Saturday February 26, 2005


A couple of recent reviews by Anoop over at Special Circumstances reminded me of an odd little sub-sub-genre of science fiction that I noticed a few years ago: stories in which human (or post-human) civilization has spread across the solar system, but in which the Earth is somehow unavailable—devastated, off-limits, or ignored.  There's no name that I know of for this genre, but I privately think of it as "Earthless circumsolar civilization fiction".  I find the fictional histories of these stories particularly fascinating: scattered populations of refugees, cut off from the mother planet, whose cultures evolve in weird and unexpected ways.  In this post, I survey the best exemplars of this kind of fiction that I am aware of, and then discuss some of the similarities and differences among them.  [Warning: spoilers aplenty.]

Eight Worlds, 1974-1980(?), John Varley

The Eight Worlds series consists of a dozen-odd short stories and one novel published in the 70's.  In them, Varley explores the limits of humanity and human cultures: extended lifespans, recorded memories, cloning and individual identity, and humans modified to live in extreme environments.  (And, fair warning, a lot of bizarre sex—it was the 70's.)  Although the stories mostly concern what I would describe as "social science fiction" questions, from first published story ("Picnic on Nearside", 1974), Varley hints of a catastrophe that has cut off spacefaring humanity from the mother planet.

In that story, a young Lunarian takes a joyride from his home on the far side of the moon to the near side, from which the Earth can be seen:

They say that's what drove people to the Farside: the constant reminder of what they had lost, always there in the sky.  It must have been hard, especially for the Earthborn.  Whatever the reason, no one had lived on the Nearside for almost a century.  All of the original settlements had dwindled as people migrated to the comforting empty sky of Farside.  ("Picnic on Nearside", The Barbie Murders, p. 244)

We learn that humans have been expelled from Earth by the alien Invaders (who have also taken over Jupiter), leaving humanity to survive somehow on the "junk worlds of the system".  These comprise the remaining seven planets of the solar system (or their moons), plus Luna: Eight Worlds.

Later, in his novel The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977), Varley describes the Invasion in more detail:

They came in the year 2050, old style.  (Two asteroid-sized objects entering the solar system from interstellar space.  Palomar scope pans upward.  Astronomer bends over eyepiece.)  They were decelerating, heading for Jupiter.

Two astronauts, Purunkita and Mizinchikov, were diverted from a regular supply mission to the Mars base.  (Stock footage of P & M boarding spaceship U Thant.  Cut to actors in ship: watching instruments, getting radio message, firing engines, eating meals, copping.)  They were to swing out to Jupiter in six months and arrive with empty tanks.  Their orders: Sit tight, observe, and await the arrival of a robot tanker.  (Process shot of P & M at port of U Thant, Jupiter outside.  P is as black as space.  Her arm is around M.  She is pregnant.)

One of the objects did orbit Jupiter.  The other changed course at the last moment and headed for Earth.  It landed in the Pacific Ocean, near the equator.  That was the Year One of the Occupation of Earth.  (Flat newsreel footage of Invader ship, twenty-kilometer sphere sitting half-submerged in water, dull-surfaced, pocked with holes.)


The Invaders come from a gas giant planet like Jupiter.  Their purpose in coming to the solar system was not the invasion of Earth, but unknown motives concerned with the inhabitants of Jupiter.  Bronson said there are intelligent Jovians who are much like the Invaders.  (Animation sequence in the Jovian atmosphere.  Huge shadowy shapes swim by.)

The invasion of Earth was secondary.  It was done for the benefit of the three intelligent species of Earth: sperm whales, "killer" whales, and bottle-nosed dolphins.  (Stock footage of aquatic mammals.)

Bronson said there are levels of intelligence in the universe.  On top are the Jovians and Invaders.  One step below are the dolphins and whales.  Humans, birds, bees, beavers, ants, and corals are not considered intelligent.

No one knows if any of this is right.  But it's all we have.

There were no explanations given to humanity.  No ambassadors appeared, no ultimatums were offered.  Humans resisted the Invasion, but the resistance was ignored.  H-bombs would not go off, tanks would not move,  guns would not fire.  (Panic in the streets, helicopter shots of jammed highways.)  No one ever saw an Invader.  Pictures show distortions in the sky that no observer noticed at the time, like blind spots in the human eye.  Perhaps these things were the Invaders.  (Still, flat photos of buildings toppling, streets being uprooted, with colorful whirlpools in the sky.)

As far as anyone knows from information sent up before the transmitters went dead, the Invaders never killed a human.  What they did was destroy utterly every artifact of human civilization.  In their wake they left plowed ground, sprouting seedlings, and grass.

