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The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy



Blue Band AI. Artificial intelligence. This was once commonplace in the KNOWN GALAXY, but has been on the decline in more recent times. The reason (as with ROBOTS), is that in the real world AI progress has so far been disappointing, which is why Web browsers turn up a million sites but not the one you're looking for. Also, if good AI is available, it is hard to explain why COMBAT SPACECRAFT almost always have crews.

     In the GOLDEN AGE, AI was primarily associated with Robots, though later you were more likely to encounter it in something like a souped-up mainframe computer, a la "2001: A Space Odyssey." Now you hardly encounter it at all in SPACE SF, any more than in the real year 2001.


ANTIGRAVITY.  A technology that allows you to fly without wings (or noisy reaction engines).

     Like AI and a host of other technologies, Antigravity is rather less prevalent now than it was in the GOLDEN AGE. It has fallen victim to the general distaste for technologies that require too much HANDWAVIUM. In fact, recent cosmological observations indicate some actual basis for Antigravity. Unfortunately it may only operate across billions of light years, making it unsuitable for most applications.

     The SHIELDS that sometimes protect COMBAT SPACECRAFT often may work on a principle related to Antigravity. Another related technology is PSEUDO-GRAVITY.


ALIENS. Intelligent races who are not EARTH HUMANS. The term as such is never used for non-intelligent species, however unearthly, though in TECHJARGON these may be called Alien Life Forms. Nor is it used for Earth Humans who must register with the immigration service. In general, Aliens fall into two distinct groups, REALLY ALIENS and ALIENS WITH FOREHEAD RIDGES.

     1) Really Aliens are truly unearthly. Frequently reported species include Energy Beings, HIVE ENTITIES, Giant Insectoids (who may also be Hive Entities), and Blobs of Protoplasm. The occasional intelligent bear or radish may also appear, or practically anything else. Except for the Energy Beings, most seem to be hydrocarbon life forms, but methane breathers who thrive at -200 C will sometimes turn up.

     What they all have in common is that they are Really Alien. Exosemanticists have their work cut out understanding them, and exopsychologists in figuring out what they're all about. Relations between humans and Really Aliens are necessarily limited, since we have so little in common with them. Only rarely will anybody get to know one on a personal level. TRADE with them is sporadic, and even WARFARE seems less frequent than it used to be in the GOLDEN AGE. This is partly because it is not clear what we would fight them over, and partly because they may have an alarmingly high TECHLEVEL, making war with them a dangerously one-sided proposition. Dangerous at least for us.  See COSMIC BACKGROUND HISTORY.

     2) Aliens with Forehead Ridges. Much more common - especially in HOLLYWOOD SCIFI - than Really Aliens, these are species that look almost exactly like Earth Humans, except for some distinguishing visible feature such as, well, forehead ridges, or odd-shaped ears, or whatever. Sometimes they look rather less like humans, in which case (if friendly) they often resemble large teddy bears.

     Not only do Aliens with Forehead Ridges mostly look like Earth Humans, they tend to act like Earth Humans as well, or at least one particular (real or speculative) Earth Human culture. A particular race of Aliens with Forehead Ridges may all have a culture like that of medieval Japan, or one based entirely on music, but you will very rarely find more than one culture per species. (The Vulcans and Romulans of Trek fame are a rare exception.)

     Because of the similarity (or at least comprehensibility) of cultures, Earth Humans can have far more complex and intimate relations with Aliens with Forehead Ridges than with Really Aliens. We can not only communicate, Trade, and fight, but form joint business ventures, cheat each other at cards, and even fall in love.

     Indeed, Aliens with Forehead Ridges raise a profound question in evolutionary biology. Convergent evolution might well produce a generally humanoid body plan, just as sharks and dolphins have a similar overall configuration. But Aliens with Forehead Ridges have much more than a general similarity to Earth Humans. They have the same secondary sex traits - as species-specific as you can get. Only their males have much facial hair, and their females often have bodacious figures. Often, indeed, they are INTERBREEDABLE species. This leads to some speculation that they may be of Earth Human descent. (Or else Earth Humans are descended from them, though this raises troublesome questions about chimpanzees.)

     Perhaps because of these awkward issues, Aliens with Forehead Ridges have become much less common in written SF (save for media tie-ins) than they were some decades ago. In written SF, the KNOWN GALAXY seems increasingly to be inhabited only by Earth Humans. However, Aliens with Forehead Ridges continue to thrive in Hollywood Scifi. This is for an obvious reason: the audience wants aliens of some sort, and Aliens with Forehead Ridges are the only kind that can be played by members of the Screen Actors' Guild.


