There are those who in the realm of science fiction literature wonder if galactic empires are the new "Middle-Earth". But interstellar empires never seem to go out of style, and regardless of their practicality they remain a powerful meme. The terrorist organization Aum Shinrikyo found inspiration in the galactic empire of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. And concerns about how realistic galactic empires are will just send George Lucas laughing all the way to the bank.

What Do You Mean By Empire?

SF author Charles Stross point out that one has to define what exactly you mean by the word "empire."

The Aztecs ran what is generally known as an empire, but it didn't operate on the same principles as the Roman empire. (No local governors, taxation paid only on demand in the form of gifts and jewelry, outlying cities free to refuse demands -- whenever they felt like butchering the Aztec imperial emissaries and fighting the consequent war.)

This, for an Aztec-style tribute empire, the answer is: 'a long time', meaning years or decades. An empire of this sort is dependent merely on the ability of the imperial class to beat up anyone who refuses to pay tribute on demand.

The Mongol empire didn't operate on the same principles as the Roman empire, either. The horde basically destroyed any city with walls and forcibly coopted grazing land, and demanded tribute. In many cases they imposed satraps to run the local show. But they didn't attempt to colonize the natives, or as far as I know impose their culture; they just demanded food, tribute, and no defensive countermeasures. Or else. An empire of this sort is dependent on the inability of the governed to defend themselves.

What is the interstellar equivalent of the Golden Horde?

The Chinese empire didn't operate like the Roman empire, either. It had regional governors, true, and a bureaucracy, and a hereditary ruling class, but it enforced governance through control of resources -- a 'water empire' (hydraulic state, water-monopoly empire, or hydraulic despotism). If two provinces ran into trouble, an adjoining unruly provinces resources would be assigned to a loyal province. Such an empire requires tight coupling between provinces, if not between provinces and capital. An empire of this type of dependent on shared resource control.

Then there's the British empire. An exercise in laissez-faire capitalism gone mad, it grew and prospered as a source of cheap raw materials and cheap consumers for the industrial powerhouse of the world's first industrial nation. An empire of the British type must have close coupling between centre and periphery, for it is dependent upon trade.

Then there's the Third Reich. An exercise in colonization, characterized by 'lebensraum' in the East and a massive exercise in social and cultural control, to enforce the NSDAP's idea of good German culture upon its citizenry. Such an empire can only exist where the periphery is sufficiently close to permit mass emigration.

What, I emphasize, is an "Empire"? Only when you can answer that question can you contemplate the subsequent issue of communication delays.

Charles Stross

If the (Alderson) Drive allowed ships to sneak up on planets, materializing without warning out of hyperspace, then there could be no Empire even with the Field. There'd be no Empire because belonging to the empire wouldn't protect you. Instead there might be populations of planet-bound serfs ruled at random by successive hordes of of space pirates. Upward mobility would consist of getting your own ship and turning pirate.

Rick Cook

There once was a dream that was Rome
You could only imagine it
Any more and all hopes would be gone

There once was a dream that was Rome
You could only whisper it
Any more and it would vanish, blown away by the wind

There once was a dream that was Rome
You could see it all around you
Every street, every statue, but so fragile, like a dream
There once was a dream that was Rome
Its marble and people realized
Thriving, working, happy , and fighting

There once was a dream that was Rome
Now standing strong
With all its people and lands, like a giant

There once was a dream that was Rome
Addicted to the sound of battle
Its beating heart now the sand of the Coliseum

There once was a dream that was Rome
Its many enemies now dulling its sword
The thriving energy that filled it depleted

There once was a dream that was Rome
Now toppled and burning
Buried in the pages of history, its true memories forgotten

There once was a dream that was Rome
Seen, but not re-enacted
For they are scared to repeat history


Society and Culture

Like all nations, interstellar empires will have an over-all society and culture (which is probably not true for sub-empire groups of governments such as suzerainties, confederations, etc.). And the culture may not only evolve with time, it may even go through cycles.

David Maurer is of the opinion that the evolution of society and culture boils down to an answer to the burning question of "where is the food going to come from?"

Some characteristics of future societies can be extrapolated from their origins. The tired old example is the "Wild West" society from the United State's pioneer period. When one is living on the frontier rim where the government and the law is a distant and tenuous thing, often the only law is what one makes oneself, i.e., "taking the law into ones own hands." As civilization and development washed over the West, society became more stodgy.

In the Albedo Anthropomorphics universe of Steve Gallacci, one has a cluster of planets colonized by slower-than-light starships (yes, the colonists are furry anthropomorphic animals, but that is beside the point). The planetary cultures that were founded as a consequence have a "shipboard discipline mentality."

Consider, on a spacecraft, if a civilian saw something like an air leak in the hull, and didn't report it to anybody, they would be endangering not only their own life but also the lives of everybody on the colony ship. So that is a crime.

In the United States on the other hand, if a person sees somebody lying injured on the side of the road, and they try to help the injured one, more often than not they wind up being sued by the injured person. Hands off, do not get involved, it is not your problem.

In the Albedo universe, with the shipboard discipline mentality, it is a crime not to try and help somebody who is injured, and there are "Good Samaritan" laws to protect the helpers.

Obviously matters of practicality can also affect the shape of a society.

The Albedo universe is not colonized by human beings, instead the various planets are populated by various species of Terran animals genetically engineered to intelligence.

Now with most Terran mammals, the female is only sexually attractive to the male when they go into estrus (aka "in heat"). At other times the males could care less (similar to the attitudes of young pre-adolescent boys who think that girls are stupid and icky, an attitude that undergoes a marked change when puberty strikes). Consequence: in the Albedo universe there are no nudity taboos, and mixed-gender washing and toilet facilities are the norm.

But when estrus occurs the females must go into seclusion and/or use powerful deodorants. Otherwise all the males within smelling distance suddenly start acting like sexually-frustrated 16-year-old boys.

When Frank Herbert wanted to write his novel Dune, he did not want his future society to be some sort of cyberpunk future. He wanted something medieval in space. So he postulated in his future history a period where people revolted against computers and related technology in the "Butlerian Jihad", which outlawed all thinking machines. This justified Herbert's desired medieval future.

In Piers Anthony's Cluster series he postulated that there were five cultural types, labeled by the five suits of Tarot cards (Anthony's minor arcana has a fifth suit instead of the customary four). All the galactic aliens fall into one of the five categories. Anthony apparently had a lot of fun creating the characteristics of each of the five types, and illustrating the cultural clashes inherent when different types interacted. Highly unlikely to be true in reality, but it gave the author something to work with.

In the classic Battlestar Galactica TV series, there are twelve human colonies with names like Sagittaron, Gemenon, Caprica, etc. Like the rest of the "Chariots of the Gods" schtick in the show, this is supposed to be the ancient high-tech ancestor of some mystical occult Fortean stuff from Terra's alleged history. In this case it is the astrological signs of the zodiac. According to astrology, the sign of the zodiac the sun is occupying at the instant of your birth foretells your major personality traits. According to Battlestar Galactica, these are actually major personality traits of citizens living in the colony in question. The personality of the sun-sign Sagittarius is the same as the Sagittarons, sun-sign Gemenon is zodiac sign Gemini, and so on. Total felgercarb, but at least it gave the episode writers some quick-and-dirty guidelines when creating characters.

Note that the critical part of both Anthony and BSG's cultural classifications is that they cover the entire spectrum of possible cultures, with no holes. This means that Anthony's five-category system is very low-resolution, and BSG's twelved-category system is only slightly better. Which is a liability for a scientist but may be an advantages for an author.

Cultural historian Riane Eisler proposes a new social paradigm that places various cultures on a spectrum with the Dominator model at one end and the Partnership model at the other.

Partnership culture is characterized by:

  • Organization according to the ideals of a democratic structure
  • Equal partnership between men and women
  • A lack of tolerance for abuse and violence
  • Belief systems that validate an empathetic perspective

Dominator culture is characterized by:

  • Authoritarian social and family structure
  • Rigid male dominance
  • A high level of violence and abuse
  • A system of beliefs that normalizes such a society
(Chalice Culture)
(Blade Culture)
Symbol: Gatherer's BagSymbol: Hunter's Flint Knive
Power comes from the creation and nurturing of lifePower comes from the coercion and killing of life
Reveres LifeReveres Death
Sex is goodSex is bad
Violence is badViolence is good
the ultimate sexual taboo is Incest
(because it harms the family)
the ultimate sexual taboo is Homosexuality
(because it harms masculinity)
Life is a Non-Zero Sum gameLife is a Zero-Sum Game
Obtain new items by creating them yourselfWhy bother making things when you can steal them at knife point?


The closest thing to social tradition available to the people of ALBEDO is shipboard discipline, and this is strongly ingrained in all levels of society. Simply stated, the individual member of society is not quite as "free" (in one sense of the word) as a 20th century western man, because the individual is strongly constrained by a set of expectations and responsibilities. The individual is expected to be an active citizen, and is conceived of as having both civil liberties and responsibilities. The fragile ecological and social environment on board colonisation ships has lead to the development of societies where the individual is expected to take his social role very seriously, and to contribute to the working of things around him. The individual is expected to behave in an intelligent, responsible manner, and to be aware of the implications of his or her actions. Citizens are expected to be aware of the long running consequences of their actions, and to act accordingly.

Thus in most cultures, if a person is injured, it is the civil duty of passers-by to assist that person however possible. If a passer-by refuses to aid the injured party, or pretends to ignore them, then the passer-by is held to be partly responsible for the subsequent condition of the injured man, and will be charged under law accordingly. Regional attitudes do vary, however. For instance, to the inhabitants of the Dornthant system, the tools of an ordered and peaceful society are its security measures, and the co-operation of the common citizen is an expected duty. To a Dornthantii, running away from or obstructing the authorities is a clear admission of guilt.

The practical upshot of the social attitudes prevalent in most cultures in ALBEDO is the creation of societies which are very politically and ecologically aware. The average citizens feel that they have a vested interest in the running of their government, their society and their planetary environment. Albedo is set in an age of REASON, where forethought and responsibility are highly valued faculties. In the context of the culture of known space, "honour" will usually equate as social responsibility.

From ALBEDO RPG PLAYER'S MANUAL by Craig Hilton and Paul Kidd

      As civilization has advanced, the pack-bond (the tribe, the extended family) has been broken. This is the root of the widely diagnosed "anomie" or "alienation" or "existential anguish" about which so many social critics have written so eloquently.

     What has happened is that the conditioning of the bio-survival bond to the gene-pool has been replaced by a conditioning of bio-survival drives to hook onto the peculiar tickets which we call "money".

     Concretely, a modern man or woman doesn't look for bio-survival security in the gene-pool, the pack, the extended family. Bio-survival depends on getting the tickets. "You can't live without money," as the Living Theatre troop used to cry out in anguish. If the tickets are withdrawn, acute bio-survival anxiety appears at once.
     Imagine, as vividly as possible, what you would feel, and what you would do, if all your sources to bio-survival tickets (money) were cut off tomorrow. This is precisely what tribal men and women feel if cut off from the tribe; it is why exile, or even ostracism, were sufficient punishments to enforce tribal conformity throughout most of human history. As recently as Shakespeare's day the threat of exile was an acute terror signal ("Banished!" cries Romeo, "the damned use that word in Hell!")
     In traditional society, belonging to the tribe was bio-security; exile was terror, and real threat of death. In modern society, having the tickets (money) is bio-security; having the tickets withdrawn is terror.

From PROMETHEUS RISING by Robert Anton Wilson (1983)

Where Does The Food Come From?

When worldbuilding a galactic empire, a wee bit of thought should be expended on the empire-wide system of food production and transportation. Since it is a truism that any civilization is only three missed meals away from anarchy.

Although I've seen that truism with the number of meals varying from three to nine. And the end result of hunger being anarchy, barbarism, chaos, revolution, or other collapse of civilization. Don't even bother to try and determine who originated the quote: I've seen attributions ranging from Larry Niven, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Plato, Red Dwarf, Lenin, and Leon Trotsky. Robert Heinlein observed that any person who finds it hard to believe that somebody would kill for a can of tomatoes, has never been truely hungry.

This is why the food supply has a major influence on the society and culture of a civilization. It is also why one form of Long Night Insurance is some genetically engineered food like a Protage.

David Maurer's Modern Transformation tries to explain the evolution of society and culture in terms of subsequent answers to the burning question of "where is the food going to come from?" That is, the mechanisms of food production and food distribution. Tribal society was based on a subsistence economy, where most people hunt, gather, herd, or grow their own food. The relatively small amount of distribution was handled by sharing or barter between family and neighbors. Aristocrat-peasant society was fed by a subordinate class of peasants who worked the land and delivered a substantial part of the harvest to their aristocratic lords, without being paid. This was a command distribution system. Modern society depends on markets for food production and distribution, in other words it all revolves around something called "money".


...This kind of society sometimes has the outward appearance of being an aristocrat peasant society, but in reality the common people have not been reduced to peasant status and are not compelled to deliver large amounts of food to their political leaders. This means that the common people retain a great deal of personal freedom and independence. These people fully realize that they have much more freedom than the peasants in neighboring societies and are determined to defend it. Most of the men carry weapons most of the time.

This group contains quite a large number of different people. It includes Albanians, Kurds, Chechens, Berbers, Druse, many of the Arab countries, Afghans, a number of groups in Central Asia, Tibetans, Mongols, Gurkhas, and a number of Hill Tribes in Southeast Asia. The Scottish Highlanders were a member of this group before they were destroyed in the 18th century.

Most of these people lived in mountains, deserts, and difficult hill country where it was just not possible to produce a reliable food surplus. They were tough, well armed, and sometimes envious of the wealth that was produced by their more prosperous neighbors. It used to be common for many of them to raid their neighbors for food, women, and moveable wealth. It was a very macho form of society that admired physical toughness and ability with weapons. These aristocrat tribal societies seem to have a high level of resistance to the transition into modern nation-states.

(ed note: sound much like the Klingon Empire from classic original Star Trek)


(ed note: this article is focused on worldbuilding a setting for a medieval-style Dungeons & Dragons game. But it should be relatively straightforward for a sci-fi author to adapt it to a science-fictional future. "gp" means "gold piece", the unit of currency in the game)


This is another worldbuilding guide. We’re going to talk about what looks like from the outside the most boring subject in world-building: food.

Food is exciting! People eat. Even the Gods eat. Maybe, like elves, they less than humans. Or, like Vampires, they live on humans. Or they eat more than humans.

We don’t think much about food, food production, calories, and eating when we create worlds. However, for intelligent creatures who eat, ensuring a constant stream of meals is a motivating factor in everything from inventing new technologies to state formation.

This article treats food and food production, as underlying core mechanics in world-building. We can ask ourselves interesting questions:

  • What do the local people eat?
  • Where do they get their food?
  • How does food get to where the people are?
  • How is food grown and harvested?
  • What happens when the population grows and consumes all the food?
  • How many non-food-makers can society support?
  • How does the availability of food impact conflict and war?
  • How does the availability of food help organize the state?

Food production is an incredibly dense subject. A copy of “History of Food” on my shelf is 1000 pages long. Consider this blog post a very light introduction to the subject, and we’re assuming our “standard person template” is human.

The easiest way to teach concepts is in using an example. We’re going to explore a standard, low-level (1st-3rd) D&D adventure through this lens:

The village of Redwick needs adventurers immediately. Goblins moved into the nearby hills. They’ve eaten the livestock and started on the local fields. 50gp reward for the removal of these goblins!

Food and Calories

Imagine a peasant.

Suppose a peasant works his or her fields for 10 hours a day, every day. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that peasant requires 2500 calories/day with the heavy labor. That comes to about 912K calories/year. There are 1538 calories in a modern lb of whole-grain wheat flour. Assuming all things equal, a peasant must produce 600lbs of wheat flour to feed only himself per year — if the peasant only lives on bread.

Wheat produces (today) about 6.4 million calories/acre with all modern equipment, gear, technology, genetic modifications, and soil amendments. Let’s assume that peasants have access to 12th-century technology (horseshoes, the iron plow, irrigation, basic crop rotation, etc.) to lift yields. We’ll also assume a peaceful peasant produces 1/5th (20%) of a modern yield. With a horse, acre supports 3/4ths of a peasant. A family of four peasants must work about 3 acres to eat bread reliably without fear of starvation in good, non-drought weather.

Lots of things going on here: technology levels, food consumption, calorie intake, and the rest. Consider this the floor for world-building: the lowest requirements for a farmer in a fantasy world.

A peasant cannot subsist on only wheat. Wheat lacks the proteins and amino acids the human body needs. So, a peasant adds a much more calorie-dense source of food: meat.

Meat is a trade-off. Cows, sheep, and goats are worth more alive than digesting in a human’s belly. They produce valuable goods (wool, cheese, butter). They do work. Eating a cow now may mean starving next week. And cows, sheep, and goats are all ruminants: they eat grass. They don’t compete with human sources of food.

Since the cows are inedible, peasants keep chickens. Chickens are highly useful sources of protein: produce eggs, reproduce fast, eat grain. They’re small and economical.

Pigs, though, are the best of the best. Pigs are the best source of meat per food consumed of any domesticated animal (20lbs meat/100lbs food consumed). And they have a job! Pigs are scavengers! Garbage cans of the domesticated animal world.

Except, pigs eat human food. They compete with humans in the food chain when pigs don’t have access to the delicious truffles of a forest or a swamp. No forest, no swamp, no pigs. So — pigs are cheap when pigs can feed themselves. Pigs are expensive where they cannot.

We’ve Established: At a base level, with manual labor and ancient-to-medieval technology, organized people can feed themselves from the land if they have agriculture and animal husbandry. The peasant needs a combination of plant food product and protein to fulfill his or her calorie requirements. The peasant subsists on chickens, eggs, wheat, and whatever vegetables they grow in their local gardens. With plenty of land, good weather, a water supply, and no population pressures, they eat well, and they can feed non-food producers.

The goblins moved caves under Nordbury Hills south of Redwick Village several months ago. It’s a warband of four dozen individual goblins. A hunter-gatherer goblin is half human-sized. We can assume ~50 goblins eat about the equivalent of 25 humans. They’ve added 25 human-sized calorie requirements to the local ecology overnight.

This is not good.

Producers vs. Non-Food Producers

We’ve thought about growing the food. What about eating food?

There are two classes of eaters: food producers and non-food producers.

Peasants working the land are food producers. Everyone else is a non-food producer.

To support non-food producers, peasants must produce enough food to feed themselves plus additional mouths. Scribes, priests, nobles, military, artisans, local townies, the guy who runs the Inn — these are all non-food producing specialists who survive on the success of food producers.

Every non-food producer is a burden on the producers. They are an additional mouth peasants must feed through the product of their labor. Except for the military, non-food producers eat say, a standard 2000 calories/day. They cost about 750K calories a year. The village must produce ~450lbs of wheat — or equivalent calories in meat, eggs, milk, butter, oil, orchard-grown fruits, vegetables, and cheese — for each non-food producer it supports.

The feudalism pyramid works on food.

If the peasants want a priest, a local wizard, a blacksmith, or a cash-producing local industry, it must also produce enough calories/year to support these non-food producers. The higher the yield, the more specialists the community supports. The more specialists, the more goods and services.

Nobility is extremely expensive. Nobles pay their way by trading something of global community value: redistribution of global resources across their demesne. Those resources could be religious, trade, food, or military goods. The nobles also pay for the establishment of towns and cities. Nobles then encourage towns and villages to flourish because trade in a finished good makes much more money than trade in sacks of flour.

Peasants cannot redistribute wheat themselves. They are local and land-bound. Nobles are more global. They extract taxes from the peasants (in the form of food), sell it, and use money to pay for the non-food producers the nobles find valuable.

If there’s no food, nobles will extract from peasants anyway to pay for non-food producers. In a noble’s mind, non-food producers are more valuable to noble aims.

In good times, feudalism works. In bad times, peasants live on the bottom of the pyramid and subsist on the edge of malnourishment and death.

Adventurers are non-food producers. They’re an expensive luxury on a society that invests heavily in producing food, and they take their prize in gold and magic items. When society needs adventurers, peasants starve. When peasants starve, society needs adventurers.

We’ve established: Peasants must exceed their yields in product to feed those who don’t farm. The number of specialists a society supports comfortably is equal to the overage in calories from the food producers. Lower the yields, fewer specialists society can maintain. This fact is as true in an Early Medieval society as it is in, say, a Post-Apocalyptic one.

_The people of Redwick village are almost food producers: peasants living a peaceful peasant lifestyle. They also have a village priest, a village headman, and a village blacksmith. They have a local inn for visitors at the crossroads. The village supports a handful of crafts: tanning, weaving, and shoemaking.

Above the village rules a Baron and his three soldiers who “protect” the town, collect taxes, and enforce the King’s laws.

_The local peasants must produce enough calories in agriculture and protein for themselves + about 20 non-food producers. But wait: they also pay taxes in wheat-form up to the Baron. No one has coin money. Peasants pay their taxes in grain.

The peasants also pay taxes regardless of the harvest’s bounties. In a bad year, peasants don’t eat. The local pyramid is the Baron, the Baron’s men, the local non-food producers, and finally, the peasants.

The Baron give the taxes to the Baron’s boss, the Duke. The Duke takes enough from all aggregated villages to pay for himself, his household, invest heavily in his holdings, including cities, towns, colleges, monasteries, and other developments, and pay the King. The peasants must produce enough for themselves + many.

Population Density and Ecology

As the population rises, the village needs more calories to sustain itself. The more calories, the more land, and animals. The more land cultivated for food, the more humans cut down and rearrange the ecology to fit their needs. Humans dam rivers. They divert water for irrigation. They cut down forests, drain swamps, and turn grazing land into plowed land. This activity causes erosion, long term soil damage, and drainage issues. It depopulates the land of wild animals, causes overfishing, etc.

Once humans — or anything eating food — over-populates, they put pressure on the amount of land available to cultivate for calories. Once people run out of land, they starve. Once they die, populations either shrink to fit the size of the ecological niche (as in most populations worldwide until ~13th century) or the population overgrows and overruns niches.

Without population stability, the end result is massive ecological damage. If the population is stable and land use is stable, humans hold the damage to a minimum. If another group moves into the niche, or the population undergoes an explosion, people will exert ecological pressure on the system.

Ecological damage means people do not eat.

For example, slash and burn will produce fruitful harvests for a short period. Over a long period of time, as the plants grow back slower and slower, the harvests get smaller. Eventually, the land is ruined and produces no harvest.

Another example. Ancient Sumerians dammed up the Tigris to irrigate their fields of wheat. Except, the Tigris’s water contains silt. Salt doesn’t bother the plants but, over time, salt sank into the water table. The land was destroyed. Ur was abandoned. The entire Sumerian Empire collapsed. Today, the land around Ur is still uninhabitable.

We’ve established: In good times, the population grows. A growing population means cultivating more land aggressively. Cultivating too much land leads to ecological damage. Ecological damage leads to lower yields.

The four dozen goblins moved in and directly competed with the peasants. They stripped the local forests for the edible game. Then they were hungry and went after the readiest source of protein around — the cows.

A single cow is more valuable than the life of a peasant. The cows pull plows, gives milk, makes more cows, and provides protein. Losing a cow is anger making.

Worse, the peasants live on the edge of a knife to fulfill their own food and tax responsibilities. The loss of a few cows and a field is devastating to their yearly tax bills. The peasants — and the Baron — are frantic to stop the goblins from eating their crops.

Conflict and War

When two groups move into the same ecological niche in the same proximity, the second group impacts the population of the first. Once impacted, people’s ability to produce food decreases. Then, people cannot pay their taxes.

This is a quick way to a hot conflict. If no one can persuade the impacting group to leave the ecological niche, then everyone is going to fight over it. Tax collectors are going to get their due. Rent extractors will pay for adventurers.

Conflicts over ecological niches are constant throughout history. You enter my niche, my friends and I are going to kill you for it. You compete with my land and my food, and we’re going to kill you and your family. Don’t move here.

No man’s zones are common in pre-industrial societies of all sorts. Even if the land in the no man’s zone is habitable and farmable, entering the zone means death. The fallow land between one society and another helped mitigate conflict.

Here’s an example:

Your people are living on a bad, unfarmable finger of land. They’re starving and need food. You decide the hell with it and gamble. Maybe you’ll win, or maybe you’ll die.

You arm everyone. You send your warbands to annex land from your neighbors. You get lucky. You’re stronger. You slaughter your neighbors. You enslave survivors to work your brand new farms. You produce extra non-food producers who can raid the next land over.

Rinse, repeat. You build yourself a small kingdom. Then you, too, can be a non-food tax collecting extractor as you force all your people back to lands — now with bonus slave labor! Until you run into a Kingdom pulling the same trick.

What are the goblin’s motivations?

We’ve established: People moving into each other’s lands and consuming resources raises the chances of violent conflict.

The peasants fight back against the goblins, but they’re not permitted by King’s Law to own weapons. After several deaths and the yearly taxes at risk, the Baron makes the economic calculation to rid himself of these goblins. He sends in his soldiers and loses one to the hill-infesting menace. After this, the Baron appeals to the Duke.

Only the Duke has resources to pay non-food producing and expensive adventurers. Paying in money instead of food is a fabulous show of largesse. Typically, the Duke would ignore this goblin menace, but the Baron lost a man. Military men are expensive to train. The Duke ponies up.

Later on, during the adventure, the adventurers learn that the goblins were infesting the hills because they, too, were pushed out of their ecological niche. Something nasty has moved in and eaten all their food. The goblins couldn’t kill it, whatever it is.

No where to hunt or grow == fleeing to this village == eating the cows. The adventurers can kill these goblins today, but if the root cause isn’t lanced, more goblins will arrive tomorrow. Unless the adventurers hunt the goblins to extinction, always an option at a handful of XP a pop.

Is this adventure worth 50gp? And the goodwill of the powerful Duke?

Magic, Technology and Escape from Subsistence Farming

There are three escape hatches from subsistence farming. You can combine them in a world-building exercise to explain why people live in cities, hang out, and do cool things:

In the 14th century, the Black Death was an effective solution to an overpopulated Europe. However, the Black Death led to a full century of political and economic instability. Working a massive “dying off” it into the background of a world could mark a turning point for any civilization. Huge ecological niches + upgraded farm capacity + freed capacity == movement forward.

Technology is a way out, but technology requires the freed up capacity of non-food producing specialists to research, create, and mass produce. Non-food producing specialists need either highly extractive taxes to support them or a leap forward in technology to increase yields. At first, few non-producers can spend time on research. Should some invent something that increases yields or reduces dependencies on humans, non-food producers can spend more time researching. So it goes. The trick is to raise the number of calories produced/acre while decreasing the number of people required to farm those calories and making even more non-producing specialists.

Magic’s limits are the realm of imagination. Someone can magic up food. Get a wizard, and no one needs to farm except the poor dude doing the magicking-up. The whole town is free to do non-food-producing things. Everyone can specialize or research without worrying about their next meal. The single omnipotent, all-powerful wizard solution feels fragile: dependent on humans or singular specialized devices and difficult to mass-produce.

The trick is to establish magic that works like technology. Magic that doesn’t require a caster to maintain, or magic that works autonomously. Magic that is distributable, easy for anyone to use, and reproducible.

We’ve established: Worlds can escape the producer/non-producer trap with technology or suitable magic that works like technology. The more we crank up the automation, to fewer people need to grow calories, and more people can do more things.

A single wizard with the right weather spells could conceivably raise the density of the calories produced/acre and free up peasants to specialize into non-food manufacturing roles. Specialization will both increase the quality of life and bring a much more valuable trade good into the village. This creates a dependency on calories on the wizard.

The problem with wizards, though, is that spell-casting is still human labor. Either the peasants must pay the wizard enormous sacks of cash, imprison the wizard, strap him to a pole, and force him to cast his weather spells daily forever in some hellish torment, or the wizard must automate himself out of the picture.

Escape is through machines: reliable magical contraptions that vastly increase the calories produced per single laborer. This frees people up to specialize. The most fabulous magic item an adventurer can find in a dragon’s horde is an orb the conjures constant beautiful summer rainstorms on-demand or casts Mass Mage Hand. Or, a single, magical, fully autonomous combine harvester.

Goblin Aftermath

In the end, the adventures kill the goblins in the hills. They return to the Duke and receive their 50gp reward. Then, they are off to the next adventure. Eventually, either that strain of goblins starves completely, or other adventurers come along and hunt them to extinction.

Then, whatever nastiness pushed the goblins out of their ecological niche appears, and it’s hungry. It decides the villagers of Redwick are an acceptable source of protein. 100gp reward?

Why use all this stuff?

As we’ll see in the Wandering City example, not even highly magic-advanced or technologically-advanced societies escape the need to eat. Food governs how a society organizes itself. Societies are fragile, and disruptions bring about adventure, mayhem, or even the end.

It’s not necessary to build food production and calorie consumption into a world (although some RPGs like Blades in the Dark make it pretty explicit), but understanding food helps to understand some deeper motivations of people, trade and the state.

An Example: Wandering Cities:

Let’s answer these same questions for a more abstract example. Here’s the slug from the previous post on the Wandering Cities:

RPG Summary: Cities of pure magic float at cloud height miles in the air. A thousand years ago, wizards discovered how to harness magic into grand engineering civil works. Along with damming the great rivers, shifting forests, and clearing deserts, the wizards lifted the cities from the trappings of geography and climate and allowed them to wander. Since the Great Lifting, people have prospered. However, nothing in this world is free: the great magical engines powering the cities requires a continuous source of Xadril, a rare metal found under mountains.

From a geographical disposition, the Cities exist on floating discs. The discos are about 10 miles wide in diameter. Technologically, the world feels like the first two decades of the 20th century. The world has ubiquitous magic (pervasive ubiquity.)

Let’s make these presumptions about the world:

With a low population, ten miles in diameter is enough to feed the entire population of a small, rural, floating town built around the local wizard shop. The disc has plenty of farming and grazing land. It gets plenty of rain and sun. With magic combines and high-yield feed, humans can subsist on the discs for decades if not centuries.

Over time, these settlements blossomed from tiny villages into metropolises. Towns grew and multiplied. They transformed into cities. For economic reasons, living on the discs offered more opportunity than living on the ground (TBD — placeholder as to why here).

With the growth of populations comes building. Over time, buildings encroach on the farming and pasture land. Today, the grazing pastures are gone. The sweeping farms disappeared. Real estate on the discs is worth vastly more than real estate on the ground.

On the discs, hardly anything grows that isn’t a weed or carefully manicured city-trees. People keep neither chickens nor cows. No one cultivates vast tracts of cloud corn. Except for private vegetable and community gardens, food must come either from farming-dedicated floating discos or from the ground.

As we’re thinking only in the context of food, let’s add some random color to this magic world:

  • Magic-assisted mass farming and harvesting. Perhaps a kind of golem-like magic/robotic harvesters.
  • Since the vibe is early 20th century we lean into the Grapes of Wrath. Barns full of broken robot junk. Farmers in weatherbeaten overalls fixing the combine golem with a wrench and sweat. Shotguns.
  • Assume people in the floating cities eat typical Midwestern human food.
  • Cities must get their food from the ground or client discs, as city real estate consumed all land.
  • Airlift moves food from the ground to the sky on regularly scheduled shipments.
  • The cities have massive food warehouses and food distribution centers to shift food from delivery to hungry mouths.
  • The cities have a centralized market and distribution network to smaller markets in various city locales.
  • The city is reliant on their system of food delivery never breaking down because if it does, people will starve.
  • Cities could go to war over possession of the land on the ground or distribution networks in the sky.
  • Are the airlifts planes? Blimps? Balloons?

We’ve now established:

  • High population density in the city.
  • Residential neighborhoods and industrial neighborhoods.
  • A societal split between disc-people and ground-people.
  • Competition for on-land resources between multiple cities.
  • City is 100% dependent on their ground-based possessions.

We haven’t established:

  • Castes between the ground and the air;
  • Why people live on discs;
  • The magic that propels the discs and the machines;
  • What mode of transport lifts food into the sky.

If we wanted to, we could start coloring in the lines. We could say that the cities all have their possessions and they fight each other over the best land. We already know the magic to keep cities aloft are from rare resources. We could add in blimps and balloons as the “trucks of the sky.” And make the warehouse districts the “bad” neighborhoods.

Everything in this world is a little fragile — and purposefully so. If everything worked perfectly all the time, there’d be no need for adventurers.

TRANTOR-...At the beginning of the thirteenth millennium, this tendency reached its climax. As the center of the Imperial Government for unbroken hundreds of generations and located, as it was, toward the central regions of the Galaxy among the most densely populated and industrially advanced worlds of the system, it could scarcely help being the densest and richest clot of humanity the Race had ever seen.

Its urbanization, progressing steadily, had finally reached the ultimate. All the land surface of Trantor, 75,000,000 square miles in extent, was a single city. The population, at its height, was well in excess of forty billions. This enormous population was devoted almost entirely to the administrative necessities of Empire, and found themselves all too few for the complications of the task. (It is to be remembered that the impossibility of proper administration of the Galactic Empire under the uninspired leadership of the later Emperors was a considerable factor in the Fall.) Daily, fleets of ships in the tens of thousands brought the produce of twenty agricultural worlds to the dinner tables of Trantor....

Its dependence upon the outer worlds for food and, indeed, for all necessities of life, made Trantor increasingly vulnerable to conquest by siege. In the last millennium of the Empire, the monotonously numerous revolts made Emperor after Emperor conscious of this, and Imperial policy became little more than the protection of Trantor's delicate jugular vein....

From FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov (1951)

(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)

Culture Axis Charts

For empire government and social psychologies, the powerful "Interesting Holes" technique is always good to use. The initial problem is one has to invent or research a classification system to use. There are some that are readily available. These often take the form of axis charts, which are scatter plots of two variables.

Jerry Pournelle has an interesting classification system for political movements within a government.

The X-axis is "Statism" or attitude towards the State. The extreme positive X-axis represents the movement's belief that the State is a positive good, nay, worthy of worship. The negative X-axis is the belief that the State is the ultimate evil.

The Y-axis is "Rationalism" or attitude toward planned social progress. It is the belief that society has "problems," and these can be "solved." The extreme postive Y-axis represents the belief that all social problems have findable solutions.

There are some other amusing X-Y classification systems. The Political Compass is similar to Pournelle's, but with a Libertarian bent.

The Dungeons and Dragon game had each character choose their "alignment" from the alignment chart. This chart had an "ethical" X-axis between Chaotic and Lawful, and a "moral" Y-axis between Good and Evil.

If you believe that "the good of the many outweights the good of the few", you are Lawful, otherwise you are Chaotic.

If you believe that "the ends justify the means" then you are Evil, otherwise you are Good.

On either axis you could be "Neutral".


It is a truth universally acknowledged among wonky introverts that derive their identity from the contents of their minds over the coalition to which they belong that the left-right political spectrum must be in want of an overhaul.

The political spectrum is one-dimensional for a reason: conflicts tend to come down to two sides. If there aren’t the factions will join up or spilt until there are. Each side will have a center of gravity, and since we can draw a line between any two points there will be a spectrum. All was well until the sticklers objected. It wasn’t just that no single side appealed to them, but that no point on the line between them did.

So the political compass was invented.

It augmented a mostly economic left-right axis with a social axis ranging from the “authoritarian” to the “libertarian”. This allowed its most vocal fans to express their distinction by congregating in the lower right corner, which is underserved by electoral politics but popular among people who liked to argue politics on the internet 15 years ago.

The compass became wildly popular but I’ve never been a big fan. Part of the reason is that one tends to be underwhelmed by classification models that don’t result in a clear position for oneself. The compass doesn’t work for me, as I tend to wind up here:

This isn’t an accident or error, it’s a correct result given how the model is set up. But I still don’t get an identity and I doesn’t “do anything” for me. There’s no sense of insight.

However, this isn’t just about my personal dissatisfaction. I have some better objections.

When I worked as a consultant I made more of these 2-by-2:s than I can remember, and over the years I worked out a few rules of thumb for how to make them good:

  1. The axes should be independent or close to it. That means statisically independent as in “uncorrelated”, not just logically independent as in “not the exact same thing”.
  2. The axes should be inputs, ideally simple and as close to “fundamental” (whatever that means) as possible. They’re what explains, not what needs to be explained.
  3. Each end of the axes should be equal. They should be equally interesting, equally important and sometimes, if possible, equally good. If they’re outcomes (as in scenario planning) they should be approximately equally likely and one should not simply be the absence of the other (i.e. not “thing happens” vs. “thing doesn’t happen”.
  4. Something novel should emerge in the quadrants. Each intersection ought to be more than just the axis values put together. Interaction ought to produce a result with its own identity that we can recognize as a thing over and above its axis values[1].

I don’t think the political compass does very well according to these standards.

I’ll give it a pass on independence. It’s not perfect, since placing real politicians on it tends to yield a stretched blob from the bottom left to the top right, but I can accept that as partly an artifact of coalition politics as described above.

But the meaning of left and right is complex and it strikes me as more of an outcome than a basic attribute. The same applies to the authoritarian-libertarian axis. Few think of themselves as “authoritarian”, and those who are aren’t so for shits and giggles — you don’t value repression for its own sake (and don’t call it repression) but in the service of something, and that thing is more fundamental.

The axis (and the whole compass) is championed mostly by those with a libertarian bent, and freedom is central to them. But their opponents aren’t anti-freedom as such and defining them like that are going to be incorrect, and furthermore, loaded in a way we ought to avoid when making these models (as per rule three).

Also, “social issues” as commonly defined doesn’t stand out as a natural category to me. The axis that does exist seems to be what you’re permissive about and what you aren’t, more than how permissive you are across the board. It seems so if you constrict “social issues” to being about sex and drugs, but include political correctness, environmentalism and guns and it all looks less coherent except to the small minority the political compass was apparently made for.

The compass breaks my last rule most of all. Good 2-by-2:s are supposed to be “insight porn”, where everything falls into place when the axes are combined. This doesn’t happen. The quadrants don’t even get their own names! Look:

They’re just called “libertarian left”, “authoritarian left”, “authoritarian right” and “libertarian right”.  That’s it? That’s a failure in my book. Yes, you get some feel for what each quadrant is like, but they don’t seem to map on to the real political landscape all that much. All the memes built on the model portray them as, in order: hippies, stalinists, nazis and pseudo-Randians. That’s fun for playing internet weirdo games but it doesn’t in my opinon describe the real political world particularly well, since it sacrifices explaining most of the landscape for some funny stereotypes at the extremes. It puts me at “half hippie and half pseudo-Randian”. Thanks, that’s certainly one mix of falsehood and old news.

I want to suggest another way to produce a similar structure, but better according to my rules. I don’t expect it to inspire any memes, but it does result in what I consider to be real groupings, emergent and internally complex, out of what I similarly believe are more fundamental underlying psychological factors (attitudes and stances more than policy preferences).

Cognitive decoupling transplanted

I’ve written a fair bit about cognitive decoupling. Here’s Sarah Constantin describing the idea:

Stanovich talks about “cognitive decoupling”, the ability to block out context and experiential knowledge and just follow formal rules, as a main component of both performance on intelligence tests and performance on the cognitive bias tests that correlate with intelligence. Cognitive decoupling is the opposite of holistic thinking. It’s the ability to separate, to view things in the abstract, to play devil’s advocate.


