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 RocketCat says 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

To reiterate: Tech Levels are a simplistic linear scale used to measure the relative technological achievements of two cultures/empires/aliens/whatever. Such a scale is making the drastic assumption that every culture goes through the exact same set of technological advances. While this may be adequate for a table-top role playing game or crude 4X game, a cursory examination of the history of technology of various civilizations here on Terra will reveal how utterly unsophisticated the concept is.

A more adequate solution is the concept of technology trees.


"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 (1976)


     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


From CIVILIZATION LEVELS by John F. Carr. Essay is about the Terro-Human universe created by H. Beam Piper. In that universe, the Terran Federation has suffered a catastrophic collapse and is currently in The Long Night.

      Civilization Levels (usually referred to as Civ-Levels) were invented by Otto Harkaman because he thought the former Federation Civilization Index, which only went to 5, was not descriptive enough for those worlds which had survived the fall of the Federation and the Interstellar Wars that followed.

     Civ-Levels are used by Space Vikings throughout the Sword-Worlds and Old Federation to rank worlds and their stage of civilization, or decivilization, however that might be. Space Vikings primarily use Civ- Levels to rank Old Federation worlds in terms of fighting capability and potential loot (Space Vikings raid Old Federation worlds for loot. Higher Civ-Level means [a] more valuable loot and [b] higher chance the world can kick the Space Viking's ass). These are a holdover from the Federation Civilization Rankings that were included in the Astrogator’s Guide to the Worlds of the Federation. Space Vikings find the ratings very useful as a shorthand when discussing past raids, future targets and dream scores.

Civilization Levels (Civ-Levels)

Level One—Blasted back to the Stone Age.

Level Two—A pre-mechanical world at a Dark Ages equivalent. Fighters use swords, bows and arrows and bone and leather for armor.

Level Three—early Medieval equivalent. Pre-mechanical world, but with steel plate armor and castles for defense.

Level Four—Late Medieval. Some hydraulic powered machines, gunpowder, and the printing press.

Level Five—Early steam technology, paddle wheelers, rifles and dynamite.

Level Six—Steam age with locomotives, heavy machinery, ocean liners and telegraph communications.

Level Seven—Gasoline engines, early autos, first airplanes, telephones, moving pictures and radio.

Level Eight—Jet planes, solid-fuel rockets, computers, chemicalexplosives and television.

Level Nine—Semi-civilized world, atomic power, the atom bomb, television, super computers, interstellar travel.

Level Ten—A civilized world, with nuclear power, collapsium (technobabble armor made out of condensed matter. Electron shells of the atoms are collapsed upon nulcei, the atoms in actual contact. Won't allow any radiation to pass, and can widthstand nuclear explosions. Total handwavium.), hyperspace technology, with their own space ships for trading and protection (don't forget antigravity, though they call it "contragravity").

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

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

To reiterate: Technology Trees are the vastly superior rating scale that supersedes the moronic one-dimensional Tech Levels. As with Tech Levels, Tech Trees are used to measure the relative technological achievements of two cultures/empires/aliens/whatever.


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

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

      B.C. 250: The aeolipile of Hero spun in the temple at Alexandria, hissing softly to itself and blowing jets of steam into the fire-lit dimness. It was only for display, an embryonic turbine which would develop no further for lack of the knowledge that it could be put to work. Fifty light-years away, on the planet he called Ruhannoc, Zerwil the Wise had made an ingenious contraption which could have evolved into a pump or a locomotive engine; but it never did, because it had not occurred to anyone that there was any other source of energy than living muscles.

     A.D. 1495: Leonardo da Vinci regarded his airplane model wistfully, and then laid it aside. It could have flown; Man could have risen even as the birds, save that there was no power plant available. He did not know that there was a planet less than nine light-years away on which they were building efiicient internal-combustion engines, and that for several reasons—among them the fact that aerial life had never evolved there—they did not think of using this power to give themselves wings.

     A.D. 1942: The Allied nations were searching with an intensity approaching desperation for a means of detecting the enemy submarines whose wolf packs were harrying their convoys and threatening to snap the thin Atlantic lifeline. Ultrasonics looked promising, but that was a little-known field in which researchers had to start from the very bottom. Not far away, as Galactic distances go, the people of Sumanor on the planet they called Urish could have told the Allied councillors everything about ultrasonics. It would have been a fair exchange, for on Urish they had never heard of submarines.

From HORSE TRADER by Poul Anderson (1953)

     “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)

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)

Obsolete Tech Still Works

There is an old bromide that says

There are Two Types of Fool:

  1. Fool 1 says "This Is Old So This Is Good"
  2. Fool 2 says "This Is New So This Is Better"

The point being that a given technology may have become outdated, but it still works.

In fact, ancient tech may blindside your enemy if they are expecting something more modern. And in case of emergency, ancient tech is generally easier to cobble together out of scraps. Did you know that you can make a crude AM radio out of a razor blade? And an emergency Morse code radio sender can be built around an electric spark.

  • Fahrenheit 451: One old "technology" that still works is that of storyteller. The person uses their memory to record a story and plays it back using their voice. In the novel, the dystopian government is trying to suppress books because they give the population subversive ideas like "liberty" and "freedom." The job of the "firemen" was to seek out and burn books. In Soviet Russia they monitored technologies like copy machines and printing presses for the same reason. So the dissidents used mimeograph machines and typwriters+carbon-paper to avoid being caught. In the novel even those primitive machines were unavailable. So the "book people" went back to even more primitive technologies, memorizing books to preserve them.

  • Nineteen Eighty-Four: In the novel, written text is created by using a speakwrite, a sort of a typewriter using a speech-to-text interface. Which is monitored by Big Brother to catch any subversive content. The protagonist purchases an old school diary and pen from an antiques shop. That way he can write whatever subversive ideas he wants without Big Brother knowing. A plan that turns out to be wildly naive.

  • The Feeling of Power: In the (satirical) story, the far future is a computer assisted place where generations of people carry around pocket calculators. These have become ubiquitous to the point where everybody has forgotten how to do basic mathematics longhand with pencil on paper. Heck, they have even forgotten how to count. A technician uses reverse-engineering to discover the technique of manual arithmetic. This is widely hailed as a breakthrough. This takes a turn for the worse as the technique is adopted by the military. The technician commits suicide at the perversion of his invention, but there is no stopping it now.

  • Into The Comet: the good ship Challenger is exploring a comet, when the main computer suffers an accident. It is impossible to manually calculate the return trajectory, and the comet's coma prevents communication with Terra. But they manange by utilizing an outdated technology that still works: the abacus

  • Torchship: in the Torchship universe, starship navigational calculations could be done by electronic computers. But they are performed using manual slide-rules and nomograms, by law, with violators subject to the death penalty. Because otherwise Something Awful would happen.

Vaguely related to the concept of using obsolete tech is the infamous Kzinti Lesson. Another related concept is Don't Reinvent The Wheel.

"The hell of it was that a nineteenth-century bullet or even a Stone Age spear could still kill a twenty-third-century marine. It shouldn't. It should not be allowed. And that was it — it was your sense of superiority that killed you."
Tour of the Merrimack: The Myriad

A technologically advanced empire has come to conquer a poor, defenseless, primitive planet where the most advanced piece of technology is a horse. Unfortunately for the empire, Our Heroes happen to be living on the planet and helping the natives at this time, and they are anything but Medieval Morons.

As it turns out, centuries of starship-to-starship combat with particle beams and shields have rendered The Empire ignorant of the simpler ways of getting killed. Wooden crossbow bolts don't show up on radar, and go straight through magnetic barriers. Humongous Mecha fall into hidden pits and get stuck. Swinging tree trunks smash straight through Powered Armor and send the enemy soldiers flying through the air into a conveniently placed abyss. A little pluck, some old-fashioned ingenuity, and a really big rock will beat a laser every time. Don't think too hard on this one. Suffice it to say these rocks tend to de-emphasize the eliteness of the supposed crack troops in a Redshirt Army.

In short, The Empire's Achilles' Heel is anything Traveling at the Speed of Plot.

Historically, every industrialized nation on Earth with imperialist goals regularly steamrolled over the armies of soon-to-be-conquered or otherwise humiliated natives. Occasionally, natives won battles; this had more to do with the colonial forces being commanded by arrogant aristocrats who completely underestimated the capabilities of the primitive natives and knew more about "matters vegetable, animal, and mineral" than actually leading an army. In the rare cases where the natives managed to keep Europeans from completely taking over, they generally received a crash course in development and won with modern weapons, rather than Bamboo Technology. However, it took a while before these conquered lands readjusted their mindset, using their occupiers' knowledge against them.

In certain Speculative Fiction circles, especially those revolving around The Singularity, this is called the Plucky Baseline.

Compare Archaic Weapon for an Advanced Age, Cool, but Inefficient, Good Old Fisticuffs, Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better, Guns Are Worthless, Break Out the Museum Piece, Muggles Do It Better and Older Is Better. One of the things to watch for in How to Invade an Alien Planet. Contrast Low Culture, High Tech, where a low tech culture uses superior high tech devices. See also Superweapon Surprise when natives have something up their sleeves that could reasonably be expected to beat the invaders, or Insufficiently Advanced Alien when the invaders themselves really don't have anything that could reasonably be expected to beat the natives. See Schizo Tech for low tech and high tech used together. Can be justified if the primitives have a huge numerical superiority.

Incidentally, it is worth noting that, in Real Life, rock is one of the better materials to have between yourself and a laser, given its typically high melting point and lack of flammability. Especially if you manage to drop it from high enough.


  • Genre SF's Trope Codifier: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson (1960). Many later instances contain Shout Outs to this one.

    • A Medieval English army, fully prepped on the eve of leaving to join King Edward's crusade, crushes a small alien invasion force, by dint of cunning, superior numbers, and having no EMP-susceptible equipment or depletable bullets/explosives/laser charges - but plenty of reusable arrows, swords, sheer brute strength and a sense of righteous Christian indignation. Then, using the captured spaceship and the grudging assistance of a surviving alien interpreter (taught Latin by the army's cleric), they launch a counter-invasion of the evil intergalactic empire, whom they view as the more prolific, Heaven-soiling brethren of the heretics overrunning Israel. Because the invaders to our world have been dominant for so long over such a wide area, nobody up in the stars has any damn idea what politics are any more. The human leader manages to convince every single alien he meets, through bravado, underhandedness, trickery, and good old-fashioned lying, to assail their opponents. When "future" Earth finally reaches the stars, they are met by the emissary of the trans-galactic feudal Christian empire, run by Human descendants of the would-have-been Crusaders. And it is beyond awesome. Especially when the Space duke asks the Earth captain if the Holy Land is free of the Pagans. "Um, yes" says the Captain who is a loyal servant of the Israeli Empire.

    • The English have an additional advantage over the aliens: the aliens' weapons have become so advanced that they no longer have any knowledge whatsoever of hand-to-hand combat. Once the English are able to get in close quarters, the aliens don't stand a chance. It takes the English army exactly one battle to figure this out.

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


(ed note: a British military submarine crew from the 1940s are awakened from a sort of suspended animation about a thousand years in the future. It seems that the humans of that era are so pacifistic and militarily inept that they are helpless to repel an alien invasion. The British crew find that many of their old skills have applications with the technology of the future.

Awakened Captain Randall is shown video footage of a savage attack on a defenseless human city. The attack is carried out by an alien war machine that is sort of like a submarine, but moves underground instead of undersea )

      ‘What was that thing?’ Randall was unable to recognise his own voice.
     ‘What – oh, the alien vessel, you mean? I suppose one could liken it to your vessel (a submarine).’ He shook his head quickly as if to clear it of unpleasant memories. ‘I am sorry. I am not myself today and I forget that you have not been instructed in present-day technologies. The method employed is not new; we have used it ourselves for years in mining, sinking shafts for building purposes and similar operations. The vessel is fitted with a device which warps the atomic structure of the soil or rock through which it passes. The soil does not cease to be soil or the rock any less rock but its cohesion is weakened. It becomes to all intents and purposes molten, or more correctly, glutinous, as no heat is involved. An object or vessel may be slowly forced through this semiliquid substance around the device.’
     ‘How big is this vessel?’ There were hard lines around Randall’s mouth and his mind seemed to be racing.
     Relf made a gesture and another picture appeared. ‘Let us see now, in your measurements – about two hundred and fifty feet, give or take ten. As you will observe, it is very much like your vessel except that it has no superstructure.
     ‘Surely the pressure is enormous.’
     ‘We now have atomically constructed substances of unbelievable strength but, yes, they have limits. Maximum depth for this kind of vessel is about eight hundred feet.’
     ‘It is manned?’
     ‘Yes. The aliens have no robots as we understand them. They have a large number of programmed machines but no reasoning mechanical intelligences. In that field we are far ahead of them.’
     Randall frowned; his mind was still racing and a germ of an idea was already growing rapidly.

     A hundred paces behind the two officers, Forsythe and a group of officials watched the preparations with puzzlement. They knew that beneath the ground was an alien war vessel and that above, on this level, golden plain, a group of their long forgotten warrior ancestors were going to try and stop it, but they had no idea how.
     They saw little groups of sailors in their obsolete period blue uniforms squatting on the golden grass. There were four groups, separated by about a hundred and fifty metres, doing nothing but sitting. It was true, of course, that some of than held instruments and that one member of each group wore headphones – whatever they were.
     In front of the sailors, at a distance of about a kilometre, were a large number of what looked like large, corrugated black metal barrels. These were placed in rough arcs in groups of six, dotted haphazardly over a large area for no understandable reason.
     ‘Shut up,’ said Miller in a shocked voice. ‘I’ve got something. Good God, I’ve got a reading! There’s something down there! Mick, call number two group; see if they can pick it up, bearing green five, four.’
     Ordinary Seaman Michael Heme picked up the obsolete field phone (modern-day communication device can be detected by the aliens) provided by the robot construction section that morning and made the call.
     ‘They got it.’ His face was blank with disbelief. ‘Confirmed: green five, four.’
     ‘Enemy vessel, green five, two, speed five knots, depth six hundred feet.’

     Randall, trying to appear calm but inwardly keyed up to the limit, turned to the robot. ‘Well, Austin, you’re the mathematician. Remember what I told you, time and number.’ He picked up the field phone. ‘C.P.O. Duggan, stand by to fire.’
     A hundred paces away, Duggan, lying full-length on the grass, said, ‘Standing by, sir.’ In front of him was a long panel with a series of numbered buttons.
     There was a brief silence, then the robot said, ‘Now, sir – number six.’
     Fire six!’
     Duggan pressed the number six button. ‘Six away, sir.’
     Far out on the golden plain, the soil and grass on which the black barrels rested seemed to blur and shimmer. One of the rough arcs of six barrels seemed to wobble uncertainly and then, slowly, like heavy stones in thick mud, they began to sink.
     ‘Number four, sir.’
     ‘Fire four!’
     ‘Four away, sir.’
     Another arc of six barrels began slowly to slide beneath the ground.
     He became aware that Austin was at his side and counting steadily.
     ‘Ninety-five, ninety-six …’ He seemed to count for an eternity. ‘Two hundred and eight, two hundred and nine – zero!’

     It seemed to Randall that the ground kicked savagely and with unnecessary brutality at the soles of his feet. Here and there men staggered and nearly fell.
     There was no sound of an explosion but far out on the plain a wide fissure, as jagged and as swift as lightning, opened and closed with an abrupt crunching sound.
     Almost immediately the ground jerked again and then again. More fissures and cracks opened and closed in the distance. The grass shivered and danced and large sections of grass-covered soil sank several feet or rose at odd angles on humps of earth.
     The jerking stopped but tortured grunting noises came from the ground. Far in the distance a geyser of dirt and black smoke suddenly jetted ninety feet into the sky and subsided as abruptly as it had come.
     More sections of soil and grass rose and fell. Plumes of bluish smoke began to drift lazily from cracks and hollows and a pall of dust began to drift tiredly away with the light wind.
     Randall shook himself mentally; somehow the upheaval had numbed him. It had been like watching the birth of a volcano.
     ‘Austin, you can check with your advance instruments.’
     ‘Yes, sir.’
     Almost immediately Austin was joined by two other robots and within two minutes he called, ‘It’s stopped!’ Austin sounded as jubilant and as excited as a human being. ‘There’s no response whatever from the power circuits, sir, and – yes – the forward part of the vessel is lying at right angles to the rear – sorry – stern. She’s broken in half, sir!’

     Heston, who was standing near, threw his hat in the air. ‘We got the bastard,’ he said. ‘What was it, anyway – some sort of underground submarine?’
     Randall smiled faintly. ‘I think, Number One, that the men should see the picture I saw. It’ll do them no harm to know the type of enemy we’re up against.’
     Relf hurried over. Relief and a slightly guilty feeling made him shakily enthusiastic. ‘Magnificent, wonderful. The entire human race owes you an everlasting debt.’
     ‘We’ve knocked out one ship,’ said Randall, dryly. ‘No major victory.’
     Relf looked at him with considerable respect. ‘I will send orders immediately.’ He frowned thoughtfully. ‘What exactly did you do?
     ‘Well, with the aid of the robots I simply took advantage of your mining device, also used by the enemy, to alter the atomic structure of the soil and sink certain devices to his depth.’
     ‘What an ingenious idea! You must have a highly imaginative mind.’
     ‘Imaginative!’ Randall laughed. ‘Good God, no, not my idea at all; I’ve had the same treatment too often. I simply depth-charged him!’
     Relf looked at him blankly and walked away to send orders to the news services. What the hell was depth-charging?
     He gave the necessary instructions and, at the same time, contacted the memory banks, through the communication unit.
     He walked back slowly, his face frowning and thoughtful. So that was depth-charging: a pattern of explosive charges, dropped in such a way as to box the hostile vessel completely.
     He could visualise the gigantic pressures built up when the explosives were close enough and detonated together. He could almost feel the terrifying impact, hear the rending of armour plate and the hiss of escaping air.

(ed note: The alien Nern invasion force has been out-maneuvered by Randall. They had been supplied via matter transmitter, and they shelter under a huge force bubble. Randall used his submarine to sneak under the edge of the force bubble, and destroyed both the Nern matter transmitters and all their food supplies. The Nern commodore frets over his postion.)

     Surrender! Surrender? Unthinkable!
     Within a matter of hours, however, it became thinkable. The enemy (humans) attacked with a new weapon (propaganda) which, unfortunately, the Commodore failed to recognise as a weapon until it was too late.
     To the humans, it was as old as time, although something of surprise to the Revain (human allies). The method, however, was new. The force bubble was resonated to produce sound and the sound, in the Nerne clicking language, was insidious and demoralising.
     We do not have to attack. You will die without our assistance. In a few days all your food will be gone. You will have to eat your own species or perish of starvation. Who will be killed or eaten first? It could be you! Why not surrender? We will not kill you. We have ample food for all of you. Did you know you had been abandoned? Your command will not send relief ships. You are an intelligent species, too intelligent to throw away your lives when you could so easily live.
     It went on and on and then …
     Randall shook his head slowly. The probes could not show the interior of the Nerne bubble clearly but they showed enough. Here and there fires burned sullenly, there were continuous flashes, long black columns deployed and redeployed, met and intermingled and dispersed leaving the ground strewn with still figures. The alien troops had revolted.
     Three days later the bubble vanished and twenty thousand survivors (out of one hundred and fifty thousand) prostrated themselves before the conqueror.

     The Revain officer looked at Randall almost with awe. ‘You are a subtle, ingenious and rather frightening people. From what source do you draw such creative ideas?’
     Randall looked puzzled. ‘Creative? My God!’ He laughed. ‘I am a submarine commander one thousand years out of my time period and not a particularly imaginative one at that. Looking back, I can’t think of a single new idea since I’ve been here. Every method I have been able to use is an idea, or the adaption of an idea, in current use in my own time period. Propaganda looks new because my own race had forgotten it and yours had never been called on to use it’

From THE TIME MERCENARIES by Philip E. High (1968)

(ed note: the naive protagonist is under the delusion that workers on Venus colony are legal employees with full rights. After he gets crimped he rapidly discovers it is less indentured servitude and more outright slavery. He eventually manages to escape into the world-covering Venusian swamp and joins up with the colony of escaped slaves)

      The three runaways were given a couple of weeks in which to get their bearings and find some job in which they could make themselves useful and self-supporting. Jimmie stayed with his crock, now confiscated for the community, but which still required a driver. There were other crockers available who probably would have liked the job, but there was tacit consent that the man who brought it in should drive it if he wished. Satchel found a billet in the fields, doing much the same work he had done for Van Huysen. He told Wingate that he was actually having to work harder; nevertheless he liked it better because the conditions were, as he put it, “looser.”

     Wingate detested the idea of going back to agricultural work. He had no rational excuse; it was simply that he hated it. His radio experience at last stood him in good stead. The community had a jury-rigged, low-powder radio on which a constant listening watch was kept, but which was rarely used for transmission because of the danger of detection. Earlier runaway slave camps had been wiped out by the company police through careless use of radio. Nowadays they hardly dared use it, except in extreme emergency.
     But they needed radio. The grapevine telegraph maintained through the somewhat slap-happy help of the little people enabled them to keep some contact with the other fugitive communities with which they were loosely confederated, but it was not really fast, and anything but the simplest of messages were distorted out of recognition.
     Wingate was assigned to the community radio when it was discovered that he had appropriate technical knowledge. The previous operator had been lost in the bush. His opposite number was a pleasant old codger known as Doc, who could listen for signals but who knew nothing of upkeep and repair.
     Wingate threw himself into the job of overhauling the antiquated installation. The problems presented by lack of equipment, the necessity for “making do,” gave him a degree of happiness he had not known since he was a boy, but he was not aware of it.

     He was intrigued by the problem of safety in radio communication. An idea, derived from some account of the pioneer days in radio, gave him a lead. His installation, like all others, communicated by frequency modulation. Somewhere he had seen a diagram for a totally obsolete type of transmitter, an amplitude modulator. He did not have much to go on, but he worked out a circuit which he believed would oscillate in that fashion and which could he hooked up from the gear at hand.

     He asked the governor for permission to attempt to build it. “Why not? Why not?” the governor roared at him. “I haven't the slightest idea what you are talking about, son, but if you think you can build a radio that the company can’t detect, go right ahead. You don’t have to ask me; it’s your pidgin.”
     “I'll have to put the station out of commission for sending.”
     “Why not?”

     The problem had more knots in it than he had thought. But he labored at it with the clumsy but willing assistance of Doc. His first hookup failed; his forty-third attempt five weeks later worked. Doc, stationed some miles out in the bush, reported himself able to hear the broadcast via a small receiver constructed for the purpose, whereas Wingate picked up nothing whatsoever on the conventional receiver located in the same room with the experimental transmitter.

From LOGIC OF EMPIRE by Robert Heinlein (1941)

(ed note: in the Skylark series there is a handwavium background about first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth-order rays. )

      Many millions of parsecs distant from Tellus and its First Galaxy, then, out near the Arbitrary Rim of the First Universe, there lay the Realm of the Llurdi. This Realm, which had existed for over seventy thousand Tellurian years, was made up of four hundred eighty-two planets in exactly half that many solar systems.
     Two planets in each populated system were necessary because the population of the Realm was composed of two entirely different forms of highly intelligent life. Of these two races the Jelmi—the subject race, living practically in vassalage—were strictly human beings and lived on strictly Tellus-type worlds. (the Llurdi look like giant bats with cat-eyes)

     Klazmon the Fifteenth and his Board, seated at a long conference table in hard-upholstered "chairs" shaped to fit the Llurdan anatomy, were paying no attention to routine affairs.
     "I have called this meeting," the ruler said, "to decide what can be done to alleviate an intolerable situation. As you all know, we live in what could be called symbiosis with the Jelmi; who are so unstable, so illogical, so birdbrained generally that they would destroy themselves in a century were it not for our gentle but firm insistence that they conduct themselves in all matters for their own best good. This very instability of their illogical minds, however, enables them to arrive occasionally at valid conclusions from insufficient data; a thing that no logical mind can do. These conclusions—they are intuitions, really—account for practically all the advancement we Llurdi have made and explain why we have put up with the Jelmi—yes, cherished them—so long."
     He paused, contemplating the justice of the arrangement he had just described. It did not occur to him that it could in any way be described as "wrong."

     He went on: "What most of you do not know is that intuitions of any large worth have become less and less frequent, decade by decade, over the last few centuries. It was twelve years ago that the Jelm Jarxon elucidated the Jarxon' band of the sixth order, and no worth-while intuition has been achieved since that time. Beeloy, has your more rigorous analysis revealed any new fact of interest?"
     "Yes, sir." An old male, so old that his fur was almost white, stood up. "Four hundred males and the same number of females, the most intelligent and most capable Jelmi alive, were selected and were brought here to the Llanzlanate. They were put into quarters that were Jelm-type in every respect, even to gravity. They were given every inducement and every facility to work-study and to breed.
     "First, as to work-study. They have done practically nothing except waste time. They seem to devote their every effort to what they call escape' by means of already-well known constructions of the fifth and sixth orders—all of which are of course promptly negated. See for yourselves what these insanely illogical malcontents are doing and know for yourselves that, in its present form, Project University is a failure as far as producing intuitions is concerned."

     Kalton was silenced in mid-sentence by a terrific explosion which was followed by a rumbling crash as half of one wall of the Hall collapsed inward.
     A volume of Jelman air rushed in, enveloping a purposeful company of Jelmi in yellow coveralls and wearing gasmasks. Some of these invaders were shooting pistols; some were using or throwing knives; but all were covering and protecting eight Jelmi who were launching bombs at one great installation of sixth-order gear—the computer complex that was the very nerve center of the entire Realm.
     For the Jelmi—who, as has been said, were human to the last decimal of classification—had been working on fifth- and sixth-order devices purely as a blind; their real effort had been on first-order effects so old that their use had been all but forgotten.

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

      ‘It means that we're all dead,’ Martens answered flatly. ‘Without the computer, we're done for. It’s impossible to calculate an orbit back to Earth. It would take an army of mathematicians weeks to work it out on paper.’
     ‘That's ridiculous! The ship’s in perfect condition, we've plenty of food and fuel — and you tell me we're all going to die just because we can't do a few sums.’
     ‘A few sums!’ retorted Martens, with a trace of his old spirit. ‘A major navigational change, like the one needed to break away from the comet and put us on an orbit to Earth, involves about a hundred thousand separate calculations. Even the computer needs several minutes for the job.’
     Pickett was no mathematician, but he knew enough of astronautics to understand the situation. A ship coasting through space was under the influence of many bodies. The main force controlling it was the gravity of the sun, which kept all the planets firmly chained in their orbits. But the planets themselves also tugged it this way and that, though with much feebler strength. To allow for all these conflicting tugs and pulls — above all to take advantage of them to reach a desired goal scores of millions of miles away — was a problem of fantastic complexity. He could appreciate Martens’ despair; no man could work without the tools of his trade, and no trade needed more elaborate tools than this one...

     ...‘This,’ said Dr Martens three days later, ’isn’t my idea of a joke.’ He gave a contemptuous glance at the flimsy structure of wire and wood that Pickett was holding in his hand.
     ‘I guessed you'd say that,’ Pickett replied, keeping his temper under control. ‘But please listen to me for a minute. My grandmother was Japanese, and when I was a kid she told me a story that I'd completely forgotten until this week. I think it may save our lives.
     ‘Sometime after the Second World War, there was a contest between an American with an electric desk calculator and a Japanese using an abacus like this. The abacus won.’
     ‘Then it must have been a poor desk machine, or an incompetent operator.’
     ‘They used the best in the US Army. But let's stop arguing. Give me a test — say a couple of three-figure numbers to multiply.’
     ’Oh — 856 times 437.’
     Pickett’s fingers danced over the beads, sliding them up and down the wires with lightning speed. There were twelve wires in all, so that the abacus could handle numbers up to 999,999,999,999 — or could be divided into separate sections where several independent calculations could be carried out simultaneously.
     ‘374072,’ said Pickett, after an incredibly brief interval of time. ‘Now see how long you take to do it, with pencil and paper.’
     There was a much longer delay before Martens, who like most mathematicians was poor at arithmetic, called out 375072.’ A hasty check soon confirmed that Martens had taken at least three times as long as Pickett to arrive at the wrong answer.
     The astronomer's face was a study in mingled chagrin, astonishment, and curiosity.
     ‘Where did you learn that trick?’ he asked. ‘I thought those things could only add and subtract.’
     ‘Well — multiplication’s only repeated addition, isn't it? All I did was to add 856 seven times in the unit column, three times in the tens column, and four times in the hundreds column. You do the same thing when you use pencil and paper. Of course, there are some short cuts, but if you think I ’m fast, you should have seen my granduncle. He used to work in a Yokohama bank, and you couldn't see his fingers When he was going at speed. He taught me some of the tricks, but I've forgotten most of them in the last twenty years. I've only been practising for a couple of days, so I'm still pretty slow. All the same, I hope I've convinced you that there's something in my argument.’
     ‘You certainly have: I'm quite impressed. Can you divide just as quickly?’
     ‘Very nearly, when you've had enough experience.’
     Martens picked up the abacus, and started flicking the beads back and forth. Then he sighed.
     ‘Ingenious — but it doesn't really help us. Even if it’s ten times as fast as a man with pencil and paper — which it isn’t — the computer was a million times faster.’
     ‘I've thought of that,’ answered Pickett, a little impatiently. (Martens had no guts — he gave up too easily. How did he think astronomers managed a hundred years ago, before there were any computers?)
     ‘This is what I propose — tell me if you can see any flaws in it . . .' Carefully and earnestly he detailed his plan. As he did so, Martens slowly relaxed, and presently he gave the first laugh that Pickett had heard aboard Challenger for days.
     ‘I want to see the skipper's face,’ said the astronomer, ‘when you tell him that we're all going back to the nursery to start playing with beads.’
     There was scepticism at first, but it vanished swiftly when Pickett gave a few demonstrations. To men who had grown up in a world of electronics, the fact that a simple structure of wire and beads could perform such apparent miracles was a revelation. It was also a challenge, and because their lives depended upon it, they responded eagerly.
     As soon as the engineering staff had built enough smoothly operating copies of Pickett's crude prototype, the classes began. It took only a few minutes to explain the basic principles; what required time was practice — hour after hour of it, until the fingers flew automatically across the wires and flicked the beads into the right positions without any need for conscious thought. There were some members of the crew who never acquired both accuracy and speed, even after a week of constant practice: but there were others who quickly outdistanced Pickett himself.
     They dreamed counters and columns, and flicked beads in their sleep. As soon as they had passed beyond the elementary stage they were divided into teams, which then competed fiercely against each other, until they reached still higher standards of proficiency. In the end, there were men aboard Challenger who could multiply four-figure numbers on the abacus in fifteen seconds, and keep it up hour after hour.
     Such work was purely mechanical; it required skill, but no intelligence. The really difficult job was Martens’, and there was little that anyone could do to help him. He had to forget all the machine-based techniques he had taken for granted, and rearrange his calculations so that they could be carried out automatically by men who had no idea of the meaning of the figures they were manipulating. He would feed them the basic data, and then they would follow the programme he had laid down. After a few hours of patient routine work, the answer would emerge from the end of the mathematical production line — provided that no mistakes had been made. And the way to guard against that was to have two independent teams working, cross-checking results at regular intervals.
     ‘What we’ve done,’ said Pickett into his recorder, when at last he had time to think of the audience he had never expected to speak to again, ‘is to build a computer out of human beings instead of electronic circuits. It's a few thousand times slower, can't handle many digits, and gets tired easily — but it's doing the job. Not the whole job of navigating to Earth — that’s far too complicated — but the simpler one of giving us an orbit that will bring us back into radio range. Once we've escaped from the electrical interference around us, we can radio our position and the big computers on Earth can tell us what to do next.

From INTO THE COMET by Arthur C. Clarke (1960)

      "We're picking up a beam from home," said Herndon anxiously. "But we can't make it out."

     Because the third planet of the sun Lani was being colonized from the second, inhabited world, communication with the colony's base was possible. A tight beam could span the distance, which was only light-minutes across at conjunction, and not much over a light-hour at opposition, as now. But the beam communication had been broken for the past few weeks, and shouldn't be possible again for some weeks more. The sun lay between. One wouldn't expect normal sound-and-picture transmission until the parent planet had moved past the scrambler-fields of Lani. But something had come through. It would be reasonable for it to be pretty much hash when it arrived.

     "They aren't sending words or pictures," said Herndon. "The beam is wobbly and we don't know what to make of it. It's a signal, all right, and on the regular frequency. But there are all sorts of stray noises and still in the midst of it there's some sort of signal we can't make out. It's like a whine, only it stutters. It's a broken-up sound of one pitch."
     Bordman rubbed his chin. He remembered a course in information theory just before he'd graduated from the Service Academy. Signals were made by pulses, pitch-changes, and frequency-variations. Information was what couldn't be predicted without information. And he remembered with gratitude a seminar on the history of communication, just before he'd gone out on his first field job as a Survey Candidate.
     "Hm," he said with a trace of self-consciousness. "Those noises, the stuttering ones. Would they be, on the whole, of no more than two different durations? Like—hm— Bzz bzz bzzzzzzz bzz?"
     He felt that he lost dignity by making such ribald sounds. But Herndon's face brightened.
     "That's it!" he said relievedly. "That's it! Only they're high-pitched like—" His voice went falsetto. "Bz bz bz bzzz bz bz." Bordman thought, we sound like two idiots. He said:
     "Record everything you get, and I'll try to decode it." He added, "Before there was voice communication there were signals by light and sound in groups of long and short units. They came in groups, to stand for letters, and things were spelled out. Of course there were larger groups which were words. Very crude system, but it worked when there was a lot of interference, as in the early days. If there's some emergency, your home world might try to get through the sun's scrambled-field that way."
     "Undoubtedly!" said Herndon, with even greater relief. "No question, that's it!"

