As David Gerrold puts it, when it comes to interstellar empires Control depends upon communication.

If you are keeping your novel constrained to realistic physics, it is not fair to exceed the speed of light. No FTL starships and no Ansibles. Which will more or less limit your empire to the bounds of the Solar System because of timelag. Travel and communication with with other stars will take years to decades to hundreds of thousands of years to arrive. Communication within the orbit of Neptune will be at a maximum travel time of about 8 hours (though that can increase to up to two years if you decide to include the Oort cloud).

No way around it: a galactic empire is going to need FTL starships and/or FTL communication.


In telecommunications, information transfer is the process of moving messages containing user information from a source to a sink via a Communication channel. In this sense, information transfer is equivalent to data transmission which highlights more practical, technical aspects.

The information transfer rate may or may not be equal to the transmission modulation rate.

Bidirectional information transfer is called information exchange.

From the Wikipedia entry for INFORMATION TRANSFER

The Rama Committee was still manageably small, though doubtless that would soon be rectified. His six colleagues—the UP representatives for Mercury, Earth, Luna, Ganymede, Titan and Triton—were all present in the flesh. They had to be; electronic diplomacy was not possible over solar system distances. Some elder statesmen, accustomed to the instantaneous communications which Earth had long taken for granted, had never reconciled themselves to the fact that radio waves took minutes, or even hours, to journey across the gulfs between the planets. ‘Can’t you scientists do something about it?’ they had been heard to complain bitterly, when told that face-to-face conversation was impossible between Earth and any of its remoter children. Only the Moon had that barely acceptable one-and-a-half-second delay—with all the political and psychological consequences which it implied. Because of this fact of astronomical life, the Moon—and only the Moon—would always be a suburb of Earth.

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

The velocity of light is the ultimate speed limit, being part of the very structure of space and time. Within the narrow confines of the solar system, it will not handicap us too severely, once we have accepted the delays in communication which it involves. At the worst, these will amount to eleven hours—the time it takes a radio signal to span the orbit of Pluto, the outermost planet. Between the three inner worlds Earth, Mars, and Venus, it will never be more than twenty minutes—not enough to interfere seriously with commerce or administration, but more than sufficient to shatter those personal links of sound or vision that can give us a sense of direct contact with friends on Earth, wherever they may be.

It is when we move out beyond the confines of the solar system that we come face to face with an altogether new order of cosmic reality. Even today, many otherwise educated men—like those savages who can count to three but lump together all numbers beyond four—cannot grasp the profound distinction between solar and stellar space. The first is the space enclosing our neighboring worlds, the planets; the second is that which embraces those distant suns, the stars. And it is literally millions of times greater.

There is no such abrupt change of scale in terrestrial affairs. To obtain a mental picture of the distance to the nearest star, as compared with the distance to the nearest planet, you must imagine a world in which the closest object to you is only five feet away—and then there is nothing else to see until you have traveled a thousand miles.

Many conservative scientists, appalled by these cosmic gulfs, have denied that they can ever be crossed. Some people never learn; those who sixty years ago scoffed at the possibility of flight, and ten (even five!) years ago laughed at the idea of travel to the planets, are now quite sure that the stars will always be beyond our reach. And again they are wrong, for they have failed to grasp the great lesson of our age—that if something is possible in theory, and no fundamental scientific laws oppose its realization, then sooner or later it will be achieved.

One day—it may be in this century, or it may be a thousand years from now—we shall discover a really efficient means of propelling our space vehicles. Every technical device is always developed to its limit (unless it is superseded by something better) and the ultimate speed for spaceships is the velocity of light. They will never reach that goal, but they will get very close to it. And then the nearest star will be less than five years voyaging from Earth.

Our exploring ships will spread outward from their home over an ever-expanding sphere of space. It is a sphere which will grow at almost—but never quite—the speed of light. five years to the triple system of Alpha Centauri, ten to that strangely matched doublet Sirius A and B, eleven to the tantalizing enigma of 61 Cygni, the first star suspected of possessing a planet. These journeys are long, but they are not impossible. Man has always accepted whatever price was necessary for his explorations and discoveries, and the price of space is time.

Even voyages which may last for centuries or millenniums will one day be attempted. Suspended animation, an undoubted possibility, may be the key to interstellar travel. Self-contained cosmic arks which will be tiny traveling worlds in their own right may be another solution, for they would make possible journeys of unlimited extent, lasting generation after generation. The famous time dilation effect predicted by the theory of relativity, whereby time appears to pass more slowly for a traveler moving at almost the speed of light, may be yet a third. And there are others.

With so many theoretical possibilities for interstellar flight, we can be sure that at least one will be realized in practice. Remember the history of the atomic bomb; there were three different ways in which it could be made, and no one knew which was best. So they were all tried—and they all worked.

Looking far into the future, therefore, we must picture a slow (little more than half a billion miles an hour!) expansion of human activities outward from the solar system, among the suns scattered across the region of the Galaxy in which we now find ourselves. These suns are on the average five light-years apart; in other words, we can never get from one to the next in less than five years.

To bring home what this means, let us use a down-to-earth analogy. Imagine a vast ocean, sprinkled with islands—some desert, others perhaps inhabited. On one of these islands an energetic race has just discovered the art of building ships. It is preparing to explore the ocean, but must face the fact that the very nearest island is five years’ voyaging away, and that no possible improvement in the technique of shipbuilding will ever reduce this time.

In these circumstances (which are those in which we will soon find ourselves) what could the islanders achieve? After a few centuries, they might have established colonies on many of the nearby islands, and have briefly explored many others. The daughter colonies might themselves have sent out further pioneers, and so a kind of chain reaction would spread the original culture over a steadily expanding area of the ocean.

But now consider the effects of the inevitable, unavoidable time lag. There could be only the most tenuous contact between the home island and its offspring. Returning messengers could report what had happened on the nearest colony—five years ago. They could never bring information more up to date than that, and dispatches from the more distant parts of the ocean would be from still further in the past—perhaps centuries behind the times. There would never be news from the other islands, but only history.

No oceanic Alexander or Caesar could ever establish an empire beyond his own coral reef; he would be dead before his orders reached his governors. Any form of control or administration over other islands would be utterly impossible, and all parallels from our own history thus cease to have any meaning. It is for this reason that the popular science-fiction stories of interstellar empires and intrigues become pure fantasies, with no basis in reality. Try to imagine how the War of Independence would have gone if news of Bunker Hill had not arrived in England until Disraeli was Victoria’s prime minister, and his urgent instructions on how to deal with the situation had reached America during President Eisenhower’s second term. Stated in this way, the whole concept of interstellar administration or culture is seen to be an absurdity.

All the star-borne colonies of the future will be independent, whether they wish it or not. Their liberty will be inviolably protected by time as well as space. They must go their own way and achieve their own destiny, with no help or hindrance from Mother Earth.

At this point, we will move the discussion on to a new level and deal with an obvious objection. Can we be sure that the velocity of light is indeed a limiting factor? So many “impassable” barriers have been shattered in the past; perhaps this one may go the way of all the others.

We will not argue the point, or give the reasons scientists believe that light can never be outraced by any form of radiation or any material object. Instead, let us assume the contrary and see just where it gets us.

From SPACE, THE UNCONQUERABLE by Arthur C. Clarke (1962)

"But as for the continents, sir, why, I thought you would know. Nyanza has none. Altla is just a medium-sized island. Otherwise there are only rocks and reefs, submerged at double high tide, or even at Loa high."

"Oh, I knew," said flandry reassuringly. "I just wanted to be sure you knew." He turned off the receiver and sat thinking. Damn those skimpy pilot's manuals! He'd have had to go to Spica for detailed information. If only there were a faster-than-light equivalent of radio. Instant communications unified planets; but the days and weeks and months between stars let their systems drift culturally apart—let hell brew for years, unnoticed till it boiled over—made a slow growth of feudalism, within the Imperial structure itself, inevitable. Of course, that would give civilization something to fall back on when the Long Night finally came.

From THE GAME OF GLORY by Poul Anderson (1958)

FTL Messaging

I am an optimist; anyone interested in the future has to be, otherwise he would simply shoot himself. I believe that communications satellites can unite mankind.

Let me remind you that this great country was virtually created one hundred years ago by two inventions. Without them, the United States was impossible; with them, it was inevitable. Those inventions were, of course, the railroad and the electric telegraph.

From SATELLITES AND SARIS by Arthur C. Clarke (1971)

The three main ways communication methods used in various science fiction universes are:

If the science fiction author is postulating the existence of either FTL travel and/or FTL communications things get more complicated. Does FTL travel exist yes/no? Does FTL communication exist yes/no? And if both FTL travel and FTL communication exists, which if either is faster? And faster by how many orders of magnitude?

The answer to these questions will have major implications to your science fiction universe in general and your galactic empire in specific.

If you have both and both have the same speed, which one you will use will depend upon whether you want to move matter or move information.

As I mentioned before, the maximum speed of starships and the maximum speed of communications limits the maximum size of the empire. If the travel time of the intel and the travel time of the armed response is too high a total, the Empire will not be able to prevent a rebellious planet on the rim from leaving the empire. This is assuming that the travel time increases with the distance, all bets are off if you have something weird like instantaneous communication.

Bandwidth is important as well. The Capital will have the data to make a reasoned policy if you can transmit to them several terabytes of situational reports, not so much if all you can send is a 140 character tweet.


In sum—“Hornblower in Space." Just as Captain Horatio Hornblower was the highest representative of English law in the far waters in which he sailed. so would Captain James T. Kirk of the Enterprise be the highest legal representative of Starfleet Command in the far reaches of the galaxy.

He would be explorer, ambassador, soldier. and peacekeeper. He would be the sole arbiter of Federation law wherever he traveled —he would be a law unto himself.

The implication here is that there are no other channels of interstellar communication. At least, none as fast as the Enterprise.

Let's examine this for a moment, because it's essential to understanding the STAR TREK format. Captain Kirk is an autonomous power. Purely from a television point of view, he must be an autonomous power—otherwise the series lacks drama and he lacks interest. If Kirk could check back with Starfleet Command every time he was in trouble. he would never have any conflicts at all. He would simply be a crewman following orders. He wouldn't be an explorer or an ambassador at all—just the Captain of the local gunboat on the scene.

For Kirk to be a dramatic and interesting human being. he must be wholly responsible for his own actions as a representative of the Federation. As such, every decision he has to make becomes an important one.

Fortunately, the exigencies of space travel—especially faster-than-light travel—support this kind of dramatic concept.

We must make one assumption, though—that faster-than-light travel is possible. This is the basic assumption of STAR TREK: that man can reach the stars. It is the only assumption we need to make, but it is the hook on which the whole series (and much of science fiction. in general) hangs. Without faster-than-light travel, we are stuck in our own solar system—and that's too much of a limitation for our storytellers. Why should we deny ourselves a background as broad and irresistible as a whole galaxy—or a universe?

Science fiction is the contemporary fairy tale, it's the twentieth-century morality play. At its worst. it's merely romantic escapism; but at its best, it is the postulation of an alternate reality with which to contemplate this one. Strictly from a dramatic point of view, we need the assumption of faster-than-light velocities. It is as necessary to the genre as the assumption that miracles can happen is necessary to the artistic success of a medieval religious pageant. (In either case, the implication is optimism about the workings of the universe.)

Despite the fact that almost everything we know about the workings of the universe suggests that it is impossible to achieve the speed of light or velocities faster than that. we can still make the assumption. We are violating Einstein's Theory of Relativity, as well as the vast body of scientific knowledge that backs it up, but we can make the assumption. Not just for dramatic reasons, but for scientific ones as well.

You see. if it is possible to travel faster than light, the method will not be discovered by anyone who has already decided that it is impossible. Rather, the discovery will require a man who assumes that it is possible, and who will speculate at length on the conditions necessary to achieve such. In fact. this is how the hypothesis of the tachyon was arrived at—a tachyon. if it exists, is a particle that cannot travel at less than the speed of light, only faster. If tachyons can now be proven to exist. then we will know that faster-than-light travel is possible. So, the assumption is not so outrageous as some science purists might insist.

STAR TREK postulates an alternate reality where faster-than-light travel is an established fact. Granted this one assumption. we can then proceed to establish the nature of an interstellar society. One of the things we must know is the nature and quality of that society's communications.

Given the STAR TREK format, given the workings of the universe derived from the one basic assumption that we have to make, we can establish that there are only four possible channels of communication between the planets of different stars.

Three of them are impractical.

If we examine them all, we'll see why they're impractical. And also, we'll see why Captain James T. Kirk can't help but be an autonomous power.

The first method of communication, of course, is radio. Or television. Or modulated laser beams. Or any kind of wave modulation that travels exactly at the speed of light. Obviously, if the speed of light limits our spaceships, it also limits our radios.

The nearest star to our own sun, Sol, is Proxima Centauri. It's 4.3 light-years away—that means that light, traveling at slightly more than 186,000 miles per second, will still take four and one third years to get there. Any quantity traveling at the speed of light will take that long. And that's assuming the signal was still strong enough to be detected when it arrived. (Even a pencil-thin laser beam will spread, when projected from the Earth to the moon, to cover an area more than a half-mile in diameter. And that's only to the moon. How far is it to Proxima Centauri?)

No, the reason why we can't use radio or light waves is that they're self-limiting. The key word is limit. Hang on a minute and you'll see.

STAR TREK almost got around this. The TV series postulated a “subspace radio." While this was never explained in detail, the implication was that this was a method of communication much faster than light, but still not instantaneous.

A message to Starfleet Command sent by subspace radio might take several hours or days. Beyond that, either the time lag was too great or the Enterprise was out of range. The answer was too slow in coming.

This is the same limitation as with radio waves—only the scale is different.

When you are thinking in terms of interstellar distances, there is no such thing as a small number. Even the small numbers are big ones. If your subspace radio is not instantaneous, if it functions at a measurable speed, then that speed is its limit. And no matter how fast it is, the distances of the galaxy are still vast enough to make that speed seem insignificant. The point can be reached where, even if your ship is not yet out of range, a dialogue still becomes impossible. Civen enough distance, even the smallest time lag will magnify eventually.

Let's try another.

The third method of interstellar communication involves the use of robot-torpedoes; that is, unmanned faster-than-light ships, guided by inboard computers. They would be launched from one planet to deliver a message to another, light-years away. The torpedoes would not be spaceships per se; rather, they would be propulsion units, guidance system and payload only. There would be no life-support capabilities at all.

As couriers, these torpedoes would be as fast as their propulsion systems would allow: at least as fast, probably faster, than comparable manned ships.

This particular channel of communication was never used or shown on STAR TREK—but given the technology that could design and build a starship Enterprise, the capability to build robot-torpedoes as well also had to be there.

The use of such torpedoes would be highly practical for planet-to-planet communication. A robot can deliver mail just as easily as a manned ship.

On the other hand, the torpedo would be almost completely impractical for ship-to-planet or planet-to-ship communications. (How does a preprogrammed torpedo find an unprogrammed ship?) From the dramatic standpoint alone, the faster-than-light torpedo is as impractical as the radio and the subspace radio. There is still a time lag.

The torpedo is just an interstellar carrier pigeon. Like the other two methods, it can deliver a message or it can send one—but it cannot serve as the vehicle for a dialogue. And a dialogue is precisely the kind of interstellar communication that we are looking for. A dramatic story requires it.

If there were an instantaneous communication channel available, then a ship like the Enterprise would be unnecessary and her mission redundant. Obviously, there is no such instantaneous channel—at least, not in the STAR TREK universe. The existence of the Enterprise proves it.

You see, the Enterprise is the fourth method of interstellar communication. It is the only practical vehicle of interstellar dialogue between two far removed existences—and as such, it is the one we are primarily interested in as a basis for stories about divergent planetary cultures clashing with one another.

The situation of this interstellar society is almost exactly analogous to the Earth of the eighteenth century. Then too, communications over vast distances were slow and uncertain. The arrival of a courier was always an event. Even if the news he was carrying was several weeks, months, or years old, it was still the most recent news available.

When one government had to deal with another, they used diplomatic notes and couriers—and in matters of highest policy, they depended upon their ambassadors. Because communications were so slow, an ambassador could be a particularly important individual. He was the arm and authority of his government. He was its voice. He was the man who determined and enacted the policies of his nation with regard to his specific area of authority.

Likewise, the Captain of the Enterprise must be just such an ambassador. He will be a minister with a portfolio of his own making. Carefully briefed as to Starfleet's goals and policies, it will be his responsibility to interpret them and act in the wide variety of situations he will confront. He is a piece of Starfleet itself. He is the piece entrusted with the mission of conducting the “interstellar dialogue."

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

Superluminal Radio

If ansibles are much faster that starships, the situation will be much like modern-day Navy vessels talking to home port by radio. You will be not be required to send the ship's engines along with the message. Note that "much faster" does not necessarily mean "instantaneous." In classic Star Trek, when the Starship Enterprise was in deep space, a Subspace Radio message might take a couple of weeks to travel to Starfleet Command. But the Enterprise would take months to make the same trip. Subspace radio was only "real time" if you were closer than a few tens of light-years or so.

