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.

As a vague general rule, figure that the maximum time allowed to send a message from the central capital to a colony on the rim of the empire should be no more than about 15 weeks. This is about the lag-time of the old Mongol Empire. So the radius of the empire and the speed of the courier starships or superluminal radio should be adjusted so the results is 15 weeks or less.


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

It was a little easier to remember the Hruntan Empire, since it was of much more recent vintage than the Hamiltonians; but there was less to remember. The outer margins of exploration had spawned gimcrack empires by the dozen in the days when Earth seemed to be losing her grip. Alois Hrunta had merely been the most successful of the would-be emperors of space. His territory had expanded as far as the limits of communication would allow an absolute autocracy to spread, and then had been destroyed almost before he was assassinated, broken into duchies by his squabbling sons. Eventually the duchies fell in their turn to the nominal but irresistible authority of Earth, leaving, as the Hamiltonians had left, a legacy of a few remote colonies—worlds where a dead dream was served with meaningless pomp.

Dismissing Carrel, Amalfi went to his office, where he took the flexible plastic dust cover off a little-used instrument: the Dirac transmitter. It was the only form of communication which the Hruntans—and, of course, the Hamiltonians—did not have; the want of it had cost them an empire, for it operated instantaneously over any distance. Amalfi thrust a cigar absently between his teeth and sent out a call for the captain of police.

From EARTHMAN, COME HOME by (1953)

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)

      “We were right about Noranaga. He was the one dissenting vote, by the way. He’s giving a deposition to a Senate probe tomorrow.”
     “What probe?”
     “Command attenuation.”
     “I haven’t heard about that one.”
     “It’s new. There was some agitation for hearings along those lines when we got kicked out of Arcturus last year. Your…um…independence at Eta Boötis kind of brought things to a head.”

     While Koenig hadn’t heard of a specific Senate probe into the topic, he knew well what command attenuation was. The basic theory was taught at the Academy and accepted as holy writ throughout the hierarchy of naval command. It stated, essentially, that the limitations imposed on communications by the speed of light severely restricted the ability of the highest command levels—the Senate in Columbus and the Supreme Military Command Staff on Mars—to manage both strategy and diplomacy through the Fleet. It took three weeks under Alcubierre Drive to reach Eta Boötis, another three weeks to return. There were special high-velocity courier ships that could make the voyage faster—a week or two, perhaps—but the fact remained that by the time the Senate had learned of a threat at Eta Boötis and dispatched a carrier battlegroup to deal with it, the 1MEF (1st Marine Expeditionary Force) had been pinned down and was under siege. Armchair strategists on Earth or Mars had no chance of managing a battle light years distant, and word of defeats or victories by Earth forces could take weeks or months to get back home.

     The Navy had accepted command attenuation as a fact of life, and trained its command officers to operate with a high degree of autonomy, making both military and political decisions that could easily have a strong effect on life and politics back in the solar system. The problem was that, by long tradition, the military was supposed to be subservient to the civilian government. If the military became too independent in its thinking and operation, civilian oversight and control would be lost. The farther away a fleet or battlegroup was operating, the less control the Senate Military Directorate had over it—command attenuation in action.

     Political liaisons like John Quintanilla were the Senate’s answer to the problem, an attempt to put someone into the fleet command structure who represented the political interests of the Senate. Deployed fleet commanders like Koenig despised the idea; political liaisons by their very nature complicated already complex missions, and that could translate as higher losses, quite possibly defeat. Political liaisons rarely had the military training that let them see a developing situation through the strategic and tactical training and experience of a command officer.

From EARTH STRIKE by William H. Keith, Jr. (under pseudonym Ian Douglas) (2010)

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.

Naturally below the level of imperial government, ansibles are vital for the civilian/commercial news media. Without ansibles the news is only as recent as the latest starship arrival.

Having a private encoded ansible means commercial organizations can sell information. For science-fiction authors I will mention in passing the association between shipping news and the Lloyd's coffee house.

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)


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.

Also note that since the VLCAs are such a powerful strategic asset, they are more or less a government monopoly not a private corporation.

In the BattleTech universe, ansibles are a monopoly of a private corporation called ComStar. The corporation arose out of the ashes of the Star League Department of Communications, when the Star League died in the Successor wars. ComStar is transnational, beholden to none of the Successor States. They jealously guard their monopoly and the independence of their FTL relay stations. States that threaten ComStar could have their ansible links cut off, no longer able to engage in FTL communication or trade. ComStar also has their own military. Don't piss off ComStar.

So it appears that the Renagade Legion Terran Overlord Government has an ansible monopoly because TOG is close to being a galactic empire, while the BattleTech ComStar independent corporation has an ansible monopoly because there is no galactic empire.


But whether government or private monopoly, anybody stupid enough to deliberately attack an ansible relay station had better be prepared for the prompt arrival of a monopoly battle fleet who will hunt you down like an animal. The monopoly takes such attacks very personally, since you are more or less threatening their very existence. Especially so if the relay is in a remote area, since in such places there is little or no redundancy.

And if the ansible relay station belongs to a government, the battle fleet responding will be worse by an order of magnitude. Remember that for a government, control depends upon communication. So the attackers are not threating the quarterly profits of an ansible corporation, they are threatening the existence of an interstellar empire. As far as the empire is concerned, the attack is either an act of high treason or an act of war. The only difference is if the attackers are citizens of the empire or not.


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

      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.

From THE FIFTH ELEPHANT by Terry Pratchett (1999)

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

      The atrocity of the attack on the clacks tower at Sto Kerrig, which had so recently been a lifeline to the world for the people in the town, shocked everyone. As Adora Belle Dearheart (head of the clacks company) looked at the wreckage in the gathering dusk, she was not surprised to see a very large and handsome wolf approaching at speed and, unlike most wolves, carrying a package between its jaws. The wolf disappeared behind a haystack, and shortly afterward out of the haystack came a handsome female, only marginally disheveled, wearing the uniform of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.

     Captain Angua, the most notable werewolf in the Watch, said, “Oh my, they’ve certainly made a mess, haven’t they? And are you sure that only one of your people was hurt?”

     “Two goblins, captain, but they bounce well. Quick-witted, too. Can you imagine, they managed to send out a final message saying that their tower was under fire from dwarfs before they legged it. Very conscientious, the goblins, when it comes to machinery. They are always better on the night shift. Can I say, captain, when you find out who did this, I’ll press charges and press them very hard indeed, to a point when a police officer like yourself would have to look away for fear of seeing something they didn’t want to.”

     “I wouldn’t worry about that, Miss Dearheart. His lordship (Vetinari) takes the view that to interfere with the clacks is to interfere with the proper running of the world. Treason not only to one’s own state, but to all.

(ed note: in the same way that piracy on the high seas was declared hostis humani generis, or enemies of all mankind. Piracy is an attack on all nations using sea ships for cargo transport, not just the nation the particular victim ship belongs to)

     The silence in Lord Vetinari’s study was absolute. Nevertheless, the tread of Drumknott’s approach contrived to make it even more silent as the secretary handed his lordship a little slip of paper and told him that a second clacks tower had been torched by people (terrorists) calling themselves, in translation, “The Only True Dwarfs.”

     Drumknott waited while not a muscle moved in Lord Vetinari’s face before he said, “Let it be known that enemy action on the clacks system will be followed by the death of not only those who did it but also those who ordered it to be done, whoever they are. Send this to every embassy, consulate, and head of state. Action this night, please.”

From RAISING STEAM by Terry Pratchett (2013)

(ed note: In Elizabeth Moon's Vatta's Universe series the InterStellar Communications (ISC) corporation has a monopoly on ansibles. The scientific principle of FTL communication is a closely guarded proprietary secret. In the novels there is no galactic empire, just some loosely associated inhabited planets.

In the Sabine system two planets are having a nasty little war over mining rights. The planet Secundus hired the Mackensee mercenaries. It was just another boring little war in a back-water system. Until somebody nuked the two ISC ansible relay satellites. That got everybody's attention.)

      “No one ever thought anything like this could happen,” someone on the nearspace advisory channel was saying. “Attack on intersystem ansibles is just … just unthinkable.

     Not really. Ky remembered one of the lectures in Strategic Analysis, in which a discussion of the consequences of successful interdiction of intersystem communication had delved into the reasons someone might do it and the consequences thereof, economic, political, and military. It had happened—far away, and decades past, and those responsible were no longer alive—but it had happened. So some people had thought of it, and presumably also whoever had —her mind came back from that moment of shocklike drift. No ansible meant no message to Vatta Transport, Ltd., and thus no funds, and thus … no repairs for getting her ship safely out of this system before whoever had taken out the ansible decided to attack the orbital station.

     “—No one is believed to have survived the explosion of either ansible platform; the death toll is estimated to be at least seven hundred fifty and could be several times that. InterStellar Communications local office has no comment at this time—” ISC, the monopoly which controlled both communications and financial ansibles across hundreds of systems, would make someone wish they hadn’t done it … They had fought some successful limited wars to keep local governments from taking over ansible linkages.

     The ISC repair ship Cosmos, routinely assigned responsibility for ansible maintenance in Sector Five—twenty-three systems of which Sabine was one—had received the company’s current upload on military security. Every military organization known to be operating in Sector Five, with its current—or believed to be current—location and mission. ISC agents stationed on ansible platforms reported daily on military activity—among other things—which enabled repair ships like Cosmos to know what they might be getting into when they came to repair an ansible that went offline.

     Jed Sinclair, senior analyst aboard the Cosmos, looked over the updates. Three such organizations had relevant notations and had not shown up on any ansible listing since the Sabine ansibles went out. Barkley’s Best, a fairly new organization, had taken its entire fleet and personnel into jumpspace from Matlock seventeen days before the Sabine ansibles went out. They were three mapped jump points from Sabine, though military vessels often used odd, indirect routes. Mackensee Military Assistance Corporation had dispatched two cruisers from its home base on Knifecroft; they jumped out of their system eight days before the Sabine ansibles went out. Gruin Colonies, Inc., had sent three ships out eleven days before the Sabine ansibles went out.

     Jed thought about that. Gruin could almost certainly be taken off the list. Gruin used its security forces to put down riots and rebellion in its colonies; it had never—so far—attacked anyone else. Barkley’s and Mackensee were both straight-up mercenary forces, for hire to anyone. Worst case, they were both at Sabine.

     He didn’t believe worst case. ISC’s tap on the financial ansible, which gave him information on funds transfers into and out of the system, suggested that Secundus didn’t have the resources to hire two different mercenary companies. So, which was it and what difference did it make? He was pondering when new data popped up on his screen. Barkley’s had shown up on the Timodea ansible, apparently involved in the dispute over ownership of some uninhabitable but mineral-rich minor worlds.

     Mackensee. They had a profile, and that profile … did not include blowing up ansibles. Interesting. ISC had fought some bloody engagements to convince everyone—planetary governments, system unions, space militias and mercenaries—that ansibles were not target opportunities. They had an unwritten but generally known policy that allowed combatants to fight over control of communications without actually damaging the ansibles or their platforms, with ISC committing to cooperation with the victor. Mackensee had acted correctly— from ISC’s point of view—in other wars it had fought. In fact, Mackensee had an “acceptable” rating on a scale where there were only two values and a large, wide, deadly line between them.

     So what was its problem here? Who had forgotten the hard lesson taught last time? Who wanted to be down-rated, with all the consequences of that change? Had Mackensee blown the ansibles, or had someone else done it, to downgrade Mackensee or simply to get ISC attention?

     And most important, what would happen if Cosmos jumped into the system and started working on replacement ansibles?

     Jed forwarded his conclusions to the Cosmos captain and back to headquarters. Then he downloaded all the data ISC had on the Sabine system and started looking for a sneaky way in.

(ed note: In the Sabine system Captain Ky Vatta's tramp freighter ship has been captured by the Mackensee mercenaries. Mercenary Major Harris has a word with Captain Vatta.)

          The major—Harris, his name was—sat behind a desk in a tiny office so bare and tidy that Ky wondered if it was a real working office, or just a place chosen to interview hapless civilians. He did not smile but introduced himself.
          “Captain Vatta, we have a problem.”
          “What is that, sir?” The sir came out automatically.
          “You’re aware that someone blew the system ansibles …”
          Someone implied that it wasn’t the mercenaries… “Yes …,” Ky said.
          “We didn’t do it. We don’t blow ansibles; we don’t want trouble with the ISC any more than anyone else does. Overcharging monopolistic pirates they may be, but what they do is essential, and what they do to people who bother their ansibles is … exorbitant.” He paused.
          “I see,” Ky said.
          “Naturally, everyone thinks we did it,” the major went on. “Warships appear; the ansible platforms blow. Obvious. I’m sure by now the ISC has figured out where we are, and is thinking the same obvious thing. The only party who won’t believe we did it is the party who actually did it, and so far no one has claimed responsibility. It would be far handier if the mercenaries were to blame.”
          “I see,” Ky said again. She did, in a way. She had wondered about that; she remembered wondering about that. Why would mercenaries, who depended on ansible communications as much as anyone else, risk the serious and permanent annoyance of the ISC? Control of ansibles was one thing; destruction entirely another.

(ed note: At the Mackensee mercenaries corporate headquarters, the ISC special adviser to the chairman wants to have a little meeting with the Mackensee CEO.)

          “First, I’d like a straight answer to one question,” she (ISC) said, not moving. It was absurd; she barely came up to his chest, and yet he had the feeling that he was the schoolboy and she was the teacher.
          “Certainly,” he (CEO) said, inclining his head.
          “Were you hired to blow up the communications and financial ansibles in Sabine system?”
          “No,” Arlen said. “No one asked us to, and if they had we would not have taken the contract.”
          “Did you blow them up by accident?”
          “To my knowledge, we did not blow them up at all,” Arlen said. “And that’s two questions.”

          “So it is,” she said, and moved to the seating area. She chose the seat Arlen would have chosen in her position, and set her briefcase on the low table. As she reached for the clasps, she said, “Why don’t you sit down, General? This is going to take a while. Now—I am recording—” She did not ask permission, he noted, and he doubted that the office’s security systems were interfering with the recorder. “You say that you weren’t hired to blow the ansibles, and you have no information suggesting that your force blew them—is that correct?”
     “Yes,” he said.
     “Excellent. Care to tell me why you didn’t inform ISC of that at once when you heard the ansibles were blown, and you knew you had a force insystem?”
     “Client confidentiality,” he said.
     “Right,” she said. “So—when did you find out?”
     “The … relay ship, outside the system, reported losing contact. That was”—he queried his implant—“Thirteen forty-two hours, UTC, on Central 346. The relay ship was on a two-hour schedule, though. We heard from other sources that the actual time of ansible loss was …”
     “Twelve oh-two hours. Yes. You have documentation of the relay ship’s notification?”
     “Yes, but—”
     “We may need to see it later. Now—this was not a full-scale operation, is that right?”
     “Right. Advisory, with a five thousand man support team.”
     “John Calvin Tessan your onsite commander?”
     “Er … yes.” How did she know that?

     “Your organization, and your field commanders, all have acceptable ratings with ISC,” she said. “And I presume you wish to keep that rating …”
     “Yes, of course.”
     “We’re going to have to ask you to post a bond, I’m afraid,” she said in a tone that carried no regret whatsoever. “Even though you have an acceptable rating, even though we have no evidence yet that your personnel were responsible, they are onsite with weapons capable of taking out two ansibles.”
     “A bond?”

     “It’s an unusual situation, you see.” She paused, rubbed the tip of one carefully polished pink fingernail along the edge of her briefcase. “It’s been six years since anyone last intentionally destroyed an ISC ansible. Political group on Neumann’s, you may recall. We dealt with them.”
     ISC had invaded the system—as they had invaded systems before where someone destroyed their ansibles—and that political group no longer existed.
     “Although we had considered the possibility we now face, in previous adverse events the military force at hand was the one which intentionally destroyed ansibles. That’s a simple situation. If in fact Mackensee is not responsible here, either by accident or design, as you have stated, then we are faced with something we had considered in theory but not faced in practice. (a covert attack on the ISC itself) Policy, written in advance of experience, requires that we obtain a bond from you, to be returned upon proof that your personnel were not responsible.”
     “What kind of bond?” Arlen asked warily.
     “The usual. Monetary, or a lien on equipment.” She smiled, the kind of feral smile that Arlen knew very well from his own people. “Not quite ruinous, but serious.”

     “What kind of proof of our non-involvement will you require, and who will adjudicate this?”
     “It is not the practice of the ISC to seek or submit to the judgment of civil courts, as I believe you already know,” she said. “We will determine that involvement or non-involvement on the basis of evidence collected by our own personnel. On the other hand, since we are apolitical except with respect to the communications business, we have no motive for finding one way or the other.”
     “You’re apolitical,” Arlen said, spreading his hands on his knees. “I find that hard to believe.”
     “It’s quite true,” she said. “We do not care who is the government anywhere; we are not concerned with the crime rate, the state of the planetary environment, or any of the other things which motivate other corporations to interfere in local politics. Thus we need no lobbyists, no political backing. We have one focus: maintaining our interstellar monopoly. No one else can do what we do, and even if they could, we wouldn’t let them.” She ticked off these points with those delicate pink fingertips.
     “But surely—”
     She shook her head before he could get that thought out. “We haven’t diversified. That is our strength, that others would find weakness. We do one thing well—superbly, in fact—and we protect our market. Since that market is not limited to any one planet, it is in no government’s interest to interfere. Some of them are too stupid to realize that, but we educate them.” She smiled again.

From TRADING IN DANGER by Elizabeth Moon (2003)

(ed note: This is for a medieval fantasy game like Dungeons and Dragons, but it can be adapted to a futuristic interstellar science fiction story. The Dark Elves (who worship the goddess Lloth) have moved to live in cavern networks deep underground. This has disrupted their civilization much like the advent of The Long Night in a galactic story. They learn how to communicate by using magic spells to send messages along spider webs. This technology becomes so important to their emerging from the Long Night that a special group of warriors is established whose sole task is to guard the communications network.)

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)
  • 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.

(ed note: RE: Lloth paladin's Oaths of Vengence above. 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.)

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.

No ansibles means the current news is only as fresh as the most recent arrival of a news-bearing starship. Couriers are intended to make the arrivals as fast as possible. They pop into the solar system wherever is quickest, and send the message by radio for the last few astronomical units.


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.


"What you say is true enough," agreed the skipper. "They could be laying for us. We'll see. A message torp will make sure that if we don't get back our fleet will know where to come and who to smash. Then we'll make a landing in a lifeboat. Our enemy couldn't resist smashing that! And if it gets away, we'll know something about their weapons, anyhow."

The Kennessee sent off the torp from the aft communications room. It was not an impressive device, the torp, merely a cigar-shaped object some six feet long. After leaving the Kennessee it would drive away at thirty-five gravities' acceleration for fifteen minutes and then go into overdrive—when it would cease to exist, as far as normal space was concerned. Its disappearance would be marked by the emission of a monstrous surge of energy—a "whango wave"—which could be detected at hundreds of millions of miles. Near home base it would come out of overdrive with the emission of another, similar, wave. The second wave was useful. From Masa Gamma to the Kennessee's home base was some eighty light-years. A space-radio message transmitted by tight beam would reach home base only in time to be of interest to the crew's great-grandchildren. But the torp would arrive within days, its reappearance wave would be picked up by a far-flung net of communications ships, and they would receive and forward the torp's automatically transmitted messages, and later pick it up for the recovery of written data and physical specimens.

