Is Flat Black in a Renaissance?

The Flat Black setting went through a long dark age, and recently came out of it, recaptured the technical achievements of the past, and is now exceeding Old Earth significantly. Is there any sort of Renaissance feeling to it all?

Interesting question. I had never thought of it that way.

My first impulse is to say that there is certainly a huge technological and economic recovery going on, but that I don’t know whether that is usefully described as a renaissance. There are probably some worlds that lost effective access to the art, drama, and literature from Old Earth that their pioneers brought with them, and for artists, writers, patrons, and audiences on those worlds there may be a sense of recovering a forgotten heritage. But most people live on colonies where the culture of Old Earth never became as obscure as Greek and Roman culture was in western Europe between the Migration Period and the Quattrocento.

You have two things making a widespread strong impressions.

  1. Goods and technologies out of history-books are becoming available, and civil and structural engineers are producing grander works. Economically and technologically that’s going to feel like a renaissance and a turning back from decay.
  2. Contact is being established with other colonies that were quite obscure. There are going to be exciting artistic, literary, and musical contacts with colonies about which nothing was known. I think that overall the reaction to exoticism — like Chinoiserie and other Orientalism in French and British art in the late 18th century and early 19th — would be more characteristic of the time than the impression of rebirth of the culture of Old Earth.

Is there anything going on like the recovery of the money economy replacing manorialism and the emergence of absolute monarchy to replace feudal aristocracy? I don’t think so.

The huge technical regression might replicate some of the spirit of this, if not the precise effect.

The Old Earth of Flat Black built much of it’s culture on techniques and tools not available at the DLs the colonies managed to maintain, even in the Suite. Most of the remaining colonies would lack electronics, movies, or even printing presses. Now most colonies have access to the height of Old Earth culture, at least if it can be shown on a cheap imported comgadget.

Monetarily, many of the colonies lost access to modern economic tools and now have them again - at least I am assuming there is interstellar finance. If nothing else, the Empire offers rock hard currency.

In terms of learning, there were literal centuries where virtually science and innovation was just looking up Old Earth stuff in the records. Now that is no longer true, and it must have seemed like an intellectual revolution at the time.

I think the rediscovery of stuff that was around but not available and the re-ignition of theoretical science would have some sort of revolutionary spirit to it, even if the Renaissance is not a perfect parallel.

When it comes to science at least, my take is that the premises of Flat Black require that progress follow a logistic rather than an exponential trend, i.e. that we in about AD 2020 are at or near an inflection point in scientific progress, the last of the low-hanging fruit are being picked about now, and that progress in the understanding of scientific universals will from now require ever vaster collaborations and ever more enormous resources. There may be new sciences as vast as thermodynamics and organic chemistry in the offing, but I don’t think many more will be pioneered with a chalkboard and Gedankenexperimente. If that’s not true yet I think I need it to become true before 2353. Flat Black ought not I think to be an epoch of rapid transformative scientific change. The setting is not for gadget stories.

But then the Renaissance¹ wasn’t a time of rapid scientific discovery or technological change either. Newton was a figure of the Enlightenment, and even he was rather before the time in which natural philosophy was widely expected to yield technological change. On the other hand the Renaissance was a time of vast and stunning geographical and cultural discoveries. Prince Henry the Navigator started doing his thing in the 1420s; 1492 marks the end of the Middle Ages in the Iberian peninsula not just because of the fall of Grenada to Christian forces but also because Columbus’ serendipitous failure to sail to Japan occurred in that year.

So one important way that the conditions of human experience are like those of the Renaissance is that places that were previously a matter of speculation, or known through indirect and ancient accounts are yielding a flood of direct knowledge and of marvellously different art. Other colonies, known through traveller’s tales and imported artifacts, are Flat Black’s equivalent of India, China, the Indies East and West, the Ceylon and Mexico of the Seventeenth Century. The big difference is that the Eichberger Foundation and the Empire have put an end to colonialism.

I don’t know whether I have mentioned this before, but the McGuffin in the Flat Black adventure that I ran on my last trip to Canberra was an original artwork from Old Earth, an oil painting that was made in Old New York in AD 2192, and that had once hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (in Annexe XIII). It was fabulously valuable, but really not very good — I managed to revolt one of the players with a description of its subject, style, and genesis.

¹ For those having trouble following the scorecard, I take the Renaissance as following the late Middle Ages and continuing until the Enlightenment, and so extending from the second half of the 15th Century to about the first half of the 17th. That’s a political and economic epoch, not an artistic one — call me a Philistine.