If there are ansibles but no FTL starships, you will have a lively interstellar Internet, but the massive overhead of slower-than-light starships will restrict interstellar travel to only such people and material objects that absolutely positively must be transported.

And it is possible to have ansibles that provide instantaneous communication, regardless of distance.

If the ansibles are not capable of instantaneous communication, there will be timelag along with the associated limit on reaction time.

In the Renegade Legion universe, the Terran Overlord Government (TOG) alone has the technology for "Very Large Communication Relays" (VLCA). These are titanic FTL communication installations (meaning they will not fit inside a standard starship, you need one that is outrageously huge) that have a range of pretty much anywhere inside the entire Milky Way galaxy.

Their rivals the Renegades have to make do with pathetic P-Comm FTL communication. P-Comms are lucky if it can reach a neighboring star system. VLCAs have a range that is about 100,000 times greater.

Such is the overwhelming advantage of TOG having VLCAs, that for the Renegades such installations are pretty much automatically the primary military target in a given star system. If the Renegades can destroy the VLCA, the TOG loses its unfair communication advantage and the military odds become more equal. As long as the VLCA exists the TOG has it all their own way.

In Charles Stross' IRON SUNRISE, the most valuable things are packages of entangled quantum dots (called a "causal channel"), used for FTL communication via Bell's Inequality (yes, I know that is impossible, it's science-fiction OK?). Each dot can instantaneously transmit one bit of information, and then is worthless.

They also have the fascinating twist that the dots must be transported slower than light or they are ruined. They are shipped by Starwisp, taking years to transport between stars.


“Herman?” she subvocalized.

“I’m here. Not for much longer: You'll be alone after the (faster-than-light) jump.”

“I don’t understand. Why?”

“Causal channels don ’t work after a jump outside their original light cone: they’re instantaneous communicators, but they don’t violate causality. Move the entangled quantum dots apart via FTL and you break the quantum entanglement they rely on. As I speak to you through one that is wired into your access implant, and that is how you speak to me, I will be out of contact for some time after you arrive."

"You've got your own causal channel?" Frank asked, hope vying with disbelief...

..."Tiny — it's the second memory card in my camera." She held her thumb and forefinger apart. "Looks just like a normal solid state plug. Blue packaging."...

...Alice looked over the waist-high safety wall, then backed away from the edge. "I'm not climbing down there. But a bird — hmmmm. Think I've got a sampler head left. If it can eject the card . . . you want me to have a go? Willing to stake half your bandwidth with me if I can liberate it?"

"Guess so. It's got about six terabits left. fifty-fifty split." Thelma nodded. "How about it?"

"Six terabits —" Frank shook his head in surprise. He hated to think how much it must have cost to haul those milligrams of entangled quantum dots across the endless light years between here and Turku by slower-than-light starwisp. Once used they were gone for good, coherence destroyed by the process that allowed them to teleport the state of a single bit between points in causally connected space-time. STL shipping prices started at a million dollars per kilogram-parsec; it was many orders of magnitude more expensive than FTL, and literally took decades or centuries of advanced planning to set up. But if it could get them a secure, instantaneous link out into the interstellar backbone nets..."

From IRON SUNRISE by Charles Stross (2004)
RocketCat sez

Listen up, you writers. I'm gonna give you some juicy tidbits from an important book by Tom Standage called The Victorian Internet. If you are smart you should read the entire thing cover to cover.

Using the trade secret of science fiction you can use the book as a template for upheaval in your galactic empire when some clown unexpectedly increases the speed of FTL radio faster than starships. Or when FTL radio gets invented in the first place.

If you can't figure out how to use the book as a template, well you can always go back to writing Mary Sue Star Wars fanfic.

Back in the 19th century they didn't have crap for technology. No smart phones, no combat drones, no submachine guns with Teflon coated cop-killer bullets, no antibiotic-resistant microbes cultivated by dumping gallons of antibiotics downs cow gullets, no cable TV, no nuttin'.

But they did have an Internet. Don't roll your eyeballs at me, they called it the electric telegraph machine. If you had been paying attention you'd realize it was one of the most titanic advances in communication since Gutenberg invented his printing press. It changed the world more drastically than the advent of the Internet changed your world. But you would have known that already if you'd read Terry Pratchett's novel Going Postal, featuring the system of visual telegraph towers known as "the clacks".

Pretty much all the shenanigans and whoopla currently surrounding your modern-day computer internet is just a re-hash of the exact same events that swirled around the electric telegraph. Yes: revolutionizing business, inventing new types of crime, encouraging the use of secret codes, governments futilely trying to regulate it, and the rise of a new techy culture. All of it happened before in the 1800s. Everything old is new again, and you fools who ignore your history are doomed to repeat it.

And all you authors who used this in your novels can smile smugly as your know-it-all readers get blindsided. The readers will condescendingly sniff and think you are merely rewriting the tired old story about the advent of AOL and the September that never ended. And then they will be savagely sucker-punched when your novel enters the parts where the telegraph was NOT like the internet. You'll get a rep for writing surprising novels, you will.

For a zillion years prior to the telegraph, the fastest communication was by some poor sod frantically riding on horseback. Messages moved barely a hundred miles a day, and that was only with a constant supply of fresh horses (this is when your galactic empire has starships but no FTL radio). For the same zillion years rulers of various empires had to put up with outrageous time lags. Send off your army, then wait for freaking months to find out how the battle went. You ain't gonna make much of an empire with that pathetic speed. And as for central control, ha! Not a chance, Alexander the Great. You'll just have to trust your generals to handle things. Or travel with the army and hope the capital doesn't revolt while you are gone.

But that all changed in 1791 when an unemployed guy named Claude Chappe and his brothers invented the first semaphore line. Claude wanted to give it the stupid name tachygraphe, but his classically trained friend managed to talk him into télégraphe.

Given how hot tempers was running during the French Revolution Claude was lucky it was only twice that angry mobs destroyed his semaphore and chased him while waving torches and pitchforks (they were convinced that Claude was trying to talk to the dastardly royalist prisoners being held in Temple Prison). I'm sure Claude was a bit bitter about this, since the French Revolution was the reason he was unemployed in the first place.

In 1793 Claude managed to sell the French National Convention on a trial experiment (well, it sort of helped that his brother Ignace Chappe was member of the Legislative Assembly). A three tower set of semaphores was laid out along twenty miles. It was a success, sending a test message in about eleven minutes flat. The tower moved wooden arms into specific patterns while the next tower watched through a telescope.

One of the evaluators, a scientist named Joseph Lakanal, was extremely impressed. Mostly because he realized how the semaphore would allow the central government in Paris to keep an iron grip on the provinces. The speed increase from horse to semaphore also increased the range of imperial control. It was a break-through! Lakanal convinced the government to fund a fifteen-station line from Paris to Lille and it quickly proved its worth. By August of 1794 it was reporting the recapture of a French town from the evil clutches of the Austrians and Prussians within an hour after the battle ended. The French government saw this was the hottest invention since the gun, and started building more lines.

When emperor Napoleon Bonaparte seized power, he too saw the semaphore was the sine qua non of Empire, and ordered even more expansions. He also demanded the system be able to cross the English Channel, since obviously it was only a matter of time before Great Britain became a suzerainty of the mighty French Empire (he was a bit optimistic there). The other European nations awoke to the danger and started frantically making their own semaphore systems so there wouldn't be a "semaphore gap." Otherwise they'd be at a fatal disadvantage. Not that they didn't start drooling at the thought of increasing their own iron grip on their own provinces. France showed the world how to do it.

The semaphore system was called the technological marvel of the age (which was true), and was optimistically predicted to abolish war (which was hysterically false). Wipe that smug look off your face, the same thing was predicted for our modern computer internet.

Some said the semaphore could be opened to civilian use, a very rapid form of mail. The system would actually produce cash instead of being a money pit. Claude wanted to use it in business, sending commodity prices all over Europe. But Napoleon nixed both those ideas. But he did allow sending winning lottery numbers, since that stopped the cheating which stole money from the government.

Predictably all sorts of charlatans, patent trolls, and irate rival inventors came boiling out of the woodwork trying to steal Claude's money and fame. The constant barrage drove him into depression and paranoia. He committed suicide in 1805, and was buried under a tombstone engraved with a semaphore tower displaying the sign for "At Rest." There was also a bronze sculpture of Claude, but it got melted down during the Nazi occupation of Paris.

But the semaphore telegraph continued to spread like wildfire. By 1830 it covered most of western Europe and most provinces were quite firmly iron gripped. Imperialists were quite pleased.

The Britain Admiralty kept fending off stupid crackpot schemes to "improve" the telegraph, schemes pushed by the hordes of garage inventors and junior scientists who had a bad case of Telegraph Fever. Many involved using that weird phenomenon known as "electricity." Alas none of the schemes worked very well, the inventors were secretive so the other inventors had to start from scratch, and all the schemes were quite inferior to the existing semaphore system. The Admiralty saw no point in wasting money fixing something that wasn't broke.

The sad fact of the matter was that the semaphore was broke, it just wasn't obvious. It had some severe limitations that people just took for granted.

Semaphore lines were expensive to run. You had to build costly towers everywhere. You needed to staff them with large teams of skilled operators. The data transfer rate meant you could send little more than 140 character tweets at a time. This means only the government had deep enough pockets to build and run semaphores, keeping them out of the reach of civilians and businesses. Semaphores also failed to work in the dark of night or through fog.

An electric telegraph would fix most of those problems, but nobody was visionary enough to see it.

Not that an electric telegraph was going to be easy, mind you.

The first big problem of an electric telegraph was how the heck did you detect the electricity? Thomas Edison hadn't been born yet, much less invented the light-bulb. Hans Christian Ørsted solved it when he stole the credit for Gian Domenico Romagnosi's discovery that an electric current created a magnetic field. Such fields are easy to detect because they make a magnetic compass go crazy.

The second big problem was that the signal died if the wire was longer than a couple of hundred feet. A semaphore can send a message ten miles, you can shout a message farther than 200 feet. The fix was not discovered until later, don't worry, I'll get to it.

In the 1820s Samuel F. B. Morse enters the scene. He was a painter until his life got derailed. He was in Washington painting a commission when he got a letter that his wife was very ill. Unfortunately by the time he got to Connecticut his wife had not only died, she was already buried. This got him justifiably angry at the snail-like pace of horse messengers, and he vowed to discover a faster method. In 1832 he was returning to the US from Europe while working on a cockamamie scheme to show art from the Louvre to Americans (just the last in a long line of cockamamie schemes). On the boat he met a certain Dr. Charles Jackson and caught a bad case of Telegraph Fever.

Morse naively figured he was the first person in history to think of using electricity for a telegraph, blissfully ignorant of the fact that hundreds of scientists had been working on the same thing for the better part of a century. Unaware of the 200 foot wire problem, Morse instead studied the problem of how to encode letters in an electric wire (which had no little semaphore arms). All but the most unschooled readers have been mouthing the words "Morse Code" at this point.

Meanwhile in England William Fothergill Cooke got tired of making anatomical wax models of dissected cadavers for the medical training biz, and caught Telegraph Fever from a lecture about electricity. This set him on the path to become Mr. Morse's arch rival. Cooke teamed up with a famous British scientist Professor Charles Wheatstone. But Cooke was annoyed to find that Wheatstone had already been working on an electric telegraph. Cooke wanted to hog all the glory for himself. Eventually Cooke and Wheatstone would have a bitter battle over who actually invented the telegraph, but I digress. Cooke started the ball rolling by offering Wheatstone an insulting sixth share of the profits, and things only went downhill from there.

Both Morse and Cooke soon slammed into the brick wall of the 200 foot limit. Ironically the problem had been solved in 1829 by Joseph Henry. The trick is to put a relay where the signal dies, making a fresh new signal. Everybody in the scientific community on both sides of the Atlantic had known this for years, but Morse and Cooke were just amateur tinkerers. Cooke was rescued by Wheatstone (who was a member of the scientific community), and Morse was rescued by being introduced to Professor Leonard Gale (also a member of the scientific community).

They both finally managed to make working prototypes. Then they ran into the hardest problem of all: trying to penetrate the thick armor of industrial-grade stupid encasing the brains of the skeptics. The electric telegraph was a step too far on the abstract scale for the skeptics to see. At least compared to the dirt-simple straightforward semaphore tower. The semaphore towers were after all just a large mechanical version of a man waving semaphore flags, easy for skeptics to understand. But the skeptics could not see the point behind all this electrical wire dot-and-dash bull poop. Kind of like how newspaper and magazine companies in 1980 would scoff at the idea they would be driven into bankruptcy by this silly "internet" thing.

Both teams tried to find investors to fund a demonstration line in a desperate attempt to convince the skeptics. Alas willing investors were hard to find. As a side note, Morse and Cooke met each other as Morse was sniffing around for British investors, and immediately they had a cat fight. Morse gave up on Britain when he realized Cooke would sabotage any and all attempt to get British money. Morse had earned Cooke's undying hatred by being the second person threatening Cooke's monopoly of telegraph glory. Geez, what an asshat!

Eventually Morse managed to make a Washington-Baltimore line, and forced the skeptics to eat crow when he transmitted the names of the Baltimore Whig National Convention nominees to the Washington station sixty-four minutes before the info arrived by train. The skeptics were impressed in spite of themselves.

Cooke got a demo line working as well. It was thought to be an amusing but pointless gizmo. Until it gave the London Times a hot scoop of the birth of Queen Victoria's second son in forty minutes flat. The Times had nothing but good things to say about the telegraph after that. Three trainloads of Lords departed for Windsor to attend the birthday banquet, but the Duke of Wellington forgot his dress suit. He telegraphed London for it to be sent on the following train and again the telegraph proved its worth.

Sadly on both sides of the Atlantic, the respective governments were loath to fund the expansion of the telegraph system. But once private companies got their hands on the telegraph, they started making money hand-over-fist. Telegraph lines started to cross the US like cobwebs spun by hyperactive spiders strung out on crystal meth.

The Pony Express was founded in 1860 and could get a letter from St. Joseph Missouri to Sacramento California in ten days flat. It closed in October 26, 1861, two days after the telegraph line reached Sacramento.

In Britain the telegraph mostly spread along side the rail roads. It also spread across several European countries (who saw a new and improved way to make their iron grip on their provinces even stronger). With the exception of France. The French were still enamoured of their obsolete national semaphore system which had astonished the world, and were reluctant to replace it with some confounded foreign British contraption.

As telegraph networks reached the edge of national borders, treaties were made between nations to interconnect their systems. The first was between Prussia and Austria, and it was rather silly. Instead of directly connecting the telegraph wires across the border, they built a joint office straddling the border. A message would come down the telegraph line on one side, be written down, the clerk would walk the paper from one side of the office to the other (thus crossing the border), and the message would be telegraphed up the other telegraph line. Nations got real touchy about anything that would weaken their borders.

There was, however, one rather large obstacle. The Atlantic Ocean in general and the English Channel in particular. England was cut off from Europe, and the United States was cut off from everybody.

Laying underwater telegraph lines is a nightmare.

You can't use rubber, seawater corrodes it (which was good news to the gutta-percha merchants). The wire has to be heavy enough to sink. The water changes the electromagnetic characteristics of the wire, making the Morse code signals mushy. To the people of the time a transatlantic cable was akin to how we look at traveling to Alpha Centauri: it would be real nice but it ain'ta gonna happen for thousands of years.

In 1856 the newly-formed Atlantic Telegraph Company decided to try it anyway. Unfortunately their chief electrician was a crack-pot named Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse. One can be competent in a field by educational experience or competent by practical on-the-job learning. Whitehouse had neither. His design for the cable was utterly wrong in practically every detail.

After about two years worth of effort, the blasted cable was finally laid all the way across the Atlantic. The world went wild! It was the greatest event of the century! And many suggested it would lead to a end to war, muskets being melted down and made into candlesticks. The telegraph was hailed as an instrument of world peace. Gee, that sounds familiar.

But Whitehouse's stinker of a cable never worked very well, and immediately started to deteriorate. Less than a month later it stopped working at all.

The world savagely attacked the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Some even suggested it was a hoax. A joint committee was appointed to get to the bottom of the mess (including committee member Professor Wheatstone). The star witness was Professor William Thomson (aka 1st Baron Kelvin), who conclusively proved the disaster was due to the incompetent Whitehouse and his near-terminal case of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Whitehouse was fired, and he reacted by immediately blaming everybody but himself and writing a pack of lies disguised as a book in a futile attempt at spin-doctoring his way out of the mess. It didn't work.

The Atlantic Telegraph Company had no trouble raising money for a second attempt (since the investors thought it was obviously all the fault of that lunatic Whitehouse, which was mostly true). This time the cable was professionally designed by Thomson. The cable was laid by the largest seagoing vessel afloat, the white elephant ship SS Great Eastern. After a few mishaps, the cable was successfully laid in 1865. It worked perfectly.

