Hubble Telescope


The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy



Blue Band SCAN. The generic TECHJARGON for radar, or whatever equipment you use to find and track vehicles or other objects in Space.

     Of all the stuff carried by COMBAT SPACECRAFT, Scan requires less HANDWAVIUM than most. The fact is that Space, though big, is a lousy place to try and hide in. At any temperature above absolute zero (far too cold for crew comfort), all objects in Space - including all Combat Spacecraft - radiate energy, easily detected by Scan gear from zillions of kilometers away. Moreover, DRIVE engines and weapons such as BEAMS put out scads of energy, in forms that are not only easily detected but pretty readily identified for what they are.

     A CLOAKING DEVICE is sometimes used to hide from enemy Scan equipment. However, the best rule of thumb is that in a Space battle, everyone can see everyone else.


SF. If you didn't know already, surely you have figured out by now that this means Science Fiction.

     Some people, however, do give SF the broader meaning of Speculative Fiction. This is not unreasonable, since Fantasy, Science Fantasy, and a smattering of subgenres like Steampunk are written and read by many of the same people, shelved in the same section of bookstores, and all deal with places that are not Kansas. However, Speculative Fiction suffers from the hint of euphemism, the sense that it was dreamed up around 1970 CE by someone trying to say, "I don't read/write that awful stuff with phallic spaceships and bug-eyed monsters on the cover."

     SF is almost always a written medium, intended to be read. It hardly ever shows up on a TV or movie screen. That is a quite different genre, HOLLYWOOD SCIFI. (People who actually read SF almost never call it "Scifi." In fact, some SF people go into an absolute fit over the term. Those people need to get a life.)


SHIELD. The most common TECHJARGON for a device that generates an impenetrable (or at least hard-to-penetrate) force field around a COMBAT SPACECRAFT, protecting it from enemy weapons. Fairly common alternative terms are Screen or (almost always in the plural) Deflectors.

     Once the primary defense of COMBAT SPACECRAFT, Shields have fallen somewhat out of favor, mainly because to be effective they require excessive amounts of HANDWAVIUM. In theory, a magnetic field might do a fair job of stopping a charged-particle BEAM or a PLASMA BALL, but the practical implementation is hazy. And a magnetic field won't do a thing to stop a solid KINETIC SLUG (unless it's made of iron), nor much to stop a laser Beam. Or the X-ray flux of a nuclear warhead. For those you'd need some other kind of Shield, such as ANTIGRAVITY, using not only Handwavium technology but Handwavium physics as well.

     Faced with this awkward situation, Combat Spacecraft designers have largely fallen back on alternative forms of protection. These include defensive Beams to zap incoming Kinetic Slugs or MISSILES, projectors squirting out dust or the like to absorb laser BEAMS, and good old fashioned material armor.

     Traditional heavy armor like the Yamato had is actually not particularly helpful against most Space weapons - it weighs an awful lot, and if the weapon dumps enough energy into it the armor just explodes. But a thin outer shell with a layer of vacuum behind it can do wonders. Weapon energy will still blow up the outer layer, but the vacuum behind it gives the fireball room to spread out and dissipate before it hits the main inner hull. If you have limited access to Handwavium, this is about the best protection you are going to get.


SHUTTLE. A vehicle combining the characteristics of an aircraft and a spacecraft. Shuttles provide transport between the surface of a PLANET and nearby space, serving STATIONS and those STARSHIPS which cannot land on a Planet themselves.

     Shuttles are the outstanding example of an item of SF TECHJARGON that has actually come into being; they were common in SF for years before NASA built the ones we have now. SF Shuttles, however, are presumably more reliable and vastly cheaper to operate than the NASA Shuttles.


SLAG. To effectively destroy a PLANET, rendering it totally non-HABITABLE by melting the surface into slag. This need not require a particularly high TECHLEVEL; bumping a handy asteroid into a collision orbit will do it nicely. The ease with which Planets can be Slagged introduces a fundamental problem in WARFARE, equivalent to the nuclear balance of terror that prevailed on Earth during the second half of the 20th century CE.