APPAREL. The clothing worn in most of the KNOWN GALAXY, at least that worn by EARTH HUMANS, is for the most part extremely dull, or in very bad taste. Usually both. At least, this is the case in HOLLYWOOD SCIFI, and so far as I can tell from book covers, in most written SF as well. The general norm, especially for advanced societies, is essentially long underwear; the most common alternative is a jumpsuit, equally unflattering and harder to get into or (especially) out of.  These may be tarted up - as in the era c. 2000 CE - with racing stripes, corporate-logo-style swooshes, and so forth. But no matter what you do to them, basically they are all butt-ugly. To be sure, a babelicious actress will still look good, especially since her outfit is invariably skin-tight and low-cut. But she'd look good in anything, and even better in a more flattering costume.

     Things are slightly better when WARFARE is involved (which may be why it is so common). Uniforms tend to follow 20th century CE practice, more or less, and so are at least crisp if still basically long underwear. Original Trek did go boldly where no one has gone since, putting the female crew members in those miniskirts. Alas, the feminists did away with that. Their logic might be impeccable, as Spock would say, but 'tis still a pity.

     The one social system in the Known Galaxy that allows people to actually look good is NEOFEUDALISM. In Neofeudalist cultures (at least in the ruling class), the men get to wear that most dramatic of male costume accessories, a sword, while the women are all a major eyeful in long, tight, low-cut dresses. There is simply no way to look better without looking tacky. This of course is achieved in the final, decadent stages of the FIRST EMPIRE, when the women - at least those of the Imperial Court - run around looking like the Victoria's Secret catalog. But when you see that much flesh on display, you know that the FALL OF EMPIRE is at hand.

     On the whole, ALIENS WITH FOREHEAD RIDGES get to dress better than Earth Humans. The same odd rule applies as with Earth Humans, though; on the whole, the more civilized they are the worse they dress. In general, Space SF Apparel is in a bad way. Give us some help here, people! With at least billions, maybe trillions of intelligent, civilized beings throughout the Known Galaxy, someone ought to be able to come up with a few decent outfits.


BATTLE CRUISER. A large COMBAT SPACECRAFT; almost always a STARSHIP. As the name implies, it combines the firepower of a BATTLESHIP with the high speed, large cruising radius, and general dashing flavor of a cruiser. Although larger space warships exist (TECHJARGON terms being Dreadnought, Annihilator, etc.), Battle Cruisers seem to do most of the work, and are the mainstay of most interstellar battle fleets.

     Their type name is seldom hidden behind Techjargon; people in future centuries (and even wholly alternate universes) apparently find this First World War-era terminology irresistable. Battle Cruisers do have one important similarity to their prototypes at Jutland: they frequently blow up with spectacular explosions.


BATTLESHIP. A large COMBAT SPACECRAFT, intended to be the primary backbone of a fleet. Battleships have somewhat fallen out of use, being largely replaced by BATTLE CRUISERS, though for no very obvious reason. (But see TRADE FEDERATION.)


BATTLE STATION. The largest class of COMBAT SPACECRAFT, these may range from a few kilometers in diameter to the size of a small planet. TECHJARGON terms include Orbital Fort and Death Star. A few are in fixed parking orbits, as you would expect of such massive constructions, but most Battle Stations are remarkably mobile, and are liable to turn up anywhere. Their firepower is in line with their size; most can SLAG a planet with their secondary batteries, and the main armament must be intended to make stars go supernova.

     Battle Stations also have multiple layers of defensive weapons and protection, and can easily hold off entire fleets of BATTLE CRUISERS. However, all Battle Stations have a critical design weakness. They can easily be blown up, but only when attacked by the smallest of all Combat Spacecraft, SPACE FIGHTERS. Indeed, the primary mission of Space Fighters seems to be to destroy any enemy Battle Station they happen upon.


BEAM. The most common type of weapon used in SPACE WARFARE. Beams are usually electromagnetic radiation (henceforth "ER"), for example laser Beams, but charged-particle Beams are also in use. Either way, they basically work by dumping large amounts of energy onto a small spot on the enemy spacecraft, zapping it all to hell. Since ER Beams propagate at the speed of light, and charged-particle Beams nearly as fast, they are handily faster than most COMBAT SPACECRAFT, thus very hard to outrun. How ships that fight in FTL do so using Beams (e.g., phasers in Trek) is not clear, since the ships are faster than the Beams they're firing at each other.

