It is a truism that the structure of a society is basically determined by its technology. Not in an absolute sense—there may be totally different cultures using identical tools—but the tools settle the possibilities: you can't have interstellar trade without spaceships.

— Poul Anderson, Margin of Profit, 1956

Enabling devices

Four pieces of technology determined the general form of society in Flat Black, made it a setting in which PCs can have series of adventures on multiple planet with freakish societies without being uniquely privileged.

The warp encapsulator

The warp encapsulators or “flingers” by which emigrants left Old Earth for the stars were large, cumbersome devices that had to be build in long slow orbits around the sun, and which had a straitly limited field of fire almost directly away from the sun. That meant that a flinger built to service one or two desirable destinations incidentally allowed access to scores of others close to a given great circle of the celestial sphere. Flingers were expensive to build but cheap to operate, which made passage to distant, un-pioneered worlds a cheap by-product of desirable passage to the nearby and attractive destinations. That characteristic produced a deep scatter of 625 colonies across the skies of Earth, many, especially of the later ones, being established by separatists and utopists seeking isolation from the social influence of Earth's mainstream culture.

Migrants within their warap capsules did not experience any passage of time, which helped to make the passage affordable. But with respect to the original and destination the capsules moved only at lightspeed. That kept the influence of Earth to a minimum, and it started some of the colonies early on dramatic roller-coasters of unexpected social change.

The Age of Isolation did not last long enough for any colony to grow crowded enough to justify anyone building a warp encapsulator to escape crowding or other untoward developments. The warp encapsulator has been obsolete since the invention of the Eichberger Drive.

The Eichberger drive

The Eichberger drive is a fairly compact device that can be built into a spaceship to make it able to travel faster than light. If it is activated at a safe distance from any massive objects such as planets, moons, or stars it envelopes its ship in a warp capsule that moves in approximately a straight line (depending on gravitational fields) are approximately 1,000 times the speed of light (relative to a weighted mean of nearby masses) until either the drive is shut off or the capsule reaches a gravitational field strength too strong for it to persist, whereupon the capsule ruptures and the ship stops. The passage of time inside and outside the ship is the same.

The Eichberger drive is reasonably cheap, which makes interstellar commerce profitable and interstellar passenger fares affordable. But it is slow — each colony is on average six days from its nearest neighbour — and this means that there is no copious flow of tourists to make everywhere homogeneous and prosaic with their social influences. All the colonies are still rather isolated and very insular, even those that depend heavily on trade.

Because the Eichberger drive works only in deep space

  • the Eichberger Foundation was able to cut the belligerent colonies off from each other during the Formation Wars, and
  • the Empire is able to protect its lucrative monopolies by controlling access to space.

If an Eichberger Drive is activated within the atmosphere of a planet of moon it acts as a catalytic fusion initiator. This is something that the Empire prefers not to discuss, but it does make it all the more determined to prevent any Eichberger drives from getting out of its control.

Catalytic fusion inititator

When a catalytic fusion initiator is activated it creates within a distance of a few thousand kilometres a condition in which nitrogen and oxygen in a world's seas and air will undergo fusion, producing an enormous explosion of gamma rays and neutrons, essentially turning a world's oceans and atmosphere into a global fusion bomb.

The first catalytic fusion bomb destroyed Earth and killed everyone in cis-Lunar space and on the Nearside of Luna. It cut the colonies off from a growing stream of imports, immigrants, and social influence that would otherwise have made their societies tend more to converge. It also headed off the invention of the Eichberger drive on Earth in the late 24th Century AD, which would otherwise have led to something like a Terran Empire five centuries before the Empire emerged.

The second and third CF bombs destroyed Mayflower and Orinoco, leaving the Eichberger Foundation and other Mayflowerites with a serious grudge and no homeworld. The horror of having Mayflower destroyed and of one of their own taking an appalling revenge created the Empire's obsession and made it what it it is.

Psychological technology

In the 30th Century AD developmental psychology and neuropsychology are as far ahead of Piaget and brain-injury studies as DNA polymerase chain reactions are from the chemical discoveries of Lavoisier.

As one result, there is an engineering disciple founded upon reliable developmental psychology. Psychoengineering allows its practitioners to design pedagogies, successions of experiences, childhood environments in such a way that children raised in them will turn out with desired attitudes, values, and broad psychological qualities. Not every outcome that might be desired is possible, but as the breadth of anthropological variety shows, astounding varieties are possible. It is difficult — usually impractical — to design a pedagogy that will act as an assembly line of cookie-cutter minds; a high degree of genetic uniformity in the children would be necessary, and besides it is impractical to produce a complete uniform of formative experiences. Nevertheless, it is possible to calculated that if you put child X through program Y, it will turn out with personality Z1, Z2, or so forth with probabilities of P(Z1) etc.

This technology, or relict and degenerate child-raising customs originally designed by it, is widely used in the colonies to keep society weird. It is used in the schools of Imperial Direct Jurisdiction to make sure that the vast majority of children of Imperial servants grow up to be diligent, persistent, resilient, honest, self-motivated, unselfish, and convinced that it is the duty of every decent person to prevent mass deaths if he can. In other words, it makes them into Imperial fanatics like their parents.

As another result, it is possible to dose a person with tracers, put him in a scanner, and see which neural pathways are active as he performs various tasks. By applying particular stimuli and setting particular tasks, then watching the results, it is possible to map out what a person's mind is like. This is not precise enough that knowledge and memories can be read out of a person't brain, nor that a mind simulation could be programmed based on it. And intrusive use of psychotropic drugs may be needed to investigate some areas. But it is convenient enough and accurate enough that the Imperial Service recruiting bureaux can reliably select honest, diligent, resilient, self-motivated, unselfish applicants who are dedicated (who who predictably will become dedicated) to furthering the Imperial Mission or some part of it, and can reliably detect attempts at dissimulation and deceit by applicants or infiltration by Manchurian Candidates whose minds contain hidden cognitive malware.

