Technological Ideology

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

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

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

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

Technologies in Conflict

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From AFTER DOOMSDAY by Poul Anderson (1961)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Wikipedia entry for SHAPER/MECHANIST UNIVERSE


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Wikipedia entry for FACTIONS IN REVELATION SPACE

Organic Technology

RocketCat sez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RocketCat points out some of the draw-backs.


  • The Greening of the Galaxy

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

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

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

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

  • Living Spaceships. Another well-used troup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

From THE MUSCHINE by Burt K. Filer (1968)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organic Spacecraft

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

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

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

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


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

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

In fiction

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

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

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

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

See also

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Trope to Tree Vessel.

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


The Fallacy of Organic Technology

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

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

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

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

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

Biological, symbiote, biomechanoid, cyborg?

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Aspects of Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Anticipation, eagerness, surged through Parz.

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

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

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

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

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

The Spline rebuilt themselves.

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

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

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

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

"Open the damn eyelid."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From TIMELIKE INFINITY by Stephen Baxter (1992)

Aquatic Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Carnegie Mellon University Mechanical Engineering (2017)

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


(ed note: oceanographer Cliff Rodney is exploring the ocean floor in his bathyspheric submarine when his sub is unexpectedly captured by a previously unknown aquatic intelligence species. Naturally the technology of the creatures is hampered by lack of access to fire, but they make do with organic technology. Conveniently, the creatures have managed to teach themselves English from books and dictionaries salvaged from sunken ships. Cliff soon finds himself being questioned by a creature who goes by the name of "student")

      CLIFF’S ATTENTION wandered to the walls, in quest of some explanation of the phosphorescence that came from them. Their surface was hard and smooth like that of glass, but the substance that composed them was not glass. It had a peculiar, milky opalescent sheen, like mother-of-pearl. Squinting, he tried to peer through the cloudy, semitransparent material.
     At a depth of a few inches little specks of fire flitted. They were tiny, self-luminous marine animals. Beyond the swarming myriads of them was another shell, white and opaque. He understood. The chamber was double-walled. There was water between the walls, and in it those minute light-giving organisms were imprisoned for the purpose of supplying illumination.
     It was a simple bit of inventive ingenuity, but not one which men would be likely to make use of. In fact there was nothing about his new surroundings that was not at least subtly different from any similar thing that human beings would produce.
     The glass of the domed chamber was not glass. It seemed to be nearer to the substance that composes the inner portion of a mollusk’s shell, and yet it had apparently been made in one piece, for there was no visible evidence of joints where separate parts of the dome might have been fastened together. The blocks that sealed the openings in the walls were almost equally strange. Among men they would surely have been made of metal.
     Clifford Rodney became more and more aware of the fact that he had come in contact with a civilization and science more fantastic than that of Mars or Venus could ever be. Those planets were worlds of air, as was the Earth he knew, while this was a world of water. Environment here presented handicaps and possibly offered advantages which might well have turned the sea folk’s path of advancement in a direction utterly different from that followed by mankind.

(ed note: meanwhile The Student approaches the underwater city where Cliff is being held captive)

     A CITY was there in the hollow—a city or a colony. The seven fighters were moving close above it now. The valley was pitted by countless small openings, arranged edge to edge after the fashion of the cells of a honeycomb. Into them and from them, ovoids swam, going about whatever business was theirs. Here and there, queer structures of a pearly, translucent material, reared twisted spires that seemed to wriggle with the motion of the water.
     Monsters were everywhere, vague in the shifting shadows. Scores of types were represented, each type seemingly stranger than its associates. All of the monsters were busy, guided in their activities by alert ovoids that hung in the water, goads poised, flippers stirring idly.
     Some of the monsters wallowed in the muck, digging with broad, spatulate members. Wormlike in form, pallid and smooth, one knew that their purpose in life was to dig, and nothing else.
     Others kneaded their bloated, shapeless bodies, forming elfin creations around them, seemingly from their own substance. Some fanned the water with long, flattened limbs, perhaps performing a function akin to ventilation. Others—they were fighters like The Student's escort—guarded the colony, swimming steadily back and forth.
     And so it went. Each of the horrors followed the vocation for which it was intended. Each was a robot, a machine of living flesh, capable of some special function.

     It was up to The Student to open negotiations, and he did not hesitate, for he had planned well. From a pouch, which was a natural part of him, he removed a stylus of chalky material. Then, concentrating on what he had learned during his years of study, he printed a command on the pane of the window: “You made fire, man. Make it again.”
     He traced the letters in reverse, so that they would appear normally to the being inside the dome.
     The prisoner seemed uncertain for a brief spell; then he obeyed. Paper, a daub of liquid from what appeared to be a tiny black box (a drop of lighter fluid from his cigarette lighter), a swift movement, sparks, and finally—flame! The man held up the blazing paper for his visitor to see.
     The Student watched the phenomenon of rapid oxidation, drinking in the marvel of it until the flame was burned out. The water had washed the chalky letters from the window. He traced another message: “Fire gives you metals, machines, power—everything you have?”
     Cliff looked about for some means to answer. His attention was drawn to a small area of unencumbered floor, on which a thin layer of sea sand had been deposited. With a finger he traced words in it: “Yes. Fire brought us out of the Stone Age, and kept us going since. You got it right, friend. How?”
     And the swift-moving tentacles traced a reply: “I have translated books—men’s books. I have read of fire. But we have never produced fire. We might produce fire from electric sparks—soon.”
     Rodney looked with quizzical awe at the gleaming orbs of the ovoid. Behind them, he knew, was a brilliant brain, whose brilliance had perhaps been augmented by the very handicaps which it had faced and overcome. The truth concealed behind this intriguing statement was already dimly formulated in his mind. Now he might clear up the matter completely.
     He smoothed out the sand and printed another message: “You have electricity, glass, and a kind of wireless—still, no fire. It is too wet here for fire; but how did you do it all? And you write like a man—how?”
     The Student chose to answer the last question first. “I mimic the writing of men,” he printed. “I must—so men understand. Glass, electricity, wireless, and other things, come from animals. Nearly everything comes from animals. We have made the animals so. We have developed the useful characteristics of the animals—great care, selection, breeding, crossbreeding—a long time—ages.
     It was a confirmation of the vague theory that Cliff had formulated. Handicapped by the impossibility of fire in their normal environment, the sea folk’s advancement had followed another path. Controlled evolution was what it amounted to.
     Cliff remembered what miracles men such as Luther Burbank had achieved with plants—changing them, improving them. And to a lesser extent, similar marvels had been achieved with animals. Here in the depths of the Atlantic the same science had been used for ages!
     Without visible excitement Cliff traced another note in the sand: “Electricity from living flesh, from modified muscle as in the electric eel or the torpedo? Glass from — Tell me!”
     And on the spy window the answer appeared: “Yes. Glass from animal —from mollusk—deposited and grown as a mollusk’s shell is deposited and grown. And it is formed as we wish. Electricity from modified muscle, as in the electric eel or the torpedo. I have read of them. We have animals like them—but larger. The animals fight for us, kill with electricity. And we have—electric batteries—metal from the ships (metal salvaged from sunken human ships). Rods—protoplasm—”

     THE STUDENT’S black tentacles switched and hesitated uncertainly as he groped for words that would express his thoughts to this strange monstrosity of another realm.
     But Clifford Rodney had captured enough of his meaning to make a guess. “You mean,” he wrote, “that you have developed a way of producing a steady current of electricity from a form of living protoplasm? A sort of isolated electric organ with metal details and grids to draw off the power?”
     Cliff thought it over, briefly but intensely. Such protoplasm would need only food to keep it active, and it could probably obtain food from the organic dust in the sea water around it.
     “Splendid !” he printed. “And the wireless, the radio beast—tell me about it!”
     The Student concentrated all his powers on the task of formulating an adequate response. Slowly, hesitantly, now, be began to trace it out; for he was thinking almost in an alien plane, working with words and ideas subtly different from his own. To make the man understand, he had to choose phrases and expressions from the books he had read.
     “It is the same,” he inscribed. “A characteristic developed to usefulness. Long ago we studied these animals. We discovered that they could—communicate— through—over great distances. We increased—improved this power by —by—”
     “By choosing those individuals in which the power was strongest, for breeding purposes, and in turn selecting those of their offspring and the descendants of their offspring in which the characteristics you desired to emphasize were most prominent,” Cliff prompted. “Thus the abilities of these messenger creatures were gradually improved."