The very first day the cable earned an amazing one thousand pounds sterling in telegraph fees ($41,000 in 2010 dollars). And in a mere two years, the Atlantic Telegraph Company had earned enough profit to pay off all its monstrous debts. The cable was a freaking gold mine. Back in 1844 it took ten weeks to send a message from London to Bombay, now it took about four minutes to send a message and get the answer back. The world did some major shrinking. Businesses soon found it to be indispensable. The telegraph company was swimming in money.

The telegraph and submarine cable business was booming. Everybody wanted to invest, seed money came pouring in to lay more cables.

The sun never set on the British Empire, and they intended it to stay that way. England needed reliable telegraph lines to all its subject countries. And "reliable" meant not allowing the line to be vulnerable to other countries it happened to pass through. England created a special "intra-imperial telegraphy network" that other countries could not shut down. This increased the central control of London over the outlying British subject countries, and helped to protect Imperial messages from being spied upon by hostile nations. The intra-imperial telegraphy network had connections to various national networks, but would still still operate even if all the national networks were cut off.

Of course all the talk about the telegraph ushering in a new era of world peace was a steaming load of whale dreck. Improved communication with other nations just gives you new and improved reasons to be bigoted about those obnoxious creeps living in foreign parts. And when some paradigm-shifting shiny new tech toy hits the scene, there is always the same tired old song and dance. Pundits exaggerate the ability of the tech to improve the world, while being totally oblivious to how the tech enables so many new ways to be evil. The sad fact of the matter is that the type of people who are best at discovering the possibilities of a new invention are the crooks and con-artists. The telegraph opened up entire new categories for fraud, theft, and deception.

By the 1830s the semaphore system was being used to transmit stock market info, and about five minutes later it was being used for fraud. Evil bankers François and Joseph Blanc bribed a semaphore operator to transmit secret stock info using a clever system of coded transmissions disguised as "errors." The bankers watched the semaphore tower from a distance, for plausible deniability. They got away with it for almost two years before being caught.

Since telegraphs are incredibly faster than pony express, it can be used by crooks to exploit "information imbalance". This is where you have an advantage if you have access to secret information. Example: Horse races. If it takes the pony express three days to get name of the Derby winner to your sleepy little boondocks town, the bookies will let you place bets on a race that happened three days ago. Naturally the bookies will be enraged if you use the telegraph to find out the winner in advance, and place a huge bet where you already know the outcome.

My maternal grandfather managed to exploit this when he was a young man. He was on the street in California, in a crowd listening to the radio. The radio announcer was giving a play by play account of a baseball game happening in New York. Since my grandfather was a telegrapher for the US Navy, he could hear the Morse Code in the background. It was giving the baseball details, which were then decoded into English and given to the announcer. Which means my grandfather knew what the announcer was going to say half a minute in advance. He won quite a bit of money taking bets with other people in the crowd, before the crowd turned ugly and he decided to leave.

It took the lawmakers far too long to pass laws making it illegal to telegraph horse race results, a delay common with new technologies (and of course the main result of the law was to encourage the crooks to use secret codes). You may think technology outrunning the law started happening with Nigerian Email Scams on the internet, but Police Inspector John Bonfield was bitterly complaining about it in 1888. Everything old is new again.

In 1886 a crook named Myers tried to bribe a telegraph operator to delay transmission of horse racing results, allowing Myers to place bets on winning horses. When he was arrested, the authorities discovered there was no existing law he could be charged with. Delaying mail was illegal but the telegraphy hadn't been invented when the law was passed. Again the law had to be frantically extended to cover the new technology. It was too late to charge Myers, but in the meantime he managed to kill himself by ODing on laudanum.

The use of codes and cyphers in telegraph messages was forbidden, except by governments and telegraph officials. The Electric Telegraph Company used this to legally exploit information imbalance. They transmitted stocks and share prices that were public knowledge in London to the boondocks of Edinburgh Scotland, where the info was a valuable commodity. All in official code, of course. In Edinburgh bankers and merchants could obtain the information from the Electric Telegraph Company, for a fee.

The legality of secret codes started to become a tangled mess when telegraph networks of different nations became interconnected. The rules of each nation were contradictory. There were even rules about which languages were legal for telegraph messages. As more countries made bilateral connection treaties, the mess just grew. So in 1864 the French government hosted an international conference of twenty nations to sort things out. The result was the International Telegraph Union (ITU). One of the major results was that the no-code rule was killed, now anybody can use secret codes in their telegraph messages. And suddenly everybody did.

But besides secrecy, another reason to use codes was to cut down on your outrageous telegraph bill. You paid by the word. Non-secret code books (Brevity Codes) appeared on the market. They had about 50,000 code words along with associated messages. You saved 6 words by sending the code word GNAPHALIO instead of "Please Send A Supply Of Light Clothing." All you had to do was be sure your recipient had a copy of the same book, available at your local bookstore. Brevity codes were very popular with shipping managers and others who used underwater telegraph messages. Those cost an arm and a leg, about $100 per ten words (about 1,346.81 in 2010 dollars). Companies and industries started making their own customized codebooks, with vocabularies optimized for their specific needs.

There is a sample telegraph code book here, for your perusal.

For the paranoid, they used cyphers instead. This was more secret, but produced long strings of apparently random characters.

The telegraph operators became annoyed, because trying to read and send gibberish really made their lives harder, and drastically slows down your words-per-minute rate. Which costs the operators money, they get a bonus if their words per minute is over 40. The ITU came to the rescue with new rules. Codes were fine as long as the code words were pronounceable and no more than seven syllables. But gibberish cyphers were charged on the basis that every five letters counts as one "word." Since your average normal word is longer than that, bottom line is that sending cyphers was more expensive.

Predictably the code book makers tried pushing the envelope with some very hard to pronounce longish words that were technically only six syllables. In 1875 the ITU pushed back with a fifteen letter limit on code words. The result was words that were only 15 letters but still a nightmare to pronounce and send. So the ITU slammed back with a 10 letter limit AND the word had to be a genuine word of either German, English, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, or Latin.

A drawback of using brevity codes is that a one-letter mistake in sending a code word can catastrophically alter the meaning of the entire message. Which can result in very expensive mistakes. In 1887 a wool dealer named Frank Primrose send a coded telegraph message to his agent saying he had purchased 500,000 pounds of wool. "I Have Bought" was the code word BAY. The fumble-fingered telegrapher accidentally sent the words BUY, which means (surprise surprise) "buy". Morse for "A" is dot-dash, while "U" is dot-dot-dash. Very easy to make a mistake. The agent got the incorrect message and duly purchased 500,000 pounds of wool. Primrose lost $20,000 (about $270,000 in 2010 dollars). He sued the telegraph company, but unfortunately he had failed to pay the two cents extra for the message to be verified. So the court awarded him a refund of $1.15, the cost of the message.

New codes were devised where every single word in the code book differed from every other word by two letters or more, to prevent such disasters. If a letter got altered, the bogus code word would not be in the code book at all. Look-up tables in the back of the book allowed the receiver to puzzle out what the bogus code word originally was.

The trouble was is that the list of genuine ten letter words that differ by two letters or more is really tiny. There are not enough of them. So the code writers tried yet again to push the envelope by using deliberately misspelled words. The ITU tried to clamp down again by making an official list of allowed code words. But this proved to be impossible. So the ITU just gave up. Sorry telegraph operators, you are on your own.

Banks wanted to use the telegraph to transfer money, but they were afraid of bank fraud. They had a few cypher schemes but the schemes were not very secure. Things changed when a certain telegraph company named Western Union figured out a super-secure scheme using numbered codebooks (basically one-time pads) and passwords held by regional superintendents. Western Union had figured out how to "wire money."

There were some people who were married over telegraph, if the bride, groom, and minister could not be at the same location for some reason or other. One is reminded of the classic Star Trek episode Mudd's Women, where the lithium miners on the desolate planet Rigel XII married the women using Subspace radio marriage.

Telegraphers were part of a geeky closed community, where outsiders just didn't understand their world (much like modern-day computer hackers). Operators could often recognize other operators by their "fist," their idiosyncratic way of typing Morse Code. During slack times, bored operators would play telegraphic checkers and chat with each other. Many operators were women, commonly between eighteen and thirty years old and unmarried. Telegraphers would sometimes romance each other by telegraph and eventually marry (though occasionally the romances would abruptly end when the couple met for the first time and actually got to see each other).

In Terry Pratchett's novel Raising Steam, Adora Belle is the CEO of the Ankh Morpork semaphore company (the "clacks"). They have special lanterns so messages can be sent at night. She knows that at night lonely clacksmen and clackswomen would fraternize via the clacks during slack hours, and she approved. The clackspeople would woo each other over the clacks and marry, with the happy result of little clacksmen and clackswomen being born. The semaphore company needs all the clackspeople they can get. And a clacksperson marrying a non-clacksperson is an unstable marriage, best they marry each other.

Telegraphers were stratified by skill. They looked with scorn on the part-time operators in the small towns (sneeringly calling them "plugs" or "hams"). Your level in the hierarchy was measured by how many words per minute you could send and receive. first class operators could do 25 to 30 words per minute. The elite "bonus men" could do 40 wpm or more (and got a pay bonus as reward). The company didn't care if you were a man or woman (or even a child), the important point was your words per minute. Wandering operators going from job to job were called "boomers." No job interview, the company just set you down to a busy wire and saw if you could handle it or not. Because boomers knew they could find a job anywhere they were often itinerant and commonly suffering from alcoholism or mental health disorders (much like short order cooks according to Anthony Bourdain).

Telegraphers got their start at a young age, in some backwoods town filling in a position part-time. There were lots of books and pamphlets around teaching Morse Code. If they had some skill it was time to go to the big city. Actually it was well known that becoming a telegrapher was one of the best ways to escape from a sleepy little dead-end town.

A newbie at a telegraph company would often be subjected to a hazing ritual called "salting." The hazers would set the newbie down to a telegraph line, not knowing that the hazers had secretly put a hot-shot bonus man on the other end. The bonus man would start out slow, but then gradually go faster and faster until the sweating newbie had to give up. Ha-ha, gotcha kid! This didn't work when they tried salting young Thomas Edison. He was better than the bonus man. Edison sarcastically told the bonus man "Why don't you use the other foot?"

Unsurprisingly the telegraph revolutionized the newspaper industry. In the good-ol' days the news from foreign parts could be six weeks old, the advent of the telegraph created the new concept of "breaking news." The paper that got the news out first was the winner, which was a jolting development for the traditionally turtle-slow news media. On the plus side, fresh news on an event in progress could be reported in installments. The paper could put out four editions on a developing story and the news-hungry citizens would buy all four.

Newspapers sending separate reporters to an event was a waste of talent, so the papers formed groups to pool their resources and prevent duplicate efforts. The first one in the US was the New York Associated Press, you may have heard of it. Another news agency was founded in Europe by a fellow named Paul von Reuter, you might have heard of that one as well. Reuter had started before semaphore, using homing pigeons to send stock market quotes. With the rise of the electric telegraph, Reuter "followed the cable" and moved his operation to London.

During the Crimean War the British government found out the hard way that newspapers with timely news can give aid and comfort to the enemy. Before the telegraph the British War Ministry would routinely issue details of troop movements to the newspapers. This was safe because the papers would arrive at the target nations weeks after the troops. But now with the telegraph, enemy agents in London could read all the details in the Times and telegraph them directly to Russia at the speed of light. Russia could actually have the news before the commander of the British troops. Naturally when the War Ministry started to censor its reports, the Times became quite angry.

The Crimean War also gave the British and French troops a harsh introduction to the "back seat driver syndrome." They got the bright idea of laying a telegraph line into the Crimean peninsula. Up until now commanders in the field would be in charge, since orders from the capital can take weeks to arrive. But the telegraph meant the commanders found themselves being constantly second-guessed and micromanaged by the incompetent superiors in London and Paris, every fifteen minutes or so.

The telegraph also gave England their first taste of the Vietnam Effect, where the people at home were horrified at their first experience with instant news from the center of the battle. Until now news from the battlefront would take weeks to arrive, and be white-washed for public consumption. But now with the telegraph the news would be up-to-the-minute, and be the raw truth.

The war was badly organized due to government mismanagement (which was common). Pre-telegraph this didn't matter, the public never knew. But now reporters on the scene telegraphed in graphic exposés of soldiers being wrongly or inadequately equipped, with no proper medical support. The Times gleefully made this front-page news. This was an eye-opener for the citizens at home. It certainly put the British government on the hot seat.

Diplomats were also disrupted by the speed of the telegraph. Before they had the luxury of time to deal with any diplomatic incident, since it would take weeks for the news to reach back home. Now with the telegraph, the news was on the headlines the very next day, with the public screaming for an instant response. Worse, it would also be in the hands of other foreign governments, doing an end-run around normal diplomatic channels. The diplomatic embassies had to have dedicated telegraph lines installed, and senior diplomats in London had lines in their homes connecting them to the embassies.

With respect to empire building, note that both the Crimean War micromanagement and the diplomatic pressure had the effect of centralizing power in London.

The telegraph had a great run, but it started to decline in 1877. It was killed by a new tech toy, Alexander Graham Bell's "telephone." Which is currently in the process of being killed by radio, in the form of smart phones.


(ed note: the "clacks" network is a semaphore telegraph system. The quote echos the early days of computer hacker at MIT, where they were all young, obsessed with computers, and spoke in technical jargon. The reference to kids echos the early days of the electric telegraph. The "hour of the dead" is the hour each day used for tower maintenance.

Now all you science fiction authors: replace the medieval city-states with colonized planets and the clacks towers with isolated FTL relay stations on some miserable uninhabited asteroids or planets. This should spark some ideas for your next novel.)

It was called the lucky clacks tower, Tower 181. It was close enough to the town of Bonk for a man to be able to go and get a hot bath and a good bed on his days off, but since this was Uberwald there wasn’t too much local traffic and – this was important – it was way, way up in the mountains and management didn’t like to go that far. In the good old days of last year, when the Hour of the Dead took place every night, it was a happy tower because both the up-line and the down-line got the Hour at the same time, so there was an extra pair of hands for maintenance. Now Tower 181 did maintenance on the fly or not at all, just like all the others, but it was still, proverbially, a good tower to man.

Mostly man, anyway. Back down on the plains it was a standing joke that 181 was staffed by vampires and werewolves. In fact, like a lot of towers, it was often manned by kids.

Everyone knew it happened. Actually, the new management probably didn't, but wouldn’t have done anything about it if they’d found out, apart from carefully forgetting that they’d known. Kids didn’t need to be paid.

The – mostly – young men on the towers worked hard in all weathers for just enough money. They were loners, hard dreamers, fugitives from the law that the law had forgotten, or just from everybody else. They had a special kind of directed madness; they said the rattle of the clacks got into your head and your thoughts beat time with it so that sooner or later you could tell what messages were going through by listening to the rattle of the shutters. In their towers they drank hot tea out of strange tin mugs, much wider at the bottom so that they didn’t fall over when gales banged into the tower. On leave, they drank alcohol out of anything. And they talked a gibberish of their own, of donkey and nondonkey, system overhead and packet space, of drumming it and hotfooting, of a 181 (which was good) or flock (which was bad) or totally flocked (really not good at all) and plug-code and hog-code and jacquard (punch cards) . . .

And they liked kids, who reminded them of the ones they’d left behind or would never have, and kids loved the towers. They’d come and hang around and do odd jobs and maybe pick up the craft of semaphore just by watching. They tended to be bright, they mastered the keyboard and levers as if by magic, they usually had good eyesight and what they were doing, most of them, was running away from home without actually leaving.

Because, up on the towers, you might believe you could see to the rim of the world. You could certainly see several other towers, on a good clear day. You pretended that you too could read messages by listening to the rattle of the shutters, while under your fingers flowed the names of faraway places you’d never see but, on the tower, were somehow connected to...

Grandad had been hunched in the corner, repairing a shutter box in this cramped shed halfway up the tower. Grandad was the tower-master and had been everywhere and knew everything. Everyone called him Grandad. He was twenty-six. (many of the early top hackers were in their teens)

'I can’t stand this,' muttered Grandad. 'Roger, let’s get this tower working again. We’ve got local signals to send, haven’t we?'

'Sure. And stuff waiting on the drum,' said Roger.

Princess looked out from the upstream window. '182’s lit up,' she announced.

'Right! Let’s light up and shift code,' Grandad growled. 'That’s what we do! And who’s going to stop us? All those without something to do, get out! We are running!'

Princess went out on to the little platform, to be out of the way. Underfoot the snow was like icing sugar, in her nostrils the air was like knives.

When she looked across the mountains, in the direction she’d learned to think of as downstream, she could see that Tower 180 was sending. At that moment, she heard the thump and click of 181’s own shutters opening, dislodging snow. We shift code, she thought. It’s what we do.

