”We’re still alive and we still have friends, and somewhere to stay, and its a beautiful evening and the dunes of Neume are singing to us. Those dunes aren’t just any old dunes, you know. They’re the shattered remains of provider-era megastructures, after their culture fell out of the sky. We’re being serenaded by the twinkling remains of a dead supercivilization, the relics of people who thought themselves gods, if only for a few instants of galactic time. Now-how does that make you feel?”
”Like I am living too late,’ I said.’
~Alastair Reynolds, ‘House of Suns.’
When do you realize you are living in a dark age? Contrary to a lot of recent discourse, its not something most people tend to notice until far too late. In our current era of flat-eartherism, anti-vaxxer and anti-mask activism, and postmodern-infused reality denialism, many people seem to have missed the signs of long-running rot for a sudden all too late realization. This has happened in many culture’s zeitgeist many times before. Americans finally realizing their society is in fundamental and probably terminal relative decline to its past strikes me as amusing since I have distinct memories of realizing we had crossed a point of no return back when I was a college student in 2005. That was the year the Iraq War really went south, the government response to Hurricane Katrina was laughable and led to no major structural reforms or climate change action, and the evangelical movement was attempting to teach young earth creationism in the science classroom. All of these problems could have been overcome with rigorous political action, but they were not. They were treated as aberrations and nothing was done to structurally adjust for the problems they exposed moving forward. That is when I knew I had already seen the peak of my birth nation’s civilization.
How is this gradual entropy of states and civilization portrayed in fictional stories taking place in high space? There is a different dynamic if we managed to get sustainably off planet. Though decline and fall is common to the genre it is almost always portrayed as rapid and incredibly dramatic, with star empires collapsing in a single lifetime. High space settings are by necessity somewhat positive about human chances in the future for the mere fact that for the genre to exist humanity must create sustainable settlements outside of Earth, something that requires major periods of advancement in our own future. However, many of these seemingly positive outcomes of no longer being confined to our fate on a single planet on one world are still full of cosmic horror, devastating conflicts, or any number of potential dramatic outcomes. Even Star Trek, a vision of a human positive future in space at the highest end of fictional idealism, works with a timeline where things had to get much worse on Earth before they could get better. Some visions, such as the above quoted novel House of Suns (one of my personal favorite high concept science fiction books) present an extremely impressive future that, nevertheless, still reaches a point where it tops out and stagnates. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series explored what living through the fall of the first galactic golden age was like, but from the perspective of detached outsiders trying to mitigate its effects. Other quite popular settings simply use space to revel in edginess. Some few go for a smaller scale perspective on a distant world set apart from the main drama of humanity.
Politically and philosophically I believe that the most realistic and interesting take on the darker side of humanity’s spacefaring future is that found in Battletech. A gaming series originally designed for tabletop tactical gaming which reached the peak of its fame with the rise of the Mechwarrior PC gaming series shortly after its birth, it is, at its core, a giant bipedal robot vehicle combat simulator. Most people who play it, including myself in childhood, do so because its cool. Giant stompy robot vehicles with a ton of visual variety, combat roles, and customization. This is the core of the series and why it exists. Its lore and stories, including a long running novel series of incredibly varying quality, is supplemental to the main point of driving and commanding mechs to take into battle in the 31rst Century. And yet it is this lore that ended up, possibly by accident at first, becoming one of the most interesting elements of the franchise. After all, who would think that giant tall bipedal vehicles, surely a detrimental platform and walking target in any firepower dominated battlefield, would end up giving rise to a realistic depiction of what power politics would look like in a closed system during an era of decline.
To put it incredibly simply, humanity a century or so from now invents faster than light drive and spends hundreds of years expanding into an area all around Earth. Outside of Earth’s influence, great conglomerates eventually begin to pull influence over distinct territorial patches out in space, eventually consolidating in multiple nations often led by hereditary royal families. War is rampant between these states over contested territory. Already, human expansion has simply led to a greater scope for conflict. Unused to campaigns taking up light years of range and battles being for entire planets, many human actors resort to nuclear warfare to expedite the process. We have the inverse of Star Trek in a way, the near future is good, but the long term trend is bad.
