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The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy



Blue Band FALL OF EMPIRE. This will happen to the FIRST EMPIRE, which may be either the TERRAN EMPIRE or GALACTIC EMPIRE. (Rarely both, since this would be rather duplicative.)

     The cause given for the Fall of Empire should be noted, because it is usually a dead giveaway to the author's political and social biases. Authority, especially quasi-religious authority, became too stifling, choking off free thought. Or people ignored the old Imperial virtues, became decadent and hedonistic, and had far too much sex. Or the Imperial government choked the ECONOMY to death with exorbitant taxes. Or the rich got richer and arrogant, while the poor got poorer and desperate. These causes may be disguised by some TECHJARGON about Psychohistorical Dynamics or General Systems Collapse, but they are almost always there if you scope them out.

     The Fall of Empire is second only to the initial COLONIZATION as the central defining event of of FUTURE HISTORY, during most of which the dominant themes will in succession be staving off the inevitable Fall, then surviving through it, then dealing with the resulting chaotic INTERREGNUM, and finally putting together a more enduring SECOND EMPIRE.

     In this regard it may be said that the most influential writer in the history of SF was not Verne or Wells, or Hugo Gernsback, or Robert Heinlein, or even Isaac Asimov (who introduced this theme to SF), but Edward Gibbon.


FEDERATION. A common type of interstellar EMPIRE. As the name suggests, it is usually formed by a voluntary association of previously independent PLANETS, which retain substantial local autonomy. At least, this is what Federations claim, and usually appears to be more or less true. The KNOWN GALAXY seems not to indulge political euphemisms like People's Republic or President for Life. Empire itself is not a term of opprobrium, and a Space Tyrant will cheerfully call herself one. There is one important exception, however; the Terran Empire will very often be called the FEDERATION. This, however, will not exempt it from the FALL OF EMPIRE.

     NOMENCLATURE terms for Federation include Alliance, Union of Worlds, and so on. See also TRADE FEDERATION.


FOOD. At least for EARTH HUMANS, this has gotten considerably better since the GOLDEN AGE. In this respect the KNOWN GALAXY resembles English restaurants. No one, happily, gets all of their nutrient requirement from pills any more, and even Food reprocessed from algae or manufactured by a REPLICATOR seems to have been largely replaced by the real thing. Now, if only we could see comparable improvement in APPAREL.

     It is not known whether there has been similar progress in the Food eaten by ALIENS. You'd have to ask them. At least to Earth Humans their Food mostly seems to be extremely disagreeable - particularly so when their favorite delicacy is Earth Humans. Happily, this at least is less common than in the past.


FREE TRADERS. Interstellar travelling merchants who operate with great independence, owing no allegiance to a particular PLANET or EMPIRE. They are frequently encountered, and are generally a rather swaggering, pugnacious, buccaneering lot. They know their way around, and their trade ships are often well-armed, which can make them a factor to be reckoned with in SPACE WARFARE. Free Traders seem to be a mainstay of the interstellar ECONOMY. Some of them may eventually form an active TRADE FEDERATION.

     You get the idea that a fair amount of their TRADE might involve smuggling. This could be a tricky proposition, since landing on a planet is not like running a boat up on a beach, and SCAN equipment should pick up any space vehicle making a landing. On the other hand, a well-placed bribe to the operators will get you past any Scan technology.

     Some Free Traders are rather like Gypsies, footloose-seeming to outsiders but constrained among themselves by a clannish society, with elaborate social rules on things like who can marry whom. These Free Traders are probably less likely to found a Trade Federation, but their culture need not preclude them from smuggling.


FRIGATE.  A medium-sized class of COMBAT SPACECRAFT, normally a STARSHIP.  Frigates are widely used for escort, scouting, and general patrol duties; in overall configuration they probably resemble scaled-down BATTLE CRUISERS.   Alternative TECHJARGON usages are Scout, Cruiser, etc., though sometimes a DESTROYER serves essentially the same function.