From DAVEY JONES' AMBASSADOR by Raymond Z. Gallun (1935)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ordnance?" asked the Captain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From MAJOR OPERATION by James White (1966)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well … I think so.”

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

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

From STUCK WITH IT by Hal Clement (1976)

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

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

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

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

From ENSIGN FLANDRY by (1966)

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

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

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

From SURFACE TENSION by James Blish (1952)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From STAR MAKER by Olaf Stapledon (1937)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clockwork Technology

Basically this is technology that uses no electricity or electronics (digital or otherwise). There are some applications where this is an advantage. And I am not really talking about SteamPunk, though they do bear a superficial resemblance to each other.


I collect slide rules. You probably know a slide rule is a mechanical calculator of sorts. They usually look like a ruler (hence the name) and have a sliding part (hence the name) and by using logarithms you can multiply and divide easily by doing number line addition and subtraction (among other things).

It is easy to dismiss old technology like that out of hand as being antiquated, but mechanical computing may be making a comeback. It may seem ancient, but mechanical adding machines, cash registers, and even weapon control computers were all mechanical devices a few decades ago and there were some pretty sophisticated techniques developed to make them work. Perhaps the most sophisticated of all was Babbage’s difference engine, even though he didn’t have the technology to make one that actually functioned (the Computer History Museum did though; you should see it operating in person, but this is good too).

Why Mechanics?

So why the resurgence? Nanotechnology. [Eric Drexler] (of Engines of Creation fame) proposed “rod logic” as a way to build logic circuits (and, logically then, computers) using microscopic mechanical components. You might wonder why go backwards and not try to miniaturize electronic logic elements? The problem is that when you scale down to structures only a few molecules big, semiconductors don’t work anymore. There’s been work on Josephson junctions and similar structures, but so far room temperature microscopic electronic gates remain elusive. (Also, just this month IBM announced they have had some breakthroughs with nanotube transistor contact resistance.)

However, mechanical structures scale down nicely. There are still problems, of course. To do it right, we need to be able to make perfectly meshed parts and mating surfaces. [Drexler] postulates that we’ll be able to lay down individual molecules to our whim (like 3D printing with molecules). In particular, he wanted to lay down carbon atoms in a diamond lattice. That technology isn’t exactly a practical reality yet. But we are closing in on something similar. Graphene.

Logic with Rods

There has been a lot of work about making tiny structures for rod logic. How does rod logic work? It uses very basic concepts that approach the molecular scale.

Consider the figure on the left. Let’s say the blue (long) rod is the input rod and the purple rod (it is the same size as the blue rod, but going into the page) is the output rod. If you push the purple rod into the page, it will go as far as you want because the black knobs won’t hit each other.

Now look at the figure to the right. The blue rod has been moved. Now pushing the purple rod will cause the knobs to bump together (I’m assuming the blue rod is “behind” the purple rod’s knob). You won’t be able to push the purple rod as far as before.

How does that make a logic gate? Consider an inverter. When the blue rod (the input) is pushed it, it’s knob blocks the knob on the purple rod — the purple rod will not be able to be pushed in. Blue-In, Purple-Out means the signal has been inverted. The same is true if the blue rod is out, the purple rod can the be pushed in; this inverts the signal as well. In order for this to work, you have to pull the output rod back when you are done and push it when you want to read the output–almost like a clocked logic design on an FPGA.

I won’t belabor it, but by arranging the knobs you can make all the basic logic gates. If you really want to understand the basic gates, try reading the [halfbakedmaker’s] page about rod logic or read [Drexler’s] thesis. You could–in theory–even make these diminutive logic gates in three dimensions, meaning you could pack a lot of computer into an extremely small space.


We think of mechanical devices as slow. Since these little gates are at the molecular level ([Drexler] talks about rods weighing 0.02 attograms–there are one million attograms in a picogram), they should be pretty fast compared to things in our real world experience. However, since the nucleus of an atom weighs more than an electron, moving a whole atom is a lot slower than moving an electron. So electronic molecular-scale gates are still a major research goal.

[Drexler] talks about laying down carbon atoms to make diamond. However, one of the most promising materials now is graphene which (like diamond) is carbon, but arranged in a hexagonal lattice. Consider diamonds versus graphite. Diamonds are made of carbon atoms arranged in a pyramid-like lattice. Graphite, on the other hand, is made from stacks of carbon sheets in a hexagonal lattice. Even though both are made of carbon, the arrangement of atoms changes the carbon’s properties. For example, diamonds are hard and graphite is soft. Diamonds are insulators but graphite is a fair conductor. Like graphite, graphene’s atoms are arranged in a hexagonal lattice. What distinguishes it is that rather than being made of stacked layers, graphene is a single layer just one atom thick.

Graphene, unfortunately, doesn’t have good electrical properties to act as a semiconductor (it has a zero band gap voltage). However, it has other interesting properties, including ballistic electron transport which is practically room temperature superconductivity. There is also silicene, which is a similar arrangement of silicon atoms, that may allow for nano scale electronics more easily, but that’s another post for another time.

For rod logic, though, graphene could be a great material. It is among the strongest materials known and is a good conductor of both heat and electricity. It is nearly transparent and is both stiff and elastic. The real issue is how to practically manufacture complex shapes with graphene.

The Road Ahead

It seems the big question isn’t if minuscule computers will exist, but rather will they be electrical or will they be millions of little quasi-slide rules functioning in a volume the size of a ball bearing? If the future is graphene, I am betting on mechanics. The almost superconducting nature of graphene will make it useful for applications like solar cells, but likely won’t be helpful for making electronic switches, even with doping.

Not that mechanical computing doesn’t have challenges too. At these scales, thermal noise effects are devastating and there are other barriers including just the difficulty of creating the tiny structures required. But you have to wonder: today it isn’t uncommon to see an old computers duplicated with more modern technology like an FPGA. Will we one day see Charles Babbage’s engine rebuilt at tiny scale using graphene? If it happens, I’m sure you’ll read about it on Hackaday.


And then there’s Venus, a planet I’ve written little about in these pages. The Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE) concept study now being funded by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program is intriguing because it looks at spacecraft design from a fresh angle, actually one that harkens back to generations of mechanical devices that have had little part in space exploration. At least, until now. For while the environment on Venus challenges all our surface rover concepts, a hybrid mechanical/electronic design might save the day. The implications for other extreme environments in the outer system are quite interesting.

AREE grows out of ideas first proposed in 2015 by JPL engineer Jonathan Sauder, who drew on his knowledge of mechanical computers, the sort of calculating machines that use levers and gears instead of microchips. Think of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, which was designed in the 19th Century, or the Greek Antikythera mechanism, which could tell the Hellenistic world in ancient times about upcoming astronomical events like eclipses.

Sauder likes the idea of using analog technologies on Venus because electronics don’t last long under its extreme pressure and temperatures. If we can limit the use of electronics to the bare essentials and do the rest with analog techniques, we change the paradigm.

The power source? Wind turbines in the center of the rover, storing energy in a constant force spring. Tank treads, or something similar, would replace wheels, while communications would be handled by a rotating shutter placed in front of a bright radar target. The idea would be to turn the bright reflection on and off. Venus rover, meet the Royal Navy circa 1800 communicating with flags and signal lamps.

Build AREE right and you get long-duration in-situ mobility, a rover that might last on Venus’ hellish surface for a year or more (Soviet Veneras lasted for minutes or hours). Sauder considers it an automaton, ‘a mechanical device capable of performing a series of complex actions to achieve a specific result.’ I like the way AREE is described on this NIAC page:

[Automatons] have long been explored as art forms but remain unexplored for space applications. The automaton rover is designed to reduce requirements on electronics while requiring minimal human interaction and based on the subsumption architecture from robotics, where simple reactions of the rover lead to complex behavior. AREE combines steampunk with space exploration to enable science measurements unachievable with today’s space technology.

And the Phase 1 report notes: “High temperature electronics are incorporated where they have sufficient maturity and application, such as instrumentation.”

In other words, we are looking at a hybrid rover heavily dependent on mechanical methods but using electronics where needed. I hasten to add that this concept is maturing and may change substantially as a result of the Phase II work.

Consider the history of Venus exploration to see why alternate approaches are interesting. Venus’ surface reaches 460 degrees Celsius, hot enough to melt lead, while the surface pressures are high enough to crush the hull of a nuclear submarine at 90 bar. The Soviets attempted 14 landings in their Venera and Vega programs, nine of these being a success, but the sturdy probes lasted no more than two hours or so before being rendered inoperative.