It’s always a point in their favour with me when SF stories refer to something from the past that isn’t contemporary to the writing of the story… it gives more of a sense of actual history, rather than a direct jump from now to the World of the Future.

I’m not much of an historian, but it seems to me that (re)discovery is a key part of it: the Fall of Constantinople and the wave of Greek scholarly refugees carrying texts lost in Europe, but also the gradual dawning of the idea that maybe fallen Rome wasn’t actually the last word in literature and that, even more shocking idea, one might even write something worthwhile in a local language rather than Latin.

I wish to clarify - I think FB is or has recently experienced A renaissance. I do not think that that renaissance is, or even could be, a 1 to 1 copy of THE Renaissance. Which is to say the point by point comparisons are quite interesting, but it still looks like the end of a backwards looking age and the beginning of a forward looking one.

(edit) But I just realized that big intellectual and cultural movements add even more background information that the players don’t really need. In fact, for easy immersion one wants mainstream Flat Black culture to be easily understandable without a three page brief.

Still, there is probably stuff to salvage, if only in allowing easy parallel references to FB’s and Europe’s unfortunate setbacks and revivals.

Star Trek had a thing where they would reference three historical figures as analogies to something, with two being historical and one being SF.

But all too often when they referred to real-world history it would be to something contemporary that the audience would recognise.

For example, Flat Black offers an analogy between the Compromise of ‘84 and the Missouri Compromise. The Empire’s funding model is reminiscent in different ways to the funding of the German Empire 1871–1914 and to the Stuarts’ accepting subsidies from France. The analogy between the CT weapon and a nuclear weapon, and the politics surrounding that was topical when I wrote it but is historical now. On the other hand, the stuff about responses to terrorism was speculative when I wrote it and is topical now.

Sure. Renaissances are an extensional category with a single defining example. The points of similarity and difference may be interesting, but I don’t think they are important.

Just so. I’m trying to say as little as I can about the setting as a whole, because I don’t want adventures or characters to deal with the setting as a whole. The idea is that it should have just enough whole to prevent its getting any more.

There is a great paragraph in the opening section of Jack Vance’s novel Marune: Alastor 933:

Should Alastor Cluster be considered a segment of the Gaean Reach? The folk of the Cluster, some four or five trillion of them on more than three thousand worlds, seldom reflected on the matter, and indeed considered themselves neither Gaean nor Alastrid. The typical inhabitants, when asked to state his origin, might perhaps cite his native world or, more usually, his local district, as if this place were so extraordinary, so special and widely famed, that its reputation hung on every tongue of the galaxy.

In describing Flat Black I want to make the big picture easy to ignore. There ought to be some worlds that are having renaissances, and others that are collapsing into chaos and ruin, and others that are predominately having a frontier experience. Whether the overarching aggregate is experiencing a renaissance is something that I’d prefer not to have to mention, except as an interesting notion in a jaw session.

On the other hand it had far too many fans of Shakespeare and Beethoven, not enough of Hemingway and the Beatles.

I much prefer the effect that Jack Vance achieved in the epigraph to Chapter 1 of his novel The Palace of Love:

As if Claris Adam were to be destroyed for beguiling William Wales;
As if the Abbatram of Pamfile were to be liquefied for smelling too strongly;
As if Deacon Fitzbah of Shaker City were to be immolated for an excess of zeal:
Today from Sarkovy comes news that Master Venefice Kakarsis Asm must “cooperate with the Guild” for selling poison.

Circumstances, of course, are not all that simple. Asm’s customer, no ordinary murderer, was Viole Falushe, one of the Demon Princes. Yet the essence of the crime was neither “trafficking with a notorious criminal” nor “betrayal of guild secrets”, but rather “selling fixed-price poisons at a discount.”

Kakaris Asm must die.

How? How else?


When I’m describing to someone where I live and I don’t know how much UK context they have, it tends to go “Near High Wycombe… about half-way from London to Oxford… half an hour outside London by train.”

Is there a Low Wycombe?

I went to Oxford by train once, but I came from Bristol.

@MichaelCule knows better than I do, but I believe the answer is no. There is, however, a Wycombe Marsh. Even that is further up the river than I am.

No and until last century the town was called Chepping Wycombe. I’m not sure when ‘High’ was added or by who.

‘Wycombe’ means ‘valley town’ approximately and the ‘High’ bit is of course the lowest bit.

Perhaps because the fumes of certain substances pool in the valley? We get a bit of that about here, too.

It was mills mostly, but I suppose papermaking might produce some ill effects.

Did they make a lot of paper out of hemp?