In the next two years, ten billon humans starved to death.  (p. 55)

Although humans have not yet travelled to the stars, they do have a thin interstellar connection: the Ophiuchi Hotline, a data stream being transmitted by laser from a nearby star that is aimed almost at the solar system.  Humans aren't sure if they're eavesdropping on someone else's communication or receiving messages intended to be received only by a space-faring civilization.  (And I won't spoil it.)  Based on information gleaned from the Hotline, human technology has advanced radically: symbiotic spacesuits, impenetrable force fields, advanced medical techniques, and more.  Varley shows us how, in combination with the conditions of the Occupation, these technologies are changing human cultures in unexpected ways.

(Although the Invasion and Occupation remain mostly offscreen in the stories, Varley mentions in this interview that there is an unpublished early novel in the Eight Worlds series called Gas Giant that tells the story of the Invasion itself.  He doesn't think he'll ever return to it and put it into publishable shape, which is fair there's no reason not to scan it in and put it up on the Web, right?  Nudge, nudge.)

1992's Steel Beach and its sequel The Golden Globe also seem to be Eight Worlds stories, but in the author's note in Steel Beach Varley claims that they're not—although they share a very similar background, he didn't bother maintaining consistency with the stories from a decade earlier when he returned to writing in his fictional universe.  There are certainly differences (the Ophiuchi Hotline doesn't seem to exist, for example), but there are far more similarities, and I still think of them as Eight Worlds stories.  So, depending on whether you include these later novels, the series either stopped in about 1980 (with "Beatnik Bayou") or is still being written (since Irontown Blues is still forthcoming).

In doing the research for this post, I had the pleasure of rereading all the short stories in the Eight Worlds series, and even twenty-five years after they were published, they're capable of giving my sense of wonder a good workout.  This is especially surprising because I don't find Varley's fictional universe all that appealing a place to live, although it certainly has some utopian aspects.  In my opinion, Varley's writing, especially his short fiction, is in the running for the best science fiction of all time.  On top of his interesting speculations about future societies, Varley is an immensely fun, witty writer.  Here's an inside joke from Steel Beach:

Brenda sat up, wide-eyed.

"You're a Heinleiner," she said.

It was MacDonald's turn to shrug.

"I don't attend services, but I agree with a lot of what they say."  (p. 55)

Raise your hand if that describes you.

Shaper/Mechanist, 1982-1985, Bruce Sterling

Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist series includes a handful of short stories (collected in Crystal Express) and a single novel, Schismatrix.  The stories and the novel were later collected into a single volume, Schismatrix Plus.

In this future history, a dazzling variety of spacefaring human cultures have arisen throughout the solar system, primarily in space habitats rather than on planets.  It seems that Earth is still around, but no longer worth paying attention to:

"You mean we all came from Earth?" said Nikolai, unbelieving.

"Yes," the holo said kindly.  "The first true settlers in space were born on Earth—produced by sexual means.  Of course, hundreds of years have passed since then.  You are a Shaper.  Shapers are never born."

"Who lives on Earth now?"

"Human beings."

"Ohhhh," said Nikolai, his falling tones betraying a rapid loss of interest.  ("Twenty Evocations", Crystal Express, p. 102)

Sterling describes how this separation between Earth and the humans in space came about:

The history of mankind in space had been a long epic of ambitions and rivalries.  From the very first, space colonies had struggled for self-sufficiency and had soon broken their ties with the exhausted Earth.  The independent life-support systems had given them the mentality of city-states.  Strange ideologies had bloomed in the hot-house atmosphere of the o'neills, and breakaway groups were common.

Space was too vast to police.  Pioneer elites burst forth, defying anyone to stop their pursuit of aberrant technologies.  Quite suddenly the march of science had become an insane, headlong scramble.  New sciences and technologies had shattered whole societies in waves of future shock.

The shattered cultures coalesced into factions, so thoroughly alienated from one another that they were called humanity only for lack of a better term.  The Shapers, for instance, had seized control of their own genetics, abandoning mankind in a burst of artifical evolution.  Their rivals, the Mechanists, had replaced flesh with advanced prosthetics.  (Crystal Express, pp. 88-89)

The centuries-long rivalry between the Shapers and the Mechanists, and not the Interdict that isolates the Earth, forms the main action of these stories.  Sterling is not a partisan of either the post-human Shapers or the cybernetic Mechanists, and portrays both sides as sympathetic in some ways.  Their conflict serves as a backdrop for the strange ways his characters live their lives.  In some ways, the wide variety of cultures in the Shaper/Mechanist solar system resembles that of the Eight Worlds, and I wonder to what extent Sterling was consciously inspired by Varley.  However, Sterling's future feels very different from Varley's: where Varley is concerned with intensely personal matters like child-rearing and sex changes, Sterling's work (not surprisingly) feels more cyberpunky, and deals with politics, espionage, and powerful corporations.

