Repost: The Collapse of a Civilization

or: Big Things Die Hard

So right now I have two draft posts, both of which refuse to come together. One requires me to just sit down and pound away at my notes in a way I just haven’t had time for lately. The other one proved to be enormously more complicated than I’d originally thought. This is typical of my efforts at human geography.

This post is a riff on the second of those. Neither as deep as what I’m working on in the draft, nor as well focussed.

While a lot of what I’ve been thinking about with respect to cultures lately has been based on the concept of a society as a sort of character, with motivations, internal and external conflicts, and the decisions that character makes to resolve those conflicts and support those motivations, this post is more about the mechanics and structures of social events. The social event I am focussing on is the collapse of that society. As a geographer by education and an astrographer by, um, avocation(?), I am interested in how a collapse proceeds and moves through time and space.

I believe, especially in a world with slow communications, the fall of a society is not like a tower of cards, but more like a string of dominoes. Even that simile is inadequate, as in this case the dominoes can pick themselves back up to totter and fall again, knocking down their neighbors, who are also trying to stand themselves up. Also, this would be in two or three dimensions, so the effect might be considered to be more like overdamped waves.

There are two broad models for slow communication: one is trying to maintain a continental or oceanic empire where the fastest means of communication is a letter carried on sailing ship or horseback. Even if we had Concorde jets flitting through the air, the absence of radio or telegraphic communications would render the regions of the world somewhat more isolated. Also, without radio those fast planes would be really dangerous.

Once again, I think I need an example.

A Tale of Four Worlds


The Solar Union is a fictional interstellar republic of the future.

While we have a magic FTL drive in this milieu, it has it’s limitations.

The first limitation, which I based on the stutterwarp drive in the 2300AD rpg, is that it can only travel 9 light years between the stars before it has to stop in a fairly strong gravity well for about 32 hours to discharge some effect that it accumulates while travelling at impossibly high speeds. Since FTL is, by definition, kind of magic to start with, I have no real physical explanation for this effect, except to say that by some <doubletalk> phenomenon, the ship loses its contact with real space and time which stresses the drive inordinately and makes its position increasingly indeterminate. In effect, if you go past the 9 light year limit without discharging near a star, your drive could blow up or you could find yourself a billion light years away from where you should be. This has the effect of requiring fairly circuitous routes through space and lots of waystations in otherwise useless locations. Also, sometimes a good pilot can go just a little further. That inspires the occasional hotshot to go a little too far, and bang Lost Human Colonies of the Cretaceous Age 😉 . Maybe.

The second limitation is that while it is impossibly fast, it ain’t that fast relative to the distances it has to travel. The fastest ships can make nine light years in a little less than two days, but these are expensive. Your average tramp freighter might take about a week to travel between two stars of roughly average separation. While the, “Direction,” a shadowy secret society of the alien pNu, is rumored to possess ansibles, for the less fnord among us the fastest means of interstellar communication is by starship.

The Solar Union is a successor to the United Nations. In fact, ships of the Solar Union Fleet still use the UNS-prefix, which stands for United Nations Starship. Although the Solar Union has more power than the old UN and is better able to wield that power, it remains a somewhat loose confederation of the independent nations of Earth. Most of those nations retain their own military forces and some of them still have nuclear weapons. This situation can be somewhat dicey. Many extra-solar colonies were planted by various nations of Earth and others were planted as colonies of the Solar Union as a whole. A few planets have gained their independence and are represented in the SU Assembly as independent nations. Some of these planets had multiple colonies from different nations and aren’t really all that unified in their own right.