“When you think of something as extreme as Venus, you want to think really out there,” said Evan Hilgemann, a JPL engineer working on high temperature designs for AREE. “It’s an environment we don’t know much about beyond what we’ve seen in Soviet-era images.”

The plan, then, is to bake mechanical prototypes of AREE to see how thermal expansion affects their moving parts. Phase 1 of the NIAC study compared mechanical rover technologies to electronics-based rovers using RTG cooling systems and designed to handle high temperatures, finding that current technologies were costly and not yet up to speed. The study also demonstrated the kind of passive signaling that would be deployed on AREE.

Phase II, now in progress, will set about finalizing the locomotion and signaling systems for the mechanical rover and creating a final rover design, a prototype that could perform initial testing. If AREE can work, it could change the game. One recent proposal for a Venus mission used a liquid gas cooling system that despite a price tag between $2 and $3 billion, could survive for less than a day on the surface. Sampling from multiple sites and developing longer-term weather data would be rendered impossible for this kind of device. AREE, with a sharply reduced electronics package, is a relatively low-cost mechanical alternative.

So we may one day be using levers and gears to produce calculations on this hellish world. We can only wonder what Charles Babbage might have made of the idea. Another reference is Pierre Jaquet-Droz, who along with his son produced mechanical automata in the 18th Century of extraordinary complexity. One of these, called The Writer, consisted of 6000 pieces, a mechanical boy with a primitive programmable memory who writes upon paper with real ink.

Mechanical computers experienced major growth in the early 1940s, and as Sauder’s Phase 1 report points out, were at their zenith by the 1940s. Nor were they simple affairs: They had gone from solving arithmetical problems to guiding bomb trajectories and aiming shipboard guns, taking atmospheric conditions into account. Sauder points to the Globus mechanical computer, an automaton that provided trajectory data for every Soviet launch until 2002. At the other end of the scale, mechanical watches and clocks can operate for decades — the oldest mechanical clock has been operated for 700 years. Throw in modern advances and we are now talking about a 10,000 year clock designed to function with minimal maintenance.

From the report:

Clever mechanisms can be combined with high temperature electronics to enable a platform that is more capable than either technology by itself. For example, one may consider simple addition. An electronic adder requires 576 transistors to combine two 16-bit numbers. To add numbers larger than 16 bits, multiple iterations through software would be required. However, a mechanical analog differential adder can solve the same problem using only 5 gears.

The goal, then, is to look critically at rover design to minimize the electronics package:

By finding these areas where mechanical solutions are relatively simple, the load on the computer can be reduced, thereby enabling a mission. Of course, a differential adder can only perform the adding operation, whereas a processor made up of many transistors can perform many other functions. But for an automaton, where the system is designed to carry out a specialized series of actions, this flexibility is not required.

Note that the ability to make science measurements is what Sauder considers one of the greatest weaknesses of a purely mechanical system. We can think, then, of hybrid rovers in which electronics are reduced sharply in complexity by using mechanical analog systems where possible, but still deployed if necessary for high-resolution data. Back to the Phase I report:

Additional study is necessary to leverage the existing suite of high temperature electronics to make critical science measurements targeted towards the mission context. Furthermore, in the coming months it is expected several specific high temperature electronic technologies will be announced for further development through the Hot Tech program. The selection will define what scientific measurements will become the most relevant with soon to be released technology. Therefore, instead of focusing on instrument development, this [Phase 1] study focuses on developing a mobile platform for Venus and other extreme environments which could host various instrument payloads.

And now we move on to the Phase II study. A comeback for automata may prove useful not only on Venus but in any number of difficult environments where the data collection may be basic but persist for long periods of time. Operations near Jupiter, for example, produce significant radiation problems and demand extensive shielding for electronics, just as high pressure environments beneath planetary atmospheres (the interior of a gas giant) challenge the survivability of our best electronic probes. Venus could turn out to be an interesting test case for how we add mechanical methods into our toolkit of deep space exploration.

For more, see Sauder et al., “Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments,” NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Phase 1 Final Report, available here.


IEEE Spectrum: How’d you come up with the idea for AREE?

     Jonathan Sauder: I was sitting around with a bunch of engineers, and we were working in a concurrent design session. During one of the coffee breaks, we were talking about cool mechanisms and components, and how cool would it be to do a purely mechanical spacecraft, what that would look like, and where you would use it. We realized that there are two places that make a lot of sense for something like this, where electronics don’t survive: One is Venus, because the longest we’ve been able to survive on the surface of Venus is two hours because electrical systems overheated overhead, and one is around Jupiter, because of the high radiation environment that disrupts electronics.

Is it really possible to build a robotic exploration rover with no electronics?

     We started out in our NIAC Phase I proposal thinking that we were going to build a fully mechanical rover architecture that would not use any electrical subsystems or electronics at all, replacing all the standard electrical subsystems with mechanical computing. As we started to dig into it more, we realized that you can’t build a traditional Mars Curiosity-style rover with a centralized core processor ... Instead, what we’ve had to do is focus on something that gives more of a distributed architecture, where we have many simple mechanisms around the device, guiding it, signaling it, telling it where to go.
     Originally we were going to try to do a number of our scientific measurements mechanically as well. As we started to look into that, we just couldn’t quite get the resolution of data that you need to image or measure things like temperature and pressure. There are some various high-temperature electronics that have been developed—silicon carbide and gallium systems—that do operate at high temperatures. The problem is that they’re at a really low level of integration. So what that means is that you can’t do traditional electrical systems with them, and you can’t do anything close to what would be required for a rover. So our idea is to built a mobility platform that would be able to locomote, seeing new places and operating for a lot longer than you could with the systems that currently exist.

Where did you begin with the design for AREE?

     The primary goal is to first design our locomotion architecture to be as robust as possible. And then the second goal is to use as many simple, distributed, reactive mechanisms as we can to sort of guide the rover as it works its way across the surface of Venus. You’ll notice that in some of our earlier images, the rover looked a lot like Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests, these semi-autonomous creatures that roamed the beaches of the Netherlands. A Strandbeest operates off just a couple simple sensors, which control whether the legs move backwards or forwards, and it has built-in logic to avoid soft sand and water.
     Early on in our conceptual development, we actually worked with Jansen: He came to JPL for a two-day collaborative engineering session, and we were getting all his expertise in 30 years working with Strandbeests. One of the first things he mentioned was that the legs have to go. And you know, when the person who’s created the Strandbeest tells you the legs have to go in your Venus rover, it means you probably need to find a different architecture. The key issue is that, while the legs work great on flat soft beaches, once you start getting to more variable terrain (like an unknown Venus environment), the legs will not be stable enough and the rover will have a very high probability of tipping over and getting damaged.
     That’s what inspired our architecture change from Phase I to Phase II, where we went from this really cool-looking legged rover to a maybe slightly less cool-looking but much more robust and probably much more implementable rover that looks like a World War I tank.

Can you describe how AREE will be able to navigate across the surface of Venus?

     Basically what we’re doing is developing some very specialized systems in terms of obstacle avoidance and determining whether there’s enough power to move or not, rather than a standard centralized system where you have a rover that can do multiple processes or be reconfigured or changed at any time via software.
     We’re trying to make the mechanisms as simple as possible, to do one specialized task, but to do that specialized task really well. Maybe it’s when the robot bumps into an object, it’ll flip a lever, which causes the rover to drive backwards a little bit, rotate by 90º degrees, and drive forwards. We can only do one obstacle-avoidance pattern, but you can repeat that multiple times and be able to eventually able to work our way around an obstacle.

How are AREE’s capabilities fundamentally unique from other Venus lander proposals?

     Right now there are several Venus mission concepts, each of which would cost as much as what a Mars Curiosity rover would or more, that either land in one location, or they get two locations of data. Most proposals are highly complex and looking at 2 to 24 hours on the surface. We’re looking at extending that amount of time to a month, essentially, with this rover concept, and that’s really where the key innovation comes in: Being able to sample multiple locations on the surface of Venus and understanding how things change with time.

Can you describe your vision for AREE, if everything goes as well as you’re hoping?

