The nature of Flat Black: 5 things it isn't

Five things that Flat Black is not

As I have mentioned before, Flat Black is an interstellar SF setting that I intended particularly to support serial, rationalised, planetary romance. That is, I intended it for science fiction adventure stories

  • in which in which the bulk of the action consists of adventures on one or more exotic alien planets, characterised by distinctive physical and cultural backgrounds (planetary romance)
  • but in which most things made sense and stood to reason (rationalised)
    • enough for players to explore, understand, analyse, use, and adapt to the technology and the physical and cultural settings
    • and to minimise minimise second-guessing and the burden of suspension-of-disbelief
  • and in which there were enough strange worlds for players and characters to have long series of novel encounters (serial).

In pursuing those goals I deliberately chose to avoid some things that interstellar SF is often assumed to be or include. In other cases I chose to give Flat Black qualities and features that are often associated with some other thing in science fiction: the effect can be misleading and has sometimes misled unwary players. So here in the nature of a prolepsis is a list of five things that players and readers have sometimes thought Flat Black is supposed to be or ought to be, but which it is not.

Space opera

“Space opera” was originally a perjorative term, coined to disparage sci-fi adventure stories that had no credible science content, but which consisted of stock stories dressed with superficial SF trappings. It is not much used in that sense any more. Rather, it has been re-construed from its constituents to mean sci-fi adventure taking place in space. Space opera in the modern sense is sometimes good and can have actual science-fiction content.

Space opera (which Flat Black is not for) and planetary romance (which Flat Black) is for have a lot in common. They are both genres of sci-fi adventure, which is to say that they use the science-fictional ideas of space travel and life or human habitation on other planets to set up situations for adventure, but they are primarily about adventure and not about scientific concepts. The difference is that space opera is about adventures in space and aboard spaceships, whereas planetary romance is about adventures on exotic planets. In planetary romance travel between planets and star systems is mostly an enabling device, whereas in space opera travel (and combat) in space is itself the matter of adventures, and spaceships are a lot more important. The result of that is that space opera often takes the view from orbit; space-opera adventures often involve several worlds and issues that span them, inter-world issues, naval and diplomatic affairs, wide scope and large stakes. In for example Star Trek we see that in space opera the distinctive physical and cultural features of the exotic planet-of-the-week are a problem for the heroes to wrap up in a week, whereas the features and military-diplomatic characteristics of an interstellar polity such as the Klingon Empire are persistent issues and binding constraints. Planetary romance usually features a narrower scope and smaller stakes: the main action of a story or adventure takes place on a planet and not in space, the protagonists’ view is from a point of immersion in the physical and cultural peculiarities, and not of Olympian detachment, and the planet’s exotic features and idiosyncratic culture are more likely to be the persistent issues and binding constraints of action that deals with smaller and more personal stakes than the reform of cultures and the fates of worlds.

Now, a planetary romance doesn’t necessarily feature more than one exotic planet — E.R. Burroughs’ stories of Barsoom made do with one, Lewis’ Perelandra with two. But for various reasons I wanted a dazzling array of wildly idiosyncratic worlds such as appear in Jack Vance’s Oikumene, Gaean Reach, and Alastor Cluster, and in various settings by Poul Anderson, H. Beam Piper, E.E. Smith, and Jerry Pournelle. Nor does a planetary romance necessarily involve space travel. But flying carpets, astral projection, and passenger demons are out of fashion in science fiction now: to depend on Lewis’, Burroughs’, or de Bergerac’s methods for getting a protagonist to an exotic world would set the players and readers up to expect fantasy and cause them unnecessary efforts to suspend their disbelief in a rational situation at the destination. So I spread a canvas of hundreds of worlds and spaceships that plied the space between them at superluminal speeds.

The result is a setting that looks as though it could be intended for space opera. Or perhaps that looks as though like Traveller it could ride either a space-operatic or a planetary-romantic horse as the fancy took it. But in Flat Black it is not just difficult and expensive for characters to get a private interstellar spacecraft, but impossible; the Empire has no known interstellar rivals nor frontiers that would afford opportunities for naval action or confrontation, etc. Some players and readers have asked whether perhaps this is needlessly restrictive.

My reply is that it is restrictive, but not needlessly so. The scope to make Flat Black a suitable setting for space opera would, I believe, necessarily make it less suitable for planetary romances, for three reasons.

  1. First, PCs in RP (unlike characters in authored stories) tend to be drawn to the most important issues within their ambit. The interplanetary or interstellar scope of space opera tends to encompass larger issues and higher stakes that make the personal and individual issues of planetary romance seem trivial. Players find it harder to feel heroic about rescuing a kidnap victim if the Zhodani are massing fleets on the border and forty worlds hang in the balance.