This psychological technology keeps the Empire fanatical though the generations pass, and maintains the gulf between it and the colonies. It also enables the Empire to entrust great power and wide discretion even to junior officers, such as might be in good positions to be player characters.

Otherwise limited technology

Apart from the things listed above the technology in Flat Black is realistic and limited; perhaps so limited as to be unrealistic for that reason. There are no intelligent beings of pure energy, psionics, force-fields, teleporters, matter integrating “replicators”, instantaneous communications or detectors, artificial gravity, or tractor beams. People cannot be reverted to childhood, turned into evil opposites, be possessed, be put out of phase with the material universe, or ascend to a higher plane or next stage of evolution. Holograms are light-shows that can't touch, manipulate, or see anything. Complex systems do not spontaneously generate AI — it takes a lot of resources and deliberate effort to produce an intelligence. Artificial intelligences no more overcome or escape their programming than organisms escape biology.

The explosive improvement of computer technology (Moore's Law) petered out before the first emigrants even left Earth. Both weak AI and strong AI have been demonstrated, but they are little employed. For any purpose that people actually want to spend resources on a restricted AI (one that performs only a small subset of the cognitive tasks that a human could, but perhaps better than a human could) has turned out to be actually better than a general AI. AIs based on simulation of human neurology turned out to be an expensive, low-performance stunt. “Uploading” a person's mind by (destructively) mapping the synapses in his brain and simulating its function on a computer has been demonstrated to work. But it is widely recognised as suicide rather than being immortality, is not common enough for the service to be commercial, and is therefore hideously expensive.

Nanotechnology turned out to have uses, but was nowhere near up to hype. Assembling molecules by direct mechanical manipulation of atoms turned out to be subject to the same constraints as organic synthesis: supply of precursors and energy, removal of wastes and heat, stability of intermediates. Practical molecular assemblers turned out to be the same as enzymes, pretty much, and most of them needed to be co-ordinated and supported by the equivalents of cytosomes. Nanoscopic robots had problems with fuel supply and waste disposal, sensing and co-ordination, excessive heat loss, delicacy, durability, impossibility of repair and maintenance, friction, turbulence, and drag. In short they were subject to much the same constraints as micro-organisms and enzymes, and performed not much better than micro-organisms and enzymes. As for self-repairing nanomachines that self-reproduce from commonly-available materials, they turned out to be very much like bacteria and archaea. In Flat Black, nanotechnology is molecular biology, pretty much.

Biotechnology, on the other hand, has been very successful. Genetically engineered micro-organisms, cultures, and plants produce nutrients, fuels, drugs, reagents, chemical feedstocks, special-purpose high-strength fibre, and even such products as meals ready to eat at high yield and high purity. Most of the marvellous crop plants are deep-rooted perennials that fix their own nitrogen and have forms designed for easy harvesting. A field in Flat Black is a high-biotech self-servicing solar-powered chemical engineering factory that requires cultivation and planting only when it is first established, and little fertiliser. Physicians can cure almost all diseases, surgeons repair almost any injuries (though repairing damage to the brain does not restore lost content). There has even been great progress made in slowing aging: with good nutrition and medical care most people can live to 170 years; those who have had the latest experimental treatment might last indefinitely.

Advanced biotechnology required the intensive use of advanced computing to tame the complexity of organisms. The same was also crucial to the development of neuropsychology (discussed above), sociology, economics, and ecology. Flat Black has scientific theories in these fields that are all accurate enough to base engineering disciplines upon. Which is less use than you might hope. Knowing how things work doesn't let you do the impossible, and you can't establish a new ecosystem without propagating and distributing a lot of organisms, perhaps without eradicating the old ones. Neither can you change society without reforming institutions, altering incentives, and inculcating values. Society and government are machines made out of monkeys, and you can't build a high-performance race-car out of second-hand steamer parts.

Most important to the setting, Drexler's matter compilers and all other make-anything machines have turned out to be variously unworkable, impractical, or unaffordable in proportion to the universality of their ambitions: mechanical assembly of molecules is unworkable; 3-D printing combining widely disparate or special materials or the combination of micron precision with metre scale is impractical; the more generalise a fabricator is the less it is able to compete on price. There are good reasons to suppose that this might be realistic, but that's not the point. Futurism is not being allowed to get in the way of rationalised space opera, and make-anything machines would seriously compromise interstellar trade. In Flat Black it remains as it ever was, that for sophisticated product to be affordable they must be manufactured at huge scale by highly specialised workers and equipment, the more so as technology advances. Division of labour and economies of scale are necessary to high technology as they are to wealth.

The result is a setting in which technology — or at least the combination of technology and economics — has not enabled people to transcend the human experience, but where isolation and the social plasticity of humans have nevertheless allowed a a lot of people to squat in unsuspected corners of it.

Tech level


In terms of ForeSight game mechanics, Flat Black is tech level 8 with limited TL 8.5 products and processes available as recent innovations by colonies in the Suite.


In terms of GURPS game mechanics Flat Black is tech level 10 with very limited superscience. Old Earth was TL10 (standard); the Suite is TL10 (advanced). The technology path is something like “safe-tech”, but mostly because radical tech is impractical or uneconomic rather than because it is banned. There is a slight emphasis on biotechnology, but not enough to amount to the “high biotech” path.

Further topics

Copyright © 2014 by Brett Evill