The Earth is unimportant through most of the series, but in Schismatrix, some characters finally visit the Earth, and we get a bit more insight into how the home planet came to be isolated from its children:

[While flying over a primitive town on Earth]

"Stability," he said.  "The Terrans wanted stability, that's why they set up the Interdict.  They didn't want technology to break them into pieces, as it's done to us.  They blamed technology for the disasters.  The war plagues, the carbon dioxide that melted the ice caps....They can't forget their dead."

"Surely the whole world isn't like this," Vera said.

"It has to be.  Anywhere there is variety there is the risk of change.  Change that can't be tolerated."  (p. 237)

The decision to breaking off contact was not one-sided, however, and its effect linger:

The Interdict was sacred: as old as the unspoken guilt of ancestral spacefarers, who had deserted Earth as disaster loomed.  In their desertion, they had robbed the planet of the very expertise that might have saved it.  Over centuries in space, that guilt had sunk into a darkened region of cultural awareness, surfacing only as caricature, as ritual denial and deliberate ignorance.

The parting had come with hatred: with those in space condemned as antihuman thieves, and Earth's emergency government denounced as fascist barbarism.  Hatred made things easier: easier for those in space to shrug off all responsibility, easier for Earth to starve its myriad cultures down to a single gray regime of penance and pointless stability.  (p. 274)

It's worth mentioning that another Sterling short story, "Spook", is not included in the Shaper/Mechanist section of Crystal Express and is not collected in Schismatrix Plus, but it seems to me that it would fit quite neatly into Sterling's future history, just before the Interdict comes into effect.  It mentions artificial plagues, global warming, and the brain-drain of Earth's best and brightest to the orbiting zaibatsus (which Sterling unaccountably calls "zaibatseries" in the story).  The fit isn't perfect, though—having the Resurgence beat the Synthesis, rather than the other way around, would have fit the Shaper/Mechanist timeline better, so maybe that's why it's not included.

Vacuum Flowers, 1987, Michael Swanwick

This is a standalone novel.  The story follows Rebel Elizabeth Mudlark, a fugitive from powerful forces who flees across a strange future solar system.  Technology exists to program people's minds, making them into warriors, lawyers, slaves, maniacs, or anything else, and the programmed wear face paint that identifies their current programming.  The story begins in a huge space habitat called the Kluster and proceeds to Mars, but we are aware all along that something has gone terribly wrong on Earth:

"Won't they have a sentient program on the job then?"

"After what happened to Earth?" Wyeth laughed.  (p. 35)

It turns out that Earth is occupied by an intelligence called the Comprise.  It is a hive mind linking and subsuming nearly every individual human on the planet like cells in a single huge organism, using implanted radio transceivers.  The Comprise also sometimes refer to themself [linguistic note: plural incorporated pronoun "them", singular reflexive suffix "self"] as "Earth".  Humans in the Comprise have no individuality, instead serving as time-sharing processors for a single huge mind.  Here's a snippet of what goes on in one Comprise's brain:

"Rotate grating six raise two and rotate again reroute quote the Comprise agree in principle but with reservations unquote raise the vial of eagle's blood reroute using Allen wrench adjust the potentiometer to the red mark reroute ship to Sanfrisco marked green code green reroute injecting kerosene between vascular stations seventeen and twelve reroute bedding excavation—"  (p. 103)

The humans in space treat the Comprise warily, worrying that it intends to spread beyond the Earth...and they're right to be worried:

"Yes," the Comprise said.  "We are by definition natural enemies since we compete for the same resources."

"Resources?  You mean like...what?  Energy sources?  Metal ores?"

"People.  People are our most important resource."


"Why haven't you taken over human space already?  You have all the resources of Earth at your disposal, and the kind of physics we can only dream of.  Why have you stayed put?  Why aren't you out here among us in force?"

..."We are held back by the speed of communication.  It is not true that thought is instantaneous.  Thought is only as fast as our electronic linkages allow.  Even on Earth this causes problems.  It is possible for the Comprise to be divided against ourself...But these are momentary unbalances, easily settled.  The problem becomes crucial only when Comprise leave Earth.