Up on the tower, watching the star-like twinkle of the Trunk in the clear, freezing air, it was like being part of the sky.

From GOING POSTAL by Terry Pratchett (2004)

(ed note: the "clacks" network is a semaphore telegraph system.)

     'The clacks do a skeleton service as far as Überwald now, don't they?'
     Carrot brightened up. 'It's wonderful, sir, isn't it? In a few months they say we'll be able to send messages all the way from Ankh-Morpork to Genua in less than a day!'
     'Yes indeed. I wonder if by then we'll have anything sensible to say to each other.'
     Lord Vetinari stood at his window watching the semaphore tower on the other side of the river. All eight of the big shutters facing him were blinking furiously — black, white, white, black, white …
     Information was flying into the air. Twenty miles behind him, on another tower in Sto Lat. someone was looking through a telescope and shouting out numbers.
     How quickly the future comes upon us, he thought.
     He always suspected the poetic description of Time like an ever-rolling stream. Time, in his experience, moved more like rocks … sliding, pressing, building up force underground and then, with one jerk that shakes the crockery, a whole field of turnips mysteriously slips sideways by six feet.
     Semaphore had been around for centuries, and everyone knew that knowledge had a value, and everyone knew that exporting goods was a way of making money. And then, suddenly, someone realized how much money you could make by exporting to Genua by tomorrow things known in Ankh-Morpork today. And some bright young man in the Street of Cunning Artificers had been unusually cunning.
     Knowledge, information, power, words … flying through the air, invisible …
     And suddenly the world was tap-dancing on quicksand.
     In that case, the prize went to the best dancer.

     There was another clacks tower on the horizon. They were putting them near the. road, he recalled, even though that wasn't the direct route. Only a fool would build them across the badlands. You had to remember, sometimes, that within a few hundred miles of Ankh-Morpork there were still trolls who hadn't caught on to the fact that humans weren't digestible (trolls are silicon-based lifeforms). Besides, most of the settlements were near the road.
     The new Guild must be coining money. Even from here he could see the scaffolding, as workers feverishly attached still more gantries and paddles to the main tower. The whole thing would likely be matchsticks after the next hurricane, but by then the owners would probably have earned enough to build another five. Or fifty.
     It had all happened so fast. Who'd have believed it? But all the components had been there for years. Semaphore was ancient—a century ago the Watch had used a few towers to relay messages to patrolling officers. And gargoyles had nothing to do all day but sit and watch things, and usually were too unimaginative to make mistakes.
     What had happened was that people thought differently about news now. Once upon a time they'd have used something like this to relay information about troop movements and the death of kings. True, those were things that people needed to know, but they didn't need to know them every day. No, what they needed to know every day were things like How much are cattle selling for in Ankh-Morpork today? Because if they weren't fetching much maybe it was better to drive them to Quirm instead. People needed to know these little things. Lots and lots of little things. Little things like Did my ship get there safely? That's why the Guild was driving hell-bent across the mountains on to Genua, four thousand miles away. It took many months for a ship to round Cape Terror. How much, exactly, would a trader pay to know, within a day, when it had arrived? And how much the cargo was worth? Had it been sold? Was there credit to the trader's name in Ankh-Morpork?
     Coining money? Oh, yes!
     And it had caught on as fast as every other craze did in the big city. It seemed as though everybody who could put together a pole, a couple of gargoyles and some second-hand windmill machinery was in on the business. You couldn't go out to dinner these days without seeing people nip out of the restaurant every five minutes to check that there weren't any messages for them on the nearest pole. As for those who cut out the middleman and signalled directly to their friends across a crowded room, causing mild contusions to those nearby …
     Vimes shook his head. That was messages without meaning: telepathy without brains.
     But it had been good, hadn't it, last week? When Don't Know Jack had pinched that silver in Sto Lat and then galloped at speed to the sanctuary of the Shades in Ankh-Morpork? And Sergeant Edge of the Sto Lat Watch, who'd trained under Vimes, had put a message on the clacks which arrived on Vimes's desk more than an hour before Jack sauntered through the city gates and into the waiting embrace of Sergeant Detritus? Legally it had been a bit tricky, since the offence hadn't been committed on Ankh-Morpork soil and a semaphore message did not, strictly speaking, come under the heading of 'hot pursuit', but Jack had kindly solved that one by taking a wild swing at the troll, resulting in his arrest for Assault on a Watch Officer and treatment for a broken wrist …

     After a while they passed a clacks tower. Burn marks on one side of the stone base suggested that someone had thought that no news was good news, but the semaphore shutters were clacking and twinkling in the light.

     The tower loomed quite close now. The first twenty feet or so were of stone with narrow, barred windows. Then there was a broad platform from which the main tower grew. It was a sensible arrangement. An enemy would find it hard to break in or set fire to it, there was enough storage room inside to see out a siege, and the enemy would be aware that the lads inside would have signalled for help thirty seconds after the attack began. The company had money. They were like the coaching agents in that respect. If a tower went out of action, someone would be along to ask expensive questions. There was no law here; the kind of people who'd turn up would be inclined to leave a message to the world that towers were not to be touched.
     Everyone should know this, and therefore it was odd to see that the big signal arms were stationary.
     The hairs rose on Vimes's neck. 'Stay in the carriage, Sybil,' he said…
     …Vimes climbed the ladder. Inigo was sitting at a table, leafing through a stack of papers.
     'Where's the crew?'
     'That, your grace,' said Inigo, 'is one of the mysteries, mmm, mmm.'
     'And the others are—?'
     Inigo nodded towards the steps leading upwards. 'See for yourself.'
     The controls for the arms had been comprehensively smashed. Laths and bits of wire dangled forlornly from their complex framework.
     'Several hours of repair work for skilled men, I'd say,' said Inigo, as Vimes returned.
     'What happened here, Inigo?'
     'I would say the men who lived here were forced to leave, mmph, mmhm. In some disorder.'
     'But it's a fortified tower!'
     'So? They have to cut firewood. Oh, the company has rules, and then they put three young men in some lonely tower for weeks at a time and they expect them to act like clockwork people. See the trapdoor up to the controls? That should be locked at all times. Now you, your grace, and myself as well, because we are …are—'
     'Bastards?' Vimes supplied.
     'Well, yes … mmm … we'd have devised a system that meant the clacks couldn't even be operated unless the trapdoor was shut, wouldn't we?'
     'Something like that, yes.'
     'And we'd have written into the rules that the presence of any visitor in the tower would, mmhm, be automatically transmitted to the neighbouring towers, too.'
     'Probably. That'd be a start.'
     'As it is, I suspect that any harmless-looking visitor with a nice fresh apple pie for the lads would be warmly welcomed,' sighed Inigo. 'They do two-month shifts. Nothing to look at but trees, mmm.'…
     …He pulled a box from under the lower bunk. Inside it were several tubes, about a foot long, open at one end.
     "'Badger & Normal, Ankh-Morpork'" he read aloud, "'Mortar flare (Red). Light Fuse. Do Not Place In Mouth.' It's a firework, Mister Skimmer. I've seen them on ships."
     'Ah, there was something…' Inigo leafed through the book on the table. 'They could send up an emergency flare if there was a big problem. Yes, the tower nearest Ankh-Morpork will send out a couple of men, and a bigger squad comes up from the depot down on the plains. They take a downed tower very seriously.'
     'Yes, well, it could cost them money,' said Vimes, peering into the mouth of the mortar. 'We need this tower working, Inigo. I don't like being stuck out here.'
     'The roads aren't too bad yet. They could be here by tomorrow evening—I'm sure you shouldn't do that, sir!'
     Vimes had pulled the mortar out of its tube. He looked at Inigo quizzically.
     'They won't go off until you light the charge in the base,' he said. 'They're safe. And they'd make a stupid weapon, 'cos you can't aim them worth a damn and they're only made of cardboard in any case. Come on, let's get it on to the roof.'
     'Not until dark, your grace, mmm. That way two or three towers on each side will see it, not just the closest.'
     'But if the closest towers are watching they'll certainly see—'
     'We don't know that there is anyone there to watch, sir. Perhaps what happened here has happened there too? Mmm?'

     Something bright rose from the distant forests. It vanished, and then a green light expanded into existence. A moment later came the pop of the flare.
     'The signallers have got to the tower,' said Vimes.
     'Can't this damn thing go any faster?' said Angua.
     'I mean, we can contact Ankh-Morpork,' said Vimes. After everything, he felt curiously cheered by this. It was as if a special human howl had gone up. He wasn't floundering around loose now. He was floundering on the end of a very long line. That made all the difference.

     'And since the arrest of its ambassador will certainly cause … difficulties with AnkhMorpork,' Vimes went on, 'I strongly suggest you take us directly to the King.'
     By blessed chance, the distant tower sent up another flare. Green light illuminated the snows for a moment.
     'What's that mean?' said the dwarf captain.
     'It means that Ankh-Morpork knows what's going on,' said Vimes, praying that it did. 'And I don't reckon you want to be the dwarf who started the war.'

From THE fiFTH ELEPHANT by Terry Pratchett (1999)

Starship Couriers

If there are starships but no ansibles, or if the starships are much faster than ansibles, you will see the creation of ultra-fast manned message-courier FTL starships or unmanned FTL message drones. Much like the Express Boat Network in the Traveller role playing game or the unmanned Courier Drones from Starfire.


In the Traveller universe there are faster-than-light starships, but no FTL radio. You can use ordinary radio to communicate within a given solar system, but interstellar communication between solar systems has to be carried by starship.

The Imperial Interstellar Scout Service runs the Communication Office, which is charged with transporting messages across the parsecs of the Imperium as fast as humanly possible. This is performed with the Express Boat Network.

Even with the Express Boat Network, it can take up to four years for information to travel from the Imperial Core to certain backwater systems in the Marches (approximately 100 parsecs or 326 light-years).


The core of the Network is an ultra-optimized spacecraft called an "Express Boat" or "X-Boat". It literally cannot do anything except:

  1. Make one (1) FTL jump up to 4 solar systems over, expending all its fuel in the process
  2. Transmit its data upon arrival with a high-speed tight-beam radio transmission
  3. Supply the single crewperson with just enough life support to survive the trip

Since Traveller computers are primitive enough that they fill up a room, there is no such thing as an automated X-Boat. All X-Boats are manned by a crewperson.

Note that among the many standard starship parts the X-Boat does not have is a normal-space propulsion system (Maneuver Drive). In other words, once the X-Boat arrives, it cannot move. It has to wait to be rescued by an X-Boat Tender. Maneuver Drives have too much mass.

The extreme design of an X-Boat is due to the draconian mass-ratio of the 4-parsec FTL Jump Drive. Much like a chemical rocket, it is mostly fuel tank and Jump drive. Welded on the nose is a hab module containing the tight-beam radio, data bank for the messages, and cramped spartan living arrangements for a crew of one. In case of hull breech there is one (1) life support ball, but no spacesuit. In case of pirates there is one (1) pistol, but no ship weapon turrets. A turret also has too much mass.

X-Boat Tender

The function of an X-Boat Tender is to rescue the poor spent X-Boat, liberate the pilot, and either refuel/refurbish/re-pilot the X-Boat for its next trip or haul it to a way station for repairs. It carries four X-boat pilots, some recuperating (an FTL jump takes a week cooped up in jump-space) and some ready to go . Other items include huge fuel tanks, maintenance facilities, heavy-duty communication banks, and a crew of six. Tenders stationed in star systems of the lawless marches have jack-in-the-box weapon turrets, tenders in the civlized Imperial Core are unarmed.

The Tender places a ready X-Boat at the jump area. There the boat will wait on a hair trigger for a mail data dump from the station and an immediate jump.

In addition, an X-Boat Tender can carry up to four X-Boats in their huge hangar bays and transport them to another solar system. This capability also allows them to rescue X-Boats that are damaged or who mis-jumped to the wrong system.

X-Boat Station

The X-Boat Station is located in the outer part of the solar system, as close as is safe to the area where the X-Boats will arrive from Jump Space. Their main function is to receive the data dump from a newly arrived X-Boat with mimimal delay and to pass it ASAP to all fresh X-Boats poised to jump out to the next systems in the network. Messages brought by the arriving xboat and intended for further down the line are consolidated with the new data from in-system. Transfer time for messages from one xboat to another can be as short as ten minutes, and is rarely more than an hour.

The station also transmits the newly-arrived data to all inhabited planets in the system. Which is sort of the point behind having the express boat network in the first place.

In addition; the station has facilities for the refueling and repair of X-Boats and their tenders, and quarters for pilots and the station crew.

There is only one X-Boat Station per solar system in the network.

Way Station

These are larger stations which in addition to all the functionality of a small station is capable of performing major drive overhauls of X-Boats and other massive maintenance. One out of every eight to ten stations in the network are full Way Stations, the rest are just X-Boat Stations.

The X-Boat Network operates much the same as the ancient Terran Pony Express. An incompetent Professor Dinimbue of the University of Sylea botched the design of the X-Boat service emblem. She found the records of the Pony Express, but her poor grasp of the old Anglic language did not allow her to realize a "pony" is a small Terran horse. She mistakenly figured it was a reference to the beast of burden called the poni, common to several worlds of the Sylean Federation. You can see the silly result above.


(ed note: in the game Starfire, there are starships but no ansibles. Courier drones are automated unmanned missiles with FTL drives used to carry messages back to headquarters. Warships generally have a magazine full of these.)

At their option, players may invest in communication installations and create an Imperial Command and Communications Network, or "ICCN."

Communication and command may be thought of as two sides of the same coin. Command control is lost if the ability to relay information to the Imperial Command Center and then inform fleet units of changed orders does not exist: raw information without the capability of making decisions is of no value. Thus, the value of the ICCN lies in the faster reaction time it provides by transmitting important information to the Imperial Command Center and then, after a decision has been reached, quickly relaying new orders to the fleet.

When players comprehend the vast distances involved in a game of New Empires and realize how quickly a population may be conquered or destroyed, they begin to understand the substantial value the days saved by the ICCN in getting fleet units to the scene of an invasion may have.

There are, effectively, only two ways of communicating over distances within a star system: by spacecraft (including courier drones) or by light-wave (laser) or radio-wave transmission. The technology of courier drones is presented in the rule section on missile technology [see (E8.3)].

Communication through warp links is not possible with light or radio-wave technology. However, a pair of bases or other spacecraft which are equipped with communication modules may be positioned so that each end of a warp link has one of the spacecraft adjacent to it. Drones may then be exchanged through the warp link.

Once a drone has gone through the warp link and entered the system at the other end of it, it will transmit its message, which is picked up by the communication module of the spacecraft adjacent to the warp point at that end of the link. This spacecraft in turn transmits the message at the speed of light to any point in the star system within its range by using the transmitters of its communication module. In this case, the drones are assumed to be programmed to stop near the spacecraft to which they transmitted their message, and may then be recovered to be used again.

The time required for a message to travel through a given star system is assumed to be six hours. The only instance in which more detailed calculations are required or allowed is if enemy spacecraft groups are involved at the system level of play and the exact time taken for the communication to reach its destination may make an important difference to the outcome of the action.

Drones may also be used for communication without the aid of wave transmission; but communicating in this manner is much slower and much less reliable (the communication may be intercepted and destroyed). Drones are normally used as the sole means of communication only by exploration ships or by units whose connecting warp links have not yet been integrated into the ICCN.


All communications are channeled to a player's designated Imperial Command Center. At an Imperial Command Center, decisions are reached and new orders to be communicated to fleet units are written. (The Imperial Command Center represents a political and military command complex).

All fleet units must attempt to move as ordered until communications from an Imperial Command Center containing changed orders are received by the units. Contingency orders may be issued by the Command Center to allow the fleet unit to react to certain types of information gained without relaying this information to the Command Center; but these contingency orders must be executed to the letter of the manner in which they were written.

When information is received by an Imperial Command Center, a six-sided die should be rolled. The die-roll result represents the number of hours required for the Command Center to reach a decision based on the information. At the end of this time period, the Command Center issues new orders which are transmitted to the fleet units.

Example of the ICCN: This example uses the map and situation shown above. A major enemy force is invading system #004 and is attempting to move into the homeworld system, #001. The survival of the player's empire may depend on whether forces in system #003 can be diverted by new orders to move into system #002 and head off the invasion.

first, the player controlling starship force "A" picks up the invading force on the science instruments modules of this force. Force "A" then moves toward the unknown starship group to bring its scanners into range to identify the threat posed.

At 10-11:35:00 (Day 10 at 11:35 AM), the long-range scanners of starship force "A" identify 50 starships (the types of which are not yet known) and launches a courier drone to alert the Imperial Command Center. This drone is unopposed at the tactical and interception levels of play, since it was launched from a point beyond weapons range.