     This term, which most people associate with Horatio Hornblower or "Old Ironsides," might seem a curious choice to apply to an interstellar Combat Spacecraft.  But there were oared fregatas in the 16th century CE, and guided missile frigates through at least the early 21st century, so the type has had a remarkably long run.  Only triremes had a longer service life, but their DRIVE did not prove adaptable to operations in SPACE.


FTL. Faster than light. This is by far the most important item of HANDWAVIUM technology in Space SF, and is absolutely necessary for the communications, TRADE, and WARFARE of the KNOWN GALAXY. No one, after all, wants to take decades or centuries to get anywhere. For this reason, even HARD SF usually makes an exception for FTL. You just can't leave home without it.

     TECHJARGON terms include Hyperspace, Subspace, and a host of meaningless names - such as my own Ashikaga Jump, named for its purported inventor. Warp was old-fashioned even when classic Trek used it, and is hardly encountered any more.  (Interestingly, though, it is one piece of Techjargon that has entered the everyday language; people who never heard of FTL know that warp speed means "really, really fast.")

     FTL is primarily a form of rapid transit for space vehicles, needed to literally move the plot along. FTL radio is also common (the most frequent Techjargon term is Ansible), but is sometimes left out as not entirely necessary - you can always send a ship with a message, and the resulting haphazard communications are a rich source of plot complications. Perversely, Ursula Le Guin has things the other way around - Ansibles, but no FTL drive. I'm going to be sexist and say that this is a woman thing: you can yak on the phone, but creeps can't get to you to break in and rape you.

     FTL requires Handwavium because of that damned speed-of-light barrier to travel in normal space. Over the years, SF writers have grasped at any conceivable loophole in the laws of physics that might theoretically allow them to speed things up. The physicists have actually been - very marginally - helpful in this regard, what with wormholes, quantum tunneling, and so forth. Basically, though, FTL remains sheer Handwavium, in that its properties are wholly arbitrary. (Unlike, say, a matter-antimatter DRIVE, for which you can at least calculate energy-to-thrust ratios and the like.)

     Broadly speaking, FTL environments fall into two classes, those that you "fly" through and those that you "jump" through. The first type allows you to actually navigate - change course, or even fight battles - while in FTL. It also favors artsy semi-streamlined spacecraft designs, a la Trek, presumably to slide cleanly through whatever it is you go through in FTL.

     In contrast, "jump" FTL is a sort of rabbit hole that you hop through to get where you're going. Navigation is all done beforehand, in normal Space, as you line up to make the jump. Once you make it you have no further control till you pop back out, hopefully where you wanted to go. Jump FTL often limits movement to specific JUMP POINTS

     Both types of FTL often require some kind of intuitive skill for successful navigation.  This is a convenient way to make automated drone STARSHIPS impossible, forcing them all to have crews.

     Trek, of course, had a fly-through FTL, but on the whole the fashion in Space SF has been leaning toward jump FTL. This is for a couple of reason. The semi-demi-plausible wormhole and quantum-tunneling concepts seem to imply a jump. More important, though, jump FTL is less intrusive in stories.

     This is desireable, because most Space SF writers - myself included - are basically guilt-ridden about FTL. We would like to make our stories seem plausible, and may go to a great deal of effort to research, say, what stars are likely to have HABITABLE PLANETS, how much thrust a fusion Drive can generate, or the economics of interstellar Trade. But right at the heart of the whole damn thing is what amounts to magic. So far as genuine scientific plausibility goes, a ship's FTL Drive might just as well be a pretty woman in a white dress who lights some candles and flips tarot cards while chanting in Welsh.

     So the only decent thing to do with FTL is make it as inconspicuous as possible, act as if stars are really just a little farther apart than planets, and hope against hope that the physicists eventually turn up something solid. Till then? Keep chanting in Welsh, babe.


FUTURE HISTORY. The history of EARTH HUMANS in the period between the 21st century CE (or sometime in the 20th) and the present in which a story is set. Older Future Histories, such as Heinlein's, tended to have an explicit chronology roughly from the date of publication - with the result that their first few decades at least have already been relegated to "Alternate History." More recent writers have caught on to this, and tend to be a bit more coy about the early period, so that their Future Histories won't become "Alternate" while the book is still in print.