"Earth has tried creating colonies of ourself in near orbit, on the moon, elsewhere.  But small Comprise such as we are sicken away from the communion of thought.  We become indecisive, we make errors.  The large Comprise do not sicken, but they lose integrity and drift away from Earth, becoming individuals in their own right.  Then they must be destroyed.  Three times it has been necessary to apply the nuclear solution.  It is not permissible that the Comprise of Earth become Other."  (p. 113)

Later in the book, Swanwick gives us a glimpse into how the Earth was taken over:

"What you have to understand is the extreme speed with which the technology blossomed," Bors said.  "When Earth first became conscious, it used all its resources to spread the technology as efficiently as possible.  The first transceiver was implanted in March, let's say, and all Earth was integrated by Christmas.  The first clear notion anybody off-planet had of what had actually happened was when the warcraft were launched."  (p. 162)

(There are some hints in Swanwick's 1991 novel Stations of the Tide that it might also be in the same universe—in this interview, Swanwick says it's ambiguous—but the two stories don't really have much in common otherwise.)

Bloom, 1998, Wil McCarthy

In this standalone novel, McCarthy describes an attempt by a ship from the Immunity, a culture based on the moons of Jupiter, to penetrate into the Mycosystem of the inner solar system.  It turns out that Earth has been consumed by self-replicating nanomachines—the infamous gray goo problem, although McCarthy's Mycosystem seems more feathery and fungal than gooey.  Even in the outer solar system, humans have to be constantly on their guard, because spores from the Mycosystem blow out on the solar wind and wherever one lands, it will begin replicating, forming a "bloom".

Although it is generally agreed the problem started in New Guinea, no one is quite sure how it happened, because it all happened so fast:

The Evacuation of Earth was much like that of the Titanic a century and a half before; we see the same bravado, denial, lifeboats floating away half empty, and only in about the final quarter of the crisis do its participants really begin to voice and act on their peril.  In Earth's case, this equates to a span of maybe thirty-six hours.  Not a long time to clear out a planet.

Within a hundred kilometers of a major spaceport, you had just about a one in a thousand chance of making it to orbit alive; outside of these areas the odds dropped to less than one in a million.  And from there, another five percent failed to make it to Luna before their air or water or luck ran out.  Those that made it, of course, completely swamped the Lunar bases' ability to cope, so mortality continued in a steady grind for weeks and months afterward.  The state of emergency never ended, and no sense of normalcy was ever established, which turned out to be a fortunate thing when the spores started falling and the bare, sterile Lunar soil itself began to bloom.  In a very real sense, the Second Evacuation was a mere appendix to the First, the continued unfolding of a single event.

For a number of reasons, from the astrodynamic to the mycoric to the geopolitical to plain coincidence, evacuees from Earth's tropical regions ended up mostly at Mendeleev and Moscoviense on the Lunar farside.  With notable exception, those unfortunates starting out between thirty and forty-five degrees north or south latitudes didn't make it out at all, while those from the high temperate zones found themselves at Tycho and Clavius and Pingre in the nearside's southern latitudes.

These groupings were largely preserved in the Second Evacuation, in that the farsiders—actually the first to leave in many cases—settled primarily in the asteroid belt, while nearside refugees, fearing the spread of a Mycosystem whose limitations were by no means clear at that time, pressed straight on to Jupiter.  The wide Bode gap separating these two regions proved a formidable barrier to sustained commerce, which in turn limited contact to the time-lagged data channels, permitting the regions' cultural evolution to diverge significantly.  Within a decade, the Immunity/Gladholder distinction had taken firm hold, and indeed has changed little since that time.  (p. 75)

Unlike the other stories above, Bloom is primarily about the loss of Earth and what's going on there.  It's true that there are various human cultures in space, but the Evacuation is recent enough in the past that they have not had time to splinter too drastically (although the Immunity and the Gladholders certainly don't see eye to eye on everything).

Cowboy Bebop, 1998

Cowboy Bebop is a Japanese animated TV series.  The main characters are bounty hunters who chase down targets all over the solar system, on Mars, Ganymede, Venus, and other exotic locales.  However, for the first several episodes of the series, there's no mention of what, exactly, is going on back on Earth.  We get a hint that something is up in the sixth episode, "Sympathy for the Devil".

In Bebop's future, rapid travel around the solar system is made possible by a network of ring-shaped hyperspace gates.  In a flashback in "Sympathy for the Devil", we see that one of the first gates, located on the Moon, was destroyed in a titanic explosion.  The results were catastophic for the Earth: the surface facing the Moon is scorched and blackened, and a huge chunk of the Moon, encompassing about 1/3 of the visible face and perhaps 10% of its mass, is blown into space.  (Kind of like in Thundarr the Barbarian.)

As the series progresses, we learn more about the magnitude of the disaster.  Nearly all data from before the explosion was lost, leading to tremendous confusion and dislocation.  Worse, the Earth is now surrounded by a halo of Moon fragments and subject to constant meteor storms.  Most of the survivors have relocated to planets and moons elsewhere in the solar system, and the remainder have had to move underground.  A partially terraformed Mars, with cities located in craters surrounded by pressure curtains, is the new center of human civilization.