     The ideal robot would be something that could go into some of the roughest terrain on Venus called the tessera, which is this very rough and rocky lava. Our goal would be to track this rover during its mission on that terrain, taking geological samples as we travel to help us understand how Venus evolved. For the ideal rover, it’d be nice to get a little bit larger than 1.5 meters: Right now it’s restricted by the heat shield size. If we could, we would expand the rover to 2.5 meters in order to overcome larger obstacles and get more wind energy.
     Eventually, the goal would be to place a rover that would essentially be a Venus juggernaut that can get over most obstacles and keep trekking forward, driving itself along slowly but steadily, collecting samples and weather data as it goes.

At this point, you may be wondering just why the heck it’s worth sending a clockwork rover to explore the surface of Venus if we’re never going to hear from it again, because without electronics, how can it send any data back to us? There are certainly ways to store data mechanically: It’s easy to temporarily store numbers, and you can inscribe about 1 megabit of data onto a metal phonograph record. But then what?

One idea, which is somehow not as crazy as it sounds, would be to use hydrogen balloons to hoist these metal records into the upper atmosphere of Venus, where they would be intercepted by a high altitude solar powered drone (!), which would then read the records and transmit their contents to a satellite in orbit. The researchers also considered a vacuum tube radio, but while vacuum tubes are quite happy to operate at high temperatures, they’re vulnerable to becoming de-vacuumed in the Venusian atmosphere.

The solution that the AREE researchers came up with instead is this: radar reflectors. A radar reflector mounted on the rover could be seen from orbit, and by putting a shutter in front of the reflector, the rover could transmit something like 1000 bits every time a satellite passed over it. Adding multiple reflectors with different reflectivity along with shutters operating at different frequencies could allow a maximum of 32 unique variables to be transmitted per day. You wouldn’t even need to be transmitting specific numbers to send back valuable data, Sauder says, because just putting a reflector underneath a fan could be used to measure relative wind speeds at different locations over time.

So now that you’ve got this ingeniously capable and robust robotic rover that can survive on Venus, the final thing to figure out is what kind of scientific exploration it’ll be able to do, and that’s a particularly difficult question for AREE, as the NIAC Phase 1 proposal explains:

One of the greatest weaknesses of a purely mechanical system is its ability to make science measurements. Beyond communications, one of the key areas that could effectively use high temperature electronics is the instrument. More complex measurements, especially those related to geologic measurements, require electronic solutions.

Late last year, NASA announced HOTTech, the Hot Operating Temperature Technology Program, which is providing funding to support “the advanced development of technologies for the robotic exploration of high-temperature environments … with temperatures approaching 500 degrees Celsius or higher.” The AREE team hopes that HOTTech will result in some science instruments that will be able to survive on their rover, although if not, they also have some ideas for a few interesting ways of doing science without any electronics. These include measuring wind speed from a wind turbine, temperature and pressure from thermally expanding materials, and chemical properties from rods that react to certain desired chemicals.

To be clear, it’s not like Sauder and his team are trying to make all of this mechanical stuff for fun: It really is necessary to explore Venus affordably for longer than just a day or two. “Our goal with this project is specifically not replicate things that have already been done or will soon be done in the high temperature electronics area,” Sauder says, “but provide a set of mechanical solutions for things that might take longer to develop where there is no clear current solution.”

The technology that’s being developed for AREE has applications elsewhere in the solar system, and not just in high radiation environments like Jupiter’s moon Europa. Right here on Earth, AREE could be useful for taking samples from very close to an active volcano, or from within highly radioactive environments. Another advantage of AREE is that it can be completely sterilized at a very high temperature without affecting its functionality. If, say, you find a lake under the icecap on Mars with some weird tentacle-y things swimming around in it, you could send a send in a sterilized AREE to collect a sample without worrying about contamination.

At this point, AREE has received Phase 2 NIAC funding for continued development. The team is working on a more detailed study of the locomotion system, which will likely involve swapping the tank treads out for something wheel-based and more robust. They’re also developing a high temperature mechanical clock, one of the fundamental parts of any autonomous mechanical computer, and Sauder says that he expects some exciting results from building and testing a radar target signaling system within the next year. We're certainly excited: this is one of the most innovative robots we've ever seen, and we can't wait for it to get to Venus.

The Automation Rover for Extreme Environments team, led by Sauder, also includes Evan Hilgemann, Michael Johnson, Aaron Parness (whose research we’ve written about before), Bernie Bienstock, and Jeffery Hall, with Jessie Kawata and Kathryn Stack as additional authors on the NIAC Phase 1 final report, which you can read here.


(ed note: understand that it can be a full-blown self-replicating machine, with all that implies)


Many interesting ideas have been conceived for building space-based infrastructure in cislunar space. From O’Neill’s space colonies, to solar power satellite farms, and even prospecting retrieved near earth asteroids. In all the scenarios, one thing remained fixed — the need for space resources at the outpost. To satisfy this need, O’Neill suggested an electromagnetic railgun to deliver resources from the lunar surface, while NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission called for a solar electric tug to deliver asteroid materials from interplanetary space. At Made In Space, we propose an entirely new concept. One which is scalable, cost effective, and ensures that the abundant material wealth of the inner solar system becomes readily available to humankind in a nearly automated fashion. We propose the RAMA architecture, which turns asteroids into self-contained spacecraft capable of moving themselves back to cislunar space. The RAMA architecture is just as capable of transporting conventional sized asteroids on the 10m length scale as transporting asteroids 100m or larger, making it the most versatile asteroid retrieval architecture in terms of retrieved-mass capability.

This report describes the results of the Phase I study funded by the NASA NIAC program for Made In Space to establish the concept feasibility of using space manufacturing to convert asteroids into autonomous, mechanical spacecraft. Project RAMA, Reconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata, is designed to leverage the future advances of additive manufacturing (AM), in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) and in-situ manufacturing (ISM) to realize enormous efficiencies in repeated asteroid redirect missions. A team of engineers at Made In Space performed the study work with consultation from the asteroid mining industry, academia, and NASA.

Previous studies for asteroid retrieval have been constrained to studying only asteroids that are both large enough to be discovered, and small enough to be captured and transported using Earth-launched propulsion technology. Project RAMA is not forced into this constraint. The mission concept studied involved transporting a much larger ~50m asteroid to cislunar space. Demonstration of transport of a 50mclass asteroid has several groundbreaking advantages. First, the returned material is of an industrial, rather than just scientific, quantity (>10,000 tonnes vs ~10s of tonnes). Second, the “useless” material in the asteroid is gathered and expended as part of the asteroid’s propulsion system, allowing the returned asteroid to be considerably “purer” than a conventional asteroid retrieval mission. Third, the infrastructure used to convert and return the asteroid is reusable, and capable of continually returning asteroids to cislunar space.

The RAMA architecture, as described in this report, was shown to be cross cutting through the NASA technology roadmap as well as the future goals of the greater aerospace industry. During the course of the study it was found that the RAMA technology path aligns with over twelve NASA roadmap missions across seven NASA technology areas, and has the opportunity to substantially improve the affordability and scalability of both the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) and the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) stated goals.

ABSAcrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene
ADCSAttitude Determination and Control System
AGIArtificial General Intelligence
AMAdditive Manufacturing
AMFAdditive Manufacturing Facility
AREEAutomation Rover for Extreme Environments
ARMAsteroid Redirect Mission
AUAstronomical Unit (Earth-Sun Distance)
C&DHCommand and Data Handling
DMLSDirect Metal Laser Sintering
DRMDesign Reference Mission
EBMElectron Beam Welding
FBDFunctional Block Diagram
FSWFriction Stir Welding
GMATGeneral Mission Analysis Tool
GMAWGas Metal Arc Welding
GNCGuidance Navigation and Control
GTAWGas Tungsten Arc Welding
IOTInternet of Things
ISMIn-Situ Manufacturing
ISSInternational Space Station
IspSpecific Impulse
ISRUIn-Situ Resource Utilization
JPLJet Propulsion Laboratory
JSCJohnson Space Center
KSCKennedy Space Center
LBMLaser Beam Welding
LDLunar Distance
LENSLaser Engineered Net Shaping
LIDARLaser Imaging Detection And Ranging
LOX-H2Liquid Oxygen + Liquid Hydrogen
MTMetric Tonne
NEONear Earth Object
NEANear Earth Asteroid
NHATSNear Earth Object Human Spaceflight Accessible Targets Study
NIACNASA Innovative Advanced Concepts
PMFPropellant Mass Fraction
RAMAReconstituting Asteroids into Mechanical Automata
ROIReturn on Investment
RTGRadioisotope Thermoelectric Generator
SBDBSmall Body Database
SEPSolar Electric Propulsion
SOAState of the Art
TCSThermal Control System
TRLTechnology Readiness Level
TTLTransistor-Transistor Logic
ΔVChange in Velocity


Made In Space developed RAMA to solve the problem of transporting large supplies of asteroid resources from their natural orbits to orbits of greater use in cislunar space. RAMA is a revolutionary, mass-minimalist approach to explore and exploit space resources. The concept is based on a “Seed Craft”; a spacecraft which contains technically sophisticated ISRU, Additive Manufacturing and robotic capabilities. The Seed Craft uses these capabilities to convert the available materials of an asteroids into spacecraft subsystems including propulsion, energy storage and guidance systems. The asteroid (now a spacecraft in its own right) is able to autonomously carry out a basic mission; such as relocation for easier future rendezvous, or to divert to a more useful location empty space. Meanwhile, the Seed Craft which initiated the transformation is free to plot a course to the next asteroid, repeating the RAMA process indefinitely.