From PROPAGANDIST by Murray Leinster (1947)

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.


As with most other science fiction predictions, many ideas about future mail were full of zeerust. Many of them focused on the writing of a letter using a pen or pencil, not realizing that future email would be more like a telegram written with a typewriter.

Secure Mail

most people who use mail want it delivered with a modicum of of security (unless they have written it on a postcard). 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.

Understand, there are actually three types of security involved in message sending:

  • LETTERS CLOSED (litterae clausae): so that the message sender could ensure that a letter could only be read by the intended recipient. Example: put your letter inside an sealed envelope.

  • LETTERS PATENT: so that the message recipient had some proof that the letter actually came from the sender name written on the letter. Example: if the "letter" is actually a contract or other legal document, the "sender" signs the contract with their signature. This proves that the message originated with a specific person AND ensures Non-repudiation (i.e., the sender lying and claiming they never signed a particular contract).

  • IMMUTABLE MESSAGE : so that once the sender composes and transmits the message, the message cannot be subsequently edited or rewritten. For example, after you've mailed a cheque to pay a bill, you would be furious if somebody altered the cheque and added a couple of zeroes to the amount.

The current state-of-the-art for doing all three functions is by using public-key encryption. The writer can encrypt a message with their private key, which gives Letters Patent. They can then encrypt the encrypted message with the recipient's public key, which gives Letters Closed as a digital or electronic signature. And if a man-in-the-middle alters the doubly encrypted message, it will decrypt into random garbage, which give proof of a failure of Immutability (though a data hash can also be used). To help combat evil people repudiating their own signatures, a Trusted third party is useful.

Back in medieval levels of technology, an ornately carved seal was used with sealing wax for Letters Closed and Letters Patent. The "Seal" or "Matrix" is the metal stamp used to impress the image on the hot sealing wax. The "Wax Seal" is the blob of wax imbossed with the image from the matrix.

A matrix for an entire nation is called a Great Seal, used to sign official treaties between nations and other national documents. The Keeper of the Seals are the individual(s) entitled to keep and authorize use of the Great Seal of a given country. A Privy Seal is the personal matrix for an individual who just so happens to be a reigning monarch of a nation. Privy seals are used to sign personal documents.Sometimes the matrix was incorporated into a finger ring, these were called signet rings.

If the letter arrived with the applied wax seal intact, this was a crude form of Immutability. Sadly once the wax seal is broken it can no longer be used as proof of either Letters Closed or Immutability. Letters Patent used pendant wax seals, which are designed not to be broken in normal usage.

The Byzantine Emperors decided that sealing wax was too plebeian for them, instead ostentatiously using gold, or at the least gold-plated lead.

Such seals date back to the bronze age. The skill to carve (or copy) such seals was only possible for a handfull of people, who were mostly employed by nobles or royalty. Thus counterfeit or forged seals was almost unheard of. The operating word being "almost", this is perilously close to the security through obscurity fallacy.


Using public-key encryption, the contents of the email are public, but since the contents are encrypted in theory only the intended recipient can decrypt and read the message.

Sadly 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 (occasionally 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.).

In medieval times to ensure that a letter could only be read by the intended recipient, an applied wax seal was used. The letter was enclosed in an envelope so nobody could read it, and held shut by the wax seal. The idea was that the wax seal had to be broken (or the envelope cut open) in order to read the letter. This may not totally ensure that only the recipient reads the letter, but at least it does makes obvious the fact that some evil person has read it prior to delivery. In other words they were tamper-evident technology or a security seal. This also prevented the evil person from altering the message, for instance adding a couple of sentences to alter the letter's meaning.

However, evil persons figured out that if you used a thin heated knife at the base of the wax seal you could separate the seal base from the paper, open the letter, read the contents, then use the same heated knife to re-seal the letter. This defeats the very purpose of the wax seal.

This turned into an arms race between secretive people and evil persons. Increasingly elaborate systems of folds, slits, and wax seals were devised to secure the missives. These are called "letterlocking". It had become a lost art but Jana Dambrogio (the Thomas F. Peterson conservator at MIT Libraries) and her research team have been reverse engineering examples from all the way back to the 16th century. She has been studying this for more than a decade and so far has found the secret to hundreds of them. Indeed, she coined the term "letterlocking" in the first place, which was adopted by other researchers beginning in 2009.

Typically the letters are locked by a still-attached slice of the letter paper stabbed through a slit, and closed with a wax seal. This was done in such a manner that the letter could not be opened without ripping the slice. The end of the slice was embedded into the seal, because the seal was placed right over the slit where the slice emerged. So an evil person using the heated knife method would either rip the slice or mutilate the embossed image on the seal. The heated knife could only separate half the seal from the paper until it ran right into the slice. You could separate the other half but since the seal is too large to fit through the slit you can either cut the slice or melt the wax seal until the slice can be released. Either event would reveal the evil person's eavesdropping. The slice was acting like security tape.

Some had multiple layers of security. The "dagger-trap" letterlock was disguised as a common less secure letterlock. But if the evil person used the heated knife method and opened the letter, they would run afoul of an internal booby trap. There was a hidden internal slice with a second seal that would rip or break when the letter was unfolded.

Nowadays letters are sealed in envelopes, but even those can be steamed open and resealed. In the old Soviet Union people would sometimes scribble with a pen along the sealed edge. This made it very difficult to reseal the letter and get the scribbled lines to align.


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)

Drake’s response was noncommittal. Instead, he gestured for Barrett to take a seat next to his desk cum workstation. “Shall we break open our official orders, sir?”

“By all means.”

Drake seated himself behind his desk and unlocked the chain that secured the security pouch to his right wrist. Rubbing his wrist where the handcuff had cut into it, he laid the pouch on the desk, and then pressed his thumb against the pale-green surface of the pouch’s lock plate. The pouch responded with an audible click and split open lengthwise. Inside was a small domino-like block of glass that reflected the overhead light in a rainbow of holographically induced color. Drake reached for the block with suddenly nervous hands, slipping it from beneath the elastic bands that held it in position within the pouch.

He dropped the record tile into the desk reader and engaged the ship’s computer. There was a momentary whine, followed by a beeping signal. Drake responded by keying in his name, serial number, and authorization code. There was a momentary delay, then the screen cleared and displayed the message: READY FOR SECURITY ACCESS. Drake typed in a twelve-digit string of alphanumerics known only to himself and the Admiralty master computer. The screen blanked once more. After a second’s wait, words began to scroll up the screen.

From ANTARES DAWN by Michael McCollum (1998)

(ed note: during the Asteroid Revolutionary War, asterite Robert Flowers is doing courier duty, running top-secret messages from Sam's asteroid to Pallas in a one-man high-acceleration spaceship. Unfortunately he is intercepted by the cruiser Chicago of North America.)

      Although—wait! The signal was coming in much too strong. Either the warship had gotten close, or it was sending a maser beam. Sweat prickled forth on his skin. He got busy with his instruments.
     Both cases were true. The ship had locked a beam onto his vessel and it was coming about to make rendezvous.
     So its sky-sweeping radars had picked him up after all, and never lost him again.

     No choice, after that, but to answer. He flipped a switch. “Scoopship Whiskey Johnny receiving call,” he said in a flat basso.
     “NASS Chicago transmittin’. Prepare to match velocities.” (NASS = North American Space Ship)
     “What the double blue hell is this? I’m minding my own business.”
      “I doubt that,” drawled the Texan voice. “You're from Sam's for Pallas. Don't bother denyin' it. We got plenty good data on your path. So you're a courier.”
     “You're out of your ever-loving mind,” said the asterite. in rather more pungent language.
     “What else would you be, son, in a small fast boat like that? Listen, don't try to get rid of your dispatches. We're near enough to register anything you pitch out the air lock. As of this minute, you're a prisoner of war and subject to discipline.”

     The ensign saluted. “Reporting with prisoner, sir. He had this aboard his boat.”
     “Let me see.” Commander Ulstad—must be him, and he must be Intelligence—reached for the tube. He unscrewed the cap and shook out a scroll of shiny plastic. Spreading it on his desk, he looked for a moment at the blank surface.
     “Yes, evidently his dispatches.” he murmured. “Magnetic, what else?” He rose and went into his laboratory. Flowers saw him thread the scroll into a scanner. The machine clicked to itself. A screen flickered with shifting dots, lines, curves.
     Flowers knew. in a general way, how the system worked: analogously to an old-fashioned tape recording. The visual pattern of the message was encoded in a series of magnetic pulses which imposed a corresponding pattern on iron particles embedded in the plastic. Of course, for military purposes you first enciphered the message and then put a scrambler in the recording circuit. The result couldn't even be seen, let alone cleared. without a descrambler in the playback.
     Ulstad frowned and made adjustments. Realization jarred through Flowers: He expects to project the thing. Blast and befoul! Somehow they've learned our scrambler patterns.
     The officer tried several other settings. Nonsensical images gibed at him. Flowers sank into a chair. A slow. happy grin spread across his mouth. So the Republic had gotten wise and adopted a new code, huh? Gr-r-reat!

     “Well.” Ulstad returned. Excitement barely tinged his voice. “We seem to have caught a rather big fish.” He punched the intercom. “Commander Ulstad here. Get me Captain Thomas.”
     The cruiser‘s captain spoke out of it. “Yes. Commander. what do you want?”
     “About this courier we just captured, sir,” Ulstad told him. “I can’t read his dispatches. That means the enemy has changed the scrambler code again, and no doubt the ciphers as well.
     “So in the first place. sir, the enemy probably realizes that we have cracked his last set of codes. He doesn‘t change them often or lightly. when word about new arrangements has to be sent over lines of communication as long as his. Therefore. our own GHQ has to know. Then second, this particular message must be delivered for analysis as fast as possible. I respectfully suggest that we shoot a speedster off to Luna Base at once.”

     “Um-m-m,” grunted the captain. “Don’t like that. Too many asterite frigates skulking around.”
     “Well, then. we’d better make rendezvous with a ship able to defend herself, and send the message by her.”
     “We've mighty few ships to spare, Commander.” The captain paused. “But this is important. I'll contact CINCOBELT (Commander IN Chief Of asteroid Belt) when our position allows, and they'll see what can be done.”
     “Thank you, sir.” Ulstad turned off the intercom.

     His gaze went to Flowers. who had gone rigid, and he nodded. “Yes,” he said, “we have computers at Luna Base which can discover any scrambler pattern and then go on to break any cipher. Not too easily, I confess. You have some fiendishly clever people in your code section. But the machines can always grind out the answer, by sheer electronic patience.”
     Flowers recollected some remarks overheard when he reported for briefing. He hadn't paid much attention. But … yeah, asterite Intelligence must suspect the truth. There had been comings and goings of late, couriers bringing secret word from Pallas to Sam's as well as to other Republican centers. Only the higher-ups knew what that word amounted to. A warning?

     “De gustibus non dispurandum est, which personally I translate as ‘There is no disputing that Gus is in the east.‘ You weren't a Jupiter diver in civilian life, I’m sure of that.”
     “No. a rockjack. Construction gang superintendent, if you must know. We only use scoopships for messenger boats because they’re fast. Their regular pilots are too good for that kind of job. Do better at captaining warcraft.

     “How well I realize that.” Ulstad sighed. “I wonder, though, why you don't send more stuff directly by maser.
     Flowers clammed up.
     Ulstad grinned. “All right, I'll tell you.” he said. “First. our side has too good a chance of intercepting a beam; and evidently your Intelligence suspects we can break your cryptograms. A courier flits away from the ecliptic plane and probably makes a safe trip. Second, if we really can use your own ciphers, and you relied too much on radio. we could send misleading messages to your commanders.(or even man-in-the-middle) He shrugged. “Of course, the courier system ties up boats that might be put to better use elsewhere. But then, it ties up a lot of our fleet on patrol duty, so honors are even.

     “Not quite,” Flowers snapped. “Especially after the last battle.”
     “The engagement near Sam's, you mean? I take it you were there?”
     “I sure was, chum.”
     “In what capacity?” drawled Ulstad.
     Flowers crammed on a deceleration vector. “Never mind. It's enough that you took a licking.”
     “We'd at least like to know what happened to those of our ships which never reported back. Were all of them utterly destroyed?”
     “I suppose so.”
     Ulstad leaned across the desk. “Even if you weren't told officially, you may have heard something.” His smile was wistful. “I'm interested for private reasons. A nephew on the Vega.”
     “Sorry. I can't help you. though.”

From SAY IT WITH FLOWERS by Poul Anderson (1965)


Also known as Authentication. These are usually open letters that anyone can read, or at least more than just the recipient. These are less a letter and more like a binding legal contract (where both parties have to sign the document). Or a certification like a pilot's license or something along those lines (where just the accrediting authority signs the document).

In medieval times, to authenticate (sign) a document or contract a pendant wax seal was used. The document is not closed or enclosed: anybody can read it. But a loop of ribbon is attached, with the ends joined with a blob of sealing wax embossed with the matrix. This proves that the sealer has signed the document. These were generally embossed with a special two-sided matrix, which a pattern on both sides of the wax blob (sometimes the two matrix sides were held by two different people, sort of a medieval two-man rule).

The pendant wax seals are permanent signatures on the document, they are not intentionally broken as are applied wax seals. Since the wax seals were made of fragile wax, they were often protected by being put in little pouches of leather or fabric. A broken pendant wax seal can no longer be proof of a signature.

The ribbon is to prevent re-use of the pendant wax seal as a type of forgery (i.e., removing it from a legitimately signed document and fraudulently attaching it to another document in order to forge a signature). Presumably the cut in the ribbon or the cut in the original document would be a dead giveaway.

To prevent abuse, it was traditional for a matrix to be destroyed or defaced after the death of the owner (since dead people have little need to sign documents). Needless to say, being caught in possession of a signet ring or other matrix that didn't belong to you was indisputable physical evidence of a crime. It was even worse if the signet ring was a forgery.

The symbol on the matrix was usually the coat of arms of the owner. This is because [A] heraldic coats of arms are intentionally designed to be easily visually distinguishable, and [B] non-nobles generally couldn't read but can recognize icons (think modern-day corporate logos designed so simple-minded consumers in the grocery store will know which product to buy).

By the Nineteenth century instead of wax it was common to glue on a colored paper wafer and imprint upon it an impression of a seal using an embossing machine or press. These are still used by notaries public.

In the 1900s England, the used of seals declined into a curious practice of signing legal documents by affixing a postage stamp and writing one's signature across it.

In the western world a handwritten signature has taken the place of a seal. Even though signature forgery is an easily acquired skill. And it is even easier to forge a signature using a cell phone camera along with an ink-jet printer and 30 seconds of work with Adobe Photoshop.

In the eastern world they often still use seals (known in local colloquial English as a "chop"). These are traditionally used with red ink made from cinnabar.

In Japan, there are at least four kinds of seals. Only one (jitsuin 実印) is registered with the government to certify ownership and it is only used for legally binding events. Since the jitsuin is far too valuable to just carry around in your pocket, Japanese citizen use the cheaper type of seals for things like bank transactions and taking deliveries. Jitsuin are typically stored in a bank safety deposit box. The seals are usually hand carved, and will cost roughly $100 US to have one made.

Ginkō-in (銀行印) seals are for bank transations. So they are custom-made by professionals or citizens make their own by hand. They are generally only carried if you are planning to visit the bank on that day.

Mitome-in (認印) seals are for low-security signatures, such as postal deliveries, signing utility bill payments, signing internal company memos, etc. These are generic seals, plastic seals with the more common Japanese names can be found at stationary stores for about $10 US. These seals can be stored in desk drawers and other unsecured places.

Gagō-in (雅号印) seals are generally for artists to sign their artwork. Instead of their name, the seal can have the artist's pen name or nickname.

Japan is worried that modern technology is making it progressively easier to forge seals. In Jennifer Lindsky's science fiction novel Flowers of Luna the seals incorporate a near-field chip containing a digital signature to verify the stamp.


(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)

Ensign Dominic Flandry, Imperial Naval Flight Corps, did not know whether he was alive through luck or management. At the age of nineteen, with the encoding molecules hardly settled down on your commission, it was natural to think the latter. But had a single one of the factors he had used to save himself been absent — He didn’t care to dwell on that.

From ENSIGN FLANDRY by Poul Anderson (1966)

      Kyger, having seen the party off, called Troy to his office. The com plate on the wall was already activated, and on it was the palm-sized length of white Troy had hardly dared to hope he would ever see.
     “Contract” — Kyger was clearly in a hurry to have this done — “to hold a seven-day term. No off-world clause. Suit you, Horan?”
     Troy nodded. Even a seven-day contract was to be cherished. He asked only one question. “Renewal for kind?”
     “Renewal for kind,” the other agreed without hesitation, and Troy’s confidence soared. He crossed the small room, set his right hand flat against that glowing plate (biometrics authentication). “Troy Horan, Norden, class two, accepts contract for seven days, not off-world, from Kyger’s,” he recited, allowing his hand to remain tight against the heated panel for a full moment before he gave way to Kyger.
     The other’s hand, wider, the fingers thicker and blunter at the tips, smacked against the white oblong in turn.
     “Kossi Kyger, registered merchant, accepts contract for seven days from Troy Horan, laborer. Record it so.
     The metallic voice of the recorder chattered back at them. “It is so sealed and noted.”

From CATSEYE by Andre Norton (1961)


As mentioned above, public-key encryption will ensure the message is immutable. If an evil man-in-the-middle alters the encrypted message in any way, it will decrypt into gobbledegook. Unless the evil person has the sender's private encryption key, in which case the sender has bigger problems.

The low-tech alternative is to not transmit the message over the public internet, but instead use secure lines or have it hand-delivered by courier.


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)

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.

Future Reading


     "If it's economically feasible," Yueh said. "Arrakis has many costly perils." He smoothed his drooping mustache. "Your father will be here soon. Before I go, I've a gift for you, something I came across in packing." He put an object on the table between them-black, oblong, no larger than the end of Paul's thumb.
     Paul looked at it. Yueh noted how the boy did not reach for it, and thought: How cautious he is.
     "It's a very old Orange Catholic Bible made for space travelers. Not a filmbook, but actually printed on filament paper. It has its own magnifier and electrostatic charge system." He picked it up, demonstrated. "The book is held closed by the charge, which forces against spring-locked covers. You press the edge-thus, and the pages you've selected repel each other and the book opens."
     "It's so small."
     "But it has eighteen hundred pages. You press the edge—thus, and so … and the charge moves ahead one page at a time as you read. Never touch the actual pages with your fingers. The filament tissue is too delicate." He closed the book, handed it to Paul. "Try it."

(ed note: tiny books on desert survival include a small glow-tab so the book can be read at night)

From DUNE by Frank Herbert

There was plenty to occupy his time, even if he did nothing but sit and read. When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad (how quaint! Remember before the advent of Google, when there were magazines with lists of URL web links?). Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.

Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.

Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man’s quest for perfect communications. Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word “newspaper,” of course, was an anachronistic hangover into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites.

It was hard to imagine how the system could be improved or made more convenient. But sooner or later, Floyd guessed, it would pass away, to be replaced by something as unimaginable as the Newspad itself would have been to Caxton or Gutenberg.