Speculatively, we might imagine that there is a “cognitive decoupling elite” of smart people who are good at probabilistic reasoning and score high on the cognitive reflection test and the IQ-correlated cognitive bias tests. These people would be more likely to be male, more likely to have at least undergrad-level math education, and more likely to have utilitarian views. Speculating a bit more, I’d expect this group to be likelier to think in rule-based, devil’s-advocate ways, influenced by economics and analytic philosophy. I’d expect them to be more likely to identify as rational.

I used the concept in my article about the skirmish between public intellectuals Sam Harris and Ezra Klein last year:

High-decouplers isolate ideas and ideas from each other and the surrounding context. This is a necessary practice in science which works by isolating variables, teasing out causality and formalizing and operationalizing claims into carefully delineated hypotheses. Cognitive decoupling is what scientists do.


While science and engineering disciplines (and analytic philosophy) are populated by people with a knack for decoupling who learn to take this norm for granted, other intellectual disciplines are not. Instead they’re largely composed of what’s opposite the scientist in the gallery of brainy archetypes: the literary or artistic intellectual.

This crowd doesn’t live in a world where decoupling is standard practice. On the contrary, coupling is what makes what they do work. Novelists, poets, artists and other storytellers like journalists, politicians and PR people rely on thick, rich and ambiguous meanings, associations, implications and allusions to evoke feelings, impressions and ideas in their audience. The words “artistic” and “literary” refers to using idea couplings well to subtly and indirectly push the audience’s meaning-buttons.

In discussed it further and developed it into a broader concept in Decoupling Revisited and boiled it down to this in Postscript to a Podcast:

At its most general it just means looking at a single issue/question/idea/fact at a time. Related ideas, implications and associations etc. can only be brought in explicitly and with the consent of all parties. Contextualizing, on the other hand, means that all associative connections between ideas are valid and count as relevant if any party thinks they are.

Now I’ll continue to milk it by applying it to politics[2].

Decoupling is about ideas: how are they connected? By any association or only by strict logic? What’s the default relationship? Connected and you need to prove isolation (difficult or impossible), or separate and you need to justify a connection by willing agreement or by proving it beyond reasonable doubt?

Now what if we replace ideas with people?

In decoupled society the default relationship between two people is that of no obligations whatsoever (special circumstances like friendship or family bonds don’t count since we’re talking about the macro scale). The only obligations are to respect explicitly stated rights and agreements. No expectations beyond that are valid (for example, between employers and employees). Social problems can and should be adressed with formal means: contracts, property rights, tort law. Political decouplers like money and the market as institutions because they quantify and decontextualize social obligations.

In coupled society what it means to be a good person or what may be required of you at any point is open-ended. There are not clear boundaries between people and you are expected to take others’ or society’s interests into account as much as your own. Anything you do that plausibly affects anyone or anything outside yourself is everybody’s business; duties are not fully specified and can never be completely discharged or fulfilled. Social problems can and should be adressed by everyone taking on themselves to be more self-sacrificing and focus less on what rights they have to do what they want. Political couplers dislike money and the market for the same reasons decouplers like it[3].

Coupling and decoupling[4] as moral stances are obviously politically relevant. How about as factual stances? At least as much. According to a decoupled view, human beings are built from the inside out. They have traits, tastes and behaviors that results from a combination of inborn nature, rational thought and acts of will, and social structures are the emergent result of them interacting. In the coupled view, human beings are created from the outside in. They’re lumps of clay shaped to perform the roles assigned to them by a system tending to perpetuate itself, and individual selves are the emergent result of socialization into these roles[5].

Thrive and survive

Is that “left” and “right”? A little bit, yes, but it’s by no means the entire difference. There’s definitely a Right that celebrates conformity and fitting in, obedience to authority and tradition, and there’s also a Left that insists on their right to be and do what they want without restriction or condemnation.

We need something more. And remembering my first rule of thumb, it should be something as independent from the decoupling dimension as possible. The answer came to me right away in the form of this article from a few years back, where Scott Alexander defines left and right as “thrive” and “survive” type values:

My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.

Before I explain, a story. Last night at a dinner party we discussed Dungeons and Dragons orientations. One guest declared that he thought Lawful Good was a contradiction in terms, very nearly at the same moment as a second guest declared that he thought Chaotic Good was a contradiction in terms. What’s up?

I think the first guest was expressing a basically leftist world view. It is a fact of nature that society will always be orderly, the economy always expanding. Crime will be a vague rumor but generally under control. All that the marginal unit of extra law enforcement adds to this pleasant state is cops beating up random black people, or throwing a teenager in jail because she wanted to try marijuana.

The second guest was expressing a basically rightist world view. The prosperous, orderly society we know and love is hanging by a frickin’ thread. At any moment, terrorists or criminals or just poor management could destroy everything. It is really really good that we have police in order to be the “thin blue line” between civilization and chaos, and we might sleep easier in our beds at night if that blue line were a little thicker and we had a little more buffer room.

The article goes on to give several examples but this is the gist. In a “survive” scenario (think famine, war or zombie apocalypse) mistakes are costly, outsiders are potential threats, keeping order is paramount and we can’t afford to be too generous towards the weak lest they pull us down with them. Only serious dangers are real problems and risk and discomfort are things we need to deal with.

In a “thrive” scenario by contrast (think true post-scarcity in a future automated economy), where we don’t even need to think about making a collective living we can afford almost limitless generosity towards the “other”, the non-useful, the few antisocial, the sensitive and the non-conformist. As we get richer we work towards eliminating ever smaller risks and discomforts.

This also captures a big part of left and right but not all of it, and I think the decoupling dimension picks up the remainder perfectly. For example, Scott A says that the thrive-survive model struggles with explaining why school choice is rightist, which the decoupling axis can handle.

Towards Left and Right

Think of the combination “coupled” and “thrive”. We’ve got far-reaching, non-enumerated duties toward the common good and self-sacrifice as the solution to problems. We don’t need to be concerned with survival/productivity and therefore don’t need to be stingy towards the needy —  especially since somebody’s problem is everybody’s problem. So we distribute the costs of individual weaknesses, mistakes and misfortunes throughout the population because we can afford to deal with them and nobody has the right to refuse.

This “we’re rich” plus “we’re in it together” produces a love for grand public works and programs meant to help and nurture the people in various ways. The fact that this requires taxation is not much of a problem since wealth is produced by the system as a whole anyway[6]. The reason we’re not using our society’s wealth to satisfy everyone’s needs is that some are hogging more than their fair share. Restrictions on behavior is mostly in service of combating this. This is close to the essence of the modern political left.

Putting “decoupled” and “survive” together yields the right. Here everybody is responsible for themselves and their loved ones only. You have your list of rights and obligations but anything more is strictly over and above what is required. Civilization is kept running by the productive and thus being productive must be rewarded and being unproductive or even destructive must be punished or at the very least not supported or society will stagnate or worse. You’ll suffer the consequences of your own mistakes and misfortunes because you must learn to improve, be an example to others — and because nobody else is obligated to clean up after you.

“We’re not rich enough” plus “limited, enumerated obligations” produces a skepticism of social programs deemed overly ambitious, intrusive, coddling or frivolous. The solution to poverty is the production of more wealth, which requires incentivizing the productive — the disciplined, smart, self-sufficient and responsible — to do so. Restrictions on behavior is mostly in service of cultivating these traits.

Putting the two dimensions together and tilting the whole thing so the left goes on the the left and the right on the right gives us this:

It’s very hard (and a popular internet pastime) to try to pin down the difference between left and right but I think this is them, in as pure a form as I’ve ever seen.

End of part 1.

In part 2 we’ll look at the other two quadrants and their tricky relationships to the left-right dichotomy.


[1] In fancy words: we want nonlinear interaction effects.

[2] Actually, that’s not fair. This isn’t a farfetched idea coming out of thinking about this concept excessively. I thought of it immediately after writing about decoupling for the first time so it’s more of a core feature than an exotic expansion.

[3] I suspect a large part of the attraction of strongly coupled political ideology like communism is due to dissatisfaction with the formalized, sterilized, and from a social and emotional perspective grossly distorted relations (both towards each other and to work itself) that results from the use of currency as the most important or only way to allocate obligations. Note this quote from Red Plenty, a book about the economic aspirations of the Soviet Union:

Marx had drawn a nightmare picture of what happened to human life under capitalism, when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded.

Then the makers and the things made turned alike into commodities, and the motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead. Stock-market prices acted back upon the world as if they were independent powers, requiring factories to be opened or closed, real human beings to work or rest, hurry or dawdle; and they, having given the transfusion that made the stock prices come alive, felt their flesh go cold and impersonal on them, mere mechanisms for chunking out the man-hours. Living money and dying humans, metal as tender as skin and skin as hard as metal, taking hands, and dancing round, and round, and round, with no way ever of stopping; the quickened and the deadened, whirling on.

And what would be the alternative? The consciously arranged alternative? A dance of another nature. A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.

I read this as an expression of disgust at how modern market economies are systems where economic relations are stripped of their social elements, of feelings, intentions, meaning and will, turning it all into a machine. It needs to be machine. Machines work. But it will never feel quite right for most of us.

[4] This could be called “individualism” vs. “collectivism” but those words are worn and overused to the point that they no longer can be used to communicate anything specific.

[5] These two assumptions have some impressively divergent implications that leads to opposing perspectives on many, many issues. Having this one contradiction underneath the surface of public discourse condemns whole continents of conversation to dysfunction. It needs to be adressed openly and explicitly so that at least a little bit of consensus can be built as a basis on which to hold meaningful debate.

[6] This might be slightly off. In my experience a lot of popular (far-)leftism appears to conceive (in a partial narrative way) not of “wealth” that’s “produced” but of “resources” — a choice of word that evokes the naturally occurring — that simply exists and are to be “distributed”. The right, of course, does the opposite pointing-out-vs-overlooking dance.


[Note: Since part 1 got quite a lot of hits I’ve become a bit self-conscious about the sweeping generalizations I’m about to make. I’m mostly thinking out loud.]

In part 1 I complained about the Political Compass. I said it doesn’t explain much and it’s quadrants aren’t particularly interesting or true to life, all in my opinion as a former professional 2-by-2 matrix maker. That post is somewhat required reading to properly understand this one, but since I can’t count on everybody doing that I’ll summarize it briefly.

I tried to reconstruct the political compass landscape from two new dimensions at 45 degree angles from the ones the political compass uses. The first draws on the “cognitive decoupling” idea, creating a spectrum between two visions of the ideal society — the decoupled and the coupled.

In the first, people are by default completely separate and all obligations are either formally defined in terms of rights or explicitly agreed to. Interactions with strangers are modeled on arms-length formal transactions, i.e. money and contracts.

In the second, people are by default connected and obligations to others and to society as a whole are open-ended and in theory unlimited. Interactions with strangers are modeled on personal relationships, i.e. empathy, loyalty and unquantifiable debts.

I lifted the other dimension straight from A Thrive-Survive Theory of the Political Spectrum. The “thrive” end are values suitable for safe, rich and comfortable societies where we don’t need to focus so much on making our living and can afford to be generous towards others, the weak, the irresponsible and the unproductive. Self-actualization is the ideal. The “survive” end are values suitable for rough, precarious situations where we do need everybody to be productive, orderly and well-behaved in order for everything to work out. Discipline is the ideal, while personal feelings and wants take a back seat.

I argue that none of these define the left and the right on their own, but put together they do so as well as anything else does. “Coupled” combined with “thrive” produce the quintessential left, while “decoupled” and “survive” does the same for the right:

Think of the combination “coupled” and “thrive”. We’ve got far-reaching, non-enumerated duties toward the common good and self-sacrifice as the solution to problems. We don’t need to be concerned with survival/productivity and therefore don’t need to be stingy towards the needy — especially since somebody’s problem is everybody’s problem. So we distribute the costs of individual weaknesses, mistakes and misfortunes throughout the population because we can afford to deal with them and nobody has the right to refuse.

This “we’re rich” plus “we’re in it together” produces a love for grand public works and programs meant to help and nurture the people in various ways. The fact that this requires taxation is not much of a problem since wealth is produced by the system as a whole anyway. The reason we’re not using our society’s wealth to satisfy everyone’s needs is that some are hogging more than their fair share. Restrictions on behavior is mostly in service of combating this. This is close to the essence of the modern political left.

Putting “decoupled” and “survive” together yields the right. Here everybody is responsible for themselves and their loved ones only. You have your list of rights and obligations but anything more is strictly over and above what is required. Civilization is kept running by the productive and thus being productive must be rewarded and being unproductive or even destructive must be punished or at the very least not supported or society will stagnate or worse. You’ll suffer the consequences of your own mistakes and misfortunes because you must learn to improve, be an example to others — and because nobody else is obligated to clean up after you.

“We’re not rich enough” plus “limited, enumerated obligations” produces a skepticism of social programs deemed overly ambitious, intrusive, coddling or frivolous. The solution to poverty is the production of more wealth, which requires incentivizing the productive — the disciplined, smart, self-sufficient and responsible — to do so. Restrictions on behavior is mostly in service of cultivating these traits.

In response to questions and criticism

The piece attracted a bit of attention (it was linked from Slate Star Codex among others) and with that some criticism, including some very insightful comments on the post itself. Part of it made me think it was a bad idea to split this post in two parts, since it made part 1 leave some things unclear. For example, some seem to have thought that my characterization of the essences of left and right ought to correspond to the two sides of the political landscape, either generally or specifically in the United States. That’s not the intention and I had hoped that the two blank quadrants left for part 2 would’ve made it clear enough that these are the “cores” of left and right and they’re joined by parts of the other quadrants to form full coalitions.

Another thing that appears to have been misunderstood is the meaning of “decoupling” transferred from ideas to people. I did say “special circumstances like friendship or family bonds don’t count since we’re talking about the macro scale” but perhaps I should have been clearer: it’s not meant to be about valuing social bonds. It’s about your relationship to strangers, or more accurately to the “generic other person”.

You have social bonds to some people like family and friends, which means you owe them to think of them in three full dimensions, to feel their pain, to come to their aid, and to not just respect their interests but make them your own on a deep, emotional level. If you treat them instrumentally, transactionally or in a blind, rule-based way you’ll damage the relationship.

The “coupled” view I’m referring to is the ideal that we treat everyone around us as if they were friends and family. It’s unattainable in practice but still something we’re supposed to try to do if asked, and in any case not explicitly. It means that a competitive, transaction-based market society where it’s acceptable to model unseen strangers as objects — as means and not ends that you interact with indirectly through a law-contracts-and-currency interface — instead of fully-fledged fellow human beings you interact with through caring relationships is on some level deeply wrong. Given this, we get a moral-political vision that is what I described: there’s no clear end to our obligations to think of others. This description of utopian communities is what I mean by seriously extreme coupling.

Decoupling is an explicit rejection of this overwhelming implied duty in the form of demarcation. You have open-ended obligations towards people you have personal relationships with and clearly defined obligations like “respect rights and agreements” toward others, but not open-ended obligations to people in general than can be invoked and/or expanded at any time. “Nobody owes you anything” is a decoupler’s response to perceived overentitlement. It is typically not meant to refer to family and friends.

I might also not have been clear about how the two dimensions interact: they affect each other’s expression. The decoupling property “comes out” differently in the Thrive vs. Survive condition. At the far Thrive end we get something like “the expanding circle” or “a brotherhood of man”: in the limit a duty to feel empathy and personal relationship-like concern for literally everyone. Survive means scarcity mindset, which requires the expansion of concern to have some limit by sheer necessity. Sometimes the limit setting is relatively benign like with civic nationalism but can become increasingly nasty and dangerous when clan, tribe, language, class, religion or race becomes the criterion. In any case the duty extends further than your personal relationships, which is the defining factor.

Overall, I’m still unsure about how robust an idea this is, but I’m certain there something I’m grasping for.

Part 2: Up and Down

Now, this is where we left off.

There are two more quadrants to discuss. Lets look at the bottom one first. It’s the combination of “decoupled” and “thrive”, which is the view that society is stable and wealthy enough for us to demand much less discipline and conformity in service of productive organization and risk management than we used to, but that us breaking free from restrictions imposed by our need to weather the slings and arrows of ordinary fortune ought not to be replaced by restrictions in the form of a general duty to serve the interests of others.

For all the problems with the word, this is liberalism as described by me in I, LPC.

To be liberal is to be live and let live. It means acceptance of difference and of pluralism of thought, feeling and action as legitimate and not as a problem to be suppressed. It means tolerance in its classical meaning: accepting the existence of what you’d rather see gone.

Liberalism stands opposed to authoritarianism, naturally. But not just that. It also opposes a communitarianism where your individual needs, wants and rights are subordinate not to the duties attached to your place in a hierarchy, but to the needs and wants of the rest of the community. To be liberal is to strive for everyone’s self-authorship, self-determination and freedom from involuntary obligations, towards either the better off or the worse off.

That opens up a lot of questions about priorities, but this brand of liberalism is less of a full political philosophy than an attitude: profound skepticism towards all restrictions of individual autonomy, whether in the service of stability, efficiency, safety, harmony or equality.

For example, a certain level of fighting poverty through government action is fine, but for liberals, as opposed to leftists, it’s for “thrive reasons”: it increases self-determination on the whole and in a wealthy society we can afford it without imposing too much of a burden on people (especially if the duties are clearly circumscribed and as unintrusive and impersonal as possible[1]). It’s not because we’re fundamentally obligated to make substantial sacrifices for strangers, i.e. “coupled reasons”. In this view, a social safety net is not a right, it’s a privilege — but a privilege we ought to be generous about granting when we’re lucky enough to live in a fabulously wealthy society[2].

I said that one of the reasons I don’t like the standard political compass is that it doesn’t give me a proper identity. I end up on the border between two things I don’t particularly identify with:

But now, look! In the tilted version I have a home!

(This has almost not everything to do with why this model appeals to me.)

Varieties of slicing (part 1)

Liberalism is distinct from the right and the left, and has tended to side with the weaker of the two against the stronger. Forcing it into a pure left-right model therefore results in confusion. The differences between the US and Sweden is instructive. In the US, the right is comparatively strong and the left weak, so the political landscape gets cut like this (for two roughly equal coalitions):

This makes Americans feel like the “thrive-survive” dimension is more indicative of left vs. right, and the American labels for the two sides — liberal and conservative — reflect this cutting.

In Europe in general and Sweden in particular the left has been stronger and the political landscape got cut this way:

This makes the coupled-decoupled dimension more indicative of left vs. right and Swedish coalitional labels reflect this: socialist and bourgeois parties are distinguished primarily by their differing attitudes towards public vs. private ownership and management of the economy.

Naturally the American use of “liberal” for “left” drives me up the wall — as a Swedish liberal the difference is rather essential, thank you very much. The phrase “economically liberal” is especially nuts, as it apparently means the exact opposite of economically liberal (laissez-faire)[3].

Interestingly, I think I see the difference between leftists and liberals become more important for Americans as well — at least among the coastal, educated middle classes where outright conservatives are rare enough to make the other two turn on each other in fits of online culture warring, just like game theory would predict. In a pure Thrive environment the ways leftists and liberals agree become nothing more than background scenery and the divisions start to stand out.

This has lead to a game of linguistic musical treadmills where liberals try to claim an identity apart from the left without joining the right, while leftists try to prevent them from doing so. Some liberals choose to adopt the “classical liberal” label but I think that has certain problems. It’s not new, for one. It traditionally separates the very decoupled liberals from the moderately so, rather than separate liberals from the left, and using it amounts to ceding the territory around the plain “liberal” label — home soil! [4] That seems unwise to me. If we’re looking for a label that makes a distinction while keeping the claim to the core territory I’d go with “Actual Liberal”. Just the right amount of on-the-nose.

The Problem Child

Neat. But aren’t the pictures above missing something? Something big? Like a top quadrant? Yes and there are reasons for that, as we shall see.

While liberalism is easy to identify I struggle with what to call this. I rejected “authoritarianism” as a label in part 1 because hardly anybody is “authoritarian” for its own sake, and I stand by that. Let’s see what else we can get.

“Coupled” and “survive” certainly paints a picture. The world is a tough, unforgiving place and we need discipline to navigate it. Open-ended obligations means you can expect to be helped and supported by everyone else — as long as you contribute and conform. We’re a team and you’re a team player. That’s important, because supporting that kind of cohesion on a large scale requires constant work towards unity. Not surprisingly, this quadrant contains a lot of rhetoric comparing the state to a family, evoking feelings of unbounded support, loyalty and duty.

By serendipity I happen to be reading Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy as I’m writing this, and I note that the description of ancient Sparta is a perfect match for the top corner — especially the way it’s neither left nor right. Sparta was militaristic, extraordinarily tough-minded, masculine and with an oppressed serf class, but they also insisted on equality among citizens (and somewhat between the sexes), they hated money, trade and consumerism and aggressively fought accumulation of wealth, and even separated families to practice collective child rearing. Spartan politics were clearly coherent — as coherent as liberalism — but not an extreme endpoint on a left-right spectrum.

There have been versions of “Spartanism”, but the pure form only really came back in full force in the West with modernity and mass society, after industrialization, urbanization and World War I showed what performance civilization-as-fossil-powered-machine is really capable of[5]. That was fascism, which could have worked as a descriptor for this quadrant had it not been turned into a contentless term of abuse. The real, historical fascists believed in something like Spartanism. Internal order was paramount and everyone’s duty towards the collective and its institutionalized form (the state) was essentially limitless. They also thought of themselves, justifiably, as an economic “third way” beyond left and right[6].

It makes sense to put them directly opposite liberalism and between left and right because much of their ideology was a direct rejection of liberal principles but has clear points of contact with both leftism and rightism[7]. Fascism as far-rightism is well-trodden ground. They both agree that competition and the cultivation of competence and strength are absolutely essential for the health of society, making them suspicious of anything that sounds weak, whiny or trivial. With the left they share a distaste for selfishness, instrumentality and the quasi-sociopathic virtuelessness of the market, and agree that it is everyone’s duty think more of the whole than to satisy their own personal desires.

Hardly anybody calls themselves a fascist today, obviously. Part of the reason is likely that actual, capital-F Fascism was soundly defeated and that the nature of its crimes (particularly the Nazi variety) contaminated the whole quadrant to this day, making any settlements there impossible, even at a safe distance from the extreme corner.

That leaves an “identity vacuum” in the moderate north-of-center area. That’s no law of nature; I can imagine a world where it wasn’t the case. Any ideology is bad in the extreme, but it could be normal, theoretically, to be “fascist-leaning” in the way it’s normal now to be a social democrat with socialist sympathies and not want to seize the means of production and shoot all the kulaks, or to be liberal and not want to privatize roads and the justice system, or to be conservative and not want to be ruled by church and crown.

But it is the case: there’s no “mild and respectable” version of fascism.

However, no big settlements doesn’t mean the area close to the center but above it isn’t populated[8]. Oh no. There are plenty of people there, plenty of people who don’t want to be too generous or forgiving towards the undeserving, and also believe in a society where we all owe each other support and sacrifice when we fall on hard times. Who are they?

They tend to be upset at perceived erosion of social trust and believe that it’s because we don’t prioritize rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior enough. They’re weary of immigration partly because of its effect on social cohesion — which is considered necessary to maintain fragile, society-wide economic solidarity — and because they suspect some immigrants to not live up to standards of good behavior, especially if they come from countries low on social trust and can be expected to bring such attitudes with them.

They’re suspicious of free trade, transnational corporations and organizations like the EU, partly for rational reasons: globalization’s been good for richer people in the first world and poorer people in the third but not as good for the working class in the first world or for the cultural and economic solidarity that supported them[9].

There’s a sensitivity to threats to economic safety and social stability like rampant inequality (a leftist fear, historically not great for stability) and loss of work ethic and trust (a rightist fear, not great for stability either). For leftists and rightists these are separate things, and you worry about one more than the other, but for this quadrant the two are merged into one large sense that the social fabric is deteriorating[10].

Near the center it isn’t Sparta by any means, but considerably closer to it than, say, the political center of gravity at your average upper middle class dinner party.

Up is on the up

The Up quadrant is gaining in political power throughout the western world. It’s often called “populism”, but I don’t exactly want to call it that because I think the populism is incidental. It’s a contingent result of elites not taking their concerns seriously, resulting in anti-elite sentiment. In essence, they’re angry at ruling elites for not showing them the loyalty they think they’re entitled to.

This anger’s been ignored and disdained by the right and the left[11] — understandably because given any of their worldviews it’s illegitimate. From the perspective of the comparatively thrive-y left — in whose world we treat everyone with equal compassion because we can afford it — expecting such loyalty (preferential treatment, really) looks like xenophobic stinginess. From the right it looks like a demand for a sacrifice of aggregate economic growth in the name of loyalty (preferential treatment, really) that they have no right to make in the first place: “Can’t compete? Nobody’s problem but yours.”

The dismissal has backfired, to put it mildly. Britain is leaving the EU, France is teeming with yellow vests, and the Sweden Democrats have 62 seats in the parliament building ten minutes’ walk from this café.

These all make more sense as “up vs. down” than “left vs. right” conflicts and the left-right system isn’t well equipped to deal with that. Part of the problem is that a one-dimensional spectrum focused on left and right with liberals in the middle will result in Up being assigned a role of endpoint, obscuring its coherence and making it seem extremist and fringe even when not very far from the center in absolute terms.

Varieties of slicing (part 2)

To very specifically hammer at a point I want to make to Americans who consider the small-town, patriotic conservative the essence of the right: this “Up” group is not essentially left-wing or right-wing as I conceive of them. To me, the central example of a right-wing politician isn’t the president but Margaret Thatcher, and she didn’t exactly appeal to coal miners.

On which side the Ups end up depends, just like their opposites the liberals, on the particular time and place. In America I think it’s the low base level of national cohesion and long history of self-sufficiency that has made political history take a somewhat different turn compared to in Europe.

Let’s look at that compass again, now without a big hole up top. If we draw the whole line we get a division I think makes sense for the United States:

The landscape is sliced mostly along the Thrive-Survive divide, putting the top quadrant mostly on the right, emphasizing their conservative (“survive”) aspect.

In Sweden we don’t have the same strong relationship between “left vs. right” and urban vs. rural/suburban the US has[12] and the archetypical salt-of-the-Earth type working class voter who values honest work and national solidarity is, historically, not a rightist but a social democrat. This is the full slicing I’m more used to[13]:

In other words, the temperament and values often called “small-town conservatism” — in Big Five terms low openness to experience, preference for clear answers etc. — isn’t essentially right wing; it exists in considerable tension with free-market capitalism and its associated “rootless creative destruction ethos” and this aspect can sometimes dominate.

The astute observer may object that I’ve simply declared the essence of left and right to be whatever is common to the left and right in Sweden and the United States. They’d be kind of right but I’m not sure it’s much of a problem, given that I think most other western countries are somewhere in between (I wouldn’t extend this model outside that group).


Is this a better model than the political compass? I don’t know. The quadrants form more natural categories to me, although I recognize that people might have different opinions on that. I wrote these posts because I thought the compass was all wrong not in content but in format. It’s inside out. It has what’s to be explained as its inputs and the underlying dimensions as its outputs, possibly because we’re more used to the outputs and therefore think they’re “simpler”. I don’t think they are.

Of course I should also fess up to being highly motivated to articulate the to me very distinct difference between leftists and liberals that tend to disappear in US-dominated online discourse[14].

I’m half-regretting getting caught up in all this. Usually I try to say something newish, and this topic has been dissected and mulled over so much by so many political scientists, philosophers and bloggers that I don’t have that much to add other than some half-baked speculation of limited novelty.

Hell, my model — even the tiltedness — comes up if you look up “political spectrum” on Wikipedia.

It’s got the same quadrants but gets them using the boring “economic” and inadequate “cultural” axis I was trying to get away from. But since the resulting landscape is the same I’m not sure I’ve accomplished much.

I’ve spent far too much time writing, editing, re-editing, erasing, re-writing and re-erasing various ways to make sense of this model, when all I really wanted was to use the coupled-decoupled approach to politics I thought was neat. The thrive-survive thing wasn’t even my idea at all. I just thought it happened to perfectly complement my axis and voilà! — there was a simple model. I didn’t mean to write 8000 words on it (with another 3000 or so discarded), it just happened. “This will be easy and quick” I thought, before getting lost at the deep end of the pool looking for the best way to justify why the populist left and the populist right are more the same region of a square than the opposite ends of a spectrum[15], all without saying something obviously dumb.

A learning experience — I’d think if I didn’t I know I’ve done this before and still can’t control it.



[1] Say, more like taxes than detailed regulations or restrictive norms regarding how selfless you’re required to be. For a personal example, I very much see the problems with drug and gambling addiction and have quite a powerful distaste for the advertising and business practices of online gambling companies, but I also very much resist having any of it banned. I would much prefer — even it if would be less efficient — using large amounts of public funds to help people escape destructive behaviors.

[2] This is part of the reason I’m skeptical of political taxonomies based explicitly on what policies you support. As mentioned in The Signal and the Corrective, people often support similar policies for different reasons.

[3] I saw a similar example in the wild recently. I listened to Joe Rogan’s podcast where we was talking to independent journalist Tim Pool and Twitter representatives Jack Dorsey and Vijaya Gadde. Tim commented that Joe was close to socialist politically and he answers that he’s not, but “very liberal” except for on the second amendment where he disagrees with liberals. I had to do a double take there but I understand it to mean he’s pretty consistently liberal since the left-wing position on the second amendment isn’t liberal.

[4] The other popular choice, “centrist”, has similar issues.

[5] Born in a city state with the necessary population density early in history

[6] So did 1990’s liberals like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, showing that both the Up and Down quadrants can be “centrist” on a left-right scale while having opposing visions for society

[7] In further support I’d point out that actually existing communist societies looked pretty similar to fascist ones, despite serious ideological differences. How come? I think that can be resolved by saying that communist societies are in the far left corner in theory; to work they have to be so rich that they can adopt perfect Thrive thinking together with their extreme coupling. But when they aren’t post-scarcity they slide toward a fascist-like structure because they’re confronted with a reality that requires more of a Survive mindset than a “good” version of communism can handle. In other words, fascism is intentionally in the top corner, while communism collapses into it upon contact with scarcity.

[8] The reason the “horseshoe” is open upwards instead of downwards is partly because of “fascism fallout” as described, partly because it tends ot be a response to threat and crisis which creates an aura of “extremeness”, and finally partly because the chattering class that disproportionally determine public discourse and collective consciousness are significantly more Down than Up, making Down a high-pressure zone as opposed to the vacuum on the other side. Note for example how the phrase “fiscal conservative, social liberal” is common in the US, meaning essentially Down (perhaps close to the right border). However, while the opposite phrase is less known, the actual position is more common.

[9] When I wrote and rewrote this description I kept worrying that it was either too charitable or too uncharitable. I guess when I worry about both it’s probably alright

[10] You could call the top and bottom quadrants Open and Closed, where Open is another word for liberalism and Closed for the last quadrant. I don’t intend for it to be insulting, it’s just that what it values can be reasonably summarized as such: predictability, stability, control, cohesion and balance. The Open quadrant values dynamism, difference, creative destruction and disruption, decentralization, speed and excitement — which is great fun when you’re not threatened by any of it. Both Left and Right are semi-closed and semi-open because they favor certain kinds of restrictions and not others, in the left’s case to prevent people from hogging more than their fair share of existing resources, in the right’s case to prevent people from being a drain on the prosperity creation process.

[11] The liberal camp right across tend to engage in both criticisms plus a few measures of disbelief, confusion or pity. Personally I’ve made efforts to understand their point of view and become far less dismissive than I would’ve been, say, ten years ago when I viewed them with outright disdain. It no longer looks like either entitlement or xenophobia, but more like tragedy. I sympathize, but there’s just no way to accomplish what they want with acceptable means, or even get the desired results.

[12] Most cities are pretty representative of the country as a whole when it comes to left and right. The most you can say is that wealthy suburbs vote more right (but not “up”) and small industrial towns and the sparsely populated north vote more left (but not “down”).

[13] For now at least, because the Swedish political landscape is shifting as well. After several months of post-election deadlock, two liberal parties reluctantly agreed this January to leave their former coalition partners on the right to support a social democratic government in return for pro-market reforms. The rise of the Sweden Democrats necessitated the change.

[14] For instance, I think studies about the ideological lopsidedness of US universities miss the mark when they cite the huge difference in representation between “liberals” and “conservatives”. Yes there are very few conservatives, which is an issue. The much discussed censorious PC and activism culture however, isn’t caused by that as much as by an imbalance between leftists and liberals. Such deas are, virtually by definition, pushed by the former and not the latter.

[15] This episode of the Intellectual Explorers Podcast with Bret Weinstein has some discussion of this, referencing known right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson’s apparent embrace of some pretty far-lefty ideas.

Another interesting axis classification system is the Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World.

The Traditional/Secular-rational values axis reflects the contrast between societies in which religion is very important and those which are more secular.

The second axis is linked with the transition from industrial society to post-industrial societies — which brings a polarization between Survival and Self-expression values. Translation: the -2 side is where you have to spend all your time and energy just to get enough food and money to live. The +2 side is where it is easy to get all you need to eat and live, so you have plenty of free time to do whatever you want.

The authors note that each axis actually contains many related values which vary in lock step. For instance, the Traditional/Secular-rational is specifically for measuring religion. But in practice it also measures such things as the importance of parent-child ties and deference to authority, along with absolute standards and traditional family values. Cultures with a high religion value reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. They also have high levels of national pride, and a nationalistic outlook. Cultures with a low religion value also have the opposite preference in all those topics.

SF authors and game designers who want to invent believable cultures for their various interstellar nations can use this graph to explore both the outer limits and the finer nuances.

David Maurer's Explanation of history shows how the values and philosophy of a culture relate to the question of "where is the food going to come from?" As the answer changes, so does the culture. This more or less corresponds to the Survival — Self-expression axis in the Inglehart-Welzel graph.


(ed note: article has a Libertarian slant. Main point is all the nations who are near +2.5 on the Survival Vs. Self-Expression axis also rank at the top of the Cato freedom index. Except the United States, which anomalously has a pathetic #23. Having a similar anomalous value in your galactic empire will produce an interesting background for your novels.)

Ronald Inglehart’s theory of “post-materialist” value change is the most helpful place to start in understanding cultural liberalization.

This is the World Values Survey cultural map. You’ll see it has two dimensions. One ranges from “traditional values” to “secular-rational values.” The other ranges from “survival values” to “self-expression values.”

As countries become wealthier, their people generally become less and less concerned with mere physical survival and the values associated with survival, and more and more concerned with self-expression and autonomy. People animated by survival values prefer security over liberty, are suspicious of outsiders, dislike homosexuality, don’t put much stock in politics, and tend not to be very happy. In contrast, those fueled by self-expressive values prefer liberty over security, are welcoming to outsiders, tolerant of homosexuality (or most any expression of the real, authentic, inner self), are more positive about politics and political participation, and tend to be fairly satisfied with life.

Cultures also tend to transition from “traditional” to “secular-rational” attitudes about the grounds of moral, cultural, and political authority as they modernize and gain distance from mass poverty and material insecurity. Traditionalists about authority are generally religious; prize traditional notions of marriage and family; esteem obedience; and wave the flag with zesty, patriotic pride. In contrast, people with secular-rational values are less religious; aren’t so troubled by Heather having two Dads; are more likely to question and defy authority; and take less pride from national membership.

You might wonder about causality. Maybe “post-materialist” values cause economic growth. That’s probably true, too. But the WVS data are clear enough that we can be confident that growth does cause value change. Inglehart and Christian Welzel write:

This strong connection between a society’s value system and its per capita GDP suggests that economic development tends to produce roughly predictable changes in a society’s beliefs and values, and time-series evidence supports this hypothesis. When one compares the positions of given countries in successive waves of the values surveys, one finds that almost all the countries that experienced rising per capita GDPs also experienced predictable shifts in their values.

(For those interested in digging deeper, the best current overview of the theory is Christian Welzel’s Freedom Rising: Human Empowerment and the Quest for Emancipation. It’s an impressive body of work with a great deal of data and analysis behind it.)

If you care about freedom and liberal values generally, the fact that rising prosperity tends to produce increasingly “post-materialist” cultures in which secular-rational and expressive values overshadow traditional and survival values is profoundly important. Why? Because countries with moral cultures that emphasize self-expressive, secular-rational values demand and enjoy the most freedom.

Take a glance at the top ten countries in the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index—Hong Kong, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands—which I’ve tagged with their Freedom Index ranks on the WVS cultural map below. You’ll see that almost all the world’s freest countries rate relatively highly on both dimensions of post-materialist values. But a high prevalence of self-expression values in particular strongly predicts a high level of freedom.

Now take a look at the United States.

According to the Cato index, the U.S. ranks an inglorious 23rd in terms of combined political and economic freedom, wedged between two former Soviet republics, Estonia and Latvia. Except for Iceland (which has a population smaller than Des Moines metropolitan area), every country to the right of the United States in self-expression values does better on the Cato freedom index. Self-expression values are evidently particularly important for generating political support for high levels of freedom. Secular-rational values, which are relatively high in a number of relatively despotic countries, and relatively low in Ireland, which ranks 4th on the Cato index, and Canada, which ranks 6th, are evidently less tightly connected to political and economic liberty.

Secular-rational and self-expressive values tend to move in the same direction over time, but they don’t always, and in the United States they haven’t. If you watch the below animation of the cultural map through time, you’ll see that since the World Values Survey began, the United States has become significantly more secular-rational, while losing ground on self-expressive values. (In the early oughts, we were about where New Zealand is now on that dimension.)

British linguist Richard Lewis in his book When Cultures Collide catagorizes world cultures into one of three types: Linear-actives, Multi-actives, or Reactives.

Linear-actives — those who plan, schedule, organize, pursue action chains, do one thing at a time. Germans and Swiss are in this group.

Multi-actives — those lively, loquacious peoples who do many things at once, planning their priorities not according to a time schedule, but according to the relative thrill or importance that each appointment brings with it. Italians, Latin Americans and Arabs are members of this group.

Reactives — those cultures that prioritize courtesy and respect, listening quietly and calmly to their interlocutors and reacting carefully to the other side's proposals. Chinese, Japanese and Finns are in this group.

Lewis Model Catagories
Talks half of the timeTalks most of the timeListens most of the time
Does one thing at the timeDoes several things at onceReacts to partner's action
Plans ahead step by stepPlans grand outline onlyLooks at general principles
Polite but directEmotionalPolite, indirect
Confronts with logicConfronts emotionallyNever confronts
Job-orientedPeople-orientedVery people-oriented
Sticks to factsFeelings before factsStatements are promises
Sticks to agendaRoams back and forthOften asks for "repeats"
Written word importantSpoken word importantFace-to-face contact important
Restrained body languageUnrestrained body languageSubtle body language

Plastic Bag has the Pirate-Ninja/Elf-Dwarf chart. Pirates are loud and flamboyant, gregarious and unrestrained, life-loving and vigorous, passionate and strong. Their opposite, the Ninjas are skilled and proficient, elegant and silent, contained and constrained, honourable and spiritual. Elves are Thinkers, elegant and timeless, conceptual and refined, abstract and beautiful. Dwarves are Doers, practical and structural, hard-working and no-nonsense, down-to-earth smiths and makers.