Designing RAMA and the Seed Craft is a project of advanced automation. To accomplish a task as difficult as converting an asteroid into a spacecraft, the Seed Craft must be outfitted with sophisticated robotic manufacturing and material processing technologies. Such technologies do not yet exist, but we anticipate ten to twenty years from now they will be developed to a technology readiness level high enough for the initial RAMA missions. With computation capabilities that rival todays super computers, the Seed Craft would be able to plan an entire mission on its own, adapting and building new equipment to accommodate the unique conditions it encounters on each asteroid.

We can be hopeful for the future of these technologies because many are currently in active development in other industries, with large growth potential here on Earth. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has a fleet of self-driving automobiles on the roads of Silicon Valley where Made In Space is head quartered. These vehicles adopt low cost LIDAR and radar sensors married with sophisticated feedback, machine learning, and other software tools to provide a level of driverless autonomy that meets the high standards of our nation’s roadways. Made In Space is currently working on the space manufacturing technologies that, among other capabilities, will enable the RAMA mission. Vacuum based additive manufacturing of polymers, metals, and composites in microgravity; large-scale structure manufacturing/assembly in space, and advanced robotics are all under currently funded programs at Made In Space.

RAMA Benefits

Compared to the state-of-the-art (SOA) Asteroid Redirect Mission architecture, RAMA simply does more for less. Because RAMA makes use of materials found at the asteroid for mass intensive tasks (like providing reaction mass for the propulsion systems), a greater mass can be returned for equivalent mass launched. This is even more true if the RAMA Seed Craft can redirect multiple asteroids in a single mission, either by using the asteroid’s propulsive capabilities to redirect itself towards another target before returning, or using the asteroid’s resources to replenish the Seed Craft’s propellant reserves. The asteroid-spacecraft itself also has several advantages over transporting resources with conventional spacecraft. An asteroid spacecraft can be 100% radiation hardened due to the abundance of shield material, and its interior can be completely shielded from micrometeorite debris, making it ideal for long-term missions on the order of 5-50 years. Due to the composition of these ISRU-derived (largely mechanical) systems, the “useless” materials on the asteroid (that would be separated and disposed of once the asteroid had returned to cislunar space) is put to good use in the RAMA concept as structural support and propellant reaction mass.

Taken to the extreme, the RAMA architecture enables a continuous train of resources to be redirected from interplanetary to cislunar space: A train of mechanically driven, asteroid spacecraft, “mine carts,” stretching from the depths of the asteroid belt to within 1 Lunar Distance (LD) of the Earth-Moon system. A symphony of endless revolving resources working in concert that, once in place, humans could hitch aboard and use as “free rides” to interplanetary space and back. Over time, such a system could convert these rudimentary spacecraft into sophisticated vehicles fit for human habitation; or fit them with sensors as research platforms to map other asteroids. Ultimately RAMA will create a system that will give humanity access to safer, faster and cheaper options for accessing the wealth of resources in our solar system.



The purpose of the RAMA spacecraft is to leverage a small amount of mass and equipment delivered to the asteroid by a Seed Craft, and use it to return a larger mass of asteroid raw materials to cislunar space. To accomplish this, the RAMA craft requires all the functions of a conventional interplanetary spacecraft, subject to the constraints that they be 1) Manufactured from materials available on the asteroid, 2) Manufactured on/by equipment available on the Seed Craft. The specific solution will depend on the asteroid, but in general, the RAMA craft must have the capabilities shown in Figure 2-1.



Mechanical and analog devices have been in existence for centuries. Examples of mechanical computing devices date back to 200 BC and were used as navigational instruments in the early days of spaceflight before being superseded by electrical computers. Figure 2-2 outlines eight different mechanical machine examples. The combination of these examples establishes a level of feasibility for constructing spacecraft from mechanical systems. Additionally, research and development in this field has led to analog based 3D printers that require no power or electronics to manufacture a pre-designed object.

Creating spacecraft from mechanical systems is entirely possible, and given the right mission, is even desirable. NASA NIAC has funded work to JPL under the AREE project (Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments) to develop a Venus rover made entirely of mechanical subsystem capable of surviving the harsh environment on the Venus surface. The RAMA mission class also represents a desirable case for mechanical subsystems. Propulsion systems to move 100-meter asteroids are too large to launch, but can be built in-situ as mechanical mass drivers; flywheels for attitude control are too heavy to launch, but could be constructed within an asteroid to control its spin rate and store energy. It is also possible to create mechanical computation devices for spacecraft that could perform basic avionics-style routines. For missions that require independence from Earth, with no supply of Earth made electronics, the creation of basic mechanical computers may serve as an alternative.


The performance requirements for each subsystem will depend on the size, mass and type of asteroid they are being built for. A rough estimate of their requirements is provided Table 2-1 for a “typical” asteroid that RAMA might be expected to operate on.

Table 2-1: The general capabilities and performance requirements of each of the asteroids sub-systems. Values reported are for a baseline 100m, 1.5 million tonne asteroid in a near earth orbit.

Table 2-1: The general capabilities and performance requirements of each of the asteroids sub-systems.
Values reported are for a baseline 100m, 1.5 million tonne asteroid in a near earth orbit.
SubsystemCapabilityPerformance Requirement
PropulsionEarth intercept maneuver, plus lunar flyby and breaking into cislunar orbit if tug is not available. High enough performance for sufficient asteroid mass to remain after the maneuver is completeTotal ΔV: 100-1000 m/s
Isp: 10-100 sec
Vejection: >100 m/s
PMF: 50-85%
StructureMaintain the asteroid’s cohesion while accelerating under propulsive loads, possibly with reinforcement from structural asteroid materials.10-100 μg’s propulsive acceleration
0.5-1 g centrifugal acceleration.
Power and Energy StorageStore all the mechanical energy of the propulsion system, and dispense it at the appropriate time.1-10 MJ
Attitude ControlMaintain asteroid orientation during maneuver, manage spin rate for artificial gravity control.5-50% inertial moment of the asteroid
Thermal ControlMaintain adequate temperature range of all hardware on the asteroid, and reject heat due to manufacturing process.50-500K
~1 MJ, or ~10% of power production
CommunicationsPosition and status reporting to Seed Craft or Earth receiver. Receive and activate flight termination if off course.Transponder providing range and rate information at ~1AU.
100-1000 W transmitter.
Command & Data HandlingTiming and sequencing of maneuver operations after the Seed Craft departs.Unknown


The previous section described the driving requirements of the asteroid spacecraft subsystems, which help indicate the constraints on making such subsystems from mechanical means. Of all the subsystems, the most challenging one to create from mechanical means alone are those that require complex computation; notably, GNC and C&DH. In order to address this challenge it is useful to explore the current state of the art of advanced mechanical computers.

By definition, a mechanical computer is a computer built entirely from mechanical components, such as gears, levers and pulleys, rather than electronic components. Early mechanical computers could do basic addition and counting exercises, while later developments saw multiplication, division, and differential analysis. By the 1960’s mechanical computers could calculate square roots.

Some notable mechanical computers are the Antikythera Mechanism, circa 200 BC, Blaise Pascal’s Pascaline machine of 1642, Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine of 1837, and the Voskhod Spacecraft Globus Navigation Unit of the early 1960’s. All of these machines are remarkable in their own right, but the Antikythera Mechanism is uniquely so.