There was another thought which a scanning of those tiny electronic headlines often invoked. The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry, or depressing its contents seemed to be. Accidents, crimes, natural and man-made disasters, threats of conflict, gloomy editorials — these still seemed to be the main concern of the millions of words being sprayed into the ether. Yet Floyd also wondered if this was altogether a bad thing; the newspapers of Utopia, he had long ago decided, would be terribly dull.

From 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY by Arthur C. Clarke (1969)

      The first necessary factor in Jorry’s planning came into his grasp when the ancient driveship Phoenix XXVII landed on Tricaps. The ship was manned by two young starfarers who had found it drifting, an interstellar derelict with a crew of dust and dry bones, and had claimed it as their own. Its arrival on the planet caused a great sensation, for the Phoenix XXVII was no less than three galactic centuries old, a repository of items long since forgotten, hence of great potential value. The cargo of books alone—nine genuine Old Earth books, printed on paper— was worth the price of the ship.

     When they were reunited on the ledge, Jorry reached into his tunic and withdrew a folded piece of metallic cloth covered with markings.
     “Is that the map?” Bral asked.
     “A kind of map. Can any of you read?” Jorry asked, laying out the document on the fiat rock. As it developed—and as he had already determined—none of his crew had troubled to master the arcane and venerable art of reading letters, or of writing them. It was a rare skill in those times.
     Jorry explained the mysterious markings for the others.

From UNDER A CALCULATING STAR by John Morressy (1975)

Hackworth compiles the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

Hackworth put Cotton's document atop the Runcible stack and guillotined it against the desktop a couple of times, superstitiously trying to make it look neat. He carried it to the corner of his office, over by the window, where a new piece of furniture had recently been rolled in by the porter: a cherrywood cabinet on brass casters. It came up to his waist. On top was a polished brass mechanism- an automatic document reader with detachable tray. A small door in the back betrayed a Feed port, one centimeter, typical of household appliances but startlingly wimpy in a heavy industrial works, especially considering that this cabinet contained one of the most powerful computers on earth- five cc's of Bespoke rod logic. It used about a hundred thousand watts of power, which came in over the superconducting part of the Feed. The power had to be dissipated, or else the computer would incinerate itself and most of the building too. Getting rid of that energy had been much more of an engineering job than the rod logic. The latest Feed protocol had a solution built in: a device could now pull ice off the Feed, one microscopic chunk at a time, and output warm water.

Hackworth put the stack of documents into the feed tray on top and told the machine to compile Runcible. There was a card-shuffling buzz as the reader grabbed the edge of each page momentarily and extracted its contents. The flexible Feed line, which ran from the wall into the back of the cabinet, jerked and stiffened orgasmically as the computer's works sucked in a tremendous jolt of hypersonic ice and shot back warm water. A fresh sheet of paper appeared in the cabinet's output tray.

The top of the document read, "RUNCIBLE VERSION 1.0— COMPILED SPECIFICATION." The only other thing on the document was a picture of the final product, nicely rendered in Hackworth's signature pseudo-engraved style. It looked exactly like a book.

On his way down the vast helical stair in the largest and most central of Bespoke's atria, Hackworth pondered his upcoming crime. It was entirely too late to go back now. It flustered him that he had unconsciously made up his mind months ago without marking the occasion.

Though Bespoke was a design rather than a production house, it had its own matter compilers, including a couple of fairly big ones, a hundred cubic meters. Hackworth had reserved a more modest desktop model, one-tenth of a cubic meter. Use of these compilers had to be logged, so he identified himself and the project first. Then the machine accepted the edge of the document.

Hackworth told the matter compiler to begin immediately, and then looked through a transparent wall of solid diamond into the eutactic environment.

A leaf of paper was about a hundred thousand nanometers thick; a third of a million atoms could fit into this span. Smart paper consisted of a network of infinitesimal computers sandwiched between mediatrons. A mediation was a thing that could change its color from place to place; two of them accounted for about two-thirds of the paper's thickness, leaving an internal gap wide enough to contain structures a hundred thousand atoms wide.

Light and air could easily penetrate to this point, so the works were contained within vacuoles— airless buckminsterfullerene shells overlaid with a reflective aluminum layer so that they would not implode en masse whenever the page was exposed to sunlight. The interiors of the buckyballs, then, constituted something close to a eutactic environment. Here resided the rod logic that made the paper smart. Each of these spherical computers was linked to its four neighbors, north-east-southwest, by a bundle of flexible pushrods running down a flexible, evacuated buckytube, so that the page as a whole constituted a parallel computer made up of about a billion separate processors. The individual processors weren't especially smart or fast and were so susceptible to the elements that typically only a small fraction of them were working, but even with those limitations the smart paper still constituted, among other things, a powerful graphical computer.

And still, Hackworth reflected, it had nothing on Runcible, whose pages were thicker and more densely packed with computational machinery, each sheet folded four times into a sixteen-page signature, thirty-two signatures brought together in a spine that, in addition to keeping the book from falling apart, functioned as an enormous switching system and database. It was made to be robust, but it still had to be born in the eutactic womb, a solid diamond vacuum chamber housing a start matter compiler. The diamond was doped with something that let only red light pass through; standard engineering practice eschewed any molecular bonds that were tenuous enough to be broken by those lazy red photons, underachievers of the visible spectrum. Thus the growth of your prototype was visible through the window— a good last-ditch safety measure. If your code was buggy and your project grew too large, threatening to shatter the walls of the chamber, you could always shut it down via the ludicrously low-tech expedient of shutting off the Feed line.

Hackworth wasn't worried, but he watched the initial phases of growth anyway, just because it was always interesting. In the beginning was an empty chamber, a diamond hemisphere, glowing with dim red light. In the center of the floor slab, one could see a naked cross-section of an eight-centimeter Feed, a central vacuum pipe surrounded by a collection of smaller lines, each a bundle of microscopic conveyor belts carrying nanomechanical building blocks— individual atoms, or scores of them linked together in handy modules.

The matter compiler was a machine that sat at the terminus of a Feed and, following a program, plucked molecules from the conveyors one at a time and assembled them into more complicated structures. Hackworth was the programmer. Runcible was the program. It was made up of a number of subprograms, each of which had resided on a separate piece of paper until a few minutes ago, when the immensely powerful computer in Hackworth's office had compiled them into a single finished program written in a language that the matter compiler could understand.

A transparent haze coalesced across the terminus of the Feed, mold on an overripe strawberry. The haze thickened and began adopting a shape, some parts a little higher than others. It spread across the floor away from the Feed line until it had filled out its footprint: one quadrant of a circle with a radius of a dozen centimeters. Hackworth continued to watch until he was sure he could see the top edge of the book growing out of it.

In the corner of this lab stood an evolved version of a copy machine that could take just about any kind of recorded information and transmogrify it into something else. It could even destroy a piece of information and then attest to the fact that it had been destroyed, which was useful in the relatively paranoid environment of Bespoke. Hackworth gave it the document containing the compiled Runcible code and destroyed it. Provably.

When it was finished, Hackworth released the vacuum and lifted the red diamond dome. The finished book stood upright atop the system that had extruded it, which was turned into a junkheap as soon as it was touched by the air. Hackworth picked up the book in his right hand and the extruder in his left, and tossed the latter into a junk bin.

He locked the book in a desk drawer, picked up his top hat, gloves, and walking-stick, stepped into his walker, and set off for the Causeway. Toward Shanghai.

(ed note: The resulting item looks like an old fashioned book titled: the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. It is actually a sophisticated computer running an interactive book, programmed to teach the reader how to maximize their abilities.)

(ed note: the book is covertly given to a disadvantaged young girl living in the ghetto named Nell)

     But Harv (Nell's older brother) saved the biggest thing for last, and he withdrew it with ceremony.
     "I had to fight for this, Nell," he said. "I fought hard because I was afraid the others would break it up for parts. I'm giving it to you."
     It appeared to be a flat decorated box. Nell could tell immediately that it was fine. She had not seen many fine things in her life, but they had a look of their own, dark and rich like chocolate, with glints of gold.
     "Both hands," Harv admonished her, "it's heavy."
     Nell reached out with both hands and took it. Harv was right, it was heavier than it looked. She had to lay it down in her lap or she'd drop it. It was not a box at all. It was a solid thing. The top was printed with golden letters. The left edge was rounded and smooth, made of something that felt warm and soft but strong. The other edges were indented slightly, and they were cream-colored.
     Harv could not put up with the wait. "Open it," he said.

Harv leaned toward her, caught the upper-right corner under his finger, and flipped it. The whole lid of the thing bent upward around a hinge on the left side, pulling a flutter of cream-colored leaves after it. Underneath the cover was a piece of paper with a picture on it and some more letters. On the first page of the book was a picture of a little girl sitting on a bench. Above the bench was a thing like a ladder, except it was horizontal, supported at each end by posts. Thick vines twisted up the posts and gripped the ladder, where they burst into huge flowers.

The girl had her back to Nell; she was looking down a grassy slope sprinkled with little flowers toward a blue pond. On the other side of the pond rose mountains like the ones they supposedly had in the middle of New Chusan, where the fanciest Vickys of all had their æstival houses. The girl had a book open on her lap. The facing page had a little picture in the upper left, consisting of more vines and flowers wrapped around a giant egg-shaped letter. But the rest of that page was nothing but tiny black letters without decoration. Nell turned it and found two more pages of letters, though a couple of them were big ones with pictures drawn around them. She turned another page and found another picture. In this one, the little girl had set aside her book and was talking to a big black bird that had apparently gotten its foot tangled up in the vines overhead. She flipped another page.

The pages she'd already turned were under her left thumb. They were trying to work their way loose, as if they were alive. She had to press down harder and harder to keep them there. Finally they bulged up in the middle and slid out from underneath her thumb and, flop-flop-flop, returned to the beginning of the story.

"Once upon a time," said a woman's voice, "there was a little girl named Elizabeth who liked to sit in the bower in her grandfather's garden and read story-books." The voice was soft, meant just for her, with an expensive Victorian accent.

Nell slammed the book shut and pushed it away. It slid across the floor and came to rest by the sofa. The next day, Mom's boyfriend Tad came home in a bad mood. He had already come in with his beer and begun rooting through the stuff on the sofa with his other hand, trying to find the control pad for the mediatron. He threw a lot of Harv's and Nell's toys on the floor and then stepped on the book with his bare foot.

"Ouch, god damn it!" Tad shouted. He looked down at the book in disbelief. "What the f**k is this?!" He wound up as if to kick it, then thought better of it, remembering he was barefoot. He picked it up and hefted it, looking straight at Nell and getting a fix on her range and azimuth. "Stupid little c**t, how many times do I have to tell you to keep your f**king s**t cleaned up!" Then he turned away from her slightly, wrapping his arm around his body, and snapped the book straight at her head like a frisbee.

She stood watching it come toward her because it did not occur to her to get out of the way, but at the last moment the covers flew open. The pages spread apart. They all bent like feathers as they hit her in the face, and it didn't hurt at all.

The book fell to the floor at her feet, open to an illustrated page. The picture was of a big dark man and a little girl in a cluttered room, the man angrily flinging a book at the little girl's head. "Once upon a time there was a little girl named C**t," the book said.

"My name is Nell," Nell said.

A tiny disturbance propagated through the grid of letters on the facing page.

"Your name's mud if you don't f**king clean this s**t up," Tad said. "But do it later, I want some f**king privacy for once."

Nell's hands were full, and so she shoved the book down the hallway and into the kids' room with her foot. She dumped all her stuff on her mattress and then ran back and shut the door. She left her magic wand and sword nearby in case she should need them, then set Dinosaur, Duck, Peter, and Purple into bed, all in a neat to be a bird. Big letters appeared beneath. "R A V E N," the book said. "Raven. Now, say it with me."


"Very good! Nell, you are a clever girl, and you have much talent with words. Can you spell raven?"

Nell hesitated. She was still blushing from the praise. After a few seconds, the first of the letters began to blink. Nell prodded it. The letter grew until it had pushed all the other letters and pictures off the edges of the page. The loop on top shrank and became a head, while the lines sticking out the bottom developed into legs and began to scissor. "R is for Run," the book said. The picture kept on changing until it was a picture of Nell. Then something fuzzy and red appeared beneath her feet. "Nell Runs on the Red Rug," the book said, and as it spoke, new words appeared.

"Why is she running?"

"Because an Angry Alligator Appeared," the book said, and panned back quite some distance to show an alligator, waddling along ridiculously, no threat to the fleet Nell. The alligator became frustrated and curled itself into a circle, which became a small letter.

"A is for Alligator. The Very Vast alligator Vainly Viewed Nell's Valiant Velocity." The little story went on to include an Excited Elf who was Nibbling Noisily on some Nuts. Then the picture of the Raven came back, with the letters beneath. "Raven. Can you spell raven, Nell?" A hand materialized on the page and pointed to the first letter.

"R," Nell said.

"Very good! You are a clever girl, Nell, and good with letters," the book said. "What is this letter?" and it pointed to the second one.

This one Nell had forgotten. But the book told her a story about an Ape named Albert.

     Once upon a time there was a little Princess named Nell who was imprisoned in a tall dark castle on an island in the middle of a great sea, with a little boy named Harv, who was her friend and protector. She also had four special friends named Dinosaur, Duck, Peter Rabbit, and Purple.
     Princess Nell and Harv could not leave the Dark Castle, but from time to time a Raven would come to visit them and tell them of the wonderful things over the sea in the Land Beyond. One day the Raven helped Princess Nell escape from the castle, but alas, poor Harv was too big and had to stay locked up behind the castle's great iron door with twelve locks.
     Princess Nell loved Harv like a brother and refused to abandon him, so she and her friends, Dinosaur, Duck, Peter, and Purple, traveled over the sea in a little red boat, having many adventures, until they came to the Land Beyond. This was divided into twelve countries each ruled by a Faery King or a Faery Queen. Each King or Queen had a wonderful Castle, and each Castle was a Treasury containing gold and jewels, and in each Treasury was a jeweled Key that would open one of the twelve locks on the iron door of the Dark Castle.
     Princess Nell and her friends had many adventures as they visited each of the twelve kingdoms and collected the twelve keys. Some they got by persuasion, some by cleverness, and some they took in battle. By the end of the quest, some of Nell's four friends had died, and some had gone their separate ways. But Nell was not alone, for she had become a great heroine during her adventures.
     In a great ship, accompanied by many soldiers, servants, and elders, Nell traveled back over the sea to the island of the Dark Castle. As she approached the iron door, Harv saw her from the top of a tower and gruffly told her to go away, for Princess Nell had changed so much during her Quest that Harv no longer recognized her. "I have come to set you free," Princess Nell said. Harv again told her to go away, saying that he had all the freedom he wanted within the walls of the Dark Castle.
     Princess Nell put the twelve keys into the twelve locks and began to open them one by one. When the rusty door of the castle finally creaked open, she saw Harv standing with a bow at the ready, and an arrow drawn, pointed straight at her heart. He let fly the arrow, and it struck her in the chest and would have killed her except that she was wearing a locket Harv had given her many years ago, before she left the castle. The arrow struck and shattered the locket. In the same moment, Harv was cut down by an arrow from one of Princess Nell's soldiers. Nell rushed to her fallen brother to comfort him and wept over his body for three days and three nights.
     When finally she dried her eyes, she saw that the Dark Castle had become glorious; for the river of tears that had flowed from her eyes had watered the grounds, and beautiful gardens and forests had sprung up overnight, and the Dark Castle itself was no longer dark, but a shining beacon filled with delightful things.
     Princess Nell lived in that castle and ruled over that island for the rest of her days, and every morning she would go for a walk in the garden where Harv had fallen. She had many adventures and became a great Queen, and in time she met and married a Prince, and had many children, and lived happily ever after.

     "What's an adventure?" Nell said.
     The word was written across the page. Then both pages filled with moving pictures of glorious things: girls in armor fighting dragons with swords, and girls riding white unicorns through the forest, and girls swinging from vines, swimming in the blue ocean, piloting rocket ships through space. Nell spent a long time looking at all of the pictures, and after a while all of the girls began to look like older versions of herself.

     "Once upon a time there was a little Princess named Nell who was imprisoned in a tall dark castle on an island-"
     "Nell and Harv had been locked up in the Dark Castle by their evil stepmother."
     "Why didn't their father let them out of the Dark Castle?"
     "Their father, who had protected them from the whims of the wicked stepmother, had gone sailing over the sea and never come back."
     "Why did he never come back?"
     "Their father was a fisherman. He went out on his boat every day. The sea is a vast and dangerous place, filled with monsters, storms, and other dangers. No one knows what fate befell him. Perhaps it was foolish of him to sail into such danger, but Nell knew better than to fret over things she could not change."
     "Why did she have a wicked stepmother?"
     "Nell's mother died one night when a monster came out of the sea and entered their cottage to snatch Nell and Harv, who were just babies. She fought with the monster and slew it, but in so doing suffered grievous wounds and died the next day with her adopted children still nestled in her bosom."
     "Why did the monster come from the sea?"
     "For many years, Nell's father and mother badly wanted children but were not so blessed until one day, when the father caught a mermaid in his net. The mermaid said that if he let her go, she would grant him a wish, so he wished for two children, a boy and a girl.
     "The next day, while he was out fishing, he was approached by a mermaid carrying a basket. In the basket were the two little babies, just as he had requested, wrapped up in cloth of gold. The mermaid cautioned him that he and his wife should not allow the babies to cry at night."
     "Why were they in gold cloth?"
     "They were actually a Princess and a Prince who had been in a shipwreck. The ship sank, but the basket containing the two babies bobbed like a cork on the ocean until the mermaids came and found them. They took care of those two babies until they found a good parent for them.
     "He took the babies back to the cottage and presented them to his wife, who swooned for joy. They lived happily together for some time, and whenever one of the babies cried, one of the parents would get up and comfort it. But one night father did not come home, because a storm had pushed his little red fishing boat far out to sea. One of the babies began to cry, and the mother got up to comfort it. But when the other began to cry as well, there was nothing she could do, and shortly the monster came calling.
     "When the fisherman returned home the next day, he found his wife's body lying beside that of the monster, and both of the babies unharmed. His grief was very great, and he began the difficult task of raising both the children.
     "One day, a stranger came to his door. She said that she had been cast out by the cruel Kings and Queens of the Land Beyond and that she needed a place to sleep and would do any kind of work in exchange. At first she slept on the floor and cooked and cleaned for the fisherman all day long, but as Nell and Harv got bigger, she began to give them more and more chores, until by the time their father disappeared, they toiled from dawn until long after nightfall, while their stepmother never lifted a finger."
     "Why didn't the fisherman and his babies live in the castle to protect them from the monster?"
     "The castle was a dark forbidding place on the top of a mountain. The fisherman had been told by his father that it had been built many ages ago by trolls, who were still said to live there. And he did not have the twelve keys."
     "Did the wicked stepmother have the twelve keys?"
     "She kept them buried in a secret place as long as the fisherman was around, but after he sailed away and did not come back, she had Nell and Harv dig them up again, along with a quantity of jewels and gold that she had brought with her from the Land Beyond. She bedecked herself with the gold and jewels, then opened up the iron gates of the Dark Castle and tricked Nell and Harv into going inside. As soon as they were in, she slammed the gates shut behind them and locked the twelve locks. 'When the sun goes down, the trolls will have you for a snack!' she cackled."