The first basic law of human stupidity

The first basic law of human stupidity asserts without ambiguity that:

Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

At first, the statement sounds trivial, vague and horribly ungenerous. Closer scrutiny will however reveal its realistic veracity. No matter how high are one's estimates of human stupidity, one is repeatedly and recurrently startled by the fact that:

a) people whom one had once judged rational and intelligent turn out to be unashamedly stupid.

b) day after day, with unceasing monotony, one is harassed in one's activities by stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places and at the most improbable moments.

The First Basic Law prevents me from attributing a specific numerical value to the fraction of stupid people within the total population: any numerical estimate would turn out to be an underestimate. Thus in the following pages I will denote the fraction of stupid people within a population by the symbol σ.

The second basic law

Cultural trends now fashionable in the West favour an egalitarian approach to life. People like to think of human beings as the output of a perfectly engineered mass production machine. Geneticists and sociologists especially go out of their way to prove, with an impressiveapparatus of scientific data and formulations that all men are naturally equal and if some are more equal than others, this is attributable to nurture and not to nature. I take an exception to this general view. It is my firm conviction, supported by years of observation andexperimentation, that men are not equal, that some are stupid and others are not, and that the difference is determined by nature and not by cultural forces or factors. One is stupid in the same way one is red-haired; one belongs to the stupid set as one belongs to a blood group. A stupid man is born a stupid man by an act of Providence. Although convinced that fraction of human beings are stupid and that they are so because of genetic traits, I am not a reactionary trying to reintroduce surreptitiously class or race discrimination. I firmly believe that stupidity is an indiscriminate privilege of all human groups and is uniformly distributed according to a constant proportion. This fact is scientifically expressed by the Second Basic Law which states that

The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

In this regard, Nature seems indeed to have outdone herself. It is well known that Nature manages, rather mysteriously, to keep constant the relative frequency of certain natural phenomena. For instance, whether men proliferate at the Northern Pole or at the Equator, whether the matching couples are developed or underdeveloped, whether they are black, red, white or yellow the female to male ratio among the newly born is a constant, with a very slight prevalence of males. We do not know how Nature achieves this remarkable result but we know that in order to achieve it Nature must operate with large numbers. The most remarkable fact about the frequency of stupidity is that Nature succeeds in making this frequency equal to the probability quite independently from the size of the group.

Thus one finds the same percentage of stupid people whether one is considering very large groups or one is dealing with very small ones. No other set of observable phenomena offers such striking proof of the powers of Nature.

The evidence that education has nothing to do with the probability was provided by experiments carried on in a large number of universities all over the world. One may distinguish the composite population which constitutes a university in five major groups, namely the blue-collar workers, the white-collar employees, the students, the administrators and the professors.

Whenever I analyzed the blue-collar workers I found that the fraction σ of them were stupid. As σ's value was higher than I expected (First Law), paying my tribute to fashion I thought at first that segregation, poverty, lack of education were to be blamed. But moving up the social ladder I found that the same ratio was prevalent among the white-collar employees and among the students. More impressive still were the results among the professors. Whether I considered a large university or a small college, a famous institution or an obscure one, I found that the same fraction σ of the professors are stupid. So bewildered was I by the results, that I made a special point to extend my research to a specially selected group, to a real elite, the Nobel laureates. The result confirmed Nature's supreme powers: σ fraction of the Nobel laureates are stupid.

This idea was hard to accept and digest but too many experimental results proved its fundamental veracity. The Second Basic Law is an iron law, and it does not admit exceptions. The Women's Liberation Movement will support the Second Basic Law as it shows that stupid individuals are proportionately as numerous among men as among women. The underdeveloped of the Third World will probably take solace at the Second Basic Law as they can find in it the proof that after all the developed are not so developed. Whether the Second Basic Law is liked or not, however, its implications are frightening: the Law implies that whether you move in distinguished circles or you take refuge among the head-hunters of Polynesia, whether you lock yourself into a monastery or decide to spend the rest of your life in the company of beautiful and lascivious women, you always have to face the same percentage of stupid people — which percentage (in accordance with the First Law) will always surpass your expectations.

The third (and golden) basic law

The Third Basic Law assumes, although it does not state it explicitly, that human beings fall into four basic categories: the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit and the stupid. It will be easily recognized by the perspicacious reader that these four categories correspond to the four areas I, H, S, B, of the basic graph (see right).

If Tom takes an action and suffers a loss while producing a gain to Dick, Tom's mark will fall in field H: Tom acted helplessly. If Tom takes an action by which he makes a gain while yielding a gain also to Dick, Tom's mark will fall in area I: Tom acted intelligently. If Tom takes an action by which he makes a gain causing Dick a loss, Tom's mark will fall in area B: Tom acted as a bandit. Stupidity is related to area S and to all positions on axis Y below point O. As the Third Basic Law explicitly clarifies:

A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

When confronted for the first time with the Third Basic Law, rational people instinctively react with feelings of skepticism and incredulity. The fact is that reasonable people have difficulty in conceiving and understanding unreasonable behaviour.

But let us abandon the lofty plane of theory and let us look pragmatically at our daily life. We all recollect occasions in which a fellow took an action which resulted in his gain and our loss: we had to deal with a bandit. We also recollect cases in which a fellow took an action which resulted in his loss and our gain: we had to deal with a helpless person. We can recollect cases in which a fellow took an action by which both parties gained: he was intelligent. Such cases do indeed occur.

But upon thoughtful reflection you must admit that these are not the events which punctuate most frequently our daily life. Our daily life is mostly, made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm. Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does.

In fact there is no explanation — or better there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.

Frequency distribution

Most people do not act consistently. Under certain circumstances a given person acts intelligently and under different circumstances the same person will act helplessly. The only important exception to the rule is represented by the stupid people who normally show a strong proclivity toward perfect consistency in all fields of human endeavours.

From all that proceeds, it does not follow, that we can chart on the basic graph only stupid individuals. We can calculate for each person his weighted average position in the plane of figure 1 quite independently from his degree of inconsistency. A helpless person may occasionally behave intelligently and on occasion he may perform a bandit's action. But since the person in question is fundamentally helpless most of his action will have the characteristics of helplessness. Thus the overall weighted average position of all the actions of such a person will place him in the H quadrant of the basic graph.

The fact that it is possible to place on the graph individuals instead of their actions allows some digression about the frequency of the bandit and stupid types.

The perfect bandit is one who, with his actions, causes to other individuals losses equal to his gains. The crudest type of banditry is theft. A person who robs you of £100 without causing you an extra loss or harm is a perfect bandit: you lose £100, he gains £100. In the basic graph the perfect bandits would appear on a 45-degree diagonal line that divides the area B into two perfectly symmetrical sub-areas (line OM of figure 2).

However the "perfect" bandits are relatively few. The line OM divides the area B into two sub-areas, B1, and B2, and by far the largest majority of the bandits falls somewhere in one of these two sub-areas.

The bandits who fall in area B1 are those individuals whose actions yield to them profits which are larger than the losses they cause to other people. All bandits who are entitled to a position in area B1 are bandits with overtones of intelligence and as they get closer to the right side of the X axis they share more and more the characteristics of the intelligent person.

Unfortunately the individuals entitled to a position in the B1 area are not very numerous. Most bandits actually fall in area B2. The individuals who fall in this area are those whose actions yield to them gains inferior to the losses inflicted to other people. If someone kills you in order to rob you of £50 or if he murders you in order to spend a weekend with your wife at Monte Carlo, we can be sure that he is not a perfect bandit. Even by using his values to measure his gains (but still using your values to measure your losses) he falls in the B2 area very close to the border of sheer stupidity. Generals who cause vast destruction and innumerable casualties in return for a promotion or a medal fall in the same area.

The frequency distribution of the stupid people is totally different from that of the bandit. While bandits are mostly scattered over an area stupid people are heavily concentrated along one line, specifically on the Y axis below point O. The reason for this is that by far the majority of stupid people are basically and unwaveringly stupid — in other words they perseveringly insist in causing harm and losses to other people without deriving any gain, whether positive or negative.

There are however people who by their improbable actions not only cause damages to other people but in addition hurt themselves. They are a sort of super-stupid who, in our system of accounting, will appear somewhere in the area S to the left of the Y axis.

The power of stupidity

It is not difficult to understand how social, political and institutional power enhances the damaging potential of a stupid person. But one still has to explain and understand what essentially it is that makes a stupid person dangerous to other people — in other words what constitutes the power of stupidity.

Essentially stupid people are dangerous and damaging because reasonable people find it difficult to imagine and understand unreasonable behaviour. An intelligent person may understand the logic of a bandit. The bandit's actions follow a pattern of rationality: nasty rationality, if you like, but still rationality. The bandit wants a plus on his account. Since he is not intelligent enough to devise ways of obtaining the plus as well as providing you with a plus, he will produce his plus by causing a minus to appear on your account. All this is bad, but it is rational and if you are rational you can predict it. You can foresee a bandit's actions, his nasty manoeuvres and ugly aspirations and often can build up your defenses.

With a stupid person all this is absolutely impossible as explained by the Third Basic Law. A stupid creature will harass you for no reason, for no advantage, without any plan or scheme and at the most improbable times and places. You have no rational way of telling if and when and how and why the stupid creature attacks. When confronted with a stupid individual you are completely at his mercy. Because the stupid person's actions do not conform to the rules of rationality, it follows that:

a) one is generally caught by surprise by the attack;

b) even when one becomes aware of the attack, one cannot organize a rational defense, because the attack itself lacks any rational structure.

The fact that the activity and movements of a stupid creature are absolutely erratic and irrational not only makes defense problematic but it also makes any counter-attack extremely difficult — like trying to shoot at an object which is capable of the most improbable and unimaginable movements. This is what both Carlyle and Schiller had in mind when the former stated that "with stupidity and sound digestion man may front much" and the latter wrote that "against stupidity the very Gods fight in vain."

The fourth basic law

That helpless people, namely those who in our accounting system fall into the H area, do not normally recognize how dangerous stupid people are, is not at all surprising. Their failure is just another expression of their helplessness. The truly amazing fact, however, is that also intelligent people and bandits often fail to recognize the power to damage inherent in stupidity. It is extremely difficult to explain why this should happen and one can only remark that when confronted with stupid individuals often intelligent men as well as bandits make the mistake of indulging in feelings of self-complacency and contemptuousness instead of immediately secreting adequate quantities of adrenaline and building up defenses.

One is tempted to believe that a stupid man will only do harm to himself but this is confusing stupidity with helplessness. On occasion one is tempted to associate oneself with a stupid individual in order to use him for one's own schemes. Such a manoeuvre cannot but have disastrous effects because

a) it is based on a complete misunderstanding of the essential nature of stupidity and

b) it gives the stupid person added scope for the exercise of his gifts. One may hope to outmanoeuvre the stupid and, up to a point, one may actually do so. But because of the erratic behaviour of the stupid, one cannot foresee all the stupid's actions and reactions and before long one will be pulverized by the unpredictable moves of the stupid partner.

This is clearly summarized in the Fourth Basic Law which states that:

Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.

Through centuries and millennia, in public as in private life, countless individuals have failed to take account of the Fourth Basic Law and the failure has caused mankind incalculable losses.

The fifth basic law

Instead of considering the welfare of the individual let us consider the welfare of the society, regarded in this context as the algebraic sum of the individual conditions. A full understanding of the Fifth Basic Law is essential to the analysis. It may be parenthetically added here that of the Five Basic Laws, the Fifth is certainly the best known and its corollary is quoted very frequently. The Fifth Basic Law states that:

A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

The corollary of the Law is that:

A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

The result of the action of a perfect bandit (the person who falls on line OM of figure 2) is purely and simply a transfer of wealth and/or welfare. After the action of a perfect bandit, the bandit has a plus on his account which plus is exactly equivalent to the minus he has caused to another person. The society as a whole is neither better nor worse off. If all members of a society were perfect bandits the society would remain stagnant but there would be no major disaster. The whole business would amount to massive transfers of wealth and welfare in favour of those who would take action. If all members of the society would take action in regular turns, not only the society as a whole but also individuals would find themselves in a perfectly steady state of no change.

When stupid people are at work, the story is totally different. Stupid people cause losses to other people with no counterpart of gains on their own account. Thus the society as a whole is impoverished. The system of accounting which finds expression in the basic graphs shows that while all actions of individuals falling to the right of the line POM (see fig. 3) add to the welfare of a society; although in different degrees, the actions of all individuals falling to the left of the same line POM cause a deterioration.

In other words the helpless with overtones of intelligence (area H1), the bandits with overtones of intelligence (area B1) and above all the intelligent (area I) all contribute, though in different degrees, to accrue to the welfare of a society. On the other hand the bandits with overtones of stupidity (area B2) and the helpless with overtones of stupidity (area H2) manage to add losses to those caused by stupid people thus enhancing the nefarious destructive power of the latter group.

All this suggests some reflection on the performance of societies. According to the Second Basic Law, the fraction of stupid people is a constant σ which is not affected by time, space, race, class or any other sociocultural or historical variable. It would be a profound mistake to believe the number of stupid people in a declining society is greater than in a developing society. Both such societies are plagued by the same percentage of stupid people. The difference between the two societies is that in the society which performs poorly:

a) the stupid members of the society are allowed by the other members to become more active and take more actions;

b) there is a change in the composition of the non-stupid section with a relative decline of populations of areas I, H1 and B1 and a proportionate increase of populations H2 and B2.

This theoretical presumption is abundantly confirmed by an exhaustive analysis of historical cases. In fact the historical analysis allows us to reformulate the theoretical conclusions in a more factual way and with more realistic detail.

Whether one considers classical, or medieval, or modern or contemporary times one is impressed by the fact that any country moving uphill has its unavoidable σ fraction of stupid people. However the country moving uphill also has an unusually high fraction of intelligent people who manage to keep the σ fraction at bay and at the same time produce enough gains for themselves and the other members of the community to make progress a certainty.

In a country which is moving downhill, the fraction of stupid people is still equal to σ; however in the remaining population one notices among those in power an alarming proliferation of the bandits with overtones of stupidity (sub-area B2 of quadrant B in figure 3) and among those not in power an equally alarming growth in the number of helpless individuals (area H in basic graph, fig.1). Such change in the composition of the non-stupid population inevitably strengthens the destructive power of the σ fraction and makes decline a certainty. And the country goes to Hell.

From BASIC LAWS OF STUPIDITY by Carlo M. Cipolla (1986)


If you are creating a "future history generator" program, or something like that, you will need ways of quantifying the various factors.

For nations, the state of the citizens's well-being can be measured by the Human Development Index. This factors in life expectancy, literacy, education, and standard of living into one number. Among other things it can indicate whether a country is a developed, developing, or underdeveloped country.

The economic Misery index is found by adding the unemployment rate to the inflation rate. This tends to predict the relative crime rate of one year in the future.

And the Gini coefficient is a measure of inequality of a distribution of income. If the difference in income between the rich and the poor becomes too absurdly large, the society becomes increasingly unstable. Historians often point to a large Gini coefficient and the disappearance of the middle class as two of the warning signs of the downfall of the Roman empire.

On Earth

(ed note: Nita teleports her parents to the surface of the moon, to show them the view of the Earth)

"Harry," Nita's mother said, still looking up. The tone of her voice made her husband look up too — and seeing what she saw, he forgot the rock.

What they saw was part of a disk four times the size of the Moon as seen from the Earth; and it seemed even bigger because of the Moon's foreshortened horizon. It was not the full Earth so familiar from pictures, but a waning crescent, streaked with cloud swirls and burning with a fierce green-blue radiance — a light with depth, like the fire held in the heart of an opal, that light banished the idea that blue and green were "cool" colors; one could have warmed one's hands at that crescent. The blackness to which it shaded was ever so faintly touched with silver — a disk more hinted at than seen; the new Earth in the old Earth's arms.

"There'll be a time," Nita said softly, "when any time someone's elected to a public office — before they let them start work — they'll bring whoever was elected up here and just make them look at that until they get what it means…"

From DEEP WIZARDRY by Diane Duane (1985)

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics looks so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, "Look at that, you son of a bitch."

Edgar D. Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut

"We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

Carl Sagan, when Voyager 1 left the solar system

Twenty thousand miles above the surface of the Earth, the artificial moon that housed the World Council was spinning on its eternal orbit. The roof of the Council Chamber was one flawless sheet of crystallite; when the members of the Council were in session it seemed as if there was nothing between them and the great globe spinning far below.

The symbolism was profound. No narrow parochial viewpoint could long survive in such a setting.

From THE LION OF COMARRE by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1949)

It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars.

From THE EXPLORATION OF SPACE Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1951)


There are the various types of government. These can be the governments of continents on a planet, goverments of an entire united planet, or governments of groups of planets. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entries "NEOFEUDALISM" and "THEOCRATIC NEOMEDIEVALISTS".

Needless to say, there is no lack of ambitious individuals who have a burning desire to be the absolute ruler of a nation or empire. This is why the mechanism of succession must be rigidly defined. If for any reason the mechanism does not function properly when a ruler is removed, lots of people die.

For example, if in a monarchy the crown passes to the deceased king's eldest son, a king who has no son will start an instant civil war when the king dies. Anybody who has a driving ambition to be king and some pathetic scrap of a claim to the throne will gather an army and attack all the other claimants. This is why one of the royal duties is to procreate a male heir as soon as possible just in case. And a second son, as a spare.

This also leads to unromantic requirements, such as various officials watching the marriage be consumated in person so they can be legal witnesses. And why the monarchy was so fanatical about the queen being a virgin, otherwise there is some question about the legitimacy of the son to assume the crown and it is suddenly instant civil war time.

A famous example of shaky succession is the War of the Roses. Over thirty years of battles and 50,000 deaths because there was just enough vagueness over who should succeed King Richard II.

When the peasants shout "Long Live The King!" they are not proclaiming niceties to the ruler. They are selfishly hoping to delay the time before a messy dynastic battle comes raging through their backyard. Or as the ancient proverb of the Kikuyu people puts it: "When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers"

Things get rather tense if the queen gives birth to no (live) babies, or worse if there are only daughters. The latter case allows yet another faction to join the bloody civil war: those who say what's wrong with making the eldest daughter a queen? Genetically the "problem" of inability to sire sons is probably the fault of the father, but in medieval times it was Always The Woman's Fault.

This leads to all sorts of dangerous strategies, such as getting the queen secretly impregnated via a male who is not the king but does have male-baby making ability (and hoping nobody discovers the infidelity and the illegitimacy). Or, for instance, breaking away the Church of England from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church just so you can get a divorce from a queen who produces only dead or wrong-gendered babies. Another inhuman strategy is for the king to secretly engineer a tragic fatal accident for the barren queen, in the hopes that the new queen will be a better broodmare. This probably won't work if the problem is a series of girl babies. As previously mentioned the problem there is usually the father, changing the mother is not going to fix that. It will just cause a hideous string of dead queens.

Matrilineality has the advantage of removing legitimacy from the list of problems. Short of genetic testing, there is always a question of whether the child being born was sired by the king or not. But there is no question that the child came from the queen, you can witness whose birth canal the child came out of. Traditionally matrilineal governments do not care who the father was, only the mother matters. But of course such a system is by definition incompatible with patriarchy.


INTERREGNUM, n. The period during which a monarchical country is governed by a warm spot on the cushion of the throne. The experiment of letting the spot grow cold has commonly been attended by most unhappy results from the zeal of many worthy persons to make it warm again.

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

A 'princess' is the term given to the larval phase of the designated reproductive host of a hereditary military dictatorship.

Somehow sounds a lot less aspirational when phrased that way, doesn't it?

From a tweet by Charles Stross (2021)

In representative democratic systems of government, succession is handled by elections. These are sort of legal institutionalized coup d'états. As a political system it has problems, but so do all the others.

Hydraulic State

A hydraulic empire (AKA hydraulic despotism, or water monopoly empire) is where the rulers of the empire maintain control by a monopoly on one or more critical resources. In history the resource was generally water for irrigating the crops. Such empires arise because managing such resources is such a monumental task that it requires central control, which naturally evolves into political control.

In Larry Niven's Destiny's Road the controlling resource is access to vital dietary potassium, a rarity on the colony planet. In Frank Herbert's Dune novels the controlling resource is the spice Melange, which allows faster than light starships.

If the rulers of the empire have no large planetary holdings but have a monopoly on space travel and interstellar trade, the empire is called a Thalassocracy

A common problem is that the rulers of the Hydraulic state make quite sure that their monopoly is absolute, so that all the regions have no alternatives for the resource. Which means if something kills the rulers or otherwise cuts off access to the resource, the regions are in big trouble. The rulers generally are either selfish or short-sighted enough so as to not have any contingency plans. The rulers think that they will always have the resource to offer. Or figure that if they die, then the proletariat has some nerve thinking they deserve to outlive the rulers.

For example, in John Scalzi's novel The Collapsing Empire the interstellar trader megacorporations use The Flow, which is a naturally occuring system of faster-than-light "streams". The traders have a monopoly on interstellar trade.

The Empire is called The Interdependency, because all the colonies are not self-sufficient on purpose. None of the colonies can revolt and split off from the empire because without interstellar importation of vital resources the colony will die. The rulers and the megacorporations planned this to ensure their iron grip on power over the colonies.

Then scientists realize that The Flow is gradually altering to the point where FTL starships won't work any more. All the colonies will be cut off from each other, and there is no way to stop it. OMG we're all gonna die!


"Do you know what a water-monopoly empire is? A lot of early civilizations were water-monopoly empires. Ancient Egypt, ancient China, the Aztecs. Any government that controls irrigation completely is a water empire… See, these water-monopoly empires, they don't collapse. They can rot from within, to the point where a single push from the barbarians outside can topple them. The levels of society lose touch with each other, and when it comes to the crunch, they can't fight. But it takes that push from outside. There's no revolution in a water empire."

"That's a very strong statement."

"Yeah. Do you know how the two-province system works? They used it in China. Say there are two provinces, A and B, and they're both having a famine. What you do is, you look at their records. If Province A has a record of cheating on its taxes or rioting, then you confiscate all the grain in Province A and ship it to B. If the records are about equal you pick at random. The result is that Province B is loyal forever, and Province A is wiped out so you don't worry about it...."

"There's nothing more powerful than controlling everybody's water. A water-control empire can grow so feeble that a single barbarian horde can topple it…"

From A WORLD OUT OF TIME by Larry Niven

"Hydraulic state" is a term coined by Oswald Spengler in "Decline Of The West" to describe the societies of the Eurasian arid zone which were built on massive irrigation systems. By extension to has come to apply to any society which owes its current state of existence to a massive infrastructure.

The outstanding characteristic of hydraulic states is that their existence depends utterly on maintaining this elaborate infrastructure. If that is damaged or destroyed the civilization isn't merely damaged, it collapses. Meanwhile if the infrastructure is maintained such societies tend to be extraordinarily rich and productive.

What this means is that the infrastructure has to be maintained at all costs and in a successful hydraulic state (in the pure form) this is a major consideration in everything, from government to economic policy to military posture to culture. In such states civil war and anarchy are disasters.

A space colony or a Dyson sphere is by its nature a particularly pure form of a hydraulic state. If you maintain the infrastructure it is rich and productive. Seriously damage that infrastructure and nearly everyone dies. The entire society is far more dependent on maintaining the infrastructure than any irrigation empire ever was on Earth.

Under these circumstances there is both a huge incentive (and a strong cultural imperative) to find solutions for social conflicts short of civil war — or even strong disorder. Buying off your dissident elements by helping them build a new colony or a generation ship to go to the next star becomes a heck of a lot more attractive than fighting it out because if you fight both groups are almost certain to lose big-time.

Rick Cook

We remind you of a statement from the Lord Leto which was reported here almost eight generations ago:

"I am the only spectacle remaining in the Empire."

Reverend Mother Syaksa has proposed a theoretical explanation for this trend, a theory which many of us are beginning to share. RM Syaksa attributes to Lord Leto a motive based on the concept of hydraulic despotism. As you know, hydraulic despotism is possible only when a substance or condition upon which life in general absolutely depends can be controlled by a relatively small and centralized force. The concept of hydraulic despotism originated when the flow of irrigation water increased local human populations to a demand level of absolute dependence. When the water was shut off, people died in large numbers.

This phenomenon has been repeated many times in human history, not only with water and the products of arable land, but with hydrocarbon fuels such as petroleum and coal which were controlled through pipelines and other distribution networks. At one time, when distribution of electricity was only through complicated mazes of lines strung across the landscape, even this energy resource fell into the role of a hydraulic-despotism substance.

RM Syaksa proposes that the Lord Leto is building the Empire toward an even greater dependence upon (the drug) melange. It is worth noting that the aging process can be called a disease for which melange is the specific treatment, although not a cure. RM Syaksa proposes that the Lord Leto may even go so far as introducing a new disease which can only be suppressed by melange. Although this may appear farfetched, it should not be discarded out of hand. Stranger things have happened, and we should not overlook the role of syphilis in early human history.

(ed note: the current dependence is that the spice melange is the sine qua non of safe faster-than-light space travel)

From GOD EMPEROR OF DUNE by Frank Herbert (1981)


Of course there is a reverse, in that space living makes establishment of of brutal hydraulic monopolies relatively trivial. Really important to remember that right now, anyone inside a spaceship is actually POOR. Poor as it gets. Not gonna change for a long time. anyone who goes out to space to truly colonize will be "poor" in this way. On a minimum energy, minimum cost mission, each human has JUST enough air/water/food/shelter to accomplish mission.


The assumption at play is that the entity who establishes a Mars colony, be it a government or private corporation, will set the colony up so that its inhabitants are powerless and remain powerless. That the colony-initiating entity will control the food, water, and air and intends to maintain this control. The assumption is not wrong in the sense that this is how space exploration is, at present, but it is wrong in assuming a universal intent for any and all agencies and entities to maintain this absolute control, as a matter of course, forever. To assume this requires an additional leap of logic (one that is sometimes covertly smuggled into the discourse) to assert that this absolute control over inhabitants of a space colony is the end purpose and is the natural outcome and the only possible outcome. People accept this assumption without question (or perhaps without realizing they’ve accepted it) because this is how space exploration, by government space agencies, has been carried out up to this point. Sometimes this is an innocent proposition based on current and past practices, sometimes I think it is not so innocent and represents an intentional effort of fear mongering.

What is the alternative? For sake of argument let’s suppose that a private entity, we’ll call it “Mars Colony Corporation,” MC Corp for short. Let’s propose that MC Corp sets out to recruit entrepreneur’s in the areas of closed-environment greenhouse gardening, livestock farming, vat-grown protein production, ISRU ECLSS systems (water recovery and electrolysis cracking plant technologies) robotic habitat construction, planetary and/or asteroid mining, and let’s propose that these entities and their employee’s are the colonists.

In this case the colonists are not powerless, and the colony-establishing entity does not control all the resources.

I have pointed out previously that this is the sort of scenario Elon Musk is proposing, citing his own thought on the matter here ”Assuming that SpaceX is ultimately successful in getting lots of people to Mars, “big entrepreneurial opportunities” open up, he said. Those opportunities would range from “the first iron ore refinery to the first pizza joint.”

“What SpaceX is trying to do is establish the environment for entrepreneurs on Mars to flourish,” said Musk."

See link here


Hydraulic monopolies are great for writers: instant villains, constraints on the hero, and audience empathy for the underdog. But the overlord would need to conscript the colonists and avoid the sabotage methods described in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. I think in the real world they wouldn't get off the ground.

This was my biggest problem with the Expanse. A venture can afford to build a refinery in the asteroids, run it with people instead of robots, and even let them bring their families … but it can't go the extra half-millimeter to provide normal oxygen levels? That's a very precise level of investment.

I'd expect colonists to demand equity or other significant leverage (voting rights, protection from sponsoring gov't, whatever) before departing. They'd be like homesteaders or European petty nobles: land-rich, cash-poor. If someone tries to take those rights away the bossman will want to keep a pressure-suit handy all the time.


The problem with water-monopoly empires, historically, is that control of the vital resources tended to be backed up by more old-fashioned forms of control.

Namely, inasmuch as all the riverworks, aqueducts, and wells around here belong to Gilgamesh, the folly of any attempt to step outside of the Gilgameshian water-monopoly by building your own infrastructure or finding alternative sources will be explained to your heirs and bystanders by Big Gil's brute squad.

This is a strategy that works pretty well in pretech societies in which the professional warrior class can act with impunity, but less so the less impunity they have.

There's also the strategy of convincing people that they need a centralized monopoly to look after task X for them. (Which is obviously very familiar to me, given my inclinations — inasmuch as it's isomorphic to the arguments, tediously familiar to every libertarian, that there is literally no possible third option in between "government-run roads-or-whatever" and "no roads-or-whatever at all ", which I shall not waste time repeating here. Consult your friendly local political flamewar for details.)

This latter is why we're most likely to end up with brutal hydraulic monopolies, in my opinion, because as everyone from Loki to Terry Pratchett has observed, humans tend to be distressingly flexible about the knees (if you are strong and charismatic, if you tell the masses to bow down to you, an alarmingly large number of them will). But it ain't exactly a law of nature — and it depends on the sanction of the victim. You've got to talk the people you're doing it to, or at least the majority of them, into letting you do it.

Another note that I think is peculiarly relevant to the space case, of course, is that hydraulic despotisms depend on infrastructure that is both centrally controlled, and also actually centralized, so that people can't just walk away taking their bit of the infrastructure with them.

If you are building colony-sized life support systems, not just dinky transport pods, it should not escape your notice that this is the diametric opposite of good engineering practice designed to ensure that single or closely grouped points of failure don't get everyone in the colony killed.

Which is to say: at an architectural level, a despotism and a deathtrap look very similar, and are both easily distinguishable from good design, methinks.

And one would hope that anyone with the independence of mind to go colonize space (and the brains not to open both doors of the airlock at the same time) is going to learn to notice that sort of thing.


Muad Dib: “The people who can destroy a thing, they control it.”

Space colony: "It takes a lot of training to keep the twelve-year-olds from accidentally destroying the life support system."


Karl Gallagher, Y'know, I've seen that said a few times, and it always gives me a flashback to certain critiques of The Cold Equations .


Coroner: "Wait, wait, wait. So you're saying that you had these incredibly delicate life support systems that everyone depended on , and you didn't so much as put a childproof lock on the door to that compartment?"

Survivor: "Um... yes?"

Coroner: " Okay , then. We're done here. Mr. Secretary, record my verdict as 'deaths by reason of stupidity above and beyond the call'."



I will point out some kids just treat those things as amusing toys.



Ah, good question. That's just it — it wouldn't be a hydraulic empire. For a large station, I'm imagining it being more like a condo. Stations have sections and sections are controlled by some form of polity, a faction. All the equipment necessary for survival is contained within that section. Each section beyond that is also self-supporting, just like owners in a condo — the owner pays the note on his mortgage and nobody else in the community needs to help him on that. Of course, condos have areas of common responsibility and expense. When the organization becomes dysfunctional, that sort of stuff deteriorates. And then you can end up with the situation of individual units held onto by owners as the rest of the neighborhood deteriorates.

Now you may ask "Why would a station be built with so much redundancy in the first place?" And that would be precisely to avoid the situation of a hydraulic empire as you state. Say three factions come together to build a trading station in neutral territory. The expense is greater than any individual power can afford so they split the cost. The station is constructed. Each faction has territory on the station that they own in the clear. Furthermore, those sections are self-supporting for all essentials because they wish to avoid the chance of anyone cutting them off from the station's grid. But because there are common needs of the station, all three pay towards the maintenance of the structure and what elements cannot be easily triplicated. On paper this operations company may be considered independent and neutral with personnel drawn from all three factions or maybe from third parties. But you can well imagine how things on such a station could become dysfunctional in time.

From comments to TRANSPORT NEXUS

Nomadic Empire

A Nomadic Empire is a non-sedentary polity, i.e., the bulk of the citizens are of no fixed address. Such empires are sometimes called a Khanate. The main real-world historical example is the Mongol Empire

From a galactic empire standpoint, the main advantage is the system is scaleable. It avoids the "empire grown too huge to govern" problem since functionally a nomad empire is a mild form of swarm intelligence. Hordes that are part of the empire can operate without central control. The main problem is ensuring that the various hordes maintain their allegiance to the Khan of the empire.

In some cases the hordes live in clan ships.


      THE HOT F6 DWARF that was Kandemir’s sun lay about 175 light-years from Vorlak, northwards and clockwise. Although its third planet was some what heavier than Earth, the intense irradiation had thinned and dried the atmosphere. Even so, a man who took precautions against ultra-violet could live on Kandemir and eat most of the food.

     History there had taken an unusual course. Vast fertile plains fostered the growth on one continent of a nomadic society which conquered the sedentary peoples. This was not like cases on Earth when barbaric wanderers overran a civilization. On Kandemir, the nomads were the higher culture, those who invented animal domestication, writing, super-tribal government, and machine technology. The cities became mere appendages where helots laboured at the tasks such as mining which could not move with the seasons. When the nomads learned how to cross Kandemir’s small shallow oceans, their way of life soon dominated the world. Warfare and economic competition between their hordes spurred the advent of an industrial revolution. But gunpowder, steam engines, and mass production shifted the balance. Nomad society could not readily assimilate them; it developed strains. A century ago, Kandemir had become as chaotic as the last years of Earth. Then (interstellar) explorers from T’sjuda came upon it and began to trade (among other things, the secret of building FTL starships).

     Numerous Kandemirians went to space as students, workers, and mercenary soldiers—for T'sjuda, like Xo and some other powers, was not above occasional imperialism on backward planets. The Kandemirians returned home with new ideas for revitalizing their old culture. Under Ashchiza the Great, the Erzhuat Horde forced unification on Kandemir and launched a feverish programme of modernization; but one adapted to nomadism. The cybernetic machine replaced the helot, the spaceship replaced the wagon, the clans became the crews of distinct fleets. Soon Kandemirian merchants and adventurers swarmed through space. Yet their tradition bound them to the mother world, where they returned for those seasonal rites of kinship that corresponded in them to a religion. Thus the Grand Lord remained able to command their allegiance.

     As time passed, their habits (which others interpreted as cruelty, arrogance, and greed) brought them ever more often into conflict with primitive races. These were easy prey. But this, increasingly, caused trouble with advanced worlds such as T’sjuda, who had staked out claims of their own. Action and reaction spiraled into open battle on the space frontiers. Defeated at first, Kandemir rallied so violently that its enemies asked for terms. The peace settlement was harsh; in effect, the one-time teachers of the nomads became their vassals.

     The little empire which thus more or less happened in the time of Ashchiza’s son began to grow more rapidly under his grandson Ferzhakan. Decentralized and flexible, nomadic overlordship was well suited to the needs of interstellar government; the empire worked. For glory, wealth, and protection—most especially to gain the elbow room which Kandemirian civilization required in ever greater quantities, for space traffic as well as for the gigantic planetary estates of its chieftains—the empire must expand. Ferzhakan dreamed of ultimate hegemony over this entire spiral arm.

     His policy soon brought an opposing coalition into existence. This was dominated by the Vorlakka Dragar, who also had far-flung interests. The nomad fleet was stopped at the Battle of Gresh. But that fight was a draw. Neither side could make further headway. The war settled down to years of raids, advances and retreats, flareups and stalemates, throughout the space between the two planets. Well off to one side, (planet) Monwaing and her daughters maintained what was officially an armed neutrality, in practice an assistance and encouragement of Vorlak. The other independent, space-travelling races in the cluster were too weak to make much difference.

From AFTER DOOMSDAY by Poul Anderson (1961)


There are some kinds of unorthodox interstellar empires where the rulers do not live on planets. Instead they live in orbit, and control planet dwellers by virtue of the military advantage of the gravity gauge, and by a monopoly on interstellar trade. This is called a Thalassocracy, from an ancient term for a seaborne empire.

Sometimes the monopoly is by the Thalassocracy the sole owner of transport starships, planet dwellers have to contract the Thalasso-starships if they want to ship anything interstellar.

Sometimes the monopoly is by the Thalassocracy having a monopoly on the manufacture and sale of interstellar FTL propulsion units. The technical details about the units are top secret. In SPI's game Freedom in the Galaxy all stardrives are built by the Empire, and contain a thermonuclear booby-trap to discourage attempts at reverse-engineering. The empire takes its monopoly on stardrives very seriously.


In fact, it’s so difficult and expensive that, once you’re in space, it might make more sense to just stay there.

Landing on alien planets might not be worth doing unless you plan to settle there permanently. Instead, you could wander through space, harvesting all the resources you need from asteroids and comets and perhaps smaller planetoids like the Moon.

That brings us to the world of ancient thalassocracies. Thalassocracies are empires of the sea, as opposed to traditional land empires. The word is Greek for “rule of the seas.”

Well known examples include the Phoenicians, Athenians, and Carthaginians. The British Empire might also be described as a thalassocracy, except the British controlled a lot of land in addition to most of the world’s waterways.

Traditional thalassocracies possessed enormous navies. They rarely bothered waging war on land, preferring instead to exert their military power through piracy, naval blockades, and near unrivaled dominance of maritime trade routes.

I’m guessing that space-faring societies will end up behaving more like ancient thalassocracies than modern nation-states. This might be especially true for space-faring civilizations still early in their development and still struggling with the high costs of takeoffs and landings.

(ed note: I'm thinking this would also apply to mobile asteroid bubble space habitats who threw their weight around. They would have an advantage over planet-based civilizations since the thalassocrats are at the top of the gravity gauge. Thalassocracies can be examples of hydraulic states if they control access to spaceflight and interstellar trade.)

From SCIENCY WORDS: THALASSOCRACY by James Pailly (2015)

(ed note: discussion of Bussard ramjets omitted. The ramjets would be mounted on space habitats to make generation starships. He does believe in the now discredited idea that the magnetic field of a Bussard Ramjet can instantly kill all life on Terra.)

Now that we have the ships let us deal with the warriors and their society. If we assume one system trying to rule another, we have to have some reason for the society to send its sons across many light years (and more real years) to overcome the people of another. Aliens will have their own, alien reasons for doing this. As for humans, idealism, power-lust, need for resources, flight from disaster, or the desire to keep the status quo may cause interstellar invasions.

For instance, the citizens of nearby inhabitable stars hear that the residents of Sol System are going to erect a Dyson Sphere around their system to trap as much energy as possible. This troubles the nearby colonists, who fear that the power produced may go into a blackmailing gamma-ray laser which could reach across interstellar distances to nova suns. An armada is gathered...

The inhabitants of these systems would have some trouble manning their fleets, however. For while relativity would keep the voyager younger than his compatriots back home, you're still spending decades away from home. Hopefully there will be enough Idealists, Militarists, Patriots, and Tourists to man the fleet.

As for an occupation army, you could manage it as long as it was as much a colonization effort as an army. The settler/soldiers, in the midst of an unfriendly land, would tend to be more loyal to the homeland than to the conquered system, but matters would not remain so forever. Eventually they'd feel themselves to be members of the conquered system, and their loyalty would shift to themselves.

The situation may be helped by doubling or tripling the human life span, and thus encouraging a slowly-progressing society at home which could be left for thirty years and still be easily acclimatized to on return.

Nevertheless, an interstellar empire of any size using these methods will not be large, if only due to time lag. If a successful revolt occurred on a colony planet 10 light years away from the fuling system, it would take the rulers 10 years to hear about it and 10 years to send a punitive expedition. This gives the revolting system 20 years at the least to prepare for the counter attack.