     Future History is of course enormously varied, but a certain broad outline is common, and provides an overall dramatic theme to make the History more than just a jumble of events. Interstellar COLONIZATION by Earth Humans leads to a FIRST EMPIRE. This may happen fairly promptly (Heinlein's original history had it happening, albeit on a Solar System-only scale, by c. 1970!), in which case the First Empire is also the TERRAN EMPIRE. Or, as in Asimov's Foundation books, it may not happen till very much later, in which case the First Empire is a GALATIC EMPIRE.

     The First Empire is a grand and glorious age, but alas it eventually goes the way of all flesh. It sinks into decadence and decline, and eventually collapses in the FALL OF EMPIRE, giving way to the chaotic INTERREGNUM. Thus usually involves not just political fragmentation but a general decline in civilization. Eventually, though, someone start to pick up the various fragments, a revival that presumably will lead ultimately to a more stable Second Empire. However, relatively little Space SF is actually set in this final great age - it is presumed to be genuinely civilized, and therefore pretty dull.





GALAXY. A cosmological object comprising large numbers of stars, along with gas, dust, and assorted junk such as PLANETS. In Space SF it almost always means our own Milky Way Galaxy. See KNOWN GALAXY.




GIANT WAR ROBOTS. Apparently a creation of Japanese cartoons, these are now doing to cities across the KNOWN GALAXY what Japanese cars did to Detroit in the 1980s. They look pretty much like classic humanoid-form ROBOTS, except that they are the size of high-rise buildings. However, they are not true Robots; not only do they not seem to have AI, but are apparently controlled by an on-board crew, and are really a grotesque scaling-up of POWER-ARMOR SUITS.

     Giant War Robots can operate in SPACE, but are primarily designed for PLANET WARFARE. I cannot imagine any practical military use for these things, except as conspicuous targets. But I suppose they appeal to every 12-year-old's fantasy of tearing up a model-railroad layout, hurling locomotives around and toppling bridges. This really would be kind of fun.


GOLDEN AGE. In SF, the era round the mid 20th century CE, when many classics of the genre were written and its major conventions (e.g., the GALACTIC EMPIRE) were established.

     Another view has it that the Golden Age of SF is fourteen.


GRUNTS. Soldiers, especially infantry. These were relatively uncommon in the GOLDEN AGE, when WARFARE mainly took place in SPACE. However, with the increasing popularity of PLANET WARFARE, large numbers of Grunts have been recruited, trained, and sent into action. (As a nod to the Space environment, though, the NOMENCLATURE for them is often Marines.)

     They may may wear POWER-ARMOR SUITS, but are still basically your Mark I Mod 0 Grunt. They yomp through lots of mud and kick a lot of ass. Though primarily used on HABITABLE PLANETS, the ones with Power-Armor Suits will sometimes show up elsewhere, occasionally even in Space. Don't laugh; the British Royal Navy carried an enemy ship by boarding in 1942 CE.


HABITABLE. Any PLANET that people (mainly EARTH HUMANS) can live on without having to wear a space suit or at least an oxygen supply. Habitable Planets fall mostly into two classes.

     1) Paradises. These are almost exactly like Earth - more precisely the Garden of Eden, or at least coastal California. Summers are baskingly warm, winters briskly cool, and the rain falls only at night. Landforms have dramatic variety, a typical planetscape resembling San Francisco Bay, only with the Sierras in place of the Oakland hills. These Planets teem with native life forms that we can eat (and tasty to boot; see FOOD), but none - either carnivores or microbes - who eat us. It is easy to understand why COLONIZATION happened on these Planets. Who wouldn't want to live on one, if you could?