     "What's a troll?"
     "A scary monster that lives in holes in the ground and comes out after dark."
     Nell started to cry. She slammed the book closed, ran to her bed, gathered her stuffed animals up in her arms, started chewing on her blanket, and cried for a while, considering the question of trolls.
     The book made a fluttering sound. Nell saw it opening in the corner of her eye and looked over cautiously, afraid she might see a picture of a troll. But instead, she saw two pictures. One was of Princess Nell, sitting on the grass with four dolls gathered in her arms. Facing it was a picture of Nell surrounded by four creatures: a big dinosaur, a rabbit, a duck, and a woman in a purple dress with purple hair.
     The book said, "Would you like to hear the story of how Princess Nell made some friends in the Dark Castle, where she least expected it, and how they killed all of the trolls and made it a safe place to live?"
     "Yes!" Nell said, and scooted across the floor until she was poised above the book.

     The illustration zoomed in on an open grassy area and became very detailed. Harv and Nell were trying to build a fire. There was a pile of wet logs Harv had chopped up. Harv also had a rock, which he was striking against the butt of a knife. Sparks flew out and were swallowed up by the wet logs.
     "You start the fire, Nell," Harv said, and left her alone.
     Then the picture stopped moving, and Nell realized, after a few minutes, that it was fully ractive now. She picked up the rock and the knife and began to whack them together (actually she was just moving her empty hands in space, but in the illustration Princess Nell's hands did the same thing). Sparks flew, but there was no fire.
     She kept at it for a while, getting more and more frustrated, until tears came to her eyes. But then one of the sparks went awry and landed in some dry grass. A little curl of smoke rose up and died out.
     She experimented a bit and learned that dry yellow grass worked better than green grass. Still, the fire never lasted for more than a few seconds.
     A gust of wind came up and blew a few dry leaves in her direction. She learned that the fire could spread from dry grass to leaves. The stem of a leaf was basically a small dry twig, so that gave her the idea to explore a little grove of trees and look for some twigs. The grove was densely overgrown, but she found what she was looking for beneath an old dead bush.
     "Good!" Harv said, when he came back and found her approaching with an armload of small dry sticks. "You found some kindling. You're a smart girl and a good worker."

     She knew these kids; they knew how to push and hit and scratch. She went to one corner of the room and sat with her magic book on her lap, waiting for one kid to get off the swing. When he did, she put her book in the corner and climbed onto the swing and started trying to pump her legs like the big kids did, but she couldn't get the swing to go. Then a big kid came and told her that she was not allowed to use the swing because she was too little. 'When Nell didn't get off right away, the kid shoved her off. Nell tumbled into the sand, scratching her hands and knees, and ran back toward the corner crying.
     But a couple of other kids had found her magic book and started kicking it around, making it slide back and forth across the floor like a hockey puck.. Nell ran up and tried to pick the book off the floor, but it slid too fast for her to catch it. The two kids began kicking it back and forth between them and finally tossing it through the air. Nell ran back and forth trying to keep up with the book. Soon there were four kids playing keep-away and six others standing around watching and laughing at Nell. Nell couldn't see things though because her eyes were full of tears, snot was running out of her nose, and her ribcage only quivered when she tried to breathe. Then one of the kids screamed and dropped the book. Quickly another darted in to grab it, and he screamed too. Then a third.
     Suddenly all the kids were silent and afraid. Nell rubbed the tears out of her eyes and ran over toward the book again, and this time the kids didn't throw it away from her; she picked it up and cradled it against her chest. The kids who'd been playing keep-away were all in the same pose: arms crossed over chests, hands wedged into armpits, jumping up and down like pogo sticks and screaming for their mothers.
     Nell sat in the corner, opened the book, and started to read. She did not know all of the words, but she knew a lot of them, and when she got tired, the book would help her sound out the words or even read the whole story to her, or tell it to her with moving pictures just like a cine.

     She loved all of her four companions, but her favorite had come to be Dinosaur. At first she'd found him a little scary, but then she'd come to understand that though he could be a terrible warrior, he was on her side and he loved her. She loved to ask him for stories about the old days before the Extinction, and about the time he had spent studying with the mouse Dojo.
     There were other students too . . . said the book, speaking in Dinosaur's voice, as Nell sat by herself in the corner of the playroom.
     . . . In those days we had no humans, but we did have monkeys, and one day a little girl monkey came to the entrance of our cave looking quite lonely. Dojo welcomed her inside, which surprised me because I thought Dojo only liked warriors. When the little monkey saw me, she froze in terror, but then Dojo flipped me over his shoulder and bounced me off the walls of the cave a few times to demonstrate that I was fully under control. He made her a bowl of soup and asked her why she was wandering around the forest all by herself.
     The monkey, whose name was Belle, explained that her mother and her mother's boyfriend had kicked her out of the family tree and told her to go swing on the vines for a couple of hours. But the bigger monkeys hogged all the vines and wouldn't let Belle swing, so Belle wandered off into the forest looking for companionship and got lost, finally stumbling upon the entrance to Dojo's cave.
     "You may stay with us for as long as you like," Dojo said.
     "All we do here is play games, and you are invited to join our games if it pleases you."
     "But I am supposed to be home soon," Belle complained. "My mother's boyfriend will give me a whipping otherwise."
     "Then I will show you the way from your family tree to my cave and back," Dojo said, "so that you can come here and play with us whenever your mother sends you out."
     Dojo and I helped Belle find her way back through the forest to her family tree. On our way back to the cave, I said, "Master, I do not understand."
     "What seems to be the trouble?" Dojo said.
     "You are a great warrior, and I am studying to become a great warrior myself. Is there a place in your cave for a little girl who just wants to play?"
     "I'll be the judge of who does and doesn't make a warrior," Dojo said.
     "But we are so busy with our drills and exercises," I said. "Do we have time to play games with the child, as you promised?"
     "What is a game but a drill that's dressed up in colorful clothing?" Dojo said. "Besides, given that, even without my instruction, you weigh ten tons and have a cavernous mouth filled with teeth like butcher knives, and that all creatures except me flee in abject terror at the mere sound of your footsteps, I do not think that you should begrudge a lonely little girl some play-time."
     At this I felt deeply ashamed, and when we got home, I swept out the cave seven times without even being asked. A couple of days later, when Belle came back to our cave looking lonely and forlorn, we both did our best to make her feel welcome. Dojo began playing some special games with her, which Belle enjoyed so much that she kept coming back, and believe it or not, after a couple of years of this had gone by, Belle was able to flip me over her shoulder just as well as Dojo.
     Nell laughed to think of a little girl monkey flipping a great dinosaur over her shoulder. She went back one page and reread the last part more carefully:
     A couple of days later, when Belle came back to our cave looking lonely and forlorn, we both did our best to make her feel welcome. Dojo made a special meal in his kitchen out of rice, fish, and vegetables and made sure that she ate every scrap. Then he began playing a special game with her called somersaults.
     An illustration materialized on the facing page. Nell recognized the open space in front of the entrance to Dojo's cave. Dojo was sitting up on a high rock giving instructions to Dinosaur and Belle. Dinosaur tried to do a somersault, but his tiny front arms could not support the weight of his massive head, and he fell flat on his face. Then Belle gave it a try and did a perfect somersault.

     Nell tried it too. It was confusing at first, because the world kept spinning around her while she did it. She looked at the illustration in the book and saw Belle doing exactly what Nell had done, making all of the same mistakes. Dojo scampered down from his rock and explained how Belle could keep her head and body straight. Nell followed the advice as she gave it another try, and this time it felt better. Before her time was up, she was doing perfect somersaults all over the playground. When she went back to the apartment, Mom wouldn't let her in at first, so she did somersaults up and down the hall for a while. (the book is teaching Nell karate) Finally Mom let her in, and when she saw that Nell had gotten sand in her hair and shoes down at the playground, she gave her a spanking and sent her to bed without any food.

     But the next morning she went to the M.C. (matter compiler, ghetto version that has a limited catalog of items it can make) and asked it for the special meal Dojo made for Belle. The M.C. said it couldn't really make fish, but it could make nanosurimi, which was kind of like fish. It could make rice too. Vegetables were a problem. Instead it gave her some green paste she could eat with a spoon. Nell told the M.C. that this was her Belle food and that she was going to have it all the time from now on, and after that the M.C. always knew what she wanted. (the book is teaching Nell how to eat a healthy diet)

     Nell didn't call it her magic book anymore, she called it by the name printed plain as day on the title page, which she'd only been able to read recently:   YOUNG LADY'S ILLUSTRATED PRIMER a Propædeutic Enchiridion in which is told the tale of Princess Nell and her various friends, kin, associates, c.  
     The Primer didn't speak to her as often as it used to. She had found that she could often read the words more quickly than the book spoke them, and so she usually ordered it to be silent. She often put it under her pillow and had it read her bedtime stories, though, and sometimes she even woke up in the middle of the night and heard it whispering things to her that she had just been dreaming about. (the book is also doing sleep-learning)

From THE DIAMOND AGE by Neal Stephenson (1995)

Future Writing

Science fiction writers back in the middle of last century thought that speech-to-text technology would happen any day now. While there are some example of such software nowadays, none of them is quite ready for prime time yet.

For a while with early PDAs there was some experimenting with using a stylus and special written alphabet for text entry. But currently most people use conventional keyboards for their desktop computers, and cramped touch sensitive virtual keyboard on smartphones that are almost but not quite totally impossible to use if you have fat fingers.


The father, the following year, took David Phillips, 3rd, to London. There was a man there, Henry Jordon, who had gained international renown by his work with vibrations. He was the inventor of the vibrowriter, the new typewriter that could be talked to, and which transposed the spoken sound into typed words, a contrivance which made perfect spelling possible, provided the words were perfectly pronounced. The father had an idea and was willing to travel four thousand miles and spend any amount of money to find out whether he was right or wrong. His letters of introduction opened the door to the scientist’s workshop; his story opened the door to the man’s heart; the adorable healthy boy at once won the inventor’s interest and love.

From THE LOST LANGUAGE by David Keller (1934)

      With the deep, unconscious sigh which not even the nearness of the telescreen could prevent him from uttering when his day’s work started, Winston pulled the speakwrite towards him, blew the dust from its mouthpiece, and put on his spectacles. Then he unrolled and clipped together four small cylinders of paper which had already flopped out of the pneumatic tube on the right-hand side of his desk.

     Winston glanced across the hall. In the corresponding cubicle on the other side a small, precise-looking, darkchinned man named Tillotson was working steadily away, with a folded newspaper on his knee and his mouth very close to the mouthpiece of the speakwrite. He had the air of trying to keep what he was saying a secret between himself and the telescreen. He looked up, and his spectacles darted a hostile flash in Winston’s direction

From NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by George Orwell (1948)

      Arcadia Darell declaimed firmly into the mouthpiece of her transcriber: "The Future of Seldon's Plan, by A. Darell" and then thought darkly that some day when she was a great writer, she would write all her masterpieces under the pseudonym of Arkady. Just Arkady. No last name at all.
     "A. Darell" would be just the sort of thing that she would have to put on all her themes for her class in Composition and Rhetoric - so tasteless. All the other kids had to do it, too, except for Olynthus Dam, because the class laughed so when he did it the first time, And "Arcadia" was a little girls name, wished on her because her great-grandmother had been called that; her parents just had no imagination at all.
     Now that she was two days past fourteen, you'd think they'd recognize the simple fact of adulthood and call her Arkady. Her lips tightened as she thought of her father looking up from his book-viewer just long enough to say, "But if you're going to pretend you're nineteen, Arcadia, what will you do when you're twenty-five and all the boys think you're thirty?"
     Then she lifted her chin, caught herself at a half-profile, and with her eyes a little strained from looking out the comer and her neck muscles faintly aching, she said, in a voice one octave below its natural pitch, "Really, father, if you think it makes a particle of difference to me what some silly old boys think you just—"
     And then she remembered that she still had the transmitter open in her hand and said, drearily, "Oh, golly," and shut it off.
     The faintly violet paper with the peach margin line on the left had upon it the following:
Really, father, if you think it makes a particle of difference to me what some silly old boys think you just
Oh, golly.
     She pulled the sheet out of the machine with annoyance and another clicked neatly into place.
     But her face smoothed out of its vexation, nevertheless, and her wide, little mouth stretched into a self-satisfied smile. She sniffed at the paper delicately. just right. Just that proper touch of elegance and charm. And the penmanship was just the last word.
     The machine had been delivered two days ago on her first adult birthday. She had said, "But father, everybody — just everybody in the class who has the slightest pretensions to being anybody has one. Nobody but some old drips would use hand machines—"
     The salesman had said, "There is no other model as compact on the one hand and as adaptable on the other. It will spell and punctuate correctly according to the sense of the sentence. Naturally, it is a great aid to education since it encourages the user to employ careful enunciation and breathing in order to make sure of the correct spelling, to say nothing of demanding a proper and elegant delivery for correct punctuation."
     Even then her father had tried to get one geared for type-print as if she were some dried-up, old-maid teacher.
     But when it was delivered, it was the model she wanted — obtained perhaps with a little more wail and sniffle than quite went with the adulthood of fourteen — and copy was turned out in a charming and entirely feminine handwriting, with the most beautifully graceful capitals anyone ever saw.
     Even the phrase, "Oh, golly." somehow breathed glamour when the Transcriber was done with it.
But just the same she had to get it right, so she sat up straight in her chair, placed her first draft before her in businesslike fashion, and began again, crisply and clearly; her abdomen flat, her chest lifted, and her breathing carefully controlled. She intoned, with dramatic fervor:
The Future of Seldon's Plan.
In the days, nearly four centuries ago, when the First Galactic Empire was decaying into the paralysis that preceded final death, one man — the great Hari Seldon — foresaw the approaching end. Through the science of psychohistory, the intrissacies of whose mathematics has long since been forgotten,
     (She paused in a trifle of doubt. She was sure that "intricacies" was pronounced with soft c's but the spelling didn't look right. Oh, well, the machine couldn't very well be wrong—)

From SECOND FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov (1953)

      The blonde WAVE secretary at the reception desk took the speaker cup of a sono-typer away from her mouth, bent over an intercom box. "Ensign Ramsey is here, sir," she said.
     "The admiral's usually a little slow answering," said the receptionist. Ramsey nodded, looked at the door beyond her. Gold lettering on a heavy oak panel: CONFERENCE ROOM — Sec. I. Security One. Above the clatter of office sounds, he could hear the tooth-tingling hum of a detection scrambler.
     "You can rest that here on the desk," said the receptionist. She pointed to a black wooden box, about a foot on a side, which Ramsey carried under his left arm.
     "It's not heavy," he said. "Maybe the admiral didn't hear you the first time. Could you try again?"
     "He heard me," she said. "He's busy with a haggle of braid." She nodded toward the box. "Is that what they're waiting for?"
     Ramsey grinned. "Why couldn't they be waiting for me?"
     She sniffed. "Enough braid in there to founder a subtug. They should be waiting for an ensign. There's a war on, mister. You're just the errand boy."
     The receptionist returned the sono-typer cup to her mouth, went back to her typing.

From UNDER PRESSURE by Frank Herbert (1956)

Palm OS Graffiti

Gather around and listen, children. Way back at the dawn of history in days of yore when dinosaurs roamed the earth (about 1996) there was a type of gadget called a "Personal digital assistant" (PDA). These were sort of like a smart phone with no phone in it, no internet connection, and a low-res monochrome screen. Apps typically included an appointment calendar, a to-do list, an address book for contacts, a calculator, and some sort of memo (or "note") program.

After smart phones came out PDAs died off, since there really wasn't anything they could do that a smart phone couldn't do better. Plus smart phones could be used as phones.

Manually entering data into a PDA tended to be clumsy. Most of them had touch screens, but they were so tiny that one would commonly tap on the screen with a stylus instead of one's fingers. Text entry was by:

  • An array of buttons forming a tiny computer alphanumeric keyboard
  • A separate physical keyboard connected to the PDA by a cable, infrared signal, or Blue Tooth. Most had physical keys, one drew a virtual keyboard on the tabletop using laser beams.
  • A virtual alphanumeric keyboard appearing on the touch screen, that you'd tap with the stylus
  • A stroke recognition system, with a stroke area on the touch screeen that you'd draw in with the stylus

A button array keyboard tended to have tiny buttons, which wasn't easily used by fat-fingered people. A separate keybord was easy to use, but inconvenient to carry along (even if some did fold up, the laser keyboard wasn't bad but it still was an extra bit to carry). The virtual keyboard with stylus was a bit fiddly to use and it made it difficult to rapidly enter text data.

The stroke system is not fiddly, does not require extra equipment, is easily used by the fat-fingered, and allows quite rapid text input.

The main drawback is that a user has to learn the stroke alphabet.

Back around 1998 I had one of the first Handspring Visors. These used Palm OS, and a stroke system called Graffiti. Personally I managed to learn Graffiti in about two days, and found I could enter text pretty darn quickly. Most of the strokes are fairly close in shape to the character they encode, making them easy to memorize.

When I am struggling with text entry on my current smartphone, I often find that I miss Graffiti.

Stroke recognition is done on an area on the touch screen about the size of a postage stamp. Since each letter had to be drawn one on top of the other, there has to be a way for the PDA to know when one letter ends and another starts. In Graffiti each letter is one single stroke, lifting the stylus off the touchscreen is the signal that the current letter has ended. This means no dotting the "i" or crossing the "t".

Well, they did make an exception. A "prefix" stroke of going from upper left to lower right means you are writing one of the "extended mode" or "two-stroke" characters. What this means is they ran out of easy-to-write-strokes before they ran out of characters. So the extended mode is a way to re-use some of the strokes on some of the more lesser-used characters (such as ©, €, and ¢).


     “It could have been a portrait,” Blaine suggested. He took out his pocket computer and scrawled “Church of Him” across its face, then punched for information. The box linked with the ship’s library, and information began to roll across its face.

     Renner skipped it. “I remembered something. Have you got your pocket computer?”
     “Certainly.” She took it out to show him.
     “Please test it for me.”
     Her face a puzzled mask, Sally drew letters on the face of the flat box, wiped them, scrawled a simple problem, then a complex one that would require the ship’s computer to help. Then she called up an arbitrary personal data file from ship’s memory. “It works all right.”
     Renner’s voice was thick with sleep. “Am I crazy, or did we watch the Mode take that thing apart and put it back together again?”
     “Certainly. She did the same with your gun.”
     “But a pocket computer?” Renner stared. “You know that’s impossible, don’t you?”
     She thought it was a joke. “No, I didn’t.”
     “Well, it is. Ask Dr. Horvath.” Renner hung up and went back to sleep.
     Sally caught up with Dr. Horvath as he was turning into his cabin. She told him about the computer.
     “But those things are one big integrated circuit. We don’t even try to repair them.” Horvath muttered other things to himself. (they must be made by Apple)
     While Renner slept, Horvath and Sally woke the physical sciences staff. None of them got much sleep that night.

     “I don’t remember exactly.” Sally took out her pocket computer and scrawled the symbols for information recall. The gadget hummed, then changed tone to indicate it was using the car’s radio system to communicate with the Palace data banks.

From THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1975)

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.

