductivity. Bednorz encountered a barium-doped compound of lanthanum and copper oxide whose resistance dropped down to zero at a temperature around 35 K (−238.2 °C). Their results were soon confirmed by many groups, notably Paul Chu at the University of Houston and Shoji Tanaka at the University of Tokyo.

Shortly after, P. W. Anderson, at Princeton University came up with the first theoretical description of these materials, using the resonating valence bond theory, but a full understanding of these materials is still developing today. These superconductors are now known to possess a d-wave pair symmetry. The first proposal that high-temperature cuprate superconductivity involves d-wave pairing was made in 1987 by Bickers, Scalapino and Scalettar, followed by three subsequent theories in 1988 by Inui, Doniach, Hirschfeld and Ruckenstein, using spin-fluctuation theory, and by Gros, Poilblanc, Rice and Zhang, and by Kotliar and Liu identifying d-wave pairing as a natural consequence of the RVB theory. The confirmation of the d-wave nature of the cuprate superconductors was made by a variety of experiments, including the direct observation of the d-wave nodes in the excitation spectrum through Angle Resolved Photoemission Spectroscopy, the observation of a half-integer flux in tunneling experiments, and indirectly from the temperature dependence of the penetration depth, specific heat and thermal conductivity.

Until 2015 the superconductor with the highest transition temperature that had been confirmed by multiple independent research groups (a prerequisite to be called a discovery, verified by peer review) was mercury barium calcium copper oxide (HgBa2Ca2Cu3O8) at around 133 K.

After more than twenty years of intensive research, the origin of high-temperature superconductivity is still not clear, but it seems that instead of electron-phonon attraction mechanisms, as in conventional superconductivity, one is dealing with genuine electronic mechanisms (e.g. by antiferromagnetic correlations), and instead of conventional, purely s-wave pairing, more exotic pairing symmetries are thought to be involved (d-wave in the case of the cuprates; primarily extended s-wave, but occasionally d-wave, in the case of the iron-based superconductors). In 2014, evidence showing that fractional particles can happen in quasi two-dimensional magnetic materials, was found by EPFL scientists lending support for Anderson's theory of high-temperature superconductivity.


"High-temperature" has two common definitions in the context of superconductivity:

  1. Above the temperature of 30 K that had historically been taken as the upper limit allowed by BCS theory(1957). This is also above the 1973 record of 23 K that had lasted until copper-oxide materials were discovered in 1986.
  2. Having a transition temperature that is a larger fraction of the Fermi temperature than for conventional superconductors such as elemental mercury or lead. This definition encompasses a wider variety of unconventional superconductors and is used in the context of theoretical models.

The label high-Tc may be reserved by some authors for materials with critical temperature greater than the boiling point of liquid nitrogen (77 K or −196 °C). However, a number of materials – including the original discovery and recently discovered pnictide superconductors – had critical temperatures below 77 K but are commonly referred to in publication as being in the high-Tc class.

Technological applications could benefit from both the higher critical temperature being above the boiling point of liquid nitrogen and also the higher critical magnetic field (and critical current density) at which superconductivity is destroyed. In magnet applications, the high critical magnetic field may prove more valuable than the high Tc itself. Some cuprates have an upper critical field of about 100 tesla. However, cuprate materials are brittle ceramics which are expensive to manufacture and not easily turned into wires or other useful shapes. Also, high-temperature superconductors do not form large, continuous superconducting domains, but only clusters of microdomains within which superconductivity occurs. They are therefore unsuitable for applications requiring actual superconducted currents, such as magnets for magnetic resonance spectrometers.

After two decades of intense experimental and theoretical research, with over 100,000 published papers on the subject, several common features in the properties of high-temperature superconductors have been identified. As of 2011, no widely accepted theory explains their properties. Relative to conventional superconductors, such as elemental mercury or lead that are adequately explained by the BCS theory, cuprate superconductors (and other unconventional superconductors) remain distinctive. There also has been much debate as to high-temperature superconductivity coexisting with magnetic ordering in YBCO, iron-based superconductors, several ruthenocuprates and other exotic superconductors, and the search continues for other families of materials. HTS are Type-II superconductors, which allow magnetic fields to penetrate their interior in quantized units of flux, meaning that much higher magnetic fields are required to suppress superconductivity. The layered structure also gives a directional dependence to the magnetic field response.


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