     2) Hells. These nominally Habitable Planets pose greater challenges for interstellar real estate promoters. The entire Planet usually has only one climatic zone, and it isn't mediterranean. Desert Planets seem to be most common, followed by ice-age Planets, steaming jungle Planets, and howling windswept steppe Planets. The local life is mostly inedible, but it can eat us with no problem, and does so whenever it can catch us. It is difficult to understand why Colonization happened on these Planets. Perhaps they produce something valuable in TRADE, but if so the Colonists never seem to benefit, since they are mostly poor. If even limited TERRAFORMING is available, you would think that someone would give these Planets a bit of touch-up.


HABITAT. A large structure in SPACE, used mainly as a place for people to live rather than as a commercial or military STATION. (The functions may be combined, however.)

     Habitats became fashionable around the 1970s, when it sank in that the Solar System had no planets very suitable for COLONIZATION. The idea was that people could just as well build their own place to live, perhaps by hollowing out an asteroid and pressurizing the interior. They were especially popular in HARD SF, since they allowed a thriving Space society without FTL.

     Since then, however, Habitats have fallen a bit on hard times. (Except perhaps for those that are primarily Stations). Partly this is from doubts about their ECONOMY and social organization. The cost of living will be high, because people in Habitats have to pay for ecological utility services that HABITABLE PLANETS provide for free - recycling the water and oxygen, for example, and above all keeping the air from leaking away. FOOD has to be imported, or grown using high yield-intensity methods (farmland being quite limited). Without some firm economic basis in external TRADE and thus profits - and MINING only goes so far - why would people pay through the nose to live in a Habitat?

     Moreover, the popularity of Habitats in the 1970s was rather tied to libertarian ideology, and this created problems. Basically, Habitats are more like big Space vehicles than miniature planets. A Habitat as a whole might be independent, but the same ecological factors that make it expensive also require pretty tight social regulation. In a Habitat, you don't tell the guy who checks pressure leaks to get the hell off your property. So much for libertarianism.

     Yet the KNOWN GALAXY is full of cultures that thrive, even though their social foundations are at least equally shaky. The real reason that Habitats declined has nothing to do with their internal deficiencies. The truth is that they went up against the Known Galaxy and lost.

     At bottom the goal of Habitats was to restore the old Solar System of the early GOLDEN AGE - when whole EMPIRES could rise and fall inside the orbit of Pluto - and to do so in a technically plausible way, with minimal HANDWAVIUM and especially no pure-Handwavium FTL. But you can't go back. We've gotten used to the Known Galaxy, and to swallowing FTL if that's what it takes to get there. Habitats were a pale substitute, and never quite caught on.


HANDWAVIUM. A substance with extraordinary properties, capable for example of withstanding a direct hit by a thermonuclear warhead. By extension, the term [which I stole from Chris Weuve's SFCONSIM-L discussion group] is applied to high TECHLEVEL engineering of any sort, especially if it falls outside the constraints of HARD SF. A lot of people, me included, try to avoid arbitrary use of Handwavium, but the truth is that you can't travel the KNOWN GALAXY without it, because any FTL is pure Handwavium. So get used to it.


HARD SF. Written SF that adheres, or tries to adhere, to plausible science and technology. Therefore it generally implies a fairly modest TECHLEVEL; the most anal Hard SF may even preclude FTL. For obvious reasons, plausible is pretty much in the eye of the beholder. It is also a moving target. In fact, you can usually date Hard SF particularly well by its technology, which will lean heavily on whatever technical or scientific speculation was fashionable about five years before a book's publication date. If this did not pan out (and mostly it hasn't), the resulting Hard SF will sound very dated within a decade or so.


HIVE ENTITY. A type of REALLY ALIEN intelligent species - one of the most Really Alien of all - organized along lines rather like the social insects. In a Hive Entity, individuals members of the community count for nothing, and indeed most of them have no individual intelligence to speak of. They are specialized for various functions (particularly warriors), and exist entirely to serve the Hive Entity as a whole.

     A Hive Entity's intelligence may reside in specialized "brain" individuals, which have only vestigial legs and even digestive systems, and are themselves entirely dependent on various kinds of "slave" individuals. Or the intelligence may somehow be spread out collectively though the whole Hive Entity, each individually-mindless inhabitant in effect contributing a few neurons to the whole. (Or some combination of these.) Some Hive Entities may not really be intelligent at all, but have evolved the ability to blow up other people's spacecraft the same way that some ants have evolved the ability to keep aphids as cattle.