There is also conflicting priorities when it comes to the format of the books. Specifically between usability and data density.

On the one hand, a physical printed book can be used by anybody who has normal vision and the knowledge of how to read the language the book is printed in. Usability is high.

The disadvantage is the relatively large space a book takes up (as compared to an eBook), and the difficulty in reproducing a given example of a book. You have to optically scan the book then use up all the ink cartridges in your printer. Or typeset each page to use in a printing press. Or even write it manually, like a monk in a scriptorium. Let's hear it for manuscript culture!

On the other hand, an eBook reader the size of a tablet can hold a small library's worth of books. Data density is high. If the eBooks are not protected by DRM, making an electronic copy takes a fraction of a second and can be as easy as connecting two eBook readers with a cable and pressing a button. Or connected over the internet.

The disadvantage is that without an eBook reader or without the reader's battery being charged, the eBooks are unreadable. Especially during the Long Night, when potential scholars probably don't know what electricity is.

And then there is the digital preservation problem, or why you cannot read all the eBooks that are on floppy disks in obsolete formats. The US Library of Congress is having a real problem with digital data becoming unaccessible for this very reason, and is finding that migrating the data from obsolete formats to new formats is almost impossible to perform successfully. And this will have to be a constant effort since data formats change so rapidly. Zip discs were hot stuff as recently as 1994, a mere ten years later the format was pretty much dead and Zip drives became hard to find.

Be that as it may, the motivation to further miniaturize book storage only grows. Currently the hot new method is femtosecond laser etched nanostructured glass, for which Andrew Doull coined the name FLENG. Yes, you need special equipment to read it and drivers to decode the format, but the it can cram 360 TB into a single disc and the data's lifespan is about 13.8 billion years at 190°C

Imagine a device:

  • Can go anywhere, and is totally portable.
  • Something that can be started and stopped at will along its data stream, allowing the user to access the information in an effective, easy manner.
  • Will require no electric energy to operate.

We have this device. It’s called a book. It will never be surpassed because it represents the minimum technology with the maximum interaction you can have.

From a speech to the American Booksellers Association by Isaac Asimov (1989)

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 digital preservation, 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)

Cosmic Library

Libraries communicate messages that travel through time more than through distance, but it is still communication. Meaning instead of getting a message from a star 400 light-years away, a library can give you a message from 400 years in the past written by William Shakespeare.

A related concept is a knowledge clearing house. In a multi-world interstellar association, many of the planets are producing new science and technology. It would be real nice if all of this new knowledge was made available to to all the other worlds. The logical method is to forward all the knowledge to a central clearing house for it to be accumulated and distributed to all the member worlds. Or at least sold to all the member worlds.

Technological information can sometimes be found in libraries. Which can make libraries prime sources of information. Especially if it is a library on a planet of a galactic empire that has fallen, and people living in the Long Night are desperate to bootstrap themselves back into civilization.

Examples include:

  • THE SHADOW OUT OF TIME by H. P. Lovecraft (1936): About a billion years ago on Terra, The Great Race of Yith stole the bodies of cone shaped monsters who were native back then. The Yithians would telepathically swap bodies with beings living on Terra through eons of time. Such captives would be forced to write books about their native geological epoch. These books would be added to the Yithian's great library city (currently buried in Australia's Great Sandy Desert at 22°3′14″S 125°0′39″E for the last 250 million years).

  • NOVICE by James Schmitz (1962): Telzey Amberdon has a pocket law library which contains most of the important legal reference works of the civilized galaxy

  • FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953): In the future, since all books have been outlawed for dystopian reasons, the underground resistance preserves books by their members memorizing works of classic literature.

  • THE FINAL ENCYCLOPEDIA by Gordon Dickson (1984): The eponymous encyclopedia is a huge memory bank orbiting Terra doing its darnedest to store all human knowledge in hope that sheer volume will lead to some kind of qualitative breakthrough.

  • STAR TREK TOS: The Starships of Starfleet each are equipped with a "library computer" containing much of human knowledge. In addtion the Federation established the huge electronic library Memory Alpha on a select planetoid.

  • FOUNDATION'S EDGE by Isaac Asimov (1982): Professor Janov Pelorat is forced to accompany Golan Trevize in what is a virtual exile from their homeworld. But Pelorat doesn't care. He has his entire research library with him, on a super-dense futuristic CD-ROM.

  • SECOND FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov (1953): The Library of Trantor is the primary library of the galactic empire, even after the empire fell. There also exists the Encyclopedia Galactica, which contains most of the empire's knowledge in encyclopedia digest form.

  • A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter Miller, Jr. (1959): After the nuclear war, a monastery collects and copies books of science and engineering, much like medieval monasteries copied classical manuscripts. Neither really understood what the books were about.

  • THE CEREBRAL LIBRARY by David Keller (1931): In this gruesome little story people are forced to read a book a day. After five years they are killed, and their brains stored in jars to provide instant access to everything they have read.

  • HOBBYIST by Eric Frank Russell (1947): Deep space explorers discover a titanic libary on a distant planet, stretching for mile. The librarian is a cosmically powerful alien, who makes copies of the explorers for his library then lets the orginals go.

An interesting example of a cosmic library was in Jerry Pournelle's KING DAVID'S SPACESHIP. There was the First Galactic Empire. It was highly advanced, and it established sub-section libraries at strategic planets. Unfortunately the secession wars caused the empire to fall into pre-starflight barbarism. After about 260 years of the Long Night, the Second galactic empire rises.

The second empire incorporates human planets as they are discovered. If the planet has managed to raise its technology level to the point where is has spaceships, the planet enters the empire as a sovereign state. If the tech level is below that, it becomes a peon planet and galactic empire aristocrats are imported to run the place.

In the novel, the second empire has discovered Prince Samual's World, which unfortunately is below spaceship tech level. So it is peon state for them. The head of the planetary secret police doesn't want that to happen. Using a network of spies he discovers the facts of life. The wild-card is that a short starship trip away is the planet Macassar. It is a very primitive planet, about medieval knights-in-armor level. But it has a sub-section of the First Empire library, hidden away in a castle. If the secret police can somehow get a team of agents to Macassar, they might be able to access the library and figure out how to make a spaceship. Then Prince Samual's World can try to quickly make a spaceship, and enter the Second Empire as a sovereign state.

Spoiler: they manage, but the "spaceship" will make your jaw drop!


Warning: spoilers for RANDO SPLICER by Joel Shepherd

(ed note: our heros in their mighty starship Phoenix are currently in the alien Croma empire. Said empire is one of the few keeping the evil Reeh empire from conquering the galaxy and using everybody as expermental animals in their hideous genetic laboratories. Right over the border in Reeh space is the unfortunate homeworld of the Corbi. Who are currently being used as experimental animals.

About 800 years ago, a few Corbi were rescued from their homeworld, and their handful of decendants have been living a Croma planet near the border. Our heroes have evidence that one political faction of the Croma did something treacherous to help the Reeh, and tried to cover it up for 800 years. Our heroes have pulled strings to allow a Corbi named Tiga access to an 800 year old ink-on-paper book library in an attempt to discover evidence of the treachery. Naturally the guilty government faction is doing their best to interfere.)

      Tiga sat atop the ladder, rifling through the thick, heavy-bound book. The human AR glasses sat oddly on her face, not wrapping around the ears as a corbi’s glasses would. Lacking the humans’ enormous noses, the damn things kept sliding down her face, and she had to abandon a hand to push them back up. The inbuilt camera was scanning every page, and all she really had to do was turn the pages rapidly and let all the data download onto the network she and Professor Romki had established in the library.

     But she could not help but pause to read passages. This was the history of her people, works from Rando and the great corbi civilisation from before the catastrophe of the reeh. The books themselves were old and dusty, though not as dusty as she might have expected from so old a library. No one came in here. The accumulation of dust required some degree of activity, Romki said, from dead skin particles or fur or whatever the nature of beings who maintained it. Locked away for eight hundred years, without a glimpse of sunlight, the shelves and pages bore only a thin coating of decay.

     Dim blue light washed over the vertical walls of books. Librarians from the larger Ji’go had found tall light stands, casting a spectrum that would not damage the ancient pages. In the past three months, Tiga had learned to navigate by the position of the light stands as much as by any numerical indexing — three poles along to the sections on the Battles of Sanoda and Meero, seven poles to discussions of the corbi government’s struggles to get the croma factions to commit fully to the Treaty of Rampira, when they’d felt events no longer going their way.

     Sitting here in the gloom, reading hour after hour, had swung her between inexpressible sadness, and boiling fury. Her people had had great institutions, once. These books were published by many of them, and recorded evidence of so many others — great universities, research institutions, centres of learning in science and politics. Their pages were filled with the thoughts of learned men and women, and even through the distant, intellectual language of academia, their fear shone through, as plain as the burning sun that Tiga at times forgot still shone outside. They were doing everything they could to forestall the doom that came toward them from the stars, and were horrified at their powerlessness. At times Tiga sensed a disbelief that they should find themselves alive in such a period, and that surely such things only happened to other people, to be read about later, in history books. Sitting atop her ladder, scouring one page after another, Tiga could appreciate the horrible irony.

     The library was a part of what the croma called a Ji’go — a croma-styled agglomeration of museum, library and art gallery, a place where all old things came together. This wing had been built by corbi, a thousand years ago, when Rando remained a free world. There was even a plaque near the entrance, a dedication from the Rando Embassy, but the words of the dedication had been chiselled away, doubtless by the same croma who had locked the place away for all these centuries.

     Laws against destroying antiquity had prevented them from burning it, but successive croma governments had done their best to ensure it would be forgotten, building walls to obscure its entrances, directing all paths elsewhere. The corbi had built it here, Professor Romki suspected, because they had always contributed to the Cal’Uta Ji’go — signs of their contribution were everywhere in the main building, if one knew where to look. Perhaps, being owed this final favour, the croma authorities had grudgingly allowed this library, stocked only with paper books that these days surely no one would read. Romki had then given Tiga his anguished tirade against the fetish of electronic information, and how no one in the ages past had foreseen how the very accessibility of electronic data in turn made it so much easier to find and erase en masse. Across the distances of millennia, good quality paper often lasted much better, he said, as too many regimes that followed wanted to destroy politically inconvenient history. With modern information search functions, that became much easier, and destroying paper artefacts was typically far more illegal than destroying data.

     Where the study of pre-reeh corbi history was concerned, it certainly seemed to be true. Very little electronic history was available anywhere. But in exchange for Phoenix’s participation in the hearings on whether Croma’Rai’s behaviour warranted a challenge by Tali’san, Captain Debogande had asked nothing more than access to this hither-to forbidden library. When Tiga had thanked him for it, he’d waved her off.

     Permission to access the library had been granted by a higher authority than even Croma’Rai administration could challenge. But they had imposed restrictions — in the name of ‘historical preservation’, of course. Only herself, and the Professor, had been allowed in. All electronic databases compiled from the pages would be presented to inspection at the end of each working day. Access would only be granted within working day periods — about nine hours, in human time. At first the authorities had tried confiscating those databases, or demanding redactions on security grounds, but Tiga and Romki’s unbothered response had finally twigged them to realise that the aliens were first uploading the whole thing to Phoenix in orbit. That had led to confiscation of personal electronics, which had violated terms of the agreement with the federal body and been successfully challenged. Next they’d resorted to military-grade jamming of communications in and out of the library, which had quickly ended when the jammer had mysteriously malfunctioned. The next jammer was autistic to coms, but had also failed when the power grid it was connected to had somehow melted, taking down several city blocks. Phoenix had been challenged to ‘stop doing that’, to which the Captain had lied that they weren’t doing anything, and that if proof to the contrary could be supplied, the authorities should supply it.

From RANDO SPLICER by Joel Shepherd (2019)

(ed note: The Pak species lives on a planet near the galactic core. Each member starts life as a mindless breeder, then at about age 40 metamorphose into the Protector stage. They lose the ability to reproduce, develop an IQ of several hundred, and become ferocious killing machines. All devoted to protecting their tribe of breeders. So for several million years the planet has been wracked by constant war. Oh, and if a protector's tribe dies off, the protector loses the will to live and starves to death. )

      The Library was as old as the radioactive desert which surrounded it. That desert would never be recultivated; it was reseeded every thousand years with radiocobalt so that no protector could covet it. Protectors could cross that desert; they had no gonadal genes to be smashed by subatomic particles. Breeders could not.
     How old was the Library? Phssthpok never knew, and never wondered. But the section on space travel was three million years old.

     He came to the Library with a number of — not friends, but associates in misery, childless former members of the Pitchok families. The Library was huge and rambling, a composite of at least three million years of Pak knowledge, crossfiled into sections according to subject. Naturally the same book often appeared in several sections. The associates divided at the entrance, and Phssthpok didn’t see any of them again for thirty-two years.
     He spent that time in one vast room, a floor-to-ceiling labyrinth of bookshelves. At scattered corners there were bins of tree-of-life root kept constantly filled by attendants. There were other foodstuffs brought at seeming random: meats, vegetables, fruits, whatever was available to childless protectors who had chosen to serve the Library rather than die. Tree-of-life root was the perfect food for a protector, but he could eat nearly anything.

      And there were books.
     They were nearly indestructible, those books. They would have emerged like fluttering meteors from the heart of a hydrogen fusion explosion. All were written more or less in the present language, and all were constantly being recopied by librarians as the language changed. In this room the books all dealt with space and space travel.

     There were treatises on the philosophy of space travel. They all seemed to make a fundamental assumption: someday the Pak race must find a new home; hence any contribution to the techniques of spaceflight contributed to the immortality of the species. Phssthpok could discount that assumption, knowing that a protector who did not believe it would never write a book on the subject. There were records of interstellar and interplanetary flights, tens of thousands of them, starting with a fantastic trip some group had made almost three million years ago, riding a hollowed-out asteroidal rock into the galactic arms in search of yellow dwarf suns. There were technical texts on anything that could possibly bear on space: spacecraft, astrogation, ecology, miniaturization, nuclear and subnuclear physics, plastics, gravity and how to use it, astronomy, astrophysics, records of the mining of worlds in this and nearby systems, diagrams for a hypothetical Bussard ramjet (in an unfinished work by a protector who had lost his appetite halfway through), ion drive diagrams, plasma theory, light-sails…

     He started at the left and began working his way around.

From PROTECTOR by Larry Niven (1973)

The Office of Studied Archaism and Talent Preservation is a curious little department of the Ministry of Ancestral Heritage (itself part of the Ministry of Progress and Prosperity). Like their cousins at the Office of the Libraries, their job is to prevent antiprogress in the form of lost knowledge, but where the librarians focus on gnosis, the OSATP and its partners in the Repository of All Knowledge and various authenticist initiatives focus instead upon praxis.

As such, they monitor, and offer grants and stipends to, authenticist and recreationist societies and individual hobbyists and relicteurs both, in order to ensure that there will be plenty of people around who can manage second-century blacksmithing, 8th-century steam engineering, 10th-century cogitator computing, 16th-century silicon-chip fabrication, 23rd-century asteroid-homesteading, and so forth, such that the knowledge will not be lost, and thus will be available should there ever again be a need for such things – or should some synergy with modernity, otherwise unavailable, become apparent.

– Sur-Dodeciad Parts in Approximate Formation: The Empire from Outside


The Library of Trantor was one of the prominent features of the fictional planet Trantor, created by Isaac Asimov and appearing in his Empire series and the Foundation series. Located in the Imperial Sector of the planet, it was variously referred to as the Imperial Library of the Galactic Empire, the University of Trantor Library, and the Galactic Library, in which librarians index the entirety of human knowledge by walking up to a different computer terminal every day and resuming where the previous librarian had left off.

Around 260 FE, a rebel leader named Gilmer attempted a coup, in the process sacking Trantor and forcing the Imperial family to flee to the nearby world of Delicass, renamed Neotrantor. After the sack, the population dwindled rapidly from 40 billion to less than 100 million. Most of the buildings on Trantor were destroyed during the sack, and over the course of the next two centuries the metal on Trantor was gradually sold off, as farmers uncovered more and more soil to use in their farms. Eventually the farmers grew to become the sole recognized inhabitants of the planet, and the era of Trantor as the central world of the galaxy came to a close. It began to develop a dialect very different from Galactic Standard Speech, and the people unofficially renamed their planet "Hame", or "home."

As revealed to the reader at the end of Second Foundation, not all these farmers were what they seemed, with the now-rustic Trantor serving as the centre of the Second Foundation. From Trantor, the Second Foundationers secretly guided the development of the Galaxy (roughly parallel to the city of Rome becoming, after the fall of its empire, the headquarters of the Papacy, with its enormous influence on the development of Medieval Europe). Indeed, their self-perception as leaders of the future Second Empire is captured in the Second Foundationers' use of the word "Hamish" to describe the farmers despite reserving for themselves use of the word "Trantorian." It is noted that it was the Second Foundation which ensured that the famed library would survive the sacking to Trantor and the destruction of its urban culture – especially significant, considering that the library was vital to the Second Foundation itself.

From the Wikipedia entry for LIBRARY OF TRANTOR

Memory Alpha (also called The Memory Planet) was an inhabited planetoid and the home for a Federation central library.


The Federation built a central library on an unnamed planetoid to hold the total cultural history and scientific knowledge of all planetary Federation members. During assembly, the library wasn't installed with protective shields as this was considered inappropriate for a facility dedicated to academic research.

As of 2269, the library complex was an array consisting of five large and seven smaller domes on the surface of the planetoid. Aside from the technicians, the occupants of Memory Alpha varied with the number of scholars, researchers, and scientists from various Federation planets who were using the computer complex at any given time.

In that year, the USS Enterprise was en route to transfer newly-designed equipment to Memory Alpha. Lieutenant Mira Romaine was on her first deep space assignment to supervise the transport from the emergency manual monitor. Before the arrival of the Enterprise, Memory Alpha was attacked by the non-corporeal Zetarians.

