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Science Fiction Visions of Galactic Unity


I have been fascinated by descriptions of utopian cultures in science fiction since I first started reading science fiction as a teenager. I am inspired by such depictions of societies that are more advanced, both technologically and spiritually, than our own. The majority of my speculative spaceship designs are placed in positive futuristic settings that are on the way to becoming like the fictional utopian cultures that I admire. I wish to express the same hopes for a positive future for humankind that these famous upbeat environments do.

Excerpts about the Community of Worlds from pages 347-349 of the novel
STAR MAKER by Olaf Stapledon

The sequence of events in the successfully waking world was generally more or less as follows.  The starting point . . . was a plight like that in which our own Earth now stands.  The dialectic of the world’s history had confronted the race with a problem with which the traditional mentality could never cope.  The world-situation had grown too complex for lowly intelligence, and it demanded a degree of individual integrity in leaders and the led, such as was as yet possible only to a few minds.  Consciousness had already been violently awakened out of the primitive trance into a state of excruciating individualism, of poignant but pitifully restricted self-awareness.  And individualism, together with the traditional tribal spirit, now threatened to wreck the world.  Only after a long-drawn agony of economic distress and maniac warfare, could the second stage of waking be achieved . . .

. . . the spirit reacted to its desperate plight with a miracle.  Or, if the reader prefers, the environment miraculously refashioned the spirit.  There occurred a widespread and almost sudden waking into a new lucidity of consciousness and a new integrity of will.  To call this change miraculous is only to recognize that it could not have been scientifically predicted even from the fullest possible knowledge of “human nature” as manifested in the earlier age.  To later generations, however, it appeared as no miracle but as a belated wakening from an almost miraculous stupor into plain sanity.

This unprecedented access of sanity took at first the form of a wide-spread passion for a new social order which should be just and should embrace the whole planet.  Such a social fervor was not, of course, entirely new.  A small minority had long ago conceived it, and had haltingly tried to devote themselves to it.  But now at last, through the scourge of circumstance and the potency of the spirit itself, this social will became general.  And while it was still passionate, and heroic action was still possible to the precariously awakened beings, the whole social structure of the world was reorganized, so that within a generation or two every individual on the planet could count upon the means of life, and the opportunity to exercise his powers fully, for his own delight and for the service of the world community.   It was now possible to bring up the new generations to a sense that the world-order was no alien tyranny but an expression of the general will, and that they had indeed been born into a noble heritage, a thing for which it was good to live and suffer and die.  To readers of this book such a change may well seem miraculous, and such a state utopian.

. . . to watch world after world successfully emerge from a plight which seemed inescapable, to see a world-population of frustrated and hate-poisoned creatures give place to one in which every individual was generously and shrewdly nurtured, and therefore not warped by unconscious envy and hate.  Very soon, though no change had occurred in the biological stock, the new social environment produced a world population which might well have seemed to belong to a new species.  In physique, in intelligence, in mental independence and social responsibility, the new individual far outstripped the old, as also in mental wholesomeness and in integrity of will.  And though it was sometimes feared that the removal of all sources of mental conflict might deprive the mind of all stimulus to creative work, and produce a mediocre population, it was soon found that, far from stagnating, the spirit of the race now passed on to discover new fields of struggle and triumph.  The world population . . . looked back with curiosity and incredulity into the preceding age, and found great difficulty in conceiving the tangled, disreputable and mostly unwitting motives which were the main-springs of action even in the most fortunate individuals among their ancestors.  It was recognized that the whole pre-evolutionary population was afflicted with serious mental diseases, with endemic plagues of delusion and obsession, due to mental malnutrition and poisoning. . . .

We were inclined to think of the psychological crisis of the waking worlds as being the difficult passage from adolescence to maturity; for in essence it was an outgrowing of juvenile interests, a discarding of toys and childish games, and a discovery of the interests of adult life.  Tribal prestige, individual dominance, military glory, industrial triumphs lost their obsessive glamour, and instead the happy creatures delighted in civilized social intercourse, in cultural activities, and in the common enterprise of world-building.During  the phase of history which followed the actual surmounting of the spiritual crisis in a waking world the attention of the race was of course still chiefly occupied with social reconstruction.  Many heroic tasks had to be undertaken.  There was need not only for a new economic system but for new systems of political organization, of world-law, of education.  In many cases this period of reconstruction under the guidance of the newly mentality was itself a time of serious conflict.  For even beings who are sincerely in accord about the goal of social activity may disagree violently about the way.  But such conflicts as arose, though heated, were of a very different kind from the earlier conflicts which were inspired by obsessive individualism and obsessive group-hatreds.

