Standard Sci-Fi History

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Back in the Golden Age of science fiction, a rough outline of the future began to form. It was largely hinted at in various stories that shared many common attributes. Whether or not this was done consciously is unknown, but the fans noticed the trends in the stories and pieced it together. Thus formed the Standard Sci-Fi History.

The Standard Sci-Fi History is a broad template, which hinted to a future history. At the time, it allowed writers to hint at a common reference readers would understand. The savvy reader would notice these hints, and understand the background to the setting. This avoided bogging the tale down when trying to explain everything.

Although the details greatly vary, the outline was basically the same:

  1. Exploration and Colonization of the Solar System: Humanity explores the Moon, Mars, and the rest of the Solar System. Earth is always a looming presence. While travel times may be immense, space trips are common and a message can always reach earth in under a day. Apart from the oldest SF, none of the worlds explored are humanly habitable. Typical plots also include the colonies starting Wars of Independence from Earth.
  2. World War III: Disaster strikes (often nuclear war), and Earth is devastated. When the Apocalypse occurs can actually vary, sometimes after Interstellar Colonization, sometimes before Spaceflight, sometimes during the Decline of the Empire. But often, a devastating war occurs in the beginning of the timeline. No matter how bad it gets, Earth and humanity eventually recovers. Whenever it happens, it serves to wipe the political map clean, removing all modern day nations as players. If the timespan till the next phase is long enough, multiple wars may be used to fill the centuries inbetween.
  3. Interstellar Exploration and Colonization: Superficially similar to #1, only spreading out to the Stars. However, unlike #1, the focus is on inhabitable worlds, and contact with earth is difficult at best. There's no phoning home for advice when the message round trip would take years. Lost colonies were typically founded during this phase. This is also the period during which faster than light travel is generally invented.
  4. Alien Contact: Humanity makes First Contact with alien life forms. This can happen at any point. It's placed for here for convenience, since the best known Alien Contact tales occur before the Empire forms. The precise sub-genre depends largely on whether the aliens are technologically inferior, comparable, or superior to humanity, and whether or not they are hostile, but it ranges from alien invasion to humans playing star-god.
  5. The Cycle of Empire:
    1. Formation of Empire: At this point, the independent human and/or alien worlds are united for whatever reason. Sometimes its for a common defense, sometimes its by force. The result is the birth and expansion of new government. Note: Empire doesn't have to mean The Empire (although it often does). It could be The Federation, or the rise of interstellar civilization. The First Empire is often centered on Earth.
    2. Empire at its Height: Here, civilization is at its apex, showing the best qualities and values. Technology is highly advanced and there is order. During the Interregnum, people will look back to this time as a Golden Age. The various iterations of empire differ slightly. The first is the most optimistic period. The Second Empire is generally wiser and more benevolent, but is also aware that empires can fall. In the Golden Age, the Second Empire was often also the Final Empire. Third and later empires are essentially the same setting as the Second Empire, but the higher number serves to imply an old galaxy, not locked in stasis. Whichever iteration it is, authors rarely focus much on the Empire itself. Presumably there's simply not enough action. Tales set during this period typically focus on exploration of unknown space, or small scale dramas - the kind of events that might shake a solar system, but go completely unnoticed by the larger galaxy. If this period doesn't turn out to be the Final Empire, eventually the edifice begins to crack, leading to:
    3. Decline and Fall: The Empire begins to decay, often due to decadency and corruption. Outer provinces begin to revolt, barbarians begin to invade, internal conflict increase. At the end of this phase, the Empire is but a shadow of itself. Expect this phase to bear at least a passing familiarity to Edward Gibbon's seminal text or Gibbon's own successors, though exceptions have been known to exist.
    4. Interregnum: Interstellar trade and communication fails, final demise of the former Empire, knowledge and technology is lost, rise of petty wars and kingdoms. Overall, not a great place to live. A lot of Space Opera tales are set in this stage. Rarely, this can end with humanity's extinction.
    5. Renaissance: Rebirth of knowledge and civilization. Interstellar trade and communications resume, and the seeds of a new Empire are planted. From here, the history can circle round back to Formation of Empire. Otherwise, it leads up to:
  6. The Final Empire: During the final empire, humanity/interstellar civilization becomes highly civilized, peace reigns, and humanity explores the ultimate questions (God, Life, and the Universe). Note that all empires at their zenith do this kind of thing. It is just at this stage, humanity can confront such questions directly. This period can only be distinguished from previous empires when its future is mapped out.
  7. Humanity's Final Fate: Humanity Ascends to A Higher Plane of Existence or mysteriously vanishes/goes extinct. Sometimes this could lead to the literal End of History.