     Beam weapons have a long history in SF, going right back to HG Wells. By the 1960s they were about due for retirement, especially since death rays were so hackneyed in HOLLYWOOOD SCIFI. They also seemed like pure HANDWAVIUM. But then along came the laser, and suddenly Beams didn't seem like Handwavium any more. Thus they are still very much with us (and indeed have been tested by the Pentagon).

     However, most Beams used in Space Warfare use a good deal of Handwavium technology. Real-world lasers are not terribly efficient, so Beam weapons would have a substantial problem getting rid of waste heat. Another problem, not Handwavium-related, is that even laser Beams gradually spread out and dissipate. Also, at very long ranges the time-lag before a Beam hits becomes significant, even at the speed of light, so that the target may be able to zig while you're zapping. (ER Beams, at least, cannot be course-corrected once fired.) For this reason, some fleets that prefer long-range combat (as I do) have adopted MISSILES or other weapons. But these have their own limitations, so Beams are likely to remain with us for some time to come.


CE.  Common Era.  A dating system widely used in the KNOWN GALAXY, at least by EARTH HUMANS during the earlier centuries of their interstellar expansion.  The benchmark date actually marks the birth of the central figure in one Earth Human religion (and is an almost certainly incorrect estimate, at that).

     By no means is this chronology always used, even by Earth Humans.  But when a "Common Era" date is given, this is usually what it means.    


CHART.  An interstellar map, showing star positions, JUMP POINTS, etc.  Some form of Chart, probably a hologram, presumably would be a basic tool for navigators.  (For whom the slightly archaic TECHJARGON is astrogator.)   Do not expect to be provided with one. 

     As Diana Wynne Jones points out in the Tough Guide to Fantasyland, absolutely no fantasy quest novel is complete without a map - even though this is usually woefully inadequate, leaving out little details like a scale of distance.  In contrast, SPACE SF books hardly ever provide a Chart to give you any idea of where all those PLANETS are in relation to each other.  (Occasionally, if a book deals mainly with one Planet, a map of the planetary surface will be provided.)   The lack of a Chart is unfortunate, but the reason is obvious.  An interstellar Chart would pretty much have to be three-dimensional, and short of a hologram or at least those silly red and blue 3-D glasses there is no way to put one in a book.

     If the KNOWN GALAXY covers pretty much the whole GALAXY, a flat Chart would actually be fairly satisfactory.  Most Planets would probably be located in the galactic disk, so much larger in diameter than thickness that a 2-D representation would be useful.   But even books with a Galaxy-wide scale hardly ever provide any Chart.  In the Foundation books you can figure that Trantor was near the center of the Galaxy, Terminus out on one edge, and most other named places somewhere between them, but that's about all anyone can say.  Even the Maps in fantasy novels tell you more than that.


CLOAKING DEVICE.  This is the usual TECHJARGON for stealth technology used in SPACE WARFARE. When used, it converts Space combat from a stand-up drag-out into submarine-style lurk-and-shoot action more like "Das Boot." Cloaking Devices, alas, are almost pure HANDWAVIUM, whereas hardly any of that costly stuff is needed for the other guy's SCAN gear that is searching for you.

     The closest you can get to a Cloaking Device without piling on too much Handwavium is to surround yourself with some sort of opaque mini-nebula, like a sea destroyer laying smoke. The enemy's Scan will still give your approximate position, and how much energy you're putting out, but at least this will fuzz things up a bit and make it harder for him to score a hit. Of course, if the enemy can't see in, you can't see out, either. This is inconvenient.

     In any case, Cloaking Devices never work as advertised. Someone on board - either a particular dumb ensign, or the Science Officer - invariably hits the wrong button, sending out a transmission that pinpoints your location to the centimeter.




COLONIZATION. The process of settling populations on new COLONY PLANETS. It can be used in speaking of the Colonization of particular individual Planets, but is also used for the overall process of interstellar settlement, e.g., Age of Colonization. Large-scale Colonization by EARTH HUMANS is usually the central fact of the KNOWN GALAXY, and the ultimate basis for everything that happens there.

     Since the Known Galaxy usually has at least a dozen or so Earth Human Colonies - and often hundreds of them - that mostly were colonized over a period of only a few centuries, the implication is that the Age of Colonization was an enormous (and hugely successful) real estate boom. A further implication is that HABITABLE Planets are common, since it's hard to imagine that Colonists would sign up in droves to emigrate to the other kind, or that the ECONOMY would make it feasible.