     If Warfare is to be an effective means of settling political differences, some way has to be found to keep everyone from just Slagging each other, and most of the KNOWN GALAXY, into oblivion. Judging from historical experience, the natural solution is to refrain from large-scale regular Warfare, resorting instead to terrorism or fomenting guerilla wars on third-galaxy Planets. Neither of these solutions seems to be widespread, though. They lack the glamour of real stand-up Warfare, and at least for Americans the idea of guerilla wars still evokes the dismal Spectre of Vietnam.

     Universal peace is no solution - that would be as boring as vegetarianism, and everyone would wander off to read fantasy trilogies or Tom Clancy knockoffs instead. So instead an unwritten agreement seems to prevail, in all eras and throughout the Known Galaxy. Warfare can and will be fought a l'outrance, with frequent stand-up clashes of battlefleets in Space and armored divisions on Planets, but everyone will almost always refrain from Slagging Planets.

     Violators, one must presume, get Slagged.


SLOWBOAT. A STARSHIP that has no FTL, and therefore take a long, long time to get where it's going.

     This poses the problem of what the crew and passengers do in the meantime. If the Slowboat can go nearly the speed of light, and the destination is a nearby star, they may simply endure a very tedious voyage of a decade or so. But if the Slowboat is even slower, or the destination farther away (and usually both are the case), more drastic measures have to be taken.

     One common option is hybernation. Everyone goes into suspended-animation sleep, to be awakened in a few hundred years. The alternative is a Generation Ship. Here the ship is basically a HABITAT with a DRIVE engine attached. Crew and passengers form a self-sustaining community, and the Ship (usually a huge one) is their world till they finally reach the destination.

     It often happens that, after a few centuries en route, the inhabitants of a Generation Ship completely forget where they came from, much less where they're going.


SPACE. This very basic term has two quite different meanings, one broad and the other narrowly specific.

     1).  The final frontier. The term applies particularly to what is in between specific objects like PLANETS (i.e., lots of near-vacuum with some very rarefied gas and widely scattered junk), but in a more general sense it means everything having to do with anything beyond Earth's atmosphere.  Without Space, we would all be stuck on Earth and could only visit the same old sights, most of which are already overcrowded with American, German, and Japanese tourists.

     2).  As a verb, a method of execution.  To Space someone is to toss the condemned person out the airlock without a space suit.  People in the KNOWN GALAXY are evidently not very squeamish, because this is a pretty messy and nasty way to go.


SPACE FIGHTERS. Small, fast, highly maneuverable COMBAT SPACECRAFT. They have very limited range (never FTL), and no crew habitability to speak of; they can only operate for at most a few hours at a time. The crew is limited to one person, or occasionally two. At least among EARTH HUMANS and ALIENS WTH FOREHEAD RIDGES, these are usually males in their early twenties, known for their swagger, coolness, and fast moves on any attractive female of an INTERBREEDABLE species. (Who REALLY ALIENS use to crew their Space Fighters is not known.)

     Because of their short range, Space Fighters usually must be carried into action by TRANSPORTER ships, though in some cases they will be carried piggyback on other, larger Combat Spacecraft. Their tactical value is unclear, since the are really just small spacecraft themselves. Since they don't operate in an essentially different medium, the way aircraft operate in a different medium from surface ships, there is no fundamental reason why they should be all that much faster. In naval terms they are more analogous to motor gunboats than to airplanes. 

     Mostly Space Fighters fight each other, which is logical enough in itself but doesn't explain why they are used in the first place. Only two other missions can be identified for them:

     1) To destroy gargantuan BATTLE STATIONS, which are vulnerable only to attack by Space Fighters.

     2) To give prominent roles to young males in their early twenties, so they can display their swagger, coolness, and fast moves on any attractive female of an Interbreedable species.


SPACE WARFARE. This is what the general public thinks of as WARFARE in SF: COMBAT SPACECRAFT zapping away at each other in deep Space. In HOLLYWOOD SCIFI they whoosh and gyrate like atmospheric aircraft, in blithe indifference to the vacuum of space and the laws of physics. They also seem to fight at astonishingly close range, more like Trafalgar than Midway. Written SF is somewhat more careful - the audience is more sophisticated, and anyway a book doesn't need a sound track for battle sequences.