The drone's movement is simulated at the system level of play, beginning with the system impulse of 10-12:00:00 and the system hex of launch. At the time of launch the courier drone is at a distance of 12 system hexes (72 light-minutes) from the warp point between star system #004 and #002. The drone travels this distance in six hours at its speed of "12," arriving at the warp point at 10-18:00:00.

Upon reaching this warp point, the courier drone is instantly moved through the warp link and into star system #002. In this system there is a communication base heated in the same system hex as the warp point (actually in the same tactical hex), and this base activates the transmitter of the drone and receives its message at 10-19:00:00 (rounding up to the next system-level impulse).

The message is then transmitted by the ICCN. It is relayed through the warp link between star system #002 and #001 by the communication bases adjacent to the warp points of this link, and finally reaches the Imperial Command Center 12 hours later, at 11-07:00:00.

The Imperial Command Center takes three hours to reach a decision based on this message (the player rolled a "3" on a six-sided die). New orders are then issued to divert starship force "B" to system #002, and these orders are entered on the ICCN at 11-10:00:00.

The new orders are received at the warp point in system #003 12 hours later, at 11-22:00:00. (It takes six hours for the transmission to travel across system #001 from the Imperial Command Center to the warp point, plus six hours to travel from one warp point to the other in system #002.)

Fortunately, starship force "B" has a spacecraft equipped with a "CC" (long range communication) module. This spacecraft is at a range of 12 system hexes from the warp point, and so receives the message 12 minutes later, at 11-22:12. Force "B" will move at the system level of play, and thus 11:22:12 is rounded up to 11-23:00. The orders for starship force "B" are changed as of the beginning of system impulse of 11-23:00:00.

Moving at a speed of six, force "B" enters the warp link into star system #002 at 12-11:00:00.

Is force "B"in time to intercept the invasion force? That depends on many factors. However, the total reaction time is roughly 36 hours between the time starship force "A" launches its courier drone and the time starship force "B" is ordered to attempt to intercept the enemy force by entering star system #002. This means that force "B" has a good chance of making the interception.

In the 36 hours required to react, the enemy fleet cannot move more than a total of 36 system hexes at a speed of six, including the 12 system hexes it has to traverse before reaching the warp link into star system #002. Thus, even if the enemy group has complete astrogation information (which would be an unusual occurrence) and so knows exactly where the correct warp link is located, the force can be no further than 24 hexes into star system #002 when starship force "B" is ordered to react.

If the ICCN had not been available and the communication had been relayed solely by courier drones or by even slower spacecraft, the amount of time required to receive the information and to transmit the new orders would have been much longer — days longer — even though the time required for the Command Center to reach a decision would be unchanged. The edge of survival might be riding on those hours and days saved.

The gadgets, four in number, were built as simple as possible. Inside a torpedo shape — a hundred and twenty centimeters long but light enough for a man to lift under Terran gravity — were packed the absolute minimum of hyper-drive and grav-drive machinery; sensors and navigational computer to home on a pre-set destination. radio to beep advance notice when it neared; accumulators for power and a tiny space for the payload, which could be a document, a tape or whatever else would fit.

From THE WHITE KING'S WAR by Poul Anderson (1969)

     The finns knew the Guardians had won. It was over. The Guardians had taken the planet's surface, and now the surrender of the great satellite Vapaus would go into effect in a few hours. The Guardians themselves had caused a delay of the surrender by insisting it be negotiated strictly in English. The finns, desperately playing for time, stalled for as long as possible, taking hours to search for the English-speaking officer they could have produced in moments. The time was put to urgent use. The last, the only hope, thin though it might be, was the League. Word had to be sent.
     Six of the last torpedoes were stripped of armament. Light-speed-squared generators and radio beacons were installed. Recordings that held the vital knowledge of the anti-ship missile system, and what little information the finns had on the Guardians, were placed aboard.
     Word had to get through.
     The Guardians had not yet closed the ring around Vapaus. Three tiny one-man ships were launched from the Forward airlock complex, each with two torps strapped to jury-rigged harnesses amidships. The little ships launched at six gees, to fly straight through the Guardian fleet. The enemy's radar was too good to be fooled by any feinting maneuver; speed was the only protection.
     It was not protection enough. The lead ship was destroyed in seconds by laser fire from a troop transport. The finnish pilot's last act was to blow the fusion engines; the resultant explosion created a plasma that jammed every radar screen and radio within a thousand kilometers. That gave the two remaining ships their chance as they flashed into and beyond the gathering fleet.
     They dove down to lower orbits, rushing to get the sheltering bulk of the planet between themselves and the enemy's radar before it could recover from the explosion the finns' lead ship had died in. They fell toward the planet, gathering speed for a gravity-assist maneuver. One hundred eighty degrees around the planet from the satellite Vapaus, they both changed course, maneuvering violently, one coming about to fly a forced orbit straight over the planet's North Pole, the second heading over the South Pole.
     As soon as the ships had reached their new headings, they cut their engines for a moment, and each released a torp. Then the two ships and the two released torpedoes ignited their engines and flashed on into the sky, the torps holding course, the ships again changing their headings.
     The southern ship was caught and destroyed by a Nova fighter scrambled from the planet's surface. The northern ship released its second torp and came about, one final time, to act as a decoy for the torps.
     Soon, all too soon, another fusion explosion lit the sky, marking the point where a Guardian missile had found the last finnish ship.
     The Guardians tracked only the last torpedo launched, and they were able to destroy it.

     Of the six torpedoes, two now survived, undetected. Engines still burning, they curved around the world in exactly opposite directions, one over the South Pole, one over the North, their courses bent by the planet's gravity until they came about to identical bearings.
     The torps cut their engines precisely over the Poles, just as they reached escape velocity.
     Each now rose on a straight-line course starting from a point directly over a pole and parallel to the equator, the paths of the torps also parallel to each other.
     Engines stopped, they rushed through space, coasting, trusting to the cold and dark of the void to hide them.

     Hours after launch, when they were hundreds of thousands of kilometers beyond the orbit of the moon Ku, celestial trackers on each torp examined the starfield. The maneuvering thrusters fired fussily and touched up the torps' headings. The two torps were now on precise headings for the Epsilon Eridani star system, where the English had their colony world, Britannica. The torpedoes were still far too close to New finland's sun to go into light-speed-squared. For long weeks they coasted on into the darkness, while behind them, the Guardians worked their horrors on the finns.
     On one torp, the power system failed and the torp became another of the useless derelicts in the depths of space.
     But the other torp, the last one, held on to life. And at the proper moment, the light-speed-squared generator absorbed nearly all the torp's carefully husbanded power and grabbed at the fabric of space around the torpedo. The last torp leaped across the dark between the suns.
     Soon after, with weak batteries, the radio beacon barely detectable, the torpedo drifted into the Epsilon Eridani system.
     Just barely, the last torp made it.

From THE TORCH OF HONOR by Roger MacBride Allen (1985)

Star Mail

Remember that historically the postal service and telegraph coexisted. The telegraph was much faster but the mail was much cheaper (with telegraph the cost was per word of message). Physical mail didn't start to die until telegraph messages basically became free, when the telegraph morphed into Internet email.

For some ideas about how a planetary and interstellar postal service can help a fallen civilization bootstrap its way out of a dark ages, read David Brin's novel The Postman.


(ed note: In the medieval-Victorian fantasy city-state of Ankh-Morpork, Moist von Lipwig has been given the job of resurrecting the moribund post office. A reporter from the Times interviews him.)

      'Yes, it’s the right thing. History is not to be denied, Miss Cripslock. And we are a communicating species, Miss Cripslock!' Moist raised his voice to drown out the whispering. 'The mail must get through! It must be delivered!'
     'Er … you needn’t shout, Mr Lipwig,' said the reporter, leaning backwards.
     Moist tried to get a grip, and the whispering died down a little.

     'I’m sorry,' he said, and cleared his throat. 'Yes, I intend to deliver all the mail. If people have moved, we will try to find them. If they have died, we’ll try to deliver to their descendants. The post will be delivered. We are tasked to deliver it, and deliver it we will. What else should we do with it? Burn it? Throw it in the river? Open it to decide if it’s important? No, the letters were entrusted to our care. Delivery is the only way.'
     The whispering had almost died away now, so he went on: 'Besides, we need the space. The Post Office is being reborn!' He pulled out the sheet of stamps. 'With these!'
     She peered at them, puzzled. 'Little pictures of Lord Vetinari?' she said.
     ' Stamps, Miss Cripslock. One of those stuck on a letter will ensure delivery anywhere within the city. These are early sheets, but tomorrow we will be selling them gummed and perforated for ease of use. I intend to make it easy to use the post. Obviously we are still finding our feet, but soon I intend that we should be capable of delivering a letter to anyone, anywhere in the world.'

     It was a stupid thing to say, but his tongue had taken over.
     'Aren’t you being rather ambitious, Mr Lipwig?' she said.
     'I’m sorry, I don’t know any other way to be,' said Moist.

     'I was thinking that we do have the clacks now.'
     'The clacks?' said Moist. 'I dare say the clacks is wonderful if you wish to know the prawn market figures from Genua. But can you write S.W.A.L.K. on a clacks? Can you seal it with a loving kiss? Can you cry tears on to a clacks, can you smell it, can you enclose a pressed flower? A letter is more than just a message. And a clacks is so expensive in any case that the average man in the street can just about afford it in a time of crisis: GRANDADS DEAD FUNERAL TUES. A day’s wages to send a message as warm and human as a thrown knife? But a letter is real.'

     He stopped. Miss Cripslock was scribbling like mad, and it’s always worrying to see a journalist take a sudden interest in what you’re saying, especially when you half suspect it was a load of pigeon guano. And it’s worse when they’re smiling.
     'People are complaining that the clacks is becoming expensive, slow and unreliable,' said Miss Cripslock. 'How do you feel about that?'

From GOING POSTAL by Terry Pratchett (2004)

(in the year 1644) Ricci, realizing that current Church opinion in Rome would not take kindly to these arguments (since if they were true several things followed, such as the existence of interplanetary vacuum, with sunorbiting planets), made a copy of Torricelli’s letter and sent it to a priest in Paris, Father Marin Mersenne. This man was an extraordinary Minorite friar who ran a kind of scientific salon, to which came many of the more radical thinkers of the day. Following his habit of copying letters he received and circulating them among his many scientific contacts throughout Europe, Mersenne became known as the postbox of Europe.

(ed note: copying and forwarding letters is much like David Gerrold's system with Oracle tabs)

In the fifth century, as the legions began to withdraw to protect Rome, the Germanic tribes which had been in contact with the Empire for over two hundred years gradually consolidated their position. In the province of Gaul they had held high administrative positions since the fourth century. When the so-called barbarians invaded in the fifth and sixth centuries they were fighting Romanized Franks or Burgundians, not Romans. And with the armies gone and the local populations so long forbidden to carry arms, resistance was apathetic. Small city-states sprang up. The great estates, established as part of the imperial economic structure, had no further raison d’étre, and they gradually ran down. The imperial roads (equivalent to starports and starships) were too expensive to keep in repair when there were no legions to use them. They served no local purpose, and life had become local, so they too fell into disrepair. Economic activity dropped sharply as the province split into tiny self-sufficient units under local kings, and especially during the plagues of the sixth and seventh centuries when the population of Europe was halved.

The network of communications that maintained contact between one part of this patchwork quilt of territories and another was that of the Church. By the fifth century the diocesan organization of the ecclesiastical hierarchy corresponded to the concentrations of civil population. When the legions withdrew, the administration of the area fell into the hands of the bishops and their clergy: they could read and write and the new rulers could not. For this reason the Church was granted many privileges, in particular exemption from taxes, that helped it to survive, while the Church itself exacted a tax of one-tenth (a tithe) from its own tenants. By the eighth century Europe was scattered with churches and monasteries, many of which had to provide a service that no one civil community could have done, in the absence of a centralized power: they ran the mails. A new church or monastery was called upon to provide pack horses or messengers, and in some cases a freight service of wagons, within a radius of up to 150 miles from the church. It would seem that the Church had a bishop-to-bishop communications network that continued to operate right through the Dark Ages, connecting one kingdom with another, carrying news and information as well as ecclesiastical business, and transmitting knowledge in the form of copies of manuscripts.

(ed note: of course copying manuscripts is much easier if you have a master copy, access to a supply of empty USB flash drives, a computer, and some electricity. Or an Oracle with blank Oracle tabs.)

From CONNECTIONS by James Burke (1978)

GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - With the Puerto Rico power grid shredded by Hurricane Maria, the U.S. Postal Service has taken the place of cellphone service at the forefront of island communications.

Only 15 percent of electrical power has been restored since the storm bludgeoned the U.S. territory on Sept. 20, but 99 of Puerto Rico’s 128 post offices are delivering mail. Tents have taken the place of post offices wrecked by Maria.

Mail carriers gather information on sick and elderly residents in far-flung parts where hospitals have closed. Data is fed into the Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief office in San Juan so medical attention can be provided.

Restoration of the power grid is months away and many rural roads are blocked by mudslides, sink holes and downed trees and telephone poles. Since the start of the month the Postal Service has nonetheless been delivering letters and care packages to family members desperate for news.

“It’s been a clutch situation, and you guys have totally come through,” a FEMA worker was heard telling Postal Service Caribbean customer service manager Martin Caballero on Sunday.

“We might know the general area where people need help, but the mail carriers are the only ones who really have the exact addresses,” the FEMA worker told Reuters, asking not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to news media.

Caballero regularly goes on AM radio, which can be heard by listeners lucky enough to have diesel to run generators, to tell people in inaccessible parts of the island where their mail is being held. He invites them to pick it up, but only when travel conditions become safe.

Even for urban middle-class customers in the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo, whose concrete homes were not smashed by the storm, it was a chore to recover their blown-away mailboxes or build new ones. Hurricane or not, the Postal Service will not drop off mail without a designated box.

“The wind took them all,” said resident Jenny Amador, a 42-year-old teachers’ assistant.

“I found mine in those trees,” she said, pointing to a gnarl of branches and trunks on the road. She re-attached her mailbox in a cockeyed position in front of her house, using a clothes hanger.

One plucky woman, having heard the postman was on the way, stood stoically with her mailbox tucked under her arm. No one minded when mail carrier Alfredo Martinez showed up out of uniform, unable to do laundry for lack of clean water.

One resident said the return of the mail service was comforting, a sign of a return to normalcy. But another greeted Martinez with a warning.

“If you are bringing me any utility bills, go away,” she said.


‘Do you suppose,’ she said wistfully, ‘that we’ll ever break through the speed of light?’

Leon smiled, knowing where her thoughts were leading. To travel faster than light—to go home to Earth, yet to return to your native world while your friends were still alive—every colonist must, at some time or other, have dreamed of this. There was no problem, in the whole history of the human race, that had called forth so much effort and that still remained so utterly intractable.

‘I don’t believe so,’ he said. ‘If it could be done, someone would have discovered how by this time. No—we have to do it the slow way, because there isn’t any other. That’s how the universe is built, and there’s nothing we can do about it.’

‘But surely we could still keep in touch!’

Leon nodded. ‘That’s true,’ he said, ‘and we try to. I don’t know what’s gone wrong, but you should have heard from Earth long before now. We’ve been sending our robot message carriers to all the colonies, carrying a full history of everything that’s happened up to the time of departure, and asking for a report back. As the news returns to Earth, it’s all transcribed and sent out again by the next messenger. So we have a kind of interstellar news service, with the Earth as the central clearinghouse. It’s slow, of course, but there’s no other way of doing it. If the last messenger to Thalassa has been lost, there must be another on the way—maybe several, twenty or thirty years apart.

Lora tried to envisage the vast, star-spanning network of message carriers, shuttling back and forth between Earth and its scattered children, and wondered why Thalassa had been overlooked. But with Leon beside her, it did not seem important. He was here; Earth and the stars were very far away. And so also, with whatever unhappiness it might bring, was tomorrow…

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

Secure Mail

Ever since postcards went out of style people have wanted their mail to be sort of private, only to be read by the intended recipient. But they don't bother with extraordinary privacy methods unless the missive contains something about money, ultra classified documents, or something you'd rather your spouse didn't find out.

Electronically the current state of the art is email using public-key encryption. With this, the contents of the are public, but in theory only the intended recipient can decrypt and read the message. But this is vulnerable to advances in cryptanalysis and Man-in-the-middle attacks.

Sometimes the old inconvenient ways are more secure. A courier can deliver a physical message, sometimes inside a briefcase handcuffed to the wrist (though a sufficiently determined enemy can circumvent that). The message container can be rigged to destroy the message if tampered with, or to also destroy the tamperer as well with a booby-trap if the message sender is not playing around. In some science fiction stories intelligence agencies and governments keep top secret information stored only in the form of written paper, since there is no such thing as an unhackable computer.