Almost all of the colonies, whether national or international in character were not organized as independent, self-sufficient economies. Most of them are fairly dependent on interstellar trade for survival. Particularly waystations in connecting systems without habitable planets. The nations of Earth wanted her children to remain dependent and tied to the apron strings of the mother world. Political power is also very much concentrated on Earth. To some degree this is a natural and reasonable result of the fact that somewhere around half the human race still lives on Earth. Less justly perhaps, most of these colonies are only represented in the Solar Union Assembly by their home nations on Earth, where they don’t necessarily enjoy any real influence regardless of their relative population. Colonies planted by the SU have no real representation at all, though they do have more power over local issues devolved to democratic local institutions. Only a very few worlds are independent nations in their own right, and these are whole planets, often with very diverse political structures being treated as single nations.  The outsystems begin to feel, to some degree rightly, very much exploited. Many of the people of Earth, for their part, feel increasingly like they are being taxed to appease the increasingly ungrateful outsystems, funding for outsystem development programs are accordingly dwindled.

So this is the situation. Difficulties of communication(never good for the maintenance of a polity). The core feels the ingratitude and resentment of outsystem colonies, which they are losing interest in supporting. The outsystem colonies feel exploitation and derision from Earth. A pretty good basis for conflict.

Setting the Stage

By the beginning of the 25th century AD tensions between Earth and many of her colonies were high. In 2468 a long starport workers strike on Beta Comae Berenecis III had spread to several other colonies. When shortages began to be felt on Earth, the response was swift and brutal. The Solar Fleet Marines were sent out to protect thousands of workers that were sent out from Earth to replace the striking workers. Although hundreds of former workers were killed and thousands injured in the ensuing riots and military response on seven worlds, the most lasting harm was in the change that this represented in policy and the creation of a new social division on many worlds.

The policy for dealing with any resistance to Solar Union was now to fire any workers involved and replace them with new workers shipped from Earth. A policy supported, if necessary by military force. Military force usually proved necessary. These new workers represented a new social class. Elevated by fiat from Earth, this new social class, culturally tied to Earth and dissociated from local culture, became a dominant minority in many cases. These, “scabs,” as the Terran replacement workers were often called, typically lived in relatively luxurious gated communities, guarded by armed sentries.

Resentment spread out in ripples from the now unemployed natives as they went out in search of the less skilled and prosperous work now available to them. This period was sometimes referred to as a, “Second Terran Diaspora,” as people with less opportunity for prosperity on Earth went out to become dominant on already well-developed colonies. Continuing colonization of new worlds from Earth had already slowed and more of the dissatisfied people from previous colonies were filling the ships taking colonists out to these few new worlds. Because of this, new colonies were increasingly restive and troublesome. By 2420, Earth ceased planting new colonies altogether. Not until 2448 is another new world, Voltaire, colonized by a small coalition of outworlds. Almost none of the colonists would come from Earth and these would find themselves so discriminated against as to discourage further such emigration. Besides, Terrans had plenty of opportunities taking up the, “Earth Man’s Burden,” in the elder colonies.

Predictably, the Solar Union found itself very busy rooting out conspiracies among outworlders plotting its overthrow, not always successfully as it turned out. Back on Earth, national governments dealing with wave after wave of shortages of outworld goods and paying for the response to restive colonists, were beginning to find the Solar Union increasingly pointless and expensive. Worse, the Solar Union often tied their hands in dealing with problems on their own colonies. Finding Solar Union forces to be ineffective and overly gentle in dealing with a general revolt on their colony on Novaya Rodina, the government of Russia decides to send its own counter-insurgency forces to handle the situation. The SU Assembly votes to order the Russians to stand down their forces after the military effort descends into a series of massive slaughters and occasional orbital bombardment of rebellious population centers. It is a measure of the brutality of the Russian response that they could shock a Solar Union already used to a degree of brutality in such responses. The Solar Union now found itself the target of resistance both from a now genuinely independent Novaya Rodina, and a nuclear-armed Russian Empire, which chose to secede from the Union in 2463.

For the next generation, the situation stabilized into an ugly little, “Cold Revolt,” of terrorism, brushfire wars and backroom plotting. Economically, human space descended into a seemingly permanent cycle of recession, depression, inflation and sudden drastic deflation, occasionally broken by short-lived bubbles that only seemed to enrich a few wealthy speculators.