This was the most commonly used timeline. However, it doesn't mean every writer followed every single Stage. Some Stages got rearranged, others are skipped totally. It should also be noted that this History was often Human-centric, although aliens were sometimes followed this template. See the Examples below.

Often the history was linear, but the steps could repeat themselves. In particular, the cycle of empire might only happen once, or might repeat any number of times; interstellar exploration can continue on the frontiers of the civilization even at the height of empire; and alien contact can occur at any time, quite possibly more than once.

Also called "Consensus Cosmogony" by Donald A. Wollheim, a science fiction fan and scholar who identified the trope.

See also The Trope History of the Universe.

Examples of Standard Sci-Fi History include:

Anime and Manga


  • Star Wars: The trope is invoked in the movies, with the Decline and Fall of the Republic, Interregnum of the Galactic Empire, and with the Empire's end the Formation of the New Republic. Although, in the Expanded Universe, this doesn't pan out so well The New Republic ends up collapsing, and although a better government forms, internal problems also show up.


  • A Canticle for Leibowitz: World War III, the Interregnum, and Renaissance. However, the trope is subverted. Instead of showing history as Linear (things keep on getting better), history turns out to the Cyclical, history repeats itself again and again.
  • James Blish's Cities in Flight: Actually ends at Stage 7, the Rebirth of the universe!
  • Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind: Plays the trope straight, although the Instrumentality appears to have reached its Apex, it stays stuck in an Interregnum of stagnation until it decides to re-diversify humanity.
  • CoDominium manages to delay World War III until the interstellar colonization stage, thanks to the titular American-Soviet alliance. When the CoDominium does fall apart earth is rendered barely inhabitable and there is no unifying human government until Sparta conquers all the other colonies. Also first contact occurs during the time of the second Spartan Empire.
    • Several of Pournelle's High Justice stories are set during Stage #1. Perhaps thinking of this trope, the publishers had assumed that the stories were prequels to the CoDominium series. The author disagreed.
  • David Weber's Empire From the Ashes: Set during the Interregnum following the fall of the Fourth Empire, the story witnesses the formation of the Fifth Imperium. The reason of the constant Declines and Fall (invasion of Genocidal aliens), may be solved, and may prevent another relapse of history
  • Dune: The background history of the Imperium tends to follow this trend. The Buterlian Jihad serves the role of World War III by resetting the political and technological situation. The Corrino-led Imperium serves as the First Empire, and the Paul/Leto II regimes as the Second Empire. It's one of the few examples in which the Second Empire follows up the first without an Interregnum.
    • There is an Interregnum (referred to as "The Scattering"), but it occurs only after the collapse of the Second Empire.
  • The Foundation series: The Trope Codifier. The original trilogy deals with the Fall and Interregnum. The Galactic Empire novels are set during the Formation and Apex of the Empire.
  • Robert A. Heinlein's Future History follows the trope closely. Heinlein's other works often set their tales during the first few stages: Intra-solar and Interstellar exploration, with some dealing with Alien Contact.
  • The History of the Galaxy follows this trope for the most part. World War Three is barely mentioned, followed by the emergence of One World Order. Then the Solar System is settled. FTL is discovered, which leads to a massive extrasolar colonization effort, during which Lost Colonies are created. A devastating War Of Earthly Aggression follows, resulting in the formation of The Federation (First Empire). After a millennium of rule and exploration, it collapses due to internal strife and the inherent inequality of the colonies. The official First Contact happens during the First Empire stage. During the Interregnum period, a surprise attack by a previously-unknown alien race cuts off many worlds from communication and nearly spells doom for humanity. A few brave individuals manage to repel the invaders. This convinces the disparate colonies that The Federation needs to be reformed (Second Empire stage). At this moment (the author keeps writing), The Federation shows no signs of weakening. Some races have managed to do step 7, but humans aren't likely to give up their bodies any time soon.
  • Keith Laumer's Retief series hints at this, the CDT playing the role of the Second Empire following the fall of the first human government.
    • There are a few (very minor) hints that the first government was the Terran Concordiat from Laumer's Bolo series, although the tone of the two series' doesn't really mesh. Said stories are also an example themselves, covering a timespan from the start of World War III up to the collapse of the Concordiat in the Final War with the Melconians.
  • Known Space: Often shows the exploration of Solar System and Interstellar Space, as well as Alien Contact.
  • H. Beam Piper's Terro-Human Future History is cyclical, going through at least five Empires after the Terran Federation falls. Piper's timeline was a little more detailed than Asimov's, and was also influential in codifying the trope.
  • Poul Anderson's Psychotechnic League stories has World War III occur at the begining, a brief Interregnum which results in exploration of the Solar System and the formation of the Solar Union, which plays the role of the First Empire. However, things go bad, and another Interregnum occurs, until the discovery of FTL travel, which leads to the formation of the Stellar Union, in the role of a Second Empire.
  • Donald Kingsbury's Psychohistorical Crisis follows the trope fairly closely and is set during the Second Empire Phase. It's no surprise, since the books are a Homage/Spiritual Successor to Asimov's Foundation trilogy.
  • Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat: The background of the series follows this closely: Exploration leads to Mars being settled, World War III frags earth, Interstellar Colonization occurs, with the Formation, Apex, and Fall of an Empire. There's a short Dark Age, and the League (in the Second Empire role) forming. Unusually, Alien Contact happens at the end.[1] Steps 6 and 7 are skipped.
  • Alan Dean Foster's Humanx Commonwealth universe falls squarely in the idealistic side of this history. Earth unified, started slower-than-light exploration, then developed FTL Travel that resulted in a three-way First Contact between them, the thranx, and the AAnn. As the latter were incurably antagonistic, the thranx and humans formed a reluctant Enemy Mine arrangement that developed over time into a full-fledged alliance, which eventually became the title Humanx Commonwealth. Atypically, there has been no World War Three scenario or interregnum, and with the vanquishing of the Great Evil in Flinx Transcendent, no sign that the Commonwealth is headed anywhere but Crystal Spires and Togas.
  • Arthur C.Clarke's "Childhood's End" bizarrely jumps from Stage 1 to Stage 4 and then horrifyingly to Stage 7 without any gaps in between. His short story "The Nine Billion Names of God" is even worse, ending at Stage 7 for the entire Universe without any hint that humans have even reached Stage 1.
  • In Sylvia Louise Engdahl's Enchantress Of The Stars, The Federation believes that humans pass through 3 stages: childhood (which would probably be step 1), adolescence (which is probably steps 2-4) and adulthood (which is step 5 on).
  • The Ur Example here would be Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, at least for the Cycle of Empire stages. While Nonfiction, Issac Asimov based Foundation on the ideas of Gibbon's work. As a result, Gibbon indirectly influenced the genre.