     When he entered the office, Herndon sat listening to a literal hash of noises coming out of a speaker on his desk. The cryptic signal had been relayed to him, and a recorder stored it as it came. There were cacklings and squeals and moaning sounds, sputters and rumbles and growls. But behind the facade of confusion there was a tiny, interrupted, high-pitched noise. It was a monotone whining not to be confused with the random sounds accompanying it. Sometimes it faded almost to inaudibility, and sometimes it was sharp and clear. But it was a distinctive sound in itself, and it was made up of short whines and longer ones of two durations only.
     "I've put Riki at making a transcription of what we've got," said Herndon with relief as he saw Bordman. "She'll make short marks for the short sounds, and long ones for the long. I've told her to try to separate the groups. We've got a full half-hour of it, already."
     Bordman made an inspired guess.
     "I would expect it to be the same message repeated over and over," he said. He added, "And I think it would be decoded by guessing at the letters in two-letter and three-letter words, as clues to longer ones. That's quicker than statistical analysis of frequency."
     Herndon instantly pressed buttons under his phone-plate. He relayed the information to his sister, as if it were gospel. But it wasn't, Bordman thought. It's simply a trick remembered from boyhood, when I was interested in secret languages. My interest faded when I realized I had no secrets to record or transmit.
     Herndon turned from the phone-plate.
     "Riki says she's already learned to recognize some groups," he reported, "but thanks for the advice. Now what?"

     There was a stirring behind him; Riki Herndon had come silently into her brother's office. She looked pale. She put some papers down on the desk.
     "That's true," she said. "But while cycles sometimes cancel, sometimes they enhance each other. That's what's happening."
     Bordman scrambled to his feet, flushing. Herndon said sharply:
     "What? Where'd you get that stuff, Riki?"
     She nodded at the sheaf of papers she'd just laid down.
     "That's the news from home." She nodded again, to Bordman. "You were right. It was the same message, repeated over and over. And I decoded it like children decode each other's secret messages. I did that to Ken once. He was twelve, and I decoded his diary, and I remember how angry he was that I'd found out he didn't have any secrets."
     She tried to smile. But Herndon wasn't listening. He read swiftly. Bordman saw that the under sheets were rows of dots and dashes, painstakingly transcribed and then decoded. There were letters under each group of marks.
     Herndon was very white when he'd finished. He handed the sheet to Bordman. Riki's handwriting was precise and clear. Bordman read:
From CRITICAL DIFFERENCE aka SOLAR CONSTANT by Murray Leinster (1956)

(ed note: The good ship Johannes Kepler is about midway on a 92 day journey to Mars colony when a meteor punctures the ship. Unfortunately the idiot captain was holding a meeting of all the officers in the control room, so they are all dead now. The only officer left is Lieutenant Donald Chase, who is actually the ship's medic. However, by the chain of command he is officially the captain.

They struggle through a variety of disasters, most recent of which was a solar proton storm. Now they have to somehow contact Mars Central because they are off-course, the astrogator is in the morgue, and a passenger named Ugalde who is a mathematician is not quite up to calculating a correction. Alas the radio cannot contact Mars through the solar interference.)

      ‘I’m sorry, Captain, but it’s no go. Our signal is getting out — but it just isn’t strong enough. There is still plenty of background noise from the storm, and we’re not punching through it…’ He stopped as the tape recorded message cut off, and there was a moment of hushed silence before a new voice came on.
     ‘Johannes Kepler — are you broadcasting? We have been picking up traces of a signal on your frequency, but cannot read your signal. Are you broadcasting? Repeat — can you hear me? This is Mars Central calling the Johannes Kepler. We have a very weak signal on your frequency but cannot read it…’
     ‘It’s the storm,’ Sparks explained, ‘that and the low power…’
     ‘You did your best, Sparks,’ Don told him. ‘No one is blaming you.’
     There was no one who could be blamed.
     But that did not help.
     If they could not contact Mars they were as good as dead at this moment.

     The others had turned away, but Don was looking at the crude transmitter, glaring at it, as though he could force it to work just by strength of will alone. There had to be a way — and this radio was the only hope they had left.
     ‘Isn’t there any way you can increase the power?’ he asked.
     Sparks shook his head. ‘I’ve already got all the circuits on a forty per cent overload. They can take that for a while without burning out. You saw, I kept cutting the current every few minutes. Any more and they would pop as soon as I turned on the juice.’
     ‘Are there any other ways you can beef up the circuits?’
     ‘Negative on that, I’m afraid. Wiring up this thing was the easiest job. Me and Gold spent most of the time seeing what was the best circuit we could get out of the junk we could find. But the signal will improve as we get closer to Mars. They’ll hear us eventually.’
     ‘Eventually is a word that is not too good,’ Ugalde said. He came up next to the radio and stood, rocking on his toes with his hands behind his back, as though he were addressing a class. ‘Now while I admit with great chagrin that being a navigator is impossible for me at this moment, I am still yet able to calculate an orbit. Roughly mind you, but I have worked out as best I can from the figures of the last calculations made by the deceased navigator. Our course error grows greater with every passing moment, and the greater the error the harder it is to correct.’
     Nothing could be said after this, and the air of gloom in the control-room was thick enough to be cut with a knife. Sparks looked around, from face to face, pulling back against the table.

     ‘Don’t look at me!’ he called out loudly, defensively. ‘I’ve done all I could with the parts we had. I built a radio and it works, you heard that. It’s putting out all it can. There’s nothing more I can do. It’s a working radio, don’t forget that, with a modulated signal, not a radar or a signal generator where you just blast out. This is all we’ve got…’
     Don took him by the shoulder, harder than he intended, his fingers digging deep. ‘What was that you said about radar?’ He let go quickly when he saw the man’s shocked expression.
     ‘It’s nothing, sir. Nothing to do with us. If you just squirt out a signal you can get maybe twice the power we have going out now. But we have to modulate the signal to carry information. Otherwise Mars Central will be getting nothing but a blast of static from our direction. They’ll know that we’re still here — but that’s about all they will know.’
     ‘No!’ Don said. ‘There’s more.’ He paced back and forth, driving his fist into the palm of his hand. ‘Something can be done. I know, I read about it once, a book or something like that, about the early days of radio. Something about code…
     ‘Sure,’ Sparks answered. ‘Code. They used to use it maybe a couple of hundred years ago. We had it in history at radio school. Before they could modulate a signal to carry a message they used to just blast it out, then interrupt it in short or long bits in a regular kind of code. I guess they had a special signal for every letter. Then at the other end they would put it back into letters again. But we can’t do that —’
     ‘Why not?’
     Sparks started to smile, then changed his mind when he saw the expression on Don’s face. ‘Well, you see…no one knows the code any more. So even if we knew it and could send it, no one could read it. It would be a great idea if we could do it, but…’
     ‘No buts. We’ll do it. Could you transmit the long and short signals if I gave you a message?’
     ‘Well, I guess so. I could rig a make-or-break switch and keep opening and closing it. Or we could record it on tape, that might be easier, and have the taped signal actuate a relay. I guess, mechanically, it could be done.’
     ‘Then do it. I’ll bring you back the message as soon as I can. Get your equipment rigged. Kurikka, come with me.’

     The Chief didn’t speak until they were out in the corridor, then he let out the breath he had been holding.
     ‘Would you mind, sir, telling me just what you have in mind.’ He looked baffled and Don almost laughed.
     ‘It’s easy. We’re going to the library. The information will be there. If not in the shelved books it will be in the library's memory.’ (This was written in 1970, way before the internet)
     It really was easy after that. None of the books, they were mostly fiction for the passengers’ entertainment, looked promising, so Don punched for the encyclopedia index. CA—CU had an entry marked codes and he tried three or four sub-entries before he found an article on the International Code. It contained a copy of the code itself.
     ‘There it is,’ Don said, pointing at the columns of letters and dots and dashes. He pressed the print button. ‘Now let’s see if we can transcribe a message in this stuff.’
     Back in the control-room, it was the mathematician, Dr Ugalde, who suggested the solution.
     ‘The computer, we must give it instructions. This is the kind of operation the stupid machine is built for. If you will permit I will programme the computer to transform a typed message into this code and it will then record the code on tape for the transmitter. The message will be transmitted and, I am sure, it will be quickly comprehended that it is a code. I suggest that, before the message, we transmit the numbers from one to ten, counting in dots to make the series, that is. This will indicate that there is intelligent content in the broadcast, not just a random collection of pulses. With that clue it will not take them long to figure out what is happening.’
     ‘That sounds fine to me,’ Don said. ‘After the numbers send a simple message, just ask them if they can understand the code so that we can send more detailed messages. Tell them we can hear their voice transmissions, but will have to answer in code.’ He turned to the others. ‘Get this gear rigged as quickly as possible. I’m going to the sick bay to look after my patients. Call me as soon as you are ready to broadcast.’

     The phone rang as he entered and he once more had to assume the role of captain. The message was ready to be sent.
     ‘Works in the green on the test,’ Sparks said, throwing a switch when Don came in. A slow series of dits and dahs sounded from the speaker. ‘We’ve got the tape working through this switching circuit. I’m getting an antenna output almost double what we had before.’
     ‘Send it,’ Don said, and dropped into the captain’s chair before the control panels. Jonquet brought in coffee and passed the cups around.
     Sparks re-ran the tape and made the necessary adjustments. The reel spun and the message crackled out into space. The receiver still repeated the recorded message they had been getting for days now. Twice Sparks re-ran the tape, and repeated the transmission, before finally switching off the apparatus.
     ‘Just a matter of waiting now,’ he said.
     Dr Ugalde scribbled some quick calculations on a piece of paper. ‘It is my estimate,’ he said, ‘considering our probable position in relation to Mars, that we could hear a return message in less than thirty seconds from now.’
     They all looked at the clock, at the sweeping hand. It seemed to crawl, slower and slower, finally reaching thirty seconds and passing it. Going on for a minute more. A minute and a half. Ugalde crumpled his piece of paper.
     ‘Perhaps my mathematics are wrong, an error…’

     He broke off as the droning voice from the receiver suddenly ended. They all turned. They all turned, automatically, looking at the now silent speaker. There were seconds of silence before a new voice cut in.
     ‘Hello Johannes Kepler…can you hear me? We are receiving a transmission on your frequency of a series of pulses. Are you transmitting this? If you are send five pulses. Repeat them because reception varies at this end…’
     ‘Do it!’ Don ordered.
     Sparks had rigged a manual pushbutton switch into the circuit. He used it now, sending out the dots, over and over, five, five, five, five…
     Then they waited, once again, the long minutes while their message, travelling 186,000 miles a second, at the speed of light, reached out to Mars and was received. Until the answer was broadcast.
     ‘We have received your message, Johannes Kepler,’ the voice said, and an impromptu cheer shook the room.
     ‘…means you have had difficulty with your radio. Someone here has just reported that your message is in code and the library is being consulted for a copy. If you believe we have a copy here and will be able to translate your message please send all details. Repeat your message at least five times, I repeat, send your message at least five times since we are having reception difiiculties at this end. We are standing by to receive now, good luck.’
     It took time, a lot of time, because the communication was so complex. Don typed a message into the computer, explaining what had happened, and this was recorded on tape as a series of dots and dashes. Another tape was prepared of up-to-date stellar observations which were recorded along with the earlier data. The computer on Mars would process these and determine the course corrections that would be needed. Time passed, and with each second they moved further from their proper course.

From SPACESHIP MEDIC by Harry Harrison (1970)

(ed note: Bangs and Jardine own a spaceship. Unbeknown to them evil hijackers Mason and Loring stowed away on board the ship. They intend to overpower Bangs and Jardine and steal the ship.)

      "He's coming," hissed Loring. "We'll take him soon's he reaches us." There was a sharp clank as the hatch opened, and Jardine's head came into view.
     "Now!" yelled Loring. He swung the heavy paralo-ray gun at Jardine's head.
     "What the—" exclaimed the startled spaceman. "Bangs, look out!"
     He tried to avoid the blow, but Loring's gun landed on the side of his head. Jardine crumpled to the deck.
     Bangs was out of his seat in a moment, at his pilot's call. The burly redheaded spaceman saw at a glance what was wrong and lunged for the hatch.
     Loring stepped toward him, holding his paralo-ray.
     "All right, spaceboy!" he grated. "Hold it or I'll freeze you stiff!"
     Bangs stopped and stared at the gun and at Jardine who was slumped on the deck. Mason rushed past him to the controls.
     "What is this?" demanded Bangs.
     "An old game," explained Loring with a sneer. "It's called 'You've got it and I take it.' And if you don't like it, you get it." He gestured with his gun. "You get it—with this."
     Bangs nodded. "O.K.," he said. "O.K. But how about letting me take care of my buddy. He's hurt."
     "Just a bump on the head," said Loring. "He'll come out of it soon enough."

     "Hey," shouted Mason, "I can't figure out these controls!"
     Loring growled angrily. "Here, lemme at them!" He forced Bangs to lie down on the deck, and then, keeping the gun trained on the redheaded spaceman, stepped quickly to the control board. He handed Mason the gun.
     "Keep an eye on them while I figure this baby out."
     "Least you coulda done is steal a decent ship," grumbled Mason. "This tub is so old it creaks!"
     "Just shut your mouth and keep your eye on those guys," said the other. He began to mutter to himself as he tried to figure out the complicated controls.

     Jardine was now conscious but had the presence of mind not to move. His head ached from the blow. Slowly he opened his eyes and saw his two attackers bending over the board. He saw that Bangs was lying on the deck facing him. Jardine winked at Bangs, who returned the signal. Then he began, carefully, methodically to send a Morse-code message to his companion via his winking eyes.
     "O-N-L-Y—one—gun—between—them. You—take—big—fellow. I'll—charge—gun…"

     "Can't you figure this thing out either?" asked Mason, leaning over Loring's shoulder.
     "Ah, this wagon is an old converted chemical burner. These controls are old as the sun. I've got to find the automatic pilot!"
     "Try that lever over there," suggested Mason.
     Loring reached over to grasp it, turning away from his prisoners.

     "Bangs, get 'em!" shouted Jardine. The two men jumped to their feet and lunged at Loring and Mason. Loring dove to one side, losing the gun in the scramble, but as he fell, he reached for the acceleration control lever. He wrenched it out of its socket and brought it down on Bang's head, and the officer slid to the floor. Jardine, meanwhile, had Mason in a viselike grip, but again Loring used the lever, bringing it down hard on the neck of the freighter pilot. Jardine dropped to the deck.
     "Thanks, Loring," gasped Mason. "That was close! Good thing we had on these space suits, or we'd have been finished. They couldn't grab onto the smooth plastic."
     "Finished is right!" snarled Loring. "I told you to keep an eye on them! If they'd nabbed us we woulda wound up on the prison asteroid!"

From DANGER IN DEEP SPACE by Carey Rockwell (1953)

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.

Technological Progress

In science fiction the level of technology has to be more advanced than present-day state-of-the-art, otherwise where is the fun in that? Indeed, in some science fiction a single advance in technology starts off the entire plot, with the balance of the novel spent exploring the ramifications and changes caused to society (i.e., the theme of the novel is unintended consequences).

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

Such science fiction novels can make the readers impatient with the real world. They often complain that we have reached the 21st century yet there are still no ubiquitous flying cars, jet packs, cities on the ocean floor, nor lunar colonies.

Having said that, such science fiction readers are often oblivious to the titanic tech advances they have personally lived through. Such as the advent of the internet. Which made this entire website possible.

So the most common error science fiction writers make is drastically underestimating the rate of technological advance.

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

Around 1910, the hot multiple-use buzzword was "Electric," as in Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout or Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. In the 1920's it was "Radio." Radio was just coming into regular use, so it was new and exciting. In the 1940's it was "Atomic," for obvious reasons. In the 1950's it was "Transistorized". In the 1960's it was "Laser". In the 1970's it was "Computerized". Currently it is "Nanotechnolgy."

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Even if it actually a screw. So if you invent some fabulous scientific breakthrough for your SF story, try to resist the temptation to use it as the solution for everything. You can see how silly it becomes.

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


The Plow

In James Burke's fascinating documentary Connections, the first episode points out that technological progress was impossible until one key thing had been invented: the Plow.

Job one is getting enough food to eat, because otherwise you die.

Without the plow, all one person could manage to feed was themselves and maybe their family. Such cultures had to have 100% employment in the food raising industry. The culture could not afford the luxury of supporting citizens whose job was inventing innovations instead of raising food.

But with the development of the plow, suddenly a surplus of food appears. Inventors can be supported, and the headlong rush of technological progress is off and running.

And in Jerry Pournelle's Janissaries, the Earth mercenaries are marooned on a primitive planet. The first thing they ask for from their alien owners is a copy of James Burke's Connections book, with an eye towards converting the primitive planet into an industrial one. The book is practically a blueprint. If you haven't seen Burke's documentary series Connections or The Day The Universe Changed, you might consider renting a copy.


(ed note: narrative starts by describing the Northeast blackout of 1965. when people suddenly had their nose rubbed in the fact that when parts of civilized infrastructure vanish, a lot of people die)

      At this point another myth arises: that of the escape to a simpler life. This alternative was seriously considered by many people in the developed countries immediately after the rise in oil prices in 1973, and is reflected in the attitudes of the writers of doomsday fiction. The theory is that when sabotage or massive system failure one day ensures the more or less permanent disruption of the power supply, we should return to individual self-sufficiency and the agrarian way of life. But consider the realities of such a proposal. When does the city peasant decide that his garden (should he possess one) can no longer produce enough vegetables (should he know how to grow them and have obtained the necessary seeds and fertilizer) and animal protein and fats (should he know where to buy an animal and rear it) to support him and his family? At this stage, does he join (or worse, follow) the millions who have left the city because their supplies have run out? Since the alternative is to starve, he has no choice.

     He decides to leave the city. Supposing he has the means of transport, is there any fuel available? Does he possess the equipment necessary for survival on the journey? Does he even know what that equipment is? Once the decision to leave has been taken, the modern city-dweller is alone as he has never been in his life. His survival is, for the first time, in his own hands. On the point of departure, does he know in which direction to go? Few people have more than a hazy notion of the agriculturally productive areas of their own country. He decides, on the basis of schoolbook knowledge, to head for one of these valleys of plenty. Can he continue to top up his fuel tanks for as long as it takes to get there? As he joins the millions driving or riding or walking down the same roads, does he possess things those other refugees might need? If so, and they decide to relieve him of them, can he protect himself? Assuming that by some miracle the refugee finds himself ahead of the mob, with the countryside stretching empty and inviting before him, who owns it? How does he decide where to settle? What does a fertile, life-sustaining piece of land look like? Are there animals, and if not, where are they? How does he find protection for himself and his family from the wind and rain? If shelter is to be a farmstead—has it been abandoned? If it has not, will the occupier be persuaded to make room for the newcomers, or leave? If he cannot be so persuaded, will the refugee use force, and if necessary, kill? Supposing that all these difficulties have been successfully overcome—how does he run a farm which will have been heavily dependent on fuel or electricity?

     Of the multitude of problems lying in wait at this farm, one is paramount: can the refugee plough?

     Plants will grow sufficiently regularly only if they are sown in ploughed ground. Without this talent—and how many city-dwellers have it?—the refugee is lost: unless he has a store of preserved food he and his family will not survive the winter. It is the plough, the basic tool which most of us can no longer use, which ironically may be said to have landed us in our present situation. If, as this book will attempt to show, every innovation acts as a trigger of change, the plough is the first major man-made trigger in history, ultimately responsible for almost every innovation that followed.

     This simple implement may arguably be called the most fundamental invention in the history of man, and the innovation that brought civilization into being, because it was the instrument of surplus. A community may continue to exist as long as it has adequate food, and it may expand as long as food production can keep up with the increase in numbers, but it is not until it can produce food which is surplus to requirements, and is therefore capable of supporting those who are not food producers, that it will flourish.

     The first man-made harvest freed mankind from total and passive dependence on the vagaries of nature, and at the same time tied him forever to the very tools that set him free. The modern world in which we live is the product of that original achievement, because just as the plough served to trigger change in the community in which it appeared, each change that followed led to further change in a continuing sequence of connected events.

From CONNECTIONS book version by James Burke (1978)

You've Got Just One Shot

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

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

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

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

Dr. Hoyle has a point. As civilization on Terra advanced, it used up all the low hanging fruit. All the easily accessible petroleum and rare minerals have been extracted. Now you have to use incredibly difficult techniques like fracking and deep offshore oil drilling.

Which means if some civilization destroying apocalypse strikes (Class 2 Civilization Extinction, Scope: Planetary, Severity: Societal Collapse), any new civilization attempting to increase its technology level will crash into an overwhelming road block. Basically they will have to make the jump from medieval technology to offshore oil drilling in one step.

In other words: you practically get only one shot at a high-tech civilization on a given planet. If you screw up and destroy your civilization, you'll have to wait a few hundreds of millions of years for your next chance.

Richard Duncan is even more pessimistic. His Olduvai theory predicts that the lifetime of an industrial civilization is under 100 years, apocalypse or no. As near as I can figure his theory hinges on the "peak oil" phenomenon. He predicts our technological civlization will start contracting about the year 2030.

This sad fate can be avoided by purchasing some insurance: extraterrestrial colonies and space mining. This can be an argument to invest in the colonization of space, the species of MacGuffinite called Don't Keep All Your Eggs In One Basket.

The second and subsequent civilizations on a given planet will probably be forced into landfill mining of landfills created by the prior civilization.


5.1 Resource depletion or ecological destruction

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

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

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

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

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

It took a lot of fossil fuels to forge our industrial world. Now they’re almost gone. Could we do it again without them?

Imagine that the world as we know it ends tomorrow. There’s a global catastrophe: a pandemic virus, an asteroid strike, or perhaps a nuclear holocaust. The vast majority of the human race perishes. Our civilisation collapses. The post-apocalyptic survivors find themselves in a devastated world of decaying, deserted cities and roving gangs of bandits looting and taking by force.

Bad as things sound, that’s not the end for humanity. We bounce back. Sooner or later, peace and order emerge again, just as they have time and again through history. Stable communities take shape. They begin the agonising process of rebuilding their technological base from scratch. But here’s the question: how far could such a society rebuild? Is there any chance, for instance, that a post-apocalyptic society could reboot a technological civilisation?

Let’s make the basis of this thought experiment a little more specific. Today, we have already consumed the most easily drainable crude oil and, particularly in Britain, much of the shallowest, most readily mined deposits of coal. Fossil fuels are central to the organisation of modern industrial society, just as they were central to its development. Those, by the way, are distinct roles: even if we could somehow do without fossil fuels now (which we can’t, quite), it’s a different question whether we could have got to where we are without ever having had them.

So, would a society starting over on a planet stripped of its fossil fuel deposits have the chance to progress through its own Industrial Revolution? Or to phrase it another way, what might have happened if, for whatever reason, the Earth had never acquired its extensive underground deposits of coal and oil in the first place? Would our progress necessarily have halted in the 18th century, in a pre-industrial state?

It’s easy to underestimate our current dependence on fossil fuels. In everyday life, their most visible use is the petrol or diesel pumped into the vehicles that fill our roads, and the coal and natural gas which fire the power stations that electrify our modern lives. But we also rely on a range of different industrial materials, and in most cases, high temperatures are required to transform the stuff we dig out of the ground or harvest from the landscape into something useful. You can’t smelt metal, make glass, roast the ingredients of concrete, or synthesise artificial fertiliser without a lot of heat. It is fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – that provide most of this thermal energy.

In fact, the problem is even worse than that. Many of the chemicals required in bulk to run the modern world, from pesticides to plastics, derive from the diverse organic compounds in crude oil. Given the dwindling reserves of crude oil left in the world, it could be argued that the most wasteful use for this limited resource is to simply burn it. We should be carefully preserving what’s left for the vital repertoire of valuable organic compounds it offers.

But my topic here is not what we should do now. Presumably everybody knows that we must transition to a low-carbon economy one way or another. No, I want to answer a question whose interest is (let’s hope) more theoretical. Is the emergence of a technologically advanced civilisation necessarily contingent on the easy availability of ancient energy? Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels? And the answer to that question is: maybe – but it would be extremely difficult. Let’s see how.

We’ll start with a natural thought. Many of our alternative energy technologies are already highly developed. Solar panels, for example, represent a good option today, and are appearing more and more on the roofs of houses and businesses. It’s tempting to think that a rebooted society could simply pick up where we leave off. Why couldn’t our civilisation 2.0 just start with renewables?

Well, it could, in a very limited way. If you find yourself among the survivors in a post-apocalyptic world, you could scavenge enough working solar panels to keep your lifestyle electrified for a good long while. Without moving parts, photovoltaic cells require little maintenance and are remarkably resilient. They do deteriorate over time, though, from moisture penetrating the casing and from sunlight itself degrading the high-purity silicon layers. The electricity generated by a solar panel declines by about 1 per cent every year so, after a few generations, all our hand-me-down solar panels will have degraded to the point of uselessness. Then what?

New ones would be fiendishly difficult to create from scratch. Solar panels are made from thin slices of extremely pure silicon, and although the raw material is common sand, it must be processed and refined using complex and precise techniques – the same technological capabilities, more or less, that we need for modern semiconductor electronics components. These techniques took a long time to develop, and would presumably take a long time to recover. So photovoltaic solar power would not be within the capability of a society early in the industrialisation process.

Perhaps, though, we were on the right track by starting with electrical power. Most of our renewable-energy technologies produce electricity. In our own historical development, it so happens that the core phenomena of electricity were discovered in the first half of the 1800s, well after the early development of steam engines. Heavy industry was already committed to combustion-based machinery, and electricity has largely assumed a subsidiary role in the organisation of our economies ever since. But could that sequence have run the other way? Is there some developmental requirement that thermal energy must come first?

On the face of it, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that a progressing society could construct electrical generators and couple them to simple windmills and waterwheels, later progressing to wind turbines and hydroelectric dams. In a world without fossil fuels, one might envisage an electrified civilisation that largely bypasses combustion engines, building its transport infrastructure around electric trains and trams for long-distance and urban transport. I say ‘largely’. We couldn’t get round it all together.

While the electric motor could perhaps replace the coal-burning steam engine for mechanical applications, society, as we’ve already seen, also relies upon thermal energy to drive the essential chemical and physical transformations it needs. How could an industrialising society produce crucial building materials such as iron and steel, brick, mortar, cement and glass without resorting to deposits of coal?

You can of course create heat from electricity. We already use electric ovens and kilns. Modern arc furnaces are used for producing cast iron or recycling steel. The problem isn’t so much that electricity can’t be used to heat things, but that for meaningful industrial activity you’ve got to generate prodigious amounts of it, which is challenging using only renewable energy sources such as wind and water.

An alternative is to generate high temperatures using solar power directly. Rather than relying on photovoltaic panels, concentrated solar thermal farms use giant mirrors to focus the sun’s rays onto a small spot. The heat concentrated in this way can be exploited to drive certain chemical or industrial processes, or else to raise steam and drive a generator. Even so, it is difficult (for example) to produce the very high temperatures inside an iron-smelting blast furnace using such a system. What’s more, it goes without saying that the effectiveness of concentrated solar power depends strongly on the local climate.

No, when it comes to generating the white heat demanded by modern industry, there are few good options but to burn stuff.

But that doesn’t mean the stuff we burn necessarily has to be fossil fuels.

Let’s take a quick detour into the pre-history of modern industry. Long before the adoption of coal, charcoal was widely used for smelting metals. In many respects it is superior: charcoal burns hotter than coal and contains far fewer impurities. In fact, coal’s impurities were a major delaying factor on the Industrial Revolution. Released during combustion, they can taint the product being heated. During smelting, sulphur contaminants can soak into the molten iron, making the metal brittle and unsafe to use. It took a long time to work out how to treat coal to make it useful for many industrial applications. And, in the meantime, charcoal worked perfectly well.

And then, well, we stopped using it. In retrospect, that’s a pity. When it comes from a sustainable source, charcoal burning is essentially carbon-neutral, because it doesn’t release any new carbon into the atmosphere – not that this would have been a consideration for the early industrialists.

But charcoal-based industry didn’t die out altogether. In fact, it survived to flourish in Brazil. Because it has substantial iron deposits but few coalmines, Brazil is the largest charcoal producer in the world and the ninth biggest steel producer. We aren’t talking about a cottage industry here, and this makes Brazil a very encouraging example for our thought experiment.

The trees used in Brazil’s charcoal industry are mainly fast-growing eucalyptus, cultivated specifically for the purpose. The traditional method for creating charcoal is to pile chopped staves of air-dried timber into a great dome-shaped mound and then cover it with turf or soil to restrict airflow as the wood smoulders. The Brazilian enterprise has scaled up this traditional craft to an industrial operation. Dried timber is stacked into squat, cylindrical kilns, built of brick or masonry and arranged in long lines so that they can be easily filled and unloaded in sequence. The largest sites can sport hundreds of such kilns. Once filled, their entrances are sealed and a fire is lit from the top.

The skill in charcoal production is to allow just enough air into the interior of the kiln. There must be enough combustion heat to drive out moisture and volatiles and to pyrolyse the wood, but not so much that you are left with nothing but a pile of ashes. The kiln attendant monitors the state of the burn by carefully watching the smoke seeping out of the top, opening air holes or sealing with clay as necessary to regulate the process.

Good things come to those who wait, and this wood pyrolysis process can take up to a week of carefully controlled smouldering. The same basic method has been used for millennia. However, the ends to which the fuel is put are distinctly modern. Brazilian charcoal is trucked out of the forests to the country’s blast furnaces where it is used to transform ore into pig iron. This pig iron is the basic ingredient of modern mass-produced steel. The Brazilian product is exported to countries such as China and the US where it becomes cars and trucks, sinks, bathtubs, and kitchen appliances.

Around two-thirds of Brazilian charcoal comes from sustainable plantations, and so this modern-day practice has been dubbed ‘green steel’. Sadly, the final third is supplied by the non-sustainable felling of primary forest. Even so, the Brazilian case does provide an example of how the raw materials of modern civilisation can be supplied without reliance on fossil fuels.

Another, related option might be wood gasification. The use of wood to provide heat is as old as mankind, and yet simply burning timber only uses about a third of its energy. The rest is lost when gases and vapours released by the burning process blow away in the wind. Under the right conditions, even smoke is combustible. We don’t want to waste it.

Better than simple burning, then, is to drive the thermal breakdown of the wood and collect the gases. You can see the basic principle at work for yourself just by lighting a match. The luminous flame isn’t actually touching the matchwood: it dances above, with a clear gap in between. The flame actually feeds on the hot gases given off as the wood breaks down in the heat, and the gases combust only once they mix with oxygen from the air. Matches are fascinating when you look at them closely.

To release these gases in a controlled way, bake some timber in a closed container. Oxygen is restricted so that the wood doesn’t simply catch fire. Its complex molecules decompose through a process known as pyrolysis, and then the hot carbonised lumps of charcoal at the bottom of the container react with the breakdown products to produce flammable gases such as hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

The resultant ‘producer gas’ is a versatile fuel: it can be stored or piped for use in heating or street lights, and is also suitable for use in complex machinery such as the internal combustion engine. More than a million gasifier-powered cars across the world kept civilian transport running during the oil shortages of the Second World War. In occupied Denmark, 95 per cent of all tractors, trucks and fishing boats were powered by wood-gas generators. The energy content of about 3 kg of wood (depending on its dryness and density) is equivalent to a litre of petrol, and the fuel consumption of a gasifier-powered car is given in miles per kilogram of wood rather than miles per gallon. Wartime gasifier cars could achieve about 1.5 miles per kilogram. Today’s designs improve upon this.

But you can do a lot more with wood gases than just keep your vehicle on the road. It turns out to be suitable for any of the manufacturing processes needing heat that we looked at before, such as kilns for lime, cement or bricks. Wood gas generator units could easily power agricultural or industrial equipment, or pumps. Sweden and Denmark are world leaders in their use of sustainable forests and agricultural waste for turning the steam turbines in power stations. And once the steam has been used in their ‘Combined Heat and Power’ (CHP) electricity plants, it is piped to the surrounding towns and industries to heat them, allowing such CHP stations to approach 90 per cent energy efficiency. Such plants suggest a marvellous vision of industry wholly weaned from its dependency on fossil fuel.

Is that our solution, then? Could our rebooting society run on wood, supplemented with electricity from renewable sources? Maybe so, if the population was fairly small. But here’s the catch. These options all presuppose that our survivors are able to construct efficient steam turbines, CHP stations and internal combustion engines. We know how to do all that, of course – but in the event of a civilisational collapse, who is to say that the knowledge won’t be lost? And if it is, what are the chances that our descendants could reconstruct it?

In our own history, the first successful application of steam engines was in pumping out coal mines. This was a setting in which fuel was already abundant, so it didn’t matter that the first, primitive designs were terribly inefficient. The increased output of coal from the mines was used to first smelt and then forge more iron. Iron components were used to construct further steam engines, which were in turn used to pump mines or drive the blast furnaces at iron foundries.

And of course, steam engines were themselves employed at machine shops to construct yet more steam engines. It was only once steam engines were being built and operated that subsequent engineers were able to devise ways to increase their efficiency and shrink fuel demands. They found ways to reduce their size and weight, adapting them for applications in transport or factory machinery. In other words, there was a positive feedback loop at the very core of the industrial revolution: the production of coal, iron and steam engines were all mutually supportive.

In a world without readily mined coal, would there ever be the opportunity to test profligate prototypes of steam engines, even if they could mature and become more efficient over time? How feasible is it that a society could attain a sufficient understanding of thermodynamics, metallurgy and mechanics to make the precisely interacting components of an internal combustion engine, without first cutting its teeth on much simpler external combustion engines – the separate boiler and cylinder-piston of steam engines?

It took a lot of energy to develop our technologies to their present heights, and presumably it would take a lot of energy to do it again. Fossil fuels are out. That means our future society will need an awful lot of timber.

In a temperate climate such as the UK’s, an acre of broadleaf trees produces about four to five tonnes of biomass fuel every year. If you cultivated fast-growing kinds such as willow or miscanthus grass, you could quadruple that. The trick to maximising timber production is to employ coppicing – cultivating trees such as ash or willow that resprout from their own stump, becoming ready for harvest again in five to 15 years. This way you can ensure a sustained supply of timber and not face an energy crisis once you’ve deforested your surroundings.

But here’s the thing: coppicing was already a well-developed technique in pre-industrial Britain. It couldn’t meet all of the energy requirements of the burgeoning society. The central problem is that woodland, even when it is well-managed, competes with other land uses, principally agriculture. The double-whammy of development is that, as a society’s population grows, it requires more farmland to provide enough food and also greater timber production for energy. The two needs compete for largely the same land areas.

We know how this played out in our own past. From the mid-16th century, Britain responded to these factors by increasing the exploitation of its coal fields – essentially harvesting the energy of ancient forests beneath the ground without compromising its agricultural output. The same energy provided by one hectare of coppice for a year is provided by about five to 10 tonnes of coal, and it can be dug out of the ground an awful lot quicker than waiting for the woodland to regrow.