In some ways, Cowboy Bebop is the odd man out in this list: it's a TV show, and anime to boot.  In fact, even though I'd been thinking about Earthless circumsolar civilization fiction for some time when I started watching the show, it didn't initially occur to me that Bebop belongs to the genre.  It definitely qualifies, though—maybe that's part of why I enjoyed the show so much.

Similarities and Differences

Destroying or isolating the Earth serves a variety of purposes in these stories, but I think there are at least two common to all of them: making the Earth unavailable helps to justify why humans have spread through the solar system, and it sets up a situation conducive to the evolution of a wide variety of odd new cultures.

Almost fifty years into the space age, it's clear that humanity is not going to leap off this rock we call home and emigrate into space in large numbers without a good reason.  Science fiction fans are used to the idea that we're going to spread out and colonize the solar system, but space travel is just too expensive for that, at least with our current technology.  So if the creator of a science fictional universe wants a civilization in which most people live in space, the easiest way to justify its existence is to take Earth out of the picture.

Losing the Earth also allows the imaginging of unprecedented cultural variety.  After such a disaster, the remaining humans becomes refugees, and have to endure deprivation, isolation, and radically new environments and challenges to survival.  With the Earth gone, there is no several-gigaperson "anchor" to hold back cultural changes, and this allows the evolution of strange new civilizations.  This theme is especially obvious in Varley's and Sterling's stories, but to some extent it is present in all of them.

It's interesting that all five stories mentioned above make Earth unavailable in different ways: Varley's Invaders, Sterling's Interdict, Swanwick's Comprise, McCarthy's Mycosystem, and Cowboy Bebop's hyperspace gate explosion.  They also differ in the extent to which the Earth is unavailable. The Invaders and the Mycosystem put the Earth very nearly completely off limits.  The Comprise is still made up of humanity, but not of humans (if you see what I mean), and if you get too close, You Will Be Absorbed.  The gate explosion makes remaining on Earth difficult, not impossible, but the devastation and continuing danger spurs massive emigration.  The Interdict is, in a way, the most reversible of the disasters: it's a political decision made by both sides, and still leaves regular humans in charge of a habitable home planet.

I think it's an important component of the atmosphere of these stories that, in spite of the magnitude of the disasters, there is still hope.  Earth is unavailable, but not destroyed, and this leaves open the possiblity, in the minds both of characters and of readers, of a return home.  This desire to take back the Earth is overt in some stories, particularly in Bloom and Vacuum Flowers.  To a lesser extent it's a part of the Eight Worlds stories, in which hope of defeating the Invaders is slim indeed, but humanity still longs for the homeworld it can see, but not touch.  The desire to return is least important, I think, in Cowboy Bebop, because although it is damaged, Earth remains partially inhabited and in contact with humans in space.  Only Sterling's spacefaring post-humans don't want to have any contact with Earth—at least they've convinced themselves so.  However, without spoiling the details, I'll just say that in every one of these fictional universes, the possibility of returning to Earth is eventually addressed.

In thinking about these Earthless fictions, I keep returning to one question: why do I find them so fascinating?  Although, as I've mentioned, I noticed the similarities among several of the stories years ago, I think they resonate even more strongly in this post-9/11, post-tsunami world.  Because all of the stories predate these events, the loss of the Earth could not have been originally intended to appeal to us in this way.  Nonetheless, we're living in the aftermath of disasters (small compared to losing the Earth, of course), and we worry about the possibility of future disasters on a larger scale.  Stories about people fleeing for their lives from unexpected destruction aren't so far from real life.  Earthless circumsolar civilization fiction appeals to me now, I think, in the same way that post-Apocalyptic fiction did back during the Cold War: both are the science fictional reflection and magnification of real-life fears.

Related Stories

If you're still reading, you must like this kind of thing, so I thought I'd mention a couple other stories that have similar backdrops, although none of them qualify as examples of the narrow genre:

The Jak Jinnaka novels by John Barnes (which I've previously written about here): The Earth has been attacked by a barage of relativistic meteors, leaving it covered in craters.  However, some time has passed, and although there is a wide-ranging off-planet civilization, the home planet is inhabited and thriving again.

Macross (an anime TV series from the early 80's):  You have to be able to get past the transforming giant robots, but this is one of my favorite science fiction TV series.  About 3/4 of the way through the series, after fighting a losing battle against the giant alien Zentraedi, the vastly outnumbered humans witness the near-total sterilization of the surface of Earth.  Unlike the stories above, however, the survivors resettle the Earth and slowly rehabilitate it.