One group of plotters called themselves the System-States Alliance, a group of outworlders spread across Solar Union space with the goal of overthrowing the Solar Union and putting up a loose coalition of largely independent, freely trading system states. In spite of the wide spread of their operation, they were successful in remaining beneath the radar of Solar Union security forces, and they managed to infiltrate to high levels in the Solar Fleet.

In March of 2484, the System-States Alliance stages its long-planned revolt. The single most successful operation in their initial assault was the attack on the large and vital Fleet yards orbiting Chi Draconis. A handful of ships which were taken by System-States mutineers and a large number of outworld mutineers on the Fleet facilities managed to capture nearly ten percent  of the Solar Fleet in that one operation. In all nearly a third of the Solar Union ships are taken by System-State and sympathetic revolts and mutinies  throughout human space. Some units from national fleets engage SU forces in support of rebellion. The loss of Chi Draconis has cut off the Solar Union altogether from the entire Draconis Arm. Much of the rest of human space remained in disarray.

The Solar Union focusses first on building up the military base at Proxima Centauri to assure Earth’s safety and then sets its sights on regaining control of the rest of human space. Only after regaining control of the rest of human space within 40 light years of Sol, although pockets of resistance remain and terrorism remains rife, does the Solar Fleet set about retaking the Draconis Arm and breaking the back of the Draconian League, which is what the System-States Alliance became isolated on the Draconis Arm. The Battle of Sigma Draconis proved long and painful inspiring strong anti-war, isolationist and anti-SU movements back on Earth. These many movements varied widely from anarchistic to highly authoritarian, from capitalistic to communistic and from nationalistic to globalist and they varied in their particular resistance to the Union, the war and outsystem contact, but they were all in support of one or more of these ideas.

The Draconian League, for its part, was even less unified than Earth and would eventually fall into a mass of independent bickering states. The only unifying theme of the Draconian League that would endure was resistance to Earth and a fanatical hold on Chi Draconis. After Sigma Draconis fell to Union forces, Chi Draconis was attacked several times and actually fell twice. Every time League forces regained the system at the expense of great bloodshed.

With the Solar Union’s failure to regain control of the Draconian Arm and increasing inability to hold on to other worlds in human space, China, Brazil and the Pan-African Union secede from the Solar Union in 2490. Russia supports their new found independence, although it sees it as an opportunity to increase its own influence. Soon after, the Scandinavian Community, long troubled by the violence of Solar Union responses to outworlds intransigence, also secedes.

Fatigued, wounded and disunited the Solar Union agrees to a temporary armistice line between Sigma Draconis and Chi Draconis so that they can try to repair their internal affairs. By 2502, reduced to a shell of its former self, the Solar Union recognizes the independence of the Draconian League which frees the League to collapse into a permanent state of near-chaos.

In 2518 a short nuclear war between the Russo-Chinese Empire and the remnants of the Solar Union over the Kamchatka-Alaska Strip removes Earth from the interstellar community for awhile and balkanizes the planet. The loss of Earth removes the Solar Union as an effective unifying source of any sort and with what’s left of the Draconian League incapable of taking advantage essentially leads to the balkanization of the rest of human space.

Left to their own devices most worlds aren’t capable of building starships. Only a few worlds are capable of diversifying their economies to the point of independently maintaining their technological civilization. The very worlds thus, that are most dependent on interstellar trade are the least capable of maintaining it. Over the next fifty years, as existing starships gradually fall into disrepair, many worlds with overly specialized economies fall to a primitive state. Some even fall to pre-industrial savagery. Worlds that do maintain star travel find that their ships are far too valuable for long excursions into the Wilds where maintenance yards are unavailable and what few ships remain are bent on piracy. The few small interstellar polities remain small and insular.

This is the beginning of a Long Night, not altogether unpunctuated by the occasional point of light.

So now that we have background, we can look at a few specific places: Durandal, Vanguard, Nishapur and Sadwillow. Since this got really long I will post these examples separately.

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