Live-Action TV

  • Andromeda: Features the Decline and Interregnum of the Systems Commonwealth. Interestingly, according to the backstory, the Commonwealth is not the First Empire in this case. The Vedran Empire is this. It's only later that the Vedrans decide that The Federation is better than The Empire and reform their government.
    • Also humanity was contacted and annexed by the Commonwealth towards the end of step #2, they had just sent out a single relativistic exploration ship when aliens offered them slipstream drive.
  • Babylon 5: Human history pretty much follows the trope: Exploration, followed by a devastating conflict (the Minbari War), which leads to the formation of the Babylon project. It ushers in a brief peace, until the Shadows begin causing problems again. After a brief Interregnum (The Shadow War and the Clark regime), the governments form the Interstellar Alliance, which is hinted to much more lasting. However, History repeats itself. The Centauri were once a great Empire, but have long been in decline. Though this is reversed when Vir Cotto become the greatest Emperor in Centaurian history. Babylon 5 is probably one of the few examples in which other civilizations have reached Stage 6 and 7.
  • Doctor Who: The series had the Earth Empire and the Galactic Federation, which apparently succeeded the Empire. Although, the Federation doesn't seem to last, since the show latter involves the "Fourth Bountiful Human Empire". The Empire also doesn't last. In fact, according to the Editor, there never was a "Fourth Bountiful Human Empire". It was just a smoke screen for the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe, who was also a smoke screen for the Daleks.
  • Stargate SG-1: Hinted in the Stargate universe, where the Ancients had left their home galaxy, colonized the Solar System, ushered a Golden Age, and then declined. Although, the Ancients end up reaching Stage 7. Humanity, on the other hand, are stuck in the Interregnum, and may develop into a better civilization latter. The Asgard had reached Stage 6, but thanks to the Replicators and genetic defects, they're in decline.
  • Star Trek: The background history of Earth. 20th/21st Century humans play the role of the First Empire, World War III occurs and everything collapses. Then following the Interregnum (the aptly named Post-Atomic Horror), First Contact is made. Humanity begins to explore the Stars. Eventually, this leads to the formation of the Federation. There are hints that Humanity may reach Stage 6 and 7 in the far future.