Battlestar Galactica (the new series): This doesn't involve the destruction of the Earth, of course, but it addresses some similar themes.  Unlike the other stories, it is set just after the destruction of the homeworld, and so it deals with the time when the refugees have no safe haven and their survival is most in doubt.  It's also the only post-9/11 story, and it follows the grand SF tradition of dealing with real-world events in thinly-disguised fictional form.  (BTW, if you'd told me a year ago that I'd be watching and praising a TV show called Battlestar Galactica, I wouldn't have believed you, but it's surprisingly good so far.)

Beyond these stories, there's another related science fiction sub-genre: stories in which the Earth is really destroyed.  Some examples include Aristoi by Walter John Williams (eaten by nanomachines), and Hyperion and its sequels by Dan Simmons (destroyed by a black hole).  Defining when precisely the Earth is destroyed as opposed to merely lost is a tricky business, but if that sort of thing is your cup of tea, you ought to check out this guide to destroying the Earth. (hat tip: Peeve Farm)

[Update:  In a post over at idle thoughts of an idle fellow, Steve nominates the following stories:

  • Century Rain by Alastair Reynold
  • The Queendom of Sol series by Wil McCarthy
  • Terraforming Earth by Jack Williamson
  • The animated movie Titan A.E.
  • Moonseed by Stephen Baxter
  • Blade Runner (the movie, not the book)
  • Diaspora by Greg Egan
  • Heart of the Comet by David Brin and Gregory Benford
  • Echoes of the Earth by Sean Williams and Shane Dix

Of these, I've seen Titan A.E. and Blade Runner and read Heart of the Comet and Diaspora.  It's been a while, so my memory may be fuzzy, but here are my takes on them.

Titan A.E. doesn't really fit: it's interstellar, and rather than showing human cultures changing into strange new forms, it depicts humans as refugees in a larger multi-species civilization.  Kind of like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, except not played for laughs.

Blade Runner doesn't fit, unless they do a sequel set on the offworld colonies after the replicants take over the Earth.

Heart of the Comet is an interesting sort of halfway example.  It shows a human culture adapting to living in space, but instead of the Earth being cut off, it's the people on the comet who are isolated.

Diaspora is a good example, I think.  At the beginning of the story, the situation is rather like that in Schismatrix, with isolated anti-technological humans living on Earth, and then becomes truly Earthless when a gamma-ray burst sterilizes the homeworld.  The long-standing post-human civilzations, made up of software intelligences and robots (possibly with human brains, I can't recall), survive and spread out into the galaxy.

By the way, here's another two related stories I forgot the mention:

"Breakaway, Backdown" by James Patrick Kelly, which describes the divide between the people who commit to living in space and those who stay behind on Earth.

The TV series Firefly.  "After the earth was used up, we found a new solar system, and hundreds of new earths were terraformed and colonized."  I think the writers changed their minds about all the new worlds being in a single solar system after a few episodes, but I'm not sure because the background was never very clearly explained.]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
04:05 AM in Science Fiction | Submit: | Links:


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Earthless:

» Earthless, at Tensor from Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow
Tensor blogs about this interesting science fiction genre. Other examples I'd list would be: [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 9, 2005 5:18:00 PM


An oldie but goodie: Robert Silverberg (as Calvin M. Knox), Lest We Forget Thee, Earth.

Posted by: language hat at Feb 26, 2005 11:23:44 AM

You forgot the Foundation series that could slot in here as well.

Posted by: Alistair at Feb 26, 2005 12:41:36 PM

I always include,"The Ring of Charon" by Roger MacBride Allen in this category too.

The Earth is not so much destroyed as stolen, but either way the solar system colonies are sudenly without Earth.

Posted by: Baronger at Feb 26, 2005 4:44:22 PM

I can't believe you actually referenced Thundarr the Barbarian.

"Arile! Ookla! Ride!"

Posted by: Terminal Student at Feb 28, 2005 11:19:50 AM

Apparently I get to be the first to mention John C. McLoughlin's 1984 novel, The Helix and the Sword, which clearly belongs to the "Earthless" subgenre. The story opens several millenia after a man-made disaster renders Earth uninhabitable to humans. The nature of the disaster is left unspecified because nobody remembers. Humanity lives exclusively in space habitats, and there are no inanimate artifacts: everything is alive. You'll love it.