Sometimes the message is gimmicked to self-destruct after reading. Venerable people may remember the TV show Mission: Impossible where the IMF leader would covertly receive an audio tape from a faceless voice giving the mission briefing, ending with "This message will self-destruct in five seconds" followed by the tape turning into ash. This was a running gag in the cartoon Inspector Gadget. In Isaac Asimov's FOUNDATION series, the message enclosed in a Personal Capsule was written on paper that would vaporize ninety seconds after it was exposed to air.

But sometimes something more durable is desired. In Asimov's THE END ETERNITY they write messages on metal foil instead of paper. Paper wears out too soon, when you have to store it for millennia.


There is something about the cloak of authority which tends to put even the citizen with a clear conscience on the defensive. So it was when we fronted the representatives of the Patrol. As law-abiding and inoffensive space traders, making regular contributions to planetary landing taxes, all papers in order, we had every right to call upon their help. It was just that they eyed us with an impassivity which suggested that to them, everything had to be proved twice over.

However, we had the box taken from the Throne of Qur carefully disinterred after they admitted that their own instruments registered emanations of a heretofore unknown radiation. It was surrendered gladly to their custody, along with the body of the priest, which had been in freeze. And we each entered testimony on the truth tape, which could not be tampered with.

From EXILES OF THE STARS by Andre Norton (1971)

He went back through the section he had just traversed to his own cabin. There., with the door locked he considered the sheet she had given him, a little more closely. It was nothing more—and nothing less—than a five-year employment contract, a social contract, for her services as companion in the entourage of William, Prince, and Chairman of the Board of that very commercial planet Ceta which was the only habitable world circling the sun Tau Ceti. And a very liberal social contract it was, requiring no more than that she accompany William wherever he wished to go and supply her presence at such public and polite social functions as he might require. It was not the liberalness of the contract that surprised him so much—a Select of Kultis would hardly be contracted to perform any but the most delicately moral and ethical of duties—but the fact that she had asked him to destroy it. Theft of contract from her employer was bad enough, breach of contract infinitely worse—calling for complete rehabilitation—but destruction of contract required the death penalty wherever any kind of government operated. The girl, he thought, must be insane.

Thoughtfully, Donal fingered the contract. Anea had clearly had no conception at all of what she was requesting when she so blithely required him to destroy it. The single sheet he held, and even the words and signatures upon it, were all integral parts of a single giant molecule which in itself was well-nigh indestructible and could not be in any way altered or tampered with short of outright destruction. As for destruction itself—Donal was quite sure that there was nothing aboard this ship that could in any way burn, shred, dissolve, or in any other fashion obliterate it. And the mere possession of it by anyone but William, its rightful owner, was as good as an order of sentence.

A soft chime quivered on the air of his cabin, announcing the serving of a meal in the main lounge. It chimed twice more to indicate that this was the third of the four meals interspersed throughout the ship “day.” Contract in hand, Donal half-turned toward the little orifice of the disposal slot that led down to the central incinerator. The incinerator, of course, was not capable of disposing of the contract—but it might be that it could lie unnoticed there until the ship had reached its destination and its passengers had dispersed. Later, it would be difficult for William to discover how it had reached the incinerator in the first place.

Then he shook his head, and replaced the contract in his pocket. His motives for doing so were not entirely clear to himself. It was that oddness of his at work again, he thought. Also, he told himself that it seemed a sloppy way of handling the situation this girl had got him into. Quite typically, he had already forgotten that his participation in the matter was all of his own contriving.

From DORSAI! by Gordon Dickson (1959)

Avakim was carefully emptying the contents of a flat folder onto the floor. If Gaal had had the stomach for it, he might have recognized Cellomet legal forms, metal thin and tapelike, adapted for insertion within the smallness of a personal capsule.

     “What’ve you been doing, Gorm?” he asked, darkly. “Chasing me all the way from the Foundation?”
     Les Gorm broke out a cigarette, and shook his head definitely, “Me? Not a chance. I’m just a sucker who happened to land on Glyptal IV the day after the mail. So they sent me out after you with this.”
     The tiny, gleaming sphere changed hands, and Gorm added, “It’s confidential. Super-secret. Can’t be trusted to the sub-ether and all that. Or so I gather. At least, it’s a Personal Capsule, and won’t open for anyone but you.”
     Ponyets regarded the capsule distastefully, “I can see that. And I never knew one of these to hold good news, either.”
     It opened in his hand and the thin, transparent tape unrolled stiffly. His eyes swept the message quickly, for when the last of the tape had emerged, the first was already brown and crinkled. In a minute and a half it had turned black and, molecule by molecule, fallen apart.

From FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov (1951)

      Devers snatched it. “What is it?”
     “The message capsule. The one that Riose received just before I jacked him. Does that count as something?”
     “I don’t know. Depends on what’s in it!” Devers sat down and turned it over carefully in his hand.
     When Barr stepped from his cold shower and, gratefully, into the mild warm current of the air dryer, he found Devers silent and absorbed at the workbench.
     The Siwennian slapped his body with a sharp rhythm and spoke above the punctuating sounds. “What are you doing?”
     Devers looked up. Droplets of perspiration glittered in his beard. “I’m going to open this capsule.”
     “Can you open it without Riose’s personal characteristic?” There was mild surprise in the Siwennian’s voice.
     “If I can’t, I’ll resign from the Association and never skipper a ship for what’s left of my life. I’ve got a three-way electronic analysis of the interior now, and I’ve got little jiggers that the Empire never heard of, especially made for jimmying capsules. I’ve been a burglar before this, y’know. A trader has to be something of everything.”
     He bent low over the little sphere, and a small flat instrument probed delicately and sparked redly at each fleeting contact.
     He said, “This capsule is a crude job, anyway. These Imperial boys are no shakes at this small work. I can see that. Ever see a Foundation capsule? It’s half the size and impervious to electronic analysis in the first place.
     And then he was rigid, the shoulder muscles beneath his tunic tautening visibly. His tiny probe pressed slowly—
     It was noiseless when it came, but Devers; relaxed and sighed. In his hand was the shining sphere with its message unrolled like a parchment tongue.
     “It’s from Brodrig,” he said. Then, with contempt, “The message medium is permanent. In a Foundation capsule, the message would be oxidized to gas within the minute.”

     With one finger the lavishly monogrammed sheet of message-parchment was thrust back into its slot. With a soft twang, it disappeared and the globe was a smooth, unbroken whole again. Somewhere inside was the tiny oiled whir of the controls as they lost their setting by random movements.
     “Now there is no known way of opening this capsule without knowledge of Riose’s personal characteristic, is there?”
     “To the Empire, no,” said Barr.
     “Then the evidence it contains is unknown to us and absolutely authentic.”
     “To the Empire, yes,” said Barr.
     “And the Emperor can open it, can’t he? Personal Characteristics of Government officials must be on file. We keep records of our officials at the Foundation.”
     “At the Imperial capital as well,” agreed Barr.
     “Then when you, a Siwennian patrician and Peer of the Realm, tell this Cleon, this Emperor, that his favorite tame-parrot and his shiniest general are getting together to knock him over, and hand him the capsule as evidence, what will he think Brodrig’s ‘ultimate ends’ are?”

From FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE by Isaac Asimov (1952)

(ed note: "Ship" is a hyperintelligent AI who looks over the colony. Morgan Oakes is a nasty power-hungry leader. He subjects Legata Hamill to a savage bit of psychological torture in order to maker her subservient to his will. He didn't realize that it failed, all it did was make Legata very angry. She plots her revenge. Finally she discovers that Morgan Oakes is actually Morgan Lon Oakes, meaning that Morgan is a clone, and thus a second class citizen ineligible to be a leader.)

      Legata sat at a comdesk in the working space assigned to her at the Redoubt. It was a small room and showed signs of hasty construction. Directly in front of her across the desk was an oval hatch leading into her own private cubby, a space she seldom occupied now. But Oakes was busy somewhere and she had seized this opportunity.
     She punched for shiprecords, keyed for her own private code, and waited. Did they still have contact with Ship?
     The instrument buzzed. Glyphs danced across the screen in the desk. She punched for the Ox gate, set up a random-barrier lock and began transferring the data on Oakes into the Redoubt’s own storage system.
     There you are, Morgan Lon Oakes!
     And the printout remained secreted in Oakes’ old cubby shipside should she ever need it. It was remotely possible that Oakes might stumble on this record here, might erase it and even trace back to the original to erase that. But the printout would remain, stamped with Ship's imprimatur (some sort of unforgeable stamp giving Ship's seal of approval of the document. Left unspecified is how it prevents somebody from Photoshopping the seal onto a given document. Perhaps a digital signature is involved.).

     Legata looked at Lewis, met his gaze head on. Was that amusement in his eyes? No matter. She depressed a key on the console controlling the big screen, watched the people in the room. They could not miss what was happening on the screen. She had set the program to fill it.
     Yes…the room was becoming a tableau, all attention shifting to the screen, locking on it.
     Puzzled, Oakes turned to look at the screen, saw his own likeness there. Below the image, a biographical printout was rolling. He stared at the heading: “Morgan Lon Oakes. Ref. Original File, Morgan Hempstead, cell donor…"
     Oakes found it difficult to breathe. It was a trick! He glanced at Legata and the cold stare he met there iced his backbone.
     “Morgan…" How sweet her voice sounded. “…I found your records, Morgan. See Ship's imprimatur on the printout? Ship vouches for the truth of this record."

From The Jesus Incident by Frank Herbert (1979)

Hyperspace Radar

There is another "communication-like" consideration. If you have FTL starships, and you want your universe to contain FTL starship battles and also have interstellar empires, you need Strategic FTL Sensors. This means the communication-esque function known as "detection" must be capable of spotting hostile incoming starships early enough for the defenders to muster their defenses. Otherwise FTL starship battles will only occur by mutual agreement. And there will be no interstellar empires because enemy FTL starships will be able to drop a planet-buster on all the empire's planets before the empire knows what is happening. Meanwhile the empire's FTL starships will be returning the favor.

As discussed in the Strategic Sensor link, the two traditional methods are Jump Points "choke points" at some distance from habitable planets and FTL "radar" that can detect enemy ships in time to send your interceptors.

Interstellar Publication

Propagating data via physical books (perhaps printed on bamboo paper), USB flash drives containing eBooks, or other material non-cloud non-broadcasty item is much slower than distribution by the local equivalent of the internet.

But it has advantages:

  • It does not require the existence of an FTL internet (in case the science fiction author does not want their empire having that high a tech level, or FTL Wifi is forbidden by the laws of physics)

  • It does not require the local infrastructure of the unindustrialized newly colonized planet to be high enough to support an FTL internet. A tech level equivalent to 2000s USA will do for USB flash Drives. Or a tech level of 1400s Europe for printed books.

  • It can be (slowly) propagating by unorganized random starships carrying the books, after the galactic empire declines and falls

In the Dark Ages scenario, isolated planets will have their local languages drift and change over the centuries. The language used on the books may become sort of a Lingua franca, much like the Roman Empire language Latin did during the medieval era after Rome fell.


The races of man had spread across the spiral arm and toward the great whorl of the central galaxy.

By the year 970 H. C. (Calendar of the Holy Church), date of the last known Empire Census, there were more than 11,000 inhabited planets in the Empire, plus a known 1,700 more on the frontier—and estimates of at least 3,000 more beyond that whose existence was known but not confirmed. How many human beings there were simply could not be estimated.

Vast fleets of starcruisers whispered through the darkness, the fastest of them journeying a hundred light-years every three hundred days.

—but the Empire spanned a thousand light-years. More.

No matter how great the speeds of the starcruisers were, the distances of the galaxy were greater. At the fastest speed known to man it still took more than ten years to cross from one end of known space to the other. And the distance was growing. For every day that passed, 240 light-days were added to the scope of man's known frontiers.

Man was pushing outward in all directions at once, an ever-continuing explosion. For every ship travelling toward the galactic west, there was another headed for the galactic east; and the rate of man's outward growth was twice as fast as anyone could travel.

At the farthest edges of the Empire was the frontier. Beyond that lay unexplored space. Every man that fled into that wilderness dragged the frontier with him. The frontier followed willingly, and after a while, when that particular piece of itself matured, it became a part of the Empire, and the state of mind known as frontier had moved on. Thus, the Empire grew.

Even so, there were places where the Empire was only a dim legend. The further it reached, the more tenuous was its control. There were vast undeveloped areas within its sphere, areas that had simply been overlooked in man's headlong rush outward. Communications followed the trade routes, and there were backwaters in that flow of information.

News traveled via the Empire Mercantile fleets, synthesized as Oracle tabs. Or via independent traders, synthesized as rumor. It leapfrogged from planet to planet, not according to any kind of system, but by the degree of mercantile importance in which any plan et was held by its immediate neighbors.

Every event was the center of a core of spreading ripples—unevenly growing concentric circles of reaction; like batons, the Oracle tabs were passed from ship to ship, from fleet to fleet, from planet to planet, passed and duplicated and passed again; taking ten, twenty or thirty years to work their way across the Empire. By the time any part of the human race received news from its opposite side, it was no longer news, but history.

The Empire's communications were the best possible, but they weren't good enough.

Control depends upon communication.

Weak communications means weak control, eventually no control at all.

Such was the state of the Empire at the time the skimmers became feasible. The Empire needed them.

They were the ultimate spaceship.

The Empire had always been unwieldy and unmanageable. By the year 970 H.C. it was not so much an empire as a loosely organized confederation. Lip service was paid to the idea of a unified central government for all the races of man, but the Empire was only as strong as its local representative.

Where that representative was only one agent with an Oracle machine and a twice-yearly visit from a trading ship, the Empire was a distant myth. Where that representative was an Imperial fleet, the Empire was law. And there were all the possible variations in between. Some were just, some weren't.

The Empire passed no laws; they could not guarantee uniform enforcement. Instead, they wrote suggested codes of moral behavior for use by representatives of the Imperial Council. Agents of the Empire were free to apply them — or not apply them — as they saw fit. Or, at least to the degree that they could enforce them.

The Empire maintained few fleets of its own — and these stayed close to home. Instead letters of marque were issued.

Member planets and systems often had their own armadas to police their own territories. Often, those territories consisted of as much volume as those armadas could effectively patrol. Armed with letters of marque, these fleets were automatically acting in the name of the Empire. As agents of such, their duties were what ever their admirals wanted them to be. In return, the badge of the Empire made them — and their control — legal.

The local governments controlled the fleets, and in so doing, they wielded the real power. Some were just; some weren't. The Empire didn't care — as long as they paid their taxes. Most of them did.

In return, they received the benefits of Empire.

In addition to the implied legality of their regimes, they were automatically privy to the vast scientific and cultural library represented by the sum total of humanity. The Empire continually collected and distributed. It functioned as a gigantic clearing house of knowledge, literature, art and music. Member planets disseminated their contributions freely through the system — part of the price they paid for being able to tap the system in return. The exchange was always a bargain: the knowledge of one planet traded for the knowledge of a thousand.

Of course, there was a communications problem.

With eleven thousand inhabited planets (at last known census), that implies eleven thousand local languages. At least.

More than a few of those planets were divided into nations. More than a few of those nations were multi-cultured. Many of those cultures had several different languages — technical, literate, colloquial and argot. Plus subdivisions. Not to mention dialects.

So the Empire distributed the Oracle machines, gave them out freely to its member states. The standardized keyboard-and-scanning-plate configuration of the machines was familiar from one end of known space to the other; anyone with access to an Oracle and a translating tab could read information out of any other stasis bite in existence.

(ed note: So Oracle tab "stasis bites" are like USB flash drives containing eBooks,

translating tabs are flash drives containing an Oracle format Interlingua-to-your-language translation database,

and the Oracle proper is like an eBook reader.

Unlike contemporary data formats, the Oracle format has been frozen for hundreds of years. This is to avoid the data migration problem, e.g., why you cannot read the data on your old floppy disks.)

The Empire hadn't collapsed overnight, but just how long the collapse had taken and to what extent it had occurred, no one knew.

The collapse of the Empire meant the collapse of organized communications.

A few straggling ships every now and then, some unreliable rumors, and the occasional wisp of years-old radio waves — too many member planets knew too little of what had happened.

But even as the Empire died, it was proving its power. It left as its legacy a universal standard for all men—the Oracle machines and the language.

Interlingua had been the language of trade and the language of science. Without the Empire, it was a dead language — but like a language called Latin known millennia earlier, it continued to be taught and used, first in the hope that the Empire might be resurrected, then later with the realization that the language was now the only link left to the other worlds of men. A man who spoke Interlingua could travel anywhere and survive. He could make his wants known, he could converse and he could trade.

Without the Empire, trade still continued—not on the same vast scale, of course, but between neighboring systems. It was enough to keep the language alive.

Interlingua was also the language of the Oracle machines; they still remained. The cultural heritage of mankind was not lost; it merely lay scattered across the galaxy in a thousand thousand machines and in a million million tabs. It was there for the asking — it needed only a man to reach for it. The knowledge waited for a man to begin the arduous task of once more gathering it all together.