     The TECHLEVEL of Space Warfare can vary enormously; ships may engage at relative speeds of anywhere from a few kilometers per second to nearly the speed of light - or many times faster, if the technology allows ships to actually fight in FTL rather than using it purely for system-to-system rapid transit. The most common offensive weapons are BEAMS, though MISSILES and PLASMA BALLS may appear. KINETIC SLUGS are a recent innovation. The usual defense - though less so now than in the past - is a SHIELD, now often replaced by defensive weapons, plain old physical armor, and the occasional CLOAKING DEVICE.

     Weapons and other combat systems may use greater or lesser amounts of HANDWAVIUM, though less in recent times than in the past, since Space Warfare usually makes some nod to HARD SF conventions. (Shields, for example, seem to have fallen out of favor due to their great Handwavium requirement.)

     Whatever the Techlevel, however, the organization of Space Warfare is almost invariably based on naval usage. Most Combat Spacecraft (except for the largest and smallest) are called ships, and service ranks will include crusty Chief Petty Officers, naive Ensigns, capable Captains, and anxious Admirals. This is broadly reasonable, if - as is usually the case - space travel is assumed to involve journeys of days or weeks, so that crews necessarily live on board (unlike, say, tanks or aircraft).

     However, space fleet organization is usually based specifically on 20th century CE naval organization, especially the first quarter of that century. This one brief period in the distant past seems to be taken as a model by planners everywhere in the Known Galaxy. BATTLE CRUISERS and DESTROYERS abound in fleets, and while you will sometimes be attacked by a FRIGATE, you'll never encounter a dromon or a pinnace in space combat. And, while on rare occasions you may encounter EMPIRE fleets commanded by Consuls, I have not yet heard of one commanded by a Captain-General - even though the 16th century CE might be a better model than the 20th for a civilization expanding into open space. (This, by the way, is a deficiency I intend to remedy.)

     It is also a curious fact that Space Warfare has tended to lag real-world naval developments by a few decades. BATTLESHIPS and (especially) Battle Cruisers continued to be the queens of the space fleets right through the 1960s, long after their prototypes had been relegated to amphibious gunfire support, or the scrapheap, by the dominance of aircraft carriers.

     This changed abruptly a long time ago (1977 CE) in a galaxy far, far away (20th Century Fox). Suddenly deep Space - especially Hollywood Scifi deep Space - became infested with X-wing, Y-wing, and Z-wing SPACE FIGHTERS. Squadrons of Battle Cruisers contended futilely against them, zapping away in vain with their heavy weapons like someone trying to swat flies with an axe. Oddly, though, Battle Cruisers remain in production; evidently fleet staffs have noticed that Space Fighters can't actually damage anything except each other (and of course the occasional behemoth BATTLE STATION).

     It may now be just about time for Space Warfare to catch up to the 1970s, in which case we should see a proliferation of medium-sized Combat Spacecraft armed to the teeth with MISSILES. In fairness, some fleets have been using Missiles as primary weapon for years (and I will be joining their ranks).


STARSHIP. A space vehicle capable of interstellar travel, and therefore almost always equipped with FTL, as well as some other DRIVE for maneuvering in normal Space. A few early Starships, however, are SLOWBOATS.

     Most Starships, especially large ones, do not land directly on PLANETS, but dock at an orbiting STATION, where surface-to-orbit transport is provided by SHUTTLES. This is a convenient and sensible arrangement, allowing Starships to avoid the cost and complexity of atmospheric flight controls and a landing gear. Anything that reduces the building and operating cost of Starships is a godsend. They must be horrifically expensive, considering the TECHLEVEL required, but the KNOWN GALAXY is utterly dependent on their ready availability.

     Starship, it must be said, is one of the most elegant terms in all of TECHJARGON. It combines two ancient everyday words to clearly and evocatively express a concept that did not actually exist for at least a century after the term was coined.


STATION. A large structure in Space, generally serving as a port of call for STARSHIPS engaged in TRADE, or as a naval base for COMBAT SPACECRAFT (or both). Most often Stations are found in orbit around a PLANET, with SHUTTLES providing surface-to-orbit transport. However, Stations may also be found near JUMP POINTS if the FTL in use provides for these. Normally Stations remain in fixed parking orbits and have no DRIVE, save perhaps thrustors to keep them in position. BATTLE STATIONS, though, appear to roam around freely. These, however, are not true Stations, but humongous Combat Spacecraft.