Posted by: ACW at Feb 28, 2005 3:18:17 PM

You probably didn't waste your time on them, but the series of Dune "prequels" written by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson rely crucially on humans deliberately choosing to trash Earth. Frank Herbert never really fleshed out what the "Butlerian Jihad" was, but we're given to understand in the original Dune stories that it involved a terribly destructive war between man and machine. Also that the Earth of Dune's present is uninhabitable. H&A tie them together by kicking off the jihad with humans voluntarily nuking Earth so as to destroy all machines on the planet. They drop a hint or two that the humans who make this choice do so with the hope that someday they can take back Earth, though. So given the fact that every book they've written so far has made painfully obvious what's coming next, it's hard not to believe they don't intend to wrap up the promised conclusion to Herbert Sr.'s work without bringing Earth back into the picture.

Posted by: Semantic Compositions at Mar 1, 2005 11:42:22 AM

Hat: Thanks for the tip on Lest We Forget Thee, Earth, I'll add it to the ever-growing list of things I should read someday.

Alistair: I actually mentioned the Foundation/Empire/Robots series in an earlier version of the post, but after further thought I removed it because I decided it falls into yet another category: lost Earth interstellar civilization fiction. Discussion question: does Star Wars fall into this same category? Why or why not?

Baronger: Oops, I forgot about The Ring of Charon even though it's sitting on a shelf within eyeshot about five feet away. It definitely falls into the "Related Stories" category—like Battlestar Galactica, it focuses on the immediate aftermath of the loss of the Earth. I haven't read the sequel, The Shattered Sphere, is it any good?

ACW: The Helix and the Sword sounds interesting—sort of like The Integral Trees. I'll have to track down a copy.

SC: I never really got into the Dune books, although I can see their influence everywhere (random example: Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä). I read up through Heretics of, but everything after the first three is a sand-colored blur. Did anything even happen in God Emperor? After that, it never even occurred to me to start reading the prequels (Dune + Brian Herbert + Kevin Anderson = no sale).

Posted by: The Tensor at Mar 2, 2005 3:59:59 AM

I wish I knew if the "Shattered Sphere," is any good. It's on my list of books to find in used bookstores, Amazon doesn't have any currently in stock. There is supposed to be eventually a third book in the series according to the authors website.

The entire genre is one of the reasons I like science fiction. It can take an issue that can't be explored using regular fiction.

Posted by: Baronger at Mar 2, 2005 8:29:17 AM

The comparison of _Helix_ to _The Integral Trees_ wouldn't have occurred to me; I must have given a misimpression with my nano-summary, because the two books are not at all similar.

_Helix_ doesn't seem to be hard to find. The Boston area's Minuteman Library Network lists three copies; I'd be surprised if your area lacked one. It's not one of those big, sprawling things -- I think it's less than 300 pages -- so you should give it a weekend sometime.

(By the way, is there any way to produce italics in the comments? It would be nice for book titles.)

Posted by: ACW at Mar 2, 2005 9:15:22 AM

Baronger--Bookfinder ( has 64 copies of Shattered Sphere listed, so its definitely out there.

Posted by: Terminal Student at Mar 2, 2005 11:55:01 AM

Re: Helix and The Integral Trees, I was referring to the living space habitats, which sound somewhat similar. Although I guess the ones in Trees aren't really space habitats, since they're in an atmosphere.

(OK, I've turned on HTML in comments. It's not like I'm getting a lot of comment spam, so we'll see how it goes.)

Posted by: The Tensor at Mar 2, 2005 4:40:10 PM

Star Wars doesn´t figure into any of these two catagories as the Earth is never mentioned or even alluded to ( unless there's something in the books that I haven't seen). It's pretty much a giant space-fantasy that just transposes humans into a different context. I would never describe Star Wars as Science Fiction, that would then open up this debate to infinity ( Alan Dean Foster's FLIX series for example). Oh, you forgot to metion Clark´'s THE SONGS OF DISTANT EARTH where Terra has destroyed itself and humans have managed to seed themselves throughout the galaxy. I re-read recently and found it better than I remembered.

Posted by: Alistair at Mar 3, 2005 7:57:53 AM

You folks know your sci-fi a lot better than I but I would say Gordon Dickson's Dorsai series fits in neatly with this category, the only difference being that the human communities have spread beyond Earth's solar system. Each one has developed based on a distinct part of the human psyche: warrior, spiritualist, scientist, etc. Earth is still inhabited but the residents, while psychically whole, are still diminished by the loss of their brethren.

Posted by: Greg at Mar 3, 2005 4:26:09 PM

It's true that Star Wars is supposed to take place in a galaxy "far, far away", but consider: in both Star Wars and the Foundation stories (the early ones, at least), Earth is absent and irrelevant. Nobody pines for the lost home planet, its absence is just a device to let us know that the story takes place very far away (either in space or in time). Please note: I'm not really arguing that Star Wars should be considered "Earthless", I'm just pointing out that the Foundation stories really don't fit either, at least until the later ones...when they find the Earth, don't they?