     When encountered in the KNOWN GALAXY, Hive Entities are almost invariably hostile. They apparently have nothing to offer in trade, much less arts or ideas, and you can't even negotiate a peace treaty with them, because there isn't really anyone to negotiate with. In WARFARE they are at once mindlessly ruthless - attacking in endless waves like giant army ants, which they also tend to look like - and malevolently intelligent. Putting no value on their own automaton lives, they obviously have no concept of valuing anyone else's.

     In fact, Hive Entities are basically the ultimate totalitarians. It is no surprise that they appeared in written SF, so far as I know, around the mid 20th century CE, the same time that giant ants showed up in HOLLYWOOD SCIFI. Hive Entities were, and are, Nazis, Stalinists, and ChiComs, magnified to the Nth degree and let loose to give better races a harsh lesson in the precious value of individualism.

     Which is really too bad. Taken in themselves, Hive Entities are a fascinating concept, precisely because they really are Really Alien. Yet if in fact they are intelligent, they must have ideas of some sort, however hard for them to express in a way we can understand. If the intelligence is spread through the hive community, the time scale of its thinking might be drastically slower than our own, maybe taking weeks to form the equivalent of a sentence. This indeed could make them tricky to deal with at first, since on our time scale they would necessarily act on reflex.

     But if we EARTH HUMANS, and similar species, really want to demonstrate individual intelligence, we might actually try figuring the Hive Entities out, and see if we and they might have something to contribute to each other, instead of fighting pretty mindless wars with them. Don't hold your breath, though. It hasn't happened in fifty years, so far as I know.

     But maybe the Hive Entities' mental time scale is longer than that.


HOLLYWOOD SCIFI. Movies and TV shows, and by extension the "media tie-in" books based on them.

     Historically, Hollywood Scifi was once almost an entirely different genre than written SF, with a very different world view. In the 1950s, for example, Hollywood Scifi tended to be suspicious of science and technology - which mostly created nasty giant ants and such - while contemporary GOLDEN AGE SF was thoroughly technophile.

     Things changed somewhat after Star Trek. Everyone (sometimes including me) loves to badmouth Trek, except for trekkies, who uncritically adore it. You'll hear that Trek wasn't really SF at all. Well, excuse me, but if an interstellar survey ship, PLANET hopping from week to week, isn't SF, what is? Maybe not cutting edge, but then the cutting edge has pretty much worn itself down since cyberpunk anyway.

     But post-Trek, Hollywood Scifi has tended to go its own way again. The various Trek spinoffs, and Trek-esque shows like Babylon 5, are the exception. "Star Wars" applied SF trappings to what was essentially a fantasy-trilogy plot. And lately, the trend seems to be horror plots with SF trappings, haunted spacecraft and such. Amazingly few major SF books have been made into movies.  Considering the bollux that David Lynch made of Dune (I haven't seen the recent TV movie version), or the even more wretched bollux that Paul Verhoeven made of Starship Troopers, this may be just as well.

     Still, Hollywood Scifi does use SF trappings, and occasionally even SF plots. Hollywood Scifi conventions also have a way of slipping crosswise from media tie-ins into general written SF. And, apart from book and magazine cover illustrations (which themselves borrow heavily from it), Hollywood Scifi is our main source for what the KNOWN GALAXY looks like. So we can't just ignore it.


HOMEWORLD. This may have any of three related but distinct meanings.

     1) Someone's native PLANET; where they were born, or at least their permanent residence address.

     2) The capital Planet of an EMPIRE, especially if the Empire builders started out there. 

     3) The Planet where an intelligent race originated. In this sense, the Homeworld of all EARTH HUMANS is of course Earth, even if they have lived for generations on a COLONY.