The fundamental concept of the RAMA architecture is in the conversion of an asteroid into a spacecraft. In order to do this, the Seed Craft creates spacecraft subsystems out of asteroid materials. For certain asteroid types, material compositions, and mission parameters the best configuration for conversion is to create mechanical subsystems. In all cases studied in this report there are at least some mechanical subsystems that can be made and make sense to make.

Figure 2-4 shows the Functional Block Diagram (FBD) for an asteroid converted into an entirely mechanical spacecraft via the RAMA process. At the heart of the mechanical spacecraft is a 3D printed analog computer that operates on a series of simple gears. The computer is powered by a store of potential energy found in 3D printed springs and flywheels. Mission objectives for the mechanical spacecraft will be fairly basic in nature requiring simple GNC. Flywheel gyros can be 3D printed and will keep the spacecraft on course by feeding momentum data into the analog computer which subsequently commands the propulsion system to propel asteroid materials and impart course corrections.

Example RAMA Process

Upon asteroid rendezvous, the RAMA Seed Craft analyzes the asteroid, and begins effectively organizing available in-situ resources. The asteroid is broken down and materials are stockpiled as manufacturing feedstocks, as well as viable “waste” mass for propellant. Mechanical energy storage systems (such as examples in Figure 2-2B and Figure 2-2E) are also fabricated on the asteroid, and charged with power from the Seed Craft. Finally, the Seed Craft assembles a unique array of mechanical linkages for the asteroid (like the examples in Figure 2-2 A, C, and F) from ISRU derived components. These will allow for timing and control of the asteroids systems after the Seed Craft has departed for the next target. Some asteroids may require a very complicated series of controls, limited only by the complexity of what the Seed Craft can manufacture before it disembarks to the next asteroid. When the Seed Crafts departs, it triggers the asteroid’s carefully preprogrammed sequence of events, which sets the asteroid on its own path to return to cislunar space without the Seed Craft. Upon arrival in cislunar space, the spacecraft has been significantly lightened by the expenditure of waste material as propellant, and is easily intercepted via the same techniques planned in the crewed portion of ARM.


To Build or To Bring? The fully developed RAMA vehicle would require no material input from the Seed Craft. The Seed Craft would provide power and fabrication capabilities, but every component of the finished spacecraft would be built from asteroid materials, allowing the Seed Craft to continue to convert asteroids indefinitely (or until it was rendered inoperable by equipment failure, or obsolete by new asteroid mining methods). However, this capability comes with a tradeoff. We have shown that mechanical components exist that could in theory provide any capability required by the RAMA spacecraft, but the specialized equipment to manufacture the components imposes additional complications and mass penalties onto the Seed Craft’s design.

The question should be asked: “Does the equipment required to build this capability locally impose a greater mass penalty than would bringing this component from Earth?” Undoubtedly, the Seed Craft could produce a mechanical computer from asteroid metal, and make it intricate enough to perform orbital calculations to control the Earth return maneuver. But would the complexity and mass penalty of building such a system outweigh the cost of simply bringing an advanced flight computer from Earth, and leaving it on the asteroid? A small spacecraft computer (especially 10-20 years from now) could easily weigh <100g and be the size of a postage stamp, but the equipment to manufacture the mechanical equivalent of such a computer could weigh thousands of kilograms, and impose even higher mass penalties on the power system. Does manufacturing mechanical equivalents locally for every asteroid system really make sense, when equally capable and less massive equipment can just be brought from Earth?

The same can be said for communications and other systems on the low mass end of the spectrum shown in Figure 2-1. Simple radios and communication electronics can no doubt be produced from asteroid materials, but the electronics are not the mass intensive portion of any communication system, the driven elements (the antenna) and the amplifier are.

For contrast, capabilities like propulsion are inherently massive, by the simple physics of their operation. Even an extremely high performance propulsion system with an Isp of 5000 s (far higher than anything under consideration today) would have to consume 22% of the asteroid’s mass to affect a modest 1000 m/s in ΔV. The Seed Craft delivering this much mass to the asteroid from Earth would more than double the mass of the Seed craft for even a modestly sized 5m asteroid, and would be completely impossible for an asteroid in the target 50-100m range for RAMA. Clearly, propulsion is a capability that is better provided from asteroid resources than communications or computing power.

Where exactly this tradeoff fall will depend on technology factors we cannot anticipate at present. It will be the responsibility of the designer of future RAMA concepts to perform the Bring vs. Build tradeoff for a given asteroid, considering the expected lifetime of the Seed Craft, and the penalties paid by each extra capability added. For the remainder of this report, it will be assumed that only the four most mass intensive systems of the RAMA craft (propulsion, structures, power storage and attitude control) must be built from asteroid materials. The remaining capabilities can either be provided by the Seed Craft, or built like one of the examples shown in Figure 2-2, but the requirements they place on the Seed Craft / RAMA system are not assumed to be significant enough to change the design. An updated version of the asteroid spacecraft based on this understanding is shown in Figure 2-5.


The Seed Craft shown in Figure 2-6, is a more conventional robotic interplanetary vehicle than the RAMA asteroid spacecraft. It contains a high performance low thrust ion engine, along with advanced robotic manufacturing capabilities to produce components of the RAMA vehicle from asteroid feedstocks. The extent of these manufacturing capabilities depends on the target asteroid. For example, a small 10m organic rich asteroid would likely require storage tanks for water-ice, and enough solar arrays to run a ~10 kW electrolysis plant. But a larger 100m metallic asteroid will require additional equipment for processing large quantities of metal ore, including a centrifuge for separation, and a larger solar array capable of powering a ~1 MW electric furnace. Satisfying this large range of requirements is accomplished through having a highly modular Seed Craft.

The Seed Craft is designed around a single common spacecraft bus, incorporating the bare minimum of features required for every mission (propulsion, power distribution and regulation, communication, ADCS etc.) Specific manufacturing modules are then added to the Seed Craft bus to provide the required capabilities for converting a give asteroid. With prior knowledge of the size and composition of the asteroid, the Seed Craft can be fitted with the required manufacturing modules, and fitted with a correctly sized power system before departing cislunar space.

Each module is serviced by a common robotics system, which runs along the length of the interior of the spacecraft. Robotic manipulators are free to traverse the length of the track, transferring materials from one operation to another, and performing maintenance as required. The entire interior of the spacecraft remains unpressurized, allowing the manufacturing operation to take place free of atmospheric contamination.



While rare metals like platinum and palladium are available in the asteroids, the true value of asteroid resources does not come from the presence of valuable trace materials. The value of the asteroids comes from the availability of common materials without the need to ship them from Earth. Launching material from Earth to cislunar space costs ~$40000/kg, meaning that material, once it is delivered from Earth to cislunar space, is literally as valuable as gold.

For any major project in cislunar space (such as the construction of large habitats or radio telescopes) it is impractical to ship bulk materials from Earth at that rate. Bulk materials, if available in space, will be exploited in space, with launch capacity from Earth being reserved for complex equipment and trace materials that cannot be obtained without Earth’s complex industrial base. Even assuming futuristic advances in technology like space elevators, the energy required to ship materials from Earth’s surface to cislunar space will always be higher than the energy required to ship the same material from the asteroids, implying that the theoretical minimum cost of sourcing the materials from Earth will always be higher.

Resource Overview: Asteroid compositions mimic the composition of Earth, but without the benefits of gravity and geologic processing that have concentrated and dispersed materials throughout Earth’s interior. Asteroids thus contain abundant supplies of iron/nickel (present in Earth’s core) silicates and oxides (present in Earth’s mantle) and water-ice and other volatiles (present on Earth’s surface). These asteroid resources can be combined to produce effectively anything that a maturing space civilization requires. Examples of this are shown in Figure 3-3.

The range of processes illustrated in Figure 3-3 shows why the modular design of the Seed Craft is essential. An M-type asteroid for example is not expected to contain any significant quantities of volatiles. Any capabilities on the upper branch of the chart would represent wasted mass of the Seed Craft. By contrast, a volatile rich but metal poor C-type asteroid would be restricted by material availability to an upper branch of the tree as shown in Figure 3-4.

Even limited to these options, the C-type asteroid has the materials to produce high performance rocket propellant, which can be used to propel the RAMA spacecraft to new locations. The availability of polymers also permits composite structures to be manufactured along with the crushed rock and regolith, forming a composite material with excellent tensile and compressive strength. A prototype of composite ISRU based additive manufacturing was created during this study shown in Figure 3-5. A spring loaded propellant cannon was created using polymer based additive manufacturing methods shown in the left of the image. On the right side of the image is a JSC-1A regolith simulant combined with a polymer to create a composite structure with functioning gearbox inside.