Even if systemic rule is difficult or impossible, it may be that rule by a starship people may not be so difficult. Robert Silverberg and Poul Anderson have both written of a people who live out their lives in their ships, carrying the interstellar trade, and seeing many civilizations rise and fall as relativity slows their aging. Such a people could control interstellar trade and, if they wished, even the immediate space around the system.

If they controlled interplanetary space they'd control the planets within it, for shooting up against the pull of gravity is much more difficult than shooting down. Even a planet with no big cities to nuke is vulnerable. All the ship people have to do is turn on their ramfield, and every animal (living on the planet that is more highly evoloved than a) paramecium dies.

(ed note: it is no longer thought that Bussard ramjet fields can kill a planet. But being at the top of the gravity gauge is still quite the decisive military advantage.)

Using the resources of one system a ship people can build another fleet of their tribe, and send it out to conquer another system.

Their deployment in a system would have a star-ship and several systemic spaceships orbiting every inhabited planet, several military starships and systemic spaceships farther out as safeguards in case a revolt should destroy the guard ships, and, yet further out, the home ships of the tribe with escorts. If a successful revolt should occur, these would head for friendlier territory controlled by relatives or allies. As one successful revolt could spark others, they'd probably send forces.

The rule of a star tribe would necessarily be light, as cultural differences and the difficulty of maintaining a garrison on those dirty, disease-ridden, overgravitied planets would work against tight rule. They'd encourage the development of spatial resources and interstellar trade, which they would control the transportation for. Some systems could maintain a precarious independence, but on the whole I see little to stop the star tribes from expanding over the Galaxy. Each ship-family and each little tribe would have a very stable culture (as in Heinlein's "Citizen of the Galaxy") so that a trading voyage by a family will not doom it to the difficulties of culture lag. Eventually all human space (and beyond) would be ruled by many tribes of one people who would certainly have to cooperate with each other against the Flatlanders, the Fraki (Heinlein's Citizens of the Galaxy), the Groundhogs who would certainly attempt in places to overthrow their hold.

From INTERSTELLAR WAR by Scott Rusch, The Space Game issue #5 (1976)

(ed note: Protagonist Michael Trehearne knew since he was a child that he didn't fit in. He had no idea that his ancestry was not strictly terrestrial. He attempts to trace his family tree and winds up in Brittany. At the festival of Midsummer, he encounters some people who seem to share his ancestry.

As it turns out, they ain't from Terra. Aldebaran, actually.

They are Vardda, a race of star travelers. As a matter of fact, Michael has some Vardda blood in his family tree. The result of a one-night stand near Brittany about a century ago. The thing about Vardda, they alone can survive the stress of FTL starship travel. All other people die hideously in a few minutes. )

     Trehearne’s throat was strangely tight. He stammered in his speech, finding it difficult to breathe. “Star-flight? An alien race coming and going on Earth—and all this in secret, no one knows of it?”
     Edri laughed. “Oh, billions of people know about it, from Cygnus to Hercules. We Vardda trade openly between the star-worlds of the galaxy for we’ve an unbreakable monopoly on interstellar flight.
     “You mean you’ve conquered all those stars and worlds?”
     Edri snorted. “That’s your Earth war-obsession talking. War is not only backward, it’s damned unprofitable. We Vardda aren’t conquerors, we’re merchant-adventurers.”
     He added patiently, “It’s this way—there are hundreds of inhabited star-worlds. They’re most of them civilized and proudly independent. We Vardda rule our own world but no other.
     “But we have something the other star-worlds don’t have. We’ve got a monopoly on interstellar travel for certain reasons. We Vardda and we alone can travel and trade between the galaxy’s worlds—the richest monopoly of all time!

(ed note: And obviously the planet-bound people do not like the Vardda very much. Even the Earth people of Brittany think the Vardda are devil's-spawn, and they don't even know about the Vardda monopoly.)

     “But if you come and go like that, why not openly to Earth?”
     Edri shrugged. “You can’t trade profitably with worlds still in their war-ridden phase. Such worlds we prefer to visit secretly. Your Earth is one of them.”
     Shairn broke in. “It’s true, Michael! We keep Vardda agents here secretly to gather from Earth whatever of value its civilization produces. We’ve done that for several centuries.”

     Shairn said, “It’s quite simple, Michael. Controlled hereditary mutation, altering slightly the form and structure of the body cells so that they have enormous resistance to pressure and vibration. The other races of the galaxy are tied by their human weakness to their own solar systems—only the Vardda have the freedom of the stars!
     “Then,” said Trehearne, “if the mutation had not bred true in me I would have died.”

     “It's quite true, then—about the mutation?”
     “Oh, yes, quite. The form and structure of your body cells, and mine, are different from other people's. Due to that altered form and structure, your tissues, and mine, possess a tensile strength in their cell-walls that can withstand incredible acceleration pressure without collapse. And I hope you never know how lucky you were that the mutation was a recessive gene that finally bred true in you.” He filled the glasses again, slowly, withdrawn for a moment into some brooding thought of his own. Then he added somberly, “Some day I'll tell you the story of Orthis, who found the secret of the mutation. And a grand proud story it is, but with a shameful ending. He... No. Forget it. The less you know about that, the better. Besides, we're celebrating. Drink up.”

     “I know it must have, but I don't believe it.” Trehearne shook his head. “Of all the incredible... What were you doing there, Edri? How can you come and go on Earth without anyone knowing? What are the Vardda, besides—well, mutants?”
     “Traders. Merchants. The most commercial race in the galaxy.” Edri lifted the cover off a tray on a small table by the bunk. “I brought your breakfast. Go ahead and eat while I gabble. How we come and go is fairly simple. We land at odd intervals, here and there in the waste spaces of which Earth has a number. We do our business, and after a while are picked up again. As I told you before, we're exceedingly careful, and the fact that hardly anyone on Earth would believe the truth if they were told it is a protection. Of course, trading in secret that way, we're limited in what we can take, and Earth exports—the genuine articles and not mere copies—command very high prices. You'd be amazed at the value of French perfumes, Scotch whiskey, and American films on planets you never heard of.”
     “Do you trade with them all in secret?”
     “Good Lord, no! Most worlds, even the very primitive ones, we can deal with quite openly. They might not like us, but they benefit enormously from our commerce.”
     “Then why not Earth?”
     “Well,” said Edri, “I don't like to offend your sensibilities as a native of the place, but Earth is a crazy planet. Oh, it's not the only one. There's a number of them scattered about, and we avoid open contact with all of them. You see, Trehearne, most worlds develop, or remain undeveloped, more or less homogeneously in the matter of civilization. I don't mean they're entirely peaceful, because they're not, but in the long run their populations are more predictable, more stable than on the Earth-type worlds that have grown up all out of joint. You know what I mean—on one side of the world atomic power, on the other the wooden plough and the blowgun. Too big a gap, and it makes trouble all down the line. Now, a primitive society regards war as a sport and takes an honest pleasure in it. A society in a high state of culture regards it as something outgrown and obsolete as hunting game for food. Everybody knows where they are. But when you get a world with great big overlapping mobs of population, every one of them in a different stage of cultural development and every one of them subject to a constant bombardment of outside stimuli they can't assimilate, you have got a mixture that keeps exploding in all directions. We have a healthy desire not to get blown up, and besides, it's impossible to establish any profitable trade with a world continually torn by wars. So—does that answer your question?”
     “I take it,” Trehearne said sourly, “that the Vardda don't think much of Earth.”
     “It's a good world. It'll settle down some day. Nobody can fight forever. They either knock themselves back into barbarism again, or they grow up.”
     Trehearne put down the fork on the empty plate, and looked at Edri, rather angrily. “Don't the Vardda ever fight?” he demanded. “I gather there's a vast commercial empire. There must be trade wars, battles over markets and rights. No empire was ever built without them.”
     “No other empire was ever built,” said Edri quietly, “without any competition. I think you still don't quite understand. We have an absolute, complete, and unbreakable monopoly on interstellar flight. Only the Vardda ships go between the stars, and only the Vardda men can fly them. You know the reason, you proved it in yourself. We don't have to fight.”
     Trehearne let go a long, low whistle. “And we thought we had monopolies on Earth! But I don't see why, if you could mutate, others couldn't do it, too. How do you hold them down?”
     “We don't hold anybody down. We don't rule, influence, or interfere with any world but our own. We learned long ago that it was bad business. As to the mutation, it's impossible. The secret of the process was lost with Orthis, some thousand years ago.
     Trehearne took one and lit it. He sat for some time in silence, remembering. He remembered most clearly Kernel’s angry threat. He asked, “What did Kernel mean by Vardda law ? What will they do with me when we reach Llyrdis ?”
     Edri looked worried. “I wish to Heaven I knew.”
     “What can they do? I’m a Vardda. I’ve proved it.”
     “Ye-es,” Edri agreed dubiously. “Actually, you’re all Vardda, a complete atavism. But legally—”

     He began again. “You see, the law Kerrel referred to is a prohibition against admitting non-Vardda strains of any kind. Cross-breeding is forbidden under penalty of death, is the one unbreakable law. Keeping the Vardda blood pure isn’t just pride, it’s an economic necessity.
     “Then that was true about the mutation?”
     Edri nodded. “It's the foundation upon which the Vardda monopoly is built. No one else can fly at interstellar speeds and live, so we are the only species of Galactic Man, holding the stars in our two hands.
     “A star-flight monopoly of the galaxy, built on a simple mutation in body-cells!

     “Yes,” said Edri. “Simple—but fundamental. Tissues having a certain cellular structure possess a tensile strength in their cell-walls that can withstand incredible acceleration-pressure without collapse. You’re lucky that the mutation was a recessive that finally bred true in you.”
     He paused, then added somberly, “So, Trehearne, though actually Vardda, you’re legally not one. It will be up to the Council. I have no influence there but Shairn has some.”

     Now he faced Kerrel and said, “I asked Edri a question, and he referred me to you. So I'll ask it again. Why would the Vardda Council be afraid to accept me?”
     Kerrel put his hands on the back of a chair and thought a minute. “You understand the Vardda position among all the other races of the galaxy.”
     “Yes. And I don't see how I could possibly alter it.”
     “Then your understanding isn't complete. There are many worlds in space, Trehearne. Countless millions of people live on them. Do you know how they feel about us?”
     “I hadn't thought.”
     “They hate us. They envy us. It's natural enough. They're prisoned in their own solar systems, forced to watch strangers carry on all their commerce with other stars. But natural or not, it's a factor we have to reckon with.”
     Trehearne said impatiently, “What can they do about it? They can't mutate, and they can't even try to force you to share the process with them. The thing was lost a thousand years ago. You're safe.”
     “There are still Orthists.”
     “Who are they?”
     Kerrel looked mildly surprised. “I thought Edri would have told you. No? But you have, of course, heard of Orthis, the discoverer of the mutational process. He was a great man, Trehearne. A brilliant man, a genius, the founder of our race. But he was not a practical man. He lived alone too much in space, worked alone too long in his laboratory-ship. He didn't know human beings, he didn't understand the hard grimy necessities of life, the law of self-preservation. He wanted to give the mutation—and the freedom of the stars—to everyone.”
     “Orthis,” Kerrel said, “was not able to see what, fortunately, others did see—that giving the mutation to all the races of the galaxy would mean wars and conflicts of such staggering dimensions that whole solar systems, including ours, might very well be destroyed. He clung stubbornly to his views and eventually fled from Llyrdis in defiance of the government, determined to have his own way. He was pursued, of course, and driven away from his objective, so that his attempt failed, but he was never captured. He vanished far out on the rim of the galaxy, and the process went with him. And that's where the trouble is, Trehearne. Some time later Orthis sent back a certain message, which gave his adherents hope that his ship had not been destroyed, that it was, in fact, waiting somewhere to be found again, and the process with it. Now, after a thousand years, they still hope.”
     Trehearne shook his head. “I certainly can't tell them where the ship is. So how does it affect me?”
     “Don't you see how you could be used? An alien, a mongrel, but able to fly the stars—the effect on the Orthist movement would be tremendous, and not only on Llyrdis. People all over the galaxy, wanting what we have, would take you up as a symbol of what they consider their emancipation. I have a lively imagination, but it balks at trying to conceive all the trouble that could breed out of that situation.”

     He stepped out onto the open dock, and the full roaring, thundering impact of the biggest spaceport in the galaxy hit him like an explosion.
     Row upon row, and on all sides, the towering docks stretched to the end of his seeing and beyond. Ships lay in most of them, recumbent monsters taking their ease, while men and machines in vast numbers and great complexity waited on their needs. The ringing air was heavy with smells, strange spices and subtle unidentifiable things mingling with the reek of oil and hot metal, cargoes of unimagined riches from unimaginable worlds. Trehearne stood, feeling the tremendous pulse beat through him, hardly aware for the moment that Edri was trying to steer him to a kiosk at the end of the dock, or that the young Vardda was amused at his wide-eyed astonishment.
     In endless hordes, men swarmed upon the looming hulls and went busily along the docks, testing, checking, guiding and managing the machines. They were not Vardda men. They were men from the other worlds, who could not fly the stars (There are seven planets in the Vardda solar system with different alien species. They can use slower-than-light spaceships). A lot of them—and here Trehearne's eyes opened even wider, because even though he had been told, seeing is another thing—were not at all what he would have called human. But in spite of their strangeness, they seemed familiar. They were like any of the cheerful, hard-handed, competent men to be seen around any port of Earth, serving the ships and the planes. The incessant noise was deafening. Gigantic cranes moved ponderously on their tracks, shifting cargoes between strings of carriers and the gaping holds. Small trams weaved in and out of the confusion. At intervals between the docks were lines of shops, where atomic-powered forges shaped new parts, new plates and housings. Here a crew worked on a hull with flaring welders, and there a great bow section was lowered slowly into place with an ear-shattering clang.
     Edri's voice reached him, thin and faint. “Big business, Trehearne. The biggest in the galaxy. Impressive, isn't it?”

     Resplendent in black and silver supplied for him out of Edri's wardrobe, free, accepted, and with a future ahead, Trehearne walked the streets of the city, drunk with color and sound and movement, dazed with the incredible size and the utter strangeness of the greatest metropolis in the galaxy. It surged magnificently, crowded, thriving, beautiful, drenched in the wealth and inventiveness of a thousand far-flung cultures, Mecca for all the peoples of Aldebaran's seven inhabited planets. And its beauty was honest. There were no dark and evil places hidden behind the splendid buildings, no slums, no poverty, no ugliness. The Vardda had traveled widely, and seen much, and they had learned from others. From a vantage point given to no other people in history, they had studied and compared the inceptions, growths, and collapses of more empires, races, and cultures than a man could count in a year, and the work still went on under the direction of their best minds, correlating and compiling, examining causes and evolving from the mass of evidence ways and means to keep the Vardda empire healthy. They had managed well for a thousand years, and Trehearne felt a tremendous admiration for them, laboring as they did under the extra handicap of an essentially inbred society. Their government was elective, and they kept it clean. Their laws were relatively few and simple, and they were obeyed. They oppressed nobody, and saw to it that their non-Vardda neighbors benefited heavily from the Vardda trade.
     “It's not at all,” Edri had told him once, “that we're so much more bloody noble than anybody else. Matter of fact, we're probably unrivalled in our basic selfishness. It's good business, you see. Keep everybody as happy as possible, deal as fairly as you can, make 'em all rich, and you don't have trouble, which is bad for trade. The non-Vardda races may not love us, but they're not inclined to try getting along without us. As for domestic politics and administration, it's simple self-preservation to keep them sound. We're not Utopians, to use one of your favorite Earthly terms, we just try to make sense.”
     Looking at the city, Trehearne thought they had done a remarkably good job. Actually, few of the Vardda were urbanites. Llyrdis was essentially a world of estates and small communities. The Vardda sociologists had not been blind to that final corrosive stage of civilization that Spengler called Megalopolis. The city was not a place in which great mobs of people spent their lives. It was a clearing house, a warehouse, an office, a factory, devoted entirely to business. The population was chiefly non-Vardda, and they only stayed there during their employment. Their homes were on their own worlds. They inhabited the city without being trapped in it.

     He knew that Joris must have supplied the books and he was glad to get them. The trade codes, like laws anywhere, were pretty dull stuff and interesting only because of the fantastically broad field they dealt with. The manuals were better, because they were full of references to alien and frequently non-human races, with fascinating glimpses into the damndest customs and psychologies Trehearne had ever heard of. But the history held him spellbound.
     It began with a foreword on what the Vardda had been like in the millenniums before Orthis, when they were simply the people of Llyrdis. It seemed to Trehearne that they were not too different from the people of Earth. They had had their ages of barbarism and change and growth, and their homogeneity had not been achieved without pain. However, they had achieved it, and at an earlier period in their world-culture than that in which his native planet now was. He thought perhaps the task had been easier for the Llyrdians because there were fewer geographic barriers to the free mingling of peoples in their nomadic phase. The oceans were landlocked and the mountain ranges were broken by traversable passes. No primitive tribe had grown to statehood in even partial isolation, and the cultural streams had flowed strongly in all directions, losing their narrow intensity and broadening out into what eventually became one universal lake. It made for dullness in the world picture, perhaps, because of a sameness in dress and language and custom, but it was steady, and it led to a conception of the individual as a world-citizen instead of a nationalist, which cut down rapidly on wars. Scientific progress seemed to have gone on with only normal hitches, without any Dark Ages to set it back, and at a time when the people of Earth were sunk in their blackest pit of ignorance since the Stone Age, Llyrdis had atomic power, an established commerce with her neighbor planets, and was building and launching the first starship, which brought the history to its initial chapter, and Orthis.

     “It is difficult for us now to realize what the first epic flight of man between the suns was like...”

     Not as it was now, swift and easy, far outrunning the velocity of light. Science had the techniques even then to build and power the fast ships, but they were useless. Man could not survive the ultra-speeds. They had to go as they went between the planets, slowly. Four generations lived and died within the close confines of that first feeble forerunner of the Vardda fleets, men and women dedicated in themselves and their children to the conquest of the greatest barrier humanity had ever crossed and they crossed it. Slowly, painfully, exposed to all the dangers of unknown radiations and unexplored, uncharted wilderness in its most ultimate sense, exposed to the most terrible loneliness and isolation that living beings had ever endured, they toiled their way to a landing on the world of another star and then—and this, to Trehearne, seemed the most incredible bravery of all—they took off again for Llyrdis, which to this intermediate generation was only a name and a tradition, and which they knew they would never live to see. Orthis was born during this return voyage, twenty-two years out from the planet he was taught to regard as home, though he had no knowledge of planets, nor of any life except that of the ship that moved apparently forever through the night of deep space. His ears must have been attuned only to that outer silence, his sight to the darkness and the far-off stars. To wind and rain, to sunlight and warm grass, to beasts and birds and the faces of many people, he was a stranger.
     And a stranger he remained. “He could not endure to be planet-bound, after living all his life in space. He built his laboratory ship and worked in it, cruising where he wished and almost alone, for another fifteen years. Then, when he was thirty-seven, he announced his discovery—the birth of Galactic Man, the inception of the Vardda.
     “Orthis refused to give to anyone the whole secret of his mutational process, believing that it was too dangerous in inexpert hands. He himself constructed the apparatus and used it, sowing with his own hands the seed of the Vardda race that would flower in the next generation. An at that time, he was revered by the people of Llyrdis almost as a demigod. But within the next year the troubles arose that almost split the Llyrdian State, and brought Orthis eventually into disgrace. He had given his discovery first to his own people, and now...”
     Trehearne read with the most intense interest, trying to pry between the stiff factual lines for whatever force it was that made men like Edri fly in the face of their own best interests. Orthis had no intention of limiting the Vardda race to his own world. He would share his mutational process with the other planets of Aldebaran, and eventually with the star-worlds the original expedition had visited, and which were highly civilized. He wished them all to share in the great new future of star-travel—they and all races that might be discovered in the galaxy with sufficiently high culture-levels to be worthy of it. But when this became known to the embryo Starmen it started a most violent reaction. All sorts of objections were raised, ranging from the selfish but, to Trehearne, quite sensible argument that the Llyrdians had the best right to the mutation, having taken all the chances and done all the work, and therefore they should keep it, at least for a while, to the solemn threat of war on a galactic scale. “Remember,” said the President of the Council, “how we helped the more backward worlds of our own solar system to achieve interplanetary flight, and how they repaid us. Remember the wars we have already fought! Let us take thought before we scatter this great power broadcast among the stars.”
     They took thought, and in spite of the impassioned arguments of Orthis and his followers they would not be hurried into a decision. The situation became so tense that Orthis' laboratory ship was sealed and impounded, and Orthis himself placed under virtual arrest. The battle in the Council Hall dragged on for years, and from the accounts it seemed to Trehearne that those fathers of the Vardda-to-be had not acted entirely from a selfish desire to hang on to a good thing. They were faced with a tremendous problem for which there was no precedent, nothing to go on but their own thoughts and feelings. Some of the Council members—the Llyrdian Congressmen—were obviously motivated by sheer hard-headed self-interest. But there were others who tried honestly to be just, and justice to their own people came first. They were afraid to share the mutation, and the control of it, with anyone. They were afraid to throw open all the unknown doors of space onto Aldebaran. The Orthists were defeated.
     Then came the end, the dramatic fireworks. The Orthist party arranged an escape for their leader. They helped him get his ship away. They saw him off Into the dark void beyond the sky, and they thought that after all he would be victorious. But by this time the new Vardda race had begun to flourish, and some of them were old enough, just barely, to fly. They went out after Orthis, believing intensely in their own right, as he believed in his. Orthis himself was undoubtedly able to endure ultra-speeds, for it was a long and bitter chase. The new young Vardda partially disabled his ship, but even so he managed to elude them. There was no ultra-wave radar or radio in those days, and after all, the old man had cut his teeth on the stars. They lost him, and that was the end, of Orthis and his ship—all except the message in the drifting life-skiff that was picked up more than a century later (‘You have not destroyed me. The peoples of the Galaxy will yet be given the freedom of the stars.’). And Trehearne thought, “Whether he was right or not, Orthis was the hell and all of man!”

From THE STARMEN by Leigh Brackett (1952)

(ed note: About two hundred years before the novel starts Terra used FTL starships equipped with the Godspeed Drive to establish a couple of hundred interstellar colonies. They set up a thalassocracy, a hydraulic state where the hydraulics they had a monopoly over was starships. And ensured that the colonies were not self-sufficient so they needed interstellar trade to survive.

Then one fine day the starships stopped working.

This was the start of the Isolation. The planet Erin sort of survives since it was more self-sufficient than most. Other colonies probably totally died out but nobody on Erin knows. And even Erin has problems, lack of certain trace elements have altered development such that the average age of puberty is about 18 years old. And increasing.)

“You know, Jay, I’ve thought a lot since we left Erin. About space, sure, but about Erin, too, and what we are. I used to think of the Isolation as some sort of pure accident, something that couldn't have been prevented. Now, I'm not so sure. I don’t think that humanity before the Isolation was just one big happy family. Maybe at one time, during the early, sublight colonization. But then I think that the people who developed the Godspeed Drive came to regard themselves as special, superior to planetary colonists and settlers. The Godspeed Drive was so powerful, it made them feel like gods themselves and they wanted to keep it that way. They left the colonies ignorant. And we’ve stayed ignorant. They placed their supply and maintenance facilities deep in space. No one on Erin knew how the drive worked. No one knew that Paddy ’s Fortune even existed. No one would know it today, if Paddy Enderton had gone overboard that night on Lake Sheelin.”

“You think the people with the Godspeed Drive stopped coming to the Forty Worlds on purpose?”

“Oh, no. That wasn’t planned. I'm sure there was a monstrous accident, a catastrophe of some kind. But Erin wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in today if the group who controlled the Drive hadn’t wanted to feel superior. It's a story as old as history, from water control to drug prescription to access to space: The people with the treasure want to keep the keys of the treasure-house to themselves. What they never dream is that one day they might not be around to use them. So they don’t plan for that."

From GODSPEED by Charles Sheffield (1993)

Macro Life

Macro Life is not a government so much as it is the next stage of societal evolution. It shares some similar qualities to a hive entity, but is not quite so drastic. It can however function as a sort of government for certain space nations, which is why I stuck it here.

The concept comes from Dandridge Cole, who was inspired by an article by Isaac Asimov titled Beyond the Phyla. Cole defined Macro Life as "life squared per cell", by which he means "Macro Life is to Man what Man is to the Cell".

In science fiction, Macro Life appears to be a huge space colony with a rocket engine. Sort of a cross between an asteroid bubble and a generation starship. But that is missing the point. The "Macro Life" part is the society living inside the asteroid.

Below is Asimov's essay that inspired Cole, and Cole's Macro Life essay. Asimov's essay is from Astounding/Analog Science Fact & Fiction, July 1960. Cole's essay is from an AAS presentation called "The Social And Political Implications of the Ultimate Human Society". This was later reprinted in a two-part article in the September and October 1961 Space World magazine.

You can find more than you want to know about Macro Life in George Zebrowski's epic eponymous series. It is interesting to compare and contrast Zebrowski's book with Alexei Panshin's RITE OF PASSAGE.

Please note that while in science fiction Macrolife is always associated with a mobile asteroid colony, that does not necessarily have to be the case. One could have a Macrolife organism living on a planet, or a Macrolife organism composed of a multitude of planet based settlements linked by an FTL radio or something. Scifi writers like to use mobile asteroid colonies so they can make cute analogies of the colony being akin to a giant one-celled organism. The colony travels to a fresh star system and reproduces: harvesting raw materials, building more colonies, and populating the new colonies with disaffected citizens who want to leave. The scifi writer smugly points out that the macrolife asteroid colony thus fulfills all the necessary attributes to qualify as a living organism.


      And so man is the lord of the universe and —
     Where do we go from here?

     It is possible to imagine a bigger and better man, a “superman,” but that need not be the answer. Bigger and better dinosaurs just ended in extinction. Bulk alone is not everything. Neither is brainpower alone.
     Actually, multicellularity may be played out. It may be that the multicellular organism has reached its limit. There has been no new phylum of organisms established in perhaps 600,000,000 years. Within the phylum of Chordata—the last-established—there has been no new class established in at least 250,000,000 years. Within the class of Mammalia—the most advanced of the chordates—nothing better than the placental mammal has been established in 100,000,000 years.
     The great experiments may be over. What we are now facing is merely a refinement and a re-refinement of existing experiments.

     But all this has happened once before.
     A billion years ago, one-celled life had reached its peak. After many victories, such as the discovery of food storage and of photosynthesis, cells reached their limits. Evolution came to a dead end, or would have but for an entirely new breakthrough. Cells developed into cell colonies and then into multicellular organisms.
     Now multicellularity has reached its dead end, too. Is there room for a new breakthrough? Can there be, once again, a new combination to a higher order of creature, a multi-organismic being. Such a combination must be more than merely physical, since physical combination would just make a larger multicellular organism. (In fact, the physical combination of organisms was tried, after a fashion, with the invention of segmentation. It was an advance but not nearly as fundamental a one as multicellularity.)

     Fortunately, we have examples of nonphysical combinations of multicellular organisms.
     Many varieties of creatures herd together in groups that act with a certain primitive co-ordination. They move together, feed together. If one is frightened, all flee. They may even combine for protection against a common enemy—though generally they merely nm and devil take the hindmost. Or they may combine to hunt prey and then, often, quarrel over the spoils.
     Such herds, or packs, or schools are the equivalent of cell colonies on the cellular level. Although it may be convenient for groups to keep together, it is not vital. Each individual in the herd can, if necessary, survive on its own.
     We must look for something more than that.

     In my last article, I used one main criterion to distinguish between a multicellular organism and a mere cell colony. In a multicellular organism, individual cells become so specialized that they can no longer live independently and the component cells are subordinated to the group to the point where only group-consciousness exists.
     No group of organisms display these characteristics to the full, but there are signs of beginnings. The clearest cases are among the phylum, Arthropoda, and in its most advanced and most recently established class—Insecta, the insects.
     The three main groups of “social insects” are the bees, the ants—both belonging to the order, Hymenoptera—and the termites—belonging to the order, Isoptera. All three display specializations among constituent organisms just as multicellular organisms display specializations among constituent cells. In the case of termites, the specializations go so far as to make life impossible for certain individuals outside the society—one of the hallmarks of a true multi-organismic creature. The termite queen cannot live without her attendants. Termite soldiers have mandibles so large they cannot feed themselves. They must be fed by workers.

     Furthermore, such societies are more advanced than any individual organism, not only of their own type but of any type. A society of even primitive individuals can beat even a very advanced individual who happens to be on his own. When the army ants go marching, there is only one way the big-game hunter—elephant-gun and all—can save himself. He has to get out of the way, and fast.
     There is a classic story called “Leiningen and the Ants” which tells of a plantation owner who found his land in the way of a marching column of army ants and decided to stand his ground and fight. Leiningen was a most superior individual, brave, resourceful, intelligent and he fought like a demon. He managed just barely to get out of the fight with his life.
     You might think the odds were terrific—millions of ants against one human—but you’d be wrong. The odds were exactly even numerically; one man versus one ant society.
     To be sure, lots of individual ants were killed but that didn’t affect the ant-society. Leiningen lost skin and blood, trillions of his individual cells, but he recovered and did not feel the loss.

     Outside the class of insects and the phylum of arthropods, there is only one example of a society that begins to be more than an organism-colony. That is, of course, the human society. It includes specialized individuals—not physically specialized, to be sure, but mentally specialized. Some of them are so specialized they cannot live outside the society—and there is the hallmark again.
     I, for instance, am city-bred and have lived—with moderate success as part of a complex society all my life. I eat only too well, alas, but I cannot raise food; I have no experience in gathering food, I cannot even cook. I drive a car, but do not even know how to lift the hood. I own a house, but cannot repair any part of it. I watch television and use a number of appliances, including an electric typewriter, but am helpless in the face of electrical wiring.
     Without the continuing and intensive help of other members of the human society, I would not survive long. Alone on Robinson Crusoe’s island, I could only hope for a quick death in preference to a slow one. I think there are millions like me.

     But now what is it that holds a society together; a true society where the component individual is willing to die for the good of the society. In the case of the insects, it is something we call “instinct” a compulsive, robot-like behavior that deprives the individual insect of choice of action. The individual insect is not only willing to die for the group, he cannot do anything else.
     But what holds together a human society? Certainly not instinct. The nearest thing we have to an instinct in the matter is one which says, “To hell with the others. Cut and run.” Often, this instinct is obeyed. The surprising thing is that often it is not obeyed.
     I said earlier that intelligence was not enough in itself. Obviously, if it is joined to other qualities that are disadvantageous, extinction will follow. An intelligent animal that is too limited in the climate it can tolerate, or the food it can eat, or the parasites it can resist, is not going to succeed. The elephant and the great apes are examples of intelligent failures.
     But when the first man-ape rose to his hind legs what made him a success when the gorilla was and is a failure?

     I say that for hundreds of thousands of years, the early ape-men were on the borderline of failure. It was the crucial breakthrough of the formation of a tribal society that really set him on the road to mastery. Not merely packs, mind you, after the fashion of baboons, but a true society in which the whole was something more than the sum of the parts.
     What made this possible, it seems to me, was the development of a means of communication that was complex enough and flexible enough to express abstract ideas—to be something more than a mere squeal of fright or a simple warning cry.
     By means of such communication—peculiar, as far as we know, to Homo-sapiens—the amassed learning of one generation could be passed on to another. A young man absorbed in his youth what had taken an old man all his life to learn, and then the young man went on to learn more on his own. A new and larger body of knowledge was passed on to the generation after.
     But with learning from the old came a reverence for the old; a new feeling that only human beings could have—tradition.
     “This is the way things are done; this is the way things have always been done; this is the way our ancestors said it should be done; and because their spirits watch us and must not be angered, this is the way things must and will be done.”
     There is no use belaboring the point. We all know the power of tradition. It will hold a society together almost as firmly as instinct will. Call it “duty” or “patriotism” or “altruism” and any one of us can bring himself or herself to the point where he or she will give up individual life for the good of the group—which might be a small one called the family, a larger one called the nation, or a still larger one called mankind.
     And if it was oral communication that launched the tribe and the first cultures; it was written communication that launched the cities and the first civilizations.

     But are the city and the ant-hill the final expression of the multi-organismic being? It seems to me most certainly not. Both are only at the beginnings of society-potential.
     The insect societies have succeeded, much more than has the human society, in physically specializing their members and in generalizing consciousness from the individual to the society. However, their method of doing this has cost them flexibility. Each individual insect in the society may make only the most limited responses to given stimuli (keeping in mind that you can do a heck of a lot with limited response to given stimuli).
     The human society has specialized far less and has retained far more of individuality, but it has compensated for that by retaining a most successful flexibility.
     The next step, it seems to me, would be the combination of the two—a society which combines an insect-like consciousness of the whole with a humanlike flexibility.

     What type of organism, then, will attain this next major step in evolution?
     To answer the question, let’s look at the overall record of evolution so far. All through evolutionary history, it seems, once a particular type of organism has made a major advance, it is a sub-type of that type and then a sub-subtype of that sub-type that makes the next major advances. There is no coming from behind in evolution.
     In other words, once the chordates are evolved and by dint of internal skeletons prove to be clearly more in control of the environment than are the mollusks, the die is cast. Further evolution merely increases the lead of chordates generally over mollusks generally. In the same way, land chordates increased their lead over sea chordates, mammals increased their lead over reptiles and humans over nonhumans. No group, having once relinquished the lead, ever gave rise to descendants that regained the lead.
     Thus, at the phylum level. Chordata and Arthropoda are clearly in first and second place, respectively, from the moment of first clear-cut development half a billion years ago or so, and have never relinquished those positions. They are less in danger of relinquishing the lead now, in fact, than they have ever been before ; a lead that is so secure that no new phyla have even been tried ever since the rise of the Chordates.
     Both phyla are divided into classes. Within Chordata, Mammalia lead all other classes. Within Arthropoda, Insecta lead all other classes. The mammals and insects have been increasing their lead ever since their first clear-cut development and are in less danger of losing it than ever before.
     This process continues, as shown in the accompanying figure, where the arrows do not indicate lines of descent but only the direction of increasing control of the environment. An underlining of a group of organisms symbolizes “dead end.”
     On the past record, then, it would seem that the next step would have to be taken by subdivisions of the “winners” of the last step; subdivisions, in other words, which are descendants either of the social insects or of man.

     Now it seems to me that insects must be ruled out In the first place, the insect societies are clearly in second place to human-society as far as control of environment is concerned and there is no coming from behind in evolution. (Remember I don’t say that insects may not out-survive man despite this.) Secondly, they are already too specialized and too inflexible to reverse their ground and gain the necessary flexibility for a higher multi-organismic society. In evolution, specialization is invariably a one-way street and moves only in the direction of more specialization.
     The only possible ancestor of the multi-organismic society, then, is man who is, physically, a relatively unspecialized animal except for his brain; and mentally, thanks to his relatively poor supply of instincts, is equally unspecialized.

     The possibility that man will be the ancestor of the multi-organismic society is strengthened by the fact that he represents, for the first time in evolutionary history, an organism which is consciously aware of the competition of other organisms and will surely make a special effort to wipe out any new group which threatens his own overall superiority. Superchimpanzees, unless overwhelmingly superior from the first, will almost certainly be erased as soon as they are recognized for what they are barring some individuals retained for scientific observation.
     So it might seem that eventually, a family of human beings that are joined together on a nonphysical level—psi forces?—into a multi-organismic society may be established—or, for all most of us know, has been. If they are not recognized for what they are too early, they will take over. In this magazine—which, for one thing, published the unforgettable “Slan”—there is no necessity to beat that particular drum.

     A more classic device for evolution is to suppose man to be divided into groups which are completely separated geographically, so that the gradual summing of mutations produces separate species no longer capable of interbreeding. One such new species may then develop the multi-organismic society and will then be to the remaining species as man is to the other mammals—or, perhaps, as man is to the amoeba.
     Of course, on Earth there is no longer any chance for a complete geographic separation of any group of men and women over a period long enough to make that work, barring a devastating nuclear war that leaves only remnants of survivors and a completely disintegrated technology.
     However, the time may be coming when colonies will be established on worlds other than Earth, on worlds outside the Solar system, perhaps. “Geographic” isolation may then be possible. Men venturing out into space may be like the crossopterygian fish venturing out onto land. They leave as experimenters and end as victors.

     It is, of course, repugnant to a human individual at the present stage of his development to think of himself as a mere unit in a multi-organismic society, without will of his own and, whenever necessary, liable to be sacrificed, cold-bloodedly, to the overall good.
     But is that the way it will be? It’s extremely difficult to imagine what being a part of a multi-organismic society will be like but suppose we consider the analogous situation of cells in a multicellular organism.
     Component cells cannot five apart from the organism, but within that organism they maintain themselves as biochemical units. They produce their own enzymes, conduct their own reactions, have membranes that separate them from their fellows, grow and reproduce on their own in many cases.
     In a multi-organismic society, the individual may well retain a good deal of mental and physical independence. He may think for himself and have his own individuality; and also be part of the greater whole.

     As for being sacrificed cold-bloodedly—not unless it were necessary. Skin cells die as a matter of course while the organism lives, but Americans die as a matter of course while the nation lives. Other cells may die on occasion for the good of the whole, but even in our own imperfect society, so must policemen, firemen and soldiers.
     We do not allow our cells to be killed for no reason. Thanks to a sensation known as “pain” we take good care of our component cells and would not as much as endure a scratch or a pin-prick if we could avoid it. A multiorganismic society would be as careful of its components and would undoubtedly feel something akin to pain at any harm to its components.

     And then there would be a positive gain. In passing from a cell to a group of cells, it becomes possible for the cell-totality to appreciate abstract beauties such as those of a symphony or of a mathematical equation that the cells separately could never conceive of. There may be the cellular equivalent of these beauties in the waverings of a water current or in the engulfing of a tiny organic fragment, but who can argue that a man does not achieve a more exalted rapport with the universe than an amoeba can. Or what man can imagine that the individual cells of his body—which must share somehow in the complexity of his relations to the universe—would rather return to being just so many amoebas?
     And, by analogy, who knows what unimaginable sensations, what new levels of knowledge, what infinite insights into the universe will become possible for a multi-organismic society. Surely there will be something then that will compare with a symphony as heard by a man, as that symphony compares with a wavering water current as felt by an amoeba.

From BEYOND THE PHYLA by Isaac Asimov (1960)

(ed note: Keep in mind that when this was being written in 1960, NASA's Project Mercury was winding down and Project Gemini was just getting started)

      In a sense society can be said to be pregnant with a mutant creature which will be at the same time an extraterrestrial colony of human beings and a new large scale life form.

     This concept of a new life form which I call Macro Life and Isaac Asimov calls “multiorganismic life” serves as a convenient shorthand whereby the whole collection of social, political, and biological problems facing the future space colonist may be represented with two-word symbols. It also communicates quickly an appreciation for the similar problems which are rapidly descending on the whole human race.

     Macro Life can be defined as “life squared per cell.” or more particularly as "multicellular life squared per cell." Taking man as representative of multicelled life we can say that man is the mean proportional between Macro Life and the cell, or Macro Life is to man as man is to the cell.

     Macro Life is a new life form of gigantic size which has for its cells, individual human beings, plants, animals, and machines.