     Stations differ from HABITATS in that they serve a specific commercial or military purpose, rather than being mainly expensive places to live. However, commercial Stations may and often do have a permanent population. This makes sense, as employment opportunities must be plentiful. They will have most of the services and people you would find at a sea port, from spacecraft building and maintenance facilities, to Traders and stevedores, to barkeepers and hookers. The famous bar scene in "Star Wars" should really have been set in a Station.  They are interesting places, the crossroads of the KNOWN GALAXY.


TECHJARGON. The technical terminology of Space propulsion, weapon systems, and so forth. Often it is fairly vague, the Jones DRIVE or whatever, to avoid pinning down exactly how this stuff works. (But see HARD SF.) Some Techjargon is nearly universal, such as Drive for propulsion engines. Indeed, some Techjargon has jumped into the general language; for example, SHUTTLES were around in Space SF long before NASA built one.  See also NOMENCLATURE.


TECHLEVEL. The prevailing level of technology, in terms of how fast you can go, how big an object you can blow up, and so on. Techlevel varies enormously, from not very different from early 21st century CE (only with STARSHIPS) to Clarke's "indistinguishable from magic." Generally, though, the prevailing Techlevel of everyday life does not seem all that advanced, even though the same technology is capable of building truly astonishing whizbangs for use in WARFARE.

     During an INTERREGNUM, the Techlevel on at least some planets may fall dramatically, in many cases down to a pre-industrial level. Some high-Techlevel relics of the FIRST EMPIRE may survive, being regarded by backwards locals as magical, accursed, or often both.


TERRA. The nearly universal NOMENCLATURE for Earth. This usage arose sometime early in the Golden Age, presumably because it sounds so much better in expressions like TERRAN EMPIRE. ("Earthian Empire" being an obvious nonstarter.) Alternatives like Tellus / Tellurian are occasionally seen, or Sol / Solarian - in that case following the frequent Nomenclature convention of a single name for a whole planetary system; Earth itself is then Sol III.

     In recent years there has been a bit of backlash toward using plain old Earth. The problem of a possessive form, however, remains unsolved.


TERRAFORMING. The process of turning a PLANET that is not HABITABLE into one that is, making it suitable for COLONIZATION. This involves large-scale chemical engineering, ecological engineering, or both. Oxygen has to be put into the atmosphere, and noxious stuff like chlorine taken out of it. Water has to be provided for oceans, either by melting subsurface ice or deflecting a few icy comets so they crash onto the Planet. Successive life forms have to be introduced, starting with something like lichen, to build up an ecosystem.

     Even with extensive use of HANDWAVIUM, Terraforming is liable to be a lengthy and expensive process. It is hard to see why anyone would do it, if already-Habitable Planets are available. Usually they are not. Terraforming most often happens in HARD SF. The assumption is that there is no FTL, and therefore either no interstellar travel at all, or getting to another star takes even more time and money than Terraforming. (See SLOWBOAT.) The Planet to which Terraforming is applied is almost always Mars.

     In fact, there is a basic trade-off at work here. The easier it is to find and reach Habitable Planets, the less likely that anyone will resort to Terraforming. However, there might be a place for limited Terraforming, to convert a mediocre Habitable Planet into a more appealing one. This in fact was done on Earth, long before the age of space travel. The Dutch succeeded in limited Terraforming of large stretches of North Sea tidal flats, converting them into a rather pleasant country full of windmills and tulips.




THEOCRATIC NEOMEDIEVALISTS. A moderately common type of society throughout the KNOWN GALAXY. This society, usually confined to one PLANET, is full of religious fundamentalists. They usually have a pretty low TECHLEVEL, presumably because technical knowledge and frequent contact with other Planets might open the way to heretical ideas. Because of the general backwardness, most of the population are more-or-less peasants who live in terror of their ill-tempered God and even more of their clerical rulers.