It is this limitation in the supply of thermal energy that would pose the biggest problem to a society trying to industrialise without easy access to fossil fuels. This is true in our post-apocalyptic scenario, and it would be equally true in any counterfactual world that never developed fossil fuels for whatever reason. For a society to stand any chance of industrialising under such conditions, it would have to focus its efforts in certain, very favourable natural environments: not the coal-island of 18th-century Britain, but perhaps areas of Scandinavia or Canada that combine fast-flowing streams for hydroelectric power and large areas of forest that can be harvested sustainably for thermal energy.

Even so, an industrial revolution without coal would be, at a minimum, very difficult. Today, use of fossil fuels is actually growing, which is worrying for a number of reasons too familiar to rehearse here. Steps towards a low-carbon economy are vital. But we should also recognise how pivotal those accumulated reservoirs of thermal energy were in getting us to where we are. Maybe we could have made it the hard way. A slow-burn progression through the stages of mechanisation, supported by a combination of renewable electricity and sustainably grown biomass, might be possible after all. Then again, it might not. We’d better hope we can secure the future of our own civilisation, because we might have scuppered the chances of any society to follow in our wake.

For more information on this thought experiment on the behind-the-scenes fundamentals of how our world works and how you could reboot civilisation from scratch visit

From OUT OF THE ASHES by Lewis Dartnell (2015)

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.

"Doc" Smith's Lensman novels were a bit milder. They started out with space battles with large numbers of ships. About mid-way they were mass-producing Death Stars.

Such novels also have a comically shorted research and development cycle. We are talking only a month or two between demonstrating the effect in the lab to cranking out the new weapons for use on the battlefield. In reality it is more like years. The classic cautionary tale is Superiority by Arthur C. Clarke, which is required reading for some M.I.T. courses.


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.

On the other hand, in the real world during World War 2, the British Royal Navy and the US Navy started the war with biplanes. By the end of the war, the Nazis were fielding jet fighter planes and ballistic missiles. Not to mention the US ending the war with atomic bombs. This was over a mere six year period.

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.

"First we got The Bomb and that was good
'Cause we love peace and motherhood
Then Russia got The Bomb, but that's OK;
'Cause the balance of power is maintained that way
Who's next?"Tom Lehrer, "Who's Next?", That Was the Year That Was

This is what happens when (nation-)states attempt to prove that My Kung-Fu Is Stronger Than Yours or build a Bigger Stick.

If a military conflict goes on for any appreciable length of time in a high-tech setting, each side will be struggling to become and remain stronger than the other - often by producing better equipment and weapons. Sometimes, this process of Serial Escalation goes way over the top (especially with Soviet Superscience).

Truth in Television, naturally, with first and last decades of the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union as the Trope Codifier and the inspiration for many Arms Races in fiction. As a result, these Arms Races usually have rapid inventions of Nuclear Weapons-parallels, Space Weaponry, Mutually Assured Destruction, and other Cold War-era tropes. The Trope Namer comes from E. E. “Doc” Smith's Lensman novels. Over the course of a decades-long struggle (that was only the surface of a deeper, eons-old war between cosmic beings using mortals as pawns), Civilization and Boskone went from ordinary starship battles to star-powered lasers, antimatter bombs, planets used as missiles, antimatter planets used as missiles, faster-than-light missiles, faster-than-light antimatter planet missiles...

If somebody tries to argue this as evidence that competition and the constant drive to survive and build Bigger Sticks to kill each other motivates technological evolution, he is likely to be a Social Darwinist.

Moore's Law is this trope applied specifically to computer technology, stating that every eighteen months, roughly, we see a doubling of transistor density (and thus hardware capabilities).

See also: Plot Leveling, So Last Season, Sorting Algorithm of Evil, Serial Escalation, Space Cold War.

Not to be confused with the rather less bloody Escalating War.

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


      Innovation occurs for many reasons, including greed, ambition, conviction, happenstance, acts of nature, mistakes, and desperation. But one force above all seems to facilitate the process.

The easier it is to communicate, the faster change happens.

     Every time there is an improvement in the technology with which ideas and people come together, major change ensues. The Greek alphabet gave birth to philosophy, logic, and the democratic process. The printing press generated the entire Scientific Revolution. The telegraph brought modern business methods into existence and held empires together.

From CONNECTIONS book version by James Burke (1978)

Recently I have become fascinated by the development of early bombers during the First World War. Driven by the exigencies of the world’s first large-scale industrialized war (the Russo-Japanese War was an industrialized war, but not on the scale of the First World War), aircraft developed rapidly. I have focused on the same rapidity of technological development previously emphasizing the modernity of weapons systems during the Second World War. In The Dialectic of Stalemate I wrote:

“When the Second World War ended, there were operable jet fighters, ballistic missiles, electronic computers, and atomic weapons. None of these existed when the war began.”

True enough, but the essential ideas behind these weapons systems were already in play. An idea can be implemented in any number of ways (admittedly some more efficacious than others), and exactly how an idea is implemented is a matter of technology and engineering — in other words, implementation is an accident of history. As soon as the idea has its initial implementation, we are clever enough to usually see the implications of that idea rather quickly, and thus technology is driven to keep up with the intrinsic potentiality of the idea.

Once the proof of concept of heavier-than-air flight was realized, the rest fell into place like pieces of a puzzle. Aircraft would be armed; they would seek to destroy other aircraft, and prevent themselves from being destroyed; and they would seek to destroy targets on the ground. Hence the idea of aircraft in warfare rapidly moves to fighters and bombers. The pictures above are of the Zeppelin-Staaken — not the first enclosed bomber, but among the first (the Russians, I believe, made the first enclosed bomber, the Sikorsky Ilya Muromets).

The Zeppelin-Staaken was an enormous craft with a wingspan almost equal to that of a B-29 and a crew of many men. In fact, these early German bombers were called Riesenflugzeug (or R-planes) — gigantic aircraft. An early testimonial from a Zeppelin-Staaken crew member vividly conveys the sense of flying the R-planes:

“Inside the fuselage the pale glow of dim lights outlined the chart table, the wireless equipment, and the instrument panel. Under us, the black abyss.”
—Trenches: Battleground WWI, episode 5, “Fight On, Fly On”

The technology and engineering of flight during the First World War was not sufficiently advanced to make a decisive strategic difference, but they had the idea of what was possible, and they attempted to put it into practice. The idea of bombers, coordinated by radio, executing a strategic precision airstrike was already present during the First World War.

During the Second World War, the technology had advanced to the point that strategic bombing was decisive, and, in fact, it was at one point the only possible war that the UK could wage against Germany. The evolutionary development continues to the present day. Contemporary precision munitions are finally beginning to converge on true precision air strikes that were first imagined (and attempted) during the First World War.

The point here is that, once the idea is in place, the rest is mere technology and engineering — in other words, implementation. The corollary of the essential idea coupled with with contingent implementation is the fact that the wars of industrial-technological civilization, there are no secrets.

William Langewiesche in his book Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor emphasized that the early atomic scientists knew that there were no “secrets” per se, because the atomic bomb was the result of science, and anyone who would engage in science, technology, and engineering on a sufficiently large scale can build a nuclear weapon.

This thesis should be generalized and extrapolated beyond the science of nuclear weapons. Precision munitions, aviation, targeting, and all the familiar line items of a current military budget are refined and perfected by science and technology. For all practical purposes, all war has become science, and science is no secret. Any sufficiently diligent and well-funded people can produce a body of scientific knowledge that could be put into practice building weapons systems.

One might suppose, from the regimes of state security that have become so prevalent, that secrecy is of the essence of technological warfare. While this impression is encouraged, it is false. Secrecy is no more central to competition in technological warfare than it is central to industrial competition. That is to say, secrecy has a role to play, but the role that secrecy plays is not quite the role that official secrecy claims might lead one to believe.

Wittgenstein in his later work — no less pregnantly aphoristic than the Tractatus — said that nothing is hidden. And so it is in the age of industrial-technological civilization: Nothing is hidden. Everything is, in principle, out in the open and available for public inspection. This is the very essence of science, for science progresses through the repeatability of its results. That is to say, science is essentially an iterative enterprise.

Wittgenstein also said in his later period that philosophy leaves the world as it is. That is to say, philosophy is is no sense revolutionary. And so too with the philosophy of war, which in its practical application is strategic doctrine: strategic doctrine leaves the world as it is.

The perennial verities of war remain. These are largely untouched by technology, because all parties to modern, scientific war have essentially the same technology, so that they fight on the same level. Military powers contending for victory seek technological advantages when and where they can get them, but these advantages are always marginal and temporary. Soon the adversary has the same science, and soon after that the same technology.

The true struggle is the struggle of ideas — the struggle of mind against mind, contending to formulate the decisive idea first. As I said above, once the idea is in place, everything else follows from the idea. But it is the idea that is the necessary condition of all that follows.

War, then, is simply the war of ideas.


In several posts I have described what I called the STEM cycle, which typifies our industrial-technological civilization. The STEM cycle involves scientific discoveries employed in new technologies, which are in turn engineered into industries which supply new instruments to science resulting in further scientific discoveries. For more on the STEM cycle you can read my posts The Industrial-Technological Thesis, Industrial-Technological Disruption, The Open Loop of Industrial-Technological Civilization, Chronometry and the STEM Cycle, and The Institutionalization of the STEM Cycle.

Industrial-technological civilization is a species of the genus of scientific civilizations (on which cf. David Hume and Scientific Civilization and The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization). Ultimately, it is the systematic pursuit of science that drives industrial-technological civilization forward in its technological progress. While it is arguable whether contemporary civilization can be said to embody moral, aesthetic, or philosophical progress, it is unquestionable that it does embody technological progress, and, almost as an epiphenomenon, the growth of scientific knowledge. And while knowledge may not grow evenly across the entire range of human intellectual accomplishment, so that we cannot loosely speak of “intellectual progress,” we can equally unambiguously speak of scientific progress, which is tightly-coupled with technological and industrial progress.

Now, it is a remarkable feature of science that there are no secrets in science. Science is out in the open, as it were (which is one reason the appeal to embargoed evidence is a fallacy). There are scientific mysteries, to be sure, but as I argued in Scientific Curiosity and Existential Need, scientific mysteries are fundamentally distinct from the religious mysteries that exercised such power over the human mind during the epoch of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. You can be certain that you have encountered a complete failure to understand the nature of science when you hear (or read) of scientific mysteries being assimilated to religious mysteries.

That there are no secrets in science has consequences for the warfare practiced by industrial-technological civilization, i.e., industrialized war based on the application of scientific method to warfare and the exploitation of technological and industrial innovations. While, on the one hand, all wars since the first global industrialized war have been industrialized war, since the end of the Second World War, now seventy years ago, on the other hand, no wars have been mass wars, or, if you prefer, total wars, as a result of the devolution of warfare.

Today, for example, any competent chemist could produce phosgene or mustard gas, and anyone who cares to inform themselves can learn the basic principles and design of nuclear weapons. I made this point some time ago in Weapons Systems in an Age of High Technology: Nothing is Hidden. In that post I wrote:

Wittgenstein in his later work — no less pregnantly aphoristic than the Tractatus — said that nothing is hidden. And so it is in the age of industrial-technological civilization: Nothing is hidden. Everything is, in principle, out in the open and available for public inspection. This is the very essence of science, for science progresses through the repeatability of its results. That is to say, science is essentially an iterative enterprise.

Although science is out in the open, technology and engineering are (or can be made) proprietary. There is no secret science or sciences, but technologies and industrial engineering can be kept secret to a certain degree, though the closer they approximate science, the less secret they are.

I do not believe that this is well understood in our world, given the pronouncements and policies of our politicians. There are probably many who believe that science can be kept secret and pursued in secret. Human history is replete with examples of the sequestered development of weapons systems that rely upon scientific knowledge, from Greek Fire to the atom bomb. But if we take the most obvious example — the atomic bomb — we can easily see that the science is out in the open, even while the technological and engineering implementation of that science was kept secret, and is still kept secret today. However, while no nation-state that produces nuclear weapons makes its blueprints openly available, any competent technologist or engineer familiar with the relevant systems could probably design for themselves the triggering systems for an implosion device. Perhaps fewer could design the trigger for a hydrogen bomb — this came to Stanislaw Ulam in a moment of insight, and so represents a higher level of genius, but Andrei Sakharov also figured it out — however, a team assembled for the purpose would also certainly hit on the right solution if given the time and resources.

Science nears optimality with it is practiced openly, in full view of an interested public, and its results published in journals that are read by many others working in the field. These others have their own ideas — whether to extend research already preformed, reproduce it, or to attempt to turn it on its head — and when they in turn pursue their research and publish their results, the field of knowledge grows. This process is exponentially duplicated and iterated in a scientific civilization, and so scientific knowledge grows.

When Lockheed’s Skunkworks recently announced that they were working on a compact fusion generator, many fusion scientists were irritated that the Skunkworks team did not publish their results. The fusion research effort is quite large and diverse (something I wrote about in One Hundred Years of Fusion), and there is an expectation that those working in the field will follow scientific practice. But, as with nuclear weapons, a lot is at stake in fusion energy. If a private firm can bring proprietary fusion electrical generation technology to market, it stands to be the first trillion dollar enterprise in human history. With the stakes that high, Lockheed’s Skunkworks keeps their research tightly controlled. But this same control slows down the process of science. If Lockheed opened its fusion research to peer review, and others sought to duplicate the results, the science would be driven forward faster, but Lockheed would stand to lose its monopoly on propriety fusion technology.

Fusion science is out in the open — it is the same as nuclear science — but particular aspects and implementations of that science are pursued under conditions of industrial secrecy. There is no black and white line that separates fusion science from fusion technology research and fusion engineering. Each gradually fades over into the other, even when the core of each of science, technology, and engineering can be distinguished (this is an instance of what I call the Truncation Principle).

The stakes involved generate secrecy, and the secrecy involved generates industrial espionage. Perhaps the best known example of industrial espionage of the 20th century was the acquisition of the plans for the supersonic Concorde, which allowed the Russians to get their “Konkordski” TU-144 flying before the Concorde itself flew. Again, the science of flight and jet propulsion cannot be kept secret, but the technological and engineering implementations of that science can be hidden to some degree — although not perfectly. Supersonic, and now hypersonic, flight technology is a closely guarded secret of the military, but any enterprise with the funding and the mandate can eventually master the technology, and will eventually produce better technology and better engineering designs once the process is fully open.

Because science cannot be effectively practiced in private (it can be practiced, but will not be as good as a research program pursued jointly by a community of researchers), governments seek the control and interdiction of technologies and materials. Anyone can learn nuclear science, but it is very difficult to obtain fissionables. Any car manufacturer can buy their rival’s products, disassemble them, and reserve engineer their components, but patented technologies are protected by the court system for a certain period of time. But everything in this process is open to dispute. Different nation-states have different patent protection laws. When you add industrial espionage to constant attempts to game the system on an international level, there are few if any secrets even in proprietary technology and engineering.

The technologies that worry us the most — such as nuclear weapons — are purposefully retarded in their development by stringent secrecy and international laws and conventions. Moreover, mastering the nuclear fuel cycle requires substantial resources, so that mostly limits such an undertaking to nation-states. Most nation-states want to get along to go along, so they accept the limitations on nuclear research and choose not to build nuclear weapons even if they possess the industrial infrastructure to do so. And now, since the end of the Cold War, even the nation-states with nuclear arsenals do not pursue the development of nuclear technology; so-called “fourth generation nuclear weapons” may be pursued in the secrecy of government laboratories, but not with the kind of resources that would draw attention. It is very unlikely that they are actually being produced.

Why should we care that nuclear technology is purposefully slowed and regulated to the point of stifling innovation? Should we not consider ourselves fortunate that governments that seem to love warfare have at least limited the destruction of warfare by limiting nuclear weapons? Even the limitation of nuclear weapons comes at a cost. Just as there is no black and white line separating science, technology, and engineering, there is no black and white line that separates nuclear weapons research from other forms of research. By clamping down internationally on nuclear materials and nuclear research, the world has, for all practical purposes, shut down the possibility of nuclear rockets. Yes, there are a few firms researching nuclear rockets that can be fueled without the fissionables that could also be used to make bombs, but these research efforts are attempts to “design around” the interdictions of nuclear technology and nuclear materials.

We have today the science relevant to nuclear rocketry; to master this technology would require practical experience. It would mean designing numerous designs, testing them, and seeing what works best. What works best makes its way into the next iteration, which is then in its turn improved. This is the practical business of technology and engineering, and it cannot happen without an immersion into practical experience. But the practical experience in nuclear rocketry is exactly what is missing, because the technology and materials are tightly controlled.

Thus we already can cite a clear instance of how existential risk mitigation becomes the loss of an existential opportunity. A demographically significant spacefaring industry would be an existential opportunity for humanity, but if the nuclear rocket would have been the breakout technology that actualized this existential opportunity, we do not know, and we may never know. Nuclear weapons were early recognized as an existential risk, and our response to this existential risk was to consciously and purposefully put a brake on the development of nuclear technology. Anyone who knows the history of nuclear rockets, of the NERVA and DUMBO programs, of the many interesting designs that were produced in the early 1960s, knows that this was an entire industry effectively strangled in the cradle, sacrificed to nuclear non-proliferation efforts as though to Moloch. Because science cannot be kept secret, entire industries must be banned.

by J. N. Nielsen (2015)

(ed note: this is talking about SETI)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. Bugs in the design crop up, take longer to fix than expected, and often the fix creates even more bugs)

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)

I can well remember the impression Norden made at that conference. The military advisers were worried, and as usual turned to the scientists for help. Would it be possible to improve our existing weapons, they asked, so that our present advantage could be increased still further?

Norden's reply was quite unexpected. Malvar had often been asked such a question — and he had always done what we requested.

"Frankly, gentlemen," said Norden, "I doubt it. Our existing weapons have practically reached finality. I don't wish to criticize my predecessor, or the excellent work done by the Research Staff in the last few generations, but do you realize that there has been no basic change in armaments for over a century? It is, I am afraid, the result of a tradition that has become conservative. For too long, the Research Staff has devoted itself to perfecting old weapons instead of developing new ones. It is fortunate for us that our opponents have been no wiser: we cannot assume that this will always be so."

Norden's words left an uncomfortable impression, as he had no doubt intended. He quickly pressed home the attack.

"What we want are new weapons — weapons totally different from any that have been employed before. Such weapons can be made: it will take time, of course, but since assuming charge I have replaced some of the older scientists with young men and have directed research into several unexplored fields which show great promise. I believe, in fact, that a revolution in warfare may soon be upon us."

We were skeptical. There was a bombastic tone in Norden's voice that made us suspicious of his claims. We did not know, then, that he never promised anything that he had not already almost perfected in the laboratory. In the laboratory — that was the operative phrase.

Norden proved his case less than a month later, when he demonstrated the Sphere of Annihilation, which produced complete disintegration of matter over a radius of several hundred meters. We were intoxicated by the power of the new weapon, and were quite prepared to overlook one fundamental defect — the fact that it was a sphere and hence destroyed its rather complicated generating equipment at the instant of formation. This meant, of course, that it could not be used on warships but only on guided missiles, and a great program was started to convert all homing torpedoes to carry the new weapon. For the time being all further offensives were suspended.

We realize now that this was our first mistake. I still think that it was a natural one, for it seemed to us then that all our existing weapons had become obsolete overnight, and we already regarded them as almost primitive survivals. What we did not appreciate was the magnitude of the task we were attempting, and the length of time it would take to get the revolutionary super-weapon into battle. Nothing like this had happened for a hundred years and we had no previous experience to guide us.

The conversion problem proved far more difficult than anticipated. A new class of torpedo had to be designed, as the standard model was too small. This meant in turn that only the larger ships could launch the weapon, but we were prepared to accept this penalty. After six months, the heavy units of the Fleet were being equipped with the Sphere. Training maneuvers and tests had shown that it was operating satisfactorily and we were ready to take it into action. Norden was already being hailed as the architect of victory, and had half promised even more spectacular weapons.

Then two things happened. One of our battleships disappeared completely on a training flight, and an investigation showed that under certain conditions the ship's long-range radar could trigger the Sphere immediately after it had been launched. The modification needed to overcome this defect was trivial, but it caused a delay of another month and was the source of much bad feeling between the naval staff and the scientists. We were ready for action again — when Norden announced that the radius of effectiveness of the Sphere had now been increased by ten, thus multiplying by a thousand the chances of destroying an enemy ship.

So the modifications started all over again, but everyone agreed that the delay would be worth it. Meanwhile, however, the enemy had been emboldened by the absence of further attacks and had made an unexpected onslaught. Our ships were short of torpedoes, since none had been coming from the factories, and were forced to retire. So we lost the systems of Kyrane and Floranus, and the planetary fortress of Rhamsandron.

It was an annoying but not a serious blow, for the recaptured systems had been unfriendly, and difficult to administer. We had no doubt that we could restore the position in the near future, as soon as the new weapon became operational.

These hopes were only partially fulfilled. When we renewed our offensive, we had to do so with fewer of the Spheres of Annihilation than had been planned, and this was one reason for our limited success. The other reason was more serious.

While we had been equipping as many of our ships as we could with the irresistible weapon, the enemy had been building feverishly. His ships were of the old pattern with the old weapons — but they now out-numbered ours. When we went into action, we found that the numbers ranged against us were often 100 percent greater than expected, causing target confusion among the automatic weapons and resulting in higher losses than anticipated. The enemy losses were higher still, for once a Sphere had reached its objective, destruction was certain, but the balance had not swung as far in our favor as we had hoped.

Moreover, while the main fleets had been engaged, the enemy had launched a daring attack on the lightly held systems of Eriston, Duranus, Carmanidora and Pharanidon — recapturing them all. We were thus faced with a threat only fifty light-years from our home planets.

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.

What I am saying is that Star Wars technology is more like 150 years from now, not ten thousand years from now. In ten thousand years we will all be cosmic StarGods who sculpt entire galaxies as art projects. Which makes the DUNE universe target date of 21,267 CE somewhat ludicrous.

Authors who do not want to 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 general rule 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 general rule 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 general rule 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)

(ed note: Robert Heinlein originally wrote this in 1952. In 1980 he updated it)

      Most science fiction consists of big-muscled stories about adventures in space, atomic wars, invasions by extra-terrestrials, and such. All very well—but now we will take time out for a look at ordinary home life half a century hence. Except for tea leaves and other magical means, the only way to guess at the future is by examining the present in the light of the past. Let's go back half a century and visit your grandmother before we attempt to visit your grandchildren.

     1900: Mr. McKinley is President and the airplane has not yet been invented. Let's knock on the door of that house with the gingerbread, the stained glass, and the cupola.
     The lady of the house answers. You recognize her—your own grandmother, Mrs. Middleclass. She is almost as plump as you remember her, for she "put on some good, healthy flesh" after she married.
     She welcomes you and offers coffee cake, fresh from her modern kitchen (running water from a hand pump; the best coal range Pittsburgh ever produced). Everything about her house is modern—hand-painted china, souvenirs from the Columbian Exposition, beaded portières, shining baseburner stoves, gas lights, a telephone on the wall.
     There is no bathroom, but she and Mr. Middleclass are thinking of putting one in. Mr. Middleclass's mother calls this nonsense, but your grandmother keeps up with the times. She is an advocate of clothing reform, wears only one petticoat, bathes twice a week, and her corsets are guaranteed rust proof. She has been known to defend female suffrage—but not in the presence of Mr. Middleclass.

     Nevertheless, you find difficulty in talking with her. Let's jump back to the present (1950) and try again.
     The automatic elevator takes us to the ninth floor, and we pick out a door by its number, that being the only way to distinguish it.
     "Don't bother to ring," you say? What? It's your door and you know exactly what lies beyond it—

     Very well, let's move a half century into the future (to 2000) and try another middle class home.
     It's a suburban home not two hundred miles from the city. You pick out your destination from the air while the cab is landing you—a cluster of hemispheres that makes you think of the houses Dorothy found in Oz.
     You set the cab to return to its hangar and go into the entrance hall. You neither knock nor ring. The screen has warned them before you touched down on the landing flat and the autobutler's transparency is shining with: PLEASE RECORD A MESSAGE.
     Before you can address the microphone a voice calls out, "Oh, it's you! Come in, come in." There is a short wait, as your hostess is not at the door. The autobutler flashed your face to the patio—where she was reading and sunning herself—and has relayed her voice back to you.
     She pauses at the door, looks at you through one-way glass, and frowns slightly; she knows your old-fashioned disapproval of casual nakedness. Her kindness causes her to disobey the family psychiatrist; she grabs a robe and covers herself before signaling the door to open.
     The psychiatrist was right; you have thus been classed with strangers, tradespeople, and others who are not family intimates. But you must swallow your annoyance; you cannot object to her wearing clothes when you have sniffed at her for not doing so.
     There is no reason why she should wear clothes at home. The house is clean—not somewhat clean, but clean—and comfortable. The floor is warm to bare feet; there are no unpleasant drafts, no cold walls. All dust is precipitated from the air entering this house. All textures, of floor, of couch, of chair, are comfortable to bare skin. Sterilizing ultra-violet light floods each room whenever it is unoccupied, and, several times a day, a "whirlwind" blows house-created dust from all surfaces and whisks it out. These auto services are unobtrusive because automatic cut-off switches prevent them from occurring whenever a mass in a room is radiating at blood temperature.
     Such a house can become untidy, but not dirty. Five minutes of straightening, a few swipes at children's fingermarks, and her day's housekeeping is done. Oftener than sheets were changed in Mr. McKinley's day, this housewife rolls out a fresh layer of sheeting on each sitting surface and stuffs the discard down the oubliette. This is easy; there is a year's supply on a roll concealed in each chair or couch. The tissue sticks by pressure until pulled loose and does not obscure the pattern and color.

     You go into the family room, sit down, and remark on the lovely day. "Isn't it?" she answers. "Come sunbathe with me."
     The sunny patio gives excuse for bare skin by anyone's standards; thankfully she throws off the robe and stretches out on a couch. You hesitate a moment. After all, she is your own grandchild, so why not? You undress quickly, since you left your outer wrap and shoes at the door (only barbarians wear street shoes in a house) and what remains is easily discarded. Your grandparents had to get used to a mid-century beach. It was no easier for them.
     On the other hand, their bodies were wrinkled and old, whereas yours is not. The triumphs of endocrinology, of cosmetics, of plastic surgery, of figure control in every way are such that a woman need not change markedly from maturity until old age. A woman can keep her body as firm and slender as she wishes—and most of them so wish. This has produced a paradox: the United States has the highest percentage of old people in all its two and a quarter centuries, yet it seems to have a larger proportion of handsome young women than ever before.
     (Don't whistle, son! That's your grandmother—)
     This garden is half sunbathing patio, complete with shrubs and flowers, lawn and couches, and half swimming pool. The day, though sunny, is quite cold—but not in the garden, and the pool is not chilly. The garden appears to be outdoors, but is not; it is covered by a bubble of transparent plastic, blown and cured on the spot. You are inside the bubble; the sun is outside; you cannot see the plastic.

     She invites you to lunch; you protest. "Nonsense!" she answers, "I like to cook." Into the house she goes. You think of following, but it is deliciously warm in the March sunshine and you are feeling relaxed to be away from the city. You locate a switch on the side of the couch, set it for gentle massage, and let the couch knead your troubles away. The couch notes your heart rate and breathing; as they slow, so does it. As you fall asleep it stops.
     Meanwhile your hostess has been "slaving away over a hot stove." To be precise, she has allowed a menu selector to pick out an 800-calorie, 4-ration-point luncheon. It is a random-choice gadget, somewhat like a slot machine, which has in it the running inventory of her larder and which will keep hunting until it turns up a balanced meal. Some housewives claim that it takes the art out of cookery, but our hostess is one of many who have accepted it thankfully as an endless source of new menus. Its choice is limited today as it has been three months since she has done grocery shopping. She rejects several menus; the selector continues patiently to turn up combinations until she finally accepts one based around fish disguised as lamb chops.
     Your hostess takes the selected items from shelves or the freezer. All are prepared; some are pre-cooked. Those still to be cooked she puts into her—well, her "processing equipment," though she calls it a "stove." Part of it traces its ancestry to diathermy equipment; another feature is derived from metal enameling processes. She sets up cycles, punches buttons, and must wait two or three minutes for the meal to cook. She spends the time checking her ration accounts.
     Despite her complicated kitchen, she doesn't eat as well as her great grandmother did—too many people and too few acres.
     Never mind; the tray she carries out to the patio is well laden and beautiful. You are both willing to nap again when it is empty. You wake to find that she has burned the dishes and is recovering from her "exertion" in her refresher. Feeling hot and sweaty from your nap you decide to use it when she comes out. There is a wide choice offered by the 'fresher, but you limit yourself to a warm shower growing gradually cooler, followed by warm air drying, a short massage, spraying with scent, and dusting with powder. Such a simple routine is an insult to a talented machine.
     Your host arrives home as you come out; he has taken a holiday from his engineering job and has had the two boys down at the beach. He kisses his wife, shouts, "Hi, Duchess!" at you, and turns to the video, setting it to hunt and sample the newscasts it has stored that day. His wife sends the boys in to 'fresh themselves then says, "Have a nice day, dear?"
     He answers, "The traffic was terrible. Had to make the last hundred miles on automatic. Anything on the phone for me?"
     "Weren't you on relay?"
     "Didn't set it. Didn't want to be bothered." He steps to the house phone, plays back his calls, finds nothing he cares to bother with—but the machine goes ahead and prints one message; he pulls it out and tears it off.
     "What is it?" his wife asks.
     "Telestat from Luna City—from Aunt Jane."
     "What does she say?"
     "Nothing much. According to her, the Moon is a great place and she wants us to come visit her."
     "Not likely!" his wife answers. "Imagine being shut up in an air-conditioned cave."
     "When you are Aunt Jane's age, my honey lamb, and as frail as she is, with a bad heart thrown in, you'll go to the Moon and like it. Low gravity is not to be sneezed at—Auntie will probably live to be a hundred and twenty, heart trouble and all."
     "Would you go to the Moon?" she asks.
     "If I needed to and could afford it." He turns to you. "Right?"
     You consider your answer. Life still looks good to you—and stairways are beginning to be difficult. Low gravity is attractive even though it means living out your days at the Geriatrics Foundation on the Moon. "It might be fun to visit," you answer. "One wouldn't have to stay."

     Hospitals for old people on the Moon? Let's not be silly—
     Or is it silly? Might it not be a logical and necessary outcome of our world today?
     Space travel we will have, not fifty years from now, but much sooner. It's breathing down our necks. As for geriatrics on the Moon, for most of us no price is too high and no amount of trouble is too great to extend the years of our lives. It is possible that low gravity (one sixth, on the Moon) may not lengthen lives; nevertheless it may—we don't know yet—and it will most certainly add greatly to comfort on reaching that inevitable age when the burden of dragging around one's body is almost too much, or when we would otherwise resort to an oxygen tent to lessen the work of a worn-out heart.
     By the rules of prophecy, such a prediction is probable, rather than impossible.
     But the items and gadgets suggested above are examples of timid prophecy.
     What are the rules of prophecy, if any?

     Look at the graph shown here. The solid curve is what has been going on this past century. It represents many things—use of power, speed of transport, numbers of scientific and technical workers, advances in communication, average miles traveled per person per year, advances in mathematics, the rising curve of knowledge. Call it the curve of human achievement.
     What is the correct way to project this curve into the future? Despite everything, there is a stubborn "common sense" tendency to project it along dotted line number one—like the patent office official of a hundred years back who quit his job "because everything had already been invented." Even those who don't expect a slowing up at once tend to expect us to reach a point of diminishing returns (dotted line number two).
     Very daring minds are willing to predict that we will continue our present rate of progress (dotted line number three—a tangent).
     But the proper way to project the curve is dotted line number four—for there is no reason, mathematical, scientific, or historical, to expect that curve to flatten out, or to reach a point of diminishing returns, or simply to go on as a tangent. The correct projection, by all facts known today, is for the curve to go on up indefinitely with increasing steepness.
     The timid little predictions earlier in this article actually belong to curve one, or, at most, to curve two. You can count on the changes in the next fifty years at least eight times as great as the changes of the past fifty years.
     The Age of Science has not yet opened

AXIOM: A "nine-days' wonder" is taken as a matter of course on the tenth day.
AXIOM: A "common sense" prediction is sure to err on the side of timidity.
AXIOM: The more extravagant a prediction sounds the more likely it is to come true.
     So let's have a few free-swinging predictions about the future.
     Some will be wrong—but cautious predictions are sure to be wrong.

     1. 1950 Interplanetary travel is waiting at your front door—C.O.D. It's yours when you pay for it.
     1965 And now we are paying for it and the cost is high. But, for reasons understandable only to bureaucrats, we have almost halted development of a nuclear-powered spacecraft when success was in sight. Never mind; if we don't another country will. By the end of this century space travel will be cheap.
     1980 And now the Apollo-Saturn Man-on-the-Moon program has come and gone, and all we have now in the U.S.A. as a new man-in-space program is the Space Shuttle—underfinanced and two years behind schedule.
     Is space travel dead? No, because the United States is not the only nation on this planet. Today both Japan and Germany seem to be good bets—countries aware that endless wealth is out there for the taking. USSR seems to be concentrating on the military aspects rather than on space travel, and the People's Republic of China does not as yet appear to have the means to spare—but don't count out either nation; the potential is there, in both cases.
     And don't count out the United States! Today most of our citizens regard the space program as a boondoggle (totally unaware that it is one of the very few Federal programs that paid for themselves, manyfold). But we are talking about twenty years from now, 2000 A.D. Let's see it in perspective. Exactly thirty years ago George Pal and Irving Pichel and I—and ca. 200 others—were making the motion picture Destination Moon. I remember sharply that most of the people working on that film started out thinking that it was a silly fantasy, an impossibility. I had my nose rubbed in it again and again, especially if the speaker was unaware that I had written it. (Correction: written the first version of it. By the time it was filmed, even the banker's wife was writing dialog.)
     As for the general public—A trip to the Moon? Nonsense!
     That was thirty years ago, late 1949.
     Nineteen years and ten months later Apollo 11 landed on the Moon.
     Look again at the curves. With respect to space travel (and industry, power, and colonization) we have dropped to that feeble curve #1—but we could shift back to curve #4 overnight if our President and/or Congress got it through their heads that not one but all of our crisis problems can be solved by exploiting space. Employment, inflation, pollution, population, energy, running out of nonrenewable resources—there is pie in the sky for the U.S.A. and for the entire planet including the impoverished "Third World."
     I won't try to prove it here. See The Third Industrial Revolution by G. Harry Stine and see A Step Farther Out by Dr. Jerry Pournelle—and accept my assurance that I have known both authors well for twenty-odd years, know that each has years of experience in aerospace, and that each has both the formal education and the continuing study—and the horse sense!—to be a true expert in this matter.
     From almost total disbelief about space travel (99.9+%) to a landing on the Moon in twenty years . . . from President Kennedy's announcement of intention to that Lunar landing in only seven years … and still twenty years to go until the year 2000—we can still shift to curve #4 (and get rich) almost overnight. By 2000 A.D. we could have O'Neill colonies, self-supporting and exporting power to Earth, at both Lagrange-4 and Lagrange-5, transfer stations in orbit about Earth and around Luna, a permanent base on Luna equipped with an electric catapult—and a geriatrics retirement home.
     However, I am not commissioned to predict what we could do but to predict (guess) what is most likely to happen by 2000 A.D.
     Our national loss of nerve, our escalating anti-intellectualism, our almost total disinterest in anything that does not directly and immediately profit us, the shambles of public education throughout most of our nation (especially in New York and California) cause me to predict that our space program will continue to dwindle. It would not surprise me (but would distress me mightily!) to see the Space Shuttle canceled.
     In the meantime some other nation or group will start exploiting space—industry, power, perhaps Lagrange-point colonies—and suddenly we will wake up to the fact that we have been left at the post. That happened to us in '57; we came up from behind and passed the competition. Possibly we will do it again. Possibly—
     But I am making no cash bets.