From SPACE SKIMMER by David Gerrold (1972)

The demand for paper was high because it was comparatively cheap in relation to its competitor on the market, parchment. Between two and three hundred sheepskins or calfskins were needed to produce enough material for a large Bible, and the preparation of the skins was time-consuming and therefore costly. As the supply of the new linen rag paper increased, its price fell. By 1300 in Bologna, northern Italy, paper was only one- sixth of the price of parchment, and its price continued to fall. As Europe recovered from the plague and trade revived, the demand for manuscript went up to meet the increasing paperwork as the notaries produced the documentation that went with burgeoning business. The universities already had their own manuscript-copying departments, and in time private citizens went into the business. In the middle of the fifteenth century, for example, a certain Vespasiano da Bisticci ran a copying shop in florence employing more than fifty scribes. Since the Black Death had killed off many of the literate members of the community, those who were left commanded astronomically high prices. The situation was clearly unacceptable: on the one hand scribes who cost too much, on the other, paper so cheap you could cover the walls with it. Craftsmen all over Europe must have been working on the solution to the problem, since in essence it was obvious: there had to be some form of automated writing.

The credit for the great leap of imagination that followed is usually given to a goldsmith from Mainz in Germany called Iohann Gansfleisch, better known to the world by his mother's family name which he adopted—Gutenberg...

(ed note: Gutenberg is usually noted at the one who introduced movable type and the printing press to Europe.)

The advent of printing, whether due to a German or a Dutchman—or even, as has been suggested, to an Englishman—was one of the most critical events in the history of mankind. Printing first and foremost made it easy to transmit information without personal contact, and in this sense it revolutionized the spread of knowledge, and craft technique in particular. “How to do it” books were among the first off the press, written about almost every field of human activity from metallurgy, to botany, to linguistics, to good manners. Printing also made texts consistent, by ending the copying errors with which manuscripts were rife. In doing so it placed on the author the responsibility for accuracy and definitive statement, since many more people were now likely to read his material who might know at least as much about it as he did himself. This in turn encouraged agreement on the material, and because of this, spurred academic investigation of subjects and the development of agreed disciplines. Just as learning became standardized, so did spelling. Authorship became an object of recognition, and this led to the concept of “mastership” in a subject, which in turn led to the fragmentation of knowledge into specialized areas, emphasizing the separation of the “expert” from the rest of the community. The earliest books would have been read by men who could doubtless as easily have turned their hand to the lyre or the sword or the pen or the architect's drawing, and it may be said that with the coming of the book they were the last generation to be able to do so. The new texts also conferred prestige on the inventor, who could now publicly claim association with his invention and expect to be identified with it. And as the books began to circulate, carrying ideas to readers who no longer had to have access to a manuscript copyist producing rare and expensive editions, the speed of change born of the interaction of ideas accelerated.

The coming of the book must have seemed as if it would turn the world upside down in the way it spread and, above all, democratized knowledge. Provided you could pay and read, what was on the shelves in the new bookshops was yours for the taking...

...By 1482 the printing capital of the world was Venice, and the busiest printer there was a man called Aldus Manutius who used to have a sign outside his shop saying “If you would speak to Aldus, hurry—time presses.” He had good reason. No single printer did more to spread the printed word than he. Aldus knew that his market, and the market of all printers, lay not in the production of expensive, commissioned editions of the Bible or the Psalms, but in an inexpensive format that could easily be carried in a man's saddlebag wherever he went. So Aldus made his books small, and cheap. The Aldine Editions, as his new format was called, were the world’s first pocket books, and they sold faster than he could produce them.

Nearly half his workers were Greeks, exiles or refugees from the Byzantine Empire after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. So it was that with the help of his translator-craftsmen, Aldus began the task of translating the Greek classics. When he died, in 1515, no major known Greek authors remained to be translated. Whatever happened in the Greek world, Aldus had ensured that the classical authors would not once again be lost to the West, as they had after the fall of Rome.

From CONNECTIONS by James Burke (1978)

(ed note: This is from a satirical novel about a Victorian fantasy world where some dwarfs have invented the Printing Press. William de Word uses it to create the first newspaper)

     William stared down at the box of letters again. Of course, a quill pen potentially contained anything you wrote with it. He could understand that. But it did so in a clearly theoretical way, a safe way. Whereas these dull grey blocks looked threatening. He could understand why they worried people. Put us together in the right way, they seemed to say, and we can be anything you want. We could even be something you don't want. We can spell anything. We can certainly spell trouble.

     William wrote a short paragraph about Patrician Visits The Bucket, and examined his notebook.
     Amazing, really. He'd found no less than a dozen items for his news letter in only a day. It was astonishing what people would tell you if you asked them.
     He took it all down to the Bucket.
     Gunilla read it with interest; it seemed to take very little time for the dwarfs to set it up in type.
     And it was odd, but...
     ...once it was in type, all the letters so neat and regular... looked more real.

(ed note: I've noticed that phenomenon myself, when writing this web page)

From THE TRUTH by Terry Pratchett (2000)

Galactic Internet



Sub-Etha is an interstellar faster-than-light telecommunications network used by hitchhikers to flag down passing spaceships. The primary hitcher's tool is known as the Electronic Thumb, a short black rod that can be used to contact passing ships and ask to be let on board. Ford also carries a Sens-O-Matic, a device for monitoring ships' Sub-Etha signals, and learns from it that the Vogons are on their way to demolish the Earth.

Sub-Etha is used throughout the Milky Way for any kind of data transmission, such as listening to the news or updating the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy itself. (ed note: sort of like an intergalactic Kindle, using intergalactic Wifi)

The name is a reference to the ether, which was once believed to be a medium filling the universe. (ed note: Probably inspired by the "sub-etheric waves" from E. E. "Doc" Smith's Skylark series)


"MS Fnd in a Lbry" (probably intended to be understood as "Manuscript Found in a Library") is a satirical science fiction short story about the exponential growth of information, written by Hal Draper in 1961. The title is a play on "MS. Found in a Bottle", a story by Edgar Allan Poe.


The story is in the form of a report written by an anthropologist from an alien civilization who investigates the remains of human civilization several billion years into the future. It turns out that humankind's fall was brought about by information overload and the inability to catalog and retrieve that information properly.

The title of the short story comes from the fact that all redundancy - and vowels - had been removed from our language in order for the information volume to shrink. finally the sum of all human knowledge (which was sort of finite) was compressed by means of subatomic processes and stored away in a drawer-sized box. However the access to that information required complicated indices, bibliographies etc., which soon outgrew the size of all knowledge.

The use of indices grew exponentially, comprising a pseudo-city, pseudo-planet and eventually a pseudo-galaxy devoted to information storage. At this point, a case of circular reference was encountered, and the civilization needed to refer to the first drawer-sized box to find the error. However, this drawer had been lost in the pseudo-galaxy, and soon the civilization fell apart while trying to locate the first drawer.

It turns out that the anthropologist's civilization is actually heading down the same path. Presumably, the report was given the name "MS Fnd in a Lbry" after the fall of the anthropologist's civilization by another anthropologist from another alien civilization that is also heading down the same path.

External links

From the Wikipedia entry for MS FND IN A LBRY

     "Right. Basically the macroscope is a monstrous chunk of unique crystal that responds to an aspect of radiation unrelated to any man has been able to study before. This amounts to an extremely weak but phenomenally clear spatial signal. The built-in computer sifts out the noise and translates the essence into a coordinated image...
     ..."Alien broadcasts. Artificial signals in the prime macroscopic band. A one-way contact. We can't send, we can only receive. We know of no way to tame a macron, but obviously some species does."
     "So some stellar civilization is sending out free entertainment?" His words sounded ridiculous as he said them, but he could think of no better immediate remark.
     "It isn't entertainment. Instructional series. Coded information."
     "And you can't decode it? That's why you need Schön?"
     "We comprehend it. It is designed for ready assimilation, though not in quite the manner we anticipated."
     "You mean, not a dit-dot building up from 2 / 2 or forming a picture of their stellar system? No, don't go into the specifics; it was rhetorical. Is it from a nearby planet? A surrender ultimatum?"
     "It originates about fifteen thousand light-years away, from the direction of the constellation Scorpio. No invasion, no ultimatum."
     "But — that's deliberate contact between intelligent species! A magnificent breakthrough! Isn't it?"
     "Yes it is," Brad agreed morosely. On the screen, the hulking mound of indolent probs continued its futile activity. "Right when we stand most in need of advice from a higher civilization. You can see why all the other functions of the macroscope have become incidental. Why should we make a tedious search of space, when we have been presented with a programmed text from a culture centuries ahead of us?"
     "What's stopping you then?"
     "The Greek element."
     "The — ?"
     "Bearing gifts; beware of."
     "You said the knowledge would not hurt us by itself — and what kind of payment could they demand, after fifteen thousand years?"
     "The ultimate. They can destroy us."
     "Brad, I may be a hick, but — "
     "Specifically, our best brains. We have already suffered casualties. That's the crisis."
     "What is it — a death-beam that still has punch after ten or fifteen thousand years? Talk about comic books — "
     "Yes and no. Our safeguards prevent the relay of any physically dangerous transmission — the computer is interposed, remember — but they can't protect our minds from dangerous information. five of the true geniuses of Earth are imbeciles, because of the macroscope. Something came through — some type of information — that destroyed their minds. This alien signal caused a mental degeneration involving physical damage to the brain. All this through concept alone. We know the hard way: there are certain thoughts an intelligent mind must not think."
     "But you don't know the actual mechanism? Just that the beamed program — I mean, the radiated program — delivers stupefaction?"
     "Roughly, yes. It is a progressive thing. You have to follow it step by step, like a lesson in calculus. Counting on fingers, arithmetic, general math, algebra, higher math, symbolic logic, and so on, in order. Otherwise you lose the thread. You have to assimilate the early portion of the series before you can attempt the rest, which makes it resemble an intelligence test. But it's geared so that you can't skip the opening; it always hits you in the proper sequence, no matter when you look. It's a stiff examination; it seems to be beyond the range of anyone below what we term IQ one fifty, though we don't know yet how much could be accomplished by intensive review. A group of workmen viewed it and said they didn't go for such modernistic stuff. Our top men, on the other hand, were fascinated by it, and breezed through the entire sequence at a single sitting. Right up until the moment they — dropped off."
     "Yes. The question is, what is it hiding?"

     (Senator Borland)"You are able, with your macroscope, to inspect any point in space — or on Earth?"
     Brad nodded.
     "Naturally not," Borland was saying. "Certain persons might not take kindly to such observation. Some might even feel so strong a need to protect their privacy that they would institute stringent measures. Do you follow me?"
     "Yes," Brad said, his tone showing his disgust.
     "Now we've got the superscope, and we can diddle in our stellar neighbor's business, as though our own weren't enough. Now how do you figure a smart ET who likes his privacy is going to stop you from peeking — when there's maybe a fifteen-thousand-year time-delay?"
     The station personnel looked at each other in dismay. Obvious — yet none of them had thought of it! A mind-destroying logic-chain that wiped out the peeping tom, wherever and whenever he might be. The most direct and realistic answer to snooping... "A program," Borland said musingly. "A mousetrap in a harem. But why make up a show like that, instead of simply lobbing a detonator into the sun?"
     "Evidently the originator isn't against all life," Brad said. "This is selective. It only hits the space-traveling, macroscope-building species like ourselves. The snoopers. So long as we keep our development below a certain level, we're safe. You figure they're afraid of the competition from some smart-aleck new species?"
     "fifteen thousand years late? And if we had a light-speed drive, which we never will, it would still take us another fifteen millennia to reach them. We can't even reply to their 'message' sooner than that. So it's really a delay of thirty thousand years. And I don't see how they could be sure we'd be ready to receive or reply in that time."
     "Could be a long-term broadcast. For all we know, it's been going on a million years," Borland said. "Just waiting for us to catch up. Maybe time is slower for them? Like fifteen thousand years being a week or so, their way?"
     "Not when the broadcast is on our time scheme. We haven't had to adjust to it at all. If they lived that slowly, we'd have a cycle running a thousand years, instead of a few minutes."
     "Maybe. You figure they're crazy with hate for any intelligent race, any time?"
     "Xenophobia? It's possible. But again, that time-delay makes it doubtful. How can you hate something that won't exist for tens of millennia?"
     "An alien might. His mind — if he has one — might work in a different way than mine."...
     Brad glanced at Ivo, saw that he wasn't leaving, and slapped a button under the table. The television screen that filled the far wall burst into color. All three rotated to face it.
     Shape appeared, subtle, twisting, tortuous, changing. A large sphere of red — he could tell by the shading that it represented a sphere, in spite of the two-dimensionality of the image — and a small blue dot. The dot expanded into a sphere in its own right, lighter blue, and overlapped the other. The segment of impingement took on a purple compromise.
     Ivo's intuition caught on. His freak ability attuned to this display as readily as it had to the game of sprouts. This was an animated introduction to sets, leading into Boolean Algebra, with color as an additional tool. Through set theory it was possible to introduce a beginner to mathematics, logic, electronics and all other fields of knowledge — without the intervention of a specific language. Language itself could be effectively analyzed by this means. One riddle solved; the aliens had the means to communicate.
     The colors flexed, expanded, overlapped, changed shapes and intensities and number and patterns in a fashion that to an ordinary person might seem random... but was not. There was logic in that patterning, above and beyond the logic of the medium. It was an alien logic, but absolutely rational once its terms were accepted. Rapidly, inevitably, the postulates integrated into an astonishingly meaningful whole. The very significance of existence was —
     Ivo's intuition leaped ahead, anticipating the denouement. The meaning was coming at him, striking with transcendent force.
     He knew immediately that the sequence should be stopped. He tried to stand, to cry out, but his motor reflexes were paralyzed. He could not even close his eyes.
     He did the next best thing: he threw them out of focus. The writhing image lost definition and its hold upon him weakened. Gradually his eyelids muscled down; then he was able to turn his head away.
     His entire upper torso dropped on the table. He was too weak to act.
     The Senator was slumped farther down the table. The doctor went to him next and performed an intimate check.
     "He's dead," he said.

     ..."No. But I'm convinced there is galactic information on that channel, if only we could get past the barrier. No one has ever looked beyond that opening sequence." Was there anything beyond, he wondered abruptly, or did it merely repeat endlessly?
     "It hasn't hurt you — yet. What possible thing could you learn worth the risk?"
     "I don't know." That was the irony of it. He had no evidence there was anything to find. "But if there is any help for us, that's where it has to be. They — the galactics, whatever they are — must be hiding something. Otherwise why have such a program at all? They can't really be trying to destroy us, because this is a self-damping thing. I mean, a little of it warns you off, just as it did for the probs. But the discouragement would really be more effective if there were no signal at all. The signal itself is proof there is something to look for. It is tantalizing. It's as though — well, interference." He hoped.
     "Interference!" she said, seeing it. "To prevent someone else's program from getting through!"
     "That's the way I figure it. Must be something pretty valuable, to warrant all that trouble."

(ed note: Ivo manages to skirt around the destroyer broadcast, to see what is on the other side)

     "And beyond it — I guess you'd call it the galactic society."
     "You saw who sent the killer signal?" Groton.
     "No. That's a separate channel, if that's the word. It's all done in concept, but one is superimposed upon another, and you have to learn to separate them. Once you isolate the destroyer, the rest is all there for the taking."
     "Other concepts?" Afra.
     "Other programs. They're like radio stations, only all on the same band, and all using similar symbolic languages. You have to fasten on a particular trademark, otherwise only the strongest comes through, and that's the destroyer."
     "I follow." Groton. "It's like five people all talking at once, and it's all a jumble except for the loudest voice, unless you pay attention to just one. Then the others seem to tune out, though you can still hear them."
     "That's it. Only there are more than five, and you really have to concentrate. But you can pick up any one you want, once you get the feel for it."
     "How many are there?" Afra.
     "I don't know. I think it's several thousand. It's hard to judge."
     They looked at him.
     "One for each civilized species, you see."
     "Several thousand stations?" Afra, still hardly crediting it. "Whatever do they broadcast?"
     "Information. Science, philosophy, economics, art — anything they can put into the universal symbology. Everything anybody knows — it's all there for the taking. An educational library."
     "But why?" Afra. "What do they get out of it, when nobody can pick it up?"
     "I'm not clear yet on the dating system, but my impression is that most of these predate the destroyer. At least, they don't mention it, and they're from very far away. The other side of the galaxy. So if it took fifteen thousand years for the destroyer to reach us, these others are taking twenty thousand, or fifty thousand. Maybe the local ones shut down when the destroyer started up, but we won't know for thousands of years."
     "I still don't see why," Afra said petulantly. She was less impressive when frustrated, becoming almost childlike. "It doesn't make sense to send out a program when you know you'll be dead long before it can be answered. Three million years! The entire culture, even the memory of the species must be gone by now!"
     "That's why," Ivo said. "The memory isn't gone, because everyone who picks up the program will know immediately how great that species was. It's like publishing a book — even paying for it yourself, vanity publishing. If it's a good book, if the author really has something to say, people will read it and like it and remember him for years after he is dead."