     It is not too difficult to see that the members of an extraterrestrial colony will have to function as a closely knit team in order to survive. This cooperation and interdependence will not be just a haphazard marriage of convenience but at carefully-planned, optimized integration which can be all least suggested by the harmonious mutual efforts of the members of a symphony orchestra. It should therefore be apparent that the colony will take on many of the aspects of a true independent life form.

     Imagine for example, at colony of some 10,000 people living on at 50,000 to 100,000 ton space ship (a space Queen Mary). This vehicle or Macro Life creature can move — with rocket propulsion; it can grow — given a food supply in the form of natural resources from the asteroids and elsewhere; it can respond to stimuli received through its optical and electronic sensing devices; it can think with the brain cells of its human colony and its electronic computers, and finally, it can reproduce. The asexual reproduction or mitosis of Macro Life would be the result of construction, by human directed machines, of a complete new vehicle structure or exoskeleton — as you wish — and duplication of the human, animal and plant cells by normal biological reproduction. If we assume a period of say, fifty years, for the doubling of the human population, then it would be necessary to construct at complete new vehicle during that period.

     In every respect except possibly that of size this synthetic product of our civilization fits our current picture of what constitutes a life form. And size limit has never been part of a definition of life.

     Thus the ultimate human society is, in a sense, not it society at all but the next major step in evolution — a new level in the organization of living matter for more efficient transformation of energy, a new form of life as far advanced over human life as man is advanced beyond the single cell.

     Students of evolution may be led to speculate concerning the next step beyond the present highest form of life which is generally agreed to be man. It has usually been concluded that the next step would be in the same line of development which led to man, and perhaps as much above man in mental ability us the chimpanzee is below him. Thus we might imagine at superman who has, at over two or three years of age, the mental ability comparable to that of the most brilliant human beings in their prime. As the superman matured he would presumably develop powers far above anything of which we are capable — powers that we could no more comprehend than could a chimpanzee understand our ability to develop higher mathematics.

     While no one can prove that the emergence of such a superman is impossible. there are a number of reasons for believing that the next step in evolution will he a major organizational advance rather than a mere refinement in a type already at peak development. If a new mutant lifeform is about to appear it will be Macro Life rather than superman. Our great problems are social and political. not individual. We need an improved society, not a new form of man.

     The population explosion, or biodetonation, and the nuclear bomb, present life on earth with the greatest challenge it has faced in the last few million years. The rapid increase in numbers of the highest life form, one of the most direct and obvious expressions of racial purpose, will necessarily come to a halt because of vanishing living space, and may end in complete futility in a war of extermination, unless man can achieve sufficient understanding of himself and society to take his peaceful and useful place us a component of Macro Life.

     The rising curve of destructive capability when extrapolated only a short time into the future shows a serious threat to the continued supremacy of man and even to the existence of life on earth. A further refinement of the humanoid line of development would seem an inadequate response to a challenge of this magnitude.

     Before arguing for the replacement of social man or Macro Life by superman we should examine man's limitations and the possible advantages of a superior humanoid. What are the limitations of man, not as an individual but as part of the Macro Life team? It is difficult to conceive of anything which is physically possible which could not eventually be accomplished by the Macro being.

     One example of a possible superior power or class of powers often ascribed to superman is the psychic or paramental ability. With these magical powers superman will be able to communicate with his kind — telepathy; control the motion of material objects — psychokinesis; and move himself through space at will — teleportation. It is argued that these powers would help superman meet the challenges of nuclear energy, space travel, etc., and that they would represent a major advance over the feeble powers of homo sapiens. Anti yet the proof offered for the possible existence of such powers is that certain members of the species homo sapiens have exhibited them!

     If psychic powers are part of the real world then I think that homo sapiens, individually or collectively, will learn to master them. But whether real or imaginary, the Macro being could get along quite well without them.

     How much better is mental telepathy than radio? If any supposed advantages can be demonstrated then we will eventually learn to duplicate synthetically what nature has done through evolution. If one brain can receive messages from another, we will eventually learn to build receivers and transmitters with the same capabilities.

     If teleportation is possible, homo sapiens will learn to do it, probably with the aid of mechanical devices. If it is not possible, we may still approach these intriguing capabilities by developing the slightly more plausible matter transmitter.

     In short, there appears to be no theoretical basis for distinguishing between the future limitations on man his technology on the one hand, and his evolution on the other. Both may accomplish anything of which we can conceive and may accomplish much which we cannot now conceive. The only possible difference in limitations which appear are those which may be introduced by man himself. A superman may not appear for the simple reason that homo sapiens will not permit it!

     Asimov points out that no new phylum of organisms has been established in perhaps 600,000,000 years. Within the last phylum established — the chordata — there has been no new class established in at least 250,000,000 years. And within the most advanced class — the Mammalia — nothing higher than the placental mammal has appeared in 100,000,000 years. it may be that multicelled life has run out of possibilities for improvement, and that it is time for a new major organizational advance.

     It is difficult to define life except in a very loose way by listing properties generally exhibited by what we agree are living things. However, life seems to be associated with exceedingly complex combinations of matter. Extreme complexity is at necessary condition of life although it is not a sufficient condition. The complexity of a dead human body may be very much higher than that of a living snail.

     Organic chemicals in general are more complex forms than the inorganic molecules. And among organic forms the must complex is the protein molecule. And the protein molecule is generally assumed to be a necessary ingredient of life.

     While inorganic crystals growing in a solution of the proper concentration show most of the properties of life, we do not ordinarily class them as living creatures. The main difference between them and organic life is in their level of complexity. This general advance in the complexity of the organization of matter has continued since the beginning of the universe. It has pursued its inexorable course through the elaboration of the chemical elements, to the giant organic molecules, to single-celled and multicelled life, to man and finally to Macro Life.

     The first recognizable step in the organization of energy and matter was that from pure energy to the sub atomic particles.

     The second step in organization and in time was the combination of sub-atomic particles into atoms.

     After all possible stable atomic forms had been produced and the temperature of the primordial gas had dropped sufficiently, the next level of organization — atoms to molecules — began. This third step covered an enormous range of complexity from the simplest diatomic molecules to the giant protein molecules that form the basis for life.

     The fourth step, from molecule to single-celled life includes the grey area of the unimolecular viruses. Are they cells or molecules? Are they living creatures or lifeless chemicals? It is of consequence here, only that they are a further step in the organization of matter into more complex structures permitting more versatile behavior.

     Step Five is that from single-celled life to multicelled life. And this took place only after countless varieties of single-celled life had been developed and many experiments in loosely organized cell colonies had been tried.

     In every previous step the highest developments at a given level are used as the units upon which the next organizational level is erected. For example, the molecule reaches its highest organizational state when it uses as its basic unit, the most versatile combining form, the carbon atom. Likewise, some cells exhibited the versatility and adaptability to give up some of their individuality and specialize. The specialized cells could become part of a permanent colony or multicellular organism, but in so doing lost the freedom to live as hermits or isolated individuals.

     While the most perfect example of Macro Life which can he expected in the near future is the extraterrestrial colony or the giant space ship, other varieties will soon appear on earth. In general these preliminary and experimental steps toward the new category of life forms will lack the ability to move and will probably not be completely self-sustaining because of the ease of resupply from elsewhere on earth. Also, they will not have the ability to reproduce unless special provision is made for this function.

     While almost any isolated group of human beings has some of the attributes of the new life form, it is only in some very recent or near future developments that we begin to see the emergence of a new super entity.

     Transition forms between the loose colony and the deep space variety of Macro Life (which might be called Astro Life) are: the nuclear submarines, the Antarctic bases, the space simulators under study or development at several defense plants, the underground missile bases, and possible future underwater and underground bases which might be made more completely self sufficient for civil defense and research purposes.

     Space simulators have been studied at Martin and General Electric and at other government and industrial laboratories. Work at General Electric on closed ecological systems has produced a water recycling system which was recently used in a test of a full week's duration.

     It is now widely accepted that we must begin the task of learning how to live beyond the atmosphere rather than wait for the development of the big booster vehicles that will carry men to the moon. Waiting until transportation is available before starting studies of closed environments would cause unacceptable delays of several years. Thus, we can expect small simulated moon bases to he set up on earth during the next five years. (this was written in 1960, and did not come to pass)

     The crews of underground missile bases must receive the same elaborate protection as the missiles in their charge, if the bases are to have deterrent and retaliatory value. Protection against blast, heat, radiation, chemical, and biological weapons requires that the crews live in seated underground quarters with adequate provisions for spending the duration of the all-out war in isolation.

     Crews of nuclear submarines must also be prepared to spend considerable periods in complete isolation from the rest of mankind. There have already been cases where submarines remained submerged for as long as two months. Presumably, this time could be extended if necessary.

     Interest is growing rapidly in various aspects of oceanographic research on a wide variety of problems. The House Science and Astronautics Committee has called for a vastly expanded national effort in oceanography to meet the Soviet submarine threat, and to exploit the untapped resources of the sea. A need has been identified for “open ocean manned research platforms” which are stable and can remain in place so that time studies can be made. Considerable interest has developed in new types of research submarines and advanced underwater vehicles.

     A possible version of the underwater base could be somewhat similar in construction to the space simulator. That is, it might be a pressurized sphere or cylinder some thirty or forty feet in diameter. The structure could be made almost entirely of transparent plastic for maximum visibility, or of steel with numerous windows. It would be desirable to have a large opening in the bottom to permit entrance and exit of laboratory personnel using Scuba, and possibly of tame dolphins as well!

     If the bottom of the sphere is to be open, then the inside pressure must equal the pressure of the water at the depth of the opening. A reasonable compromise might be about fifty feet from the opening to the water surface. This would mean an internal pressure of twenty-five psi and a differential pressure at the top of about fifteen psi.

     The sphere would be divided into compartments according to functions, and would contain living quarters, laboratories. dining and recreation areas, etc. Hydroponic farms might be included if it was decided to operate the base as a closed and balanced ecological system (in reality, the creation of a closed ecological life support system has proven to be such a difficult problem that as of 2021 we still haven't figured out how to do it).

     Besides the scientific and military reasons for building underwater bases there is also to be considered the value of such a base for civil defense.

     It is generally assumed that the population could be adequately protected during all-out war by providing them with temporary blast and fallout shelters. Presumably a family or larger group after spending perhaps a week in such a shelter would emerge and return to their normal pursuits so rudely interrupted by the war. Unfortunately this common picture is far from the truth. If an all out nuclear war should be fought in say 1970, the survivors would emerge from their shelters to find themselves on an alien planet almost as inhospitable as the moon and perhaps even more inimical to life than Mars.

     During the short period of nuclear devastation, most of the above ground structures in the country would have been destroyed by blast or fire. Fire storms would have swept the country unchecked and destroyed practically all vegetation. All unprotected animal life would die from acute anoxia brought on by the fire storm, if not killed more quickly by blast, heat, or nuclear radiation.

     While the background radiation might fall below the danger point for acute radiation sickness in some areas in a few days or weeks it would represent a danger of chronic sickness for years. The danger of bone cancer, leukemia, etc. would be too great to permit a return to normal earth life for a very long time.

     In fact, it would be necessary for the survivors to live and grow their food in scaled shelters just as though they were on the moon.

     While it would not be practical to move the entire population of the U.S. underground in, say, the next ten years, it would be feasible to build temporary shelters which could house the population in the critical period during and following an attack. Also, a one year supply of food could be stored in the shelters and the necessary tools and equipment for building permanent shelters. In particular, large quantities of transparent plastic would be required for construction of airtight domes to cover living areas. Also, stores of seeds for all varieties of useful plants and trees would be essential.

     Research should be intensified on the problems of storing the fertilized eggs of fish and birds in suspended animation. We should also intensify our efforts toward learning how to raise the mammalian zygote artificially.

     An important fraction of an adequate national civil defense program should be devoted to the construction of a number of “Noah's Arks" permanently staffed with volunteer colonies. These “Arks” unlike other civil defense shelters would he completely equipped for an indefinitely long existence in complete isolation from the rest of the world. They would be a close approximation of Macro Life with all the capabilities for independent existence, growth, and reproduction of a true life form.

     The Arks could be constructed underground in natural caves or artificial excavations, underwater in fixed bases, or possibly in nuclear submarines. A large nuclear submarine adapted from a military vehicle or constructed specifically for this purpose, could become almost as good an example of Macro Life as the extraterrestrial colony although it would be dependent on a supply of nuclear energy rather than sunlight.

     The “Ark” should have a population of several thousand people plus the necessary plants and animals to provide a completely adequate and balanced diet. The underground colony should obtain energy for growing food, powering its tools, etc., from sunlight conducted from the surface through optical systems, nuclear reactors, or both. It should provide the requirements for work, education, and recreation normally available the surface.

     There are several obvious sources for populating these underground civil defense laboratories. One source was the “fanatic” religious group of the type which has already tried to set up such colonies on its own initiative. Such groups should receive encouragement and help in setting up a really worthwhile experiment in civil defense and sociology rather than the ridicule and opposition to their halfway measures which has been typical to date.

     Another and probably better source would be a government sponsored university for qualified students who could not otherwise attend college. The experiment would be more useful if a rather large percentage of the students were married couples. In addition. it would be desirable to select the faculty primarily from those who were not only married and had children but who both had at least one skill essential to the health of the colony. (For example, the wife of the college professor might herself be a teacher either in college, high school or grammar school.)

     Subterranean or submarine Macro Life could make two essential contributions to a realistic civil defense effort. It could provide insurance that at least a small nucleus of life and western civilization would survive and be prepared to begin the reconstruction of the country and it would provide a pattern for the survival of the rest of the population. Mere survival of human beings is not enough, anymore than survival of certain specialized body cells after an accident is sufficient to insure survival of a human being. All the vital organs must survive as well as major fractions of less vital parts such as skin, bone, etc.

     Modern society has moved too far along the path of evolution to expect its survival after a major cataclysm if only unorganized humans are protected. Machines, plants, animals, raw materials, and particularly knowledge must also be protected through the acute attack phase and for many years afterward. Each Macro Life unit should have as at part of its memory the Library of Congress reduced to microfilm. it should have supplies of all the basic tools and machines, and should have representatives of all the major professions, science and engineering specialties, and trades. Some of this could be handled by duplication of function since an expert in one field could also be a master of a second and work it as a hobby. A professor of history. for example, might enjoy gardening and make an important contribution to the colony food supply.

     Besides the primary functions of insuring the survival of at viable nucleus of society and in serving as a model for the survival of a much larger fraction of society, subterranean or submarine Macro Life would serve as a model of an extraterrestrial colony, would be an excellent laboratory for much needed sociological and political research, and fill an oft stated need for federal aid to higher education.

     In summary, it is proposed that in recognizing civil defense as a major aspect of the modern defense problem, that the government extend its policy of maintaining service academies into this new cold and hot war discipline. These civil defense academies (and there should be more than one) should be established underwater or underground in isolated areas far removed from military targets. They should have the capability for operating as closed and balanced ecological systems although they would not necessarily maintain this discipline continuously. There would be no need to exclude normal luxury items during peacetime just so the capability for providing all essentials from within the the colony itself was always held on “15 minute alert“.

     These civil defense forms of Macro Life could have all the major attributes of life exhibited by Astro Life itself except possibly that of motion, and even this might be provided in the submarine form. However, they would not have the independence of Macro Life and would always he under the control of the parent state. While they would have the inherent capability for growth and reproduction they would not normally be allowed to exercise these functions except in the unlikely event of war.

     The resemblance of an extraterrestrial colony to a living being might have some academic interest whether or not such colonies ever become it reality. However, our history and our present behavior both point to the early establishment of such colonies.

     The reasons for establishing space colonies go back to the two basic cosmic reactions which have apparently passed their critical points and are now in the detonation phase. These are the detonation of life or “biodetonation” in the form of uncontrolled human population growth, and “sophidetonation” or the explosion of knowledge. The latter term, derived from the Greek “sophia” for skill or knowledge rather than “sophos"—wise, represents an even greater threat to society than the population explosion, and is increasing at a much greater rate. This is fairly obvious since the expanding population is putting an increasing percentage of its effort into the acquisition of knowledge and is developing greater skill in this acquisition. Society is also just beginning to realize that the statement “knowledge is power” is literally true and that the “armament race" is just one aspect of the “knowledge race”.

     Population pressure and the drive for new knowledge are two of the primary reasons for space bases and colonies. A third reason, a consequence of the explosion of knowledge is the military need to avoid obsolescence of retaliatory armaments and to push constantly for decreased base vulnerability and increased warning time.

     The above reasons can be considered good reasons only if space bases can be constructed at reasonable cost. But sophidetonation and the corollary increase in technological skill can be expected to reduce costs at a very rapid rate. Increase in propulsion system performance, increase in space vehicle size, and recoverability will reduce space transportation costs to the level of present intercontinental air travel costs in twenty to thirty years. This may seem more plausible if we note that the actual velocity change required for a round trip to the Antipodes by ballistic is 52,000 feet per second (15.8 km/s) while the total for a round trip to surface of the moon is only 53,000 feet per second (16.2 km/s). While many many technical problems remain to solved and while I do not mean to minimize the difficulty of manned space flights, the energy requirements been greatly exaggerated. Theoretically an airplane could accelerate to orbital speed and altitude while burning less fuel than is now required a jet airplane of the same weight payload to halfway around the earth!

     Early development work has already started on systems which should reduce the cost per pound transported to orbit to less than one hundred dollars by 1970. With systems which look reasonable on paper this cost could be down to ten dollars per pound by 1975 and one dollar or less by 1980. (somewhat optimistic. As I write this in 2021, SpaceX charges about $590 per pound)

     Now on the other side of the coin is the cost of the payload itself. If payload is a rocket propellant for a deep space vehicle, it may cost less than a dollar per pound, thus there will be incentive to reduce transportation costs to this level. However, most space payloads will have a much higher value approaching several thousand dollars per pound for complex electronic hardware.

     The payload usually considered to be of the highest value is the human pilot and crew. However, they are not necessarily of any greater economic value to society than the electronic equipment.

     Suppose that a space pilot makes average of $25,000 per year for forty years (about $220,000 in 2021 dollars). Then one convenient measure of his value to society would be the product of these two numbers — one million dollars. If he happens to weigh 166 pounds, he is worth about $6,000.00 per pound. While this is a high price, it is of the same order of cost as some of our electronic equipment and also some of that high priced drugs.

     Applying this yardstick to Astro Life we may note that the human cells are not of uniquely high cost and cannot be distinguished in this way from some other vital organs or parts. However, the combined value of a colony of 10,000 humans in an Astro being would have an economic value of perhaps ten billion dollars and might exceed the entire remaining cost of the vehicle.

     Thus we can expect space transportation costs which now run close to initial high priced payload costs per pound, to drop down to values approximating initial propellant costs within the next twenty to thirty years. When this cost reduction has occurred it will be no more expensive for a family to emigrate to Mars or the asteroid belt than it now is to emigrate to Australia. By this time also, sophidetonation will have provided us with all the knowledge necessary to live comfortably almost anywhere in the solar system, and the emergence of true Astro Life will he technically and economically feasible.

Social and Political Significance

     The social and political implications of such basic alterations in our society as have been pictured here could not fail to be of major significance. Whole books could be written describing the nature of future societies resulting from the trends described earlier. Orwell's “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and Huxley’s “Brave New World” are good examples of what might be done in this field. However, at this time we intend only to make a preliminary survey indicating some of the most basic problems which can be expected to arise with the birth of Macro Life in space and on the earth.

     Some of the preliminary forms of Macro Life such as the subterranean and submarine civil defense colonies could appear in the next five to ten years. Initial space colonies may appear in ten to twenty years. True Astro Life will probably appear in twenty to forty years.

     During this period life on earth will take on more and more of the characteristics of the space colony and Macro Life, whether or not the fear of nuclear destruction drives large segments of the population underground. The population density of the whole earth will be at the maximum level represented by the efficient space colony in no more than a few hundred years and possibly less than one hundred.

     There is a rather strong implication in the preceding sections that the very high density, highly integrated and efficient society of the future must necessarily have a tyrannical rather than democratic form of government.

     Macro Life exemplifies the ultimate society. But we recognise this as a vehicle and a vehicle implies a captain with absolute authority over passengers and crew. It is generally agreed that the close knit, interdependent society of a ship or a military base could not function effectively with any form of government but a tyranny in the original sense of the word. A democratic government of a ship or a space colony would presumably lead to indecisiveness, confusion, and unacceptable hazard.

     However, this is not necessarily the case. We must become more efficient in our social, political, and technological operations as our living space on earth implodes around us and we attempt the colonization of interplanetary space. But increased efficiency does not automatically mean a necessity for relinquishing our basic freedoms. We will lose some of the freedoms we now enjoy, we could lose all of them, but we need not lose our most highly prized freedoms, if we make an effort to retain them.

     Our great danger is that we will fail to recognize present trends toward tyranny and will be only half conscious of the slow erosion of our most precious freedoms. The great pressures forcing our society into a more dense and more rigid ultimate form raise doubts as to the ability of the average man to govern himself, and give those seeking power the opportunity to steal a little more from the sleeping public.

     In order to have some hope of retaining any of our freedoms, we must do several things and do them soon. We must first of all define and elucidate what it is we want to preserve. We must compare our desires with present realities and future problems. We must order our desires according to preference. We must observe and analyze possible conflicts between freedoms. And we must determine the cost of preserving the most prized freedoms in terms of material welfare, danger to the survival of the race, and loss of conflicting freedoms.

     No one would claim that our existing society is perfect or that ours is the best possible form of government in all respects. In evaluating our present treasure of freedom and investigating possible dangers we should not ignore the possibility for improving our government and increasing some of the freedoms we already enjoy. Possibly new techniques of operations analysis could he employed to maximize our freedoms in certain areas and minimize government control.


  • The population explosion cannot be halted or even slowed down by talking about it, “educating the masses," or appealing to individual restraint. As a major factor in the global power struggle,it can no more he stopped than the armameut race, until the power struggle itself is ended. (Cole did not foresee the Demographic Transition)

  • The explosive growth of population and knowledge which will soon reach the chain reaction or detonation point will force the crystallization of society into permanent highly integrated structures constituting new super life forms.

  • Macro Life represents an “ultimate" or end form of human society, since further change will then be mere refinement of the Macro Being. Once the basic crystallization pattern has been found, growth, reproduction, and minor refinements are the only possibilities for change.

  • Much of our freedom and the cherished “sanctity of the individual" will be lost in this social molding process unless we make a supreme effort to first define our main objectives and then to attain them regardless of sacrifice of minor interests.

  • A nuclear war in 1970 would wipe out modern civilization and possibly all life on earth unless special efforts are made to protect both life and society.

  • Survival of individual non organized humans will not insure survival of society. Survival of body cells after severe injury does not insure survival of the whole body. Even survival of the germ cells is not sufficieut for rebirth unless elaborate provision is made for their nurture and protection.

  • Manned underwater bases are suggested for oceanographic and Naval research, submarine early warning, underwater defense, and research on the nature and problems of Macro Life.

  • Civil Defense Academics are suggested as underwater or underground survival colonies and research bases.

  • Space transportation costs will drop rapidly to the point where colonization of the planets will be economically feasible in twenty to forty years. These colonies will be early examples of the completely integrated ultimale society toward which all of our civilization is evolving. In the space colony we will have the opportunity to solve in small scale pilot models the fundamental human problems of our age and set the pattern for our ultimate social form. If we are aware of the full significance of the pattern which we select, then we can intelligently, objectively, and freely determine our social destiny in response to our most basic needs and desires.

by Dandrige Cole (1960)

      Let me begin by coining an uneuphonious word—spome —and defining it.
     A spome is any system, substantially closed with respect to matter, that is capable of supporting human life for an indefinitely long period of time.
     The earth is a spome and, at present, is the only spome known to exist. Its qualifications for spomehood are obvious. It has supported human life for Well over a million years, if we count the hominids generally, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, barring the effects of man’s own willful folly.
     Furthermore, it is substantially closed with respect to matter. The matter that is added in the form of meteoroid in-fall or lost in the form of atmospheric leakage is not significant. It does not affect earth’s spomic characteristics, nor is it likely to in the foreseeable future.
     But a spome cannot be closed with respect to energy.
     Life is a process whereby relatively unorganized components of the environment are made more organized. That means that life involves a continuing decrease of entropy and can exist only at the expense of a continuing, and even greater, increase of entropy in the environment generally.
     If the earth were closed with respect to energy, mankind, and life generally, would see to it that in a relatively short time, enough oxygen and organic matter would be degraded to carbon dioxide and other wastes to render the earth uninhabitable.
     The energy of the sun makes all the difference. It enters the earth system, keeps the atmosphere stirred up and the oceans liquid; it makes the rain fall; and most important, solar energy is utilized by green plants to reconvert carbon dioxide and water into organic substances and free oxygen.
     The entropy of the environment, pushed upward by the activities of life, is pushed downward again by the energy of the sun. An equilibrium has been maintained for some billions of years at the expense of the vastly increasing entropy of the sun—which has room for additional entropy increase for some additional billions of years.
     Beyond the sum we need not go. For all we know, there are processes that reverse the entropy increase of the sun, and of stars generally, and keep the universe in stable equilibrium forever, as some astronomers have believed but that need not concern us. The sun will endure, substantially in its present form, for some ten billion years and that, on the human scale, is an indefinitely long period of time. Earth may therefore certainly be regard as a spome.
     If the earth were the only spome that could exist, the subject of spomology would be trivial. It would be comprehended by such sciences as geography and geology. But it may be that the earth is merely the only spome that exists so far, and that many others can exist in conception or potentiality. In that case, the subject increases in interest.
     It is possible— indeed, it is certain—that elsewhere among the stars (but not in our own solar system) there may be other spomes. That is, there may be planets sufficiently like the earth in general characteristics, with a sun sufficiently like our own sun, to serve as habitable planets and therefore as spomes. The figure I have used elsewhere in this book is a possible 640,000,000 in our galaxy alone.
     And yet all 640,000,000 lumped together do not in themselves suffice to make spomology a truly interesting study, for they are all merely so many earths. From the broad standpoint of the spomologist, it you see one earth-like planet, you have seen them all. Since we have all indeed seen one earth-like planet, our own, we have seen them all and can forget about them.

     What we want, if we are to make spomology interesting, are spomes that are drastically different from the earth. And if we make the subject interesting, we may find—who knows— that it is valuable as well.
     Suppose we ask ourselves what makes earth a spome and Jupiter or Mercury nonspomes? If we want to express the difference most succinctly, it is a matter of mass. Jupiter is too massive; Mercury is insufficiently massive. The difference in mass involves, one way or another, almost every quality that goes to make or not make a spome.
     If a planet is insufficiently massive it cannot hold either an atmosphere or an ocean of a volatile liquid. If it is too massive, it will hold hydrogen and helium and produce a poisonous atmosphere and, at best, an ammoniated ocean. In neither case, can it be a spome.
     If it is very massive, that is probably because it is far distant from its primary and can accumulate matter with little competition from the greater body, and at a temperature low enough to make the dancing molecules of hydrogen (the major component of matter) sufficiently sluggish to be captured. Under such conditions, the planet is too cold to be a spome.
     If the planet is insufficiently massive, it is because it is too close to the primary, so that accumulating matter is lost to the greater body and many of the more common elements are, at that distance from the primary, too nimble and elusive to be captured. Alternately, the body is forming too, close to a large planet which competes successfully for matter, so that the body itself is a satellite rather than a planet. In the former case, the body is too hot to be a spome, in the latter too cold.
     There are exceptions to these rules, of course; known exceptions within our solar system. Our moon seems too large for its place in the system, whereas Pluto seems too small. This departure from regularity leads to theories that the moon is a captured planet and Pluto an escaped satellite.
     On the other hand, assuming a sun of the proper type, it is quite reasonable to hope that there is a good chance that a planet of the proper mass would be bound to form at the right distance from that sun and with the proper chemical composition to lead to spomehood.
     We might say, then, that the search for a spome is the search for a body of appropriate mass.

     But all this is in the course of nature. It works as we are looking for “natural spomes,” for spomes ready-made. Let us now add the factor of human intelligence.
     The problem is: Can we make an “artificial spome”? Can we take a body of drastically wrong mass and make a spome of it? In one direction, let's not even try. Bodies too massive to be spomes are quite rare (there are only five I in the solar system, counting the sun itself, as compared; with many thousands of bodies that are insufficiently massive to serve as natural spomes). The too-massive bodies are, in addition, too dangerous to play with, thanks to their strong gravitational fields and their inevitably enormous atmospheres.
     If we look in the direction of bodies insufficiently massive for spomehood, we find at once that the closest body to us, the moon, is an example of the class.
     The problem boils down, then, to the conversion of small bodies into spomes, and the specific version of the problem inevitably: Can we make the moon into a spome?
     The moon is certainly not a spome now. Thanks to its low mass, it has neither an atmosphere nor free water. But let us consider essentials and not accidentals: An atmosphere can be kept from diffusing out into space by the force of a sufficiently strong gravitational field, but, on a smaller scale, it can be kept from doing so by physical barriers as well.
     In other words, we can distinguish two general varieties of spomes: external and internal. An external spome is one with an atmosphere and ocean held to the outer surface of the body by a gravitational field, so that (people) can live on that outer surface. An internal spome is one with air and water held within an air-tight cavity and with (people) living on the inner surface. Inevitably, natural spomes are external ones, while artificial spomes must be internal.
     Suppose, then, we hollow out a cavity under the moon’s surface and supply it with air, water, and the other necessities of life. We might have to begin with capital from the earth, but it is possible that eventually water could be baked out of silicate hydrates in the body of the moon. From such water, oxygen could be formed.
     Given a sufficient supply of energy, and a mass of variegated chemical composition such as the moon (or even a much smaller body) the basic chemical requirements can be met on the spot.
     Energy is the key, and we are used to thinking of the sun as the energy source. In nature, the only source of energy in quantities large enough to support a natural spome does, in fact, happen to be a star like our sun, but a star— any star—is an incredibly wasteful source. Hardly any of its radiation is stopped by a planet, and only a small fraction of that which is stopped is used. A much smaller source, used with much greater efficiency, will serve the purpose.
     A roaring wood fire, whose energy production is a completely contemptible fraction of that of the sun, will warm us in winter at a time when all the sun is insufficient. On the scale that would be sufficient for an internal spome, an ordinary fire is not enough, however. Fortunately, something much better is in sight.
     On the large scale of spomehood, only hydrogen fusion can be relied on as an energy source through an indefinite future. It is large-scale hydrogen fusion that powers the sun, and it may be small-scale hydrogen fusion that will power the earth some day.
     I foresee, then—although not in the immediate future—the possibility of the moon being honeycombed immediately below its surface by a growing system of caverns, supplied with all basic materials from the moon itself and with all its energy requirements supplied by fusion power plants. It would be seeded with plant and animal Life (and, inevitably, with microscopic life as well) and inhabited by men, women, and children; families who may know no other life, and want. none.

     The advantages are obvious. The moon will have a controlled environment designed specifically for man; man will have what he wants and needs (in many vital respects) and not merely what he can get. What’s more, he will have the advantage of a fresh start. As the United States managed to prosper and flourish partly because it was freed of many of the choking traditions of Europe’s bitter past, so the moon, it may be hoped, will be freed of the incubus of earth’s past mistakes.
     Some disadvantages are also obvious. However confidently; we rely on scientific and technological advance, it seems certain that we can never do anything to alter the moon’s gravity. The inhabitants of the moon will always be under. a gravitational pull only one-sixth that of the earth.
     Undoubtedly, they can get used to it, and people born on the moon, knowing no other, will consider such a gravitational force natural. Will men suffer as a result, however, particularly in the transitional period when they may be shuttling between the earth and the moon? Will muscles weakened and bones softened under the influence of lower; gravity be able to withstand a return to earth?
     The problem might not arise in fullest intensity. Men on the moon could keep in condition with exercise or in centrifuges. Perhaps only a few specialists would need to condition themselves for possible trips to earth, whereas the general population of the moon would find it no hardship at all to remain away from the earth permanently.
     Another disadvantage is that an internal spome is liable to accidental catastrophes of a sort to which external spomes are immune. An atmosphere and ocean held to the surface by gravity are absolutely secure. Barring catastrophe on an astronomic scale, nothing can alter the gravitational force and nothing can cause the atmosphere and ocean of an external spome to be lost.
     On an internal spome, on the other hand, a cavern punctured by a large meteorite, or ruptured by a landslide, loses its air at once and its water more slowly. Nevertheless, it is to be expected that men will be ingenious enough to minimize the chances of such catastrophes. Furthermore, the cavern of an internal spome will undoubtedly be compartmentalized so that a local catastrophe can be confined to its immediate neighborhood.
     Nor is catastrophe in itself a bar to spomehood. There are catastrophes on earth, too. We suffer periodically from the effects of hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes, floods, and drought, to none of which the moon would be subject. A patriotic moonman might well argue that it was the earth rather than the moon that fell short of ideal spomehood through catastrophe.

     But what about the psychological difficulties? Can men really learn to live for extended periods in what is essentially, after all, a cavern? Can he bear to be born and to die there? The answer, in my opinion, is the heartiest possible affirmative. If the cavern is large and comfortable, why not?
     It is a mistake to underestimate the flexibility of mankind. Man has already demonstrated abilities to make enormous adjustments. A city such as New York represents, in a way, almost as artificial a spome, one almost as divorced from man’s original environment, as the moon would be. Yet man has made the transition from but to skyscraper over an insignificant period of time. Indeed, a peasant immigrant can adjust adequately to New York in his own lifetime.
     Why should we imagine a moonman would be horrified at being “cooped up”? I think it would be much more likely that he would think with horror of a world like the earth, there men had to cling precariously to an outer surface, exposed to the vagaries of an unpredictable and changeable climate. A moonman might no more want to live on earth than a New Yorker would want to live in a cave.
     Of course, in thinking of an internal spome, we must fight our prejudices. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking, vaguely, that an external spome is “natural” and an internal spome “artificial” and that what is natural is good and what is artificial is bad.
     The argument might even be advanced that a “true” spome can only be one in which life could develop spontaneously out of nonliving matter, as it did on earth. A world that had to be engineered and seeded by a species that already had two to three billion years of evolution behind it might seem no true spome at all, but one that was only able to imitate spomehood through an initially parasitic dependence on a true spome.
     But if that argument is advanced, where does Homo sapiens stand? Life did not develop on dry land. The only portion of the earth that is a “natural” spome, in the sense that life arose there spontaneously from simple chemicals, is the ocean. It was only little by little that certain types of living things emerged onto the dry land, a habitat as hostile to the creatures of the sea then as the moon seems to us now.
     Some fishy philosopher, if we can imagine one, might well have shaken his head at the foolish creatures who chose to emerge on land. It would seem a bad exchange to move from the equable environment of the ocean to the violent extremes of the open air; from a plenitude of water to the perennial threat of dessication; from a gravitation-free three-dimensional world to a gravity-ridden two-dimensional world.
     Nor are these dangers unrealistic ones, or these disadvantages of the dry land imaginary. Life first invaded the land some 425,000,000 years ago, yet even today, the ocean remains much richer in life than dry land is, area for area. Land animals had to evolve for millions of years before they could develop limbs strong enough to lift them clear of the ground and make both size and rapid movement simultaneously possible. It was some two hundred million years before creatures evolved who possessed internal thermostats and external insulation so that the equable temperature of the ocean might be imperfectly restored. Man himself rose to his hind feet a million and a half years ago and still pays his respects to gravity with flat feet, slipped disks, sinus trouble, potbellies, and numerous other ailments. And to this day he must live in dread of falling, a dread we are usually unaware of only because we are so accustomed to it.
     No, no, if we are going to sneer at the moon as an unnatural habitat, we must sneer with precisely equal intensity at the continents of the earth. We live on a portion of the earth artificially seeded from the truly spomic portion; and despite everything, land life remains less rich and, in some respects and by some criteria, less comfortable and less successful than ocean life.
     Yet need we be sorry that our ancestors emerged from sea to land? With all land’s dangers and discomforts, it opened the way to advances not possible in the sea. In hindsight, we can see that the ocean was a dead end, whereas land offered a new and brighter horizon.
     Nor are we being parochial when we argue in this way. Air is far less viscous than water. In water, a creature must either travel slowly or it must be streamlined. The most highly developed sea creatures, the squids, sharks, and fish, are highly streamlined. The land creatures that return to the sea are streamlined in proportion to the extent to which they have returned, if you think of the otter, penguin, seal, sea cow, and finally, the whale.
     A streamlined body implies short, stubby appendages, if any, with an exception for the squid’s highly specialized tentacles. In low viscosity air, on the other hand, it is possible it be fast-moving and irregularly shaped at the same time, so that land animals can have elaborate appendages. It is to this that man owes his priceless hands.
     Consider how, were the porpoise indeed as intelligent as man, the lack of hands would hamper the exhibiting of that intelligence! If we ever learn to communicate with porpoises we may find ourselves with fluked philosophers on our hands; introverts who can think but not do.
     Then, too, one can deal with fire only in air and never in water. Only a land creature, therefore, could conceivably develop the technology that begins with the discovery of fire. It is certainly possible to argue that man’s advancing technology is not an unalloyed good, but I doubt that even the most inveterate yeamer after the good old days before the building of Blake’s “dark, satanic mills” could possibly wish to retreat to the days before the discovery of how to start and use a fire.
     To use a chemical analogy, the passage from sea to land involved a “phase change” in the progress of life; on that, most or even all of us cannot help but consider desirable.
     Is it possible, then, that the passage from an external “natural” spome, to an internal “artificial” spome might likewise involve a desirable phase change? I hate to undertake the role of prophet here; foresight in such matters is as difficult as hindsight is easy. Nevertheless, I will try.
     It seems to me, for instance, that however difficult the initial passage from an external spome to an internal one, the end would be a partial cancellation of the difficulties introduced by the previous great life-adventure. In an internal spome, man would return to the equable environment and lower gravity of the sea, without abandoning the low-viscosity environment of the air. An internal spome would have, after a fashion, the best of both land and sea and the worst of neither. Surely something great may come of that.
     If we begin with an internal spome on the moon, victory and success there can only inspire attempts at expansion, at forming spomes out of other medium-sized bodies such as Mars and the larger satellites of Jupiter. In particular, though, there may be a movement to internal spomes on smaller and smaller bodies—that is, on the asteroids that exist by the thousand in the space between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

     Why the asteroids?
     Well, consider the matter of efficiency. With the best will in the World, and with all the technological advances likely in the foreseeable future, it would seem that mankind could not burrow very deeply into the skin of the earth, or into the skin of even a smaller body such as Mars or the moon. We may sink narrow bores to the mantle in time to come, but if we are thinking of internal spomes, of large, comfortable and well-appointed caverns, the outer couple of miles is the most that we may consider. (Earth’s internal heat, perhaps that of Mars and the moon too, would make deeper caverns uncomfortable anyway.)
     This means that virtually all the volume of a planet is unused and serves the men of the spome only by supplying them with the source of a gravitational field.
     The asteroids, however, can be spomified completely. They can be riddled and honeycombed. They have no internal heat for discomfort and no significant gravity to make more difficult the shifting of mass. Nor need the caverns be buttressed more than minimally to counter possible collapse. If we except the very largest, all of an asteroid can be used, (A nickel-iron asteroid might be difficult to work with, and its composition might not be suitable as a source of raw material for anything except the ferrous metals but, judging by the ratio of iron meteorites to stony ones, we can hope that less than 10 percent of the asteroids will be metallic.)
     Nor need an asteroid be considered too small to make an ample spome. Some years ago, I wrote a story about such an asteroidal spome, in which an earthman visiting the asteroid expressed surprise that the inhabitants had room to grow tobacco. His guide to the asteroid replied:
“We are not a small world, Dr. Lamorak; you judge us by two-dimensional standards. The surface area of Elsevere [the asteroid] is only three-fourths that of the State of New York, but that’s irrelevant. Remember, we can occupy, if we wish, the entire interior of Elsevere. A sphere of 50 miles radius has a volume of well over half a million cubic miles. If all of Elsevere were occupied by levels of 50 feet apart, the total surface area within the planetoid would be 56,000,000 square miles and that is equal to the total land area of earth. And none of these square miles, doctor, would be unproductive.
     In the story I deliberately dismissed one serious problem that would inevitably arise on an asteroidal spome in order that I might concentrate on the sociological point I was trying to make. I avoided any consideration of the fact that the gravitational field on an asteroid is negligible by supplying my storybook spome with artificial gravity.
     In real life, as opposed to science fiction, an artificial gravity field cannot be set up merely with a wave of the typewriter. One conceivable possibility would be to set the asteroidal spome into rapid rotation. The centrifugal effect would be analogous to a gravitational field directed outward in every direction from the axis of rotation, with some important side effects. The gravitational field so set up would vary markedly with distance from the axis and there would be very noticeable Coriolis effects. The smaller the spome, the greater the angular velocity required for a given maximum centrifugal effect and the more pronounced the variations in the effect and in the obtrusiveness of Coriolis effects.
     It seems to me that spinning the spome would not be worth the energy expended and the problems produced. Why not, instead, accept null gravity as a condition of life? Life has, in the past, switched from the essential null gravity of the oceans to the gravity slavery of the land and survived. Why not the switch back?
     To be sure, the switch from null-g to g was made over eons of time, and the bodies of the creatures making the switch had to undergo elaborate and glacially slow changes through the force of natural selection. Mankind obviously lacks the time to proceed in this fashion.
     But it is not in space science and engineering alone that mankind is experiencing great advances in technology. Biology is undergoing its own revolutionary breakthroughs. It is reasonable to hope that by the time man reaches the point where he can reach the asteroids with a supply of energy sufficient to set up a spome, he will also have learned enough about genetics to engage in meaningful tissue engineering. Why may we not suppose that the changes necessary to fit a human body for null gravity can be guided by intelligence rather than left to the colossal blindness of a nature that knows only random change?
     A null-gravity body may well be designed differently from our own, but not necessarily radically so. Bones and muscles may be smaller and legs shorter, but I would guess that this would not go to extremes. To whatever extent weight may disappear, the body will still have to handle inertial mass, which would be the same on an asteroid as on the earth.
     A null-gravity body would, it seems to me, become utterly graceful in its maneuverings, gaining some of the three-dimensional skills of the fish and birds. We will have a human species capable of flight without having to sacrifice the infinitely useful hand for the sake of a wing.
     Land animals might require similar adaptations but, except perhaps for pets, dwellers on the asteroidal spomes could do without them. Plants could be grown at null-g without much trouble. Fish could still be cultivated. Algae culture and the chemical industry might combine to produce food items with the taste and texture of meat if that were desired.
     To be sure, a null-g man could never come to earth, or even visit a world as small as the moon, but that should be no more a hardship to him than the fact that we can no longer breathe under water is to us (except when we are drowning).
     If we concentrate on this state of affairs, it would seem that there would be two species of man, g and null-g. We are g, of course, as would be the colonists on such large spomes as Mars, the moon, the large satellites of Jupiter, and so on. The inhabitants of the asteroidal spomes would be null-g.
     It would not be so much merely the passage from external spome to internal spome that would represent the second phase-change of evolution, as the passage from g to null-g. Might it not be that the future will belong to the null-g? That we g's of earth will now reach a dead end, while the null-g's of the asteroids will find a new and glorious horizon opening up for them? They may advance, leaving the discarded things of earth behind them while we, no more able to follow them than a fish could us, remain as oblivious as fish to their greater glories.