     3. 1950 The most important military fact of this century is that there is no way to repel an attack from outer space.
     1965 I flatly stand by this one. True, we are now working on Nike-Zeus and Nike-X and related systems and plan to spend billions on such systems—and we know that others are doing the same thing. True, it is possible to hit an object in orbit or trajectory. Nevertheless this prediction is as safe as predicting tomorrow's sunrise. Anti-aircraft fire never stopped air attacks; it simply made them expensive. The disadvantage in being at the bottom of a deep "gravity well" is very great; gravity gauge will be as crucial in the coming years as wind gauge was in the days when sailing ships controlled empires. The nation that controls the Moon will control the Earth—but no one seems willing these days to speak that nasty fact out loud.
     1980 I have just heard a convincing report that the USSR has developed lasers far better than ours that can blind our eyes-in-the-sky satellites and, presumably, destroy our ICBMs in flight. Stipulate that this rumor is true: It does not change my 1950 assertion one iota. Missiles tossed from the Moon to the Earth need not be H-bombs or any sort of bomb—or even missile-shaped. All they need be is massive . . . because they arrive at approximately seven miles per second. A laser capable of blinding a satellite and of disabling an ICBM to the point where it can't explode would need to be orders of magnitude more powerful in order to volatilize a house-size chunk of Luna. For further details see my The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

     5. 1950 In fifteen years the housing shortage will be solved by a "breakthrough" into new technology which will make every house now standing as obsolete as privies.
     1965 Here I fell flat on my face. There has been no breakthrough in housing, nor is any now in prospect—instead the ancient, wasteful methods of building are now being confirmed by public subsidies. The degree of our backwardness in the field is hard to grasp; we have never seen a modern house. Think what an automobile would be if each one were custom-built from materials fetched to your home—what would it look like, what would it do, and how much would it cost. But don't set the cost lower than $100,000 or the speed higher than 10 m/h, if you want to be realistic about the centuries of difference between the housing industry and the automotive industry.
     I underestimated (through wishful thinking) the power of human stupidity—a fault fatal to prophecy.
     1980 I'm still flat on my face with my nose rubbed in the mud; the situation is worse than ever. See "A Bathroom of Her Own". And that figure of $100,000 just above was with gold at $35 per troy ounce—so change it to one million dollars—or call it 2700 troy ounces of gold. Or forget it. The point is that it would be very nearly impossible to build even a clunker automobile at any price if we built them the way we build houses.
     We have the technology to build cheap, beautiful, efficient, flexible (modular method) houses, extremely comfortable and with the durability of a Rolls Royce. But I cannot guess when (if ever) the powers that be (local bureaucrats, unions, building materials suppliers, county and state officials) will permit us poor serfs to have modern housing.

     6. 1950 We'll all be getting a little hungry by and by.
     1965 No new comment.
     1980 Not necessarily. In 1950 I was too pessimistic concerning population. Now I suspect that the controlling parameter is oil. In modern agriculture oil is the prime factor—as power for farm machinery (obviously) but also for insecticides and for fertilizers. Since our oil policies in Washington are about as boneheaded—counterproductive—as they can be, I have no way to guess how much food we can raise in 2000 A.D. But no one in the United States should be hungry in 2000 A.D.—unless we are conquered and occupied.

     7. 1950 The cult of the phony in art will disappear. So-called "modern art" will be discussed only by psychiatrists.
     1965 No new comment.
     1980 One may hope. But art reflects culture and the world is even nuttier now than it was in 1950; these are the Crazy Years. But, while "fine" art continues to look like the work of retarded monkeys, commercial art grows steadily better.

     8. 1950 Freud will be classed as a pre-scientific, intuitive pioneer and psychoanalysis will be replaced by a growing, changing "operational psychology" based on measurement and prediction.
     1965 No new comment.
     1980 This prediction is beginning to come true. Freud is no longer taken seriously by informed people. More and more professional psychologists are skilled in appropriate mathematics; most of the younger ones understand inductive methodology and the nature of scientific confirmation and are trying hard to put rigor into their extremely difficult, still inchoate subject. For some of the current progress see Dr. Pournelle's book.
     By 2000 A.D. we will know a great deal about how the brain functions . . . whereas in 1900 what little we knew was wrong.
     I do not predict that the basic mystery of psychology—how mass arranged in certain complex patterns becomes aware of itself—will be solved by 2000 A.D. I hope so but do not expect it.

     9. 1950 Cancer, the common cold, and tooth decay will all be conquered; the revolutionary new problem in medical research will be to accomplish "regeneration," i.e., to enable a man to grow a new leg, rather than fit him with an artificial limb.
     1965 In the meantime spectacular progress has been made in organ transplants—and the problem of regeneration is related to this one. Biochemistry and genetics have made a spectacular breakthrough in "cracking the genetic code." It is a tiny crack, however, with a long way to go before we will have the human chromosomes charted and still longer before we will be able to "tailor" human beings by gene manipulation. The possibility is there—but not by year 2000. This is probably just as well. If we aren't bright enough to build decent houses, are we bright enough to play God with the architecture of human beings?
     1980 I see no reason to change this prediction if you will let me elaborate (weasel) a little. "The common cold" is a portmanteau expression for upper respiratory infections which appear to be caused by a very large number of different viruses. Viruses are pesky things. It is possible to immunize against them, e.g., vaccination against smallpox, a virus disease. But there are almost no chemotherapies, medicines, against viruses. That is why "the common cold" is treated much the same way today as in 1900, i.e., support the patient with bed rest, liquids, aspirin to make him more comfortable, keep him warm. This was standard in 1900 and it is still standard in 1980.
     It is probable that your body makes antibodies against the virus of any cold you catch. But this gives you no protection against that virus's hundreds of close relatives found in any airport, theater, supermarket, or gust of dust off the street. In the meantime, while his kinfolk take turns making you miserable, virus #1 has mutated and you have no antibodies against the mutation.
     Good news: Oncology (cancer), immunology, hematology, and "the common cold" turn out to be strongly interrelated subjects; research in all these is moving fast—and a real breakthrough in any one might mean a breakthrough in all.

     10. 1950 By the end of this century mankind will have explored this solar system, and the first ship intended to reach the nearest star will be a building.
     1965 Our editor suggested that I had been too optimistic on this one—but I still stand by it. It is still thirty-five years to the end of the century. For perspective, look back thirty-five years to 1930—the American Rocket Society had not yet been founded. Another curve, similar to the one herewith in shape but derived entirely from speed of transportation, extrapolates to show faster-than-light travel by year 2000. I guess I'm chicken, for I am not predicting FTL ships by then, if ever. But the prediction still stands without hedging.
     1980 My money is still on the table at twenty years and counting. Senator Proxmire can't live forever. In the last 10½ years men have been to the Moon several times; much of the Solar system has been most thoroughly explored within the limits of "black box" technology and more will be visited before this year is out.
     Ah, but not explored by men—and the distances are so great. Surely they are . . . by free-fall orbits, which is all that we have been using. But there are numerous proposals (and not all ours!) for constant-boost ships, proposals that require R&D on present art only—no breakthroughs (I respectfully disagree).
     Reach for your pocket calculator and figure how long it would take to make a trip to Mars and back if your ship could boost at one-tenth gee (that don't sound like much, but it is still a freaking torchship. The tell-tale term is "constant boost"). We will omit some trivia by making it from parking orbit to parking orbit, use straight-line trajectories, and ignore the Sun's field—we'll be going uphill to Mars, downhill to Earth; what we lose on the roundabouts we win on the shys.
     These casual assumptions would cause Dan Alderson, ballistician at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to faint. But after he comes out of his faint he would agree that our answers would be of correct close order of magnitude—and all I'm trying to prove is that even a slight constant boost makes an enormous difference in touring the Solar System. (Late in the 21st century we'll offer the Economy Tour: Ten Planets in Ten Days.)
     There are an unlimited number of distances between rather wide parameters for an Earth-Mars-Earth trip but we will select one that is nearly minimum (it's cheating to wait in orbit at Mars for about a year in order to take the shortest trip each way . . . and unthinkable to wait years for the closest approach). We'll do this Space Patrol style: There's Mars, here we are at L-5; let's scoot over, swing around Mars, and come straight home. Just for drill.
     Conditions: Earth-surface gravity (one "gee") is an acceleration of 32.2 feet per second squared, or 980.7 centimeters per second squared. Mars is in or near opposition (Mars is rising as Sun is setting). We will assume that the round trip is 120,000,000 miles. If we were willing to wait for closest approach we could trim that to less than 70,000,000 miles . . . but we might have to wait as long as 17 years. So we'll take a common or garden variety opposition—one every 26 months—for which the distance to Mars is about 50- to 60,000,000 miles and never over 64 million.
     (With Mars in conjunction on the far side of the Sun, we could take the scenic route of over 500 million miles—how much over depends on how easily you sunburn. I suggest a minimum of 700 million miles.)
     You now have all necessary data to figure the time it takes to travel Earth-Mars-Earth in a constant-boost ship—any constant-boost ship—when Mars is at opposition. (If you insist on the scenic route, you can't treat the trajectory approximations as straight lines and you can't treat space as flat but a bit uphill. You'll need Alderson or his equal and a big computer, not a pocket calculator; the equations are very hairy and sometimes shoot back.)
     But us two space cadets are doing this by eyeballing it, using Tennessee windage, an aerospace almanac, a Mickey Mouse watch, and an SR-50 Pop discarded years ago.
     We need just one equation: Velocity equals acceleration times elapsed time: v = at
     This tells us that our average speed is ½at—and from that we know that the distance achieved is the average speed times the elapsed time: d = ½at2
       If you don't believe me, check any physics text, encyclopedia, or nineteen other sorts of reference books—and I did that derivation without cracking a book but now I'm going to stop and find out whether I've goofed—I've had years of practice in goofing. (Later—seems okay.)
     Just two things to remember: 1) This is a 4-piece trip—boost to midpoint, flip over and boost to brake; then do the same thing coming home. Treat all four legs as being equal or 30,000,000 miles, so figure one of them and multiply by four (Dan, stop frowning; this is an approximation . . . done with a Mickey Mouse watch.)
     2) You must keep your units straight. If you start with centimeters, you are stuck with centimeters; if you start with feet, you are stuck with feet. So we have ¼ of the trip equals 5280 × 30,000,000 = 1.584 × 1011 feet, or 4.827 × 1012 centimeters.
     One last bit: Since it is elapsed time we are after, we will rearrange that equation (d = ½at2) so that you can get the answer in one operation on your trusty-but-outdated pocket calculator . . . or even on a slide rule, as those four-significant-figures data are mere swank; I've used so many approximations and ignored so many minor variables that I'll be happy to get answers correct to two significant figures.

     d / ½a = t2

     this gives us

     t = √d / ½a

     d is 30,000,000 miles expressed in feet, or 158,400,000,000. Set that into your pocket calculator. Divide it by one half of one tenth of gee, or 1.61. Push the square root button. Multiply by 4. You now have the elapsed time of the round trip expressed in seconds so divide by 3600 and you have it in hours, and divide that by 24 and you have it in days.
     At this point you are supposed to be astonished and to start looking for the mistake. While you are looking, I'm going to slide out to the refrigerator.
     There is no mistake. Work it again, this time in metric. Find a reference book and check the equation. You will find the answer elsewhere in this book but don't look for it yet; we'll try some other trips you may take by 2000 A.D. if you speak Japanese or German—or even English if Proxmire and his ilk fail of reelection.
     Same trip, worked the same way, but at only one percent of gee. At that boost I would weigh less than my shoes weigh here in my study.
     Hmmph! Looks as if one answer or the other must be wrong.
     Bear with me. This time we'll work it at a full gee, the acceleration you experience lying in bed, asleep. (See Einstein's 1905 paper.)
     (Preposterous. All three answers must be wrong.)
     Please stick with me a little longer. Let's run all three problems for a round trip to Pluto—in 2006 A.D., give or take a year. Why 2006? Because today Pluto has ducked inside the orbit of Neptune and won't reach perihelion until 1989—and I want it to be a bit farther away; I've got a rabbit stashed in the hat.
     Pluto ducks outside again in 2003 and by 2006 it will be (give or take a few million miles) 31.6 A.U. from the Sun, figuring an A.U. at 92,900,000 miles or 14,950,000,000,000 centimeters as we'll work this both ways, MKS and English units. (All right, all right—1.495 × 1013 centimeters; it gets dull here at this typewriter.)
     Now work it all three ways, a round trip of 63.2 A.U. at a constant boost of one gravity, one tenth gravity, and one hundredth of a gee—and we'll dedicate this to Clyde Tombaugh, the only living man to discover a new planet—through months of tedious and painstaking examination of many thousands of films.
     Some think that Pluto was once a satellite and its small size makes this possible. But it is not a satellite today. It is both far too big and hundreds of millions of miles out of position to be an asteroid. It can't be a comet. So it's a planet—or something so exotic as to be still more of a prize.
     Its size made it hard to find and thus still more of an achievement. But Tombaugh continued the search for seventeen weary years and many millions more films. If there is an Earth-size planet out there, it is at least three times as distant as Pluto, and a gas giant would have to be six times as far. Negative data win no prizes but they are the bedrock of science.
     Until James W. Christy on 22 June 1978 discovered Pluto's satellite, Charon, it was possible for us romantics to entertain the happy thought that Pluto was loaded with valuable heavy metals; the best estimate of its density made this plausible. But the mass of a planet with a satellite can be calculated quite easily and accurately, and from that, its density.
     The new figure was much too low, only half again as heavy as water. Methane snow? Perhaps.
     So once again a lovely theory is demolished by an awkward fact.
     Nevertheless Pluto remains a most mysterious and most intriguing heavenly body. A planet the size and mass of Mars might not be too much use to us out there . . . but think of it as a fuel dump. Many stories and many nonfictional projections speak of using the gas giants and/or the rings of Saturn as sources of fuel. But if Pluto is methane ice or water ice or frozen hydrogen or all three, as a source of fuel—conventional, or fusion, or even reaction mass—Pluto has one supremely important advantage over the gas giants: Pluto is not at the bottom of a horridly deep gravity well.
     Finished calculating? Good. Now see why I wanted our trip to Pluto to be a distance of 31.6 A.U.:
     N.B.: All trips are Earth parking orbit to Earth parking orbit without stopping at the target planet (Mars or Pluto). I assume that Hot Pilot Tom Corbett will handle his gravity-well maneuvers at Mars and at Pluto so as not to waste mass-energy—but that's his problem. Now about that assumption of "flat space" only slightly uphill: The Sun has a fantastically deep gravity well; its "surface" gravity is 28 times as great as ours and its escape speed is 55+ times as great—but at the distance of Earth's orbit that grasp has attenuated to about one thousandth of a gee, and at Pluto at 31.6 A.U. it has dropped off to a gnat's whisker, one millionth of gee.
     (No wonder it takes 2½ centuries to swing around the Sun. By the way, some astronomers seem positively gleeful that today Pluto is not the planet farthest from the Sun. The facts: Pluto spends nine-tenths of its time outside Neptune's orbit, and it averages being 875,000,000 miles farther out than Neptune—and at maximum is nearly 2 billion miles beyond Neptune's orbit (1.79 × 109 miles)—friends, that's more than the distance from here to Uranus, nearly four times as far as from here to Jupiter. When Pluto is out there—1865 or 2114 A.D.—it takes light 6 hours and 50 minutes to reach it. Pluto—the Winnuh and still Champeen! Sour grapes is just as common among astronomers as it is in school yards.)

4.59 days@1 gee vs.4.59 weeks
14.5 days@1/10 gee vs.14.5 weeks
45.9 days@1/100 gee vs.45.9 weeks
145 days@1/1000 gee vs.145 weeks

     —and the rabbit is out of the hat. You will have noticed that the elapsed-time figures are exactly the same in both columns, but in days for Mars, weeks for Pluto—i.e., with constant-boost ships of any sort Pluto is only 7 times as far away for these conditions as is Mars even though in miles Pluto is about 50 times as far away. 
     If you placed Pluto at its aphelion (stay alive another century and a quarter—quite possible), at one gee the Pluto round trip would take 5.72 weeks, at 1/10 gee 18.1 weeks, at 1/100 gee 57.2 weeks—and at 1/1000 gee 181 weeks, or 3 yrs & 25 wks.
     I have added on the two illustrations at 1/1000 of one gravity boost because today (late 1979 as I write) we do not as yet know how to build constant-boost ships for long trips at 1 gee, 1/10 gee, or even 1/100 gee; Newton's Third Law of Motion (from which may be derived all the laws of rocketry) has us (temporarily) stumped. But only temporarily. There is E = mc2, too, and there are several possible ways of "living off the country" like a foraging army for necessary reaction mass. Be patient; this is all very new. Most of you who read this will live to see constant-boost ships of 1/10 gee or better—and will be able to afford vacations in space—soon, soon! I probably won't live to see it, but you will. (No complaints, Sergeant—I was born in the horse & buggy age; I have lived to see men walk on the Moon and to see live pictures from the soil of Mars. I've had my share!)
     But if you are willing to settle today for a constant-boost on the close order of magnitude of 1/1000 gee, we can start the project later this afternoon, as there are several known ways of building constant-boost jobs with that tiny acceleration—even light-sail ships.
     I prefer to talk about light-sail ships (or, rather, ships that sail in the "Solar wind") because those last illustrations I added (1/1000 gee) show that we have the entire Solar System available to us right now; it is not necessary to wait for the year 2000 and new breakthroughs.
     Ten weeks to Mars . . . a round trip to Pluto at 31.6 A.U. in 2 years and 9 months . . . or a round trip to Pluto's aphelion, the most remote spot we know of in the Solar System (other than the winter home of the comets).
     Ten weeks—it took the Pilgrims in the Mayflower nine weeks and three days to cross the Atlantic.
     Two years and nine months—that was a normal commercial voyage for a China clipper sailing out of Boston in the last century . . . and the canny Yankee merchants got rich on it.
     Three years and twenty-five weeks is excessive for the China trade in the 19th century . . . but no one will ever take that long trip to Pluto because Pluto does not reach aphelion until 2113 and by then we'll have ships that can get out there (constant boost with turnover near midpoint) in three weeks
     Please note that England, Holland, Spain, and Portugal all created worldwide empires with ships that took as long to get anywhere and back as would a 1/1000-gee spaceship. On the high seas or in space it is not distance that counts but time. The magnificent accomplishments of our astronauts up to now were made in free fall and are therefore analogous to floating down the Mississippi on a raft. But even the tiniest constant boost turns sailing the Solar System into a money-making commercial venture.

     11. 1950 Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag. Your house telephone will record messages, answer simple inquiries, and transmit vision.
     1965 No new comment.
     1980 This prediction is trivial and timid. Most of it has already come true and the telephone system will hand you the rest on a custom basis if you'll pay for it. In the year 2000, with modern telephones tied into home computers (as common then as flush toilets are today) you'll be able to have 3-dimensional holovision along with stereo speech. Arthur C. Clarke says that this will do away with most personal contact in business. I agree with all of Mr. Clarke's arguments and disagree with his conclusion; with us monkey folk there is no substitute for personal contact; we enjoy it and it fills a spiritual need.
     Besides that, the business conference is often an excuse to loaf on the boss's time and the business convention often supplies some of the benefits of the Roman Saturnalia.
     Nevertheless I look forward to holovideostereophones without giving up personal contacts.

     12. 1950 Intelligent life will be found on Mars.
     1965 Predicting intelligent life on Mars looks pretty silly after those dismal photographs. But I shan't withdraw it until Mars has been thoroughly explored. As yet we really have no idea—and no data—as to just how ubiquitous and varied life may be in this galaxy; it is conceivable that life as we don't know it can evolve on any sort of a planet . . . and nothing in our present knowledge of chemistry rules this out. All the talk has been about life-as-we-know-it—which means terrestrial conditions.
     But if you feel that this shows in me a childish reluctance to give up thoats and zitidars and beautiful Martian princesses until forced to, I won't argue with you—I'll just wait.
     1980 The photographs made by the Martian landers of 1976 and their orbiting companions make the prediction of intelligent Martian life look even sillier. But the new pictures and the new data make Mars even more mysterious. I'm a diehard because I suspect that life is ubiquitous—call that a religious opinion if you wish. But remember two things: Almost all discussion has been about Life-as-we-know-it . . . but what about Life-as-we-don't-know-it? If there were Martians around the time that those amazing gullies and canyons were formed, perhaps they went underground as their atmosphere thinned. At present, despite wonderful pictures, our data are very sparse; those two fixed landers are analogous to two such landing here: one on Canadian tundra, the other in Antarctica—hardly sufficient to solve the question: Is there intelligent life on Sol III?
     (Is there intelligent life in Washington, D.C.?)
     Whistling in the dark—I think I goofed on this one. But if in fact Mars is uninhabited, shortly there will be a land rush that will make the Oklahoma land stampede look gentle. Since E = mc2 came into our lives, all real estate is potentially valuable; it can be terraformed to suit humans. There has been so much fiction and serious, able nonfiction published on how to terraform Mars that I shan't add to it, save to note one thing:
     Power is no problem. Sunshine at that distance has dropped off to about 43% of the maximum here—but Mars gets all of it and gets it all day long save for infrequent dust storms . . . whereas the most that Philadelphia (and like places) ever gets is 35%—and overcast days are common. Mars won't need solar power from orbit; it will be easier to do it on the ground.
     But don't be surprised if the Japanese charge you a very high fee for stamping their visa into your passport plus requiring deposit of a prepaid return ticket or, if you ask for immigrant's visa, charge you a much, much higher fee plus proof of a needed colonial skill.
     For there is intelligent life in Tokyo.

     13. 1950 A thousand miles an hour at a cent a mile will be commonplace; short hauls will be made in evacuated subways at extreme speed.
     1965 I must hedge number thirteen; the "cent" I meant was scaled by the 1950 dollar. But our currency has been going through a long steady inflation, and no nation in history has ever gone as far as we have along this route without reaching the explosive phase of inflation. Ten-dollar hamburgers? Brother, we are headed for the hundred-dollar hamburger—for the barter-only hamburger.
     But this is only an inconvenience rather than a disaster as long as there is plenty of hamburger.
     1980 I must scale that "cent" again. In 1950 gold was $35/troy ounce; this morning the London fix was $374/troy ounce. Just last week my wife and I flew San Francisco to Baltimore and return. We took neither the luxury class nor any of the special discounted fares; we simply flew what we could get.
     Applying the inflation factor—35/374—our tickets cost a hair less than one cent a mile in 1950 dollars. From here on I had better give prices in troy ounces of gold, or in Swiss francs; not even the Man in the White House knows where this inflation is going. About those subways: possible, even probable, by 2000 A.D. But I see little chance that they will be financed until the dollar is stabilized—a most painful process our government hates to tackle.

     14. 1950 A major objective of applied physics will be to control gravity.
     1965 This prediction stands. But today physics is in a tremendous state of flux with new data piling up faster than it can be digested; it is anybody's guess as to where we are headed, but the wilder you guess, the more likely you are to hit it lucky. With "elementary particles" of nuclear physics now totaling about half the number we used to use to list the "immutable" chemical elements, a spectator needs a program just to keep track of the players. At the other end of the scale, "quasars"—quasi-stellar bodies—have come along; radio astronomy is now bigger than telescopic astronomy used to be; and we have redrawn our picture of the universe several times, each time enlarging it and making it more complex—I haven't seen this week's theory yet, which is well, as it would be out of date before this gets into print. Plasma physics was barely started in 1950; the same for solid-state physics. This is the Golden Age of physics—and it's an anarchy.
     1980 I stick by the basic prediction. There is so much work going on both by mathematical physicists and experimental physicists as to the nature of gravity that it seems inevitable that twenty years from now applied physicists will be trying to control it. But note that I said "trying"—succeeding may take a long time. If and when they do succeed, a spinoff is likely to be a spaceship that is in no way a rocket ship—and the Galaxy is ours! (Unless we meet that smarter, meaner, tougher race that kills us or enslaves us or eats us—or all three.)
     Particle physics: the situation is even more confusing than in 1965. Physicists now speak of more than 200 kinds of hadrons, "elementary" heavy particles. To reduce this confusion a mathematical construct called the "quark" was invented. Like Jell-O quarks come in many colors and flavors . . . plus spin, charm, truth, and beauty (or top and bottom in place of truth and beauty—or perhaps "truth" doesn't belong in the list, and no jokes, please, as the physicists aren't joking and neither am I). Put quarks together in their many attributes and you can account for (maybe) all those 200-odd hadrons (and have a system paralleling the leptons or light particles as a bonus).
     All very nice . . . except that no one has ever been able to pin down even one quark. Quarks, if they exist, come packaged in clumps as hadrons—not at random but by rules to account for each of that mob of hadrons.
     Now comes Kenneth A. Johnson, Ph.D. (Harvard '55), Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (which certainly places him in the worldwide top group of physicists) with an article (Scientific American, July 1979, p. 112, "The Bag Model of Quark Confinement"), an article which appears to state that quarks will never be pinned down because they are in sort of an eternal purdah, never to be seen even as bubble tracks.
     Somehow it reminds me of the dilemma when the snark is a boojum.
     I'm not poking fun at Dr. Johnson; he is very learned and trying hard to explain his difficult subject to the unlearned such as I.
     But, in the meantime I suggest reading The Hunting of the Snark while waiting patiently for 2000 A.D. We have a plethora of data; perhaps in twenty more years the picture will be simplified. Perhaps—

18. 1950 Fish and yeast will become our principal sources of proteins. Beef will be a luxury; lamb and mutton will disappear.      1965 I'll hedge number eighteen a little. Hunger is not now a problem in the USA and need not be in the year 2000—but hunger is a world problem and would at once become an acute problem for us if we were conquered . . . a distinct possibility by 2000. Between our present status and that of subjugation lies a whole spectrum of political and economic possible shapes to the future under which we would share the worldwide hunger to a greater or lesser extent. And the problem grows. We can expect to have to feed around half a billion Americans circa year 2000—our present huge surpluses would then represent acute shortages even if we never shipped a ton of wheat to India.
     1980 It would now appear that the USA population in 2000 A.D. will be about 270,000,000 instead of 500,000,000. I have been collecting clippings on demography for forty years; all that the projections have in common is that all of them are wrong. Even that figure of 270,000,000 may be too high; today the only reason our population continues to increase is that we oldsters are living longer; our current birthrate is not sufficient even to replace the parent generation.

     19. 1950 Mankind will not destroy itself, nor will "Civilization" be destroyed.
     1965 I stand by prediction number nineteen.
     1980 I still stand by prediction number nineteen. There will be wars and we will be in some of them—and some may involve atomic weapons. But there will not be that all-destroying nuclear holocaust that forms the background of so many SF stories. There are three reasons for this: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the People's Republic of China.
     Why? Because the three strongest countries in the world (while mutually detesting each the other two) have nothing to gain and everything to lose in an all-out swapping of H-bombs. Because Kremlin bosses are not idiots and neither are those in Beijing (Peiping)(Peking).
     If another country—say Israel, India, or the South African Republic—gets desperate and tosses an A- or H-bomb, that country is likely to receive three phone calls simultaneously, one from each of the Big Three: "You have exactly three minutes to back down. Then we destroy you."
     After World War II I never expected that our safety would ever depend on a massive split in Communist International—but that is exactly what has happened.

     1950 Here are things we won't get soon, if ever:
     Travel through time.
     Travel faster than the speed of light.
     "Radio" transmission of matter.
     Manlike robots with manlike reactions.
     Laboratory creation of life.
     Real understanding of what "thought" is and how it is related to matter.
     Scientific proof of personal survival after death.
     Nor a permanent end to war. (I don't like that prediction any better than you do.)

     1950 Prediction of gadgets is a parlor trick anyone can learn; but only a fool would attempt to predict details of future history (except as fiction, so labeled); there are too many unknowns and no techniques for integrating them even if they were known.
     Even to make predictions about overall trends in technology is now most difficult. In fields where before World War II there was one man working in public, there are now ten, or a hundred, working in secret. There may be six men in the country who have a clear picture of what is going on in science today. There may not be even one. 
     This is in itself a trend. Many leading scientists consider it a factor as disabling to us as the nonsense of Lysenkoism is to Russian technology. Nevertheless there are clear-cut trends which are certain to make this coming era enormously more productive and interesting than the frantic one we have just passed through. Among them are:
     Cybernetics: The study of communication and control of mechanisms and organisms. This includes the wonderful field of mechanical and electronic "brains"—but is not limited to it. (These "brains" are a factor in themselves that will speed up technical progress the way a war does.)
     Semantics: A field which seems concerned only with definitions of words. It is not; it is a frontal attack on epistemology—that is to say, how we know what we know, a subject formerly belonging to long-haired philosophers.
     New tools of mathematics and logic, such as calculus of statement, Boolean logic, morphological analysis, generalized symbology, newly invented mathematics of every sort—there is not space even to name these enormous fields, but they offer us hope in every field—medicine, social relations, biology, economics, anything.
     Biochemistry: Research into the nature of protoplasm, into enzyme chemistry, viruses, etc., give hope not only that we may conquer disease, but that we may someday understand the mechanisms of life itself. Through this, and with the aid of cybernetic machines and radioactive isotopes, we may eventually acquire a rigor of chemistry. Chemistry is not a discipline today; it is a jungle. We know that chemical behavior depends on the number of orbital electrons in an atom and that physical and chemical properties follow the pattern called the Periodic Table. We don't know much else, save by cut-and-try, despite the great size and importance of the chemical industry. When chemistry becomes a discipline, mathematical chemists will design new materials, predict their properties, and tell engineers how to make them—without ever entering a laboratory. We've got a long way to go on that one!
     Nucleonics: We have yet to find out what makes the atom tick. Atomic power?—yes, we'll have it, in convenient packages—when we understand the nucleus. The field of radioisotopes alone is larger than was the entire known body of science in 1900. Before we are through with these problems, we may find out how the universe is shaped and why. Not to mention enormous unknown vistas best represented by ?????
     Some physicists are now using two time scales, the T-scale, and the tau-scale. Three billion years on one scale can equal an incredibly split second on the other scale—and yet both apply to you and your kitchen stove. Of such anarchy is our present state in physics.
     For such reasons we must insist that the Age of Science has not yet opened. 

     (Still 1950) The greatest crisis facing us is not Russia, not the Atom Bomb, not corruption in government, not encroaching hunger, not the morals of young. It is a crisis in the organization and accessibility of human knowledge. We own an enormous "encyclopedia"—which isn't even arranged alphabetically. Our "file cards" are spilled on the floor, nor were they ever in order. The answers we want may be buried somewhere in the heap, but it might take a lifetime to locate two already known facts, place them side by side and derive a third fact, the one we urgently need.
     Call it the Crisis of the Librarian.
     We need a new "specialist" who is not a specialist, but a synthesist. We need a new science to be the perfect secretary to all other sciences.
     But we are not likely to get either one in a hurry and we have a powerful lot of grief before us in the meantime.
     Fortunetellers can always be sure of repeat customers by predicting what the customer wants to hear . . . it matters not whether the prediction comes true. Contrariwise, the weatherman is often blamed for bad weather.
     Brace yourself.
     In 1900 the cloud on the horizon was no bigger than a man's hand—but what lay ahead was the Panic of 1907, World War I, the panic following it, the Depression, Fascism, World War II, the Atom Bomb, and Red Russia.
     Today the clouds obscure the sky, and the wind that overturns the world is sighing in the distance.
     The period immediately ahead will be the roughest, cruelest one in the long, hard history of mankind. It will probably include the worst World War of them all. It might even end with a war with Mars, God save the Mark! Even if we are spared that fantastic possibility, it is certain that there will be no security anywhere, save that which you dig out of your own inner spirit.

     But what of that picture we drew of domestic luxury and tranquility for Mrs. Middleclass, style 2000 A.D.?
     She lived through it. She survived.
     Our prospects need not dismay you, not if you or your kin were at Bloody Nose Ridge, at Gettysburg—or trudged across the Plains. You and I are here because we carry the genes of uncountable ancestors who fought—and won—against death in all its forms. We're tough. We'll survive. Most of us.
     We've lasted through the preliminary bouts; the main event is coming up.
     But it's not for sissies.

     The last thing to come fluttering out of Pandora's Box was Hope—without which men die.
     The gathering wind will not destroy everything, nor will the Age of Science change everything. Long after the first star ship leaves for parts unknown, there will still be outhouses in upstate New York, there will still be steers in Texas, and—no doubt—the English will still stop for tea.

Afterthoughts, fifteen years later—(1965)     Today the forerunners of synthesists are already at work in many places. Their titles may be anything; their degrees may be in anything—or they may have no degrees. Today they are called "operations researchers," or sometimes "systems development engineers," or other interim tags. But they are all interdisciplinary people, generalists, not specialists—the new Renaissance Man. The very explosion of data which forced most scholars to specialize very narrowly created the necessity which evoked this new non-specialist. So far, this "unspecialty" is in its infancy; its methodology is inchoate, the results are sometimes trivial, and no one knows how to train to become such a man. But the results are often spectacularly brilliant, too—this new man may yet save all of us.