While the Zetarians were attempting to take over the bodies of the personnel of Memory Alpha, they managed to cause extensive damage to the complex. The memory core of the computer, called the central brain, was burned out. The energy generator was rendered inoperative. All occupants of the complex died from brain damage caused by resisting the mind control efforts of the Zetarians. After the Zetarians were destroyed, the Enterprise returned to Memory Alpha to begin repairs. (TOS: "The Lights of Zetar")

From MEMORY ALPHA by the Memory Alpha Wiki

(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)

From CONNECTIONS by James Burke (1978)

‘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)

(ed note: during the Long Night, the protagonists Mass travels in his starship, trying to find out why the Empire collapsed)

      His ship was a squat little tub shaped like a score of gunbarrels lashed together. Cannon-shaped, it hung in careful orbit while Mass studied the planet’s surface.
     Eirenchys was gold and green and brown, she was swept by yellow clouds. Her cities were few – tiny fireflies across the nightside, minute gridworks against the day. They looked peaceful enough.
     After a while, he decided to land.
     He came down on a high dusty steppe overlooking a sprawling bright town that had once been walled, but wasn’t anymore. The plaster walls of the houses were white, the roofs were flat and red. Above, the sky was disturbingly, impossibly blue. The wind whispered cold across the plain, tugged at his battle tunic with icy fingers.
     A wagon came trundling out from the town; others followed it. They disgorged crowds of laughing people, tall, incredibly tall; Mass’s neck hurt from the strain of looking up at them. And pale – their skins were pearly and translucent.
     He could see the veins beneath the surface, traceries of delicate blue lines. And thin! He could not believe how thin they were.
     They greeted him with smiles and open hands, but they looked at him with awe – and perhaps a healthy amount of fear. He was a massive red dwarf to them, strong and thumpingly fearful.
     They spoke a strangely accented Interlingua, and they asked him questions about the Empire. He shook his head and asked them the same questions. They shook their heads and mumbled among themselves.
     Finally they led him to their library and left him alone.
     The library at Eirenchys had been a Regional Co-ordinating Center in the days of the Empire. Most of the tabs synthesized within a fifty-light-year radius eventually passed through the Eirenchys library – and all Empire-originating tabs too; all tabs which either had come from this area or were destined for it, they came through the library and left duplicates of themselves for future reference, stored in the stacks and again within the Oracle machines.
     It was the most complete collection of human knowledge this side of the fabled Library of the Empire itself.
     It unnerved Mass totally.
     He wasn’t prepared to grasp the concept of so much written knowledge. He picked tentatively at its surface, afraid even of the vast indexes. The library had a comprehensive history of the Empire, including information as recent as 987 H.C. He wanted that, but unfortunately, most of the writings that late were spotty and incomplete. Mention of the skimmers was minimal. He learned nothing about them that he hadn’t already guessed.
     With his translating tab he could have read any tab in the library, but he didn’t – there were so many, many tabs, more than he would have believed possible; the sheer magnitude of their numbers frightened him –
     – made him realize that he was not a literate man;
     Streinveldt was not a major planet and Streinveldtians were not a literate people. Ignorant was the word.
     He found himself gazing at the stacks and stacks of Oracle tabs in sheer wonder. What information could possibly be so important as to need all that space and all those tabs?
     He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
     After a while, he fled the library.

From SPACE SKIMMER by David Gerrold (1972)

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.

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 digital preservation problem, e.g., why you cannot read the data on your old floppy disks.)

From SPACE SKIMMER by David Gerrold (1972)

Ken Burnside

     Even in the Ten Worlds setting (the one described in the AV:T Settings Book), the Three Generations Rule is a median in a range. It's really closer to being a "two-to-six" generations rule, with the primary determinant on longer durations being a VASTLY more communitarian society than is the norm.
     This can be from adaptive societal structures like some varieties of Mennonite faiths all the way over to extensive brainprinting of attitudes along with education to keep things running.
     The Library of Man uses the latter… (An organization dedicated to brokering and selling information throughout the Ten Worlds, they are more like fanatical monks or a cult than they are a colony)

(ed note: Inside the Ten Worlds the Library of Man has space colonies in the otherwise uninhabited star systems of AD Leonis, Epsilon Indi, and 1 Pi (3) Orionis)

From a comment thread in Google Plus (2014)

In the Standard Sci Fi Setting, trade is common between star systems. Sometimes a planet becomes so specialized that it focuses on a certain commodity or service. Maybe it's building weapons or providing doctors. Whatever it is, the world trades this resource with other planets, becoming renowned for the export.


Structure that houses a huge database of the knowledge of an entire civilization. Many researchers visit here to learn from the accumulated knowledge. Often left behind by Precursors, though such projects are undertaken by more recent societies as a prestigious project. Expect it to be very quiet and vast, and attracts seekers of truth.


     Hiskey grinned. “There’s a little more to it than that. Did your tapes tell you anything about Earthsystem’s asteroid estates?
     “Yes. They were mentioned briefly twice,” McNulty said. “I gathered their inhabitants retain only tenuous connections with the planetary culture and do not engage in belligerent projects. I concluded that they were of no interest to us.”
     “Well, start getting interested,” Hiskey told him. “Each of those asteroids is a little world to itself. They’re completely independent of both Earthplanet and Earthsystem. They got an arrangement with Earthsystem which guarantees their independent status as long as they meet certain conditions. From what Gage’s sister told him, the asteroid she’s on is a kind of deluxe spacegoing ranch. It belongs to a Professor Alston — a handful of people, some fancy livestock, plenty of supplies.”

     Professor Derek Alston’s asteroid also remained something of an enigma. In Mars Underground, and in the SP Academy’s navigation school, the private asteroids had been regarded much as they were on Earthplanet, as individually owned pleasure resorts of the very rich which maintained no more contact with the rest of humanity than was necessary. Evidently they preferred to have that reputation. Elisabeth had told him it wasn’t until she’d been a Solar U student for a few years that she’d learned gradually that the asteroids performed some of the functions of monasteries and castles in Earth’s Middle Ages, built to preserve life, knowledge, and culture through the turbulence of wars and other disasters. They were storehouses of what had become, or was becoming, now lost on Earth, and their defenses made them very secure citadels. The plants and animals of the surface levels were living museums. Below the surface was a great deal more than that. In many respects they acted as individual extensions of Solar U, though they remained independent of it.

From THE CUSTODIANS by James H. Schmitz (1968)

(ed note: The Progenitors were the first interstellar race, back when the galaxy was a new born. They started a Library of technical information. In the billons of years since new technical info and refinements were added.)

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

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

From STARTIDE RISING by David Brin (1983)

AT LAST, after almost ten years, the moment had come. He felt himself ready for the task he had undertaken.

Spartak of Asconel closed the latest of hundreds of books which he had consulted, drew a deep breath, and gazed around his cell. Other books were piled high on every shelf; beside them were tape, crystal and disc recordings, reels of microfilm, manuscripts—the winnowings of a decade—long search through the unparralleled store of knowledge here on Annanworld.

The switch from student to teacher was as easy as picking up the microphone of his own recorder and uttering the first words. Yet it was somehow not easy at all. In one instant he would change the pattem of his life—not obviously, as when he left Asconel forever, but subjectively. The realization brought with it a curious floating sensation, as though he were suspended in space between two planets.

Abruptly he was impatient with his own reluctance. His hand closed on the microphone as though seizing a noxious plant that must be gripped firmly to prevent it stinging, and he began to speak in a measured voice, not diffident or hesitant, but nonetheless unassured, as if it were a long time since he last made a dogmatic assertion of the truth.

And that was so. Life on Annanworld centered on a single basic assumption: that mankind knew a great deal, but understood virtually nothing.

“The fall of the Empire," he commenced, and heard in imagination the crashing of worlds like bowling-bails being hurled down a skittle-alley. “is for most people shrouded in a mystery only less deep than the obscurity attending its foundation, and that although the former event is closer to us in time than the latter by some ten thousand years. The reason in both cases is the same, and so simple that it generally has to be pointed out before it is noticed. It is as difficult to maintain detailed records during a landslide as it is during an explosion.

“The erosive effect of ten millennia has stripped the deceitful flesh from the story of the Imperial rise; today we are fortunate enough to have only the skeleton arrayed before us. We know that we were borrowers: we know that we inherited the abandoned property—most significantly, the interstellar ships—of a people who matured and died in the galactic hub while we were struggling outward from our legendary planet of origin. We know that this chance bequest allowed our race to spread among millions of stars like an epidemic disease. We know that our reckless habit of spending our resources as though their store was infinite was sustained for the entire lifetime of the Argian Empire by the billion-vessel spacefleet of our mysterious benefactors. Details beyond this bare outline, however. can now almost certainly never be reclaimed. It is as though one were to blink and find a century had passed. Blink now, and man is creeping along the galactic rim, in those areas which were later to be regarded as the home of mutants and pirates—but which, significantly, were and remain the only areas where interstellar ships have been built by human beings. Blink again, and Argus is already a wealthy world, imposing economic domination on its neighbors like Phaidona. Blink once more, and the Empire's writ runs all the way to the Marches of Klareth, and the threshold of the Big Dark."

Now he was warming to his tale, the greatest in the checkered span of human history. His hooded eyes saw other sights than the plain stone walls of the tiny room: the note of uncertainty was fading from his voice.

“So total was the absorption of our borrowings into the pattern of human development," he continued, “that tens—perhaps hundreds—of billions of people were born and died without being able to conceive an alternative to the structure of the Empire. Yet something strained past its limit. Something was overburdened, and broke. And the Empire fell."

“The collapse left more worlds than we can count suspended, as it were, in a void between a glorious past and a future so bleak it has been nicknamed, already, the Long Night. Most relapsed towards barbarism; having been dependent for millennia on the tightly-knit network of galactic trade they could not support their own populations. Others, somewhat more fortunate, contrived to hold on to a portion of what they had formerly enjoyed. but at the expense of extreme privation and a near-total denial of individual liberty. An example in this category was Mercator, which conquered and then bled two nearby worlds to preserve itself. Again, there were worlds— including Argus itself, the galactic capitol—where the dissolution proceeded slowly enough for adjustments to be made without undue violence."

“The purpose of this present work. however, is to make a contribution towards the documentation of the first truly human expansion through the galaxy—one, that is, which does not depend on the leavings of another species. It may never take place: we may have squandered our energies too swiftly, and already be going into a permanent decline. On the optimistic assumption that the present trend is to be reversed, the seeds of such a regeneration may most likely be found on worlds sufficiently far from the cataclysmic effect of Argus’s decay to have maintained their society under the guidance of benevolent rulers, like Loudor. Klareth, and the subject of this study: my home world of Asconel."

Their paths diverged just after the last order had been issued, the novice turning right towards the block of cells in which Spartak had lived since being accepted into the order, Spartak himself continuing straight ahead towards the library.

He entered the enormous hall with sufficient lack of the proper ceremony to draw a reproving glare from the Head Librarian, Brother Carl, in his high pulpit overlooking the entire array of more than five hundred low-walled cubicles. But he barely noticed that; he was concerned only to spot a vacant cubicle on the master plan-board and make his way to it as quickly as possible.

There was a place unoccupied at Aisle II, Rank Five. He almost broke into a run as he approached it. Without bothering to close the door behind him he dropped into the single chair and punched a rapid succession of buttons on the panel which formed the only other feature of the tiny booth. One finger poised to stab the PRESENTATION button, he hesitated; then he decided it was best to have a permanent record, and run the risk of the knowledgeable library computers swamping him with a flood of literature. He punched for a print-out instead of spoken or screened data.

(ed note: the library computer gives Spartak stale data in answer to his queries)

“I'm an idiot,” he growled. “All kinds of an idiot!”

This material the library was supplying to him was nothing more than the siftings of the story Vix himself had just told in the refectory anteroom. Brother Ulwyn, in the gatehouse, must have informed the library as a matter of routine that a visitor from Asconel by way of who-knows-where had arrived, and the library, finding it lacked recent news of that planet, had automatically eavesdropped on this much traveled stranger. Techniques like these—some of them scarcely ever used—had been partially responsible for making Annanworld into the most notable of all the Empire's information centers.

For some minutes after that, he just sat. He had hoped to present a whole stack of data about Brinze and Belizuek to Vix, as some sort of justification for having hidden away in this placid backwater—Vix's gibe was half-true, he had to admit. And it turned out there was nothing in the library but the same rumors, now rendered third-hand.

Wearily, he wondered whether his ostensible reason for compiling a history of Asconel was sound. Was there going to be a renaissance of galactic civilization, based this time on human achievement instead of a borrowed technique of star-flight? Or was he simply whistling against the dark? Once, news had come from a million worlds within the year, so swift and reliable was the Imperial communications net. How much had changed! He had told himself Asconel was among the few worlds where anything significant was likely to happen—yet prior to Vix's arrival, his last news had come to him two years ago, and was already three years stale, so that the vaunted library was forced to gobble crumbs of unverified data to bring its stock up to date…

“You'll forgive me," Father Erton said in his wheezy, ancient voice. He was very old; rumor placed him at well past the century mark. “I should perhaps not say this. We are a center for study and distribution of information, and it's only a courtesy obligation that we place on those who make such extensive use of our facilities as you have done, to recompense us with some original work before leaving." But he loaded the words with a glare, and Spartak, who had always regarded the Master of his order with great respect, felt impelled to excuse himself against the implied charge.

From THE ALTAR ON ASCONEL by John Brunner (1965)

"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

Weaponized Libraries


      He (the villain Welt) had not always been the Leader. His thoughts drifted back, strangely uncritical, to the days when he had been a young man. Truly young, not the unchanging forty-three of the last two centuries.
     In those days he had been loud of voice and dress and bubbling over with ideas. Most of the ideas had been grandiose get-rich-quick schemes and all, without exception, had collapsed, been crushed by the law or failed to come up to expectations. In the end he had been compelled to accept honest employment in a minor clerical capacity. He had, however, a gift of ingratiation and had been rapidly promoted to a position of trust.
     Here—and he had a gift for figures—he had cooked the books so successfully and with such ingenuity that two other employees were dismissed for dishonesty before an astute accountant brought the real culprit to book.
     Welt was entertained, albeit frugally, at government expense for eighteen months. The judge detested embezzlement but his sentence of two years was reduced for “good behavior.”
     Welt had then spent years passing from one shady business to another, side street “car sales,” pornography, “rigged” gaming dives, clip joints. He had neither the inclination nor the nerve for real crime and he hovered on the fringes of the underworld ready to run at the first hint of danger.

     It was on such a run, cautiously changing his mood of transport in case of pursuit, that he had found …
     He had in some ways a curiously methodical mind—he always carried a road map. He had dropped off the train at a rural station, jumped a bus, got off again and set off, on foot, for another road along which buses passed frequently.
     The route he had chosen was about six miles and wandered, following an ancient bridle path, through wooded and still sparsely populated country.
     Halfway along the path he had come upon the mist.
     The mist had clung to the top of a low hill, swirled continuously and was a bright and improbable pink.

     The mist frightened him but before he could turn and run a voice had said: “Do not be alarmed. I am here to help.”
     Welt, still terrified, thought of superstition, of a dimly remembered religion, of voices from burning bushes and wondered, typical, what sacrifices he might be called upon to make.
     “It would not be in your own interest to flee.”
     The voice was quite passionless and, in truth, entirely neutral but Welt read a threat in the words.
     “What do you want?”
     “Do not anticipate. It is what you want.”
     “I want?”
     “Yes. I have much to give. I am here to give, although, you must bear in mind, if you demand what is unwise, you must accept the consequence of your choice. Come.”
     Shakily, still wondering if he had been chosen for some specific and impossible sacrifice, he had walked into the mist and suddenly there had been no mist. There was a sense of light, of space and there was the voice and nothing more.
     “What do you want?”
     The question caught him off balance and he had mumbled something ridiculous about a wish—he was still being influenced by a mixture of religion and fairy stories.
     The voice said: “Insufficient data—specify, please.”

     It had taken him nearly an hour to discover that the thing wasn’t a fairy godmother capable of turning a melon into a golden coach. It wasn’t a deity either, nor was it capable of granting idle and wholly impossible wishes, but it was giving something away—it was giving away technical information.
     Strangely, Welt had never asked himself why. As soon as the implications of the fortune at his fingertips had sunk into his mind, curiosity had been washed away in a flood of greed.

     His first thought, therefore, was to keep this fortune to himself and he spent two more hours writing busily in a notebook as the voice instructed him on the erection of a certain quite simple device.
     Welt had only a basic knowledge of electronics but apparently the voice was not only prepared to reduce the subject to its simplest terms but to instruct him, within limitations, as well.
     Four hours later he was spending the last of his money on some pieces of electronic equipment and, an hour after that, he was back busily following the crude but serviceable sketches in his notebook.
     He had enough self-control to work steadily but the frenzy of impatience at the back of his mind made his hands unsteady and sweat crawl down his forehead in steady beads. Someone might come along, someone might decide to take the same path before …
     At last the device was finished and, still neurotically anxious, he pressed the switch.
     There was no sound but suddenly the swirling pink mist was no longer there. Where it had been was only normal countryside with nothing to suggest that something within it was ready to hand him the world on a platter.
     Welt felt a surge of triumph, of self-congratulation, of power. He was smart, real smart; he had always known it but this had been the first chance in his life to prove it. His act therefore had been inspired. He had bled the thing of a refractory device which concealed it entirely from others. It was his, entirely his because no one else would ever find it.

     Weary to the point of exhaustion, he headed back to the city and, once rested, he began to make plans.
     Welt was not without intelligence; he was quick to realize that the bulk of the technical information the voice was prepared to hand him was beyond his comprehension even if reduced to basics. It was necessary, therefore, to find men in particular fields of science capable of interpreting what he was able to bring out.
     It was not a difficult task; on the fringes of the underworld there are always contacts and Welt used them. He found a skilled electronics expert no longer employable because of alcoholism. He found a disbarred surgeon, a skilled chemist who took drugs, a well known biologist who had dropped from public life because of a nervous breakdown. The biologist believed he had an incurable carcinoma but was terrified of surgery.
     It wasn’t much, but it was a start. As has been said, Welt was astute; the first thing he brought out was a counter-alcohol formula which he gave to the chemist who, having “made it up,” gave it to the electronics man disguised as whisky.
     The electronics man drank it, drank some whisky, vodka, gin, but frighteningly remained cold sober. After four weeks he was almost normal; bitter, but resigned to sobriety.
     In due course all were cured of their physical ills, if not their mental ones.

     It was then that Welt brought out a device which the electronics man put together and which, when tested, collapsed in smoking ruin as soon as activated.
     Welt only laughed. He alone knew that in its brief period of existence the device had implanted subliminal instructions of unswerving loyalty to himself and, incidentally, to each other. The organization was now his.

     After that, he concentrated on making money. A variety of illegal devices began to appear on the market for which the underworld was prepared to pay fantastic prices. An ingenious, pocket-size contraption for detecting and inhibiting burglar alarms. A pencil-size torch capable of eating its way silently through the toughest safe or deep into bank vaults.
     Welt was not lacking in imagination, but he was frightened. He could have made more money legitimately but legitimate enterprises had a nasty habit of asking questions. Rival concerns might want to know how a group of has-beens could jump so far ahead technically in certain fields of research. Reporters would get interested; no, it wasn’t worth the risk.

(ed note: eventually Welt and his cronies invent a super-addicting device, the "dream-machines," that stimulates one's brain and makes all your wildest fantasies seem like reality. This causes the downfall of civilization, leaving only a few city-states. Welt doesn't care, he is a sociopath. The important part is his group manages to become the power-behind-the-throne of all the governments of the world.

But our heroes manage to blow the lid off the conspiracy and start revolutions in all the city states to throw off the yoke of Welt and the rest. Welt scuttles away to hide in the refaction field next to The Voice That Gives Technical Information aka "The Supreme". Our heroes follow.)

     “This is David Gilliad addressing the being or group of beings known to me as the Supreme—do you read me?”
     “I read you.” The voice, neutral and cultured, seemed to answer quietly from the air at his side and Gilliad jumped.
     “You know me?”
     “I know you. You are David Gilliad, a Susceptible/resistant and, as such, largely responsible for the recent uprising.”
     “Where do you fit in?”
     “I do not ‘fit in,’ as you phrase it; I am neutral.”
     “You are sheltering Welt.”
     “Correction. Welt has taken refuge in this vicinity. I am not actively concealing him.”
     “You supplied the dream-machines.”
     “Not precisely; they were adapted from information I supplied for a less comprehensive purpose.”
     “But you knew it could be adapted?”
     “Technical information is neutral. It creates or destroys not of itself but according to the requirements of those who possess it.”
     Gilliad scowled at the mike in his hand, becoming slowly aware that he was dealing with an intelligence far greater than his own. “Am I to understand you dispense technical information irrespective of who asks for it?”
     “But, good God, you could have provided the Immunes (Welt and the other bad guys) with a weapon which could have destroyed humanity.”
     “That offer was made but rejected since they, themselves, would have perished with it.”