A metal rich asteroid would be constrained to the lower left side of the chart as shown in Figure 3-6. Manufacturing techniques on the M-type asteroid would employ methods such as the carbonyl based Mond process and powder sintering methods to produce strong metallic structures. Propulsion options are much more limited, but one possibility would be the use of surplus metal to produce an electromagnetic cannon powered by locally manufactured photovoltaics.

A stony asteroid process, shown in Figure 3-7, presents a middle ground between the C and M types, permitting the use of both metals and stones as manufacturing materials. Propulsion options include the use of excess stone as projectiles in a high strength steel sling.

Additive manufacturing technologies provide unique opportunities for the S-type asteroids. For example, additive manufacturing represents an instance of the fully autonomous robotic operations required by Step 5) Excavating. For manufacturing complex metallic parts without the support of a planet scale industrial base, additive manufacturing also provides an alternative to the Mond Carbonyl process. It is for these reasons that the current study focuses on the S-type asteroid for RAMA mission design.

Manufacturing Methods and Analysis

Manufacturing Methods

During the Phase I study the team created a list of manufacturing technologies that hold promise for applicability with the RAMA mission. The technologies selected for analysis all had to be conceivable for potential use within the Seed Craft framework within the anticipated timeframe to first mission commencement. For the most part, the manufacturing technologies studied are additive in nature. Some of which are not solely manufacturing techniques though. In many cases the methods studied are traditionally considered “welding” technologies; but with proper R&D investment could be adapted for additive construction capability with the RAMA architecture. There are other methods that are more subtractive in nature, but still lend well to being used for the desired mission needs. The full list of methods studied is shown in Table 3-13.


We chose to study in depth a known asteroid that exists at the far end of the “feasibility spectrum” in an effort to show the true possibility of the RAMA architecture. Asteroid 2009 UY19 is an S-type asteroid with an estimated diameter of 50-150m. Part of what makes this a far end of the spectrum asteroid to study is the conversion time needed to convert it into an asteroid spacecraft. Shown in detail within this section, UY19 will require nearly a decade of Seed Craft conversion in-situ to be ready for its mission to Earth-Moon L5. This conversion rate is based on modest assumptions of Seed Craft functionality, which in due time may improve significantly, thus decreasing conversion time. Nonetheless, the study of this large of an asteroid, and the feasibility analysis of doing so, outlines the true disruptive capability of the RAMA architecture.

The asteroid 2009 UY19 was discovered during a close flyby of Earth in October 2009, and makes periodic close passes of the Earth every 29 years. During these passes, it comes within a few million km (~10 Lunar Distances) of Earth, and the next pass in 2039 requires a ΔV of only 437 m/s to be diverted towards the Earth-Moon L5 point. This makes it an attractive target for returning to cislunar space for resource extraction. It is too massive to be recovered by any proposed ARM architecture, but it is a prime target for the RAMA concept. The orbital parameters of 2009 UY19 are shown in Table 3-15.

Table 3-15: Orbital Parameters of 2009 UY19
2009 UY19 Asteroid Orbit
Semi-major axis1.02361 AU
Inclination9.05 deg
Period1.036 years
Synodic Period29.07 years

Seed Craft Loadout

With no known sources of volatiles at UY19, the Seed Craft is customized for metal working and stone mining. No chemical processing equipment is included; instead the Seed Craft is loaded with four modules containing the following equipment:

  1. Optical mining rig, containing a bank of one hundred 10kW lasers and a collection inlet, capable of spalling and collecting asteroid material at a rate of ~.5 kg/s.
  2. 5kW furnace for smelting and electromagnetically separating iron/nickel from rock.
  3. 5000 kg of alloying elements and equipment for producing high strength steel.
  4. A die extruder for extruding high strength steel into a circular beam 16 cm in diameter.
  5. A 750 kg electromagnetic bearing assembly for permanent installation on the asteroid.

UY19 Mission Timeline

The Seed Craft is boosted away from its base in cislunar space on a trajectory to intercept the asteroid. It ignites its 60-kW solar electric propulsion system 4 months later, affecting a rendezvous with UY19 0.32 years after launch. After 2-4 days orbiting the asteroid and mapping details of its mass distribution and gravity, it docks with UY19 along the asteroid’s spin axis, and anchors itself to the surface. The Seed Craft is now effectively part of the asteroid, and continues with it out of cislunar space. The Seed Craft then reconfigures itself for operations on the asteroid, deploying a group of independent robots to assist with securing the Seed Craft, removing obstructions, and any precision work that is required during the process. The full capacity of the Seed Craft’s four 27x34m solar arrays is deployed, providing the full 4 MW of solar power required to convert the asteroid into the RAMA spacecraft.

With its assumed composition and size, gravity at the asteroid’s surface is only .00002 g’s (~2 um/s2). The asteroid is thus likely to be a single monolithic piece, as any loosely bound components would have escaped the asteroid long ago. The lack of gravity and the cohesive nature of the asteroid will make mechanical excavation very difficult. Optical mining methods have been previously studied as ways of overcoming both difficulties in mining C-type asteroid. With a 10kW Optical Mining system operating at a temperature of 1000K, an excavation rate of ~5 mm3/min of material per W of power was observed. By directing the full power of the Seed Craft’s solar array to the optical mining system and operating at the higher temperature required to decompose stone and metal, an excavation rate of ~200 cm3/s can be expected.

The resulting debris from the mining site are lost to space until the Seed craft has bored a hole deep enough to insert the mining module into the asteroid, forming a closed cavity to prevent the loss of more debris. The material is then directed to an inlet adjacent to the optimal mining rig, where it is collected and conveyed away from the mining site to be purified and smelted.

The melted rock is allowed to cool in measured batches (“shots”) 18 cm in diameter. By cooling them in the presence of an electromagnetic field, they are left with a remnant magnetic field that makes them cohere to each other magnetically, and to the walls of the asteroid. These 18 cm shots will be used as the propellant for the mechanical propulsive system, and are packed around the wall of the ever-growing interior of the asteroid.

The process of optically hollowing out the interior of the UY19 takes 8 years, producing a new shot every 17 seconds. Figure 3-15 shows the concept of the Seed Craft conversion of UY19 into the asteroid spacecraft, and Figure 3-14 shows a more detailed depiction of the Seed Craft operations on the asteroid. For the first decade of this process, a small fraction of the iron and nickel extracted from the material is not returned to the interior of the asteroid or embedded in the shots, but is separated and combined with the carbon and other alloying elements from the Seed craft to produce high strength steel. The steel is extruded through a die out through radial bore holes in the asteroid excavated by the robots until it extends 40 m in length.

These “slings” are used for the main component of RAMA’s propulsion system. The base of each sling is firmly anchored to the interior of the asteroid. A series of 16 slings are extruded at equally spaced intervals around the asteroid. While the amount of material consumed in their production is large, (300 mT of materials to produce 80 mT of metal) it is small compared to the amount of material required to produce the shots. The minimal ability to extrude 29 kg (220 mm of beams) per day would take less than a year to finish. After that, metal is available to reinforce the interior of the asteroid, provide scaffolding for the robots, or reduced into a powder for joining and reinforcement via laser engineered net shaping with the mining lasers.

After 8 years, when the asteroid is ~50% hollowed out, the 750 kg electromagnetic bearing assembly is detached from the Seed Craft and transported by the robots to the opposite interior of the asteroid. The base is welded to the interior wall, with its drive axis parallel to the spin axis of the asteroid. As construction continues, surplus iron and nickel from the smelter are combined with the remaining alloying elements from the Seed Craft to produce Inconel powder. Under robotic control using the Laser Engineered Net Shaping (LENS) technology from the manufacturing trade study in section 3.4.2, the powder is additively sintered radially outward from the electromagnetic bearing system, allocating the remaining metal composition of the asteroid into a single mass of metal, mounted on the electromagnetic bearing. The RAMA craft now has a crude mechanical spin stabilization and energy storage system.