     I'm an optimist. I have great confidence in Homo sapiens.
     We have rough times ahead—but when didn't we? Things have always been "tough all over." H-bombs, Communism, race riots, water shortage—all nasty problems. But not basic problems, merely current ones.
     We have three basic and continuing problems: The problem of population explosion; the problem of data explosion; and the problem of government.
     Population problems have a horrid way of solving themselves when they are not solved rationally; the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are always saddled up and ready to ride. The data explosion is now being solved, mostly by cybernetics and electronics men rather than by librarians—and if the solutions are less than perfect, at least they are better than what Grandpa had to work with. The problem of government has not been solved either by the "Western Democracies" or the "People's Democracies," as of now. (Anyone who thinks the people of the United States have solved the problem of government is using too short a time scale.) The peoples of the world are now engaged in a long, long struggle with no end in sight, testing whether one concept works better than another; in that conflict millions have already died and it is possible that hundreds of millions will die in it before year 2000. But not all.
     I hold both opinions and preferences as to the outcome. But my personal preference for a maximum of looseness is irrelevant; what we are experiencing is an evolutionary process in which personal preference matters, at most, only statistically. Biologists, ecologists in particular, are working around to the idea that natural selection and survival of the fittest is a notion that applies more to groups and how they are structured than it does to individuals. The present problem will solve itself in the cold terms of evolutionary survival, and in the course of it both sides will make changes in group structure. The system that survives might be called "Communism" or it might be called "Democracy" (the latter is my guess)—but one thing we can be certain of: it will not resemble very closely what either Marx or Jefferson had in mind. Or it might be called by some equally inappropriate neologism; political tags are rarely logical.
     For Man is rarely logical. But I have great confidence in Man, based on his past record. He is mean, ornery, cantankerous, illogical, emotional—and amazingly hard to kill. Religious leaders have faith in the spiritual redemption of Man; humanist leaders subscribe to a belief in the perfectibility of Man through his own efforts; but I am not discussing either of these two viewpoints. My confidence in our species lies in its past history and is founded quite as much on Man's so-called vices as on his so-called virtues. When the chips are down, quarrelsomeness and selfishness can be as useful to the survival of the human race as is altruism, and pig-headedness can be a trait superior to sweet reasonableness. If this were not true, these "vices" would have died out through the early deaths of their hosts, at least a half million years back.
     I have a deep and abiding confidence in Man as he is, imperfect and often unlovable—plus still greater confidence in his potential. No matter how tough things are, Man copes. He comes up with adequate answers from illogical reasons. But the answers work.
     Last to come out of Pandora's Box was a gleaming, beautiful thing—eternal Hope.
     (1980—I see no point in saying more. R.A.H.)

From WHERE TO? by Robert Heinlein (1952, updated 1980)

Over Engineering

Some engineers are prone to creeping featurism, that urge to add just one more bell or whistle that will really make the design perfect. The old adage is: "There comes a time in the history of any project when it becomes necessary to shoot the engineers and begin production"

Worse is when the engineers have made an unconscious assumption that metaphorically puts the cart before the horse, which frustrates them when the problem becomes more insoluble the harder they try. The solution here is to take a step back and try "thinking outside the box", i.e., Lateral thinking.

Worst of all is when the engineers fail to consider whether the project was a good idea in the first place. In Jurassic Park, Ian said "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should." And that's when the screaming starts.

Arthur C. Clarke had an example of the over-engineering trap. Solve this problem: allow a farmer to direct a draft-horse to turn left or right on command.

Solution 1: genetically engineer the horse to enhance its intelligence. Teach the horse a college level of English language comprehension, so that the horse can understand commands like "It is time to vector your course in the widdershins direction", "go thataway, stupid!", or whatever phrasing suits the passing fancy of the farmer at that moment. Problem will be solved after a few decades of over engineering, and each draft-horse will cost a quarter of a billon dollars.

Solution 2: take an off-the-shelf draft-horse. Teach it that "Haw" means turn left and "Gee" means turn right. Teach the farmer to employ this user interface when directing the horse. Problem solved.

The point is that trying to accomodate any whim of the farmer is an NP-hard problem. A little training of the lazy farmer vastly simplifies the problem.


Overengineering (or over-engineering) is the act of designing a product to be more robust or have more features than necessary for its intended use, or for a process to be unnecessarily complex or inefficient.

Overengineering is often done to increase a factor of safety, add function, or overcome perceived design flaws that most users would accept. Overengineering can be desirable when safety or performance is critical (e.g. in aerospace vehicles), or when extremely broad functionality is required (e.g. diagnostic tools), but it is generally criticized in terms of value engineering as wasteful of resources such as materials, time and money. As a design philosophy, it is the opposite of the minimalist ethos of "less is more" and a violation of the KISS principle.

Overengineering generally occurs in high-end products or specialized markets. In one form, products are overbuilt and have performance far in excess of expected normal operation (a city car that can travel at 300 km/h, or a home video recorder with a projected lifespan of 100 years), and hence are more expensive, bulkier, and heavier than necessary. Alternatively, they may become overcomplicated – the extra functions may be unnecessary, and potentially reduce the usability of the product by overwhelming end users.

Overengineering can decrease the productivity of the design team because of the need to build and maintain unwanted features.

A related issue is market segmentation – making different products for different market segments. In this context, a particular product may be more or less suited (and thus considered over- or under-engineered) for a particular market segment.

From the Wikipedia entry for OVERENGINEERING

I studied my four chronometric dials, tapping the face of each with my fingernail to ensure they were working. Already the hand on the second of the dials, which measured thousands of days, had begun to drift away from its rest position.

These dials—faithful, mute servants—were adapted from steam pressure gauges. They worked by measuring a certain shear tension in a quartz bar doped with Plattnerite, a tension induced by the twisting effects of time travel. The dials counted days—not years, or months, or leap years, or movable feasts!—and that was by conscious design. As soon as I began my investigations into the practicalities of this business of traveling into time, and in particular the need to measure my machine's position in it, I spent some considerable time trying to build a practical chronometric gauge capable of producing a display in common measures: centuries, years, months and days. I soon found I was likely to spend longer on that project than on the rest of the Time Machine put together!

I developed an immense impatience with the peculiarities of our antique calendar system, which has come from a history of inadequate adjustments: of attempts to fix seed-time and midwinter that go back to the beginnings of organized society.

Our calendar is a historical absurdity, without even the redeeming feature of accuracy at least on the cosmological timescales which I intended to challenge.

At any event, after all this, I abandoned my attempts to build a calendar-based chronometric gauge, and reverted to a simple count of days. I have always had a ready mind with figures, and did not find it hard to convert, mentally, my dials' day-count to years. On my first voyage, I had traveled to Day 292,495,934, which—allowing for leap year adjustments—turned out to be a date in the year A.D. 802,701. Now, I knew, I must travel forwards until my dials showed Day 292,495,940—the precise day on which I had lost Weena, and much of my self-respect, in the flames of that forest!

"Ha!—here we are; once more, it is the Sixteenth of June, A.D. 1938." He began to unravel his constraints. I got out of my chair and took a closer look at that "clock." I found that—although the hands made up a conventional clock face—the device also featured several little chronometric dials. I snorted and tapped the glass face of the thing with my finger. I said to Moses, "Look at this! It is a chronometric clock, but it shows years and months—overengineering, Moses; a characteristic of Government projects. I'm surprised it doesn't feature little dolls with raincoats and sun-hats, to show the passing of the seasons!"

From THE TIME SHIPS by Stephen Baxter (1995)

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

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)

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.”


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)

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

RocketCat sez

Yeah, I know I know, you just luv the idea of a thick coating of Errol Flynn - swashbuckling flavor on top of your science fiction. If you are an elderly geezer you probably got imprinted like a baby duck on Buster Crabbe - Flash Gordon serials, Alex Raymond - comic strips, or Edgar Rice Burroughs - John Carter of Barsoom novels. If you are a young sprat you probably imprinted on a light saber.

I'm trying to cut you some slack here, but I'm only barely restraining myself from giving you an atomic wedgie. To be brutally honest the concept is about as scientifically accurate as a Harry Potter movie.

But if you the author simply must include such feldercarb in your work, because you are catering to the masses or being deliberately post-ironic, I'll throw you a bone and give some threadbare fig-leaves to use here.

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 (the technical term is Medieval Futurism). While cinematically interesting, the concept is obviously scientifically silly, surely somebody advanced enough to run an FTL starship can manage to tinker together a laser pistol (or at least 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 huge short-cut to starship technology.

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.

The cold unromantic fact of the matter is that such wildly disparate technology levels as "starship for transport" but "only swords for weapons" is totally illogical:


(ed note: Sprague de Camp is of the opinion that such wide technological incongruities as swords on starships are romantic as space operas but make zero sense scientifically)

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 pocket-sized 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.

By and large, the weapon with the longest effective range drives out the others, as the bow superseded the sling and the javelin, and the gun supplanted the bow. True, in civilized nations, the gun took several centuries to drive out the sword. The reason is that early guns took so long to reload that, if the gunner missed his first shot, his enemy could be upon him with a hand weapon before he could fire another. Therefore the gun's longer range was not always effective, and a reserve hand weapon was desirable.

This situation began to change with the development of the flint-lock in late +XVII. Now, instead of several minutes, it took a well-drilled soldier only fifteen seconds to load and fire. The development of the breech-loader with a metallic cartridge case in the 1850s shrank the interval between shots down to about five seconds, and the repeating rifle of the 1860s shortened it to less than two seconds. With each advance, the massed infantry charge became more costly. Pickett's charge at Gettysburg showed what happened to troops who tried it.

This was pretty much the end of the sword as a practical weapon. In the 1850s and 60s an explorer, setting out for inner Africa, often carried a sword as a back-up weapon. Richard F. Burton found his sword useful in his wild night-time fight with a whole tribe of Somalis in 1854.

By the end of the (20th) 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.

The American soldiers fighting the Plains Indians abandoned their sabers, since they so seldom got close enough to their foes to use them — although Custer's men, before they were wiped out, had occasion to wish that they had brought theirs along. Of the 320,000 American casualties in the Kaiserian War, two were saber wounds. Cossacks and Japanese officers might continue to carry swords down through the Hitlerian War, but such pious archaisms had as much to do with serious fighting as a modern British knighthood has to do with medieval chivalry.

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.

Of course, one might find oneself in a fix where the more archaic weapon would be the more effective. In WW2, a marine friend of mine in the Pacific theater killed one enemy with a dagger and another with a machete, which is a sword of sorts. But one cannot carry enough gear to meet every possible contingency; and, 99 times out of 100, a modern repeating firearm will beat any ancient panoply that could be brought against it.

Furthermore, if your hero lives in a pre-gunpowder world where hand-to-hand weapons prevail, and he expects to have to do some serious fighting, he will try to provide himself not only with a sword but also with the best defenses that he can afford and that the armor-makers of the time can produce. This may range from an ox-hide shield of the Zulu type, or a jacket to which scales of boiled leather have been sewn, up to the marvelous suits of steel plate of late +XVI and early +XVII, which represent the all-time culmination of armor.

The precise details of our hero's defense depend partly on the technology of his world and partly on the circumstances under which he expects to fight. These factors determine whether or not he carries a shield; whether his armor is of leather, wood, coconut fiber, cloth, copper, bronze, iron, steel, or even a steel alloy; and whether it takes the form of scale mail, ring mail, chain mail, strap armor, or plate. Does he give battle on land or sea, alone or in an army, afoot or on horseback? If he expects to fight mounted, he must consider how much weight his mount can carry. In classical Greece the heaviest-armored men were foot soldiers, because the small horses of that era could not bear a man in full armor. By the Middle Ages, the development of larger breeds of horse reversed this relationship.

In any case, be sure that a hero in his right mind, knowing he faces hand-to-hand combat, will not go into action stripped to a loin cloth like a Burroughs Martian. Not, that is, if he can jolly well help it!

So, if you really want to build a convincing fantasy world, as the people on the Pacificon II panel prescribed, 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 sport. Many modern sports — hunting, fishing, sailing a sailboat, riding a horse, fighting with swords, shooting a bow, or throwing a javelin — were once serious occupations, on which a man's life might depend. But for serious adventuring — well, even Tarzan's son had the sense to hang on to his rifle and ammunition on his way to rescue his noble parents from the sinister prehensile-tailed priests of the mysterious valley of Pal-ul-don. This gun came in right handy, too.

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

(ed note: 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 (written by Sprague de Camp).

Poul Anderson

      The twin moons brooded over the red deserts of Mars and the mined city of Khua-Loanis. The night wind sighed around the fragile spires and whispered at the fretted lattice windows of the empty temples, and the red dust made it like a city of copper.

     It was close to midnight when the distant rumble of racing hooves reached the city, and soon the riders thundered in under the ancient gateway. Tharn, Warrior Lord of Loanis, leading his pursuers by a scant twenty yards, realized wearily that his lead was shortening, and raked the scaly flanks of his six-legged vorkl with cruel spurs. The faithful beast gave a low cry of despair as it tried to obey and failed.

     In front of Tharn in the big double saddle sat Lehni-tal-Loanis, Royal Lady of Mars, riding the ungainly animal with easy grace, leaning forward along its arching neck to murmur swift words of encouragement into its flattened ears. Then she lay back against Tharn’s mailed chest and turned her lovely face up to his, flushed and vivid with the excitement of the chase, amber eyes aflame with love for her strange hero from beyond time and space.

     “We shall win this race yet, my Tharn," she cried. “Yonder through that archway lies the Temple of the Living Vapor, and once there we can defy all the Hordes of Varnis!” Looking down at the unearthly beauty of her, at the subtle curve of throat and breast and thigh, revealed as the wind tore at her scanty garments, Tharn knew that even if the Swordsmen of Varnis struck him down his strange odyssey would not have been in vain.

     But the girl had judged the distance correctly and Thain brought their snorting vorkl to a sliding, rearing halt at the great doors of the Temple, just as the Swordsmen reached the outer archway and jammed there in a struggling, cursing mass. In seconds they had sorted themselves out and came streaming across the courtyard, but the delay had given Tharn time to dismount and take his stand in one of the great doorways. He knew that if he could hold it for a few moments while Lehni-tal-Loanis got the door open, then the secret of the Living Vapor would be theirs, and with it mastery of all the lands of Loanis.

     The Swordsmen tried first to ride him down, but the doorway was so narrow and deep that Tharn had only to drive his sword-point upward into the first vorkl’s throat and leap backward as the dying beast fell. Its rider was stunned by the fall, and Tharn bounded up onto the dead animal and beheaded the unfortunate Swordsman without compunction. There were ten of his enemies left and they came at him now on foot, but the confining doorway prevented them from attacking more than four abreast, and Tharn’s elevated position upon the huge carcass gave him the advantage he needed. The fire of battle was in his veins now, and he bared his teeth and laughed in their faces, and his reddened sword wove a pattern of cold death which none could pass.

     Lehni-tal-Loanis, running quick cool fingers over the pitted bronze of the door. found the radiation lock and pressed her glowing opalescent thumb-ring into the socket, gave a little sob of relief as she heard hidden tumblers falling. With agonizing slowness the ancient mechanism began to open the door; soon Tharn heard the girls clear voice call above the clashing steel, “Inside, my Tharn, the secret of the Living Vapor is ours!”

     But Tharn, with four of his foes dead now, and seven to go, could not retreat from his position on top of the dead vorkl without grave risk of being cut down, and Lehni-tal-Loanis, quickly realizing this, sprang up beside him, drawing her own slim blade and crying, “Aie, my love! l will be your left arm!”

     Now the cold hand of defeat gripped the hearts of the Swordsmen of Varnis: two, three, four more of them mingled their blood with the red dust of the courtyard as Tharn and his fighting princess swung their merciless blades in perfect unison. It seemed that nothing could prevent them now from winning the mysterious secret of the Living Vapor, but they reckoned without the treachery of one of the remaining Swordsmen. Leaping backward out of the conflict he flung his sword on the ground in disgust. “Aw, the Hell with it!” he grunted, and unclipping a proton gun from his belt he blasted Lehni-tal-Loanis and her Warrior Lord out of existence with a searing energy-beam.

From THE SWORDSMEN OF VARNIS by Clive Jackson (1950)

But if you as an author insist upon putting swords in starships, there are a few possible thread-bare excuses you can use:

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. These can be accomodated by STARSHIPS ARE INHERITED, HARVESTED COBBLER TECHNOLOGY, and HOW DID WE MISS THAT?.

No Guns: Illegal Or Immoral

For some bizzare legal or cultural reason firearms and anything more advanced are not allowed.

Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burrough (1912)
The Martians have firearms which fire explosive radium bullets. However, there is a nearly unbreakable cultural taboo against fighting a foe with unequal weapons. When a foe attacks with a weapon in hand, 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. If you do pull out a greater weapon, your opponent will attack with enhanced ferocity due to your rank villainy.
Traveller RPG (1977)
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 a quarter of 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.
Deathstalker series by Simon Green (1995)
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. Swordplay ensues while user waits for the blasted gun to charge up.

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 sort of thing.

No Guns: Technological Gizmo

There exists some commonly available gadget which disable all firearms within a wide radius. Pulling the pistol's trigger just makes sad clicking noises.

A related notion is the "nuclear damper" which hand-wavingly prevents nuclear warheads from exploding. This is commonly used by science fiction authors who want to write military stories with firearms and tanks but no nukes. Military science fiction stories with guns can be engrossing. Military science fiction stories about nuclear war have a plot like "The atomic war lasted 10 minutes and the entire planet died. The end."

The Reign of the Ray by Fletcher Pratt (1929)
A scientist name Robert Adams alters a Coolidge tube and invents a ray that can detonate explosives at a distance. The Russians start their attack to invade Europe before the Adams Ray can be mass produced, and the United States rush deliver Ray units to the European front. The Russians capture some ray units and reverse engineer them. Now both sides have to do battle with no firearms, bombs, aircraft, or any other internal combustion engines. The war has to be fought with swords, bayonets, and sabre-armed cavalry.
First Lensman by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1950)
The Galactic Patrol and the pirates use combat armor equipped with force fields. Since the defensive field's resistance goes up with the weapon velocity, bullets and ray-guns are useless. Therefore, both sides uses space axes.
Dorsai! by Gordon R. Dickson (1960)
     Each man carried a handgun and knife in addition to his regular armament; but they were infantry, spring-rifle men. Weapon for weapon, any thug in the back alley of a large city had more, and more modern firepower; but the trick with modern warfare was not to outgun the enemy, but carry weapons he could not gimmick. Chemical and radiation armament was too easily put out of action from a distance. Therefore, the spring-rifle with its five thousand-sliver magazine and its tiny, compact, non-metallic mechanism which could put a sliver in a man-sized target at a thousand meters time after time with unvarying accuracy.
     Yet, thought Donal, pacing between the silent men in the faint darkness of pre-dawn, even the spring-rifle would be gimmickable one of these days. Eventually, the infantryman would be back to the knife and short sword. And the emphasis would weigh yet again more heavily on the skill of the individual soldier.
Dune novels by Frank Herbert (1965)
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.

Herbert notes that the size of the thermonuclear explosion is totally random, independent of the size of the laser bolt or forcefield. In other words this is an arbitrary author fiat whose sole purpose is to bring sword and knife fighting back into fashion, don't try to bring logic and science into it.

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.

According to the DUNE Wiki: "The Holtzman Shield is a potent literary device: it makes some directed-energy weaponry impossible against any worthwhile opponent, and also proves traditional projectile-based firearms and missiles ineffective, adding to the feudal atmosphere, and enforces the usage of mêlée weaponry despite other more advanced technology."
Shear-thickening fluid Body Armor (2007)
In yet another example of life imitating science fiction, modern day Shear-thickening fluid Body Armor is having a similar effect to the fictional Holtzman effect personal force fields in the Dune novels. STF armor render bullets ineffectual, but can be easily punctured by a slow knife stab.
O.K. Connery (1967)
In this comedy movie take-off of James Bond spy flicks, the terrorist organization THANATOS use their dreaded Magnetic Wave to turn off all mechanical devices world wide. In particular it renders firearms inoperative. But protagonist Neil Connery manages to foil their evil plot, with help of a team of Scottish archers.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)
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 (1999)
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.

      Then, as soon as the intrinsic velocities could possibly be matched, board and storm! With Dronvire of Rigel Four in the lead, closely followed by Costigan, Northrop, Kinnison the Younger, and a platoon of armed and armored Space Marines!
     Samms and the two scientists did not belong in such a melee as that which was to come, and knew it. Kinnison the Elder did not belong, either, but did not know it. In fact, be cursed fluently and bitterly at having to stay out—nevertheless, out he stayed.
     Dronvire, on the other hand, did not like to fight. The very thought of actual, bodily, hand-to-hand combat revolted every fiber of his being. In view of what the spy-ray men were reporting, however, and of what all the Lensmen knew of pirate psychology, Dronvire had to get into that control room first, and he had to get there fast.
     And if he had to fight, he could; and, physically, he was wonderfully well equipped for just such activity. To his immense physical strength, the natural concomitant of a force of gravity more than twice Earth's, the armor which so encumbered the Tellurian bafflers was a scarcely noticeable impediment. His sense of perception, which could not be barred by any material substance, kept him fully informed of every development in his neighborhood. His literally incredible speed enabled him not merely to parry a blow aimed at him, but to bash out the brains of the would-be attacker before that blow could be more than started. And whereas a human being can swing only one space-axe or fire only two ray-guns at a time, the Rigellian plunged through space toward what was left of the pirate vessel, swinging not one or two space-axes, but four; each held in a lithe and supple, but immensely strong, tentacular "hand".
     Why axes? Why not Lewistons, or rifles, or pistols? Because the space armor of that day could withstand almost indefinitely the output of two or three hand-held projectors; because the resistance of its defensive fields varied directly as the cube of the velocity of any material projectile encountering them. Thus, and strangely enough, the advance of science had forced the re-adoption of that long-extinct weapon.

From FIRST LENSMAN by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1950)

      “Yessir, except for those damned swords.” For use in the stasis field. “No way we can orient them that they won’t be bent. Just hope they don’t break.”
     I couldn’t begin to understand the principles behind the stasis field; the gap between present-day physics and my master’s degree in the same subject was as long as the time that separated Galileo and Einstein. But I knew the effects.
     Nothing could move at greater than 16.3 meters per second inside the field, which was a hemispherical (in space, spherical) volume about fifty meters in radius. Inside, there was no such thing as electro-magnetic radiation; no electricity, no magnetism, no light. From inside your suit, you could see your surroundings in ghostly monochrome—which phenomenon was glibly explained to me as being due to “phase transference of quasi-energy leaking through from an adjacent tachyon reality,” so much phlogiston to me.
     The result of it, though, was to make all conventional weapons of warfare useless. Even a nova bomb was just an inert lump inside the field. And any creature, Terran or Tauran, caught inside the field without the proper insulation would die in a fraction of a second.

     At first it looked as though we had come upon the ultimate weapon. There were five engagements where whole Tauran bases were wiped out without any human ground casualties. All you had to do was carry the field to the enemy (four husky soldiers could handle it in Earth-gravity) and watch them die as they slipped in through the field’s opaque wall. The people carrying the generator were invulnerable except for the short periods when they might have to turn the thing off to get their bearings.
     The sixth time the field was used, though, the Taurans were ready for it. They wore protective suits and were armed with sharp spears, with which they could breach the suits of the generator-carriers. From then on the carriers were armed.

     Inside the base, we relied on individual lasers, microton grenades, and a tachyon-powered repeating rocket launcher that had never been tried in combat, one per platoon. As a last resort, the stasis field was set up beside the living quarters. Inside its opaque gray dome, as well as enough paleolithic weaponry to hold off the Golden Horde, we’d stashed a small cruiser, just in case we managed to lose all our spacecraft in the process of winning a battle. Twelve people would be able to get back to Stargate.
     It didn’t do to dwell on the fact that the other survivors would have to sit on their hands until relieved by reinforcements or death.

     We had more than a half hour before the drones would strike. I could evacuate everybody to the stasis field, and they would be temporarily safe if one of the nova bombs got through. Safe, but trapped. How long would it take the crater to cool down, if three or four—let alone sixteen—of the bombs made it through? You couldn’t live forever in a fighting suit, even though it recycled everything with remorseless efficiency. One week was enough to make you thoroughly miserable. Two weeks, suicidal. Nobody had ever gone three weeks, under field conditions.
     Besides, as a defensive position, the stasis field could be a death-trap. The enemy has all the options since the dome is opaque; the only way you can find out what they’re up to is to stick your head out. They didn’t have to wade in with primitive weapons unless they were impatient. They could keep the dome saturated with laser fire and wait for you to turn off the generator. Meanwhile harassing you by throwing spears, rocks, arrows into the dome—you could return fire, but it was pretty futile.
     Of course, if one man stayed inside the base, the others could wait out the next half hour in the stasis field. If he didn’t come get them, they’d know the outside was hot.

     The Taurans started firing rockets, but most of them seemed to be going too high. I saw two of us get blown away before I got to my halfway point; found a nice big rock and hid behind it. I peeked out and decided that only two or three of the Taurans were close enough to be even remotely possible laser targets, and the better part of valor would be in not drawing unnecessary attention to myself. I ran the rest of the way to the edge of the field and stopped to return fire. After a couple of shots, I realized that I was just making myself a target; as far as I could see there was only one other person who was still running toward the dome.
     A rocket zipped by, so close I could have touched it. I flexed my knees and kicked, and entered the dome in a rather undignified posture.
     Inside, I could see the rocket that had missed me drifting lazily through the gloom, rising slightly as it passed through to the other side of the dome. It would vaporize the instant it came out the other side, since all of the kinetic energy it had lost in abruptly slowing down to 16.3 meters per second would come back in the form of heat.

     Nine people were lying dead, facedown just inside of the field’s edge. It wasn’t unexpected, though it wasn’t the sort of thing you were supposed to tell the troops.
     Their fighting suits were intact—otherwise they wouldn’t have made it this far—but sometime during the past few minutes’ rough-and-tumble, they had damaged the coating of special insulation that protected them from the stasis field. So as soon as they entered the field, all electrical activity in their bodies ceased, which killed them instantly. Also, since no molecule in their bodies could move faster than 16.3 meters per second, they instantly froze solid, their body temperature stabilized at a cool 0.426 degrees Absolute.
     I decided not to turn any of them over to find out their names, not yet. We had to get some sort of defensive position worked out before the Taurans came through the dome. If they decided to slug it out rather than wait.

     With elaborate gestures, I managed to get everybody collected in the center of the field, under the fighter’s tail, where the weapons were racked.
     There were plenty of weapons, since we had been prepared to outfit three times this number of people. After giving each person a shield and short-sword, I traced a question in the snow:

Good Archers?
Raise hands.

     I got five volunteers, then picked out three more so that all the bows would be in use. Twenty arrows per bow. They were the most effective long-range weapons we had; the arrows were almost invisible in their slow flight, heavily weighted and tipped with a deadly sliver of diamond-hard crystal.
     I arranged the archers in a circle around the fighter (its landing fins would give them partial protection from missiles coming in from behind) and between each pair of archers put four other people: two spear-throwers, one quarterstaff, and a person armed with a battle-ax and a dozen throwing knives. This arrangement would theoretically take care of the enemy at any range, from the edge of the field to hand-to-hand combat.

     Actually, at some 600-to-42 odds, they could probably walk in with a rock in each hand, no shields or special weapons, and still beat the sh*t out of us.

     Assuming they knew what the stasis field was. Their technology seemed up to date in all other respects.

     For several hours nothing happened. We got about as bored as anyone could, waiting to die. No one to talk to, nothing to see but the unchanging gray dome, gray snow, gray spaceship and a few identically gray soldiers. Nothing to hear, taste or smell but yourself.
     Those of us who still had any interest in the battle were keeping watch on the bottom edge of the dome, waiting for the first Taurans to come through. So it took us a second to realize what was going on when the attack did start. It came from above, a cloud of catapulted darts swarming in through the dome some thirty meters above the ground, headed straight for the center of the hemisphere.
     The shields were big enough that you could hide most of your body behind them by crouching slightly; the people who saw the darts coming could protect themselves easily. The ones who had their backs to the action, or were just asleep at the switch, had to rely on dumb luck for survival; there was no way to shout a warning, and it took only three seconds for a missile to get from the edge of the dome to its center.
     We were lucky, losing only five. One of them was an archer, Shubik. I took over her bow and we waited, expecting a ground attack immediately.

     It didn’t come. After a half hour, I went around the circle and explained with gestures that the first thing you were supposed to do, if anything happened, was to touch the person on your right. He’d do the same, and so on down the line.
     That might have saved my life. The second dart attack, a couple of hours later, came from behind me. I felt the nudge, slapped the person on my right, turned around and saw the cloud descending. I got the shield over my head, and they hit a split second later.
     I set down my bow to pluck three darts from the shield and the ground attack started.

     It was a weird, impressive sight. Some three hundred of them stepped into the field simultaneously, almost shoulder-to-shoulder around the perimeter of the dome. They advanced in step, each one holding a round shield barely large enough to hide his massive chest. They were throwing darts similar to the ones we had been barraged with.
     I set up the shield in front of me—it had little extensions on the bottom to keep it upright—and with the first arrow I shot, I knew we had a chance. It struck one of them in the center of his shield, went straight through and penetrated his suit.
     It was a one-sided massacre. The darts weren’t very effective without the element of surprise—but when one came sailing over my head from behind, it did give me a crawly feeling between the shoulder blades.
     With twenty arrows I got twenty Taurans. They closed ranks every time one dropped; you didn’t even have to aim. After running out of arrows, I tried throwing their darts back at them. But their light shields were quite adequate against the small missiles.

     We’d killed more than half of them with arrows and spears, long before they got into range of the hand-to-hand weapons. I drew my sword and waited. They still outnumbered us by better than three to one.
     When they got within ten meters, the people with the chakram throwing knives had their own field day. Although the spinning disc was easy enough to see and took more than a half second to get from thrower to target, most of the Taurans reacted in the same ineffective way, raising up the shield to ward it off. The razor-sharp, tempered heavy blade cut through the light shield like a buzz saw through cardboard.

     The first hand-to-hand contact was with the quarterstaffs, which were metal rods two meters long that tapered at the ends to a double-edged, serrated knife blade. The Taurans had a cold-blooded—or valiant, if your mind works that way—method for dealing with them. They would simply grab the blade and die. While the human was trying to extricate his weapon from the frozen death-grip, a Tauran swordsman, with a scimitar over a meter long, would step in and kill him.
     Besides the swords, they had a bolo-like thing that was a length of elastic cord that ended with about ten centimeters of something like barbed wire, and a small weight to propel it. It was a dangerous weapon for all concerned; if they missed their target it would come snapping back unpredictably. But they hit their target pretty often, going under the shields and wrapping the thorny wire around ankles.

     I stood back-to-back with Private Erikson, and with our swords we managed to stay alive for the next few minutes. When the Taurans were down to a couple of dozen survivors, they just turned around and started marching out. We threw some darts after them, getting three, but we didn’t want to chase after them. They might turn around and start hacking again.
     There were only twenty-eight of us left standing. Nearly ten times that number of dead Taurans littered the ground, but there was no satisfaction in it.
     They could do the whole thing over, with a fresh 300. And this time it would work.

     We moved from body to body, pulling out arrows and spears, then took up places around the fighter again. Nobody bothered to retrieve the quarterstaffs. I counted noses: Charlie and Diana were still alive (Hilleboe had been one of the quarterstaff victims), as well as two supporting officers. Wilber and Szydlowska. Rudkoski was still alive but Orban had taken a dart.
     After a day of waiting, it looked as though the enemy had decided on a war of attrition rather than repeating the ground attack. Darts came in constantly, not in swarms anymore, but in twos and threes and tens. And from all different angles. We couldn’t stay alert forever; they’d get somebody every three or four hours.
     We took turns sleeping, two at a time, on top of the stasis field generator. Sitting directly under the bulk of the fighter, it was the safest place in the dome.
     Every now and then, a Tauran would appear at the edge of the field, evidently to see whether any of us were left. Sometimes we’d shoot an arrow at him, for practice.
     The darts stopped falling after a couple of days. I supposed it was possible that they’d simply run out of them. Or maybe they’d decided to stop when we were down to twenty survivors.

     There was a more likely possibility. I took one of the quarterstaffs down to the edge of the field and poked it through, a centimeter or so. When I drew it back, the point was melted off. When I showed it to Charlie, he rocked back and forth (the only way you can nod in a suit); this sort of thing had happened before, one of the first times the stasis field hadn’t worked. They simply saturated it with laser fire and waited for us to go stir-crazy and turn off the generator. They were probably sitting in their ships playing the Tauran equivalent of pinochle.

     I tried to think. It was hard to keep your mind on something for any length of time in that hostile environment, sense-deprived, looking over your shoulder every few seconds. Something Charlie had said. Only yesterday. I couldn’t track it down. It wouldn’t have worked then; that was all I could remember. Then finally it came to me.
     I called everyone over and wrote in the snow:

Get nova bombs from ship.
Carry to edge of field.
Move field.

     Szydlowska knew where the proper tools would be aboard ship. Luckily, we had left all of the entrances open before turning on the stasis field; they were electronic and would have been frozen shut. We got an assortment of wrenches from the engine room and climbed up to the cockpit. He knew how to remove the access plate that exposed a crawl space into the bomb-bay. I followed him in through the meter-wide tube.
     Normally, I supposed, it would have been pitch-black. But the stasis field illuminated the bomb-bay with the same dim, shadowless light that prevailed outside. The bomb-bay was too small for both of us, so I stayed at the end of the crawl space and watched.
     The bomb-bay doors had a “manual override” so they were easy; Szydlowska just turned a hand-crank and we were in business. Freeing the two nova bombs from their cradles was another thing. Finally, he went back down to the engine room and brought back a crowbar. He pried one loose and I got the other, and we rolled them out the bomb-bay.

     Sergeant Anghelov was already working on them by the time we climbed back down. All you had to do to arm the bomb was to unscrew the fuse on the nose of it and poke something around in the fuse socket to wreck the delay mechanism and safety restraints.
     We carried them quickly to the edge, six people per bomb, and set them down next to each other. Then we waved to the four people who were standing by at the field generator’s handles. They picked it up and walked ten paces in the opposite direction. The bombs disappeared as the edge of the field slid over them.