Excerpts about the Community of Worlds from pages 372-373 of the novel
STAR MAKER by Olaf Stapledon

The building of the galactic community of worlds lies far beyond the comprehension of the writer of this book.  I cannot now remember at all clearly what I experienced of these obscure matters in the state of heightened lucidity which came to me through participation in the communal mind of the explorers.  And even in that state I was bewildered by the effort to comprehend the aims of that close-knit community of – worlds.

If my memory is to be trusted at all, three kinds of activity occupied I the minded worlds in this phase of galactic history.  The main practical work was to enrich and harmonize the life of the galaxy itself, to increase the number and diversity and mental unity of the fully awakened worlds up to the point which, it was believed, was demanded for the emergence of a mode of experience more awakened than any hitherto attained.  The second kind of activity was that which sought to make closer contact with the other galaxies by physical and telepathic study. T he third was the spiritual exercise appropriate to beings of the rank of the world-mind.  This last seems to have been concerned (or will be concerned) at once with the deepening of the self-awareness of each individual world-spirit and the detachment of its will from merely private fulfillment.  But this was not all.  For on this relatively high level of the spirit’s ascent, as on our own lowliest of all spiritual planes, there had also to be a more radical detachment from the whole adventure of life and mind in the cosmos.  For, as the spirit wakens, it craves more and more to regard all existence not merely with a creature’s eyes, but in the universal view, as though through the eyes of the creator.

At first the task of establishing the galactic utopia occupied almost the whole energy of the awakened worlds.  More and more of the stars were encircled with concentric hoops of pearls, perfect though artificial.  And each pearl was a unique world, occupied by a unique race.  Henceforth the highest level of persistent individuality was not a world but a system of scores or hundreds of worlds.  And between the systems there was as easy and delightful converse as between human individuals.

In these conditions, to be a conscious individual was to enjoy immediately the united sensory impressions of all the races inhabiting a system of worlds.  And as the sense-organs of the worlds apprehended not only “nakedly” but also through artificial instruments of great range and subtlety, the conscious individual perceived not only the structure of hundreds of planets, but also the configuration of the whole system of planets clustered about its sun. Other systems also it perceived, as men perceive one another; for in the distance the glittering bodies of other “multi-mundane” persons like itself gyrated and drifted.

Between the minded planetary systems occurred infinite variations of personal intercourse.  As between human individuals, there were loves and hates, temperamental sympathies and antipathies, joyful and distressful intimacies, cooperations and thwartings in personal venture and in the great common venture of building the galactic utopia.

Between individual systems of worlds, as between symbiotic partners, there sometimes occurred relationships with an almost sexual flavour, though actual sex played no part in them.  Neighbouring systems would project travelling worldlets, or greater worlds, or trains of worlds, across the ocean of space to take up orbits round each other’s suns and play intimate parts in symbiotic, or rather “sympsychic” relationships in one another’s private life.  Occasionally a whole system would migrate to another system, and settle its worlds in rings between the rings of the other system.

Telepathic intercourse united the whole galaxy; but telepathy, though it had the great advantage that it was not affected by distance, was seemingly imperfect in other ways.  So far as possible it was supplemented by physical travel. A constant stream of touring worldlets percolated through the whole galaxy in every direction.

Excerpts about the Ekumen from pages 24-25 from the novel

“I’ve made no secret of it, sir.  The Ekumen wants an alliance with the nations of Gethen.”

“What for?”

“Material profit.  Increase of knowledge.  The augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life.  The enrichment of harmony and the greater glory of God.  Curiosity.  Adventure.  Delight.”

I was not speaking the tongue spoken by those who rule men, the kings, conquerors, dictators, generals; in that language, there was no answer to his question.  Sullen and unheeding,  Argaven stared at the fire, shifting from foot to foot.

“How big is this kingdom out in Nowhere, the Ekumen?”

“There are eighty-three habitable planets in the Ekumenical Scope, and on them about -three thousand nations or anthrotypic groups-” . . .

“Trade, however is worthwhile.  In ideas and techniques, communicated by ansible; in goods artifacts, sent manned or unmanned ships.  Ambassadors, scholars, and merchants, some of them might come here; some of yours might go offworld.  The Ekumen is not a kingdom, but a co-ordinator, a clearinghouse for trade and knowledge; without it communication between the worlds of men would be haphazard, and trade very risky, as you can see.  Men’s lives are too short to cope with the time-jumps between worlds, if there’s no network and centrality, no control, no continuity to work through; therefore they become members of the Ekumen. . . . We are all men, you know, sir.  All of us.  All the worlds of men were settled, eons ago, from one world, Hain.  We vary, but we’re all sons of the same Hearth. . . “

Excerpts about the Ekumen from pages 136 -137 from the novel

“What, asked Obsle, was the Ekumen – a world, a league of worlds, a place, a government?”