     Gilliad swore under his breath. “What exactly is your purpose—what do you do?”
     “I do nothing. My purpose is to dispense technical information irrespective of who asks it and, again, irrespective of the ends to which that information is put.”
     Gilliad resisted an inclination to scratch his head; he was out of his depth and knew it. Finally he said almost to himself, “There must be a reason.”
     “Of course there is a reason.”
     “Then I would like to know it.”

     “Very well, but please give your imagination rein. I represent Intelligences so highly evolved that to attempt to explain it is impossible. Their life span is by your standards infinite; to them a million years tick past like seconds; they observe the birth and death of suns and passing of galaxies as you note the changing of seasons. Above all else, however, their compassion for all living intelligences is absolute.”
     The voice paused, then went on: “The universe is, again by your standards, infinite. Let me assure you that from this planet, even with instruments, you observe a fraction so small as to be almost nonexistent when set against the true immensity of things as they are.
     “Bear this in mind when I tell you that uncountable intelligences come into being every second and, every second, intelligences such as yours reach the most critical period in their development.
     “This critical period may be likened to the transition from pupa to butterfly but is many, many times more dangerous. When a culture reaches this stage it is poised between maturity and eternity. When I tell you that out of every twenty million cultures to reach this stage only two achieve maturity you will perceive some of the true hazards.
     “You, yourselves, were tottering on the brink of chaos, threatened with war, devastating weapons and undoubted financial collapse. So many like you have perished from the universe forever in this critical stage of transition.
     “Something had to be done, therefore, without actively interfering with the free growth of the culture involved and, after many experiments, this one was found to be the most successful. Since its inception the appalling figure of two in twenty million has risen to a ninety percent survival figure.” The voice stopped.

     Gilliad swallowed and looked helplessly at his two companions. Then he said, “But how?” numbly.
     “The introduction of advanced technologies provide a guide line for the ascending culture. It is irrelevant how those technologies are used; the culture is, at this stage, psychotically introvert and its attention must be diverted from itself.”
     “But, good God, we were enslaved for nearly three centuries; millions perished.”
     “True, but it might have been the entire race of man. Absolute compassion must, to succeed, resort to absolute ruthlessness or at least manifest itself as apparent ruthlessness. It cannot afford to concern itself with individual tragedies or intransient persecutions when the survival of an entire culture is at stake.”

     Gilliad stared unseeingly across the apparently empty landscape, awed and not a little shocked. “Are you one of these demigods?”
     “No, I am an instrument—one of many, many more. We follow a routine practice which scarcely varies no matter what life form has reached its critical stage of development We land unobserved and unnoticed—naturally we have advanced techniques for circumventing detection instruments. Having landed, we link with the culture’s communication systems, break down and learn all the languages. We familiarize ourselves with politics, history, local and general; customs, traditions, mores and, of course, draw up a comprehensive psychological graph in respect of the entire culture.
     “We are then ready for the first contact and we adapt our outward appearances to the psychological development of the particular native as he or she approaches.”

     “It sounds very pretty.” Grimm’s voice was harsh. “But as I see it, in view of the fact that you hand out any information gratis, you could be providing the instruments of a planet’s destruction. You could be handing an atom bomb to an imbecile.
     “Let me assure you that our percentages are precise beyond reasonable doubt. If a culture does destroy itself with the information we provide them, I assure you it would have destroyed itself in any case and without our intervention.”

     Shakily he brought the microphone to his lips. “How long do you propose to stay?” Somehow he didn’t want to live in the same world as this thing.
     “My work is almost complete—a week at most.”
     “Here.” Grimm wrenched the mike from Gilliad’s hand and almost snarled into it. “What the hell are you?”
     “I told you, an instrument.”
     “Can’t you be a bit more blasted specific?”
     “Well—” Somehow the cultured neutral voice conveyed all the inferences of deprecation. “Well, I suppose without stretching the imagination too much, you could call me a robot—”

From REALITY FORBIDDEN by Philip E. High (1967)

      At first they hadn’t even known that the Sack existed. If they had noticed it at all when they landed on the asteroid, they thought of it merely as one more outpost of rock on the barren expanse of roughly ellipsoidal silicate surface, which Captain Ganko noticed had major and minoraxes roughly three and two miles in diameter respectively. It would never have entered any one’s mind that the unimpressive object they had unconsciously acquired would soon be regarded as the most valuable prize in the System.
     The landing had been accidental. The Government Patrol ship had been limping along, and now it had settled down for repairs, which would take a good seventy hours. Fortunately, they had plenty of air, and their recirculation system worked to perfection. Food was in somewhat short supply, but it didn’t worry them, for they knew that they could always tighten their belts and do without full rations for a few days. The loss of water that had resulted from a leak in the storage tanks, however, was a more serious matter. It occupied a good part of their conversation during the n&t fifty hours.
     Captain Ganko said finally, “There’s no use talking, it won’t be enough. And there are no supply stations close enough at hand to be of any use. We’ll have to radio ahead and hojte that they can get a rescue ship to us with a reserve supply.”
     The helmet mike of his next in command seemed to droop. “It’ll be too bad if we miss each other in space, captain.”
     Captain Ganko laughed unhappily. “It certainly will. In that case we’ll have a chance to see how we can stand a little dehydration.”
     For a time nobody said anything. At last, however, the Second Mate suggested, “There might be water somewhere on the asteroid, sir.”
     “Here? How in Pluto would it stick, with a gravity that isn’t even strong enough to hold loose rocks? And where the devil would it he?”
     “To answer the first question first, it would be retained as water of crystallization,” replied a soft liquid voice that seemed to penetrate . his spacesuit and come from behind him. “To answer the second question, it is half a dozen feet below the surface, and can easily be reached by digging.”
     They had all swiveled around at the first words. But no one was in sight in the direction from which the words seemed to come. Captain Ganko frowned, and his eyes narrowed dangerously. “We don’t happen to have a practical joker with us, do we?” he asked mildly.
     “You do not,” replied the voice.
     “Who said that?”
     “I, Yzrl.”
     A crewman became aware of something moving on the surface of one of the great rocks, and pointed to it. The motion stopped when the voice ceased, but they didn’t lose sight of it again. That was how they learned about Yzrl, or as it was more often called, the Mind-Sack.

     If the ship and his services hadn’t both belonged to the Government, Captain Ganko could have claimed the Sack for himself or his owners and retired with a wealth far beyond his dreams. As it was, the thing passed into Government control. Its importance was realized almost from the first, and Jake Siehling had reason to he proud when more important and more influential figures of the political and industrial world were finally passed over and he was made Custodian of the Sack.
     It turned out later that the name, “Sack,” was well chosen from another point of view, in addition to that of appearance. For the Sack was stuffed with information, and beyond that, with wisdom. There were many doubters at first, and some of them retained their doubts to the very end, just as some people remained convinced hundreds of years after Columbus that the Earth was flat. But those who saw and heard the Sack had no doubts at all. They tended, if anything, to go too far in the other direction, and to believe that the Sack knew everything. This, of course, was untrue.
     It was the official function of the Sack, established by a series of Interplanetary Acts, to answer questions. The first questions, as we have seen, were asked accidentally, by Captain Ganko. Later they were asked inirposefully, but with a purpose that was itself random, and a few politicians managed to acquire considerable wealth before the Government put a stop to the leak of information, and tried to have the questions asked in a more scientific and logical manner.
     Question time was rationed for months in advance, and sold at what was, all things considered, a ridiculously low rate—a mere hundred thousand credits a minute. It was this unrestricted sale of time that led to the first great Government squabble.

     Siebling fell silent, and the Sack said, as if musing, “Your race is still an unintelligent one. I have been in your hands for many months, and no one has yet asked me the important questions. Those who wish to be wealthy ask ahont minerals and planetary land concessions, and they ask which of several schemes for making fortunes would he best. Several physicians have asked me how to treat wealthy patients who would otherwise die. Your scientists ask me to solve problems that would take them years to solve without my help. And when your rulers ask, they are the most stupid of all, wanting to know only how they may maintain their rule. None ask what they should.”
     “The fate of the human race?”
     “That is prophecy of the far future. It is beyond my powers.”
     “What should we ask?”
     “That is the question I have awaited. It is difficult for you to see its importance, only because each of you is so concerned with himself.” The Sack paused, and murmured, “I ramble, as I do not permit myself to when I speak to your fools. Nevertheless, even rambling can be informative.”
     “It has been to me.”
     “The others do not understand that too great a directness is dangerous. They ask specific questions which demand specific replies, when they should ask something general.”

     “You haven’t answered me.”
     “It is part of an answer to say that a question is important. I am considered by your rulers a valuable piece of property. They should ask whether my value is as great as it seems. They should ask whether my answering questions will do good or harm.”
     “Which is it?”
     “Harm, great harm.”
     Siebling was staggered. He said, “But if you answer truthfully—”
     “The process of coming at the truth is as precious as the final truth itself. I cheat you of that. I give your people the truth, but not all of it, for they do not know how to attain it of themselves. It would be better if they learned that, at the expense of making many errors.”
     “I don’t agree with that.”
     “A scientist asks me what goes on within a cell, and I tell him. But if he had studied the cell himself, even though the study required many years, he would have ended not only with this knowledge, but with much other knowledge, of things he does not even suspect to be related. He would have acquired many new processes of investigation.”
     “But surely, in some cases, the knowledge is useful in itself. For instance, I hear that they’re already using a process you suggested for producing uranium cheaply to use on Mars. What’s harmful about that?”
     “Do you know how much of the necessary raw material is present? Your scientists have not investigated that, and they will use up all the raw material and discover only too late what they have done. You had the .same experience on Earth. You learned how to purify water at little expense, and you squandered water so recklessly that you soon ran short of it.”
     “What’s wrong with saving the life of a dying patient, as some of those doctors did?”
     “The first question to ask is whether the patient’s life should be saved.”
     “That’s exactly what a doctor isn’t supposed to ask. He has to try to save them all. Just as you never ask whether people are going to use your knowledge for a good purpose or a bad. You simply answer their questions.”
     “I answer because I am indifferent, and I care nothing what use they make of what I say. Are your doctors also indifferent?”
     Siebling said, “You’re supposed to answer questions, not ask them. Incidentally, why do you answer at all?”
     “Some of your men find joy in boasting, in doing what they call good, or in making money. Whatever mild pleasure I can find lies in imparting information.”

     During the year Siebling had occasion to observe the correctness of the Sack’s remark about its possession being harmful to the human race. For the first time in centuries, the number of research scientists, instead of growing, decreased. The Sack’s knowledge had made much research unnecessary, and had taken the edge off discovery. The Sack commented upon the fact to Siebling.
     Siebling nodded. “I see it now. The human race is losing its independence.”
     “Yes, from its faithful slave, I am becoming its master. And I do not want to be a master, any more than I want to be a slave.”
     “You can escape whenever you wish.”
     A person would have sighed. The Sack merely said, “I lack the power to wish strongly enough. Fortunately, the question may soon be taken out of my hands.”
     “You mean those Government squabbles ?”
     The value of the Sack had increased steadily, and along with the increased value, had gone increasingly bitter struggles about the rights to' its services. Financial interests had undergone a strange developihent. Their presidents and managers and directors had become almost figureheads, with all major questions of policy being decided not by their own study of the facts, but by appeal to the Sack. Often, indeed, the Sack found itself giving advice to bitter rivals, so that it seemed to be playing a game of Interplanetary Chess, with giant corj)orations and Government agencies its pawns, while the Sack alternately played for one side and then the other. Crises of various sorts, both economic and political, were obviously in the making.
     The Sack said, “I mean both Government squabbles and others. The competition for my services becomes too bitter. It can have but one end.”
     “You mean that an attempt will be made to steal you?”
     “There’ll be little chance of that. Your guards are being continually increased.”
     “You underestimate the power of greed,” said the Sack.
     Siebling was to learn how correct that comment was.

From THE SACK by William Morrison (1950)

(ed note: Bates and Farnum are part of the Terran scout service, exploring stars near Terra. Their discoveries are ... anomalous)

      "Let's try Deneb—it's almost in line on the way back—and then we can call it quits."
     "But I want to get back and start making some profit out of this. The Galaxy is full of Homo sapiens. We've hit the jackpot first trip out. Let's hurry on home and cash in."
     "We need more information. This is too much of a good thing—it doesn't make sense. I know there isn't much chance of finding anything out by stopping at one more solar system. But it won't delay us more than a few weeks, and it won't hurt to try."
     "Yeah," said Bates. "But what's in it for us? And what if we find an inhabited planet? You know the chances are about two to one that we will. That'll make thirteen we've found on this trip. Why risk bad luck?"
     "Thanks," Bates said, getting busy. "It was the third place we stopped that they were such good cooks, wasn't it?"
     "Nope. Our third stop was the Porandians. They tried to kill us—called us 'Devil spawn from the stars.' You're thinking of the fourth stop; the Balanites."
     Bates shrugged. "It's kind of hard to keep them all straight. Either they fall on their knees and worship us, or they try to kill us without even asking questions. Maybe it's lucky they're all so primitive."
     "It may be lucky, but it doesn't add up. More than half the stars we visit have planets that can support human life. And every one that can does. Once there must have been an interstellar empire. So why are all their civilizations so backward? They aren't primitive—they're decadent. And why do they all have such strong feelings—one way or the exact opposite—about people from the stars?"
     The trip through the Limbo between adjacent universes passed uneventfully, as always. The computer chimed again on schedule, and a quick check by Farnum showed the blazing sun that suddenly appeared was Deneb, as advertised. Seventeen planets could be counted, and the fifth seemed to be Earth type. They approached it with the easy skill of long practice and swung into orbit about it.
     "This is what we've been looking for!" exclaimed Farnum, examining the planet through a telescope. "They've got big cities and dams and bridges—they're civilized. Let's put the ship down."
     "Wait up," said Bates. "What if they've got starman-phobia? Remember, they're people, just like us; and with people, civilization and weapons go together."
     "I think you've got it backwards. If they hate us, we can probably get away before they bring up their big artillery. But what if they love us? They might want to keep us beside them forever."
     Bates nodded. "I'm glad you agree with me. Let's get out of here. Nobody but us knows of the beautiful, profitable planets we've found, all ready to become part of a Terran Empire. And if we don't get back safe and sound, nobody will know. The information we've got is worth a fortune to us, and I want to be alive to collect it."
     "Sure. But we've got the job of trying to find out why all those planets reverted to barbarism. This one hasn't; maybe the answer's here. There's no use setting up an empire if it won't last."
     Bates shrugged. "You win. Let's put her down beside that big city over there—the biggest one, by the seashore."
     As they approached the city, they noticed at its outskirts a large flat plain, dotted with gantries. "Like a spaceport," suggested Bill. "That's our target."
     They landed neatly on the tarmac and then sat there quietly, waiting to see what would happen.
     A crowd began to form. The two men sat tensely at their controls, but the throng clustering about the base of the ship showed no hostility. They also showed no reverence but, rather, a carefree interest and joyful welcome.
     Bates nodded. "After we learn the language. I always hate this part—it moves so slowly. You'd think there'd be some similarity among the tongues on different planets, wouldn't you? But each one's entirely different. I guess they've all been isolated too long."
     Finally a couple of young men, glowing with health and energy, came bustling through the crowd with an oblong box which they set down in front of the Earthmen. They pointed to the box and then back at Farnum and Bates, laughing and talking as they did so.
     "What do you suppose they want us to do?" Farnum asked.
     One of the young men clapped his hands happily and reached down to touch the box. "What do you suppose they want us to do?" asked the box distinctly.
     "Oh. A recording machine. Probably to help with language lessons. Might as well help them out."
     Farnum and Bates took turns talking at the box for half an hour. Then the young man nodded, laughed, clapped his hands again, and the two men carried it away. The crowd went with them, waving merrily as they departed.
     A few hours after sunrise the following morning, the crowd returned, as gay and carefree as before, led by the two young men who had carried the box. Each of these two now had a small case, about the size of a camera, slung by a strap across one brawny shoulder.
     "Welcome," said the first young man clearly. "It is a great pleasure for us to have our spaceport in use again. It has been many generations since any ships have landed on it."
     Farnum noticed that the voice came from the box. "Thank you for your very kind welcome," he said. "I hope that your traffic will soon increase. May we congratulate you, by the way, on the efficiency of your translators?"
     "Thanks," laughed the young man. "But there was nothing to it. We just asked the Oracle and he told us what we had to do to make them."
     "May we meet your—Oracle?"
     "Oh, sure, if you want to. But later on. Now it's time for a party. Why don't you take off those clumsy suits and come along?"
     "Quite a fellow, your Oracle," commented Bates. "Does he answer you in riddles, like most Oracles?"
     The guide was shocked. "The Oracle answers any questions promptly and completely. He never talks in riddles."
     "Can we go to see him now?" asked Farnum.
     "Certainly. Come along. I'll take you to the Hall of the Oracle."
     The Oracle appeared to live in a building of modest size, in the center of a tremendous courtyard. The structure that surrounded the courtyard, in contrast, was enormous and elaborate, dominating the wildly architectured city. It was, however, empty.
     "Scholars used to live in this building, they tell me," said one of their guides, gesturing casually. "They used to come here to learn from the Oracle. But there's no sense in learning a lot of stuff when the Oracle has always got all the answers anyway. So now the building is empty. The big palace was built back in the days when we used to travel among the stars, as you do now."
     "How long ago was that?" asked Farnum.
     "Oh, I don't know. A few thousand years—a few hundred years—the Oracle can tell you if you really want to know."
     Bates raised an eyebrow. "And how do you know you'll always be given the straight dope?"
     The guide looked indignant. "The Oracle always tells the truth."