     There was no doubt that the bombs went off. For a couple of seconds it was hot as the interior of a star outside, and even the stasis field took notice of the fact: about a third of the dome glowed a dull pink for a moment, then was gray again. There was a slight acceleration, like you would feel in a slow elevator. That meant we were drifting down to the bottom of the crater. Would there be a solid bottom? Or would we sink down through molten rock to be trapped like a fly in amber—didn’t pay to even think about that. Perhaps if it happened, we could blast our way out with the fighter’s gigawatt laser.

From THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman (1974)

No Guns: Magic Psionic Power

Certain psionically talented adepts (aka "wizards") can use their mysterious magic powers to prevent firearms from functioning, or at least can easily deflect the bullets or beams into a harmless direction.

Flight Into Yesterday by Charles Harness (1949)
The Thieves are the futuristic Robin-Hoods: robbing from the rich to free the slaves. They have a force field created by their brain waves that stop bullets. Tragically the screen resistance is proportional to the velocity of the missile, so it don't work no good on swords. But this is great for Medieval Futurism science fiction. The screen also fails to stop short-ranged dart guns shooting slow-moving poison projectiles. Other science fiction authors were quick to copy the idea, after Harness' short story was published.
Sargasso of Lost Starships by Poul Anderson (1952)
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 for the psychic power to cope with. Unfortunately for the aliens, the human invaders figure this out quite quickly.
No World of Their Own by Poul Anderson (1955)
The space traveling protagonists bring back to Terra their furry alien friend. Unluckily for them, Terra has turned into a dystopia while they were away. Luckily for them, their furry alien friend has a limited psionic ability to control electric currents. So blaster pistols won't fire. Further luck is due to the fact that none of the thugs in the dystopia use anything as primitive as a gunpowder slugthrower any more.
Star Wars movies (1977)
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.

      “No, my lord. If that were all, I wouldn’t have considered the business so important. But there was a nonhuman with them, a race unknown to anyone including the records division. We got a picture, snapped hastily.”
     The alien was shown running. It was a big beast: eight feet long including the thick tail, bipedal with a forward-crouching gait, two muscular arms ending in four-fingered hands. It could be seen to be male and presumably a mammal; at least it was covered with smooth mahogany fur. The head was lutrine: round, blunt-snouted, ears placed high, whiskers about the mouth and above the long yellow eyes.

     “My lord,” said t’u Hayem in a near whisper, “they emerged and were put under arrest pending investigation. Suddenly the alien made a break for it. He’s stronger than a human, trampled down three men in his path, moved faster than you would think. Anesthetic guns opened up on him—rather, they should have, but they didn’t. They didn’t go off! I snapped a shot at him with my hand blaster, and the circuit was dead—nothing happened. Several others did too. A small robot shell was fired after him—and crashed. A piloted scoutplane swooped low, but its guns didn’t go off; the control circuits went dead, and it crashed too. The nearest gate was closed, but it opened for him as he approached it. One man close by focused a neural tracker on him as he went into the woods, but it didn’t work till he was out of its range.
     “Since then, we have been striving to hunt him down. There are patrols all over the district, but no trace has been found. My lord, it doesn’t seem possible!”
     Brannoch’s face might have been carved in dark wood. “So,” he murmured. His eyes rested on the image of captured motion. “Quite naked, too. No weapon, no artifact. Are there any estimates of the range of his … power?
     “Roughly 500 yards, my lord. That was approximately the distance within which our apparatus failed. He moved too fast for longer-range weapons to be brought against him in those few seconds.”
     “What do you think?”
     “Apparently this alien has telekinetic powers,” said the monsters unemotionally. “We assume these to be simply over electronic flows, because it is noted that everything he controlled or disabled involved electronic tubes. Only a small amount of telekinetic energy would be needed to direct the currents in vacuum as he wished and thus to take over the whole device.”

From NO WORLD OF THEIR OWN by Poul Anderson (1955)

      "But there is so little. There's a planet somewhere in the Black Nebula, and it has inhabitants with powers I don't begin to understand. But among other things, they can project themselves hyperwise, just like a spaceship, without needing engines to do it. And they have a certain control over matter and energy."

     The noise came closer. They heard the rattle of claws on stone. The Terrans moved together, guns in front, clubs and rocks and bare hands behind. They have guts, thought Donovan. God, but they have guts!
     "Food would be scarce on a barren planet like this," said Ensign Chundra Dass. "We seem to be elected."
     The hollow roar sounded, echoing between the hills and caught up by the thin harrying wind. "Hold fire," said Helena. Her voice was clear and steady. "Don't waste charges. Wait—"
     The thing leaped out of darkness, a ten-meter length of gaunt scaled body and steel-hard claws and whipping tail, soaring through the snow-streaked air and caught in the vague uneasy firelight, Helena's blaster crashed, a lightning bolt sizzled against the armored head.
     The monster screamed. Its body tumbled shatteringly among the humans, it seized a man in its jaws and shook him and trampled another underfoot. Takahashi stepped forward and shot again at its dripping wound. The blaster bolt zigzagged wildly off the muzzle of his gun.
     Even the animals can do it—!

     It was a long time before Takahashi spoke. "You might expect it," he said. "These parapsychical powers don't come from nowhere. The intelligent race, our enemies of Drogobych, simply have them highly developed; the animals do to a lesser extent. I think it's a matter of life being linked to the primary atomic probabilities, the psi functions which give the continuous-field distribution of matter-energy in space-time. In a word, control of external matter and energy by conscious will acting through the unified field which is space-time. Telekinesis."
     "Uh-huh," said Dass wearily. "Even some humans have a slight para power. Control dice or electron beams or what have you. But why aren't the—what did you call them?—Arzunians overrunning the Galaxy?"
     "They can only operate over a certain range, which happens to be about the distance to the fringe stars," said Donovan. "Beyond that distance, dispersion limits them, plus the fact that differences of potential energy must be made up from their own metabolism. The animals, of course, have very limited range, a few kilometers perhaps. The Arzunians use telekinesis to control matter and energy, and the same subspatial principles as our ships to go faster than light. Only since they aren't lugging around a lot of hull and passengers and assorted machinery—just themselves and a little air and maybe an armful of sacrificial goods from a fringe planet, they don't need atomic engines.
     "They aren't interested in conquering the Galaxy. Why should they be? They can get all their needs and luxuries from the peoples to whom they are gods. An old race, very old, decadent if you will. But they don't like interference."

     Takahashi looked at him sharply. "I glimpsed one of them on the ship," he said. "He carried a spear."
     "Yeah. Another reason why they aren't conquerors. They have no sense for mechanics at all. Never had any reason to evolve one when they could manipulate matter directly without more than the simplest tools. They're probably more intelligent than humans in an all-around way, but they don't have the type of brain and the concentration needed to learn physics and chemistry. Aren't interested, either."
     "So, swords against guns—We may have a chance!"
     "They can turn your missiles, remember. Guns are little use, you have to distract them so they don't notice your shot till too late. But they can't control you. They aren't telepaths and their type of matter-control is heterodyned by living nerve currents. You could kill one of them with a sword where a gun would most likely kill you."
     Takahashi gestured and his voice came eager. "That's it. That's it! The ship scattered assorted metal and plastic over twenty hectares as she fell. Safe for us to gather up tomorrow. We can use our blaster flames to shape weapons. Swords, axes, spears. By the Galaxy, we'll arm ourselves and then we'll march on Drogobych!"

From SARGASSO OF LOST STARSHIPS by Poul Anderson (1952)

(ed note: in this dystopian future, most of the population are slaves while the few rich aristocrats are not. The Thieves rob from the rich and use the money to buy freedom for slaves. The Thieves have a secret mental force field which stops bullets but is ineffectual against swords)

      In a bound he was at the bedroom door that opened to the guard annex, had slammed it noisily behind electronic bolts. He listened momentarily to the angry voices on the other side.
     “Bring a beam-cutter !” came a hoarse cry. The door would be down in short order.
     Simultaneously a heavy blow struck him in the left shoulder, and the bedroom sparkled with sudden light. He whirled, crouching, and appraised coolly the man in bed who had shot him.
     Shey’s voice was a strange mixture of sleepiness, alarm and indignation. “A Thief!” he cried, tossing the gun away. “Lead-throwers are no good against a Thief’s body-screen. And I have no blade here." He licked pudgy lips. “Remember,” he giggled nervously, “your Thief code forbids injuring an unarmed man. My purse is on the perfume table.”

     “Kim was unarmed, of course?”
     “Of course. And when I told him that he was an enemy of the state and that it was my duty to shoot him he laughed.”
     "And so you shot him.”
     “Through the heart. He fell. I left the room to order his body removed. When I returned with a house slave he—or his corpse—had vanished. Had a confederate carried him away? Had I really killed him? Who knows? Anyway the thefts began the next day.”
     "He was the first Thief?”
     “We don’t really know, of course. All we know is that all Thieves seemed invulnerable to police bullets. Was Muir wearing the same type of protective screen when I shot him ? I don’t suppose I’ll ever know.”
     “Just what is the screen? Kim never discussed it with me.”
     “There again we don’t know. The few Thieves we’ve taken alive don’t know, either. Under Shey’s persuasion they indicated that it was a velocity-response field based electrically on their individual encephalographic patterns, and was maintained by their cerebral waves. What it really does is spread the bullet impact over a wide area. It converts the momentum of the bullet into the identical momentum of a pillow.
     “But the police have actually killed screen-protected Thieves, haven’t they?”
     “True. We have semi-portable Kades rifles that fire short-range heat beams. And then, of course, plain artillery with atomic explosive shells the screen remains intact but the Thief dies rather quickly of internal injuries. But you’re fully acquainted with the main remedy.
     “The sword.”
     “Precisely. Since the screen resistance is proportional to the velocity of the missile it offers no protection against the comparatively slow-moving things, such as the rapier, the hurled knife or even a club. And all this talk of rapiers reminds me that I have business with the Minister of Police before meeting Shey. You will come with me and we’ll watch Thurmond at rapier practice for a few minutes.”
     “I didn’t know your vaunted Minister of Police required practise. Isn’t he the best blade in the Imperium?”
     “The very best. And practice will keep him that way.”

     “I know it,” smiled the Mind. “The ‘secret’ passageway was merely a decoy. I intend to reach the T-22 by a much more efficient route. Since you have driven your ablest scientists underground to the Thieves, you probably have never had an adequate explanation of Thief armor. It actually consists of a field of negative acceleration and a necessary consequence is its strong repellence of rapidly approaching bodies, such as I.P. bullets. (I.P. = Imperial Police)
     “You probably know that acceleration is synonymous with space curvature, and the alert Haze-Gaunt intellect has now doubtless deduced the fact that this projection mechanism before me is actually capable of controlling the space surrounding anyone wearing Thief armor. In an earlier age such a phenomenon might have been called teleportation.

     Around the corner he could see Gaines’s body sprawled out lifeless. A wicked metal sliver protruded from his neck. His bribed guard had evidently been discovered.
     “Put your hands up, Alar—slowly,” said a tense voice behind him. “You too, sister.”
     “I will do so, but madame has no arms and cannot raise her hands,” said Alar, concealing the rising excitement in his voice. Arms high, he turned slowly and saw a young I.P. officer covering him with a snub-nosed gun, apparently powered by compressed air, or by a mechanically wound spring, to give a muzzle velocity of a hundred or so meters a second—just slow enough to penetrate Thief armor.
     “You’re right,” said the officer grimly, noting Alar’s rapid survey of the weapon. “It’s not accurate beyond fifty yards, but its poison darts kill faster than bullets. Fourteen of these guns are covering you from peepholes at this instant.” He pulled a pair of handcuffs from his pocket and approached the two cautiously.

From FLIGHT INTO YESTERDAY by Charles Harness (1949)

No Guns: Forgot How To Make Them

Which gets rid of the guns, but leaves open the burning question of "so why didn't you also forget how to make starships?" Possible answers are in the sub sections below


      While Axxal prepared the sledge, Jorry distributed weapons. Each crewman was already armed with the customary personal weapons of his people, but Jorry supplemented these. On such an expedition as this, he wanted his crew outfitted with the best arms available in the galaxy, Axxal and Dolul were each given a pair of pistols. While they strapped them on and filled their pockets with shells, Jorry broke open a long crate and lifted out three short-range projectile rifles.

     These were the most powerful weapons in space. Most of the warrior races mistrusted the crude firearms of the period and preferred to rely on blades. Their doubt was well-founded. The ordinary firearms of the twenty-seventh century were crudely made, and jammed or misfired at crucial moments; a man was foolish to trust his life to them. But these weapons, made by the artisans of Rugatcz V from authentic Old Earth models, were as close to flawless as the work of humans could be. Jorry trusted in them. One rifle he slung over his own shoulder, the second he gave to Bral, the third to Collen. Bral hefted his rifle and looked dubiously at the captain.

     “Take it, Bral, and use it. I know you’d prefer your ax, but a rifle has a longer range,” Jorry said. “You’ve used one before, I know.”
     The Skeggjatt spoke as if he were making a shameful mission. “Yes, many times. But I can handle anything we may meet on this planet with my ax. You’ve seen me use it.”
     “It’s not a question of fighting skill, Bral, I just don’t want anything getting that close. These rifles will drop an attacker fifty meters off. That’s a comfortable margin.”

     For a time, before he realized how close the Quespodons and their allies were to rising, Jorry had also contemplated a simple outright seizure of power. It could have been easily done. A stock of firearms was hidden aboard the Seraph, and as far as Jorry could determine, these were the only weapons on Xhanchos except for the swords and javelins of Gariv’s troops. Thus armed, Jorry, Axxal, and a small band of rebels could not be withstood. Six of them could conquer a world like this one.

     The lack of advanced weaponry in the galaxy, and the great disparity of arms from world to world, were glaring anomalies of intersystem travel, but few starfarers dwelt on the situation or its implications. They simply accepted existing conditions, as they accepted the powerful ships whose workings were a mystery to them.

From UNDER A CALCULATING STAR by John Morressy (1975)
Using Inherited Technology

If you really must have swords on starships, the Deus ex machina solution is postulate that the high-tech items are ultra-advanced indestructable self-repairing technology that any moron can use. And they were not created by the current starship users, they were inherited.


...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.

From INTERSTELLAR EMPIRE by John Brunner (1965)

(ed note: This may or may not be the story John Brunner was referring to, but it is along the same lines)

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)

(ed note: Starships built by former Human galactic empire)

There was much for Axxal and all his fellow inhabitants of that era to learn; but they had no living teachers. The driveships that bore them from system to system had all been built centuries before. They were products of a technology that collapsed forever when the humans of Old Earth, the greatest technicians in the history of the galaxy, had scattered throughout the stars like grains of sand flung into a hurricane. The ships endured, but the civilization that had produced them was forgotten, its records lost, scattered among a thousand wor1ds as fragments of myth and legend. The Wroblewski coils, the very heart of the lightspeed drive, worked on as efficiently as they had on their maiden voyages six centuries before, but the principle that underlay them was long forgotten. If a part broke or wore out—a rare occurrence—the crew or even the passengers, provided they could read, could replace it by following the ancient manuals. But the manuals did not explain purpose or function; The driveships were designed to carry fugitives by the millions from a festering planet; they were made literally foolproof. And needing no knowledge of their vessels’ operations, the pioneers sought none.

In the great age of exodus, during the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries of the Galactic Standard Calendar, the factories of Old Earth turned out driveships in profusion. Enough were built, and in sufficient variety, to carry starfarers for centuries to come.

The first wave of pioneers settled where they landed, so shaken by the experience of deep-space travel that they drove all thought of it from their minds and rejected the history that had driven them to the stars. Their grandchildren, the second wave of voyagers, accepted the great ships as the figures in the ancient tales accepted flying carpets and winged steeds. The things moved, and took them to the fringes of the galaxy. They did not care to inquire how; they went.

So Axxal found himself in a position somewhat analogous to that of an Old Earth caveman placed in the cab of a nineteenth-century locomotive, or at the helm of a twenty-first-century space ferry. This immense and frightening construction moved; with some study, he could learn to control it; but for all he knew or could determine, it was propelled by spirits.

Axxal’s mind was not as quick, nor as complicated, as Jorry’s, but it was a methodical mind, a good tool for the slow and patient unraveling of a many-faceted but tangible problem. He applied himself to the workings of the Seraph; traced intricate circuits from source to destination; learned what they did, though he could not yet fathom how; even puzzled out what gave the Seraph a stable atmosphere and planetary gravity. With extreme difficulty, he deciphered the shifting points of light in the vision tank that formed the forward bulkhead, and grasped the rudiments of interstellar navigation. Heretofore, he had only been able to aim the Seraph at preprogramed destinations; now he saw that it was possible to choose his destination from any world on the charts.

The lack of advanced weaponry in the galaxy, and the great disparity of arms from world to world, were glaring anomalies of intersystem travel, but few starfarers dwelt on the situation or its implications. They simply accepted existing conditions, as they accepted the powerful ships whose workings were a mystery to them. Some thoughtful men wondered at the incongruity of multi-lightspeed driveships manned by crews whose most powerful weapon was a cutlass or pistol; of healers who could replace a severed limb, and bloody tournaments in which men slaughtered one another by the hundreds in observance of traditions whose origin was long forgotten; of the great machine on Watson that served as repository for the legal wisdom of scores of civilizations, while on hundreds of worlds, justice was sought in the muttering of a seer or the casting of carven stones. Such things existed side by side in the same galaxy. A lightspeed traveler could go from the most sophisticated civilization to the most primitive in a single journey from system to system. This time, Jorry had thought to turn the backwardness of Xhanchos and its rulers to his advantage, and pluck an easy kingdom for himself.

From UNDER A CALCULATING STAR by John Morressy (1975)

(ed note: Starships built by former Human galactic empire)

(ed note: In The Warlock of Rhada 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 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)

(ed note: Starships built by alien Forerunners)

"The story of the Empire," he commenced, and heard in imagination the crashing of worlds like bowling-balls being hurled down a skittle-alley, "is shrouded in mystery. Ten thousand years have eroded history away.

"We know that we were borrowers. We inherited the abandoned property — most significantly, the interstellar ships — of a people that matured and died in the galactic hub while we were struggling outward from our legendary planet of origin. We know that this chance bequest allowed our race to spread among millions of stars like an epidemic.

"Details beyond this bare outline, however, can never be reclaimed. It is as though one were to blink and find a century had passed. 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. Blink once more, and the Empire's writ runs all the way to the threshold of the Big Dark."

"How did you come here? By the regular space-lines?"

"Blazes, no. In this corner of the galaxy, shipping schedules are down to monthly, sometimes bi-monthly frequencies. I should sit on my butt while they get around to organizing a: crew and lifting their creaky old tubs? No, I have my own ship now."

"Your own ship?" Spartak echoed in surprise. "You've done well. I've not heard of a privately owned starship before."

"Don't picture any ship of the line," Vix grunted. "I have an Imperial scout, probably one of the original ships they tell me we found when we came out into space the very first time. I've never dared compute how old she must be."

"Twenty thousand years," Spartak said positively.

"Twenty—?" It was Vix's turn to be astonished. "Oh, never!"

"If it's one of the original Imperial vessels, it must be. According to what events you take as marking the establishment and the collapse of the Empire, it lasted something between eight and a half and nine thousand years. By the time we came out to collect them, the various artifacts our predecessors left behind were already at least as old as the whole lifespan of the Empire."

"This is something I've never got straight in my mind," Vix said slowly. He seemed to be groping for some subject of conversation which would be sufficiently neutral to let him get to know this stranger-brother of his, who had adopted a way of life so alien to his temperament and yet now had to be his companion and confidant. "I guess you must have put in a deal of study on it—hm?"

"I did when I first came to Annanworld," Spartak agreed. "I had this over-ambitious idea that I was going to find out how the Empire originally arose. But the records simply don't exist. What little had . been recorded was either destroyed or simply rotted away. We've never had the skills required to build something to last ten thousand years. Even an Empire!"

"But—well, at least you can tell me how it is we're still flying ships supposed to be as old as you just said?"

"We've made some intelligent guesses. The best and most likely is that at some time in their own history the people who left the ships behind lost interest in physical activity, and built sufficient ships and some few other items to last out their—well, maybe their lifespan. Or else they went to another galaxy because they'd studied this one from rim to rim and exhausted it and themselves. But they'd built well. It took us ten thousand years to use up what they left behind."

"It's not used up yet, not by a long way," Vix countered.

Yes, but what time couldn't do to those ships, we've done deliberately. It costs to buy a ship, but it doesn't cost anything to run one, for they're self-fuelling and almost indestructible. The Argian fleet numbered one hundred and one million vessels at the height of Imperial power, and there must have been almost one thousand times as many as that in service throughout the galaxy. Yet now—as you just said—there are so few ships you may wait a month for passage on what used to be a flourishing Imperial starlane."

"We're building some ships of our own, though."

"Where? Not in Imperial space, Vix. Out on the Rim, where the Imperial writ never ran. I sometimes think I'd like to go out there, to see what human endeavor can do by itself, without accidental help from a vanished race."

From THE ALTAR ON ASCONEL by John Brunner (1965)

(ed note: Starships built by alien Forerunners)

So there was Gateway, getting bigger and bigger in the ports of the ship up from Earth:

An asteroid. Or perhaps the nucleus of a comet. About ten kilometers through, the longest way. Pear-shaped. On the outside it looks like a lumpy charred blob with glints of blue. On the inside it's the gateway to the universe.

Sheri Loffat leaned against my shoulder, with the rest of our bunch of would-be prospectors clustered behind us, staring. "Rob. Look at the cruisers!"

"They find anything wrong," said somebody behind us, "and they blow us out of space."

"They won't find anything wrong," said Sheri, but she ended her remark with a question mark. Those cruisers looked mean, circling jealously around the asteroid, watching to see that whoever comes in isn't going to steal the secrets that are worth more than anyone could ever pay.

We hung to the porthole braces to rubberneck at them. Foolishness, that was. We could have been killed. There wasn't really much likelihood that our ship's matching orbit with Gateway or the Brazilian cruiser would take much delta-V, but there only had to be one quick course correction to spatter us. And there was always the other possibility, that our ship would rotate a quarterturn or so and we'd suddenly find ourselves staring into the naked, nearby sun. That meant blindness for always, that close. But we wanted to see.

The Brazilian cruiser didn't bother to lock on. We saw flashes back and forth, and knew that they were checking our manifests by laser. That was normal. I said the cruisers were watching for thieves, but actually they were more to watch each other than to worry about anybody else. Including us. The Russians were suspicious of the Chinese, the Chinese were suspicious of the Russians, the Brazilians were suspicious of the Venusians. They were all suspicious of the Americans.

So the other four cruisers were surely watching the Brazilians more closely than they were watching us. But we all knew that if our coded navicerts had not matched the patterns their five separate consulates at the departure port on Earth had filed, the next step would not have been an argument. It would have been a torpedo.

It's funny. I could imagine that torpedo. I could imagine the cold-eyed warrior who would aim and launch it, and how our ship would blossom into a flare of orange light and we would all become dissociated atoms in orbit… Only the torpedoman on that ship, I'm pretty sure, was at that time an armorer's mate named Francy Hereira. We got to be pretty good buddies later on. He wasn't what you'd really call a cold-eyed killer. I cried in his arms all the day after I got back from that last trip, in my hospital room, when he was supposed to be searching me for contraband. And Francy cried with me.

The cruiser moved away and we all surged gently out, then pulled ourselves back to the window with the grips, as our ship began to close in on Gateway.

"Looks like a case of smallpox," said somebody in the group.

It did; and some of the pockmarks were open. Those were the berths for ships that were out on mission. Some of them would stay open forever, because the ships wouldn't be coming back. But most of the pocks were covered with bulges that looked like mushroom caps.

Those caps were the ships themselves, what Gateway was all about.

The ships weren't easy to see. Neither was Gateway itself. It had a low albedo to begin with, and it wasn't very big: as I say, about ten kilometers on the long axis, half that through its equator of rotation. But it could have been detected. After that first tunnel rat led them to it, astronomers began asking each other why it hadn't been spotted a century earlier. Now that they know where to look, they find it. It sometimes gets as bright as seventeenth magnitude, as seen from Earth. That's easy. You would have thought it would have been picked up in a routine mapping program.

The thing is, there weren't that many routine mapping programs in that direction, and it seems Gateway wasn't where they were looking when they looked.

Stellar astronomy usually pointed away from the sun. Solar astronomy usually stayed in the plane of the ecliptic — and Gateway has a right-angle orbit. So it fell through the cracks.

The piezophone clucked and said, "Docking in five minutes. Return to your bunks. Fasten webbing."

We were almost there.

Sheri Loffat reached out and held my hand through the webbing. I squeezed back. We had never been to bed together, never met until she turned up in the bunk next to mine on the ship, but the vibrations were practically sexual. As though we were about to make it in the biggest, best way there ever could be; but it wasn't sex, it was Gateway.

When men began to poke around the surface of Venus they found the Heechee diggings.

They didn't find any Heechees. Whoever the Heechees were, whenever they had been on Venus, they were gone. Not even a body was left in a burial pit to exhume and cut apart. All there was, was the tunnels, the caverns, the few piddling little artifacts, the technological wonders that human beings puzzled over and tried to reconstruct.

Then somebody found a Heechee map of the solar system. Jupiter was there with its moons, and Mars, and the outer planets, and the Earth-Moon pair. And Venus, which was marked in black on the shining blue surface of the Heechee-metal map. And Mercury, and one other thing, the only other thing marked in black besides Venus: an orbital body that came inside the perihelion of Mercury and outside the orbit of Venus, tipped ninety degrees out of the plane of the ecliptic so that it never came very close to either. A body which had never been identified by terrestrial astronomers. Conjecture: an asteroid, or a comet — the difference was only semantic — which the Heechees had cared about specially for some reason.

Probably sooner or later a telescopic probe would have followed up that clue, but it wasn't necessary. Then The Famous Sylvester Macklen — who wasn't up to that point the famous anything, just another tunnel rat on Venus — found a Heechee ship and got himself to Gateway, and died there. But he managed to let people know where he was by cleverly blowing up his ship. So a NASA probe was diverted from the chromosphere of the sun, and Gateway was reached and opened up by man.

Inside were the stars.

Inside, to be less poetic and more literal, were nearly a thousand smallish spacecraft, shaped something like fat mushrooms. They came in several shapes and sizes. The littlest ones were button-topped, like the mushrooms they grow in the Wyoming tunnels after they've dug all the shale out, and you buy in the supermarket. The bigger ones were pointy, like morels. Inside the caps of the mushrooms were living quarters and a power source that no one understood. The stems were chemical rocket ships, kind of like the old Moon Landers of the first space programs.

No one had ever figured out how the caps were driven, or how to direct them.

That was one of the things that made us all nervous: the fact that we were going to take our chances with something nobody understood. You literally had no control, once you started out in a Heechee ship. Their courses were built into their guidance system, in a way that nobody had figured out; you could pick one course, but once picked that was it — and you didn't know where it was going to take you when you picked it, any more than you know what's in your box of Cracker-Joy until you open it.

But they worked. They still worked, after what they say is maybe half a million years.

The first guy who had the guts to get into one and try to start it up succeeded. It lifted out of its crater on the surface of the asteroid. It turned fuzzy and bright, and was gone.

And three months later, it was back, with a starved, staring astronaut inside, aglow with triumph. He had been to another star! He had orbited a great gray planet with swirling yellow clouds, had managed to reverse the controls — and had been brought back to the very same pockmark, by the built-in guidance controls.

So they sent out another ship, this time one of the big, pointy morel-shaped ones, with a crew of four and plenty of rations and instrumentation. They were gone only about fifty days. In that time they had not just reached another solar system, they had actually used the lander to go down to the surface of a planet. There wasn't anything living there … but there had been.

They found the remnants. Not a lot. A few beat-up pieces of trash, on a corner of a mountaintop that had missed the general destruction that had hit the planet. Out of the radioactive dust they had picked up a brick, a ceramic bolt, a half-melted thing that looked as though it had once been a chromium flute.

Then the star rush began … and we were part of it.

Having seen him, I knew Gateway in a way I had not known it from the statistics. The statistics are clear enough, and we all studied them, all of us who came up as prospectors, and all of that vastly larger number who only wished they could. About eighty percent of flights from Gateway come up empty. About fifteen percent don't come back at all. So one person in twenty, on the average, comes back from a prospecting trip with something that Gateway — that mankind in general — can make a profit on. Most of even those are lucky if they collect enough to pay their costs for getting here in the first place.

And if you get hurt while you're out … well, that's tough. Terminal Hospital is about as well equipped as any anywhere. But you have to get there for it to do you any good. You can be months in transit. If you get hurt at the other end of your trip — and that's where it usually happens — there's not much that can be done for you until you get back to Gateway. By then it can be too late to make you whole, and likely enough too late to keep you alive.

From GATEWAY by Frederik Pohl (1976)

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. The technical term is Bricolage.

This actually used to be a trade, that of "tinker." People who were too poor to afford replacing a broken household utensil would employ a tinker to fix it. The tinker would use low-tech methods with low-tech materials to make the repair.

As a side note, cobblers and tinkers are absolutely vital if the civilization they live in undergoes a technological decline. More so if the civilization gets hit with a zombie apocalypse, or even descends into a Long Night.


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...

(for situation two, go here)

From INTERSTELLAR EMPIRE by John Brunner (1965)

(ed note: Civilization has fallen due to a comet clobbering Terra. Most of the world resembles Mad Max, with warlords controlling horde armies. And it has only been a few weeks since the comet hit.

Senator Jellison has a ranch he calls "Stronghold," where he tries to keep the light of civilization going with a few hundred survivors. Among the survivors is Dan Forrester, who is a scientist who used to work at the JPL. He is a burden because he is diabetic, and needs sheep to harvest insulin.

Jellison's problems increase when an insane nut-job of a warlord named Armitage decides to destroy Stronghold. The nut-job has over a thousand of equally insane cannibalistic followers, the "angels" of his New Brotherhood army. Jellison has maybe 500 people who can fight. Stronghold looks doomed.

But then, Stronghold gives Dan Forrester a new title: "The Magician". It turns out that Forrester is a cobbler.)

The Magician

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
—Arthur C. Clarke
     Dan Forrester dozed in front of the woodburning kitchen stove. His feet had been washed and bandaged. He'd taken a shot of insulin, hoping that it was still good, fearing that it wasn't. It was very hard to stay awake.
     Maureen Jellison and Mrs. Cox fussed over him, bringing him clean clothes—dry clothes!—and pouring him hot tea. It was very pleasant to sit and feel safe. He could hear voices from the other room. Dan tried to follow the conversation, but he kept falling asleep, then jerking himself awake.
     Dan Forrester had spent his life working out the rules of the universe. He had never tried to personalize it. Yet when the Hammer fell, a small bright core of anger had burned in Dan Forrester.
     He had forgotten that anger, the anger he felt when he first learned what it meant to be a diabetic. The rules of the universe had never favored diabetics. Dan had long since accepted that. Methodically he set out to survive anyway.
     Every day he was still alive. Tired to death, hiding from cannibals, hungrier every day, fully aware of what was happening to his insulin and to his feet, he had kept moving. The steady warmth of anger had never relaxed … but something within him had relaxed now. Physical comfort and the comfort of friendship let him remember that he was tired, and ill, and his feet had turned to broken wood. He fought it because of what he could hear from the next room:
     Cannibals. New Brotherhood Army. An ultimatum for the Senator. Thousand men … they've taken Bakersfield, could double their numbers … Dan Forrester sighed deeply. He looked up at Maureen. "It sounds like a war is coming. Is there a paint store here?"
     She frowned down at him. Others had gone mad after less than Dan Forrester had faced. "Paint store?"
     "I think so. There was a Standard Brands at the edge of Porterville. It was flooded, I think."
     Dan tried to discipline his thoughts. "Perhaps they kept things in plastic bags. What about fertilizer? You have that? Ammonia, for instance. They use it for—"
     "I know what they use it for," Maureen said. "Yes, we have some. Not enough for the crops."
     Forrester sighed again. "It may not get to the crops. Or maybe we can use it where we'll be able to grow crops later. Were there many swimming pools? A swimming-pool supply store?"
     "Yes, there was one of those. It's underwater now—"
     "How deep?"
     She looked at him sharply. He looked terrible, but his eyes were quite sane. He knew what he was asking. "I don't know. It will be on Al Hardy's maps. Is it important?"
     "I think so—" He stopped abruptly. He was listening. In the other room they were talking about a nuclear power plant. Forrester stood up. He had to hold onto the chair. "Would you help me go in there, please?" His voice was apologetic, but somehow there was no way to refuse him. "Oh—one more thing. A filling station. I'll need some drums of grease solvent."
     Maureen, mystified, helped Forrester down the hall toward the living room. "I don't know. We have a filling station here, but it was very small. There were bigger ones in Porterville, of course, but they were under the dam and were flooded pretty badly. Why? What can you make with all that?"

     Forrester had reached the living room and went in hanging on Maureen's arm. Johnny Baker stopped talking and stared at him. So did the others. "Sorry to interrupt," Forrester said. He looked around helplessly for a chair.
     Mayor Seitz was nearest to him and got up from the couch. He went back to the library for a folding chair while Forrester took the Mayor's place on the couch. Forrester blinked rapidly at the others. "I'm sorry," he said again. "Did someone ask where the San Joaquin Nuclear Plant is?"
     "Yes," Al Hardy said. "I know it was out there somewhere, but hell, it has to be underwater. It was right in the middle of the valley. It can't be working—"
     "It was on Buttonwillow Ridge," Forrester said. "I looked on a map, and that's about forty feet higher than the land around it. But I thought it would be flooded too, and I wasn't able to get down to the edge of the San Joaquin Sea because of the cannibals."
     Hardy looked thoughtful. Eileen Hamner hurried out and came back with a map. She spread it out on the floor in front of the Senator and he and Hardy stared at it.
     Maureen Jellison went across the room and sat on the floor near Johnny Baker. Their hands sought each other and clasped involuntarily.
     "We have that area about fifty feet underwater," Al Hardy announced. "Hugo, are you sure the plant's operating?"
     "The Angels think so. As I said, it set them wild."
     "Why?" Christopher asked.
     "It's a Holy War," Hugo Beck said. "The Angels of the Lord exist only to destroy the forbidden works of man. What's left of industry. I watched them tear into what was left of a coal-powered station. They didn't use guns or dynamite. They swarmed over it with axes and clubs and hands. It was already wrecked, you understand. It had been flooded. But when they got through, you couldn't tell what it had been. And all the time Armitage was shouting at them to do the work of the Lord!
     "He preaches every night, same theme. Destroy the works of man. Then three days ago—I think it was three days …" Hugo counted on his fingers. "Yeah. Three days ago they heard that nuclear plant was still going. I thought Armitage would burst a blood vessel! From that moment on it was constant: Destroy that Citadel of Satan. Look, nuclear power! Kind of the epitome of everything the Angels hate, you know? It even had Jerry Owen excited. He used to talk about how they might save a few things. Hydroelectric plants, maybe, if they could be rebuilt without hurting the Earth. But he hated nuclear power plants before Hammerfall."
     "Do they destroy all technology?" Al Hardy asked.
     Hugo Beck shook his head. "Sergeant Hooker and his people kept anything they think they can use, anything that might have military value. But they were all agreed, they didn't want that nuclear plant in the valley. Jerry Owen talked about how he knew ways to wreck it."
     "We can't let them do that," Dan Forrester said. He leaned forward and spoke intently. He had forgotten where he was, the long tramp northward, possibly even Hammerfall itself. "We have to save the power plant. We can rebuild a civilization if we have electricity."
     "He's right," Rick Delanty said. "It's important—"
     "It's important that we stay alive, too," Senator Jellison said. "But we have heard that the New Brotherhood has over a thousand troops, possibly many more. We can put five hundred in the field, and many of them will not be well armed. Few have any training. We will be lucky to save this valley."