I don't think the Dorsai books fit at all: Earth is still around (in fact, don't several of the books in the series take place, or at least visit, Earth?), and human civilization is interstellar, not confined to the solar system.

Posted by: The Tensor at Mar 4, 2005 4:47:56 AM

The Swanwick novel is linked to an earlier novella, "Trojan", which was published in Omin in the early 80s.

Posted by: Simon Bisson at Mar 4, 2005 10:35:02 AM

Aha! But Earth does figure in the later Foundation novels ergo it makes it part of this little sub-genre you've invented. Whereas Star Wars has no references to Earth whatsoever in any of the Movies or books that I've seen/read.And because it takes place in space, doesn´t make it Sci-Fi. Let´s include the Discworld novels then(in Sci-Fi), because it takes place on a planet, that happens to be flat, on the backs of four elephants that are on the back of the great turtle A'Tuin swimming through space.And it doesn´t mention Earth either.

Posted by: Alistair at Mar 4, 2005 3:27:16 PM

sorry if that sounded a little faecetious, it wasn't meant to be.

Posted by: Alistair at Mar 5, 2005 4:24:40 PM

Hmm ... how about "postterrestrial preinterstellar milieu fiction"?

Or "postterrestrial circumsolar ~"

Earthless is a bit of a misnomer in some cases.

I've mentioned a few examples on my own blog, but now I think of it 'Heart of the Comet' by Brin and Benford might count: Earth is still there, but they are isolated from it.

And Echoes of Earth by Sean Williams and Shane Dix, although mostly interstellar, does feature a brief return to an earthless solar system.

Posted by: Idle Fellow at Mar 11, 2005 2:54:51 PM

'The Clouds of Saturn' by Michael A. McCollum
Set in Saturn's atmosphere. The sun has
heated up. Earth is uninhabitable, but there
are conditions in Saturn's atmosphere where
gravity is 1G and the pressure is the same,
so everyone lives in big floating cities.

Posted by: startraveller at Nov 24, 2005 5:53:15 PM

I'm looking for the title of a short story that involves a robot that divides and uses it's own raw materials to create 2 smaller versions. It has been a long time since I read this but at the end of the story there are billions of these nano bots that utilize steel and other metals. I think that it ends up with railroad tracks disappearing as well as bridges, etc. If anyone knows the title of this please let me know.
-Thanks, Mark (

Posted by: Mark at Nov 29, 2006 10:42:09 AM

How could you have forgotten what might be the seminal "lost/destroyed earth" book: When Worlds Collide?

The American merged series Robotech, which incorporates Macross that you did mention, takes the lost earth theme farther in later segments, as Earth is taken over by the Invid, and mankind has to return to force them out. (Though the segment of the Robotech universe that could most aptly be described as "lost Earth," that takes place in space while the invasion is on, is the Sentinels series. It was written afterward and largely exists only as a series of comic books or novels.)

James P. Hogan wrote a book called Voyage from Yesteryear that is in some ways a lot like Songs of Distant Earth—it involves a colony of humans sent to another star as embryos in an incubator, who created their own perfect society unfettered by human mores—and how that society reacts to and deals with a starship from earth that is sent out to see how things are going and to take over if necessary. Interesting, if just a bit too pie-in-the-sky political.

Posted by: Robotech_Master at Dec 18, 2006 12:04:50 AM

Re: Firefly - don't think it was made clear during the series, but the movie Serenity did make it clear (to fans paying attention) that the whole thing takes place in a single solar system other than this one in which dozens or hundreds of bodies have been terraformed. The clear implication is that there is no FTL travel, and that therefore all the settlers must be former passengers of and/or descendants of passengers of slowboats from Earth-That-Was.

It's a compelling setup because it evokes a kind of nostalgia ("Earth-That-Was" is a great phrase). At the same time, given the constraints of the setup, it pretty much writes off any possibility of going back.

Such a shame that the series was cancelled so soon - it would have been fascinating to see whether they addressed it, and how.

There are two kinds of plot development I can envisage. The first, cheap and nasty and therefore unlikely from the creative team in charge, would have been to have started allowing FTL travel for some technobabble reason (a wormhole, say...) in order to bring Earth-That-Was into a reachable range.

The second, which I could more realistically see occurring to the creators, would be to have waited several years (i.e. TV seasons) establishing things like how and why River Tam was turned into whatever she was, and why Shepherd Book stopped being an Operative and became a Shepherd... then have more people arrive from Earth on sleeper ships. LOTS of them. Perhaps with an established government ready to step in and take over. Perhaps heavily armed. Season 3 ending cliffhanger type stuff.

Like I said... shame it was cancelled.

Posted by: Simon Blake at Jan 19, 2009 6:31:55 AM