     First, the null-g species may well outnumber us as time goes on. Honeycombed asteroids may support a larger population, all taken together, than the mere outer skin of the large spomes inhabited by g’s. The fact that null-g might be smaller in body (though not in brain) would serve to make their possible numbers still greater.
     Second, the nature of the null-g environment will make it certain that they will far outstrip us in variability and versatility. The g people will exist as one large glob (earth’s population) with small offshoots on Mars, the moon and elsewhere, but the null-g’s will be divided among a thousand or more worlds.
     The situation will resemble that which once contrasted the Roman civilization with the Greek. The Romans wrought tremendous feats in law and government, in architecture and engineering, in military offense and defense. There was, however, something large, heavy, and inflexible about Roman civilization; it was Rome, wherever it was.
     The Greeks, on the other hand, reaching far lesser material heights, had a life and verve in their culture that attracts us even today, across a time lapse of 2,500 years. No other culture ever had the spark of that of the Greeks, and part of the reason was that there was no Greece, really, only a thousand Greek city-states, each with its own government, its own customs, its own form of living, loving, worshiping, and dying. As we look back on the days of Greece, the brilliance of Athens tends to drown out the rest, but each town had something of its own to contribute. The endless variety that resulted gave Greece a glory that nothing before or since has been able to match; certainly not our own civilization of humanity-en-masse.
     The null-g’s may be the Greeks all over again. A thousand worlds, all with a common history and background, and each with its own way of developing and expressing that history and background. The richness of life represented by all the different null-g worlds may far surpass what is developed, by that time, on an earth rendered smaller and more uniform than ever by technological advance.

     A third difference, and the really crucial one, in my opinion, can best be explained if I now turn to the subject of spaceships.
     In the light of what I have already said, we can see that a spaceship is not exactly a spome for a spome must be capable of supporting human life indefinitely. It is rather a “spomoid,” something that is capable of serving a spomelike function temporarily.
     Spomoids have performed notably well on a number of occasions already and have at this writing supported two men in reasonable comfort for as long as two weeks.
     It is the obvious intention of the human race to explore the solar system by means of spomoids even before any extraterrestrial spomes are established; and, in fact, even if it turns out that the establishment of extraterrestrial spomes is unfeasible. By stages, we might even reach Pluto.
     But there we would have to come to a halt. Beyond Pluto lie the stars, and the distances there involved are so enormous that the techniques that will have sufficed for the solar system will be completely useless to meet the new situation.
     To reach even the nearer stars will involve one of three alternatives:
     (1) Straightforward flight from here to the nearer stars and back, the time required being anywhere from a generation to a century or more.
     (2) Flight at velocities near that of light, thus introducing a time dilatation effect so that the duration of the flight will seem to the astronaut to be no more than a few months or years. In that case, however, on returning to earth, he will find that the time lapse here has been anywhere from a generation to a century or more.
     (3) Flight with astronauts frozen into suspended animation, the effect being the same as in Case 2.
     None of these alternatives is pleasing. The astronaut will either have to expose himself to the perils and uncertainties of freezing over long periods of time, or be willing to expend the energies required to reach extremely high velocities. It may well prove that freezing for decades is unfeasible and that the energy demands for time dilatation are prohibitive. If Alternative 1 is chosen as the simplest, the astronaut must not only spend most or all his life on the star ship; he may also have to be prepared to bring up children and grandchildren who will in turn have to take over the star ship and spend their lives on it.
     As for those who wait on earth, there are no alternatives. A star ship leaving for a neighboring star may not get back for a hundred years. The original astronauts may shorten the time for themselves by time dilatation, or by freezing, and return scarcely aged, but that does not affect the observers at home. The star ship will still not have returned for a century, and no one in the crowd that waves good-by will be in the crowd that waves hello.
     Under the circumstances, stellar exploration would never be a popular exercise for anyone, either on the ship or at home. A few expeditions may set off as tours de force, but earthmen, unable to follow them, unable to see the results in their own lifetimes, will lose interest.

     But let’s consider under what conditions such voyages might become popular.
     The longer the exploring trip within the solar system, the more elaborate the spomoid will have to be. By the time the outermost planets are reached, space voyages will have become years in length and a spomoid capable of supporting a crew for years will, of necessity, have a recycling mechanism that would require little further sophistication to serve a crew indefinitely.
     The trend in space exploration, then, will be from the spomoid to the spome and, certainly, where stellar exploration is concerned, nothing less than an elaborate spome will be required.
     Not only is a star ship a spome, but it is an internal spome, and one of an extreme type. In assembling a crew for a star ship, we are asking earthmen and women to make the transfer from an external spome to an extremely internal one and we may be asking too much.
     To be sure, I have been talking about the establishment of spomes all through this chapter—but by stages! The change from the external spome of the earth to an internal spome on the moon is, in many ways, a mild one. There is still the chance of communication with earth, there is still the sight of the earth in the sky, even if only on a television set within the cavern, and, finally, the possibility of returning to earth some day.
     It is then the men of the moon, accustomed to a mild internal spome, who will go on to spomify Mars and Ganymede. And it will be the far distant colonists, further divorced from the earth by the mere fact that it is not forever hanging in the sky like Va large balloon, who will make the further step to the asteroids and the null-g phase-change.
     Little by little the inhabitants of spomes would get over any longing for blue skies, open air, the stretch of ocean, the intricate world of mountains, rivers, and animals.
     But even a colonist from the moon or Mars would not feel at home on a star ship, which would be null-g, unless it were rapidly rotated—with all the problems that would introduce.
     No, the proper crew for a star ship would be null-g people, and there would be no need to recruit them, for an asteroidal spome would be a star ship in itself. Working upward from a primitive spaceship and downward from the earth, we meet in the middle at the equation: asteroidal spome = star ship.
     Under such conditions, a voyage to the stars could be made without hardships whatever. If an asteroid were fitted with rocket motors and made to veer out of its course and away from the sun (the escape velocity from the sun is considerably less in the asteroid belt than it is in earth’s vicinity), what would it matter of the null-g inhabitants of the asteroid?
     They had always been in a null-g internal spome, and they would still be in a null-g internal spome. They wouldn’t be leaving home; they would be taking home with them. What matter how long the trip to a star? How many generations lived and died? There would be no change in their way of life.
     To be sure, they would be leaving the sun, but what of that? A dweller of the asteroids would not depend on the sun for anything. Properly space-suited, he might emerge from the asteroid and observe the sun as a tiny, glowing marble in the sky, but nothing more. He may miss that sight and idealize “the sun of home,” but such idealizations will evoke nothing more than a nostalgic thought, like the modem city dweller’s occasional sigh for the “old home town.”
     The star ship turning out of its orbit might simply be taking the third and final step in the weaning of life. Once life forms were weaned from the ocean. With the establishment of extraterrestrial spomes, life forms would have been weaned from the earth. With the star ships, they would be weaned from the solar system.
     But why should the asteroids bother to become star ships? What do they gain? A number of things:
     First, the satisfaction of curiosity—the basic, itching desire to know. Why not see what the universe looks like? What’s out there anyway?
     Second, the desire for freedom—why circle the sun uselessly forever, when you can take your place as an independent portion of the universe, bound to no star?
     Third, the usefulness of knowledge—since a trip of this sort is bound to add to the information possessed and this new information will surely be applied to the problem of adding to the security and comfort of the spome.
     Nor need such a journey be dull and uneventful. True, it may take hundreds or even thousands of years to reach a star, and generations may live without seeing one at close quarters, but does this mean there is nothing at all to see?
     I can’t really guess what phenomena would await the ship and what beauties of nature they will find to admire. One thing seems certain, however: the universe must be better populated than would appear.
     We see the stars because they advertise themselves brilliantly; but small stars are far more numerous than large ones, and dim stars far more numerous than bright ones. Surely bodies that are so small and dim that they can't be seen, except at close quarters indeed, are the most numerous of all.
     Perhaps no generation will pass without some dark world coming into view, some material body the star ship pause to investigate. If the body is large, the star ship couldn't land, but it could still fly by, take up a temporary orbit, observe, and nose it out. If the body were small enough to have a negligible gravity, it could be mined and made to serve as a source of minerals to replace the small inevitable losses suffered by any spome, however efficient the cycling.
     When the neighborhood of a star is reached, with its lighted planets, observations might be particularly intense and particularly interesting. The system may contain external spomes: earthlike planets bearing life—even, perhaps, intelligent life.
     What a rare phenomenon that would be in terms of human lifetimes! How fortunate the generation granted such a sight!
     Silently, they would observe, watch, and eventually, pass on as the unbearably attractive lure of open space beckoned.
     The neighborhood of a star might offer a chance for refueling, too. I can conceive that the deuterium supplies needed for the fusion reactors might be picked up in the space the ship passes through but such deuterium is spread out incredibly thinly. It would be more concentrated within a stellar system. The neighborhood of a star might then be not only a means of seeing a rare sight, but also a chance to stock up on deuterium—enough to last another million years or so.
     If an asteroidal belt were encountered about some star, a landfall might, in a sense, be made. The star ship could take up some appropriate orbit. Other asteroids could then be made into spomes. The colony would divide and new ones would be set up. Eventually one or more of them—or all of them—would set off as star ships themselves. Perhaps an old, old star ship, worn past the worthwhileness of repair, can be abandoned on such occasions—undoubtedly with much more trauma than ever the sun and earth were abandoned.
     In fact, there might almost be an “alternation of generations" over the eons as far as the star ships were concerned. There would be a motile generation in which the star ships moved steadily across the vastness of space but in which population increase would have to be tightly controlled. There would then be a sessile generation after an asteroid belt was encountered, when for a long period of time there would be no motion, but the population would proliferate.

     With the conclusion of each sessile generation, there would be a proliferation of star ships. As the years passed and lengthened into the hundreds of millennia, the star ships would begin to swarm over the universe—all of it their home.
     And every once in a while, perhaps, two spomes would meet by arrangement.
     That, I imagine, would involve a ritual of incomparable importance. There would be no flash-by with a hail and farewell. The spomes, having contacted each other in a deliberate search over vast distances, would be brought to a stand relative to each other and preparations would be made for a long stay.
     Each would have compiled its own records, which could make available to the other. There would be descriptions by each of sectors of space never visited by the other. New theories and novel interpretations of old ones would be expounded. Literature and works of art could be exchanged, differences in custom explained.
     Most of all there would be the opportunity for a cross-flow of genes. An exchange of population (either temporary or permanent) might be an inevitable accomplishment of any such meeting.
     And yet it may happen that such cross-flows will become impossible in an increasing number of cases. Long isolation may allow the development of varieties that may no longer be interfertile. The meeting of spomes will have to endure long enough, certainly, for a check on whether the populations are compatible. If not, intellectual cross-fertilization will have been carried on, at any rate.
     Eventually, perhaps, space will carry a load of innumerable varieties of null-g intelligences, all alike in that space is their home (and, indeed, “space-home” is what the shortened “spome” stands for); in that they are intelligent; and in that they are descended from the inhabitants of some planet that may no longer exist in their memory even as a component of legend, and from which the initial load of humanity may long since have vanished.

     It may even be that Homo sapiens will not be the only species to make the transition to a star ship culture. Perhaps there is a crucial point, reached by every intelligence, from which two roads branch off, one leading to the true conquest of space and the other to a slow withering on the planetary vine.
     Out there, perhaps, are many creatures waiting for man to join them. And when we do, we may find ourselves united with them not in terms of material body resemblances, but in the life we lead and in the intellect we cultivate.
     Is this, then, the consequence of the new phase change that will make space exploration truly possible? Or am I only stumbling in a vain attempt to see the unseeable? Perhaps the essential point of the phase change is as far beyond my grasp as the smell of a rose is beyond the grasp of a fish or a Beethoven symphony beyond the grasp of a chimpanzee.
     But I tried!

From THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE SPOME by Isaac Asimov (1967)

Government Classifications

Star Hero Types

From the Star Hero role playing game by James Cambias, published by Hero Games. A valuable sourcebook for anybody designing a science fiction universe. From stellar dynamics to types of interstellar governments, this book belongs on the shelf of serious SF authors. This is also a great book to quickly get an author up to speed on the science behind science fiction.

  • Who Rules?
    • Nobody (anarchy)
    • Individual Rule
      • Dictator (Emperor, Warlord): rule by force
      • Monarch (Chiefs, Barons, Princes, Kings, Emperors): rule by virtue of heredity. May have to delegate power to appointed bureaucracy, elected parliament, or feudal hereditary nobles.
      • President (Chancellor, Premier, Governor): rule by merit, appointment, or election.
      • Computerized Government
    • Small Groups
      • Junta: rule by force
      • Oligarchy (Aristocracy): rule by virtue of heredity.
      • Council (Senate): rule by merit, appointment, or election.
    • Large Groups
      • Conquering Army: rule by force. Unstable, generally quickly becomes a Junta or Dictator. If situation lasts for a generation it generally becomes Feudal.
      • Feudal: rule by virtue of heredity. A large hereditary group may become a Ruling Caste.
      • Legislature (Congress, Assembly): rule by merit, appointment, or election.
      • Athenian Democracy: everybody rules by voting on all issues.
  • How Is The Ruler Chosen?
    • No Ruler (anarchy)
    • Force
    • Heredity
    • Appointment: the key is who gets to do the appointing. A colony or conquered planet has ruler appointed by controlling planet. Sometimes officials get to appoint their replacements. Sometimes one branch of government appoints the members of another branch.
    • Merit. Depends upon what is the measure of merit. Competency = Bureaucracy. Religious Faith = Theocracy. Scientific Knowledge = Technocracy. Wealth = Plutocracy. Sheer Age = Gerontocracy.
    • Election
    • Total Participation (Athenian Democracy)
    • Random Selection (similar to jury duty)
    • Omens or Oracles (in religious or superstitious societies)
    • Computerized Government
    • Purchase

Traveller Types

From the Traveller role playing game:

  1. No government structure. In many cases, family bonds predominate.
  2. Company/Corporation. Government by a company managerial elite; citizens are company employees.
  3. Participating Democracy. Government by advice and consent of the citizen.
  4. Self-Perpetuating Oligarchy. Government by a restricted minority, with little or no input from the masses.
  5. Representative Democracy. Government by elected representatives.
  6. Feudal Technocracy. Government by specific individuals for those who agree to be ruled. Relationships are based on the performance of technical activities which are mutually beneficial.
  7. Captive Government. Government by a leadership answerable to an outside group; a colony or conquered area.
  8. Balkanization. No central ruling authority exists; rival governments compete for control.
  9. Civil Service Bureaucracy. Government by agencies employing individuals selected for their expertise.
  10. Impersonal Bureaucracy. Government by agencies which are insulated from the governed.
  11. Charismatic Dictator. Government by a single leader enjoying the confidence of the citizens.
  12. Non-Charismatic Leader. A previous charismatic dictator has been replaced by a leader through normal channels.
  13. Charismatic Oligarchy. Government by a select group, organization, or class enjoying the overwhelming confidence of the citizenry.
  14. Religious Dictatorship. Government by a religious organization without regard to the needs of the citizenry.

Tales to Astound! has an entry pointing out the above list is not a taxonomy of all possible government types (e.g., note the lack of "Monarchy").

Instead, it is an indication of what the Traveller players can personally expect to encounter directly when they interact with the local bureaucracy. When a player is trying to get a license to import Spican Flame Gems they could care less that the government is a unicameral legislature. The player just wants to know how much red tape they will have to cut through, which is what the above table tries to indicate.

Player rarely, if ever, interact with planetary governments directly.

The Sword & The Stars Types


    • 11 Fraternalism
    • 12 Sororalism
    • 13 Ancestralism
    • 31 Totalitarianism
    • 32 Monarchism
    • 33 Feudalism
    • 34 Despotism
    • 41 Democracy
    • 42 Parliamentary
    • 43 Republicanism

Star Empires Types

From STAR EMPIRES wargame by TSR.

  1. Anarchy
  2. Feudal
  3. Democracy
  4. Parliamentary
  5. Republic
  6. Oligarchy
  7. Theocracy
  8. Monarchy
  9. Military Junta
  10. Autocracy
  11. Hive (mostly seen with intelligent insect species)

Space Opera Types

From Space Opera role playing game by FGU.

  • Anarchy
  • Feudal
  • Multi-government (Balkanization)
  • Subjugated (conquered by another government)
  • Oligarchy (aristocracy or dictatorship)
  • Religious Dictatorship
  • Corporate State
  • Athenian Democracy (no representatives, everybody votes)
  • Republican Democracy (representatives)
  • Confederacy (not a government, a group of governments)
  • Personal Dictatorship
  • Empire (not a government, a group of governments)

GURPS: Space Types

From GURPS: Space role playing game by Steve Jackson Games.


  • No world government: diffuse (hundreds of factions)
  • No world government: factionalized (tens of factions)
  • No world government: coalition (several factions)
  • Anarchy
  • Clan/Tribal
  • Caste (as Clan, but each clan has pre-set profession)
  • Feudal
  • Theocracy
  • Dictatorship (King, dictator, or warlord)
  • Representative Democracy
  • Athenian Democracy
  • Corporate State
  • Technocracy (rule by computer programmers and engineers)

SUB-TYPES (additional conditions and modifications applied to the government type, e.g., "Matriarchal-Socialist Athenian-Democracy")

  • Subjugated (government has been conquered militarily or economically)
  • Slave State (slavery is legal)
  • Sanctuary (will not extradite criminals wanted off-world)
  • Military Government (totalitarian if single officer, feudal if junta)
  • Socialist (citizens heavily taxed but taken care of by the nanny-state)
  • Bureaucracy (un elected bureaucrats have the real power)
  • Colony of another government
  • Oligarchy (leadership in the hands of a small self-perpetuating clique)
  • Meritocracy (government jobs require aptitude tests)
  • Patriarchy/Matriarch (all rulers are male/female)
  • Utopia (everything is perfect)
  • Cybercracy (rule by computers)

Miscellaneous Types


For a hundred years, the Outer System settlements had been turned in on themselves, concentrating first on surviving in hostile and Spartan environments, then on establishing robust, durable ecosystems and economic and social mechanisms. But now they were trembling on the brink of a profound social and cultural revolution. A Prignogenic phase change driven by the eagerness of many young Outers to cut loose from the old, reactionary regimes of the city states on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. To light out for new territory. The moons of Uranus and Neptune. Pluto, Eris, hundreds of dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt. A few wanted to terraform Mars, dismantling one of Jupiter's small outer moons to manufacture solar—sail mirrors and thousands of tons of halocarbon greenhouse gases that would significantly warm the planet and cause outgassing of carbon dioxide and water vapour from the frozen regolith, adding to the small but significant increase in atmospheric pressure caused by the comet dropped by the Chinese onto the original Martian colonists.

This burgeoning frontier spirit, combined with radical notions about posthuman utopianism, was beginning to cause serious social and political unrest. The Outer System's economy was built upon a barter and social ranking system based on the value of volunteer work and exchange of scientific, cultural and technological ideas and information. But now the brightest and the best of the new generation were devoting themselves to planning new kinds of social groupings that deliberately excluded themselves from the mainstream. Young people were quitting the cities for oases, shelters and other microhabitats constructed by tireless crews of robots. And they were engaged in fierce and frequently divisive debates within the collectives and family trusts that owned most of the ships in the Outer System.

The new generation of Outers wanted to use the ships for exploration and to transport volunteers eager to found new settlements in the far reaches of the Solar System, but they were outnumbered and outvoted by their parents, grandparents and great—grandparents. Because everyone in the Outer System had access to medical treatments that had increased the average life span to a little over a hundred and fifty years, the democracies of their cities and settlements, and their collectives and trusts, were really gerontocracies, cautious and reactionary, preferring discussion to decision, argument to action. The older generations had controlling interests in the ships as well as in most of the infrastructure of the Outer System settlements, asserted that they were essential for trade and commerce within and between the Jupiter and Saturn Systems, and refused to sanction construction of new ships because of the cost. Oases and shelters were built by robot labour—the robots were mostly left over from construction of the cities and it was cheaper to keep them working than to decommission them—but there were no robot factories for spaceships. Every ship was more or less hand built, and although their hulls and lifesystems could be spun from diamond and fullerene composites manufactured from carbonaceous deposits easily mined or extracted from the icy regoliths of most moons, fabrication of their fusion motors and control systems required expensive rare earths and metals.

The would-be explorers and colonists were attacking this problem with vigour. They had worked up plans to set up robot factories that could settle on suitable asteroids and mine and refine metals that would be flung toward Jupiter and Saturn using rail guns built on site, and had designed ships equipped with lightsails and propelled by fixed lasers, or with sophisticated chemical reaction motors built from ceramics and fullerene composites. These slowboats might take a decade or more to reach their destinations, but their passengers would sleep out the voyage in hibernation. The younger Outers were determined to overcome their lack of financial and political leverage with their energy, ingenuity, and determination. They had time on their side, of course. Despite gerontological treatments and sophisticated medical procedures and therapies, simple mortality meant that sooner or later the rising generation would gain control of their families’ trusts and collectives. But by then they would be as old as their grandparents were now, and they were too eager and too impatient to wait. Almost every sociopolitical model predicated breakout within a decade. If Earth could not reinforce its ties with the city states of Jupiter and Saturn and help to strengthen their conservative regimes, the Outers would diverge so quickly and in so many unpredictable ways that it would become impossible to find common ground with them. And that would make war inevitable.

From THE QUIET WAR by Paul McAuley (2009)

Kleptocracy (from Ancient Greek κλέπτης (kléptēs, “thief”), κλέπτω (kléptō, “steal”), from Proto-Indo-European *klep- (“to steal”); and from the Ancient Greek suffix -κρατία (-kratía), from κράτος (krátos, “power, rule”; klépto- thieves + -kratos rule, literally "rule by thieves") is a government with corrupt rulers (kleptocrats) that use their power to exploit the people and natural resources of their own territory in order to extend their personal wealth and political power. Typically this system involves the embezzlement of state funds at the expense of the wider population, sometimes without even the pretense of honest service.


Kleptocracies are generally associated with dictatorships, oligarchies, military juntas, or other forms of autocratic and nepotist governments in which external oversight is impossible or does not exist. This lack of oversight can be caused or exacerbated by the ability of the kleptocratic officials to control both the supply of public funds and the means of disbursal for those funds. Kleptocratic rulers often treat their country's treasury as a source of personal wealth, spending funds on luxury goods and extravagances as they see fit. Many kleptocratic rulers secretly transfer public funds into hidden personal numbered bank accounts in foreign countries to provide for themselves if removed from power.

Kleptocracy is most common in developing countries whose economies are based on the export of natural resources. Such export incomes constitute a form of economic rent and are easier to siphon off without causing the income to decrease.

A specific case of kleptocracy is Raubwirtschaft, German for "plunder economy" or "rapine economy", where the whole economy of the state is based on robbery, looting and plundering the conquered territories. Such states are either in continuous warfare with their neighbours or they simply milk up their subjects as long as they have any taxable assets. Such rapine-based economies were commonplace in the past before the rise of Capitalism. Arnold Toynbee has claimed the Roman Empire was basically a Raubwirtschaft.


The effects of a kleptocratic regime or government on a nation are typically adverse in regards to the welfare of the state's economy, political affairs and civil rights. Kleptocratic governance typically ruins prospects of foreign investment and drastically weakens the domestic market and cross-border trade. As kleptocracies often embezzle money from their citizens by misusing funds derived from tax payments, or engage heavily in money laundering schemes, they tend to heavily degrade quality of life for citizens.

In addition, the money that kleptocrats steal is diverted from funds earmarked for public amenities such as the building of hospitals, schools, roads, parks – having further adverse effects on the quality of life of citizens. The informal oligarchy that results from a kleptocratic elite subverts democracy (or any other political format).

Other terms

A narcokleptocracy is a society in which criminals involved in the trade of narcotics have undue influence in the governance of a state. For instance, the term was used to describe the regime of Manuel Noriega in Panama in a report prepared by a subcommittee of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. The term narcostate has the same meaning.

See also

From the Wikipedia entry for KLEPTOCRACY

Cyclical Governments

The idea is that an empire might not have the same type of government throughout its entire lifetime. The government type might evolve from era to era, much like ancient Rome.

The empire's society and culture might go through different stages as well.

The Greeks, who had a penchant for giving names to things, had a convenient label for that source: anacyclosis. That was the moniker coined by the Greek historian Polybius, who chronicled the conquest of Greece by the Romans in the second century BCE. He noted that the squabbling city-states of the Greek world tended to cycle through a distinctive sequence of governments—monarchy, followed by aristocracy, followed by democracy, and then back around again to monarchy. It’s a cogent model, especially if you replace “monarchy” with “dictatorship” and “aristocracy” with “junta” to bring the terminology up to current standards.

A short and modernized form of the explanation—those of my readers who are interested in the original form should consult the Histories of Polybius—is that in every dictatorship, an inner circle of officials and generals emerges. This inner circle eventually takes advantage of weakness at the top to depose the dictator or, more often, simply waits until he dies and then distributes power so that no one figure has total control; thus a junta is formed. In every country run by a junta, in turn, a wider circle of officials, officers, and influential people emerges; this wider circle eventually takes advantage of weakness at the top to depose the junta, and when this happens, in ancient Greece and the modern world alike, the standard gambit is to install a democratic constitution to win popular support and outflank remaining allies of the deposed junta. In every democracy, finally, competing circles of officials, officers, and influential people emerge; these expand their power until the democratic system freezes into gridlock under the pressure of factionalism or unsolved crisis; the democratic system loses its legitimacy, political collapse follows, and finally the head of the strongest faction seizes power and imposes a dictatorship, and the cycle begins all over again.

It can be educational to measure this sequence against recent history and see how well it fits. Russia, for example, has been through a classic round of anacyclosis since the 1917 revolution: dictatorship under Lenin and Stalin, a junta from Khrushchev through Gorbachev, and a democracy—a real democracy, please remember, complete with corruption, rigged elections, and the other features of real democracy—since that time. China, similarly, had a period of democracy from 1911 to 1949, a dictatorship under Mao, and a junta since then, with movements toward democracy evident over the last few decades. Still, the example I have in mind is the United States of America, which has been around the cycle three times since its founding; the one difference, and it’s crucial, is that all three stages have taken place repeatedly under the same constitution.

A case could be made that this is the great achievement of modern representative democracy—the development of a system so resilient that it can weather anacyclosis without cracking. The three rounds of anacyclosis we’ve had in the United States so far have each followed the classic pattern; they’ve begun under the dominance of a single leader whose overwhelming support from the political class and the population as a whole allowed him to shatter the factional stalemate of the previous phase and impose a radically new order on the nation. After his death, power passes to what amounts to an elected junta, and gradually defuses outwards in the usual way, until a popular movement to expand civil rights and political participation overturns the authority of the junta. Out of the expansion of political participation, factions rise to power, and eventually bring the mechanism of government to a standstill; crisis follows, and is resolved by the election of another almost-dictator.

Glance back over American history and it’s hard to miss the pattern, repeating over a period that runs roughly seventy to eighty years. The dictator-figures were George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, each of whom overturned existing structures in order to consolidate their power, and did so with scant regard for existing law. The juntas were the old Whigs, the Republicans, and the New Deal Democrats, each of them representatives of a single social class; they were overthrown in turn by Jacksonian populism, the Progressive movement, and the complex social convulsions of the Sixties, each of which diffused power across a broader section of the citizenry. The first cycle ended in stalemate over the issue of slavery; the second ended in a comparable stalemate over finding an effective response to the Great Depression; the third—well, that’s where we are right now.

There’s no shortage of crises sufficient to tip the current system into its final stalemate, and no shortage of people in the political class who show every sign of being willing to give it that final push. The great difficulty just now, it seems to me, is precisely that fashionable contempt for democracy as it actually exists that I addressed earlier in this essay. In 1860, that habit was so far from finding a place in the political dialogue that the constitution of the Confederate States of America was in most respects a copy of the one signed at Philadelphia a long lifetime before. In 1932, though a minority of Americans supported Marxism, fascism, or one of the other popular authoritarianisms of the day, the vast majority who put Roosevelt into the White House four times in a row expected him to maintain at least a rough approximation of constitutional government.

That’s much less true this time around. Granted, there’s less public support for overtly authoritarian ideologies—I expect to see Marxism make a large-scale comeback on the American left in the next few years, for reasons I’ll explain in a future post—but as Oswald Spengler pointed out almost a century ago, in the endgame of democratic societies, it’s not the cult of ideology but the cult of personality that’s the real danger. As the Russian proverb warns, it’s never a good idea to let the perfect become the enemy of the good; in our time, as a growing number of Americans insist that America isn’t a democracy because it doesn’t live up to their fantasies of political entitlement, it’s all too possible that one or more mass movements could coalesce around some charismatic figure who offers to fix everything that’s wrong with the country if only we let him get rid of all those cumbersome checks and balances that stand in his way. How many of the benefits of democracy I listed above would survive the victory of such a movement is not a question I would like to contemplate.


The sociological doctrine of Anacyclosis is a cyclical theory of political evolution. The theory of anacyclosis is based upon the Greek typology of constitutional forms of rule by the one, the few, and the many. Anacyclosis states that three basic forms of "benign" government (monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy) are inherently weak and unstable, tending to degenerate rapidly into the three basic forms of "malignant" government (tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy). Note that "ochlocracy" refers to mob rule, not the concept of democracy created in the late 18th century.

According to the doctrine, "benign" governments have the interests of all at heart, whereas "malignant" governments have the interests of a select few at heart. However, all six are considered unworkable because the first three rapidly transform into the latter three due to political corruption.

Polybius' sequence of anacyclosis proceeds in the following order: 1. Monarchy, 2. Kingship, 3. Tyranny, 4. Aristocracy, 5. Oligarchy, 6. Democracy, and 7. Ochlocracy.

According to Polybius' elaboration of the theory, the state begins in a form of primitive monarchy.

The state will emerge from monarchy under the leadership of an influential and wise king; this represents the emergence of "kingship".

Political power will pass by hereditary succession to the children of the king, who will abuse their authority for their own gain; this represents the degeneration of kingship into "tyranny".

Some of the more influential and powerful men of the state will grow weary of the abuses of tyrants, and will overthrow them; this represents the ascendancy of "aristocracy" (as well as the end of the "rule by the one" and the beginning of the "rule by the few").

Just as the descendants of kings, however, political influence will pass to the descendants of the aristocrats, and these descendants will begin to abuse their power and influence, as the tyrants before them; this represents the decline of aristocracy and the beginning of "oligarchy".

As Polybius explains, the people will by this stage in the political evolution of the state decide to take political matters into their own hands. This point of the cycle sees the emergence of "democracy", as well as the beginning of "rule by the many".

In the same way that the descendants of kings and aristocrats abused their political status, so too will the descendants of democrats. Accordingly, democracy degenerates into "ochlocracy", literally, "mob-rule". During ochlocracy, according to Polybius, the people of the state will become corrupted, and will develop a sense of entitlement and will be conditioned to accept the pandering of demagogues.

Eventually, the state will be engulfed in chaos, and the competing claims of demagogues will culminate in a single (sometimes virtuous) demagogue claiming absolute power, bringing the state full-circle back to monarchy.

From Wikipedia entry for ANACYCLOSIS

The Kyklos (Ancient Greek: κύκλος, IPA: [kýklos], "cycle") is a term used by some classical Greek authors to describe what they saw as the political cycle of governments in a society. It was roughly based on the history of Greek city-states in the same period. The concept of "The Kyklos" is first elaborated in Plato's Republic, chapters VIII and IX. Polybius calls it the anakyklosis or "anacyclosis".

According to Polybius, who has the most fully developed version of the cycle, it rotates through the three basic forms of government, democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy and the three degenerate forms of each of these governments ochlocracy, oligarchy, and tyranny.

Originally society is in ochlocracy but the strongest figure emerges and sets up a monarchy. The monarch's descendants, who because of their family's power lack virtue, become despots and the monarchy degenerates into a tyranny.

Because of the excesses of the ruler the tyranny is overthrown by the leading citizens of the state who set up an aristocracy. They too quickly forget about virtue and the state becomes an oligarchy.

These oligarchs are overthrown by the people who set up a democracy. Democracy soon becomes corrupt and degenerates into ochlocracy, beginning the cycle anew.

Plato and Aristotle have somewhat different beliefs. Plato only sees five forms of government. Aristotle believes the cycle begins with monarchy and ends in anarchy, but that it does not start anew. He also refers to democracy as the degenerate form of rule by the many and calls the virtuous form politeia, which is often translated as constitutional democracy. Cicero describes anacyclosis in his philosophical work De re publica.

Machiavelli, writing during the Renaissance, appears to have adopted Polybius' version of the cycle. Machiavelli's adoption of anacyclosis can be seen in Book I, Chapter II of his Discourses on Livy.

All the philosophers believed that this cycling was harmful. The transitions would often be accompanied by violence and turmoil, and a good part of the cycle would be spent with the degenerate forms of government. Aristotle gave a number of options as to how the cycle could be halted or slowed:

  • Even the most minor changes to basic laws and constitutions must be opposed because over time the small changes will add up to a complete transformation.
  • In aristocracies and democracies the tenure of rulers must be kept very short to prevent them from becoming despots
  • External threats, real or imagined, preserve internal peace
  • The three government basic systems can be blended into one, taking the best elements of each
  • If any one individual gains too much power, be it political, monetary, or military he should be banished from the polis
  • Judges and magistrates must never accept money to make decisions
  • The middle class must be large
  • Most important to Aristotle in preserving a constitution is education: if all the citizens are aware of law, history, and the constitution they will endeavour to maintain a good government.

Polybius, by contrast, focuses on the idea of mixed government. The idea that the ideal government is one that blends elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Aristotle mentions this notion but pays little attention to it. To Polybius it is the most important and he saw the Roman Republic as the embodiment of this mixed constitution and that this explained its stability.

From the Wikipedia entry for KYKLOS

These (statues) were brooding men; men who stared down at him out of their thousand pasts. Men who had stood with a planet for a throne and watched their Empire passing in ordered glory from horizon to horizon across the night sky of Earth — men worshipped as gods on out-world planets, who watched and guided the tide of Empire until it crashed thundering on the shores of ten thousand worlds beyond Vega and Altair. Men who sat cloaked in sable robes with diamond stars encrusted and saw their civilization built out from the Great Throne, tier on shining tier until at last it reached the Edge and strained across the awful gulf for the terrible seetee suns of mighty Andromeda itself…

The last few of the men like gods had watched the First Empire crumble. They had seen the wave of annihilation sweeping in from the Outer Marches of the Periphery; had seen their gem-bright civilization shattered with destructive forces so hideous that the spectre of the Great Destroyer hung like a mantle of death over the Galaxy, a thing to be shunned and feared forever. And thus had come the Interregnum.

Kieron had no eyes for these brooding giants; his world was not the world they had known. It was in the next chamber that the out-world warrior paused. It was a vast and empty place. Here there were but five figures and space for a thousand more. This was the Empire that Kieron knew. This Empire he had fought for and helped secure; a savage, darkling thing spawned in the dark ages of the Interregnum, a Galaxy-spanning fief of star-kings and serfs — of warlocks and spaceships — of light and shadow. This Empire had been born in the agony of a Galaxy and tempered in the bitter internecine wars of re-conquest.