     On some occasions, though, Theocratic Neomedievalists may have a fairly high Techlevel, or at least access to high-Techlevel military stuff. In this case they will make life miserable for their neighbors, either by conducting jihads or by signing up as MERCS, in which role they are exceptionally nasty. Some people, nevertheless, find Theocratic Neomedievalists oddly admirable because of their sincerity and dedication to their own harsh code. Not me. So far as I'm concerned, SLAG 'em!


TORCH. A high-TECHLEVEL reaction DRIVE, e.g., a fusion or matter-antimatter Torch. No one would ever call an old-fashioned chemical rocket a Torch.




TRADE. Commerce, specifically interstellar commerce. This is usually extensive throughout the KNOWN GALAXY, though it may go into a severe, prolonged slump during an INTERREGNUM. In fact, the ECONOMY of the Known Galaxy as a whole (as apart from those of individual PLANETS) is based overwhelmingly on Trade. As a result, TRADE FEDERATIONS and FREE TRADERS abound.  They play a prominent role in interstellar culture, politics, and of course WARFARE, and support an underground economy of Smuggling and PIRACY.

     Just what is being Traded on such a grand scale varies widely (and is often unclear). Given the high TECHLEVEL of an interstellar society, you might expect most Trade to be in sophisticated manufactured goods (if not intangible products like software). But a surprising amount of it seems to be raw resources, obtained by MINING. This is peculiar. You would think that most raw materials would be available somewhere in almost any planetary system, or could be synthesized more cheaply than shipping them halfway across the Known Galaxy.

     A more plausible class of Trade goods are the products of some particular Planet, valuable as much for their cachet as for any inherent properties. People in California buy French wine, so it's reasonable to suppose that the celebrated green-fuming Rigellian brandy will find a ready market on other Planets, even if the locals could make a potable brand of green-fuming stuff themselves.


TRADE FEDERATION. A fairly common type of FEDERATION (and therefore more broadly a type of EMPIRE). The basic features of Trade Federations are self-explanatory: They generally are fairly loose-knit Empires, engaging primarily in TRADE and spread out along Trade routes. NOMENCLATURE terms may be Association, League, or a host of others. They tend to be of two sorts.

     1) Passive.  These are formed by a group of PLANETS to facilitate Trade among themselves. Sensible enough, but the profits all flow back to the individual Planets (or to corporations or whatever), so this type of Trade Federation seldom takes on much life of its own.  About all it has are bureaucrats who determine what legally may be sold as cheese.  Thus, passive Trade Federations resemble the ancient European Community c. 2000 CE, and are just as boring.  They usually remain in the background, though they may show up as rather ineffectual bystanders in interstellar WARFARE.

     2) Active. These Trade Federations are usually run by Traders themselves, and tend to be much more interesting. Often they are founded by FREE TRADERS who hit the big time, and discovered that it was even more fun to be rich and powerful than Free. In keeping with this background, active Trade Federations often do not govern many Planets directly - perhaps not even their HOMEWORLD (if they have one). Instead they may be based on a network of STATIONS linked by Trade routes.

     The cultures of active Trade Federations are shaped by the ethos of the dominant Traders. When off duty at Stations or on Planets they enjoy the good life; they can afford it, and figure they earned it making long and dangerous voyages. Money and Rigellian green-fuming brandy flow freely, and attractive members of the opposite sex are usually at hand. All of this may be frowned on by people from some other cultures, such as those from worlds where NEOFEUDALISM prevails, and especially by THEOCRATIC NEOMEDIEVALISTS. Indeed, these more conservative societies may be tempted to see the Trade Federation as rich, easy pickings.

     This is a mistake. Active Trade Federations retain their precursors' pugnacious attitude; even their Trade ships are often well-armed, and serve handily as a sort of naval reserve. In addition, their wealth, large spacecraft construction industry, and extensive Space experience give them a built-in advantage in building and handling COMBAT SPACECRAFT, and therefore - obviously - in SPACE WARFARE. Given their Space orientation, however, PLANET WARFARE is naturally quite secondary, and they may hire MERCS to handle it when needed. Unlike most employers of Mercs, however, they have the temperament - and means - to keep the hired help in line.