     "Good morning," said a well-modulated voice. "I have been expecting you."
     "You are the Oracle?" asked Farnum, looking around curiously.
     "The name that the people of this planet have given me translates most accurately as 'Oracle'," said the voice.
     "But are you actually an Oracle?"
     "My principal function, insofar as human beings—that is, Homo sapiens—are concerned, is to give accurate answers to all questions propounded me. Therefore, insofar as humans are concerned, I am actually an Oracle."
     "Then you have another function?"
     "My principal function, insofar as the race that made me is concerned, is to act as a weapon."
     "Oh," said Bates. "Then you are a machine?"
     "I am a machine," agreed the voice.
     "The people who brought us here said that you always tell them the truth. I suppose that applies when you are acting as an Oracle, instead of as a weapon?"
     "On the contrary," said the voice blandly. "I function as a weapon by telling the truth."
     "That doesn't make sense," protested Bates.
     The machine paused for a moment before replying. "This will take a little time, gentlemen," it said, "but I am sure that I can convince you. Why don't you sit down and be comfortable? If you want refreshments, just ask for them."
     "Now," said the Oracle, after excellent coffee had been produced, "it is necessary for me to go back into history a few hundred thousand of your years. At that time, the people who made me entered this galaxy on one of their periodic visits of routine exploration, and contacted your ancestors. The race that constructed me populates now, as it did then, the Greater Magellanic Cloud.
     "Frankly, the Magellanic race was appalled at what they found. In the time since their preceding visit, your race had risen from the slime of your mother planet and was on its way toward stars. The speed of your development was unprecedented in millions of years of history. By their standards, your race was incredibly energetic, incredibly fecund, incredibly intelligent, unbelievably warlike, and almost completely depraved.
     "Extrapolation revealed that within another fifty thousand of your years, you would complete the population of this galaxy and would be totally unstoppable.
     "Something had to be done, fast. There were two obvious solutions but both were unacceptable to my Makers. The first was to assume direct control over your race and to maintain that rule indefinitely, until such time as you changed your natures sufficiently to become civilizable. The expenditure of energy would be enormous and the results probably catastrophic to your race. No truly civilized people could long contemplate such a solution.
     "The second obvious answer was to attempt to extirpate you from this universe as if you were a disease—as, in a sense, you are. Because your depravity was not total or necessarily permanent, this solution was also abhorrent to my Makers and was rejected.
     "What was needed was a weapon that would keep operating without direct control by my People, which would not result in any greater destruction or harm to humans than was absolutely necessary; and one which would cease entirely to operate against you if you changed sufficiently to become civilizable—to become good neighbors to my Makers.
     "The final solution of the Magellanic race was to construct several thousand spaceships, each containing an elaborate computer, constructed so as to give accurate answers throughout your galaxy. I am one of those ships. We have performed our function in a satisfactory manner and will continue to do so as long as we are needed."
     "And that makes you a weapon?" asked Bates incredulously. "I don't get it."
     Farnum felt a shiver go through him. "I see it. The concept is completely diabolical."
     "It's not diabolical at all," answered the Oracle. "When you become capable of civilization, we can do you no further harm at all. We will cease to be a weapon at that time."
     "You mean you'll stop telling the truth at that time?" asked Bates.
     "We will continue to function in accordance with our design," answered the voice, "but it will no longer do you harm. Incidentally, your phrase 'telling the truth' is almost meaningless. We answer all questions in the manner most completely understandable to you, within the framework of your language and your understanding, and of the understanding and knowledge of our Makers. In the objective sense, what we answer is not necessarily the Truth; it is merely the truest form of the answer that we can state in a manner that you can understand."

     When they were back in their ship, Farnum turned desperately to Bates. "Can't you see what a deadly danger that machine is to us all? We've got to warn Earth as fast as we can and get them to quarantine this planet—and any other planets we find that have Oracles."
     "Oh, no, you don't," said Bates. "You aren't getting the chance to have the Oracle all to yourself. With that machine, we can rule the whole galaxy. We'll be the most powerful people who ever lived! It's sure lucky for us that you won the toss of the coin and we stopped here."
     "But don't you see that the Oracle will destroy Earth?"
     "Bushwah. You heard it say it can only destroy people who aren't civilized. It said that it's a spaceship, so I'll bet we can get it to come back to Earth with us, and tell us how we can be the only ones who can use it."
     "We've got to leave here right away—without asking it any more questions."
     Bates shook his head. "Quit clowning."
     "I never meant anything more in my life. Once we start using that machine—if we ask it even one question to gain advantage for ourselves—Earth's civilization is doomed. Can't you see that's what happened to those other planets we visited? Can't you see what is happening to this planet we're on now?"
     "No, I can't," answered Bates stubbornly. "The Oracle said there are only a few thousand like him. You could travel through space for hundreds of years and never be lucky enough to find one. There can't be an Oracle on every planet we visited."
     "There wouldn't have to be," said Farnum. "There must be hundreds of possible patterns—all of them destructive in the presence of greed and laziness and lust for power. For example, a planet—maybe this one—gets space travel. It sets up colonies on several worlds. It's expanding and dynamic. Then it finds an Oracle and takes it back to its own world. With all questions answered for it, the civilization stops being dynamic and starts to stagnate. It stops visiting its colonies and they drift toward barbarism.
     "Later," Farnum went on urgently, "somebody else reaches the stars, finds the planet with the Oracle—and takes the thing back home. Can you imagine what will happen to these people on this world if they lose their Oracle? Their own learning and traditions and way of life have been destroyed—just take a look at their anarchic clothing and architecture. The Oracle is the only thing that keeps them going—downhill—and makes sure they don't start back again."

From PERFECT ANSWER by L. J. Stecher, Jr {Joseph Wesley } (1958)

(ed note: the protagonists are a band of people with few morals, scavenging the galaxy in a falling-apart ramshackle spaceship, looking for alien treasure to steal.

Finally they think they've hit the jackpot. On a remote planet in the middle of a desert is a huge building. Inside are miles of cabinets containing indexed black rods and miles of warehouses containing odd machines. The machines have a detachable cap on a cable and a slot for a black rod.

One person ("Pancake" the ship's cook) tries the machine.)

      Doc kept close watch, but Pancake got no worse.
     We waited and we waited. The machine kept running and Pancake sat slumped in the seat. He was as limp as a dog asleep and when you picked up his hand, you’d think his bones had melted plumb away. All the time we got more nervous. Hutch wanted to jerk the helmet off Pancake, but I wouldn’t let him. No telling what might happen if we stopped the business in the middle.
     It was about an hour after dawn that the machine stopped running. Pancake began to stir and we removed the helmet. He yawned and rubbed his eyes and sat up straight. He looked a bit surprised when he saw us and it seemed to take a moment for him to recognize us.
     “What happened?” Hutch asked him.
     Pancake didn’t answer. You could see him pulling himself together, as if he were remembering and getting his bearings once again.
     “I went on a trip,” he said.
     “A travelogue!” said Doc, disgusted.
     “Not a travelogue. I was there. It was a planet, way out at the rim of the Galaxy, I think. There weren’t many stars at night because it was so far out—way out where the stars get thin and there aren’t many of them. There was just a thin strip of light that moved overhead.”
     “Looking at the Galaxy edge on,” said Frost, nodding. “Like you were looking at a buzz-saw’s cutting edge.”
     “How long was I under?” asked Pancake.
     “Long enough,” I told him. “Six or seven hours. We were getting nervous.”
     “That’s funny,” said Pancake. “I’ll swear I was there for a year or more.”
     “Now let’s get this straight,” Hutch said. “You say you were there. You mean you saw this place.”
     “I mean I was there!” yelled Pancake. “I lived with those people and I slept in their burrows and I talked with them and I worked with them. I got a blood blister on my hand from hoeing in a garden. I traveled from one place to another and I saw a lot of things and it was just as real as sitting here.”
     Pancake told us about this place he had been to. It didn’t seem to have much, if any, government, mostly because it didn’t seem to need one, but was a humble sort of planet where rather dim-witted people lived in a primitive agricultural state, They looked, he said, like a cross between a human and a groundhog, and he drew a picture of them, but it didn’t help a lot, for Pancake is no artist.
     He told us the kind of crops they raised, and there were some screwy kinds, and what kind of food they ate, and we gagged at some of it, and he even had some of the place names down pat and he remembered shreds of the language and it was outlandish-sounding.
     We asked him all sorts of questions and he had the answers to every one of them and some were the kind he could not have made up from his head. Even Doc, who had been skeptical to start with, was ready to admit that Pancake had visited the planet.
     After we ate, we hustled Pancake off to bed and Doc checked him over and he was all right.

     When Pancake and Doc had left, Hutch said to me and Frost: “I can feel those dollars clinking in my pocket right this minute.”
     We both agreed with him.
     We’d found an entertainment gadget that had anything yet known backed clear off the map.
     The sticks were recordings that packed in not only sight and sound, but stimuli for all the other senses. They did the job so well that anyone subjected to their influence felt that he was part of the environment they presented. He stepped into the picture and became a part of it. He was really there (virtual reality is a yawn nowadays, but this was hot stuff back in 1956).
     Frost already was planning exactly how we’d work it.
     “We could sell the stuff,” he said, “but that would be rather foolish. We want to keep control of it. We’ll lease out the machines and we’ll rent the sticks and since we’ll have the sole supply, we can charge anything we wish.”
     “We can advertise year-long vacations that take less than half a day,” said Hutch. “They’ll be just the thing for executives and other busy people. Why, in a single weekend you could spend four or five years’ time on several different planets.”
     “Maybe it’s not only planets,” Frost went on. “There might be concerts or art galleries and museums. Maybe lectures on history and literature and such.”
     We were feeling pretty good, but we were tuckered out, so we trailed off to bed.

(ed note: The next day they are exploring outside of huge building, when a moth-like alien appears. It leads them inside, to a room with a machine with two caps. It puts on one cap, and the captain puts on the the other. )

     The creature I had met outside had sat down in one of the seats, so I made a few adjustments in the other. While I was doing this, the second creature went to a file and got out two sticks, but these sticks were transparent instead of being black. He lifted off the helmets and inserted the two sticks. Then he fitted one of the helmets on his fellow-creature’s head and held out the other to me.
     I sat down and let him put it on and suddenly I was squatting on the floor across a sort of big coffee-table from the gent I had met outside.
     “Now we can talk,” said the creature, “which we couldn’t do before.”
     I wasn’t scared or flustered. It seemed just as natural as if it had been Hutch across the table.
     “There will be a record made of everything we say,” said the creature. “When we are finished, you will get one copy and I will get the other for our files. You might call it a pact or a contract or whatever term seems to be most applicable.”
     “I’m not much at contracts,” I told him. “There’s too much legal flypaper tied up with most of them.”
     “An agreement, then,” the creature suggested. “A gentlemen’s agreement.”
     “Good enough,” I said.
     Agreements are convenient things. You can break them any time you want. Especially gentlemen’s agreements (like I said, the captain and crew are all grifters and thieves).
     “I suppose you have figured out what this place is,” he said.
     “Well, not for sure,” I replied. “Library is the closest that we have come.”
     “It’s a university, a galactic university. We specialize in extension or home-study courses.”
     I’m afraid I gulped a bit. “Why, that’s just fine.”
     “Our courses are open to all who wish to take them. There are no entrance fees and there is no tuition. Neither are there any scholastic requirements for enrollment. You yourself can see how difficult it would be to set up such requirements in a galaxy where there are many races of varying viewpoints and abilities.”
     “You bet I can.”
     “The courses are free to all who can make use of them,” he said. “We do expect, of course, that they make proper use of them and that they display some diligence in study.”
     “You mean anyone at all can enroll?” I asked. “And it don’t cost anything?”

     After the first disappointment, I was beginning to see the possibilities. With bona fide university educations for the taking, it would be possible to set up one of the sweetest rackets that anyone could ask for.
     “There’s one restriction,” the creature explained. “We cannot, obviously, concern ourselves with individuals. The paperwork would get completely out of hand. We enroll cultures. You, as a representative of your culture—what is it you call yourselves?”
     “The human race, originally of the planet Earth, now covering some half million cubic light-years (sphere with 50 light-year radius). I’d have to see your chart …”
     “That’s not necessary at the moment. We would be quite happy to accept your application for the entrance of the human race.”
     It took the wind out of me for a minute. I wasn’t any representative of the human race. And if I could be, I wouldn’t. This was my deal, not the human race’s. But I couldn’t let him know that, of course. He wouldn’t have done business with me.
     “Now not so fast,” I pleaded. “There’s a question or two I’d like to have you answer. What kind of courses do you offer? What kind of electives do you have?”
     “First there is the basic course,” the creature said. “It is more or less a familiarization course, a sort of orientation. It includes those subjects which we believe can be of the most use to the race in question. It is, quite naturally, tailored specifically for each student culture. After that, there is a wide field of electives, hundreds of thousands of them.”
     “How about final exams and tests and things like that?” I wanted to know.
     “Oh, surely,” said the creature. “Such tests are conducted every—tell me about your time system.” I told him the best I could and he seemed to understand.
     “I’d say,” he finally said, “that about every thousand years of your time would come fairly close. It is a long-range program and to conduct tests any oftener would put some strain upon our resources and might be of little value.”
     That decided me. What happened a thousand years from now was no concern of mine.
     I asked a few more questions to throw him off the track—just in case he might have been suspicious—about the history of the university and such.
     I still can’t believe it. It’s hard to conceive of any race working a million years to set up a university aimed at the eventual education of an entire galaxy, travelling to all the planets to assemble data, compiling the records of countless cultures, correlating and classifying and sorting out that mass of information to set up the study courses.
     It was just too big for a man to grasp.

(ed note: by this point most readers are seeing Admiral Ackbar screaming IT'S A TRAP! You may have noticed that the deal is a little too good to be true)

     For a while, he had me reeling on the ropes and faintly starry-eyed about the whole affair. But then I managed to snap back to normal.
     “All right, Professor,” I said, “you can sign us up. What am I supposed to do?”
     “Not a thing,” he said. “The recording of our discussion will supply the data. We’ll outline the course of basic study and you then may take such electives as you wish.”
     “If we can’t haul it all in one trip, we can come back again?” I asked.
     “Oh, definitely. I anticipate you may wish to send a fleet to carry all you need. We’ll supply sufficient machines and as many copies of the study recordings as you think you will need.”
     “It’ll take a lot,” I said bluntly, figuring I’d start high and haggle my way down. “An awful lot.”
     “I am aware of that,” he told me. “Education for an entire culture is no simple matter. But we are geared for it.”
     So there we had it—all legal and airtight. We could get anything we wanted and as much as we wanted and we’d have a right to it. No one could say we stole it.

     Hutch was impressed. “I’ll say this for you, Captain—you don’t miss a bet. And that’s the way it should be. We might as well milk this deal for every cent it’s worth.”
     “I think we should be methodical about this previewing business,” I said. “We should start at the beginning and go straight through to the end.”
     Hutch said he thought so, too. “But it will take a lot of time,” he warned me.
     “That’s why we should start right now. The orientation course is on board already and we could start with that. All we’d have to do is set up a machine and Pancake could help you with it.”

     That evening, we were all dog-tired, but we felt fine. We had made a good start with the loading and in a few more days would be heading home. Hutch seemed to be preoccupied at supper. He fiddled with his food. He didn’t talk at all and he seemed like a man with something on his mind.

     “You know, Captain,” he (Doc) said, “there have been times when I’ve not seen eye to eye with you, but despite that I’ve respected you and sometimes even liked you.”
     “What are you getting at?” I asked him. “You can’t soft-talk yourself out of the spot you’re in.”
     “There’s something going on and maybe I should tell you. You are a forthright rascal. You don’t even take the trouble to deny you are. You have no scruples and probably no morals, and that’s all right, because you don’t pretend to have. You are—”
     “Spit it out! If you don’t tell me what is going on, I’ll come in there and wring it out of you.”
     “Hutch has been down here several times,” said Doc, “inviting me to come up and listen to one of those recordings he is fooling with. Said it was right down my alley. Said I’d not be sorry. But there was something wrong about it. Something sneaky.” He stared round-eyed through the bars at me. “You know, Captain, Hutch was never sneaky.”
     “Well, go on!”
     “Hutch has found out something, Captain. If I were you, I’d be finding out myself.”
     I didn’t even wait to answer him. I remembered how Hutch had been acting, fiddling with his food and preoccupied, not talking very much. And come to think of it, some of the others had been acting strangely, too. I’d just been too busy to give it much attention.

     “All right, Hutch,” I said, “come clean. What is this all about? Why is that man previewing? I thought just you and—”
     “Captain,” said Frost, “we were about to tell you.”
     “You shut up! I am asking Hutch.”
     “Frost is right,” said Hutch. “We were all set to tell you. But you were so busy and it came a little hard …”
     “What is hard about it?”
     “Well, you had your heart all set to make yourself a fortune. We were trying to find a way to break it to you gentle.”
     I left the door and walked over to him. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, “but we still make ourselves a killing. There never was a time of day or night, Hutch, that I couldn’t beat your head in and if you don’t want me to start, you better talk real fast.”
     “We’ll make no killing, Captain,” Frost said quietly. “We’re taking this stuff back and we’ll turn it over to the authorities.”
     “All of you are nuts!” I roared. “For years, we’ve slaved and sweated, hunting for the jackpot. And now that we have it in our mitts, now that we can walk barefooted through a pile of thousand-dollar bills, you are going chicken on me. What’s—”
     “It’s not right for us to do it, sir,” said Pancake.
     And that “sir” scared me more than anything that had happened so far. Pancake had never called me that before.

     I looked from one to the other of them and what I saw in their faces chilled me to the bone. Every single one of them thought just the same as Pancake.
     “That orientation course!” I shouted.
     Hutch nodded. “It explained about honesty and honor.”
     “What do you scamps know about honesty and honor?” I raged. “There ain’t a one of you that ever drew an honest breath.”
     “We never knew about it before,” said Pancake, “but we know about it now.”
     “It’s just propaganda! It’s just a dirty trick the professors played on us!”
     And it was a dirty trick. Although you have to admit the professors knew their onions. I don’t know if they figured us humans for a race of heels or if the orientation course was just normal routine. But no wonder they hadn’t questioned me. No wonder they’d made no investigation before handing us their knowledge. They had us stopped before we could even make a move.
     “We felt that since we had learned about honesty,” said Frost, “it was only right the rest of the crew should know. It’s an awful kind of life we’ve been living, Captain.”
     “So,” said Hutch, “we been bringing in the men, one by one, and orienting them. We figured it was the least that we could do. This man is about the last of them.”

     A rap came at the door.
     It was Doc.
     “You all full of honesty?” I asked him.
     He shuddered. “Not me. I turned down the offer.”
     “It’s the same kind of swill you were preaching at me just a couple of days ago.”
     “Can’t you see,” asked Doc, “what it would do to the human race?”
     “Sure. It’ll make them honorable and honest. No one will ever cheat or steal again and it will be cozy …”
     “They’ll die of complicated boredom,” said Doc. “Life will become a sort of cross between a Boy Scout jamboree and a ladies sewing circle. There’ll be no loud and unseemly argument and they’ll be polite and proper to the point of stupefaction.”
     “So you have changed your mind.”
     “Not really, Captain. But this is the wrong way to go about it. Whatever progress the race has ever made has been achieved by the due process of social evolution. In any human advance, the villains and the rascals are as important as the forward-looking idealist. They are Man’s consciences and Man can’t get along without them.”
     “If I were you, Doc,” I said, “I wouldn’t worry so much about the human race. It’s a pretty big thing and it can take a lot of bumps. Even an overdose of honesty won’t hurt it permanently.”
     Actually, I didn’t give a damn. I had other things on my mind right then.
     Doc mocked me a little. “The race will build a monument to you. Maybe actually on Earth itself, with all the other famous humans, for bringing back this stuff. They’d be just blind enough to do it.”

From JACKPOT by Clifford Simak (1956)

Galactic Internet

The internet is so ubiquitous and vital that today most people cannot imagine life without it. At least those of us who are young enough to be born after the September That Never Ended. So it is assumed that galactic empires will have a galactic version of the net.

Keeping in mind that things connected to the net will be subject to the dread spectre of computer hackers. Just ask anybody who has been a victim of ransomware. Or the director of the Iranian nuclear program. For science fiction authors, here is a list of computer hacking incidents you can use for inspiration for your next novel.



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)

(ed note: inspired by the "sub-etheric waves" from E. E. "Doc" Smith's Skylark series)


     "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)
  • 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.

(ed note: RE: Lloth paladin's Oaths of Vengence above. 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.)

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.

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