COLONY. A PLANET whose population originally came there from somewhere else. Every Planet populated by EARTH HUMANS, except for Earth itself, is a Colony.

     In NOMENCLATURE, this is the sole meaning of Colony; the word does not have the political connotation it did in the 19th and 20th centuries CE. (The same is true of COLONIZATION). That is, conquering, exploiting, and dominating the existing population of a planet do not make it a Colony. Nor does a Colony cease being one if it becomes independent. Even the capital world of an EMPIRE may be a Colony - in fact, it certainly is, if the people there are Earth Humans and it isn't Earth.

     Probably, though, the word will cease to be applied once a Planet has been settled for many centuries, being informally reserved for Planets whose Colonization took place in a fairly recent historical era.


COMBAT SPACECRAFT. Space vehicles, generally with crews, designed and used to zap or otherwise blow up enemy Combat Spacecraft in the course of SPACE WARFARE. Classes in common service range from SPACE FIGHTERS up to BATTLE STATIONS. Except for the last, TECHJARGON is seldom used to characterize them.  Instead, most have type names that could have been found at the Battle of Jutland (e.g., BATTLE CRUISERS).

     Even though the earliest interplanetary exploration, in the late 20th century CE, made extensive use of automated, crewless spacecraft, these seldom appear as Combat Spacecraft. This is odd, because not only would use of drones reduce casualty lists, but it would save on the cost and bulk of life-support. But who wants to see, or read about, battles between drones? (See also ROBOTS.)

     Combat Spacecraft must require a good many auxiliary support vehicles, the equivalent of tenders, repair ships, oilers, and so forth. But these seldom get much attention, any more than their seagoing counterparts do.


COSMIC BACKGROUND HISTORY. This is the overall history of the KNOWN GALAXY. Not just since EARTH HUMANS started running around there (see FUTURE HISTORY), but from when intelligent life first appeared.

     Cosmic Background History is usually touched over very lightly. No, actually it tends to be ignored altogether. This is for a good reason: it is basically impossible to write, or even to imagine in any convincing way. Making up a few hundred or thousand years of history is one thing; making up ten billion years of it is quite another.

     Even if you assume that the earliest intelligent races took nearly as long to evolve as we did - say, arriving on the scene only 5 percent sooner, in cosmic terms just barely ahead of us - that gives you a piddly 500 million years of their history to make up. At one paragraph per million years, a Brief Historical Sketch would run a hundred pages or so. And then there's the awkward question of TECHLEVEL. Did the first arrivers close their patent office for that whole 500 million years? If not, they must be a tad ahead of us.

     This is probably why ALIENS have gone rather out of fashion in SPACE SF. (Though not in HOLLYWOOD SCIFI, whose audience is presumed not to worry about these things.) Get rid of Aliens and you don't have to worry about people 500 million years ahead of us. But even that doesn't get rid of all the problems. If the Known Galaxy is full of HABITABLE PLANETS - and it usually is - life, even complex life, must be pretty common. Why then no other spacefaring civilizations? (And, if there's FTL, which there also usually is, they can get around pretty easily; 500 million years is plenty of time to hop a few galaxies over.)

     There is no good solution to all of this. Which is why most SF writers just brush Cosmic Background History aside and ignore the whole issue. You should do so, too. Go on to the next item, and forget you ever read this one. Thinking about it too much will only make your head spin.


DESTROYER.  A class of fairly small to medium-sized, fast COMBAT SPACECRAFT.  Usually they are STARSHIPS.   The mission of Destroyers, as of their ancient oceanic namesakes, seems primarily to be escorting larger Combat Spacecraft such as BATTLE CRUISERS

     What they are protecting their larger consorts against, or why Destroyers can defend such powerful ships better than they can defend themselves, is not altogether clear.   (On ancient Earth, seagoing Destroyers evolved to counter specific threats, such as submarines, which have no obvious equivalent in Space.)    Escorting Destroyers might be most useful in protecting gigantic BATTLE STATIONS from the one threat they are helpless against, namely SPACE FIGHTERS

     Like their ancient prototypes, however, Destroyers often serve mainly as general-purpose light combatants, in which case they are more or less equivalent to FRIGATES.


DRIVE. The propulsion engine of a space vehicle: what pushes it around. I do not know how this term came to be used; it must of originated back in the Gernsback era. (Why not just engine? 747s don't have a jet Drive.) STARSHIPS normally have two types of Drive, one to maneuver in normal Space, and the other to get them through FTL.