     The need to patrol extensive Trade routes as well as fight stand-up battles make BATTLE CRUISERS a rather sensible choice as capital ships for active Trade Federations. Indeed, this may explain the general prevalence of Battle Cruisers throughout the KNOWN GALAXY. Perhaps everyone builds them - even when ill-suited to local requirements - because the type is associated with the powerful Trade Federation fleets.

     In fact, we should expect active Trade Federations to be the dominant type of interstellar Empire. Ample money and plenty of Combat Spacecraft makes for a winning combination, and other would-be Empire builders may find themselves hard put to compete. The best GRUNTS in the Known Galaxy aren't going to conquer many Planets for you if a Trade Federation sends a squadron of Battle Cruisers to zap them all en route.


TRANSPORTER. This is a TECHJARGON term that may be applied to either of two entirely unrelated technologies.

     1) A device that teleports you from one location to another, without passing through the intervening space. This is especially handy if the intervening space is actual Space, and you're not wearing a space suit. It may type may do its job by creating a sort of walk-through mini-JUMP POINT, or by converting you into a digital data stream for transmission. (In this latter case it should also be able to function as a REPLICATOR, making copies of you just as though you were a piece of software.)

     Made famous by Trek, this type of Transporter is actually not very common. For one thing, both of the technologies above are pure HANDWAVIUM. More importantly, these Transporters are plot killers, since it is much too easy to Transport yourself out of danger.

     2) A COMBAT SPACECRAFT used to carry short-range SPACE FIGHTERS into action. This type of Transporter is essentially a spacegoing aircraft carrier, except that it doesn't need a flight deck. If the civilian TRADE ships in use carry their cargo in external pods, they can be easily converted into Transporters for war service. Alternatively, larger Space Combat Vehicles can carry Space Fighters themselves, reducing the need for a specialized ship to do it.


WARFARE. War is a common occurance in the KNOWN GALAXY, and can occur on every scale and level of intensity from local feuding on one planet to desultory SPACE raiding to all-out Warfare between interstellar EMPIRES. Generally, wars are fought in two very different theaters: on PLANETS and in open Space. These require entirely different types of forces, basically armies and navies respectively.  For the specific characteristics of each, see PLANET WARFARE and SPACE WARFARE.

     In modern written SF - and especially "Military SF" - Planet Warfare seems to feature more prominently than Space Warfare. From a strategic point of view this is rather curious. Now, it is true that people (EARTH HUMANS or otherwise) mostly live on Planets, and the ultimate form of coercion is pointing guns at people right where they live. But Planets are in effect islands scattered through a sea of Space. You can't conquer one without going through Space to get there, and if the defenders can stop you in Space they won't have to face the inconvenience of fighting on their Planet.

     Indeed, the Known Galaxy seems to be made to order for the geostrategic doctrine of Alfred Thayer Mahan - more so indeed than the Earth of 1890 CE, when he wrote his book. Mahan's theory in a nutshell was that TRADE was the source of wealth, and controlling Trade routes was therefore the way to become both rich and powerful. On Earth this meant ruling the waves; in the Known Galaxy it obviously means ruling Space. See TRADE FEDERATION.

     All of which implies that in interstellar conflicts, Space Warfare should be dominant, with Planet Warfare more or less reduced to mopping-up operations by whoever wins the space battles - and last-stand defenses by the loser of the space battles. One side will be able to concentrate forces at will, the other has little or no hope of reinforcement, and both pretty much already know who has won the war.

     Planet Warfare between forces of more-or-less equal standing should thus be a rarity. To be sure, this depends in some degree on the prevailing technology. If spacecraft can travel freely from any Planet to any other, some Space Warfare strategies (e.g., controlling choke points along Trade routes) may be unfeasible, but even then a defense above your HOMEWORLD'S atmosphere would seem preferable to fighting on its surface.

     But this is not how it seems to work out, and the reason appears to be what might be called meta-strategy. The ultimate objective of all Warfare in SF is to please the paying customers, and so long as a lot of them would rather read about GRUNTS than BATTLE CRUISERS, ample Planet Warfare will be provided.

     There is an even more basic problem having to do with interstellar Warfare. See SLAG.



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