Tabletop Games

  • BattleTech: The game itself is set during the Interregnum, following the demise of the Star League. Up to that point, humanity had gone through Solar and Interstellar exploration, Formation, Decline, and Interregnum. Currently, the game wobbles between Renaissance and Interregnum. For the most part, Alien Contact has been avoided.
    • Semi-intelligent aliens have shown up twice in the fiction- once as a minor incident in the early novel Sword and Dagger with a primate-like species known as the pinkies that may or may not have had tool using ability, and once as a major plot point of Far Country, with a species of intelligent birdlike aliens that had Stone Age technology. Far Country has frequently been criticized over this point, and the head of production for BattleTech has stated repeatedly that the intention is to keep the game about different human empires fighting, not to make it a humans vs aliens game.
  • Fading Suns pretty much follows this pattern too. Possibly averts the III World War part by going for corporatocratic period instead, though Earth still becomes an Insignificant Little Blue Planet (with a twist). The game is set at the dawn of the second imperial period (this time an actual Empire, the first one being a republic).
  • The timeline for Genius: The Transgression is the approximate history of the universe, and seems to cover every possible stage of civilization ever proposed. There are federations, empires and what looks like about a dozen apocalypses. A Trillion years on from now, the remaining species desperately try and revert the heat death of the universe.
  • Traveller follows this with several cultures. At the default time of the GURPS version, the Imperium is old and seemingly stable but the frontiers are chaotic and incompletely explored.
    • Though the history of Humaniti is a bit different due to the Ancients seeding them all across the galaxy. The Vilani discovered Jump drive first and founded the First Imperium, as it was just starting it's decline the expanding Terran Federation encountered them, went to war, and took over turning it into the Second Imperium. The Second collapsed into interregnum quickly, and a thousand years later the Third (and current) Imperium emerged.
  • Warhammer 40,000; both humanity and the Eldar are experiencing an interregnum.
  • Eclipse Phase takes place ten years after "The Fall", a combination Robot War and Singularity that left earth a radioactive wasteland patrolled by killer robots. Most of the <1 billion survivors are scattered across the solar system. A couple years after the Fall the Pandora Gates were discovered and used to explore and colonize a few extrasolar planets, shortly after The Factors made contact. Transhumanity is too fragmented for any sort of "empire" and if the Anarchists have their way it's unlikely there ever will be one.

Video Games

  • In Mass Effect, this cycle has been continuing for millions of years with many different species in the past, enforced by an extremely ancient species of robotic Eldritch Abominations, who regularly exterminate (or worse) all intelligent life in the galaxy once it gets advanced enough.
  • EV Nova's official timeline only goes back as far as stage 3. The Colonial Council colonized much of the galaxy. Then it began to crumble due to a string of wars. The deathblow was the Armetis terrorists' destruction of the Sol hypergate, which caused many of the others to be destroyed, cutting the member systems off from each other. The Renaissance began when physicists rediscovered how to build hyperdrives, allowing humanity to reform interstellar governments. Things have since solidified into a fairly Standard Sci Fi Setting.

Web Original

  • Orion's Arm has gone through the empire cycle at least once, after the fall of the First Federation Terragen space was divided into several "sephirotic empires". Also the Nanodisaster seems to stand in for WWIII in that it erased all the current nations and drove humanity off Old Earth.

Western Animation

  • Like Gundam, Exo Squad starts off at Stage 1 and leaps into Stage 2. Interesingly, it does have elements of being Stage 5.2 at the beginning.
  1. No-one thought to look in the other arms of the Galaxy. Rule of Fun, coming through!