     He took her in, sliding delicately around the destroyer with less of the prior horror and finishing at the surface of the galactic stream of communications.
     "Oh, Ivo," she exclaimed, her voice passing back into the physical world and making a V-turn to reach him down his azimuth. "I see it, I see it! Like a giant rainbow stretching across all the stars. What a wonderful thing!"
     And he guided her down, seeking the particular perfume, the essential music, on through the splendor of meaning/color, to the series of concepts that spoke of the very substance of life.
     The patterns of import opened up, similar at first to those of the destroyer, but subtly divergent and far more sophisticated. Instead of reaching into a hammer-force totality, these delved into a specific refinement of knowledge — a subsection of the tremendous display of information available through this single broadcast. Ivo knew the way, and he took her in as though walking hand in hand down the hall of a mighty university, selecting that lone aspect of education that offered immediate physical salvation.
     "But the other doors!" she cried, near/distant. "So many marvelous — "
     He too regretted that they could not spend an eternity within this macronic citadel of information. This might be merely one of a hundred thousand broadcasts available — the number began to suggest itself as he grasped more nearly the scope of the broadcast range — yet it might have in itself another hundred thousand subchambers of learning. University? It was an intergalactic educational complex of almost incomprehensible vastness. Yet they, in their grossly material imperatives, had to restrict themselves to the tiniest fragment, ignoring all the rest. They were hardly worthy...

From MACROSCOPE by Piers Anthony (1969)

(ed note: This is one of multiplexer pure gold articles where she applies economic theory to Dungeons & Dragons RPG. Which have a medieval fantasy background.

But the article can be adapted to science fiction.

In the following article it describes how underworld Elves "after the fall" bootstrap their way back to survival and cement their power by making a fantasy magic version of the World Wide Web. All the talk about the goddess Lloth and the various spells are things specific to D&D but are easy to understand by the context.

Now, replace "after the fall" with "after the Long Night following the fall of the Galactic Empire" and the communication web with a science-fictional faster-than-light communication system connecting fallen planets. Read the following with a galactic setting in mind.)

Monsters and Steam

Little grows in the pitch darkness.

Not wheat, nor fruit trees, nor rice, nor soybeans. No one tends row after row of rippling, wind-blown heads of cabbage. No one ties up the tomato vines threatening to overgrow the fields.

Tiny glowing mushrooms cling to the open steam vents. Small and white with purplish veins, the mushrooms looked like tiny baby fists. The mushrooms were weirdly misshapen. Lumpy. They smelled of old lady apartment and tasted rancid. They were, thankfully, not poisonous. But they were thin with caloric content. Eating only mushrooms led to a slower death via starvation instead of the quicker starvation death with no mushrooms. They prayed to their Goddess and supplemented essential vitamins with the bland fruits of create food and water and mixed it with mushroom gruel. This made the gruel stretch and feed more. They had food.

But it was still dark, and cold, and wet.

The plentiful steam vents were valuable. More valuable than handfuls of glowing mushrooms. The steam vents provided clean water, heat, a scant amount of light, and a foothold for a base. Steam vents also provided a somewhat predictable source of usable kinetic energy. Enterprising Elves harnessed the steam with crude machines lashed together from bowls and their own gear to make more mushroom gruel, faster. Wizards, Warlocks and Clerics conserved their magic for food and basic survival.

Once they efficiently produced a thin, runny water, gruel and magic bread combination, they promptly ran low on mushrooms. The Elves ate them faster than they grew.

This was a problem.

The survivors, after praying to the Goddess, decided on two courses of action before their children started to die:

  1. Send out teams to find more steam vents. Keep wizards and bards with them at all time with sending spells to send information back to their base . More steam vents means more mushrooms means more food. (when cast, a Sending spell allows a wizard to send a 25 word message telepathically to another person the wizard is familiar with. Infinite range.)
  2. Build hunter-gatherer teams. Hunt the monsters of the Underdark. Bring corpses back to camp. Eat them, no matter how rancid and nasty. Go full on Monster Hunter.

The first team discovered the many caves that lace the darkness. Within the caves were the bounty of the Underdark: steam vents, mushroom fields, glowing crystal shards, coal and iron embedded in the cave walls. Some caves were minuscule. Some could hold a city. The wizards ran their hands over the exposed coal in the cave walls, pondered the steam vents, and thought.

The team Clerics prayed to their Goddess. She counseled sharing their findings, leading different camps to different steam vents, and building complex information networks on Sending and Message. Hold the community together, but spread them out so they could eat. Elvish survival depended on free and open information, she said. (when cast, a Message spell allows the wizard to send a secret telepathic message to any person whether or not the wizard is familiar with them. Target can send a secret reply. Range of 120 feet, blocked by walls.)

(ed note: the Goddess’ commandment is much like the libraries filled with oracle tabs from the novel Space Skimmer)

This became a new holy edict. The Clerics later carved it into the glowing crystals.

The second team hunted the caves of the Underdark. They found plenty of monsters. Or, plenty of monsters found them. Purple worm steaks were chewy and fatty but nutritious. Only certain Umber Hulk limbs were edible, although the stewed meat was sweet. Umber Hulk tusks and armor had highly practical uses. Any aberrations, like Cloakers, didn’t have enough body to bone mass to make a meal, and hunters harvested them for leather. Beholders were large, dangerous, fatty, inedible, watery eye sacks. The hunter teams harvested the potent Beholder eye stalks for mining. Nothing removes coal from a cave wall like disintegration rays.

Otyughs were outright poisonous. And entire team was lost to a single meal of roasted, delicious smelling, and incredibly toxic Otyugh mushroom-stuffed stomach.*

The hunter gather teams brought meat back to their huddled people. They supplemented the mushrooms and magic food with the least toxic of the Underdark. They built catalogs of monsters: what was edible, what provided useful tools in skin and bone, what was useful as pack and labor monsters. And what to avoid. The Underdark was full of murder.

Elvish survival depended on free and open information, the Goddess said. Tell everyone what you learned, write it down, and share, so we survive.

And they did.


The Elvish population condemned to the Underdark stabilized. Death from hunger, misadventure, boiling in steam vents, or monster taped from a daily event to an occurrence.

Magic provided light and some food. Steam processed and cooked mushrooms and meat. Salt chipped off walls and frozen side ice-caves preserved food for more than a day. As the explorer groups mapped their world, the Elves moved to safer, larger caverns deeper in. Random rust monsters ate fewer stray Elves.

The early years were all about learning:

  • Which monsters were edible and which weren’t.
  • Which monsters were intelligent and which weren’t. Intelligent monsters lied, misdirected, presented mild ethical concerns, and were incredibly tasty.
  • How to cultivate and grow the mushrooms so Elves wouldn’t move into a cave, consume them all like locusts, and move on.
  • How to herd, corral, and breed purple worms. While not tasty, they provided a constant nutritional base.
  • How to harvest the coal and iron from the walls.
  • How to harness the steam.

And finally, an important lesson from their Goddess: science was more important than magic, since anyone could perform science, but science combined with magic and technology was the best Elvish recipe for survival. And science needed information.

The Elves weren’t starting from scratch. They weren’t condemned to a hunter-gatherer existence of scratching a bare survival from the stone walls. They still had their collective knowledge, and Wizards, from the Fall.

The raising, breeding and corralling of the great worms of the Underdark was the biggest challenge. Without a constant source of nutrition and vitamins, the Elves would slowly die. And no one enjoyed breeding giant purple worms. They were massive, they chewed through solid rock, noise attracted them, and they ate Elves as snacks. But they were also enormous, fatty, breed like mad, and 90% meat. One day, the pen would hold two worms. The next day, five. Fully grown. Where they came from, no one knew. Some weird Underdark anti-conservation of energy. The hunters herded the worms into traps and the warlocks solved the burrowing through rock problem with steel, spikes, poison, and magic. And then, the Elves ate.

The lack of non-magical permanent light sources was a problem, too. The Elves learned if they cooked coal over steam without oxygen, they got coal gas. Coal gas meant gaslight. At first, they used magic to hollow out the glowing crystals and host lamps. But, that allowed light only where crystals stood. The Elves iterated on a solution. They used the silicate sand from the cavern floors, heated that with hot coal gas, and created spun glass. They had iron and carbon from cave walls. They had steam to create heat and coal to stoke heat further. Soon, the hunter teams went into the Underdark with freshly forged weapons and hung chains of gaslight lamps from cavern walls lighting the way from cave to cave.

The Goddess, encouraging her Elves to share what they learned to survive, provided them her spiders. Spiders hid in the dark. Spiders went unnoticed by the creatures roaming the Underdark. Spiders got into corners and built nests.

The spiders crafted enormous fragile webs along the chains of the gaslight lamps and up the sides of the caverns. The Goddess granted her Clerics a new Channel Divinity – Web Message. At will, no matter the distance, when one cleric sat at one end of the spider-crafted web, they could point-to-point Message another Cleric at the other end of the web. The other Cleric could then respond. Back and forth, the Clerics spoke to one another in a point to point communications mesh (a telegraph system).

As the Elves spread out into the caverns and colonized the Underdark, they built Clerical web communication stations. At first, they sent only status messages. But, the communication stations became critical to the Wizard/scientists working heads down on how to cultivate, herd, steam-automate, and build. The Clerics devised a metal, glass and wire mesh around the spider web channels to protect the cables from roaming monsters or malfeasance. The teams spread out and reinforced communication lines.

The Elves spread out to maximize resources. Explorer teams probed the Underdark’s secrets and took Lloth’s spiders with them to build new edges of the great Web. As teams discovered new caverns, each new location hosted a spider, a web, and a thin line of communication. Once the location stabilized, the engineers swooped in and built new permanent links to their central communications core.

The Elves connected their communities. They had the web message to come to one hub, and that one hub send out identical messages to all callers. Clerics built more web base stations. Soon anyone, no matter their role in their new universe, connected to Lloth’s Underdark Wide Web.

The Wizards even devised a way to allow Web Message to send graphical mental images via Magic Image, but this was, a century later, hailed as a huge mistake.

Instead of trying to escape the Underdark, the Elves, realizing they weren’t going to die, decided to seal any possible route in from the upper world. This was their home now. They didn’t need outsiders sniffing around.

The Elves had easy access to all kinds of interesting resources: bat guano, sulfur pools, coal, iron, steam, charcoal, copper, nickel, carbon, silicate, silver, gold. Food was a constant and pressing issue, and most of it bit back, but physical and magical resources weren’t. Forget the outside world. Lloth provided the tools to close the few remaining tunnels and exits to the foul, human-encrusted outside.

Instead, the Elves built glittering, impossibly delicate cities of steel, gaslight, steam, stone, crystal and glass.

Centuries passed. The Deep Elves met the Dwarves (who found them incredibly amusing), the Svirfneblin, the Illithid, and the other intelligent races of the Underdark. They hooked everyone into their Goddess’s Underdark Wide Web and built out spider cables between the great sprawling underground communities. It wasn’t the greatest idea: the Illithids turned into enormous, nearly compulsive web trolls.

Goddess of the Underdark Wide Web

Lloth is obsessive about sharing knowledge and scientific data among her followers and any who use her systems. As more races board on to Lloth’s Underdark Wide Web, the stronger she grows. Sometimes the data is good. Sometimes the data is bad. But data is all that matters.

Knowledge is power. With Knowledge comes information sharing. Information sharing leads to trade (I have mushrooms, you have umber hulk teeth, can we trade) and science. Trade leads to healthy, open markets and science leads to technology. Markets leads to… all kinds of interesting things. There’s that day the one cheeky Deep Elf decides he wants to bet on a trade of this month’s hook horror skins supply to corner the market and things get crazy.

As Lloth grows in strength, she threatens worshiper power-bases of the other Greater Gods of Knowledge (including the Unspoken One). No Gods like their worshiper power-based encroached. In retribution, they cast the Deep Elves and their Goddess as crazed, spider-worshiping, murderous psychopaths. Lloth is good with this; it keeps outsiders out of her cities. Until it doesn’t and adventurers come looking for loot. Then she sends out her warriors to kill intruders to keep the core solid and secure. Despite having long sealed the tunnels down, adventurers still find a way.

The Tenets of the Goddess of the Underdark Wide Web:

  • It is a mortal sin for a Lloth worshiper to harm any of her spiders or their webs. To break the communication web is a mortal sin and an insult to the Goddess. No one wants to insult the Goddess. She has spiders. She will put them in your bed.
  • Clerics are the White ICE of Lloth’s Information Network. They dedicate their lives to maintaining the lines, build new nodes, bring new communities online, and continuing to build out the network. (in cyberpunk SF, White ICE detects hackers trying to penetrate a database and raises an alarm)
  • Lloth’s Paladin’s take Oaths of Vengeance. They hunt down anyone who disturbs the physical network – monster, creature, adventurer – and kills them. They are the hunter-killer Black ICE, the security pods, of Lloth’s Information Network. (in cyberpunk SF, Black ICE detects hackers trying to penetrate a database, traces it back through the internet to the hacker, and kills the hacker by frying their brain)
  • (ed note: remember how monks preserved knowledge through the dark ages after the fall of Rome. Also remember post-apocalyptic novels like A Canticle for Leibowitz and Hiero's Journey where future monks do much the same thing after civilization falls. I can see something like galactic Long Night interstellar warrior-monks establishing (and fanatically defending) FTL relay stations on isolated stars to link inhabited planets in the communication web.)

  • Lloth’s followers run the gamut of alignments, from Lawful Good (the communication network has rules and laws to hold together civilization), to True Neutral (usage of the communication networks for scientific exchange) to Chaotic Evil (Illithids who compulsively post tentacle pics).
  • Lloth encourages mixing technology and magic, since she believes it gives an edge to her people’s survival. This leads to weird results: silent image projection feeds from Lloth’s information nodes hung randomly in Underdark tunnels and strange pushes into magic-infused communication technology.
  • Feeding misdirection and incorrect data to outsiders to keep to preserve the Deep Elf civilization isn’t only allowed, it’s encouraged. Even marketed.
  • Communication above all. Not only are Lloth’s Clerics handy engineers, they are librarians and archivists.
  • Clerics may cycle out the old for the new. Elves update their data as they discover new facts and old facts are discarded.
  • Elves allow anyone into Lloth’s libraries and archives – provided they present a library card and have no overdue fines.
  • Elves allows anyone into the communications mesh. It is open to all comers, even surface folk and trash-talking Illithids.
  • Lloth encourages creating communities on her Underdark Wide Web. And this might be her undoing.

Along with Channel Divinity: Web Message (2nd Level), Lloth grants her Clerics :

  • Blessing of Underdark Knowledge: learn two other Underdark languages (Dwarven, Gnomish, etc) and gain bonuses to two of the following skills: Arcana, Investigation, Religion, Survival
  • 1st Level: Comprehend Languages, Silent Image (Memes)
  • 3rd Level: Spider Climb, Magic Mouth
  • 5th Level: Sending, Tongues
  • 7th Level: Arcane Eye, Divination
  • 9th Level: Scrying, Legend Lore
  • At 6th Level, the Cleric gains Center of the Web. They can then can use an enhanced Sending to communicate in a mesh from anywhere 2 * Wis Bonus people at once and transmit their responses through the Cleric. Messages increase in size up to 2048 characters in length.**
  • At 8th Level, the Cleric gains Like a Spider. Clerics infuse their weapon with the poison of Lloth’s spider’s bite and web. Once on each turn when the Cleric hits a monster with a weapon, they can add 1D8 points of poison damage. When the Cleric reaches 14th level, damage becomes 2D8 and monster must make a Wis saving throw or be slowed by a Web.
  • At 17th level, the Cleric gains amazing spider-based outfits with ridiculous spider-based hats. The outfits are amazing.

(ed note: The above are all spells that will help a communication cleric extend and maintain the web)

Lloth’s growth and strength presents a clear and present danger to the Gods outside the Underdark. The Gods encourage their followers to descend to the Underdark cities via blasting through the closed tunnels and kill the Spider Worshipers. While there are now known and open routes between the surface and the Underdark communities despite Underdark best efforts, the Underdark does everything they can to keep the filthy Lawful Good humans Paladins out.

It’s all about perspective.

* The Deep Elves have an incredible cooking culture based on the highly deadly culinary offerings of the Underdark. They have opinions on mushrooms. They are all about a good gibbering mouther steak. They have access to salt and ice (underground) for meat preservation. But if they only had, say, a little pepper…

** For whatever reason, Lloth determined 2K to be her Holy Commanded Message Packet Buffer Size.

Atomic Rockets notices

This week's featured addition is Electric Magnolia

This week's featured addition is AIST Nuclear Thermal Rocket

This week's featured addition is Lewis Research Center Gas-Core Nuclear Rocket

Atomic Rockets

Support Atomic Rockets

Support Atomic Rockets on Patreon