Hide and Seek

Trying to find the lost and forgotten, who want to stay that way. This edition published by Sphere Books 1976. Cover art by Chris Foss.

As human colonies spread far and wide throughout the cosmos, there is a strong chance that they will want to maintain their independence.  It has been a feature of our species throughout its history and is unlikely to stop now.  Indeed, our American cousins have it as an integral aspect of their culture – their fight for separation from the British Empire is strongly embedded in their historical outlook.  Conversely, imperial civilizations may try to keep control of outlying subjects, sometimes for benevolent reasons such as maintaining trade, but sometimes for far less altruistic purposes.

Given the long travel times between star systems, at least until some faster-than-light method of transport is invented, any colonies there will become increasingly isolated.  Trade relations could be of limited interest, if they exist at all.  So the preference could be to do your own thing, away from any interference from a supposed central administration that has little relevance to you anymore.

But what could happen if the old imperial authority turns up and wants to establish control again?  This is the underlying theme of AE Van Vogt’s 1952 novel Mission to the Stars (originally published as The Mixed Men).  A vast battleship from Imperial Earth is exploring the Large Magellanic Cloud and finds that there are long-forgotten colonies established some fifteen thousand years earlier.  It encounters a small station with one inhabitant, who remains silent as to exactly where the seventy inhabited planets, orbiting fifty suns, are located amongst the tens of millions of stars around them.

Even with their advanced propulsion system, it could take centuries to find the colonies by pure chance – as one colonist observes: “It’s the old needle in the haystack problem, only worse” – and the local inhabitants most definitely don’t want to be found.  One option for the locals is to attack the intruder with everything they have, after which “Ten thousand years may go by before they accidentally discover us again” but no-one knows what sophisticated weaponry they might be facing.

There have been cases of colonies being lost on our own Earth, one of the most famous being the Roanoke colony established in 1585 by Sir Walter Raleigh in what is now North Carolina.  Peter Johnson gives prominence to what happened at the start of his superb 1997 book A History of the American People, showing its significance in the early history of colonial America.  A relief expedition in 1590, and later search parties, found that the colonists had completely disappeared: “To this day, no further trace of the lost colony has ever been found.”  The author suggests that the most likely answer was that they became incorporated in local indigenous tribes but, even then, modern DNA testing does not seem to have found any of their descendants alive today.  No-one really knows.

In the immense vastness of space, it’s quite possible that some future remote communities will simply be forgotten.  In Up the Long Ladder, a 1989 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the USS Enterprise finds a colony that has been forgotten and isolated for 300 years and has existed in a fairly primitive state of pre-industrial technology.  The colonists do not appear to have shown any wish to be contacted by anyone else all that time, at least until their planet is threatened by severe solar flares.  On the other hand, another colony left by the same original expedition in a nearby star system, and equally isolated for the same period, has advanced its society through the use of human cloning, though that has brought those colonists more than enough problems of their own.

Even on Earth today, people can remain hidden for remarkably long periods if they really set their minds to it.  Being hidden among the colossal number of star systems available in space could be excellent protection for those who don’t want to be found in the future.  Or equally for those, possibly like ourselves, who may not yet be ready to face whoever else might be out there.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: Better Together? | Keeping in Touch 


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