Eventually, humanity does get a golden age of sorts. For an all too brief period a resurgent Earth under an ambitious royal family of its own uses politics, diplomacy, and war to unite The Inner Sphere (the major empires closest to the core worlds) and expand territory by taking over the far flung and more renegade factions of the periphery, on the edges of human settled space. For the first time since initial colonization, technology begins to advance again. The battlemech, star of the series, is popularized and expanded in numbers and a new elite class of warrior takes the place of mass warfare, the mechwarrior. But this is still the prequel to the setting. After an all too brief period of success (which came at great cost to the periphery who were exploited to fuel it), the Star League is brought down from internal intrigue, usurpation, and civil war. The major houses divide once again, and begin a series of debilitating wars against each other to divide the spoils of the old empire between them. The old Star League loyalists either retire to Earth to run the FTL-network company Comstar as a ‘neutral’ for profit corporation, or fly out into deep space to go into self-imposed exile, founding a new civilization out beyond settled space. Meanwhile, the great houses in their combat gradually begin to lose technology. Warships become rare and then almost nonexistent, being replaced by drop pods who can only defend themselves and disgorge land forces. The over-use of nukes makes many planets worthless, and so a switch to mech (and other vehicle) based combat around specific objectives returns space warfare to the ground. Computer technology backslides and far flung regions are not even networked and rely on a literal physical postal service connected to the nearest place where FTL drive ships can disgorge information. All of this happens over the course of generations, gradually, and no one really notices it except to feel nostalgia for the Star League days, now passed into legend and heavily mythologized. The introduction to the 2018 squad based tactical Battletech game, summarizes the tragedy of humanity’s brief expansion and long drawn out decline incredibly well with only visuals and music.
That game in particular really captures the ramifications of this setting better than any other. Mercenaries, the only people free of clan or royal house fealty, live in precarious existence through salvage. Repair and upgrading of mechs is most effective through scavenging battlefields. Industries can no longer keep up with demand, especially outside of core established military channels. Some of the same companies around today (GM, Chrysler) are still in existence as defense contractors, but their output isn’t what it was. Older mechs tend to be better, the technology to make them as well as they once where is now lost or prohibitively expensive in this new dark age.
One of the funnier (and almost certainly unintentional) signs of this process of humanity just repeating its past on grander and grander scales can be found in the art of the earlier books. The ‘Tex Talks Battletech’ series on the BlackPantsLegion youtube channel does a phenomenally funny job going through the 80s era original art of the game books and postulating on how many of the people were clearly copied out of then-contemporary fashion magazines and photography. This is utterly hilarious commentary on dudes with handlebar moustaches and mullets drinking in 80s style bars in the 31rst Century…but think about it for a moment. In this setting of perpetual decline what makes more sense than every fashion aesthetic that has ever existed coming back again and again over the next thousand plus years? In this way, personal aesthetics mirror the politics of Battletech, where the successor states of the Star League all constantly jockey for position over the same territory over and over again, their alliances shifting, but their overall stability and living standards barely moving if not outright declining.