From THE REBEL OF VALKYR by Alfred Coppel (1950)

(ed note: this is an insightful analysis of Poul Anderson's Technic History series by Sandra Miesel. It gives interesting details about the rise and fall of the Terran Empire)

A thousand years before Flandry's time, the woeful twentieth century faded into the hopeful twenty-first. Widespread social upheaval triggered by war, famine, and other disasters had obliterated entire societies but the ultimate effect was to produce a freer international order. Rational solutions were found to old problems like energy and population. The emerging global society was firmly wedded to technology and largely—but by no means exclusively—Western in outlook. Although local tongues persisted, the universal language was Anglic, a simplified version of English enriched with many foreign loan words. The new cultural synthesis became known as Technic civilization, successor of Western as Western had been of Classical.

The prosperity of this new era provided the resources to explore and develop the Solar System. Colonies were placed in orbit and permanent bases were established on the Moon and planets. A less-than-successful attempt was made to terraform Venus. By 2100, these settlements were large enough to join Earth in establishing the Solar Commonwealth, an institution that was to endure for the next five centuries. At the same time, faster-than-light interstellar travel became possible. Exploration and then emigration proceeded with explosive vigor. ("Wings of Victory" and "The Problem of Pain" occur in this period.)

Colonies continued to be founded all during the Commonwealth age. Just like New World pioneers before them, colonists were drawn by the chance for adventure, profit, advancement, social and political experimentation, or the desire to preserve a unique cultural heritage. (The ethnic motive was paramount for the settlers of Russo-Mongol Altai, African Nyanza, and Slavic Dennitza, to name only a few examples.) This outflow of humanity to widely scattered independent worlds is known as the Breakup.

Furthermore, humans encountered numerous other intelligent races among the stars. Contact was generally peaceful and mutually beneficial. Mars was ceded to aliens suited to its environment, a precedent for the later cession of Jupiter to the Ymirites in Imperial times.) Many alien peoples could assimilate high technology and interact with men as equals. All had contributions to offer: arts, beliefs, information, goods, services, and so forth. These exotic stimuli sparked the creative energies of Technic civilization to new peaks of excellence because they broadened the range of options available to each individual.

Thus interstellar conditions in Commonwealth times approximated those of the European Age of Exploration during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Likewise, they bred the same boldness. Independent traders ranged across vast reaches of space discovering and exploiting new worlds. Daring merchant-adventurers amassed huge fortunes and enormous political power. Their resources surpassed those of whole planetary governments, enabling them to live as grandly and arrogantly as Renaissance princes.

In the twenty-third century, the merchants and other groups involved in trade formed the Polesotechnic League to foster their own interests. This "League of Selling Skill" was a voluntary, self-regulating mutual protection organization that sought to curb the worst excesses of unbridled capitalism and defend its members against outside foes such as governments. The League issued its own currency, conducted its own diplomacy, and, on occasion, raised its own armies. Overall, it resembled the Hanseatic League of mercantile cities which totally dominated northern European commerce and politics between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries.

But the League made fateful decisions at a meeting called the Council of Hiawatha in 2400 which turned it into a set of feuding cartels and left it open to Commonwealth interference. The inability of the League to discipline itself and maintain its independence doomed it in the same way as the Conciliarist Movement's failure to reform the Church had doomed medieval Catholicism a thousand years before.

Nevertheless, the League's sunset years were filled with glorious accomplishments as exemplified in the careers of flamboyant Nicholas van Rijn and his soberer protégé, David Falkayn. Stories featuring these men (see “Chronology of Technic Civilization,” included in this and other volumes of the Technic Civilization Saga) illustrate the positive effects of the League on human colonists and primitive aliens. The traders imparted useful knowledge, reconciled warring factions, thwarted outside aggressors, loosened internal repression, suppressed piracy, and brought new groups into interstellar society—earning profits all the while. With van Rijn's consent, Falkayn helped underdeveloped planets acquire essential capital which proved to be their margin of survival later on. Together they exposed schemes of subversion and conquest that threatened Earth herself (Satan's World and Mirkheim).

But the League had irreparably decayed by the end of van Rijn's lifetime because of its members' greed and ruthlessness—not to mention the overwhelming complexity of its operations. By then, the Commonwealth had become a weak but meddlesome bureaucracy whose fortunes were intertwined with the League's. Falkayn, who had married van Rijn's granddaughter, foresaw the end and eventually emigrated from Technic civilization's sphere. He founded the new colony of Avalon which was jointly populated by humans and the winged Ythrians and ruled by the Domain of Ythri. ("Wingless on Avalon" and "Rescue on Avalon" relate the early years of this important settlement.)

Falkayn retreated; others built barricades against the coming storms. The next two centuries were the Time of Troubles. Technic civilization was swept by continual waves of war, revolution, economic collapse, and all their attendant evils. Violent convulsions shook every society—some fatally. The nadir was the sack of Earth by the Baldic League, a pack of spacegoing barbarians who had acquired advanced weapons from irresponsible traders. Shortly afterwards, the alien Gorzuni began raiding Earth periodically for slaves to stock their budding empire. One of their captives, Manuel Argos, organized a successful slave revolt that began the liberation of Earth ("The Star Plunderer"). Argos was a charismatic—and pragmatic—leader of enormous energy. Once he had stabilized the ravaged Solar System, he proclaimed himself First Emperor of the Terran Empire. This was a symbolic title shrewdly calculated to appeal to exhausted beings' longing for order.

Stability was what the Empire promised; stability was what it delivered. Other systems and regions willingly united with Terra in order to enjoy her protection. The Empire's rule was mild and the benefits of security from attack, safe transportation, and easy communication were immense. Collecting only modest taxes for the support of her excellent Navy and Civil Service, Terra generally let member planets manage their internal affairs undisturbed.

This was the ideal which attracted the allegiance of sturdy old colonies like Dennitza. Although some worlds, such as Aeneas and Ansa, had to be annexed forcibly, their inhabitants soon recognized the value of provincial status. "Sargasso of Lost Starships" is an account filled with discrepancies, nevertheless it shows the early Empire defeudalizing stagnant Ansa to good effect.

The turning point in Terra's expansion was the costly war of aggression that she fought against the Domain of Ythri. "Rectification of borders" was the official excuse; the true motive was sheer territorial aggrandizement. Although some Ythrian planets were won, bicultural Avalon successfully resisted Terran conquest as related in The People of the Wind. Eventually the Empire grew to encompass a sphere 400 light years in diameter, englobing four million stars and 100,000 inhabited planets. Now its only desire was to preserve that dominion unmolested.

Although both the Commonwealth and the Empire were created after periods of universal chaos, note that a century of redevelopment had preceded the formation of the Commonwealth whereas the Empire sprang directly from the ruins of previous institutions. This difference in origins produced considerable divergence in operation and attitudes. The Commonwealth as a political entity never extended beyond the Solar System, yet its era was a time of new accomplishments, broad horizons, and healthy cross-cultural influences. Man's attention was focused outward on other worlds, other races. Colonies were scattered broadcast and the Polesotechnic League harvested trade across incredible distances.

The Empire, on the other hand, was founded for renewal rather than development. Terra's task was to restore and preserve Technic civilization, hence her citizens were often cautious, incurious, and reluctant to try anything really new. There was even a lack of initiative in adapting to conditions on other worlds (Llynathawr, Freehold). Technology, especially for military purposes, did advance but basic scientific research lagged. The arts were likewise stagnant, chiefly repeating ancient models. Terrans were now less responsive to alien influences than formerly although colonials like the Dennitzans continued cultural interactions with their resident aliens. Overall, the Empire's outlook was parochial and protective whereas the League's had been ecumenical and expansionist.

After two centuries, these negative traits had become cracks fissuring the Empire's structure. But although Terra and her most imitative subjects were crumbling, the weaknesses in the foundation did not necessarily touch alien complexes within the Empire or colonies with strong, indigenous cultures of their own. (The cleavage between urban and rural Freeholders in "Outpost of Empire" is a case in point.) Nevertheless, the sound and unsound parts of the Empire were in jeopardy together.

The once-efficient system of Emperor and executive Policy Board acting through Sector Governors and planetary Residents was breaking down under the weight of personal corruption and folly. The Imperial yoke grew heavier without any offsetting increases in benefits, making the provinces resentful. More and more often, Terra's rulers were either too short-sighted to recognize threats to the public welfare or too stingy to meet them. One contemporary civil servant said of the Empire: "'Its competent people become untrustworthy from their very competence; anyone who can make a decision may make one the Imperium does not like. Incompetence grows with the growing suspiciousness and centralization. Defense and civil functions alike begin to disintegrate. What can that provoke except rebellion?'" (A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows).

Unlike the working aristocrats on colonial worlds such as Aeneas, the Terran upper classes were largely composed of selfish parasites exploiting their position for private gain. Titles of nobility ceased to be rewards for excellence as society hardened into castes. Options dwindled for the lower classes. Slavery was revived as punishment for crime. Indifference to aliens cost opportunities for wonder and sometimes masked a casual racism. The position of women declined in practice if not in theory. Vigorous colonial women and female aliens continued the Commonwealth-era tradition of full participation in society but too many Terran women were simply menials, consorts, entertainers, or whores; (Compare the difference in feminine roles in nineteenth century frontier America and its contemporary, Second Empire France.)

Detachment, boredom, apathy, despair were the prevailing moods of the era. Terrans lost their confidence, their morale, their energy. As one observer remarked: "'We've given up seeking perfection and glory; we've learned that they're chimerical—but that knowledge is a kind of death within us,'" ("Honorable Enemies"). The world-weary sought consolation in vice or spiritual obsessions. Few even thought of resisting the Empire's inevitable fall. A nineteenth century historian's verdict on Byzantium is equally applicable to the Terran Empire: "It is a tale of what had reached its zenith, of what was past its best strength, a tale of decadence postponed with skill and energy, and yet only postponed."

Matters were far otherwise with Terra's fierce young rival, the Roidhunate of Merseia. This newer imperium would never have come into existence except for David Falkayn's intervention when Merseia was threatened by the effects of a nearby supernova ("Day of Burning"). But the League's high-handed relief tactics outraged the haughty Merseians so thoroughly, they were spurred to achieve global union. In due course, they entered space and emerged from the Time of Troubles ruling an interstellar empire composed of many peoples, including humans. However, since this was the Merseians' first turn on the wheel of galactic history, they were as energetic and ambitious as Earthmen of the early Commonwealth period had been.

Merseia's collision with Terra was another example of that old adage: "Two tough, smart races want the same real estate." Despite their green reptilian skins, Merseians were enough like humans to eat the same food and enjoy the same jokes. However, they were more ferocious than humans and could tolerate no equals whatsoever. To them, the Covenant of Alfzar they signed with Terra was no treaty of detente but an invitation to continue their struggle by covert means.

A Merseian conceived of life as a great hunt and found the meaning of his existence in the strength of the foes he overcame. The bellicose Merseians relished interspecies struggle but would not have hesitated to exterminate vanquished opponents afterwards. They were proud and severe by nature but the Roidhunate's acute xenophobia was a feature of the dominant, Eriau-speaking culture, not necessarily of their entire people. Merseian allegiance was primarily to the race, not to the Roidhunate as such. Their ultimate goal was nothing less than a Merseian-owned galaxy. Their governing Grand Council of Vachs (clan chiefs) headed by a landless, hereditary head of state (the Roidhun) had no direct aspirations to direct galactic rule but rather envisioned interlocking sets of autonomous Merseian realms. They believed their great vision justified any policy, however ruthless.

Although the warfare between Terra and Merseia resembles innumerable matches between weary old empires and brash new ones, the closest historical analogy is to the Eastern Roman Empire's duel with Sassanid Persia between the third and seventh centuries A.D. Both pairings were instances of disastrous, mutually exhausting struggles between enemies who regarded each other as their sole worthy opponent. The Eastern Empire was as preservationist, inward-turning, callous, and sophisticated as the Terran. It was perennially on the defensive against waves of enemies both civilized and barbarous. Key factors in its survival were devious intelligence agents and military officers who were hedonists in the capital but heroes in the marches. The Sassanids, on the other hand, were an aggressive, chauvinistic dynasty supremely confident of Persian cultural superiority. The intolerant state religion they ardently patronized justified their pretentions. Their obsession with hunting and their fiercely romantic masculinity were uncannily Merseian in flavor.

Within a few years he (Flandry) met and lost his great love in The Rebel Worlds. She was Kathryn McCormac, the wife of an admiral driven into revolt against the Empire by an Imperial Governor's brutal exactions. With Flandry's help she killed the Governor, thus preventing him from becoming the future evil power behind the Imperial throne. But she permitted her husband's rebellion to fail and followed him into exile rather than commit adultery with Flandry, whose disappointment became an excuse for libertine living.

Although this threat to the Empire's integrity was successfully countered, the ominous precedent of military revolt had been set. In the future it would be copied by other Navy officers hopeful of becoming "barracks emperors." Aeneas, focal point of the rebellion, was subsequently pacified and reconstructed despite Merseian attempts to reopen the wound (The Day of Their Return).

But Flandry was only manning the pump on a sinking ship. The Empire could stay afloat a while longer but it was no longer able to repair—much less rebuild itself. Destructive trends continued in Terran society despite the sacrifices of Flandry and others like him: "Too many mutually alien races; too many forces clashing in space, and so desperately few who comprehended the situation and tried their feeble best to help—naked hands battering at an avalanche as it ground down on them," ("Honorable Enemies").

Creativity never revived in the arts and sciences. Social barriers grew higher and the gaps between classes wider. Slaves increased in numbers while the conditions of their servitude worsened. Terra's fear of colonial disloyalty grew after McCormac's Revolt but her countermeasures, like forbidding Navy men to serve in their home systems, only weakened loyalty further. Colonies such as Freehold, Aeneas, and Dennitza began to plan for their post-Imperial futures. Despairing of Technic civilization, ripe for new religions and crazes, people withdrew from Terran society psychologically if not physically.

Thus it was with the Terran Empire as it had been with the Roman nearly 3,000 years before. Not enough is known about the Terran Emperor Georgios to compare him directly with the Roman Marcus Aurelius but at least he was an acceptable ruler. His son Josip, however, was every bit as degenerate as Marcus Aurelius' son Commodus and his impact on the Empire every bit as disastrous. The disorders that followed Josip's death tossed up Hans Molitor who was an exact counterpart to Septimus Severus, similarly provided with two incompetent sons, and likewise destined to die on an unruly frontier. After another round of civil wars, Flandry became the key advisor to a sound, Aurelian-like Emperor.

The Terran Empire was completing its Principate phase and beginning its Interregnum in Flandry's day. After his death, it became a Dominate, a static, repressive state with all the harshness of Diocletian's Roman Empire. All the negative tendencies of the previous era persisted unchecked. Not even a resort to divine kingship could save the Empire. The Fall, so slow, so long expected, was complete by the middle of the fourth millennium. Technic civilization was extinct. The Long Night had arrived.

Information about the Empire's Fall is inexact and largely speculative but the Byzantine-Persian historical model described earlier can usefully supplement the Roman one. It appears that Terra and Merseia wore each other out in fruitless wars of attrition, leaving each other too weak to resist other foes. Internal rebellions triggered by poverty, tyranny, and insecurity left both imperia even more vulnerable.

Perhaps the Betelgeusans, a race noted for long range planning, had decided to end their centuries of neutrality and prosper at their larger neighbors' expense just as the medieval Georgians had. Possibly the fierce Gorrazani (descendants of the Gorzuni) erupted in conquest like the Turks. Or else the precedents of the Scothani and Ardazirho inspired other barbarians to harry Terra and Merseia as border savages had raided Byzantine and Persian territory. Undoubtedly, these were the kinds of factors that ruined Terra and Merseia. It is not certain if either capital world was destroyed. But shorn of her possessions, heavily populated Terra had insufficient resources left to rebuild her might. Merseia would have suffered catastrophic culture shock when her glorious dream failed.

A few incidents recorded during the Long Night show old Imperial colonies trying to retain or regain lost knowledge ("A Tragedy of Errors"). It was hunger for knowledge more than for goods that stimulated civilization's revival. Leading planets in the reconstruction period like Nuevoamerica and Kraken had never been part of the Empire. They explored far beyond its old borders ("The Night Face" and "The Sharing of Flesh"): Eventually, an entirely new approach to interstellar relations evolved. This was the Commonalty, a galactic service organization that provided quasi-governmental services without itself actually being a government ("Starfog"). Perhaps the Commonalty will avoid some of the weaknesses inherent in empires but eventually it is sure to develop special problems of its own. Meanwhile, a new and brilliant cycle of history has begun.

What does the pageant of Technic civilization just summarized prove? (If indeed history can be said to prove anything.) First, its rise and fall demonstrates that governments operate under the social equivalent of Darwinian pressure: they must function within their environments or be replaced. Any kind of system that provides its citizens with an acceptable balance of opportunity and security is good. Pragmatic results count for more than political dogma. Initially the League emphasized opportunity and the Commonwealth security but finally neither could give either and so they perished. The best justification for the early Empire was that it spread a military umbrella over 100,000 unique cultural experiments. Once its ability to stimulate and defend its subjects faltered, its days were numbered.

Furthermore, these extant accounts of Technic civilization show history as a record of interlocking ironies arising from individual choices. For instance, if Falkayn had not aided Merseia, it would not have survived to menace the Empire. Yet if he had not also founded Avalon and his descendants not resisted Imperial conquest, no free Avalonian would have been available to save the Empire from a subtle Merseian plot in The Day of Their Return. If Flandry had treated his first two mistresses with greater consideration, he would not have lost his last chance for happiness. If Kathryn had not rebuffed Flandry's advances, neither the Empire nor her own descendants would have long survived. Each irresistible historic trend is actually the net product of separate acts which had not necessarily appeared significant at the time they occurred. Each key event "'is the flower on a plant whose seed went into the ground long before ... and whose roots reach widely, and will send up fresh growths,'" (A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows).

Finally, this temporal drama reminds us that everything in the universe is mortal. All things, institutions as well as persons, are born only to die. The lifespan of a galaxy or an empire is as limited as that of a man. The only proper response, in the face of entropy's inevitable triumph is to struggle as well and bravely as possible. As Flandry said in Hunters of the Sky Cave, "'I don't want to die so fast I can't feel it. I want to see death coming, and make the stupid thing fight for every centimeter of me.'" Existence is a pattern with no universally acknowledged goal or purpose other than to be itself, a doomed but lovely candle in the darkness.

Groups of Goverments

The terminology for groups of governments gets complicated. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entry "TRADE FEDERATION".

An alliance between governments, during which they cooperate in joint action, each in their own self-interest. This alliance may be temporary, or a matter of convenience. A coalition thus differs from a more formal Confederation.
An alliance between governments created by a compact, concord, concordat, covenant, pact or treaty. Confederations tend to be established to deal with critical issues, such as defense, foreign affairs, foreign trade, and a common currency, with the central government being required to provide support for all members. It is similar in structure to a federation but with a weaker central government. The member governments generally retain the right of secession. Synonyms: Alliance, Compact, Concordiat, League, Axis.
A Federation is similar to a Confederation, but the member governments have surrendered more of their rights and responsibilities to the central government. The member governments (known as states, dominions, or provinces) are still self-governing, but give up control of foreign affairs. Member governments generally lose the right of secession. Synonym: Commonwealth, Assembly.
A Union is a Federation where the member governments have surrendered some control of their internal affairs. The main difference between a Union and an Empire is that the Union is voluntary. Synonyms: Amalgamation, Association, Coadunation, Consolidation, Consortium, Polity, Unification.
Sphere of Influence
A metaphorical region of political influences surrounding a government. When a government falls into another's "sphere of influence" that government frequently becomes subsidiary to the more powerful one, operating as a satellite state or de facto colony. Synonyms: Hegemony, Demesne
A Suzerainty is not voluntary, the member governments have been incorporated by force. The member governments are a tributary to the conquering government (the Suzerain), and enjoys some limited domestic self-rule, but no control over foreign affairs.
Buffer State
A buffer state is small empire lying between two rival or potentially hostile greater powers, which by its sheer existence is thought to prevent conflict between them. In theory they curb the territorial expansion of a rival empire at your empire's expense.
An Empire is not voluntary, the member regions have been incorporated by force. The leader region is called the "metropole", the subjugated regions are called the "peripheries." The peripheries are ruled by governors, viceroys, or client kings in the name of the Emperor. Synonym: Imperium

With most of these labels, all you have to do is add a weird noun and you have your empire's name, e.g., the Unitech Polity, the Dominion of the Technomorphs, the Romulan Star Empire, the Rigel Covenant, etc. Go to The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy and read the entry "EMPIRE".


An associated state is the minor partner in a formal, free relationship between a political territory with a degree of statehood and a (usually larger) nation, for which no other specific term, such as protectorate, is adopted.

The details of such free association are contained in United Nations General Assembly resolution 1541 (XV) Principle VI, a Compact of Free Association or Associated Statehood Act and are specific to the countries involved. In the case of the Cook Islands and Niue, the details of their free association arrangement are contained in several documents, such as their respective constitutions, the 1983 Exchange of Letters between the governments of New Zealand and the Cook Islands, and the 2001 Joint Centenary Declaration. Free associated states can be described as independent or not, but free association is not a qualification of an entity's statehood or status as a subject of international law.

Informally it can be considered more widely: from a post-colonial form of amical protection, or protectorate, to confederation of unequal members when the lesser partner(s) delegate(s) to the major one (often the former colonial power) some authority normally exclusively retained by a sovereign state, usually in such fields as defense and foreign relations, while often enjoying favorable economic terms such as market access.

According to some scholars, a form of association based on benign protection and delegation of sovereignty can be seen as a defining feature of microstates.

A federacy, a type of government where at least one of the subunits in an otherwise unitary state enjoys autonomy like a subunit within a federation, is similar to an associated state, with such subunit(s) having considerable independence in internal issues, except foreign affairs and defense. Yet in terms of international law it is a completely different situation because the subunits are not independent international entities and have no potential right to independence.

From the Wikipedia entry for ASSOCIATED STATE

Asymmetric federalism or asymmetrical federalism is found in a federation in which different constituent states possess different powers: one or more of the substates has considerably more autonomy than the other substates, although they have the same constitutional status. This is in contrast to symmetric federalism, where no distinction is made between constituent states. As a result, it is frequently proposed as a solution to the dissatisfactions that arise when one or two constituent units feel significantly different needs from the others, as the result of an ethnic, linguistic or cultural difference.

The difference between an asymmetric federation and federacy is indistinct; a federacy is essentially an extreme case of an asymmetric federation, either due to large differences in the level of autonomy, or the rigidity of the constitutional arrangements. An asymmetric federation, however, has to have a federal constitution, and all states in federation have the same formal status ("state"), while in a federacy independent substate has a different status ("autonomous region").

From the Wikipedia entry for ASYMMETRIC FEDERALISM

In political science, the term banana republic describes a politically unstable country with an economy dependent upon the exportation of a limited-resource product, such as bananas or minerals. In 1904, the American author O. Henry coined the term to describe Honduras and neighbouring countries under economic exploitation by U.S. corporations, such as the United Fruit Company. Typically, a banana republic has a society of extremely stratified social classes, usually a large impoverished working class and a ruling class plutocracy, composed of the business, political, and military elites of that society. The ruling class controls the primary sector of the economy by way of the exploitation of labor; thus, the term banana republic is a pejorative descriptor for a servile oligarchy that abets and supports, for kickbacks, the exploitation of large-scale plantation agriculture, especially banana cultivation.

A banana republic is a country with an economy of state capitalism, whereby the country is operated as a private commercial enterprise for the exclusive profit of the ruling class. Such exploitation is enabled by collusion between the state and favored economic monopolies, in which the profit, derived from the private exploitation of public lands, is private property, while the debts incurred thereby are the financial responsibility of the public treasury. Such an imbalanced economy remains limited by the uneven economic development of town and country, and usually reduces the national currency into devalued banknotes (paper money), rendering the country ineligible for international development credit.

From the Wikipedia entry for BANANA REPUBLIC

Not to be confused with buffer zone (a zonal area between two or more other areas), or march (a fortified non-homeland territory for defense against a rival power).

A buffer state is a country lying between two rival or potentially hostile great powers. Its existence can sometimes be thought to prevent conflict between them. A buffer state is sometimes a mutually agreed upon area lying between two greater powers, which is demilitarized in the sense of not hosting the military of either power (though it will usually have its own military forces). The invasion of a buffer state by one of the powers surrounding it will often result in war between the powers.

Research shows that buffer states are significantly more likely to be conquered and occupied than are nonbuffer states. This is because "states that great powers have an interest in preserving—buffer states—are in fact in a high-risk group for death. Regional or great powers surrounding buffer states face a strategic imperative to take over buffer states: if these powers fail to act against the buffer, they fear that their opponent will take it over in their stead. By contrast, these concerns do not apply to nonbuffer states, where powers face no competition for influence or control."

Buffer states, when authentically independent, typically pursue a neutralist foreign policy, which distinguishes them from satellite states. The concept of buffer states is part of a theory of the balance of power that entered European strategic and diplomatic thinking in the 18th century.

From the Wikipedia entry for BUFFER STATE

A buffer zone is a neutral zonal area that lies between two or more bodies of land, usually pertaining to countries. Depending on the type of buffer zone, it may serve to separate regions or conjoin them. Common types of buffer zones are demilitarized zones, border zones and certain restrictive easement zones and green belts. Such zones may be comprised by a sovereign state, forming a buffer state.

Buffer zones have various purposes, politically or otherwise. They can be set up for a multitude of reasons, such as to prevent violence, protect the environment, shield residential and commercial zones from industrial accidents or natural disasters, or even isolate prisons. Buffer zones often result in large uninhabited regions that are themselves noteworthy in many increasingly developed or crowded parts of the world.

From the Wikipedia entry for BUFFER ZONE

A client state is a state that is economically, politically, or militarily subordinate to another more powerful state (termed controlling state in this article) in international relations. Types of client states include: satellite state, associated state, puppet state, puppet monarch, dominion, self-governing colony, neo-colony, protectorate, vassal state, and tributary state.

From the Wikipedia entry for CLIENT STATE

Within the British Empire, a Crown colony or royal colony was a colony administered by the Government of the United Kingdom (the Crown). There was usually a Governor, appointed by the Monarch on the advice of the Home (UK) Government, with or without the assistance of a local Council (in some cases split into two: an Executive Council and a Legislative Council), similar to the Privy Council that advises the Monarch. As the Members of the Councils were appointed by the Governors, there was consequently no local autonomy, and British citizens resident in Crown colonies had no representation in local government. This was in contrast to self-governing colonies, within which the Sovereign state (the UK Government) delegated legislature for most local internal matters of governance to elected assemblies, beginning with the House of Burgesses of the colony of Virginia in 1619 and the House of Assembly of the Parliament of Bermuda in 1620 (however, the term "Crown colony" has sometimes been mistakenly applied to colonies that do have elected local governments and partial autonomy). As the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom has never included seats for any of the colonies, there was, and is, consequently no representation at any level of Government for British citizens residing in Crown colonies.

All British colonies, whether Crown (such as the Falkland Islands) or self-governing (such as Bermuda), were renamed "British Dependent Territories" from 1 January, 1983, per a 1981 Act of Parliament. As many British citizens in the colonies (who, with the exceptions of the Falkland Islanders and subsequently the Gibraltarians, found their Citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies changed at the same time to British Dependent Territories Citizenship, a form of British citizenship that stripped them of rights including the right to reside and work in the United Kingdom) were offended at being described as dependents of Britain as opposed to British, from 2002 the colonies have been known officially as British Overseas Territories (although the British Government had stated it would abolish British Dependent Territories Citizenship and return to a single citizenship for Britain and its colonies, British Dependent Territories Citizenship instead was re-named British Overseas Territories Citizenship and remained as the default citizenship for colonials, though British Citizenship could also be obtained, and the barriers to colonials residing and working in the UK were lifted).

From the Wikipedia entry for CROWN COLONY

The word Dominion was used from 1907 to 1948 to refer to one of several self-governing nations of the British Empire. "Dominion status" was formally accorded to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, South Africa, and the Irish Free State at the 1926 Imperial Conference to designate "autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations”. India, Pakistan, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were also dominions for short periods of time. The Balfour Declaration of 1926 recognised the Dominions as "autonomous communities within the British Empire", and the 1931 Statute of Westminster confirmed their full legislative independence. With the dissolution of the British Empire after World War II and the formation of the Commonwealth of Nations, use of the term was formally abandoned at the 1949 Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference and replaced with "member of the Commonwealth" to recognize the full autonomy of members.

From the Wikipedia entry for DOMINION

A federacy is a form of government where one or several substate units enjoy considerably more independence than the majority of the substate units. To some extent, such an arrangement can be considered to be similar to asymmetric federalism.


A federacy is a form of government with features of both a federation and unitary state. In a federacy, at least one of the constituent parts of the state is autonomous, while the other constituent parts are either not autonomous or comparatively less autonomous. An example of such an arrangement is Finland, where Åland, which has the status of autonomous province, has considerably more autonomy than the other provinces. The autonomous constituent part enjoys a degree of independence as though it was part of federation, while the other constituent parts are as independent as subunits in a unitary state. This autonomy is guaranteed in the country's constitution. The autonomous subunits are often former colonial possessions or are home to a different ethnic group from the rest of the country. These autonomous subunits often have a special status in international relations.

From the Wikipedia entry for

Limitrophe states are territories situated on a border or frontier. In a broad sense, it means border countries, any group of neighbors of a given nation which border each other thus forming a rim around that country. The English term derives from pays limitrophes, a term in diplomatic French.

In ancient Rome, the term referred to provinces at the borders of the Roman Empire (Latin: limitrophus), which were obliged to provide billeting of the limitanei legions deployed on their territory, mostly in limes.

In modern history, it was used to refer to provinces that seceded from the Russian Empire at the end of World War I, during the Russian Civil War (1917–1922), thus forming a kind of belt or cordon sanitaire separating Soviet Russia from the rest of Europe during the interwar period.

From the Wikipedia entry for LIMITROPHE STATES

In medieval Europe, a march or mark was, in broad terms, any kind of borderland, as opposed to a national "heartland". More specifically, a march was a border between realms or a neutral, buffer zone under joint control of two states in which different laws might apply. In both of these senses, marches served a political purpose such as providing warning of military incursions or regulating cross-border trade.

Just as counties were traditionally ruled by counts, marches gave rise to titles such as marquess (masculine) or marchioness (feminine) in England, marquis (masculine) or marquise (feminine) in France and Scotland, margrave (Markgraf i.e., "march count"; masculine) or margravine (Markgräfin i.e., "march countess", feminine) in Germany, and corresponding titles in other European states.

From the Wikipedia entry for MARCH (TERRITORY)

A micronation is a political entity whose members claim that they belong to an independent nation or sovereign state lacking legal recognition by world governments or major international organizations. Most are geographically very small, but range in size from a single square foot to millions of square miles (Westarctica). They are usually the outgrowth of a single individual.

A micronation expresses a formal and persistent if unrecognized claim of sovereignty over some physical territory. Micronations are distinct from true secessionist movements; micronations' activities are almost always trivial enough to be ignored rather than challenged by the established nations whose territory they claim. Several micronations have issued coins, flags, postage stamps, passports, medals and other state-related items, often as a source of revenue.

Some of what might now be considered micronations began in the 20th century. The advent of the Internet provided the means for people to create many new micronations, whose members are scattered all over the world and interact mostly by electronic means, often calling their nations "nomadic countries". The differences between such "Internet micronations", other kinds of social networking groups and role-playing games are often difficult to define.

The term "micronation" to describe those entities dates at least to the 1970s. The term micropatriology is sometimes used to describe the study of both micronations and microstates by micronationalists, some of whom refer to sovereign nation-states as "macronations".

Micronations contrast with microstates, which are small but recognized sovereign states such as Andorra, Bahrain, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, Singapore, and Vatican City. They are also distinct from imaginary countries and from other kinds of social groups (such as eco-villages, campuses, tribes, clans, sects and residential community associations).

From the Wikipedia entry for MICRONATION

A microstate or ministate is a sovereign state having a very small population or very small land area, usually both. The meanings of "state" and "very small" are not well-defined in international law. Recent attempts, since 2010, to define microstates have focused on identifying political entities with unique qualitative features linked to their geographic or demographic limitations. According to a qualitative definition, microstates are "modern protected states, i.e. sovereign states that have been able to unilaterally depute certain attributes of sovereignty to larger powers in exchange for benign protection of their political and economic viability against their geographic or demographic constraints." In line with this and most other definitions, examples of microstates include Andorra, the Federated States of Micronesia, Liechtenstein, the Marshall Islands, Monaco, Palau, and San Marino. The smallest political entity recognized as a sovereign state is Vatican City, with around 1,000 citizens as of 2017 and an area of only 44 hectares (110 acres). Some microstates are city-states consisting of a single municipality.

Microstates are distinct from micronations, which are not recognized as sovereign states. Special territories without full sovereignty, such as the British Crown dependencies, the special administrative regions of China, and the overseas territories of various recognized states are also not usually considered microstates.

From the Wikipedia entry for MICROSTATE

Neocolonialism is the practice of using economics, globalisation, cultural imperialism and conditional aid to influence a country instead of the previous colonial methods of direct military control (imperialism) or indirect political control (hegemony). Neocolonialism differs from standard globalisation and development aid in that it typically results in a relationship of dependence, subservience, or financial obligation towards the neocolonialist nation. This may result in an undue degree of political control or spiraling debt obligations, functionally imitating the relationship of traditional colonialism.

Coined by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in 1956, it was first used by Kwame Nkrumah in the context of African countries undergoing decolonisation in the 1960s. Neocolonialism is also discussed in the works of Western thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre (Colonialism and Neocolonialism, 1964) and Noam Chomsky (The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, 1979). There is an ongoing debate about whether certain actions by the United States and China should be considered neocolonialism.

From the Wikipedia entry for NEOCOLONIALISM

A protectorate is a state that is controlled and protected by another sovereign state. It is a dependent territory that has been granted local autonomy over most internal affairs while still recognizing the suzerainty of a more powerful sovereign state without being its direct possession. In exchange, the protectorate usually accepts specified obligations depending on the terms of their arrangement. Usually protectorates are established de jure by a treaty. Under certain conditions as of Egypt under British rule (1882–1914) e.g., a state can also be labelled as a de facto protectorate or a "veiled protectorate".

A protectorate is different from a colony as they have local rulers, are not directly possessed and rarely experience colonization by the suzerain state. However, some sources term a state that remains under the protection of another state while retaining its independence as a protected state, different from a protectorate, while other sources use the terms like synonyms.

From the Wikipedia entry for PROTECTORATE

A puppet monarch is a majority figurehead who is installed or patronized by an imperial power to provide the appearance of local authority but to allow political and economic control to remain among the dominating nation.

A figurehead monarch, as source of legitimacy and possibly divine reign, has been the used form of government in several situations and places of history.

There are two basic forms of using puppets as monarchs (rulers, kings, emperors):

  • A figurehead in which the monarch is a puppet of another person or a group in the country who rules instead of the nominal ruler.
  • A puppet government under a foreign power.

Examples of the first type are the Emperors who were the puppets of the shōgunss of Japan and the kings who were the puppets of the Mayor of Palace in the Frankish kingdom. Client kingdoms under the Roman Republic and Roman Empire and the British Empire's colonial relationship with King Farouk of Egypt in the 1950s are examples of the second type.

From the Wikipedia entry for PUPPET MONARCH

A puppet state, puppet régime or puppet government is a state that is de jure independent but de facto completely dependent upon an outside power and subject to its orders. Puppet states have nominal sovereignty, but a foreign power effectively exercises control through means such as financial interests, economic, or military support.

Puppet states are distinguished from allies, which choose their actions on their own or in accordance with treaties they voluntarily entered. Puppet states are forced into providing legal endorsement for actions already taken by a foreign power.

From the Wikipedia entry for PUPPET STATE

A satellite state is a country that is formally independent in the world, but under heavy political, economic and military influence or control from another country. The term was coined by analogy to planetary objects orbiting a larger object, such as smaller moons revolving around larger planets, and is used mainly to refer to Central and Eastern European countries of the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War or to Mongolia or Tannu Tuva between 1924 and 1990, for example. As used for Central and Eastern European countries it implies that the countries in question were "satellites" under the hegemony of the Soviet Union. In some contexts it also refers to other countries in the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War—such as North Korea (especially in the years surrounding the Korean War of 1950–1953) and Cuba (particularly after it joined the Comecon in 1972), and to some countries in the American sphere of influence—such as South Vietnam (particularly during the Vietnam war). In Western usage, the term has seldom been applied to states other than those in the Soviet orbit. In Soviet usage, the term applied to the states in the orbit of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the use of the phrase satellite state in English back at least as far as 1916.

In times of war or political tension, satellite states sometimes serve as buffers between an enemy country and the nation exerting control over the satellites. "Satellite state" is one of several contentious terms used to describe the (alleged) subordination of one state to another. Other such terms include puppet state and neo-colony. In general, the term "satellite state" implies deep ideological and military allegiance to the hegemonic power, whereas "puppet state" implies political and military dependence, and "neo-colony" implies (often abject) economic dependence. Depending on which aspect of dependence is being emphasised, a state may fall into more than one category.

From the Wikipedia entry for SATELLITE STATE

In the British Empire, a self-governing colony was a colony with an elected government in which elected rulers were able to make most decisions without referring to the colonial power with nominal control of the colony. This was in contrast to a Crown colony, in which the British Government ruled and legislated via an appointed Governor, with or without the assistance of an appointed Council. Most self-governing colonies had responsible government.

Self-governing colonies for the most part have no formal authority over constitutional matters such the monarchy and the constitutional relationship with Britain. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, in London, serves as the ultimate avenue of appeal in matters of law and justice.

Colonies have sometimes been referred to as "self-governing" in situations where the executive has been under the control of neither the imperial government nor a local legislature elected by universal suffrage, but by a local oligarchy state. In most cases such control has been exercised by an elite class from a settler community.

The then-remaining British colonies, self-governing (notably Bermuda) or Crown (notably Hong Kong), were re-designated British Dependent Territories from 1983, then British Overseas Territories from 2002.

From the Wikipedia entry for SELF-GOVERNING COLONY

A tributary state is a term for a pre-modern state in a particular type of subordinate relationship to a more powerful state which involved the sending of a regular token of submission, or tribute, to the superior power. This token often took the form of a substantial transfer of wealth, such as the delivery of gold, produce or slaves, so that tribute might best be seen as the payment of protection money. Or it might be more symbolic: sometimes it amounted to no more than the delivery of a mark of submission such as the bunga mas (golden flower) that rulers in the Malay peninsula used to send to the kings of Siam, or the Tribute of the Maltese Falcon that the Grand Master of the Order of St. John used to send annually to the Viceroy of Sicily in order to rule Malta. It might also involve attendance by the subordinate ruler at the court of the hegemon in order to make a public show of submission.

The modern-day heirs of tribute hegemons tend to claim that the tributary relationship should be understood as an acknowledgement of the hegemon's sovereignty in the modern world, whereas former tributary states deny that there was any transfer of sovereignty.