     At one time, inertialess Drives and such were commonplace in SF. They have pretty much disappeared in modern times, and most spacecraft use some sort of reaction propulsion, often a fusion or matter-antimatter TORCH. Even HOLLYWOOD SCIFI ships have what appear to be reaction engines at the back, though they do not move in anything like the way a reaction-Drive ship would move.


EARTH HUMANS. Us, as contrasted to ALIENS. The term include not just the native inhabitants of Earth itself, but its COLONIES.


ECONOMY. What puts food on the table for EARTH HUMANS, and presumably puts it between the mandibles for REALLY ALIENS.

     The most basic economic fact about the KNOWN GALAXY is that interstellar travel is cheap, or at least affordable. Otherwise the Known Galaxy as we know it wouldn't exist - interstellar travel would be limited to at most a few exploratory missions (possibly by automated craft), and large-scale COLONIZATION would never have happened. Evidently a lot of people could afford to pay, directly or indirectly, to ship themselves and their families off to other PLANETS.

     This must require an impressively high TECHLEVEL, and from fairly early on in FUTURE HISTORY. Oddly, the Techlevel on the whole seems far more modest in other walks of life. In fact, the everyday Techlevel in most SPACE SF has tended to decline since the GOLDEN AGE. ROBOTS are no longer commonly available to do all the work, freeing everyone to think deep thoughts or just fool around. Even the familiar personal aircar seems to be going the way of the personal helicopter; you see more and more wheeled vehicles around. All of this is surely due to a general desire to avoid excessive HANDWAVIUM technology (except where the plot requires it, e.g. FTL). It does create an odd discordance, though.

     On the other hand, the modest overall Techlevel does make things more interesting. If everyone had REPLICATOR machines that could turn out exact copies of anything - not just software, but steak dinners or diamond rings - the interstellar Economy would be pretty boring, and it would be rather hard to explain TRADE. (Sure, someone has to make and distribute prototypes, but how much traffic does that generate?) It would be also be harder to set up economic exploitation, class conflict, or other things that help move plots along and also provide background color.

     Yet it is a peculiar fact that the Internet economy of c. 2000 CE has created economic issues, like how to protect intellectual property rights over stuff that anyone can download from the Web, that never seem to arise in the much more advanced economies of later centuries.


EMPIRE. An interstellar polity covering multiple HABITABLE PLANETS. The term is a general one, not necessarily confined to states created by conquest; in this respect any interstellar polity may be called an Empire, even if worlds join voluntarily. (But see also FEDERATION.) There are, of course, also Empires of the imperialistic sort, established by outright conquest of Planets.

     Four specific types of Empire are worthy of special notice. These differ from ordinary Empires in that - at least during their salad days - they rule over everyone, or at least nearly all EARTH HUMANS:

     1) Terran Empire. As its name suggests, this Empire is centered on good old TERRA. (However, in NOMENCLATURE it may have some other name, not infrequently Federation). Normally it is a creation of the earlier centuries of Earth Human expansion into and COLONIZATION of the KNOWN GALAXY. After a few hundred years it will usually fragment. This is hardly surprising; the enormous expansion involved must eventually tend to overwhelm the existing means of communication and control. But see FALL OF EMPIRE.

     2) Galactic Empire. This Empire covers the entire Milky Way GALAXY. If created by Earth Humans it will obviously take a long time to form - long enough for Galaxy-wide Colonization and then for unification of the Colonies. If established by ALIENS, it may already be a going concern. At least in written SF, though, the Galactic Empire is normally founded by Earth Humans.

     Eventually the Galactic Empire will usually collapse, unless the Terran Empire already collapsed in the same FUTURE HISTORY. For the Fall of the Galactic Empire there is somewhat less excuse than the fall of the Terran Empire; apparently it just runs down in some way.

     3) First Empire. This is the Empire that falls, whether Terran or Galactic.

     4) Second Empire. This will eventually replace the fallen First Empire; the implication is that it will be more enduring.


ENCYCLOPEDIA GALACTICA.  A vast reference work containing everything you could possibly want or need to know about the KNOWN GALAXY.  These pages may be considered a microscopic excerpt from it. 

     I believe that Isaac Asimov first introduced the Encyclopedia Galactica to the Known Galaxy.  He presumably envisioned a work of some 30,000 volumes (on microfilm, as I recall); since his GALACTIC EMPIRE comprised a hundred million PLANETS, the gazeteer alone would be somewhat lengthy.  The Good Dr. A. probably never imagined that it might all fit onto one disk that you could put your pocket. 


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