When innovation does come back into the setting, its not for fun reasons. Those Star League exiles I mentioned before? They spent centuries going insane out in deep space and developing unhinged caste-based societies obsessed with war. Ironically, these neo-Spartas called The Clans were consumed with highly ritualized combat and were proportionally quite peaceful when it came to the scale of internal conflicts, enabling them to actually expand upon Star League tech and grow human material capabilities for the first time in centuries. But then they proceeded to squander much of this in an ill-advised invasion of the Inner Sphere. The Clan Invasion would jump start a complacent Battletech setting with new technology and tactics, but also wreak immense destruction over certain regions of the Inner Sphere. The Clans were often fanatical and bizarre, and they could only offer perpetual serfdom to those they conquered. Their initial victories were impressive and against the odds, but they didn’t have the numbers, the logistics, or, most ironically, the experience in mass conventional warfare to win in the end. To quote Tex’s video on the clan invasions, ‘The Clans had spent centuries playing at war, the Inner Sphere had practiced it.’ And within a short amount of time, many clan technologies and mech designs had been integrated into Inner Sphere militaries. Not just that, but for a brief period the clan goal of recreating the Star League did in fact occur-but not under Clan leadership as they intended but rather in a brief military unity of the feuding houses *against* the clans. Much territory was recaptured from the clans, and an entire clan, Smoke Jaguar, was successfully obliterated by the alliance before, like all things in this setting, this new coalition too would fall apart. Meanwhile, back in the sticks, the clanners faced massive unrest and rebellion as a result of their failed re-engagement with the rest of settled space. And the unity of the clans against other powers disappeared as they turned blame on each other.
Now, the clans are part of the balance of power much like the Inner Sphere and periphery nations are. Tech got a bit of a boost, but the dark age did not end. Humanity’s future of a space fairing Kali Yuga continues. Arguably, with events stemming from the rise of the Word of Blake techno-fundamentalist movement in the core worlds and the incredibly costly methods it took to defeat them, it might even be accelerating.
There is something melancholy about this universe built to have fun with stompy combat robot vehicles. But its not aggressively in your face. The processes that have unfolded in this setting have taken centuries. Many people accept them as reality. They may not even know they live in a dark age. Historians and scientists might be the only professions where everyone is fully aware what is happening, but being beholden to the interests of powerful nobles and militarists means their capacity to construct an independent voice is limited.
Where could a new black swan event lie, and thus contain the kernel of potential upending of this order? Such things may not exist in this setting. But if they do I am going to pick the region that holds my personal loyalty: the periphery. It figures that the only people who do not idolize the Star League and wallow in its nostalgia are the societies one who values some independence would most want to live in. Their living standards are lower on average then the Inner Sphere (mid 20th Century at best) but they lack the social rigidity of the those nations while also lacking the militarized edginess of the clans. I suspect that were it not for their small populations and economies that they would be outsized players in affairs. All they need is some nearby great houses to collapse in order to rush into the vacuum left behind…something that remains a very real possibility. The ruthless yet affluent and educated Taurian Concordat is probably the top contender for a future new dynamic great power, needing only for those pesky Federated Suns to take a major hit to get going. But as in the Inner Sphere, their ambitions will go only so far before the periphery gets locked in and counter-balancing coalitions clip its wings before it gets too big. Still, in my personal opinion, a refocusing on the periphery for future events would be a great new territory for the franchise.
No matter what happens though, there could well come a time when the galaxy has a new golden age (albeit unlikely to be a unified one like the last time), but certain structural cores of the setting would have to be upended. Decline can lead to revival, but in this setting it is hard to see how that is coming anytime soon. So we are left with a space fairing humanity. It hasn’t yet met any sentient aliens. It topped out its tech 500 years of so before the core of the setting today, and the thousands of inhabited and terraformed worlds only seem to have accelerated preexisting trends in human history. It is not an ideal future, but it sure as hell is a possible one for us. One we should consider being sympathetic to as a concept as so far our experience with the 21rst Century has itself been one of decline, decay, and stagnation despite (and perhaps indirectly because of) the greater expansion of the electronic era and globalization. And much like today, Battletech is a livable universe. Most places are not warzones, the average standard of living is similar to what we have. Its just…not going anywhere and has no constructive vision of alternatives which it could presently pivot towards. That could change for us, of course, but we have to make the space for new ideas and new elites to even fathom that first. One imagines many in the Inner Sphere think the same when they have the ability to reflect beyond their immediate circumstances.
Anyway, be sure to check out the excellent remixes of old Mechwarrior music on Timothy Seal’s channel while you ponder how to get by while driving your giant combat machine through the battlefield in a galaxy where the best you can do is survive this battle, this war, and the next societal breakdown long enough to build a retirement fund and cash out.