     "Dad," Maureen said. "I think Dr. Forrester has some ideas about that. He asked me about … Dan, why did you want to know about grease solvents and swimming-pool supply shops? What were you thinking about?"
     Dan Forrester sighed again. "Maybe I shouldn't suggest it. I had an idea, but you may not like it."
     "For God's sake, man," Al Hardy said. "If you know something that can help us, say it! What?"
     "Well, you've probably already thought of it," Forrester said.
     "Goddamm—" Christopher began.

     Senator Jellison held up his hand. "Dr. Forrester, believe me, you won't offend us. Please, what did you have in mind?"
     Forrester shrugged. "Mustard gas. Thermite bombs. Napalm. And I think we can make nerve gas, but I'm not sure."
     There was a long silence, then Senator Jellison said, low and under his breath but everybody heard, "I will be dipped in sh*t."

     "Can he really do it?" Eileen asked.
     "Forrester? He's a magician. If Forrester says he can make napalm and bombs and mustard gas, he can do it." Tim sighed. "I wish we didn't have to. I was brought up to hate poison gas. Of course, I don't suppose it matters whether it's gas or a bullet; dead is dead." He reached for his rifle, then took an oily rag from a bag on the table and began wiping the barrel.
     Jellison, Hardy and Dan Forrester were in the living room. Forrester thrust papers encased in a Ziploc Bag into Tim's hands. "These are some more ideas I had. General Baker has copies too, but …"
     "Right," Tim said.
     "If you get a chance, scout out the west shore," Al Hardy said. "We'd like to know what's going on over there. And there's a list of stuff you might be able to use."
     Tim looked at the papers in his hands. Through the plastic he could see only the top sheet. It was a list: iron oxide (found in paint stores, called red pigment, red spell; also found in the rust pile in automobile wrecking yards; or can be scraped from any rusty iron and ground finely); powdered aluminum (found in paint stores as a pigment); plaster of paris …
     The list was long, and most of the items seemed useless. Tim knew better. He knew that on the other sheets in the stack were the means for turning those common items into deadly weapons. He looked at Forrester. "I'd hate to have you mad at me."
     Forrester looked embarrassed. "I remember everything I read, and I read a lot."

(ed note: very very few of the cannibal army escape alive)

From LUCIFER'S HAMMER by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1977)

Poul Anderson used this in his novel THE HIGH CRUSADE. In the year 1345 CE an alien starship from the Wersgorix Empire scouts Terra for future conquest, but the alien crew managed to get captured by Sir Roger (Baron de Tourneville) and his knights. By dastardly design the starship takes the knights to the planet Tharixan instead of their desired destination. At one point the knights want to neutralize an alien castle. They have nuclear warheads but no missiles. Some cobbler figures out that a DIY trebuchet will take the place of a missile to deliver warheads.

This works remarkably well, being a good example of Rock Beats Laser. Since the aliens rely upon metal detectors they do not notice the wooden trebuchets advancing to the castle, and the missile detectors on the antimissile defenses of course do not detect any missiles because there aren't any. The nuclear warheads are lobbed in with no resistance and the castle is vaporized by a cluster of nuclear mushroom clouds.

Poul Anderson also pointed out that unscruplous individuals can actually harvest cobbler technology to sell to barbarians.

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.


(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
How Did We Miss That?

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

(ed note: An alien battlefleet of the Roxolan empire discovers Terra and moves to invade)

      Captain Togram was using the chamberpot when the Indomitable broke out of hyperdrive. As happened all too often, nausea surged through the Roxolan officer. He raised the pot and was abruptly sick into it.
     Sighing again, he stowed the chamberpot in its niche. The metal cover he slid over it did little to relieve the stench. After sixteen days in space, the Indomitable reeked of ordure, stale food, and staler bodies. It was no better in any other ship of the Roxolan fleet, or any other. Travel between the stars was simply like that. Stinks and darkness were part of the price the soldiers paid to make the kingdom grow.
     Togram picked up a lantern and shook it to rouse the glowmites inside. They flashed silver in alarm. Some races, the captain knew, lit their ships with torches or candles, but glowmites used less air, even if they could only shine intermittently.
     Ever the careful soldier, Togram checked his weapons while the light lasted. He always kept all four of his pistols loaded and ready to use; when landing operations began, one pair would go on his belt, the other in his boottops. He was more worried about his sword. The perpetually moist air aboard ship was not good for the blade. Sure enough, he found a spot of rust to scour away.
     As he polished the rapier, he wondered what the new system would be like. He prayed for it to have a habitable planet. The air in the Indomitable might be too foul to breathe by the time the ship could get back to the nearest Roxolan-held planet. That was one of the risks starfarers took. It was not a major one—small yellow suns usually shepherded a life-bearing world or two—but it was there.
     He wished he hadn't let himself think about it; like an aching fang, the worry, once there, would not go away. He got up from his pile of bedding to see how the steerers were doing.
     As usual with them, both Ransisc and his apprentice Olgren were complaining about the poor quality of the glass through which they trained their spyglasses. "You ought to stop whining," Togram said, squinting in from the doorway. "At least you have light to see by." After seeing so long by glowmite lantern, he had to wait for his eyes to adjust to the harsh raw sunlight flooding the observation chamber before he could go in.

     "Go report it to Warmaster Slevon, and ask him if his devices have picked up any hyperdrive vibrations except for the fleet's."
     "Not a hyperdrive emanation but ours in the whole system!" Olgren grinned. Ransisc and Togram both pounded him on the back, as if he were the cause of the good news and not just its bearer.
     The captain's smile was even wider than Olgren's. This was going to be an easy one, which, as a professional soldier, he thoroughly approved of. If no one hereabouts could build a hyperdrive, either the system had no intelligent life at all or its inhabitants were still primitives, ignorant of gunpowder, fliers, and other aspects of warfare as it was practiced among the stars.
     He rubbed his hands. He could hardly wait for landfall.

     "Only that you don't have enough perspective. Egelloc on Roxolan has almost a million people, and from space it's next to invisible at night. It's nowhere near as bright as those lights, either. Remember, this is a primitive planet. I admit it looks like there's intelligent life down there, but how could a race that hasn't even stumbled across the hyperdrive build cities ten times as great as Egelloc?"

(ed note: On Terra the military of all nations have been mobilized. But they cannot figure out why the aliens are ignoring their radio messages. The Terrans do not know that the aliens haven't invented radio communication yet. Heck, the aliens haven't discovered electricity yet.)

     "I have one of the alien vessels on radar," the SR-81 pilot reported. "It's down to 80,000 meters and still descending." He was at his own plane's operational ceiling, barely half as high as the ship entering atmosphere.
     "For God's sake, hold your fire," ground control ordered. The command had been drummed into him before he took off, but the brass were not about to let him forget. He did not really blame them. One trigger-happy idiot could ruin humanity forever.
     "I'm beginning to get a visual image," he said, glancing at the head-up display projected in front of him. A moment later he added, "It's one damn funny-looking ship, I can tell you that already. Where are the wings?"
     "We're picking up the image now too," the ground control officer said. "They must use the same principle for their in-atmosphere machines as they do for their spacecraft: some sort of antigravity that gives them both lift and drive capability."
     The alien ship kept ignoring the SR-81, just as all the aliens had ignored every terrestrial signal beamed at them. The craft continued its slow descent, while the SR-81 pilot circled below, hoping he would not have to go down to the aerial tanker to refuel.
     "One question answered," he called to the ground. "It's a warplane." No craft whose purpose was peaceful would have had those glaring eyes and that snarling, fang-filled mouth painted on its belly. Some USAF ground-attack aircraft carried similar markings.

     At last the alien reached the level at which the SR-81 was loitering. The pilot called the ground again. "Permission to pass in front of the aircraft?" he asked. "Maybe everybody's asleep in there and I can wake 'em up."
     After a long silence, ground control gave grudging ascent. "No hostile gestures," the controller warned.
     "What do you think I'm going to do, flip him the finger?" the pilot muttered, but his radio was off. Acceleration pushed him back in his seat as he guided the SR-81 into a long, slow turn that would carry it about half a kilometer in front of the vessel from the spacefleet.
     His airplane's camera gave him a brief glimpse of the alien pilot, who was sitting behind a small, dirty windscreen.
     The being from the stars saw him, too. Of that there was no doubt. The alien jinked like a startled fawn, performing maneuvers that would have smeared the SR-81 pilot against the walls of his pressure cabin—if his aircraft could have matched them in the first place.
     "I'm giving pursuit!" he shouted. Ground control screamed at him, but he was the man on the spot. The surge from his afterburner made the pressure he had felt before a love pat by comparison.
     Better streamlining made his plane faster than the craft from the starships, but that did not do him much good. Every time its pilot caught sight of him, the alien ship danced away with effortless ease. The SR-81 pilot felt like a man trying to kill a butterfly with a hatchet.
     To add to his frustration, his fuel warning light came on. In any case, his aircraft was designed for the thin atmosphere' at the edge of space, not the increasingly denser air through which the alien flew. He swore, but he had to pull away.

(ed note: On board the alien ship)

     "You've just made a luof very happy," Togram said. Ransisc chuckled. The Roxolani brought the little creatures along to test new planets' air. If a luof could breathe it in the airlock of a flyer, it would also be safe for the animal's masters .
     "The luof lived, boys!" Togram said with a broad smile.
     His company raised a cheer that echoed deafeningly in the barracks room. "We're going down!" they whooped. Ears stood high in excitement. Some soldiers waved plumed hats in the fetid air. Others, of a bent more like their captain's, went over to their pallets and began seeing to their weapons.
     "How tough are they going to be, sir?" a gray-furred veteran named Ilingua asked as Togram went by. "I hear the flier pilot saw some funny things."
     Togram's smile got wider. "By the heavens and hells, Ilingua, haven't you done this often enough to know better than pay heed to rumors you hear before planetfall?"
     As inconspicuously as he could, the captain let out a sigh. He did not know what to believe himself, and he had listened to the pilot's report. How could the locals have flying machines when they did not know contragravity? Togram had heard of a race that used hot air balloons before it discovered the better way of doing things, but no balloon could have reached the altitude the locals' flier had achieved, and no balloon could have changed direction, as the pilot had violently insisted this craft had done.

(ed note: The US Army sends a unit to the landing site)

     The truck rolled northward, part of a convoy of trucks, MICV's, and light tanks that stretched for miles. An entire regiment was heading into Los Angeles, to be billeted by companies in different parts of the sprawling city. Cox approved of that; it made it less likely that he would personally come face-to-face with any of the aliens.
     "Sandy," he said to Amoros, who was squeezed in next to him, "even if I'm wrong and the aliens aren't friendly, what the hell good will hand weapons do? It'd be like taking on an elephant with a safety pin."

(ed note: The alien ship lands at Los Angeles)

     "There's a spot that looks promising," he said. "The greenery there in the midst of the buildings in the eastern—no, the western—part of the city. That should give us a clear landing zone, a good campground, and a base for landing reinforcements."
     "Let's see what you're talking about," Ransisc said, elbowing him aside. "Hmm, yes, I see the stretch you mean. That might not be bad. Olgren, come look at this. Can you find it again in the Warmaster's spyglass? All right then, go point it out to him. Suggest it as our setdown point."
     The apprentice hurried away. Ransisc bent over the eyepiece again. "Hmm," he repeated. "They build tall down there, don't they?"
     "I thought so," Togram said. "And there's a lot of traffic on those roads. They've spent a fortune cobblestoning them all, too; I didn't see any dust kicked up."
     A runner appeared in the doorway. "Captain Togram, your company will planet from airlock three."
     "Three," Togram acknowledged, and the runner trotted off to pass orders to other ground troop leaders. The captain put his plumed hat on his head (the plume was scarlet, so his company could recognize him in combat), checked his pistols one last time, and ordered his troopers to follow him.
     He felt the slightest of jolts as the Indomitable's fliers launched themselves from the mother ship. There would be no luofi aboard them this time, but musketeers to terrorize the natives with fire from above, and jars of gunpowder to be touched off and dropped. The Roxolani always strove to make as savage a first impression as they could. Terror doubled their effective numbers.

(ed note: The Army unit watches the alien ship land)

     The starship landed in the open quad between New Royce, New Haines, New Kinsey, and New Powell Halls. It towered higher than any of the two-story red brick buildings, each a reconstruction of one overthrown in the earthquake of 2034. Cox heard saplings splinter under the weight of the alien craft. He wondered what it would have done to the big trees that had fallen five years ago along with the famous old halls.
     "Take as much cover as you can," Lieutenant Shotton ordered quietly. The platoon scrambled into flowerbeds, snuggled down behind thin tree trunks. Out on Hilgard Avenue, diesels roared as armored fighting vehicles took positions with good lines of fire.
     It was all such a waste, Cox thought bitterly. The thing to do was to make friends with the aliens, not to assume automatically they were dangerous.
     Something, at least, was being done along those lines. A delegation came out of Murphy Hall and slowly walked behind a white flag from the administration building toward the starship. At the head of the delegation was the mayor of Los Angeles: the President and governor were busy elsewhere. Billy Cox would have given anything to be part of the delegation instead of sprawled here on his belly in the grass. If only the aliens had waited until he was fifty or so, had given him a chance to get established.
     Sergeant Amoros nudged him with an elbow. "Look there, man. Something's happening—"
     Amoros was right. Several hatchways which had been shut were swinging open, allowing Earth's air to mingle with the ship's.
     The westerly breeze picked up. Cox's nose twitched. He could not name all the exotic odors wafting his way, but he recognized sewage and garbage when he smelled them. "God, what a stink!" he said.

(ed note: On board the alien ship the alien troops ready to deploy)

     "By the gods, what a stink !" Togram exclaimed. When the outer airlock doors went down, he had expected real fresh air to replace the stale, overused gases inside the Indomitable. This stuff smelled like smoky peat fires, or lamps whose wicks hadn't quite been extinguished. And it stung! He felt the nictitating membranes flick across his eyes to protect them.
     "Deploy!" he ordered, leading his company forward. This was the tricky part. If the locals had nerve enough, they could hit the Roxolani just as the latter were coming out of their ship, and cause all sorts of trouble. Most races without hyperdrive though, were too overawed by the arrival of travelers from the stars to try anything like that. And if they didn't do it fast, it would be too late.
     They weren't doing it here. Togram saw a few locals, but they were keeping respectful distance. He wasn't sure how many there were. Their mottled skins—or was that clothing?—made them hard to notice and count. But they were plainly warriors, both by the way they acted and by the weapons they bore.
     His own company went into its familiar two-line formation, the first crouching, the second standing and aiming their muskets over the heads of the troops in front.
     "Ah, there we go." Togram said happily. The bunch approaching behind the white banner had to be the local nobles. The mottling, the captain saw, was clothing, for these beings wore entirely different earments, somber except for strange, narrow neckcloths. They were taller and skinnier than Roxolani, with muzzleless faces.
     "Ilingua!" Togram called. The veteran trooper led the right flank squad of the company.
     "Your troops, quarter-right face. At the command, pick off the leaders there. That will demoralize the rest," Togram said, quoting standard doctrine.
     "Slowmatches ready!" Togram said. The Roxolani lowered the smoldering cords to the touch holes of their muskets. "Take your aim!" The guns moved, very slightly. "Fire!"

(ed note: the US army troops return fire)

     Flames spurted from the aliens' guns. Great gouts of smoke puffed into the sky. Something that sounded like an angry wasp buzzed past Cox's ear. He heard shouts and shrieks from either side. Most of the mayor's delegation was down, some motionless, others thrashing.
     There was a crash from the starship, and another one an instant later as a roundshot smashed into the brickwork of Dodd Hall. A chip stung Cox in the back of the neck. The breeze brought him the smell of fireworks, one he had not smelled for years.

     "Reload!" Togram yelled. "Another volley, then at 'em with the bayonet!" His troopers worked frantically, measuring powder charges and ramming round bullets home.

     "So that's how they wanna play!" Amoros shouted. "Nail their hides to the wall!" The tip of his little finger had been shot away. He did not seem to know it.
     Cox's Neo-Armalite was already barking, spitting a stream of hot brass cartridges, slamming against his shoulder. He rammed in clip after clip, playing the rifle like a hose. If one bullet didn't bite, the next would.
     Others from the platoon were also firing. Cox heard bursts of automatic weapons fire from different parts of the campus, too, and the deeper blasts of rocket-propelled grenades and field artillery. Smoke not of the aliens' making began to envelop their ship and the soldiers around it.
     One or two shots came back at the platoon, and then a few more, but so few that Cox, in stunned disbelief, shouted to his sergeant, "This isn't fair!"
     "F**k 'em!" Amoros shouted back. "They wanna throw their weight around, they take their chances. Only good thing they did was knock over the mayor. Always did hate that old crackpot."

     The harsh tac-tac-tac did not sound like any gunfire Togram had heard. The shots came too close together, making a horrible sheet of noise. And if the locals were shooting back at his troopers, where were the thick, choking clouds of gunpowder smoke over their position?
     He did not know the answer to that. What he did know was that his company was going down like grain before a scythe. Here a soldier was hit by three bullets at once and fell awkwardly, as if his body could not tell in which direction to twist. There another had the top of his head gruesomely removed.
     The volley the captain had screamed for was stillborn. Perhaps a squad's worth of soldiers moved toward the locals, the sun glinting bravely off their long, polished bayonets. None of them got more than a half-sixteen of paces before falling.
     Ilingua looked at Togram, horror in his eyes, his ears flat against his head. The captain knew his were the same. "What are they doing to us?" Ilingua howled.
     Togram could only shake his head helplessly. He dove behind a corpse, fired one of his pistols at the enemy. There was still a chance, he thought—how would these demonic aliens stand up under their first air attack?
     A flier swooped toward the locals. Musketeers blasted away from firing ports, drew back to reload.
     "Take that, you w****sons!" Togram shouted. He did not, however, raise his fist in the air. That, he had already learned, was dangerous.

     "Incoming aircraft!" Sergeant Amoros roared. His squad, those not already prone, flung themselves on their faces. Cox heard shouts of pain through the combat din as men were wounded.
     The Cottonmouth crew launched their shoulder-fired AA missile at the alien flying machine. The pilot must have had reflexes like a cat's. He sidestepped his machine in midair; no plane built on Earth could have matched that performance. The Cottonmouth shot harmlessly past.
     The flier dropped what looked like a load of crockery. The ground jumped as the bombs exploded. Cursing, deafened, Billy Cox stopped worrying whether the fight was fair.
     But the flier pilot had not seen the F-29 fighter on his tail. The USAF plane released two missiles from point-blank range, less than a mile. The infrared seeker found no target and blew itself up, but the missile that homed on radar streaked straight toward the flier. The explosion made Cox bury his face in the ground and clap his hands over his ears.

     Hope died in Togram's hearts when the first flier fell victim to the locals' aircraft. The rest of the Indomitable's machines did not last much longer. They could evade, but had even less ability to hit back than the Roxolan ground forces. And they were hideously vulnerable when attacked in their pilots' blind spots, from below or behind.
     One of the starship's cannon managed to fire again, and quickly drew a response from the traveling fortresses Togram got glimpses of as they took their positions in the streets outside this parklike area.
     When the first shell struck, the luckless captain thought for an instant that it was another gun going off aboard the Indomitable. The sound of the explosion was nothing like the crash a solid shot made when it smacked into a target. A fragment of hot metal buried itself in the ground by Togram's hand. That made him think a cannon had blown up, but more explosions on the ship's superstructure and fountains of dirt flying up from misses showed it was just more from the locals' fiendish arsenal.
     Something large and hard struck the captain in the back of the neck The world spiraled down into blackness.

     "Cease fire!" The order reached the field artillery first, then the infantry units at the very front line. Billy Cox pushed up his cuff to look at his watch, stared in disbelief. The whole firefight had lasted less than twenty minutes.
     He looked around. Lieutenant Shotton was getting up from behind an ornamental palm. "Let's see what we have," he said. His rifle still at the ready, he began to walk slowly toward the starship. It was hardly more than a smoking ruin. For that matter, neither were the buildings around it. The damage to their predecessors had been worse in the big quake, but not much.
     Alien corpses littered the lawn. The blood splashing the bright green grass was crimson as any man's. Cox bent to pick up a pistol. The weapon was beautifully made, with scenes of combat carved into the grayish wood of the stock. But he recognized it as a single-shot piece, a small arm obsolete for at least two centuries. He shook his head in wonderment.
     Sergeant Amoros lifted a conical object from where it had fallen beside a dead alien. "What the hell is this?" he demanded.
     Again Cox had the feeling of being caught up in something he did not understand. "It's a powder horn", he said.
     "Like in the movies? Pioneers and all that good s**t?"
     "The very same."
     "Damn," Amoros said feelingly. Cox nodded in agreement.
     Along with the rest of the platoon, they moved closer to the wrecked ship. Most of the aliens had died still in the two neat rows from which they had opened fire on the soldiers.

     When Togram woke up on his back, he knew something was wrong. Roxolani always slept prone. For a moment he wondered how he had got to where he was …too much water-of-life the night before? His pounding head made that a good possibility.
     Then memory came flooding back. Those damnable locals with their sorcerous weapons! Had his people rallied and beaten back the enemy after all? He vowed to light votive lamps to Edieva. mistress of battles, for the rest of his life if that were true.
     The room he was in began to register. Nothing was familiar, from the bed he lay on to the light in the ceiling that glowed bright as sunshine and neither smoked nor flickered. No, he did not think the Roxolani had won their fight.

     Despite that contretemps, they did eventually make progress on the language. Togram had picked up snatches of a good many tongues in the course of his adventurous life; that was one reason he had made captain in spite of low birth and paltry connections.
     "Why did your people attack us?" she asked one day, when she had come far enough in Roxolanic to be able to frame the question.
     He knew he was being interrogated, no matter how polite she sounded. He had played that game with prisoners himself. His ears twitched in a shrug. He had always believed in giving straight answers; that was one reason he was only a captain. He said, "To take what you grow and make and use it for ourselves. Why would anyone want to conquer anyone else?"
     "Why indeed?" she murmured, and was silent a little while; his forthright reply seemed to have closed off a line of questioning. She tried again: "How are your people able to walk—I mean, travel—faster than light, when the rest of your arts are so simple?"
     His fur bristled with indignation.
     "They are not! We make gunpowder, we cast iron and smelt steel, we have spyglasses to help our steerers guide us from star to star. We are no savages huddling in caves or shooting at each other with bows and arrows."
     His speech, of course, was not that neat or simple. He had to backtrack, to use elaborate circumlocutions, to play act to make Hildachesta understand. She scratched her head in the gesture of puzzlement he had come to recognize. She said, "We have known all these things you mention for hundreds of years, but we did not think anyone could walk—damn, I keep saying that instead of 'travel'—faster than light. How did your people learn to do that?"
     "We discovered it for ourselves," he said proudly. "We did not have to learn it from some other starfaring race, as many folk do."
     "But how did you discover it?" she persisted.
     "How do I know? I'm a soldier; what do I care for such things? Who knows who invented gunpowder or found out about using bellows in a smithy to get the fire hot enough to melt iron? These things happen, that's all."
     She broke off the questions early that day.

     "It's humiliating," Hilda Chester said. "If these fool aliens had waited a few more years before they came, we likely would have blown ourselves to kingdom come without ever knowing there was more real estate around. From what the Roxolani say, races that scarcely know how to work iron fly starships and never think twice about it."
     "I don't quite understand it myself," she said. "Apart from the hyperdrive and contragravity, the Roxolani are backward, almost primitive. And the other species out there must be the same, or someone would have overrun them long since."
     Ebbets said, "Once you see it, the drive is amazingly simple. The research crews say anybody could have stumbled over the principle at almost any time in our history. The best guess is that most races did come across it, and once they did, why, all their creative energy would naturally go into refining and improving."
     "But we missed it," Hilda said slowly,"and so our technology developed in a different way."
     "That's right. That's why the Roxolani don't know anything about controlling electricity, to say nothing of atomics. And the thing is, as well as we can tell so far, the hyperdrive and contragravity don't have the ancillary applications the electromagnetic spectrum does. All they do is move things from here to there in a hurry."
     "That should be enough at the moment," Hilda said. Ebbets nodded. There were almost nine billion people jammed onto the Earth, half of them hungry. Now, suddenly, there were places for them to go and a means to get them there.
     "I think," Ebbets said musingly, "we're going to be an awful surprise to the people out there."
     It took Hilda a second to see what he was driving at. "If that's a joke, it's not funny. It's been a hundred years since the last war of conquest."
     "Sure—they've gotten too expensive and too dangerous. But what kind of fight could the Roxolani or anyone else at their level of technology put up against us? The Aztecs and Incas were plenty brave. How much good did it do them against the Spaniards?"

     "Ransisc!" Togram exclaimed as the senior steerer limped into his cubicle. Ransisc was thinner than he had been a few moons before, aboard the misnamed Indomitable. His fur had grown out white around several scars Togram did not remember.
     His air of amused detachment had not changed, though. "Tougher than bullets, are you, or didn't the humans think you were worth killing?"
     "The latter, I suspect. With their firepower, why should they worry about one soldier more or less?" Togram said bitterly. "I didn't know you were still alive, either."
     "Through no fault of my own, I assure you," Ransisc said. "Olgren, next to me—" His voice broke off. It was not possible to be detached about everything.
     "What are you doing here?" the captain asked. "Not that I'm not glad to see you, but you're the first Roxolan face I've set eyes on since—" It was his turn to hesitate.
     "Since we landed." Togram nodded in relief at the steerer's circumlocution. Ransisc went on, "I've seen several others before you. I suspect we're being allowed to get together so the humans can listen to us talking with each other."
     "How could they do that?" Togram asked, then answered his own question: "Oh, the recorders, of course." He perforce used the English word: "Well, we'll fix that."
     He dropped into Oyag, the most widely spoken language on a planet the Roxolani had conquered fifty years before. "What's going to happen to us, Ransisc?"
     "Back on Roxolan, they'll have realized something's gone wrong by now," the steerer answered in the same tongue.
     That did nothing to cheer Togram. "There are so many ways to lose ships," he said gloomily. "And even if the High Warmaster does send another fleet after us, it won't have any more luck than we did. These gods-accursed humans have too many war-machines." He paused and took a long, moody pull at a bottle of vodka. The flavored liquors the locals brewed made him sick, but vodka he liked. "How is it they have all these machines and we don't, or any race we know of? They must be wizards, selling their souls to the demons for knowledge."
     Ransisc's nose twitched in disagreement. "I asked one of their savants the same question. He gave me back a poem by a human named Hail or Snow or something of that sort. It was about someone who stood at a fork in the road and ended up taking the less-used track. That's what the humans did. Most races find the hyperdrive and go traveling. The humans never did, and so their search for knowledge went in a different direction."
     "Didn't it!" Togram shuddered at the recollection of that brief, terrible combat. "Guns that spit dozens of bullets without reloading, cannon mounted on armored platforms that move by themselves, rockets that follow their targets by themselves. And there are the things we didn't see, the ones the humans only talk about—the bombs that can blow up a whole city, each one by itself."
     "I don't know if I believe that," Ransisc said.
     "I do. They sound afraid when they speak of them."
     "Well, maybe. But it's not just the weapons they have. It's the machines that let them see and talk to one another from far away; the machines that do their reckoning for them; their recorders and everything that has to do with them. From what they say of their medicine, I'm almost tempted to believe you and think they are wizards—they actually know what causes their diseases, and how to cure or even prevent them. And their farming: this planet is far more crowded than any I've seen or heard of, but it grows enough for all these humans."
     Togram sadly waggled his ears. "It seems so unfair. All that they got, just by not stumbling onto the hyperdrive."
     "They have it now," Ransisc reminded him. "Thanks to us."
     The Roxolani looked at each other, appalled. They spoke together: "What have we done?"

From THE ROAD NOT TAKEN by Harry Turtledove (1985)

"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") (1984)
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. In the MechWarrior video games they call this "Lostech" (lost-tech).

For our purposes, starships might have a limited built-in self-repair capability. But guns probably will not. So if the civilization forgets how to repair both starships and guns, the number of useable starships will stay constant while the usable guns will gradually vanish.


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
"To be fair, we don't invent them. We find them. They're gifts, Mr. Miles, from Those Who Came Before."
Warren Vidic, Assassin's Creed I

Beyond Schizo Tech, beyond Scavenger World, there's Lost Technology.

The Ancients had some pretty neat gear. Robots, weapons, even the answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything. Easy to use, little or no maintenance required, and after thousands of years of neglect often still in perfect working order!

...oh yeah, and this technology completely and utterly destroyed the Ancients and most of the world with it. But that doesn't stop the villains (or the heroes) from wanting to get some for themselves by pillaging an Advanced Ancient Acropolis. Usually, said Lost Technology then tries to destroy the world again. Some, but not all, heroes are smart enough to try to keep people away from the stuff.

Occasionally the good guys need Lost Technology to combat ancient evils that have arisen again (or villains who have acquired Lost Technology of their own). They usually use it as best they can, despite Black Boxes. Still, they suffer from Low Culture, High Tech.

It is similar to Imported Alien Phlebotinum, with the catch that the current population comprises the survivors or replacements of an age that fell due to its arrogance, war, or some other catastrophe.

May also show up in the guise of Lost Magic in fantasy settings. Often a consequence of No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup. Also see Sufficiently Advanced and Pointless Doomsday Device. Compare Bamboo Technology. A subtrope of Older Is Better. Frequently overlaps with Sufficiently Advanced Bamboo Technology. May lead to an Archaeological Arms Race.

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

Technological Stasis

As previously mentioned, the most common error science fiction writers make is drastically underestimating the rate of technological advance. 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.

What I am saying is that Star Wars technology is more like 150 years from now, not ten thousand years from now. In ten thousand years we will all be cosmic StarGods who sculpt entire galaxies as art projects. Which makes the DUNE universe target date of 21,267 CE somewhat ludicrous.

Authors who do not want to write about StarGods have a problem.

A related problem is that science fiction authors desiring a Star-Trek/Star-Wars like universe with lots of alien species who just happen to be at the same tech level, well, disappointment looms. An analysis reveals that interstellar explorers looking for alien civilizations will only encounter either apes or angels, but never humans. Unless all alien species run into the same technological-stasis brick wall shortly after developing starships.


Authors who worry about such details try to come up with a way to put the brakes on progress.

  • In his DUNE novels, Frank Herbert has the "Butlerian Jihad". This eliminates "thinking machines" (computers and artificial intelligence), so bye-bye internet. Creating thinking machines is punishable by death.

  • John Barnes postulated a "Inward Turn" in his A MILLION OPEN DOORS. Due to reaction from the aftermath of a horrific world war, world culture decided to take a rest from technological progress for a few centuries.

  • In Jerry Pournelle's CoDominion novels, the government suppresses all research that might upset the military balance, which is basically all research.

  • In Andre Norton's THE STARS ARE OURS, Terra is controlled by a fundamentalist Luddite regime which swept into power after a close brush with nuclear Armageddon. Scientific research was made illegal. Heck, study and book-larnin' was made illegal (excep for the privileged "Peacemen" of the new regime). And the former scientists were made into menial slaves.

  • In James Blish's THEY SHALL HAVE STARS government security has grown so strict that one researcher complains the scientific method doesn't work any more. Progress has ground to a halt.

  • In Joel Shepherd's RENEGADE the author postulates a technological plateau that all technological civilizations hit, human or alien. Technological development plotted on a graph is a "S"-shaped curve or sigmoid curve. Once they reach the top of the plateau, they stay in technological statis for tens of thousands of years.

  • And the Long Night (dark ages following the decline and fall of the Galactic empire) is always a good way to reset the clock by a thousand years or so. This can be found in Asimov's FOUNDATION trilogy, Niven and Pournelles THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE, H. Beam Piper's SPACE VIKING, and Poul Anderson's Flandry of Terra series.

These are a few of the many ways that "thinking-man's" authors use to justify writing stories about, say, recognizable reader-friendly galactic kings and queens. Otherwise logic dictates they'd be being forced to write science fiction about some unrecognizable reader-unfriendly bizarre cyberpunk dystopia. Hard for the author to write, and it drastically limits their reader-base.

Non-scientific authors do not have that problem. They just write unabashedly write science-fantasy about recognizable galactic kings and queens with no justification. Because they figure their reader base is too unsophisticated to know any better. But such authors probably avoid this website in the first place, frightened away at the sight of the first equation. And by the hostile glare from RocketCat.

Minimum Necessary Change

Occasionally an author can make their desired background plausible by altering just one technological advancement instead of suppressing all technological advance (this is considered to be very elegant and will gain you accolades from your readers and other authors. But it is not strictly necessary). A "Minimum Necessary Change", to use the terminology of Isaac Asimov's time-travel novel The End of Eternity.

Remember von Braun's giant space wheel type space station? It would have paid for itself, with improved weather forecasts, relaying TV and radio messages over the globe, and observing hostile military maneuvers. 76 meters in diameter with a crew of fifty! Makes the ISS look like a used beer can.