Construction of the RAMA spacecraft is now complete (Figure 3-19). During manufacturing, the Seed Craft has gradually used its own propulsion system to stabilize and orient the asteroid’s spin axis in the correct direction. The system must now wait for the Earth return window to open. The Seed Craft stows its solar panels to protect them from debris, powers down its manufacturing systems, and waits 13 years for the return window to open. During this time, it periodically reawakens to perform status checks and remote sensing operations on any other targets the asteroid may pass close to.

One month before the window opens, the Seed Craft wakes up, and redeploys its power systems. It now applies the power from the 4 MW photovoltaics (previously used to power manufacturing operations) directly to the motors in the flywheels. This power is applied for 25 days, at the conclusion of which, the two flywheel are spinning at ~4000 rpm (their approximate material limit) and have stored ~1 GJ of energy, the amount of energy required to return the asteroid to Earth. Slightly charging one flywheel over the other imparts a greater rotation to the reinforced asteroid shell, producing significant artificial gravity at the surface of the asteroid, further adhering the shots up against the interior of the asteroid and up against electromechanical exit ports bored by the robots.

Finally, the Seed Craft uses its own propulsion system to provide a series of forward “kicks” to the asteroid. These kicks impart no significant ΔV, but are properly timed to match the fundamental frequency of the 16 extended slings protruding from the asteroid. The slings begin to oscillate back and forth, and after 3 days of continuous kicks, the slings are rocking back and forth with a high enough amplitude to be bend all the way back to the asteroid’s surface. The slenderness ratio of the slings (250:1) is large enough to remain fully elastic when bent this far, allowing it to continue to oscillate like a pendulum with only thermal losses. The Seed Craft, its decades long task complete, disengages from the asteroid and departs for its next target.

The slings, once set in motion, oscillate at a period of 2.1 seconds, and at the peak of their swing, the tips are travelling at 312 m/s, achieving the theoretical maximum velocity of the material (Figure 3-20). At the extreme of each swing, the tip of the sling passes close to the exit ports near the asteroid’s equator, where extremely strong rare Earth magnets on the tip of each sling adhere to a single 10 kg shot. The strength of the permanent magnet on the tip and the remnant magnetism if the shot is calibrated such that the adhesion strength is exceeded exactly at the full extension of the swing, where the centrifugal force is maximized, hurling the shot astern of the asteroid at 312 m/s, and imparting a small but non-trivial 13 microns/sec ΔV onto the asteroid. At full “throttle”, with all slings operating, the asteroid accelerates at a constant 11 micro-gs.

This low impulse maneuver persists for 27 days. Each shot carries away a small fraction (0.55%) of the sling’s energy with it. Over time, this loss will cause the slings to oscillating through a smaller arc and the asteroid to spin at a slower rate. To compensate for this loss of energy, the flywheels, which have remained spinning since they were charged by the Seed Craft, are slightly braked each time the slings reload, imparting a slight transfer of angular momentum to the asteroid itself, and thus to the swing arms.

This low impulse maneuver persists for 27 days. Each shot carries away a small fraction (0.55%) of the sling’s energy with it. Over time, this loss will cause the slings to oscillating through a smaller arc and the asteroid to spin at a slower rate. To compensate for this loss of energy, the flywheels, which have remained spinning since they were charged by the Seed Craft, are slightly braked each time the slings reload, imparting a slight transfer of angular momentum to the asteroid itself, and thus to the swing arms.

This places the asteroid on an intercept path to Earth-Moon L5, where it is intercepted 249 days later after a lunar flyby by a cislunar tug. The asteroid at this point is considerably lighter (34,000 mT vs 230,000 mT) and the returned material is considerably “purer”, as 90% of the asteroids worthless mass (its stone) has been ejected as propellant. The remaining mass is in the form of a pure metal flywheel and a hollow reinforced shell approximating the original shape of the asteroid, with an average wall thickness of ~4 m. The 30-year RAMA mission is complete, having delivered the mass equivalent of ~85 International Space Stations to the Earth-Moon L5 location.


      “That will be a great help.” Gammon nodded quickly. “I must be frank with you, however, our little friends are loaded down with new and rather frightful weapons. We shall be outclassed and probably outnumbered.”

     Craig smiled faintly. “We haven’t been sitting around you know—have you any portable detector equipment?”
     “Oh, you know, the usual stuff to detect minefields, automatic weapons and so on.” Gammon frowned at him. “You must know we have.”
     “Like me to make it look silly?”
     Gammon almost glowered. “Are you aware we have the best technical laboratories of all time? We have equipment so delicate it will pick up and pin-point a gram of gun powder in a mountain of slag, register and report the presence of a firing mechanism and scream its head off at one thousandth of a gram of Gelthite ten miles away?”
     “Shut up bragging,” cut in Toynbee, curtly, “and prove it.”
     “Right, let’s get out to the test ground.”

     Ten minutes later, Craig had finished burying a number of objects. “I have laid a small minefield, naturally a safe one with limited charges. See if your experts can find it.”
     Gammon grinned but with a certain lack of confidence. “In this fort I have the world’s top expert.” He pressed the communicator lapel of his jacket. “I want Gilson down here with his entire squad and all his equipment, fast.”
     Gilson proved to be a tall, confident man with a red face and large teeth. His smile had the toothy supercilious contempt of an irritable camel. “Find a minefield! Ha! My instruments will dig sixty feet and comb it like a woman’s hair. It will find an instrument as small as a bee’s ear and hand it to you on a platter.” He gestured contemptuously. “All right, boys, switch them on.”

     They switched. Numerous banks of instruments emitted a low humming sound and massive housings like huge cameras swayed to and fro probing the rough soil.

     After ten minutes, Gilson said: “Cut! What is this, some sort of gag? I have a negative reading on every damned instrument.”
     “Really?” Craig grinned. “Watch!”
     There were six needles of yellow flame, black smoke and fragments of soil geysered from the ground.

     Gilson said nothing but his smile looked lop-sided. He walked over and inspected the small craters. “How the hell did you do that?” There was respect, awe and unseen in his voice.
Craig softened the blow. “Not a fair test, really. The mine cases were a mixture of clay and vegetable adhesives which, naturally, would not ring a bell on your instruments. Inside was a clockwork plastic motor and seven different seperate chemicals. Not one of those seven chemicals would have raised the mildest reaction in your instruments separately. By certain impulses, however, directly after your probe, I set the clockwork motor going. This brought the seven chemicals together in the correct order and they immediately became unstable and blew.”
     “But I should have got the trigger.” Gilson was almost wringing his hands. “To beam an impulse to a receptor circuit, you’ve got to have a trigger, I should have picked it up.”
     Gammon patted his back soothingly. “Not for a telepathic impulse, my friend.”

     He turned to Craig. “I should have thought of that sooner, lucky I didn’t bet on it. I presume our workshops can turn these things out quickly?”
     “By the hundred, they’re simple enough to construct.”
     “And the telepathic trigger?”
     “Even simpler, a common plastic.” (in the novel, they discover that the common plastic Thessaline turns out to be sensitive to human thought. Certain thoughts will cause the plastic to flex in certain directions. Total handwavium)
     “We’ll give these Geeks one or two nasty shocks with help like that.”

From INVADER ON MY BACK by Philip E. High (1968)

Planned Obsolescence


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

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

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

History and origins of the phrase

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

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

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

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

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

  • obsolescence of desirability; and
  • obsolescence of function.

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


Contrived durability

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

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

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

Prevention of repairs

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

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

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

Non-user-replaceable batteries

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

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

Perceived obsolescence

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

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

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

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

Systemic obsolescence

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

Programmed obsolescence

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

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

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

Software lock-out

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

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

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

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

Advantages and disadvantages

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

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

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

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

See also

From the Wikipedia entry for PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This section has been moved here.

End of Natural Selection

This section has been moved here.


This section has been moved here.

Stratified Cities

This section has been moved here.

The Death of Cities

This section has been moved here.


This section has been moved here.


This section has been moved here.

Decadent Population

This section has been moved here.

Casual FTL Travel

This section has been moved here.


This section has been moved here.

Intelligence Amplification

This section has been moved here.

Mind Control

This section has been moved here.


This section has been moved here.

The Singularity

This section has been moved here.

Revolt of the AIs

This section has been moved here.

Atomic Rockets notices

This week's featured addition is SPIN POLARIZATION FOR FUSION PROPULSION

This week's featured addition is INsTAR

This week's featured addition is NTR ALTERNATIVES TO LIQUID HYDROGEN

Atomic Rockets

Support Atomic Rockets

Support Atomic Rockets on Patreon