“Well, all of these and none.  Ekumen is our Terran word; in the common tongue it’s called the Household; in Karhidish it would be the Hearth.  In Orgota I’m not sure, I don’t know the language well enough yet.  Not the Commensality, I think, though there are undoubtedly  similarities between the Commensal. Government and the Ekumen.  But the Ekumen is not essentially a government at all.  It is an attempt to reunify the mystical with the political and as such is of course mostly a failure; but its failure has done more good for humanity so far than the successes of its predecessors. It is a society and it has, at least potentially, a culture.  It is a form of education; in one aspect, it’s a sort of very large school – very large indeed.  The motives of communication and cooperation are of its essence, and therefore in another aspect it’s a league or union of worlds, possessing some degree of centralized conventional organization.  It’s this aspect, the League, that I now represent.  The Ekumen as a political entity functions through coordination, not by rule.  It does not enforce laws; decisions are reached by council and consent, not by consensus or command.  As an economic entity it is immensely active, looking after interworld communication, keeping the balance of trade among the Eighty Worlds.  Eighty-four, to be precise, it Gethen enters the Ekumen. . . .”

“What do you mean, it doesn’t enforce its laws?” said Slose.

“It hasn’t any.  Member states follow their own laws; when they clash the Ekumen mediates, attempts to make a legal or ethical adjustment or collation or choice.  Now if the Ekumen, as an experiment in the superorganic, does eventually fail, it will have to become a peace-keeping force, develop a police, and so on.  But at this point there’s no need.  All the central worlds are still recovering from a disastrous era a couple of centuries ago, reviving lost skills and lost ideas, learning how to talk again. . . ”

Excerpts about the Galactic Federation from pages 273-273 of the short story

Civilizations rose and flourished.  Some declined and fell.  The voice pointed out the reasons for their successes and their failures.  As Quel-tze watched, a civilization reached peaks of technical and mechanical ability almost beyond his comprehension.  The people of the planet traveled into space, reached for the stars, then, turning again to their old, internecine struggles, destroyed the results of centuries of slow development in a few short, blazing weeks.  A few dazed survivors sadly picked over the wreckage of their once powerful, luxurious world.  Their descendants reverted to savagery, then slowly began the laborious climb to civilization.  Que-tze shuddered – tried to shut the images from his mind – but always at the threshold of his consciousness was the almost inaudible, but powerful command: “Learn, for only by learning will you survive.”

On the screen, the civilization was rebuilding, its development accelerating as it progressed.  Again, this planet reached to space – successfully this time.  Other solar systems were reached.  Interstellar conquest began, and Que-tze watched the building of an interstellar empire.  He also saw destruction, as civilization crumbled to ruins, then to complete obliteration before the weapons of implacable conquerors.

The tone of the instruction changed.  Before, the emphasis of his instruction was focused upon the growth of custom, of ethics, and of law.  Again, civilizations were on the march, their legal, ethical, and religious structures laid bare for observation.  Cultures were traced, their oscillations – from high, super morality to definite immorality, to high morality again – becoming obvious under the quiet analysis of the teacher.  Some of these systems of life led to decline and fall, others to sudden, blazing extinction.  Several of them were successful, and were still extant in the galaxy.  The basic framework of the Galactic Federation was exposed, and Quel-tze saw how multitudes of worlds, inhabited by varying  peoples of widely varying origins, differing  physical shapes, bodily chemistry; and mentalities, could live in harmony and complete tolerance.

On one world, he saw a quiet, .pastoral people, tending to their own business. Here was civilization which was fully cognizant of the high technology surrounding it, but which preferred to pursue its own quiet ways of life.  Quel-tze came to the realization that in the eyes of the rest of the Federation, this technically undeveloped civilization as recognized as an equal.  In the council, delegates from this world were received with respect when they voiced their opinions.  Further, it was pointed out, the people of this world were by no means all indigenous.  Numbers of them were natives of worlds far removed in space and of totally differing original cultural pattern.  Quel-tze also noted that in several cases, the ships flitting about in space actually formed cultures of their own.  There were Federation members who rarely set upon any planet, and then not for long.  Yet, wanderers too, were regarded as equal.  They had their voice in the council, and contributed to the welfare and development of the Galactic Civilization in their own way.

Excerpts about The Culture from the essay A Few Notes On The Culture in
THE STATE OF THE ART by Iain M. Banks.

The Culture is a group-civilization formed from seven or eight humanoid species, space-living elements of which established a loose federation approximately nine thousand years ago.  The ships and habitats which formed the original alliance required each others’ support to pursue and maintain their independence from the political power structures-principally those of mature nation-states and autonomous commercial concerns-they had evolved from.