INTERBREEDABLE. Intelligent species, typically including EARTH HUMANS and several varieties of ALIENS WITH FOREHEAD RIDGES, who are either physically capable of interbreeding (which must mean that they are at most subspecies of the same species), or at least can think about it. In some cases actual Interbreedability is demonstrated by the existence of persons with mixed parentage. In many more cases, however, presumed Interbreedability is demonstrated by sexual attraction, which may or not be acted on by the attractees, and may or may not produce viable offspring.


INTERREGNUM. The period of general decline following the FALL OF EMPIRE. Basically a dark age.  Interstellar TRADE dwindles, PLANETS are isolated from one another, and on many of them the TECHLEVEL falls dramatically, often down to early-industrial or even pre-industrial levels. The society adjusts accordingly, often to a NEOFEUDALIST system.

     An Interregnum is not implausible following the collapse of an early Terran Empire, since the implication is that a great many half-settled COLONIES are left stranded without the outside support their economies still require. It is not so clear why a similar result would follow the Fall of a mature Galactic Empire, since by that time most Planets have presumably been settled for centuries, if not thousands of years.


JUMP POINT. A location in SPACE where you can enter FTL. Alternative TECHJARGON terms are Gate, Portal, etc.  The implication is that these locations are fairly rare, with most PLANETS having only one or two close enough to use. If you can enter FTL freely from many locations the Jump Point concept does not really apply. But if the FTL in use provides for Jump Points, they will be of great commercial and strategic importance. STATIONS are likely to be built near Jump Points, and in SPACE WARFARE they are natural choke points to interdict movements and waylay enemy spacecraft as they come out of FTL.


KINETIC SLUG. A rather recent innovation in SPACE WARFARE, even though the concept is very basic Newtonian physics. Oddly, Kinetic Slugs may have been studied by the Pentagon for actual Space Warfare (in the form of missile-defense plans) before they ever showed up in SF. It is amazing that no one came up with them decades ago.

     At high velocities, any object packs a lot of kinetic energy. It can be a shotput, a throw pillow, or a carton of skim milk - if it hits you at, say, 100 kilometers per second (a reasonable modest-TECHLEVEL speed), the impact is equivalent to about a thousand times its mass in TNT. This can ruin your entire day.

     Kinetic Slugs can be fired from guns (usually electric accelerators, the TECHJARGON being RAILGUN or Coilgun), launched as MISSILES (which need no separate warhead; the missile structure will do nicely), or simply dumped across the path of an oncoming ship as mines, sheer impact speed doing the job.

     Simple, cheap, nasty - what more can you ask of a SPACE weapon?


KNOWN GALAXY. The portion of space that EARTH HUMANS have explored, and in which SPACE SF stories take place. NOMENCLATURE terms may be Known Space, the Human Sphere, etc. The extent of the Known Galaxy varies widely. It may only extend 10 or 20 light years from Earth - this was especially common around the 1960s, when HABITABLE PLANETS were expected to be more common than is now thought likely. Or it may extend through the whole Milky Way galaxy. But it hardly ever reaches out to the Magellanic Clouds, much less Andromeda.


LIBERTARIAN MILITARISTS. A society that is frequently met with, at least among EARTH HUMANS. These people believe in minimal government and maximum personal autonomy, yet they have a large military establishment with very well-disciplined troops. This raises some interesting questions. How minimal can a government be if it collects enough taxes to support that enormous military? Don't people feel that if they're going to pay all those taxes they might as well get some roads or public colleges as well? And how does a society so devoutly individualistic provide sufficient recruits to an organization as essentially and necessarily group-oriented and authoritarian as a military force?

     More generally, how does this odd combination arise in the first place? If these people are libertarians, they're unlikely to be EMPIRE builders, so they don't need a big military for conquest. And if they are so threatened from all sides as to need it for defense, how have they avoided a garrison-state culture in which (necessarily authoritian) military values become generally dominant in the society? Political scientists and sociologists have yet to provide a satisfactory answer to these questions. They need to work harder. It can't be for lack of examples, because PLANETS with Libertarian Militarist societies are found all over the KNOWN GALAXY.


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