A formalized tribute system developed in East Asia with many neighboring East, Central, Southeast and South Asian countries and regions becoming tributary states of various Chinese dynasties. Historically, the Emperor of China saw himself as the emperor of the entire civilized world. It was not possible for such an emperor to have equal diplomatic relations with any other power, and so all diplomatic relations in the region were construed by the Chinese as tributary. The disdain of the state ideology of Confucianism for trade, and the belief that Chinese civilization had no need of products or technology from outside meant that trade, when it was permitted, was also construed as tributary. Diplomatic missions and trading parties from non-Chinese regions were interpreted in Chinese records as being tributary, regardless of the intention of those regions. Under this construction, the goods received by China constituted a tributary offering, while those that the visitors received were interpreted as gifts that the emperor in his kindness had bestowed upon his distant tributaries.

In Al Andalus, the last remaining Moorish Nasrid dynasty in the Emirate of Granada paid tribute to the Christian Kingdom of Castile (present-day Spain). Tributary states, usually on the periphery of the Ottoman Empire, were under vassalage in different forms. Some were allowed to select their own leaders, while others paid tribute for their lands. In the Western colonial system, non-Western states were sometimes incorporated into a European empire as protectorates.

In the Philippines, the Datus of the Barangays became vassals of the Spanish Empire, from the late 16th century until the Archipelago fell under the power of the United States of America in 1898. Their right to rule was recognized by King Philip II of Spain, on 11 June 1594, under the condition of paying tributes due to the Spanish Crown.

For modern forms of state subordination, see puppet state, satellite state and client state.

From the Wikipedia entry for TRIBUTARY STATE

A vassal state is any state that has a mutual obligation to a superior state or empire, in a status similar to that of a vassal in the feudal system in medieval Europe. The obligations often included military support in exchange for certain privileges. In some cases, the obligation included paying tribute, but a state which does so is better described as a tributary state. Today, more common terms are puppet state, protectorate, client state, associated state or satellite state.

From the Wikipedia entry for VASSAL STATE

      The empty grave was a regulation hole, one meter wide, two meters long, two meters deep. I looked up into the sky through the gloomy overcast at the blue-and-white globe that hung there. It was there, on the planet Kennedy, that the tradition of the empty grave had arisen. There, during the Fast Plague, it had been rare to have a body to put in the ground. The corpses had been viciously infectious. The only sure way of sterilizing the remains was to destroy them in the fusion flame of a grounded spacecraft. That was what happened to my parents' bodies—I remember the patches of dim incandescence in the cleansing flame. There was a an empty grave there, on Kennedy, a meter by a meter by two meters; on top of it a granite cover slab that bore their names.
     There have always been a lot of funerals without bodies at the edges of civilization, I suppose. There still were. A ship doesn't come back. Somebody pushes the wrong button and a ship explodes. People get eaten. There are lots of ways.
     Silently, I bid our comrades a last farewell, and we went inside. Once in our quarters, it took us a while to get out of our pressure suits and into our dress uniforms, with the grim addition of an issue black armband. I struggled into the midnight-black, high-collared, rather severe uniform of the Republic of Kennedy Navy. Joslyn, a native of the Planetary Commonwealth of Britannica, was thereby a loyal subject of the King-Emperor of Great Britain. Her uniform was a deep navy blue, with a lower collar, far fewer buttons, and a better cut. Both of us wore the insignia of the League of Planets Survey Service, a starfield superimposed on a rectangular grid. Both of us were lieutenants, assigned to special training classes at the League of Planets Survey Service Training Center on Columbia.
     Joslyn checked her appearance in the mirror. She said she was five foot seven and I was six four. I said she was 170 centimeters and I was 193.

     We, the survivors, should have been able to gather quietly together, drawn to each other by the bonds of comradery that linked us one to the other, and to the dead.
     But the government representatives here had to be treated diplomatically. Some were from nations and planets that opposed the Survey, others from places that were footing the bill. Captain Driscoll had to invite them, and many had come. Joslyn went off in search of drinks. I stood there and scanned the crowd for a friendly face. Pete Gesseti caught my eye and came over.
     Pete works for the Republic of Kennedy State Department, and is one of those rare people who can actually make you believe that the bureaucracy knows what it is doing.
     "The wedding aside, at least you didn't miss a trip to someplace worth going," I said.

     "True, I guess. Though the League should have picked someplace a lot better than this to train you kids. And I have a sneaky idea that putting you in this hole was the deliberate policy of certain people who want the Survey to fail, if you're interested in a little paranoia."
     "Mac—tell me this: How does Columbia rate as a training base for a space-going operation?" Pete has a tendency to snap from one subject to another quickly. He takes some keeping up with.
     "Well, okay—not so great."
     "Make that terrible. You guys should be in free orbit. That way, if you want to train in your ships, you just hop out the hatch and go to it. Here, since your ships aren't designed to land on a surface, you lose a lot of time taking shuttle craft back and forth. Makes schedules impossible. Even having to fly through this atmosphere is worthless as training. It's a freak since the terraforming engineers started tinkering with it. It hasn't stopped raining here for years, which must be great for morale. The air would kill you, so you have to wear suits. The methane leaks in anyway, and stinks to high heaven. The whole atmosphere is in transition: All kinds of crud precipitates and ruins equipment…"
     "Okay, you've made your point. It's not such a great base. So who is it that got the base put here?"
     "You kids are lucky this is my third drink or I'd still be a fairly discreet diplomat. People who wanted the Survey to fail. Those people had friends who arranged for some misguided members of the Kennedy Chamber of Commerce to lobby for you to be based here—if you follow that. They would like the Survey to fail because the British donated the ten long-range frigates you'll be flying, because your commander graduated from Annapolis, and because the reports are to be published in English. They think the Brits and the Yanks are plotting to lay claim to all the best real estate out there. Note Britannica, Kennedy, and Newer Jersey are the prime planets so far—Europa, for example, isn't all that habitable. There are some grounds for being suspicious. Anyone you met at this reception speaking French, or German, or Japanese, for example, would probably be just as happy if you had all been on the Venera when she went poof."
     My head was whirling with confusion. I had never paid much attention to politics. It had never occurred to me that someone would think ill of the Survey, let alone try and throw monkey wrenches at it.
     And then there were the rumblings that the Survey Service was to be stillborn. We had yet to send a single ship out on a survey mission. Ours, the first class of the Service, had been about a month from graduation when the Venera was lost. I had figured the loss would slow us down to a crawl, but could it really stop us? With all that to worry about, it was a lousy party, even for a funeral.

     Around the beginning of the third millennium, the experiments were performed that took faster-than-light travel from an impossibility to a laboratory trick to a way to haul freight. Humanity, barely staggering into the third thousand years alive, found that the stars had been dropped in its lap. The explorers went out.
     Some of them came back. The settlers followed in their paths. More than once, settlers went out blazing their own trails. Very few of that number were ever heard from again.
     Yet, by the year 2025, the United States Census Bureau estimated the off-Earth population as over 1 million for the first time. Ten years later, the figure was twice that, and the pace accelerating. By 2050, rapid emigration and high birth-rates had pushed the minimum estimate to 10 million. Even to this day, the Census people try to keep track of it. At the moment, the best guess is 85 million people. That is, 85 million, plus or minus 20 million!
     The colonists went out, poorly organized, often toward nothing more definite than the hope that they might find a place to settle and live. Few managed that. One job of the Survey was to find these people, and to establish a reliable catalog of habitable planets, so the next generation of colony ships might go out with a better chance of survival.
     And we were to locate bounty, the incredible riches that literally hang in the sky. What new mineral, born in exotic heat and pressure, waited for uses to be found and a market established? Where were mountain-sized lumps of pure nickel-iron, orbiting in darkness, waiting for a factory ship to take possession? Where were the lovely green worlds waiting for people to come and live on them? What new plants, new animals, would be worth exporting?
     Surely it must have been obvious to everyone there was a need to explore. Just as obviously, it was a job for the governments of humanity to take on. Obvious to everyone except the governments, that is. Governments are supposed to lead, but they have been following the people ever since our race entered space in a big way.

     The first crunch came in the 2030s or so. By that time, there were a good half dozen colony planets—and a bad dozen. Nations and consortiums that certainly could not afford to do so established colonies anyway. True, the founding colonies had done great good for the nations that could afford the great capital expense. But a poor nation goes bankrupt long before its colony starts to pay any returns. The pattern was repeated many times. The nation, or the colony, or both, would collapse, and people would start to die. To the richness of space we brought war, riot, pestilence, and starvation. It happened in a dozen different ways on a dozen different worlds. The big nations, and the healthy colonies, many of them completely independent by this time, got tired of bailing out the failures after a while. The United States, the Asian and European powers, the strong colonies—Kennedy, Britannica, Europa, New Alberta, Newer Jersey, and the others—came to the conference table. By every means possible, they coerced the little and the weak to join them—The Estonian Republic, The People's Federal Protectorate of Chad, Uruguay, colonies like New Antarctica and High Albania, the O'Neill colonies, the self-contained (and self-righteous) free-flying colonies in orbit around Earth.
     Some big countries were part of the problem: China had pulled off some truly remarkable failures in space by this time. Many of the smaller nations and colonies were among the most responsible members of the conference: Sweden; Singapore, and her "daughter," the O'Neill colony High Singapore; Portugal; Finland; and New Finland were strong backers of the enterprise. The delegates bickered. They threatened each other. They indulged in back-room deals that are still causing scandals today. But they managed to come up with a treaty.
     So, on January 1, 2038, at 0000 hours GMT and Zero hours Accumulated Stellar Time (AST), the League of Planets came into being and its founding document, the Treaty of Planets, came into effect.
     By 0000 hours GMT on January 2, or 24 hours AST, the League was evacuating the hapless residents of New Antarctica and treating them for frostbite. The delegates came up with a system that works. Its basic tenet sets the right of a human being to live over the right of an idiot to run a government as if it were a family business.
     When the League came into being, ground rules were set up for the founding of colonies. Folks could still bug out and vanish if they wanted to, but fewer people did so by accident. Fewer people starved. When the Fast Plague came to Kennedy, the Interworld Health Organizations (which is one of the pieces of the League that actually predates it, somehow—like the International Court of Justice at The Hague) came in, and their aid saved us. There is no possible question on that point. That's why the Republic of Kennedy is very pro-League. There are other good things. There are fewer tinhorn dictators taking over small colonies with still-weak governments. Trade is reliable, not for gamblers anymore.
     I stood there and looked out at the gloomy night. It occurred to me that I must have been pretty naive to think that politics wasn't going to affect the Survey—not with a history like the League's.

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

Usually the giant stars have many planets, and Betelgeuse, with forty-seven, is no exception. Of these, six have intelligent native races, and the combined resources of the whole system are considerable, even in a civilization used to thinking in terms of thousands of stars.

When the first Terrestrial explorers arrived, almost a thousand years previously, they found that the people of Alfzar had already mastered interplanetary travel and were in the process of conquering the other worlds — a process speeded up by their rapid adoption of the more advanced human technology. However, they had not attempted to establish an empire on the scale of Sol or Merseia, contenting themselves with maintaining hegemony over enough neighbor suns to protect their home.


ABSOLUTE, adj. Independent, irresponsible. An absolute monarchy is one in which the sovereign does as he pleases so long as he pleases the assassins. Not many absolute monarchies are left, most of them having been replaced by limited monarchies, where the sovereign's power for evil (and for good) is greatly curtailed, and by republics, which are governed by chance.

ALLIANCE, n. In international politics, the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other's pockets that they cannot separately plunder a third.

COMMONWEALTH, n. An administrative entity operated by an incalculable multitude of political parasites, logically active but fortuitously efficient.

DICTATOR, n. The chief of a nation that prefers the pestilence of despotism to the plague of anarchy.

INSURRECTION, n. An unsuccessful revolution. Disaffection's failure to substitute misrule for bad government.

INTERREGNUM, n. The period during which a monarchical country is governed by a warm spot on the cushion of the throne. The experiment of letting the spot grow cold has commonly been attended by most unhappy results from the zeal of many worthy persons to make it warm again.

RABBLE, n. In a republic, those who exercise a supreme authority tempered by fraudulent elections. The rabble is like the sacred Simurgh, of Arabian fable - omnipotent on condition that it do nothing. (The word is Aristocratese, and has no exact equivalent in our tongue, but means, as nearly as may be, "soaring swine.")

REPUBLIC, n. A nation in which, the thing governing and the thing governed being the same, there is only a permitted authority to enforce an optional obedience. In a republic, the foundation of public order is the ever lessening habit of submission inherited from ancestors who, being truly governed, submitted because they had to. There are as many kinds of republics as there are graduations between the despotism whence they came and the anarchy whither they lead.

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

Empires That Ain't


      A few incidents recorded during the Long Night show old Imperial colonies trying to retain or regain lost knowledge ("A Tragedy of Errors"). It was hunger for knowledge more than for goods that stimulated civilization's revival. Leading planets in the reconstruction period like Nuevoamerica and Kraken had never been part of the Empire. They explored far beyond its old borders ("The Night Face" and "The Sharing of Flesh"). Eventually, an entirely new approach to interstellar relations evolved. This was the Commonalty, a galactic service organization that provided quasi-governmental services without itself actually being a government ("Starfog"). Perhaps the Commonalty will avoid some of the weaknesses inherent in empires but eventually it is sure to develop special problems of its own. Meanwhile, a new and brilliant cycle of history has begun.

     What does the pageant of Technic civilization just summarized prove? (If indeed history can be said to prove anything.) First, its rise and fall demonstrates that governments operate under the social equivalent of Darwinian pressure: they must function within their environments or be replaced. Any kind of system that provides its citizens with an acceptable balance of opportunity and security is good. Pragmatic results count for more than political dogma. Initially the League emphasized opportunity and the Commonwealth security but finally neither could give either and so they perished. The best justification for the early Empire was that it spread a military umbrella over 100,000 unique cultural experiments. Once its ability to stimulate and defend its subjects faltered, its days were numbered.

     Furthermore, these extant accounts of Technic civilization show history as a record of interlocking ironies arising from individual choices. For instance, if Falkayn had not aided Merseia, it would not have survived to menace the Empire. Yet if he had not also founded Avalon and his descendants not resisted Imperial conquest, no free Avalonian would have been available to save the Empire from a subtle Merseian plot in The Day of Their Return. If Flandry had treated his first two mistresses with greater consideration, he would not have lost his last chance for happiness. If Kathryn had not rebuffed Flandry's advances, neither the Empire nor her own descendants would have long survived. Each irresistible historic trend is actually the net product of separate acts which had not necessarily appeared significant at the time they occurred. Each key event "'is the flower on a plant whose seed went into the ground long before ... and whose roots reach widely, and will send up fresh growths,'" (A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows).

     Finally, this temporal drama reminds us that everything in the universe is mortal. All things, institutions as well as persons, are born only to die. The lifespan of a galaxy or an empire is as limited as that of a man. The only proper response, in the face of entropy's inevitable triumph is to struggle as well and bravely as possible. As Flandry said in Hunters of the Sky Cave, "'I don't want to die so fast I can't feel it. I want to see death coming, and make the stupid thing fight for every centimeter of me.'" Existence is a pattern with no universally acknowledged goal or purpose other than to be itself, a doomed but lovely candle in the darkness.

From THE PRICE OF BUYING TIME by Sandra Miesel (1979)

(ed note: Warning: spoilers for Starfog.

the Commonalty is contacted by an odd starship with a human crew. They are from the lost colony of Kirkasant. Over the thousands of years they managed to rise from medieval tech to starship tech. The Makt is their first FTL starship, but unfortunately it has gotten lost, and cannot find its way home. Laure, an agent of the Commonalty travels in his advanced starship along with the Makt to see what the problem is. Turns out Kirkasant is inside something bizarre, an unheard-of combination of globular cluster and titanic interstellar nebuala which is almost totally opaque. Laure can't find their home either.)

      “Suppose. Did you guess a quarter million suns in the cluster? Not all are like ours. Not even a majority. On the other coin side, with visibility as low as it is, space must be searched back and forth, light-year by light-year. We of Makt could die of eld before a single vessel chanced on Kirkasant.”
     “I’m afraid that’s true.”
     “Yet an adequate number of ships, dividing the task, could find our home in a year or two.”
     “That would be unattainably expensive, Graydal.”
     He thought he sensed her stiffening. “I’ve come on this before,” she said coldly, withdrawing from his touch. “In your Commonalty they count the cost and the profit first. Honor, adventure, simple charity must run a poor second.”
     “Be reasonable,” he said. “Cost represents labor, skill, and resources. The gigantic fleet that would go looking for Kirkasant must be diverted from other jobs. Other people would suffer need as a result. Some might suffer sharply.”
     “Do you mean a civilization as big, as productive as yours could not spare that much effort for a while without risking disaster?”
     She’s quick on the uptake, Laure thought. Knowing what machine technology can do on her single impoverished world, she can well guess what it’s capable of with millions of planets to draw on. But how can I make her realize that matters aren’t that simple?
     “Please, Graydal,” he said. “Won’t you believe I’m working for you? I’ve come this far, and I’ll go as much farther as need be, if something doesn’t kill us.”
     He heard her gulp. “Yes. I offer apology. You are different.”
     “Not really. I’m a typical Commonalty member. Later, maybe, I can show you how our civilization works, and what an odd problem in political economy we’ve got if Kirkasant is to be rediscovered. But first we have to establish that locating it is physically possible. We have to make long-term observations from here, and then enter those mists, and—One trouble at a time, I beg you!”

     When he had heard Laure out, though, he scowled, tugged his beard, and said without trying to hide distress: “Thus we have no chance of finding Kirkasant by ourselves.”
     “Evidently not,” Laure said. “I’d hoped that one of my modern locator systems would work in this cluster. If so, we could have zigzagged rapidly between the stars, mapping them, and had a fair likelihood of finding the group you know within months. But as matters stand, we can’t establish an accurate enough grid, and we have nothing to tie any such grid to. Once a given star disappears in the fog, we can’t find it again. Not even by straight-line backtracking, because we don’t have the navigational feedback to keep on a truly straight line.”
     “Lost.” Demring stared down at his hands, clenched on the desk before him. When he looked up again, the bronze face was rigid with pain. “I was afraid of this,” he said. “It is why I was reluctant to come back at all. I feared the effect of disappointment on my crew. By now you must know one major respect in which we differ from you. To us, home, kinfolk, ancestral graves are not mere pleasures. They are an important part of our identities. We are prepared to explore and colonize, but not to be totally cut off.” He straightened in his seat and turned the confession into a strategic datum by finishing dry-voiced: “Therefore, the sooner we leave this degree of familiarity behind us and accept with physical renunciation the truth of what has happened to us—the sooner we get out of this cluster—the better for us.”
     “No,” Laure said. “I’ve given a lot of thought to your situation. There are ways to navigate here.”
     Demring did not show surprise. He, too, must have dwelt on contingencies and possibilities. Laure sketched them nevertheless:
     “Starting from outside the cluster, we can establish a grid of artificial beacons. I’d guess fifty thousand, in orbit around selected stars, would do. If each has its distinctive identifying signal, a spaceship can locate herself and lay a course. I can imagine several ways to make them. You want them to emit something that isn’t swamped by natural noise. Hyperdrive drones, shuttling automatically back and forth, would be detectable in a light-year’s radius. Coherent radio broadcasters on the right bands should be detectable at the same distance or better. Since the stars hereabouts are only light-weeks or light-months apart, an electromagnetic network wouldn’t take long to complete its linkups. No doubt a real engineer, turned loose on the problem, would find better answers than these.”
     “I know,” Demring said. “We on Makt have discussed the matter and reached similar conclusions. The basic obstacle is the work involved, first in producing that number of beacons, then—more significantly—in planting them. Many man-years, much shipping, must go to that task, if it is to be accomplished in a reasonable time.”
     “I like to think,” said Demring, “that the clans of Hobrok would not haggle over who was to pay the cost. But I have talked with men on Serieve. I have taken heed of what Graydal does and does not relay of her conversations with you. Yours is a mercantile civilization.”
     “Not exactly,” Laure said. “I’ve tried to explain—”
     “Don’t bother. We shall have the rest of our lives to learn about your Commonalty. Shall we turn about, now, and end this expedition?”
     Laure winced at the scorn but shook his head. “No, best we continue. We can make extraordinary findings here. Things that’ll attract scientists. And with a lot of ships buzzing around—”
     Demring’s smile had no humor. “Spare me, Ranger. There will never be that many scientists come avisiting. And they will never plant beacons throughout the cluster. Why should they? The chance of one of their vessels stumbling on Kirkasant is negligible. They will be after unusual stars and planets, information on magnetic fields and plasmas and whatever else is readily studied. Not even the anthropologists will have any strong impetus to search out our world. They have many others to work on, equally strange to them, far more accessible.”
     “I have my own obligations,” Laure said. “It was a long trip here. Having made it, I should recoup some of the cost to my organization by gathering as much data as I can before turning home.”

     They were a warrior folk. They would not settle down to be pitied; they would forge something powerful for themselves in their exile. But he was not helping them forget their uprootedness.
     Thus he almost gave her his true reason. He halted in time and, instead, explained in more detail what he had told Captain Demring. His ship represented a considerable investment, to be amortized over her service life. Likewise, with his training, did he. The time he had spent coming hither was, therefore, equivalent to a large sum of money. And to date, he had nothing to show for that expense except confirmation of a fairly obvious guess about the nature of Kirkasant’s surroundings.
     He had broad discretion—while he was in service. But he could be discharged. He would be, if his career, taken as a whole, didn’t seem to be returning a profit. In this particular case, the profit would consist of detailed information about a unique environment. You could prorate that in such terms as: scientific knowledge, with its potentialities for technological progress; space-faring experience; public relations—
     Graydal regarded him in a kind of horror. “You cannot mean . . . we go on . . . merely to further your private ends,” she whispered. Interference gibed at them both.
     “No!” Laure protested. “Look, only look, I want to help you. But you, too, have to justify yourselves economically. You’re the reason I came so far in the first place. If you’re to work with the Commonalty, and it’s to help you make a fresh start, you have to show that that’s worth the Commonalty’s while. Here’s where we start proving it. By going on. Eventually, by bringing them in a bookful of knowledge they didn’t have before.”
     Her gaze upon him calmed but remained aloof. “Do you think that is right?”
     “It’s the way things are, anyhow,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder if my attempts to explain my people to you haven’t glided right off your brain.”
     “You have made it clear that they think of nothing but their own good,” she said thinly.
     “If so, I’ve failed to make anything clear.” Laure slumped in his chair web. Some days hit a man with one club after the next. He forced himself to sit erect again and say:
     “We have a different ideal from you. Or no, that’s not correct. We have the same set of ideals. The emphases are different. You believe the individual ought to be free and ought to help his fellowman. We do, too. But you make the service basic, you give it priority. We have the opposite way. You give a man, or a woman, duties to the clan and the country from birth. But you protect his individuality by frowning on slavishness and on anyone who doesn’t keep a strictly private side to his life. We give a person freedom, within a loose framework of common-sense prohibitions. And then we protect his social aspect by frowning on greed, selfishness, callousness.”
     “I know,” she said. “You have—”
     “But maybe you haven’t thought how we must do it that way,” he pleaded. “Civilization’s gotten too big out there for anything but freedom to work. The Commonalty isn’t a government. How would you govern ten million planets? It’s a private, voluntary, mutual-benefit society, open to anyone anywhere who meets the modest standards. It maintains certain services for its members, like my own space rescue work. The services are widespread and efficient enough that local planetary governments also like to hire them. But I don’t speak for my civilization. Nobody does. You’ve made a friend of me. But how do you make friends with ten million times a billion individuals?”
     “You’ve told me before,” she said.
     And it didn’t register. Not really. Too new an idea for you, I suppose, Laure thought. He ignored her remark and went on:
     “In the same way, we can’t have a planned interstellar economy. Planning breaks down under the sheer mass of detail when it’s attempted for a single continent. History is full of cases. So we rely on the market, which operates as automatically as gravitation. Also as efficiently, as impersonally, and sometimes as ruthlessly—but we didn’t make this universe. We only live in it.”
     He reached out his hands, as if to touch her through the distance and the distortion. “Can’t you see? I’m not able to help your plight. Nobody is. No individual quadrillionaire, no foundation, no government, no consortium could pay the cost of finding your home for you. It’s not a matter of lacking charity. It’s a matter of lacking resources for that magnitude of effort. The resources are divided among too many people, each of whom has his own obligations to meet first.
     “Certainly, if each would contribute a pittance, you could buy your fleet. But the tax mechanism for collecting that pittance doesn’t exist and can’t be made to exist. As for free-will donations—how do we get your message across to an entire civilization, that big, that diverse, that busy with its own affairs?—which include cases of need far more urgent than yours.
     “Graydal, we’re not greedy where I come from. We’re helpless.”

     “You wondered why I insisted on exploring the cluster center, and in such detail. Probably I ought to have explained myself from the beginning. But I was afraid of raising false hopes. I’d no guarantee that things would turn out to be the way I’d guessed. Failure, I thought, would be too horrible for you, if you knew what success would mean. But I was working on your behalf, nothing else.
     “You see, because my civilization is founded on individualism, it makes property rights quite basic. In particular, if there aren’t any inhabitants or something like that, discoverers can claim ownership within extremely broad limits.
     “Well, we . . . you . . . our expedition has met the requirements of discovery as far as those planets are concerned. We’ve been there, we’ve proven what they’re like, we’ve located them as well as might be without beacons—”
     He saw how she struggled not to be too sanguine. “That isn’t a true location,” she said. “I can’t imagine how we will ever lead anybody back to precisely those stars.”
     “Nor can I,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter. Because, well, we took an adequate sample. We can be sure now that practically every star in the cluster heart has planets that are made of heavy elements. So it isn’t necessary, for their exploitation, to go to any particular system. In addition, we’ve learned about hazards and so forth, gotten information that’ll be essential to other people. And therefore”—he chuckled—“I guess we can’t file a claim on your entire Cloud Universe. But any court will award you . . . us . . . a fair share. Not specific planets, since they can’t be found right away. Instead, a share of everything. Your crew will draw royalties on the richest mines in the galaxy. On millions of them.”
     She responded with thoughtfulness rather than enthusiasm. “Indeed? We did wonder, on Makt, if you might not be hoping to find abundant metals. But we decided that couldn’t be. For why would anyone come here for them? Can they not be had more easily, closer to home?”
     Slightly dashed, he said, “No. Especially when most worlds in this frontier are comparatively metal-poor. They do have some veins of ore, yes. And the colonists can extract anything from the oceans, as on Serieve. But there’s a natural limit to such a process. In time, carried out on the scale that’d be required when population has grown . . . it’s be releasing so much heat that planetary temperature would be affected.”
     “That sounds farfetched.”
     “No. A simple calculation will prove it. According to historical records, Earth herself ran into the problem, and not terribly long after the industrial era began. However, quite aside from remote prospects, people will want to mine these cluster worlds immediately. True, it’s a long haul, and operations will have to be totally automated. But the heavy elements that are rare elsewhere are so abundant here as to more than make up for those extra costs.” He smiled. “I’m afraid you can’t escape your fate. You’re going to be . . . not wealthy. To call you ‘wealthy’ would be like calling a supernova ‘luminous.’ You’ll command more resources than many whole civilizations have done.”
     Her look upon him remained grave. “You did this for us? You should not have. What use would riches be to us if we lost you?”
     He remembered that he couldn’t have expected her to carol about this. In her culture, money was not unwelcome, but neither was it an important goal. So what she had just said meant less than if a girl of the Commonalty had spoken. Nevertheless, joy kindled in him. She sensed that, laid her hand across his, and murmured, “But your thought was noble.”
     He couldn’t restrain himself any longer. He laughed aloud. “Noble?” he cried. “I’d call it clever. Fiendishly clever. Don’t you see? I’ve given you Kirkasant back!”
     She gasped.
     He jumped up and paced exuberant before her. “You could wait a few years till your cash reserves grow astronomical and buy as big a fleet as you want to search the cluster. But it isn’t needful. When word gets out, the miners will come swarming. They’ll plant beacons, they’ll have to. The grid will be functioning within one year, I’ll bet. As soon as you can navigate, identify where you are and where you’ve been, you can’t help finding your home—in weeks!”

From STARFOG by Poul Anderson (1967)

Civilization Clusters


"Yeah." Donnan smiled rather sadly.’ "Y’know," he remarked, "when I was a kid in my teens, just before the Monwaingi came, I went on a science fiction kick. I must’ve read hundreds of stories where there were races travelling between the stars while humans had barely reached the nearer planets of their own system. But I can’t recall one that ever guessed the truth—the bloody simple obvious truth of the case. Always, if the Galactics noticed us, they were benevolent secret guardians; or not-so-benevolent keepers; or kept strictly hands off. In some stories they did land openly, as the Monwaingi and the rest actually did. But as near as I remember, in the stories this was always a prelude to inviting Earth into the Galactic Federation.

"Hell, why should there be a Federation? Why should anyone give a hoot about us? Couldn’t those writers see how big the universe is?"

—Big indeed. The diameter of this one galaxy is some hundred thousand light-years, the maximum width about ten thousand. It includes on the order of a hundred billion stars, at least half of which have at least one life-bearing planet. A goodly percentage of these latter also sustain intelligent life.

Sol lies approximately thirty thousand light-years from galactic centre, where the stars begin to thin out towards emptiness: a frontier region, which the most rapidly expanding civilization of space travellers would still be slow to reach. And no such civilization could expand rapidly any how. There are too many stars.

At some unknown time in some unknown place, someone created the first superlight spaceship. Or perhaps it was created independently, many times and places. No one knows. Probably no one will ever know; there are too many archives in too many languages to search. But in any event the explorers went forth. They visited, studied, mapped, traded. Most of the races they found were primitive—or, if civilized, were not interested in space travel for themselves. Some few had the proper degree of industrialization and the proper attitude of outwardness. They learned from the explorers. Why should they not? The explorers had nothing to fear from these strangers, who paid them well for instruction. There is plenty of room in space. Besides, a complete planet is self-sufficient, both economically and politically.

From these newly awakened worlds, then, a second generation of explorers went forth. They had to go farther than the first; planets of interest to them lay far, far away, lost in a wilderness of suns whose worlds were barren, or savage, or too foreign for intercourse. But eventually someone, at an enormous distance from their home, learned space technology in turn from them.

Thus the knowledge radiated, through millennia, but not like a wave of light from a single candle. Rather it spread like, dandelion seeds, blown at random, each seed which takes root begetting a cluster of offspring. A newly civilized planet (by that time, "civilization" was equated in the minds of space-farers with the ability to travel through space) would occupy itself with its nearer neighbours. Occasionally there was contact with one of the other loose astro-politicoeconomic clumps. But the contact was sporadic.

There was no economic force to maintain it, and culturally these clusters diverged too much.

And once in a while, some daring armada— traders looking for a profit, explorers looking for knowledge, refugees looking for a home, or persons with motives less comprehensible to a human—would make the big jump and start yet another nucleus of civilization.

Within each such nucleus, a certain unity prevailed. There was trading; for while no planet had to supply another with necessities, the materials of comfort, luxury, amusement, and research were in demand. There was tourism. There was a degree of interchange in science, art, religion, fashion. Sometimes there was war.

But beyond the nucleus, the cluster, there was little or nothing. No mind could possibly deal with all the planets in space. The number was so huge. A space-faring people must needs confine serious attention to their own vicinity, with infrequent small ventures beyond. Anything more would have been impossible. The civilization-clusters were never hostile to each other. There was nothing to be hostile about. Conflicts occurred among neighbours, not among strangers who saw each other once a year, a decade, or a century.

Higgledy-piggledy, helter-skelter, civilization spread out among the stars. A million clusters, comprising one to a hundred planets each, furnished the only pattern there was. Between the Clusters as wholes, no pattern whatsoever existed. A spaceship could cross the galaxy in months; but a news item, if sensational enough to make the journey at all, might take a hundred years.

There was little enough pattern within any given cluster. It was no more than a set of planets, not too widely separated, which maintained some degree of fairly regular contact with each other. These planets might have their own colonies, dependencies, or newly discovered spheres of influence, as Earth had been for Monwaing. But there was no question of a single culture for the whole cluster, or any sort of overall government. And never forget: any planet is a world, as complex and mysterious in its own right, as full of its own patterns and contradictions and histories, as ever Earth was.

No wonder the speculative writers had misunderstood their own assumptions. The universe was too big for them—

From AFTER DOOMSDAY by Poul Anderson (1962)

The same problem of size make ludicrous all thought of a galactic government. A mere thousand systems look far too cumbersome to allow a union. And I cannot see why anyone would desire to unify them. The immense diversity of environments, races, and viewpoints in such a region argues against any common purpose. Given a hyperdrive, it is not impossible that there are occasional Norman-like interstellar conquerors, whose aggressions cause alliance to be formed against them. But even on the largest feasible scale, such activity can occupy only a minute part of the entire galaxy. And it looks improbably in any event. What value has an uncolonizable planet to imperialists? Even worlds whose biochemistry happens to be enough like home that they can be settled will not solve any population problems, as the history of Europe vis-à-vis America testifies. In short, special circumstances may produce sporadic wars and political combinations; but if so, these are highly localized.

Peaceful intercourse like trade and cultural exchange seems far more plausible. But this must also be limited. It cannot take place between races unless they are willing and able to engage in it, and do not live too far apart. Chance probably decides whether this is the case in any given sector.

I therefore imagine the long-run consequence of a hyperdrive as not one galactic civilization but widely scatted clusters of civilization. Within each cluster there are several races that have some dealings with each other and many that are not concerned, being ignored or aloof. From time to time explorers, daring traders, missionaries, refugees, or other adventurous types make a long jump in search of new territory. Where they find fertile ground, planets that are useful and natives that are receptive to them, a new cluster is begun. Contact between clusters is very tenuous and, in almost every case, unofficial. Near the galactic nucleus where the stars are closer together, and many dwellers are anciently established, conditions my not be quite this anarchic; but even there I should thing that any interstellar organization is loose and spatially limited.

Maybe several kinds of clusters exist in galactic space, their histories independent. For instance, the hydrogen and oxygen breathers can have little to trade with each other and perhaps little to say to each other once some scientific questions have been answers. But this gets up far out on the windy limb of speculation.

From IS THERE LIFE ON OTHER WORLDS? by Poul Anderson (1963)

Globular clusters are ancient stellar populations with no star formation or core-collapse supernovae.

Several lines of evidence suggest that globular clusters are rich in planets. If so, and if advanced civilizations can develop there, then the distances between these civilizations and other stars would be far smaller than typical distances between stars in the Galactic disk. The relative proximity would facilitate interstellar communication and travel.

However, the very proximity that promotes interstellar travel also brings danger, since stellar interactions can destroy planetary systems. However, by modeling globular clusters and their stellar populations, we find that large regions of many globular clusters can be thought of as "sweet spots" where habitable-zone planetary orbits can be stable for long times. We also compute the ambient densities and fluxes in the regions within which habitable-zone planets can survive.

Globular clusters are among the best targets for searches for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). We use the Drake equation to compare globular clusters to the Galactic disk, in terms of the likelihood of housing advanced communicating civilizations. We also consider free-floating planets, since wide-orbit planets can be ejected and travel freely through the cluster.

A civilization spawned in a globular cluster may have opportunities to establish self-sustaining outposts, thereby reducing the probability that a single catastrophic event will destroy the civilization or its descendants. Although individual civilizations within a cluster may follow different evolutionary paths, or even be destroyed, the cluster may always host some advanced civilization, once a small number of them have managed to jump across interstellar space.

(ed note: full paper available here)


(ed note: This is an article about the paper discussed above)

     Globular star clusters are amazing in almost every way. They’re densely packed, holding a million stars in a ball only about 100 light-years across on average. They’re old, dating back almost to the birth of the Milky Way. And according to new research, they also could be extraordinarily good places to look for space-faring civilizations.
     “A globular cluster might be the first place in which intelligent life is identified in our galaxy,” says lead author Rosanne Di Stefano of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
     Di Stefano presented this research today in a press conference at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
     The Milky Way hosts about 150 globular clusters, most of them orbiting in the galactic outskirts. They formed about 10 billion years ago on average. As a result, their stars contain fewer of the heavy elements needed to construct planets, since those elements (like iron and silicon) must be created in earlier generations of stars. Some scientists have argued that this makes globular cluster stars less likely to host planets. In fact, only one planet has been found in a globular cluster to date.
     However, Di Stefano and her colleague Alak Ray of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India, argue that this view is too pessimistic. Exoplanets have been found around stars only one-tenth as metal-rich as our sun. And while Jupiter-sized planets are found preferentially around stars containing higher levels of heavy elements, research finds that smaller, Earth-sized planets show no such preference.
     “It’s premature to say there are no planets in globular clusters,” states Ray.
     Another concern is that a globular cluster’s crowded environment would threaten any planets that do form. A neighboring star could wander too close and gravitationally disrupt a planetary system, flinging worlds into icy interstellar space.
     However, a star’s habitable zone — the distance at which a planet would be warm enough for liquid water — varies depending on the star. While brighter stars have more distant habitable zones, planets orbiting dimmer stars would have to huddle much closer. Brighter stars also live shorter lives, and since globular clusters are old, those stars have died out. The predominant stars in globular clusters are faint, long-lived red dwarfs. Any potentially habitable planets they host would orbit nearby and be relatively safe from stellar interactions.
     “Once planets form, they can survive for long periods of time, even longer than the current age of the universe,” explains Di Stefano.
     So if habitable planets can form in globular clusters and survive for billions of years, what are the consequences for life should it evolve? Life would have ample time to become increasingly complex, and even potentially develop intelligence.
     Such a civilization would enjoy a very different environment than our own. The nearest star to our solar system is four light-years, or 24 trillion miles, away. In contrast, the nearest star within a globular cluster could be about 20 times closer — just 1 trillion miles away. This would make interstellar communication and exploration significantly easier.
     “We call it the ‘globular cluster opportunity,’” says Di Stefano. “Sending a broadcast between the stars wouldn’t take any longer than a letter from the U.S. to Europe in the 18th century.
     “Interstellar travel would take less time too. The Voyager probes are 100 billion miles from Earth, or one-tenth as far as it would take to reach the closest star if we lived in a globular cluster. That means sending an interstellar probe is something a civilization at our technological level could do in a globular cluster,” she adds.
     The closest globular cluster to Earth is still several thousand light-years away, making it difficult to find planets, particularly in a cluster’s crowded core. But it could be possible to detect transiting planets on the outskirts of globular clusters. Astronomers might even spot free-floating planets through gravitational lensing, in which the planet’s gravity magnifies light from a background star.
     A more intriguing idea might be to target globular clusters with SETI search methods, looking for radio or laser broadcasts. The concept has a long history: In 1974 astronomer Frank Drake used the Arecibo radio telescope to broadcast the first deliberate message from Earth to outer space. It was directed at the globular cluster Messier 13 (M13).

Empire Stability

This section has been moved here

Energy-Shift Instability

This section has been moved here


This section has been moved here.

Can Galactic Empires Exist?

This section has been moved here.

Five Obstacles To A Realistic Interstellar Empire

This section has been moved here.

Reaction Time

This section has been moved here.

Bureaucratic Scale

This section has been moved here.

Swarm intelligence

This section has been moved here.

Swarm Problems

This section has been moved here.


This section has been moved here.

Galactic Empire Geometry

This section has been moved here

Empires In Collision

This section has been moved here

Single Empire

This section has been moved here

Two Empires

This section has been moved here

Three Or More Empires

This section has been moved here


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