The galaxy (our galaxy) in the Culture stories is a place long lived in, and scattered with a variety of life-forms.  In its vast and complicated history it has seen waves of empires, federations, colonizations, diebacks, wars, species-specific dark ages, renaissances, periods of megastructure building and destruction, and whole ages of benign indifference and malign neglect.  At the time of the Culture stories, there are perhaps a few dozen major space-faring civilizations, hundreds of minor ones, tens of thousands of species who might develop space travel, and an uncountable number who have been there, done that, and have either gone into locatable but insular retreats to contemplate who-knows-what; or disappeared from the normal universe altogether to cultivate lives even less comprehensible.

In this era, the Culture is one of the more energetic civilizations, and initially — after its formation, which was not without vicissitudes by a chance of timing found a relatively quiet galaxy around it, in which there were various other fairly mature civilizations going about their business, traces and relics of the elder cultures scattered about the place, and — due to the fact nobody else had bothered to go wandering on a grand scale for a comparatively long time –lots of interesting “undiscovered” star systems to explore . . . pages 167-168

. . . Briefly, nothing and nobody in the Culture is exploited.  It is essentially an automated civilization in its manufacturing processes, with human labor restricted to something indistinguishable from play, or a hobby.

No machine is exploited, either; the idea here being that any job can be automated in such a way as to ensure that it can be done by a machine well below the level of potential consciousness; what to us would be a stunningly sophisticated computer running a factory (for example) would be looked on by the Culture’s AIs (artificial intelligences-editor) as a glorified calculator, and no more exploited than an insect is exploited when it pollinates a fruit tree a human later eats a fruit from.

Where intelligent supervision of a manufacturing or maintenance operation is required, the intellectual challenge involved (and the relative lightness of the effort required) would make such supervision rewarding and enjoyable, whether for human or machine.  The precise degree of supervision required can be adjusted to a level which satisfies the demand for it arising from the nature of the civilization’s members.  People-and, I’d argue, the sort of conscious machines which would happily cooperate with them – hate to feel exploited, but they also hate to feel useless.  One of the most important tasks in setting up and running a stable and internally content civilization is finding an acceptable balance between the desire for freedom of choice in one’s actions (and the freedom from mortal fear in one’s life) and the need to feel that even in a society so self-correctingly Utopian one is still contributing something.  Philosophy matters, here, and sound education. page 172

The humans of the Culture, having solved all the obvious problems of their shared pasts to be free from hunger, want, disease and the fear of natural disaster and attack, would find it a slightly empty existence only and merely enjoying themselves, and so need the goodworks of the Contact section to let them feel . . . useful.  For the Culture’s AIs, that need to feel useful is largely replaced by the desire to experience, but as a drive it is no less strong.  The universe or at least in this era, the galaxy – is waiting there, largely unexplored (by the Culture, anyway), its physical principles and laws quite comprehensively understood but the results of fifteen billion years of the chaotically formative application and interaction of those laws still far from fully mapped and evaluated.

. . . the galaxy is, in other words, an immensely, intrinsically, and inexhaustibly interesting place; an intellectual playground for machines that know everything except fear and what lies hidden within the next uncharted stellar system . . . page 174

Culture starships – that is all classes of ship above interplanetary are sentient; their Minds (sophisticated AIs working largely in hyperspace to take advantage of the higher lightspeed there) bear the same relation to the fabric of the ship as a human brain does to the human body; the Mind is the important bit, and the rest is a life-support and transport system.  Humans and independent drones (the Culture’s non-android individual AIs of roughly human-equivalent intelligence) are unnecessary for the running of the starships, and have a status somewhere between passengers, pets, and parasites.

The Culture’s largest vessels – apart from certain art-works and a few Eccentrics – are the General Systems Vehicles of the Contact section.  (Contact is the part of the Culture concerned with discovering, cataloguing, investigating, evaluating, and-if thought prudent interacting with other civilizations; its rationale and activities are covered elsewhere, in the stories.)  The GSV s are fast and very large craft, measured in kilometres and inhabited by millions of people and machines.  The idea behind them is that they represent the Culture, fully.  All that the Culture knows, each GSV knows; anything that can be done anywhere in the Culture can be done within or by any GSV.  In terms of both information and technology, they represent a last resort, and act like holographic fragments of the Culture itself, the whole contained within each part.

In our terms, the abilities of a GSV are those of-at least-a large state, and arguably a whole planet (subject only to the proviso that even the Culture prefers to scoop up matter rather than create it from nothing; GSVs do require raw material). page 178

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