Why didn't it get built? It was rendered obsolete by the invention of integrated circuits. Without ICs you need a huge crew with life support and artificial gravity. With ICs you can get away with using a small inexpensive satellite with no crew at all.

So an author who wants a background where huge space stations made their appearance in the 1950s, you just need an alternate history where the IC was never invented. Of course this implies a world with vacuum tube computers filling entire buildings and no such things as personal computers and smart phones, but this just adds more flavor to the science fiction background.


      That the Chinese discovered gunpowder is not in doubt. What is in question is whether or not they used it in the same way as the Europeans did.

     Perhaps the entire question of Chinese invention is worth a brief digression at this point. The major inventions attributed with certainty to the Chinese include paper, silk weaving, clockwork, astronomical instruments, the horizontal loom, the spinning wheel and the waterwheel. These are inventions fundamental in the history of man as a tool-maker. The medieval Chinese were without doubt the most fruitfully inventive people on Earth. However, the fact that the technology of the modern world is Western shows to what extent the two cultures were different at a time vital in the history of the effects of innovation on society.

     In the stable, civilized East the innovations were not permitted to bring about radical social change as they were in the brawling, dynamic West. The chief reason for this may have been the stultifying effects of Chinese bureaucracy, which owed its origins to the geographical nature of the country.

     China is a land of wide plains and major rivers. Early in recorded history the Chinese undertook vast irrigation schemes, and the scale on which manpower for these projects was mobilized demanded firm, centralized planning and control. The civil service which evolved to run the irrigation schemes was to remain in power for thousands of years, guarding its position and privilege against change, maintaining a society rigidly stratified into classes between which movement was virtually impossible. There was no drive for the individual to use technology to improve his lot and so rise in the world, because rising in the world was out of the question.

     Thus it was that invention may have come from the East, but it was only in the West that it brought widespread change. To oversimplify the case: in China gunpowder propelled arrows, and even exploded grenades; in the West it destroyed cities.

(ed note: So in China, technological progress was held back by the bureaucrats in the name of stability. And the rigid class structure offered no motivation to innovate technological progress in order to rise to a higher class, it was illegal to change your class.)

     (in England) Henry Maudslay’s reputation rested on the fact that with his machines he could produce more accurate work faster than anyone else. He also spent time chatting to a Frenchman who passed his shop in Wells Street every morning and this chance encounter brought Maudslay into contact with a fellow Royalist émigré from Republican France, Marc Isambard Brunel, who had recently returned from America.

     Brunel came to Maudslay in 1800 with an idea for making ships’ blocks. At the time, these blocks were essential to the running of a ship (with sails). They were (and still are) shaped wooden blocks with a pulley, or two, set into them, so that a fixed line attached to the block could be tightened or loosened at will. They were used for control of the rigging, for hauling any heavy material, and for moving guns into and out of position rapidly. It took over 1400 blocks to operate a 74-gun ship—a vessel, incidentally, only of the third class. In 1800 these blocks were made by hand. Brunel had an idea for making them by machine, and he wanted Maudslay to make the machines.

     It took Maudslay six years, and the first blocks were being made in 1808. It was the first, large-scale mass production unit in the world, and although the Portsmouth blockmaking yard did very well, the idea of extending the system to other industries did not catch on in England for another fifty years. By that time the industrial lead it could have given England was lost to the country where Brunel claimed to have had the idea in the first place: America.

     Automated machines that would take work away from skilled men failed in England for very understandable reasons. By the early nineteenth century all the water power, in the form of rivers, and all the raw materials, such as coal and wood, had been in private hands for centuries. For every skilled experimenter like Maudslay there were a thousand whose only security lay in their craft, acquired through years of apprenticeship and workshop experience. In a country as geographically and socially limited as England, there was nowhere else for these men to turn for income, save to lose all their skill had gained them and become common laborers. Automated machines represented a threat to their livelihood, and they opposed them. However, for some years many of these skilled men had been defying the law to seek greater opportunity in America, a country where none of the English limitations on a man’s expectations existed. As conflict developed with the colonists, the British Parliament had enacted legislation to prevent any transfer of technology across the Atlantic. The law of 1750 had read: “No mill or other engine for slitting or rolling of iron, or any furnace for making steel shall be erected … in His Majesty’s Colonies of America.” The penalty for infringement was £200, more than a skilled man could save in a lifetime. After the War of Independence, the law was amended to read: “no export of tool, engine or persons connected with the iron industry …” The laws did not prevent considerable numbers of men from emigrating, dressed as common laborers, or even as women, with their tools camouflaged in boxes—even, on occasion, marked “fruit trees”.

     The textile industry in America rapidly took to the idea of mass production for several reasons. First the building of factories, and their siting close to sources of water power, was easily done in America. New England was covered with forests, and entire rivers could be bought for their water rights. Then there was the problem of labor. With the government encouraging settlement by selling land to immigrants at $1.25 an acre, most men headed out into open country and became farmers on sections of land they could never have afforded at home. The only readily available pool of labor was the farmers’ daughters. In some cases these girls simply wanted to get away from the drudgery of the farmhouse; more often they had a brother’s education to finance, or a dowry to collect. The unskilled nature of these girls forced the entrepreneurs to opt for automated machinery that needed minding, rather than skilful operating. In 1813 a Boston financier called Francis Cabot Lowell set up the Boston Manufacturing Company at Waltham, near Boston. He had previously spent time in England, where in Manchester he had observed cotton manufacture at first hand. When he returned to America, just before the war of 1812, he met an expert machinist called Paul Moody who was to build most of his machines. In 1814 he hired a recent arrival from England who had brought with him the secret of the new power loom, and the way was clear for a textile version of the Portsmouth block-making system. Lowell hired farm girls to mind the machines, and then put the whole process under one roof, powered from a central source. Raw cotton went in at one end of the factory and woven cloth came out at the other. The first stage in what was to become known as the American System of Manufacture was complete. The second stage was not long in coming, and it too was born of restrictive practices on the part of European workmen.

     In the middle of the eighteenth century a French gunsmith called Honoré le Blanc had worked out a system for making gun parts to a standardized pattern, so that if a part broke it could be replaced by another part that would fit the gun exactly. Since up to that time the manufacture of muskets had been in the hands of craftsmen, these latter were unwilling to adopt new methods that would reduce their status or employment. So Le Blanc turned to Thomas Jefferson, the American Ambassador to France, with the idea. Jefferson saw at once that such a system would rid America of her dependence for arms on those states with which she had been and might again be at war. He tried and failed to persuade Le Blanc to go to America. But he wrote enthusiastically to the Secretary for War about the idea, and when he returned to America he set about persuading Congress to adopt the principle in the nation’s armories. He had an ally in George Washington, and by 1798 a contract had been given to Eli Whitney, the self-styled inventor, for 12,000 muskets made by the new system—a method which, by the way, Whitney claimed for his own. Be that as it may, Eli Whitney continues to be known as the inventor of the system, because there is a need for heroes. The machines operating in the armories produced parts that were standard enough to be interchangeable, and by 1815 Congressional contracts stipulated this quality in the muskets, pistols and rifles they paid for. During the next fifty years the factory system of Lowell and the interchangeable parts of the armorers combined in the American System of Manufacture, with factories beginning to turn out quantities of goods made of interchangeable parts, such as sewing machines, locomotives, bicycles, and the product of much of the bicycle manufacturers’ experience—the motor car. Cadillac was first a bicycle, then a car.

     As America was opened up, and the vast natural resources of the continent revealed themselves, the American System of Manufacture had put the country ahead of the rest of the world in terms of manufactured output by the end of the nineteenth century. The new machines produced goods for everyone. The machines became specialized, rather than their operators, and the American eagerness to use them was reflected in a need no other country had: to absorb thousands of non-English-speaking immigrants who in most cases came from pre-industrial societies.

(ed note: So in England, technological progress was held back by an inability of workers to move to a different job since the only other job open to them was common laborer. Therefore the workers resisted anything that would render their job obsolete)

From CONNECTIONS book version by James Burke (1978)

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

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

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

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

The original Dune series

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also

From the Wikipedia entry for BUTLERIAN JIHAD

Warning: spoilers for RENEGADE by Joel Shepherd

      Trace floated to Ensign Hale’s shoulder, to peer at a display of the data they were extracting from the cable port. “Are you seriously getting data you can read?” she asked.

     “Yeah.” Hale looked excited. “Incredible, huh? It’s an old tavalai coding routine. Ten thousand years old and we can still read it.”

     “I suppose there’s not much living here to age everything,” said Trace. She ran a combat glove tip across a dash frame. It collected a layer of fine particles. “There’s no humidity, and it’s cold all the time.”

     “No microbes,” Hale agreed. “We scanned it, there’s nothing else alive here. It’s incredibly old, but it’s in great condition.” Trace prodded a seat cushion. The synthetic surface compressed oddly, and did not spring back when her finger left it. It was very old, certainly, but completely undisturbed. She wondered if the crew who’d sat in these chairs could have imagined this — suited humans, a race unknown to tavalai and chah'nas at the time, prodding around in their quarters ten thousand years later.

     “Actually it’s very interesting,” said Rooke, as though continuing some earlier conversation that Trace had rudely interrupted. “The human records from when we ran into krim for the first time showed a lot of them just didn’t believe it. Not the krim — the whole Spiral civilisation, fifty thousand years back to the Fathers. They talked a lot about the impossibility of technological stasis — they thought fifty thousand years was far too long for civilisation to remain essentially the same out here.

     “Well it wasn’t the same,” Hale corrected. “The Fathers were the only ones in space that far back, everyone else came later.”

     “Sure, but humanity at the time was going through the Acceleration — we see it everywhere with all species, all the low-hanging fruit being plucked, I mean we were just a few centuries out from horse and carts, and no electricity. Just massive change, across about five hundred to a thousand years, heavy industry, micro-circuits, bio-tech, and finally FTL, etc. So they thought technology always moved at that pace, they didn’t realise how much it slowed down once you got out here, into large-scale FTL civilisation… I mean once you get into quantum computing there’s only so much further you can push it. Same with everything. They thought spacefaring aliens ten thousand years ahead of them would be unrecognisable, would have evolved beyond physicality and mortality, become trans-human gods. A lot of the science-folk didn’t like discovering that even the tavalai and alo were still far away from anything like that. Post-Acceleration, civilisation actually reverts to something more like what humans had for thousands of years pre-Acceleration — similar weapons, similar tools, similar lifestyles, relatively slow change.”

From RENEGADE by Joel Shepherd (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(ed note: more details here)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He watched the flames for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am beginning to see your drift.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then why is it happening?” Wagoner demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Nothing else would do.”

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

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

“From my staff?”

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

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

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

“Winnow chaff, in other words.”

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

“Starting where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

From THEY SHALL HAVE STARS by James Blish (1956)

(Excerpt from the Encyclopedia Galactica)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From THE STARS ARE OURS by Andre Norton (1954)

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

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

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

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

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

From GULF by Robert Heinlein (1949)

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


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

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

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

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

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

From the Wikipedia entry for POLITICIZATION OF SCIENCE

(ed note: E. E. "Doc" Smith's classic LENSMAN series is one of the foundations of space opera. In 1993 Sean Barrett wrote a game supplement for the role playing game GURPS. Since the original series was written in the late 1930s, Mr. Barrett had to retcon reasons why a science fiction series set in the future inexplicably had no personal computers, internet, nor smartphones. Mr. Barrett made the minimum necessary change, and managed to tie it in with technobabble technology mentioned in the original series.)


(ed note: The good Arisians are engaged in an eon-old war with the sinister Eddorians. Since the Arisians cannot defeat the Eddorians with any combination of psychic or technological weapons, their solution is to take promising planets and evolve races who have the power. Young Arisian Eukonidor is agast at necessity of allowing an atomic war on Tellus/Terra. )

“But the loss of life! Surely there is a way … ”

“Your thinking is loose and turgid, youth. Do not allow affection for the subjects to interfere with your reasoning. Continue the extrapolation. Yes, the war would be prevented. What would then occur? ”

“With the vast improvement in electronics, they would quickly develop …" The Arisian child possesses no organs even remotely resembling eyes, but had he, they would grow wide as he pursues the thought. “In a single generation, they would abdicate control of every aspect of life, down to food preparation utensils, to the ubiquitous electronic data processors! They would rely on machines for precise, detailed reasoning, for clarity of cogitation — but the powers of the mind necessary to Civilization cannot be simulated by electronics!

“Yes,” the teacher replies dryly. “Some would even become so desperate as to implant electronics into their own bodies. Is the war not better than an entire race reduced by dependence on cybernetics to punks and mental cripples? (humans cannot develop powers of the mind if they use crutches like pocket calculators and spell-checkers) Describe a prevention of that fate that has minimal side-effects. ”

“Obviously, the humans Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley must not invent this ‘transistor’ device. ” A mental silence falls as the student contemplates methods. Elegance governs. A human heart would have pulsed several times before the child again broadcasts his thoughts. “I suggest spatial translation of this fastening device a short distance in nearly any direction, removing it from the path of this transportation mechanism.” He indicated in a purely mental fashion a precise point in space-time.

“Yes,” replies the teacher “Many consider that the optimal course. Now, consider…"

The teacher exerts himself to hide the pride he feels. This is, in fact, the course Mentor themselves selected. This youth, Eukonidor by symbol, has real promise.


Dr Murray, driving late into the night, remains forever oblivious to the nail he nearly drove over. Fighting to keep his eyes open, he pulls off the road outside the tiny town of Athens, Alabama for forty winks. Dawn finds him snoring, and he awakes with a vicious crick in his neck.

At the exact moment he sees the girl climbing the tree, she is 143.213 feet from him (which the Arisian teacher accepts as being within the error constraints of the student’s visualization). As he rolls his head, trying to loosen his neck muscles, he is in perfect position to see her lose her grip and fall, striking a bough heavily before plummeting to the ground.

Dr Murray leaps from the car and reaches her in 23.17 seconds (which causes the teacher to remind the child that physical life frequently operates at less than full capacity). The ground is soft, but the impact of the branch across her abdomen cracks several ribs and stops her breathing. Artificial respiration is successful, and Ruth recovers quickly and fully, though it is quite clear that she would have suffocated, had Dr. Murray not been present.


Bill Shockley sits in the corner of the party, deep in thought and wishing he had his slip-stick and a supply of scratch paper; or even a corner of the tablecloth to sketch on. An idea is nagging at him, but refuses to completely gel.

“Hello there. ”

He looks up, and the idea flees before red-bronze-auburn hair and gold-flecked, tawny eyes. He and Ruth Sommer know nothing of the rest of that party, though it is the most delightful of the many they attend. They spend the entire evening sitting in that corner; in rapt and exclusive conversation. She continues to monopolize all of his free time and thought, and much thought that should be devoted to his work at Bell Labs. Even were he reminded of that fascinating idea he had almost had, he would never regret its loss — his beautiful wife is considerably more than worth it.


William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Houser Brattain share the Nobel Prize in Physics for their revolutionary “ultra-wave” vacuum tube design. (Ultra-wave is technobabble from the Lensman series, which the trio invent instead of the real-world transistor)


Pavel Aleksejevic Cherenkov, Ilya Mickajlovic Frank and Igor Evgenevic Tamm share the Nobel Prize in Physics for their studies of the effects of the super-luminal speeds found in the Shockley ultra-wave tube (including the “Cherenkov effect”). Hundreds of years later; Dr Nels Bergenholm finds their work seminal in his research (in the Lensman series Dr Nels Bergenholm invents the faster-than-light starship engine called the Inertialess Drive).

From GURPS: LENSMAN by Sean Barrett (1993)

Technological Decline

Joan Vinge pointed out an unexpected consequence of the collapse of technology in her THE OUTCASTS OF HEAVEN'S BELT. If a planetary colony falls into barbarism, everybody reverts to a non-technological agrarian society. If an asteroid civilization falls into barbarism, everybody dies. It takes lots of technology to run the oxygen system, airlocks, spaceships, hydroponics, nuclear reactors, and other items vital for life in space. No technology, no life. In other words, they are a Hydraulic state.

A milder version of this happens with the Three Generation Rule.

Disaster may be staved off by tinkerers and cobblers, but only temporarily.

Betha saw suddenly the fatal flaw the original colonizers, already Belters, must never have considered. Without a world to hold an atmosphere, air and water -- all the fundamentals of life -- had to be processed or manufactured or they didn't exist. And without a technology capable of processing and manufacturing, in a system without an Earthlike world to retreat to, any Dark Age would mean extinction.


And after they were gone, the farms and ranches and factories would go on, almost but not quite as before. Nothing on Gram, nothing on any of the Sword-Worlds, was done as efficiently as three centuries ago. The whole level of Sword-World life was sinking, like the east coastline of this continent, so slowly as to be evident only from the records and monuments of the past. He said as much, and added: "And the genetic loss. The best Sword-World genes are literally escaping to space, like the atmosphere of a low gravity planet, each generation begotten by fathers slightly inferior to the last. It wasn't so bad when the Space Vikings raided directly from the Sword-Worlds; they got home once in a while. Now they're conquering planets in the Old Federation for bases, and staying there."

He turned to Basil Gorrarn. "You see, the gentleman isn't crazy, at all. That's what happened to the Terran Federation, by the way. The good men all left to colonize, and the stuffed shirts and yes-men and herd-followers and safety-firsters stayed on Terra and tried to govern the Galaxy."

The city was familiar, from Otto Harkaman's descriptions and from the pictures Vann Larch had painted during the long jump from Gram. As they came in, it looked impressive, spreading for miles around the twin buildings that spired almost three thousand feet above it, with a great spaceport like an eight-pointed star at one side. Whoever had built it, in the sunset splendor of the old Terran Federation, must have done so confident that it would become the metropolis of a populous and prospering world. Then the sun of the Federation had gone down. Nobody knew what had happened on Tanith after that, but evidently none of it had been good.

At first, the two towers seemed as sound as when they had been built; gradually it became apparent that one was broken at the top. For the most part, the smaller buildings scattered widely around them were standing, though here and there mounds of brush-grown rubble showed where some had fallen in. The spaceport looked good—a central octagon mass of buildings, the landing-berths, and, beyond, the triangular areas of airship docks and warehouses. The central building was outwardly intact, and the ship-berths seemed clear of wreckage and rubble.

By the time the Nemesis was following the Space Scourge and the Lamia down, towed by her own pinnaces, the illusion that they were approaching a living city had vanished. The interspaces between the buildings were choked with forest-growth, broken by a few small fields and garden-plots. At one time, there had been three of the high buildings, literally vertical cities in themselves. Where the third had stood was a glazed crater, with a ridge of fallen rubble lying away from it. Somebody must have landed a medium missile, about twenty kilotons, against its base. Something of the same sort had scored on the far edge of the spaceport, and one of the eight arrowheads of docks and warehouses was an indistinguishable slag-pile.

The rest of the city seemed to have died of neglect rather than violence. It certainly hadn't been bombed out. Harkaman thought most of the fighting had been done with subneutron bombs or Omega-ray bombs, that killed the people without damaging the real estate. Or bio-weapons; a man-made plague that had gotten out of control and all but depopulated the planet.

"It takes an awful lot of people, working together at an awful lot of jobs, to keep a civilization running. Smash the installations and kill the top technicians and scientists, and the masses don't know how to rebuild and go back to stone hatchets. Kill off enough of the masses and even if the planet and the know-how is left, there's nobody to do the work. I've seen planets that decivilized both ways. Tanith, I think, is one of the latter."

From SPACE VIKING by H. Beam Piper (1962)

(ed note: The person talking is the chief of an interstellar law-enforcement agency. The "Enemy" is the interstellar organized crime syndicate)

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

"It was felt, when the first cautious surveys were made, that it would be in the interests of these cultures generally, if they climbed to a period roughly approaching the twentieth century before being united with the Empire. The experts felt that too early a contact might have dangerous repercussions on these cultures. Further, with the growing strength of the Enemy they would undoubtedly be exploited, turned into side-shows and perhaps perish as individual and vital off-shoots of mankind's climb to the stars.

"Warning monitors were therefore placed in orbit round these planets and regular patrols instituted. It was known, needless to say, that Cisterine, the planet in question, was rich in Cuderium and here precautions were doubled.

"The Enemy, however, has some ingenious scientists on its payroll and they managed to by-pass the monitors and evade the patrols without triggering the alarms. Judging by figures to hand, they had mined and ferried out a couple of billions worth of Cuderium before they were discovered.

"While this was going on, the executives in charge became bored. They therefore decided to amuse themselves, playing God.

"The peoples of the planet's two continents, if not friends, had never been overt enemies, so the executives drummed up a little war to make their stay more interesting. It was then that some bright spark had the idea of making a profit out of it. Why not hook up some cameras? Make a good spectacular and profit out of indulgence appealed to them greatly.

"The spectacular (a popular TV show), as you did not see all of it, is worth mentioning. It depicted an heroic spaceman marooned on a primitive planet. He falls among a noble race whose lands and seaboards are being constantly ravished and plundered by the brutal Royal fleets of the adjacent continent. Out of love of the people and, incidentally, unlikely local materials, he builds a quick-firing gun and sallies forth in their only available ship to do battle for them. Needless to say, the battle scenes were impressive and the backgrounds so skilfully disguised that, but for your 'dream' we should never have put two and two together."

From BUTTERFLY PLANET by Philip E. High (1971)

     “You don’t intend. You don’t. And who are you? And may I ask what you meant by blowing off your mouth about our nuclear-power plant? Why, it’s just the thing that would s a military target.”
     “Yes,” grinned Hardin. “A military target to stay away from. Isn’t it obvious why I brought the subject up? It happened to confirm a very strong suspicion I had had.”
     “And that was what?”
     “That Anacreon no longer has a nuclear-power economy. If they had, our friend would undoubtedly have realized that plutonium, except in ancient tradition is not used in power plants. And therefore it follows that the rest of the Periphery no longer has nuclear power either. Certainly Smyrno hasn’t, or Anacreon wouldn’t have won most of the battles in their recent war. Interesting, wouldn’t you say?”
     “Bah!” Pirenne left in fiendish humor, and Hardin smiled gently.
     He threw his cigar away and looked up at the outstretched Galaxy. “Back to oil and coal, are they?” he murmured — and what the rest of his thoughts were he kept to himself.

     “The Encyclopedia first,” ground out Crast. “We have a mission to fulfill.”
     “Mission, hell,” shouted Hardin. “That might have been true fifty years ago. But this is a new generation.”
     “That has nothing to do with it,” replied Pirenne. “We are scientists.”
     And Hardin leaped through the opening. “Are you, though? That’s a nice hallucination, isn’t it? Your bunch here is a perfect example of what’s been wrong with the entire Galaxy for thousands of years. What kind of science is it to be stuck out here for centuries classifying the work of scientists of the last millennium? Have you ever thought of working onward, extending their knowledge and improving upon it? No! You’re quite happy to stagnate. The whole Galaxy is, and has been for space knows how long. That’s why the Periphery is revolting; that’s why communications are breaking down; that’s why petty wars are becoming eternal; that’s why whole systems are losing nuclear power and going back to barbarous techniques of chemical power.
     “If you ask me,” he cried, “the Galactic Empire is dying!”

     When the lights went on again, Lord Dorwin said: “Mahvelous. Twuly mahvelous. You ah not, by chance, intewested in ahchaeology, ah you, Hahdin?”
     “Eh?” Hardin shook himself out of an abstracted reverie. “No, milord, can’t say I am. I’m a psychologist by original intention and a politician by final decision.”
     “Ah! No doubt intewesting studies. I, myself, y’know” — he helped himself to a giant pinch of snuff — “dabble in ahchaeology.”
     “His lordship,” interrupted Pirenne, “is most thoroughly acquainted with the field.”
     “Well, p’haps I am, p’haps I am,” said his lordship complacently. “I have done an awful amount of wuhk in the science. Extwemely well-read, in fact. I’ve gone thwough all of Jawdun, Obijasi, Kwomwill … oh, all of them, y’know.”
     “I’ve heard of them, of course,” said Hardin, “but I’ve never read them.”
     “You should some day, my deah fellow. It would amply repay you. Why, I cutainly considah it well wuhth the twip heah to the Pewiphewy to see this copy of Lameth. Would you believe it, my Libwawy totally lacks a copy. By the way, Doctah Piwenne, you have not fohgotten yoah pwomise to twansdevelop a copy foah me befoah I leave?”
     “Only too pleased.”
     “Lameth, you must know,” continued the chancellor, pontifically, “pwesents a new and most intwesting addition to my pwevious knowledge of the ‘Owigin Question.”’
     “Which question?” asked Hardin.
     “The ‘Owigin Question.’ The place of the owigin of the human species, y’know. Suahly you must know that it is thought that owiginally the human wace occupied only one planetawy system.”
     “Well, yes, I know that.”
     “Of cohse, no one knows exactly which system it is — lost in the mists of antiquity. Theah ah theawies, howevah. Siwius, some say. Othahs insist on Alpha Centauwi, oah on Sol, oah on 61 Cygni — all in the Siwius sectah, you see.”
     “And what does Lameth say?”
     “Well, he goes off along a new twail completely. He twies to show that ahchaeological wemains on the thuhd planet of the Ahctuwian System show that humanity existed theah befoah theah wah any indications of space-twavel.”
     “And that means it was humanity’s birth planet?”
     “P’haps. I must wead it closely and weigh the evidence befoah I can say foah cuhtain. One must see just how weliable his obsuhvations ah.”
     Hardin remained silent for a short while. Then he said, “When did Lameth write his book?”
     “Oh — I should say about eight hundwed yeahs ago. Of cohse, he has based it lahgely on the pwevious wuhk of Gleen.”
     “Then why rely on him? Why not go to Arcturus and study the remains for yourself?”
     Lord Dorwin raised his eyebrows and took a pinch of snuff hurriedly. “Why, whatevah foah, my deah fellow?”
     “To get the information firsthand, of course.”
     “But wheah’s the necessity? It seems an uncommonly woundabout and hopelessly wigmawolish method of getting anywheahs. Look heah, now, I’ve got the wuhks of all the old mastahs — the gweat ahchaeologists of the past. I wigh them against each othah — balance the disagweements — analyze the conflicting statements — decide which is pwobably cowwect — and come to a conclusion. That is the scientific method. At least” — patronizingly — “as I see it. How insuffewably cwude it would be to go to Ahctuwus, oah to Sol, foah instance, and blundah about, when the old mastahs have covahed the gwound so much moah effectually than we could possibly hope to do.”
     Hardin murmured politely, “I see.”
     “Come, milord,” said Pirenne, “think we had better be returning.”
     “Ah, yes. P’haps we had.”
     As they left the room, Hardin said suddenly, “Milord, may I ask a question?”
     Lord Dorwin smiled blandly and emphasized his answer with a gracious flutter of the hand. “Cuhtainly, my deah fellow. Only too happy to be of suhvice. If I can help you in any way fwom my pooah stoah of knowledge—”
     “It isn’t exactly about archaeology, milord.”
     “No. It’s this: Last year we received news here in Terminus about the meltdown of a power plant on Planet V of Gamma Andromeda. We got the barest outline of the accident — no details at all. I wonder if you could tell me exactly what happened.”
     Pirenne’s mouth twisted. “I wonder you annoy his lordship with questions on totally irrelevant subjects.”
     “Not at all, Doctah Piwenne,” interceded the chancellor. “It is quite all wight. Theah isn’t much to say concuhning it in any case. The powah plant did undergo meltdown and it was quite a catastwophe, y’know. I believe wadiatsen damage. Weally, the govuhnment is sewiously considewing placing seveah westwictions upon the indiscwiminate use of nucleah powah — though that is not a thing for genewal publication, y’know.”
     “I understand,” said Hardin. “But what was wrong with the plant?”
     “Well, weally,” replied Lord Dorwin indifferently, “who knows? It had bwoken down some yeahs pweviously and it is thought that the weplacements and wepaiah wuhk wuh most infewiah. It is so difficult these days to find men who weally undahstand the moah technical details of ouah powah systems.” And he took a sorrowful pinch of snuff.

     “But, Hardin,” reminded Fara, “we can’t!”
     “But you haven’t tried. You haven’t tried once. First, you refused to admit that there was a menace at all! Then you reposed an absolutely blind faith in the Emperor! Now you’ve shifted it to Hari Seldon. Throughout you have invariably relied on authority or on the past — never on yourselves.”
     His fists balled spasmodically. “It amounts to a diseased attitude — a conditioned reflex that shunts aside the independence of your minds whenever it is a question of opposing authority. There seems no doubt ever in your minds that the Emperor is more powerful than you are, or Hari Seldon wiser. And that’s wrong, don’t you see?”
     For some reason, no one cared to answer him.
     Hardin continued: “It isn’t just you. It’s the whole Galaxy. Pirenne heard Lord Dorwin’s idea of scientific research. Lord Dorwin thought the way to be a good archaeologist was to read all the books on the subject — written by men who were dead for centuries. He thought that the way to solve archaeological puzzles was to weigh the opposing authorities. And Pirenne listened and made no objections. Don’t you see that there’s something wrong with that?”
     Again the note of near-pleading in his voice. Again no answer.
     He went on: “And you men and half of Terminus as well are just as bad. We sit here, considering the Encyclopedia the all-in-all. We consider the greatest end of science. is the classification of past data. It is important, but is there no further work to be done? We’re receding and forgetting, don’t you see? Here in the Periphery they’ve lost nuclear power. In Gamma Andromeda, a power plant has undergone meltdown because of poor repairs, and the Chancellor of the Empire complains that nuclear technicians are scarce. And the solution? To train new ones? Never! Instead they’re to restrict nuclear power.”
     And for the third time: “Don’t you see? It’s Galaxywide. It’s a worship of the past. It’s a deterioration — a stagnation!”

From FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov (1951)

As has happened so often in the past, the challenge may be too great. We may establish colonies on the planets, but they may be unable to maintain themselves at more than a marginal level of existence, with no energy left over to spark any cultural achievements. History has one parallel as striking as it is ominous, for long ago the Polynesians achieved a technical tour-de-force which may well be compared with the conquest of space. By establishing regular maritime traffic across the greatest of oceans, writes Toynbee, they "won their footing on the specks of dry land which are scattered through the watery wilderness of the Pacific almost as sparsely as the stars are scattered through space." But the effort defeated them at last, and they relapsed into primitive life. We might never have known of their astonishing achievement had it not left, on Easter Island, a memorial that can hardly be overlooked. There may be many Easter Islands of space in the aeons to come — abandoned planets littered not with monoliths but with the equally enigmatic debris of another defeated technology.

From PROFILES OF THE FUTURE by Arthur C. Clarke

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

From "OZYMANDIAS" by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)

(ed note: Percy Shelley and his friend Horace Smith were in a friendly competition to write a sonnet about the new statue of Ramesses II in the British Museum. Smith's sonnet is similar in story and moral point, but includes a science fiction bit about a hunter of the future looking at the ruins of London. Sort of like an 1800's version of the ending of Planet of the Apes.)

In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
"The wonders of my hand."— The City's gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place

From OZYMANDIAS by Horace Smith (1818)

(ed note: Titus Crow steps out of his grandfather-clock-like time machine several million years in the future)

I was up at dawn, if that gradual lightening of the sky, in which the stars never quite managed to extinguish themselves above the monstrous desert of Earth, could ever be called a dawn. The waning orange sun was rising in the dark blue of the eastern sky. And yet, despite the fact that the sun was dying, still its rising was my undoing, for of course the enigmatic structure I so desired to investigate lay in just that direction, to the east. Pitifully dim though the sun was by the standards of this twentieth century, still it was bright enough to throw the face of that towering edifice into shadow. Because of this I found myself approaching the thing blind, as it were, and I did so to within a distance of some three and a half miles. The base of the skyscraper (so I had come to think of it, though its actual purpose was as much a mystery as ever) lay in something of a declivity, but for all that the thing must still have stretched a good three-quarters of a mile into the thin air, while its column was easily a third of that distance in diameter.

At this point something about the shape of the thing caused me to halt the clock's slow forward motion. It almost seemed as if I stood at the feet of a giant, and I had not yet made up my mind that this giant was friendly! Nor was this idea too far fetched, for indeed the shape of the thing, seen in silhouette, was somehow statuesque.

I decided to circle about it and thus observe it from a position where the dim sun would not be shining directly into my eyes, but no sooner had I taken this decision than yet another factor arose to deny me a clear, unobstructed view of the thing. The sun, climbing steadily now into the sky, was warming however remotely the tenuous air of the valley in which my giant stood. A fine mist was rising, clinging to and climbing the steep and strangely suggestive outlines of the structure, so that by the time I reached that point to the north from which I had hoped to view it, the combination of ground haze and rising, writhing vaporization had obscured all but its pointed summit. That summit, however, I could now see quite clearly: a great curve of a silvery hull and sharp prow tilted at the sky, sleek fins gleaming in the weak sunlight. A spaceship, held aloft in a giant's hand, symbol of man's domination of the stars and of his exodus from this dying Earth!

My heart gave a wild leap. This was more than I had dared hope for, better by far than the thought of the last members of the human race burrowing in the dry earth like so many miserable worms. Impatiently I waited while the sun completed its work and the feeble haze began to drift lazily down from the gargantuan it so thinly veiled. And soon those disturbing proportions I had noted before began to emerge, but this time clearly and unmistakably to my shocked eyes!

My mouth went dry, my mind utterly blank in an instant. I could only stare ... and stare ... while my jaw dropped lower and lower and my hopes for mankind plummeted into unfathomable abysses. For perhaps a full half hour I stood there beside the clock, until, gripped by an emotion like none I had ever known before, I stumbled once more in through the panel of that purple-glowing gateway to forgotten times and places and carelessly hurled myself back, back into time, perhaps to a time when man lived and loved, fought and died and gloried on the green hills and in fertile valleys of Earth.

For the immense metal statue holding aloft that silvery symbol of galactic exodus was made neither by nor yet in the image of man. Vastly intelligent were its builders, yes, and plainly proud of their ancient heritage, a heritage which predated mere man and now patently antedated him ... It was a beetle!

From THE TRANSITION OF TITUS CROW by Brian Lumley (1975)

Technology and Society


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Technological Disruption

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Technological Unemployment

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Future Shock

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You Are Not Ready

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They Are Not Ready

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Man Was Not Meant To Know

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End of Natural Selection

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Decadent Population

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Intelligence Amplification

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The Singularity

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Revolt of the AIs

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Black Holes

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Broadcast Power

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Gravity train

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Higgsinium and Monopolium

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Programmable Matter

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Room Temperature Superconductor

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Molecule Chain

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