  2. Second, if I constructed a setting in which there were planets with populations that bore thinking about and economies that bore thinking about, but made private starships available and cheap enough that PCs might own or operate them, that would tend to imply such broad currents of trade and intercourse between the planets that tourists, migrants, and “global” cultural influences would be ubiquitous. If scruffy nerf-herders could operate starships then billions of people would do so. Then obscure planets with isolated populations and exotic cultures would be rare, even implausible, rather than commonplace. Besides which you have Jon’s Law: “Any spaceship powerful enough to be interesting is a weapon of mass destruction”. It is hard to design a setting that bears thinking about, in which spaceships are not strictly licensed and controlled. 9/11 proved the point with respect to airliners; space liners cannot plausibly be less dangerous.

  3. Experience of playing a character with control of a convenient Traveller-style spaceship, and wide discussion with hard SF fans about the likely capabilities of spaceships, suggest to me that even if you just use them as vehicles spaceships make many obstacles trivial, and therefore reduce the range of elements that a GM can use as obstacles to PCs and other significant features in adventures, or that PCs can use to defend themselves or escape their opponents. In too many circumstances, PCs or their quarry can skip over or just leave the exotic alien planet that is characterised by distinctive physical and cultural backgrounds.

Hard science fiction

“Hard science fiction” is a term that has three current meanings.

In one sense it refers to SF in which only things that are scientifically plausible occur. This is a sense that tends to get more and more restrictive the more science one knows and the fewer currently-unobtainable but not obviously-impossible futuristic materials one is prepared to concede might happen. Any FTL travel is just impossible. Force fields don’t break any basic laws that I can think of, but there is no known principle that they could possibly work on. A NERVA atomic rocket with high efficiency is unobtainable because no plausible material could remain solid at the temperature it would have to operate at. Flat Black is not hard science fiction in that sense because it features faster-than-light space travel, a “catalytic thermonuclear explosive” that does not have any known principle to work on, and (more obscurely) spaceship engines and fuels that could not work so well without unobtainable materials.

Though not rock-hard Flat Black is in that sense pretty firm. Published hard SF often admits “enabling devices” like the Eichberger drive so long as they are used to establish the situation and not to solve the problems and effect the action of the story once all is set up. Apart from interstellar travel itself and the catastrophe abuses posited for the Eichberger drive the technology in Flat Black is pretty limited (some players say “perhaps unrealistically limited”), mostly works according to principles that I know, and, crucially, is subject to limitations and side-effects that are dictated by the principles it works on. But that isn’t because realistic technology and planetary science are Flat Black’s stock in trade, not because I think that psionics, teleporters, and force fields are bad sci-fi that doesn’t belong in my beautiful realistic setting. Rather, the technology is limited so as not to create plot-solvatrons that obviate adventuring activity or utopise my carefully-cultivated dystopian mess. Also, because weapons and tools etc. that work according to known principles are more concrete to players and GMs: they have interesting limitations that don’t need tedious exposition, and players who know how they work and what they actually do are armed with possibilities for using them, circumventing their use, improvising out of them that would not be available to them given mysterious non-physical blasters and force swords. Using real physics, chemistry, general planetology etc. has some of the same advantages as following Ken Hite’s advice to build settings by starting with real geography and history.

The second sense of “hard SF” suggests that it is obsessed with engineering and the “hard” sciences (what we call “STEM” now) while neglecting, or disparaging interest in or realism concerning, the “soft sciences”: psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics…. It is the fiction of STEM workers doing STEM is an SF setting. Flat Black is certainly not that. While some sort of technological capability or issue might serve as a McGuffin or key tool in the occasional Flat Black plot, the confrontation with bizarre and quirky culture must always be central.

The third sense of “hard SF”, the sense in which it actually makes up a sub-genre of science fiction, it that it consists of stories that are fundamentally about some scientific principle or fact. That is, stories in which the only real point of writing or telling the story is to make some point about, or surprise the readers with, some scientific fact or principle. Famous examples include Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations (which makes a point about the non-negotiable character of physical constraints) and Larry Niven’s Neutron Star (which surprises the readers with some characteristics of tidal strain): both of those are treasured hard SF stories, but both are so lavish with their establishing conceits (FTL travel subject, impenetrable/indestructible spaceship hulls) as not to qualify as hard in the first sense I listed. Hard SF in this sense flourishes mostly in short stories, and it is very difficult to use in RPGs because interesting points are in short supply and good players are hard to surprise.

Soft science fiction

Soft science fiction is the opposite of hard science fiction, the term having senses opposing each of the sense of “hard SF”. But just because “Flat Black” is not hard doesn’t mean that it is soft, because of the existence of golden means and tertia quids.

  • Flat Black has FTL as an enabling device, CT bombs, DEXAX. But that doesn’t mean that it has let itself go all the way to psionics, soul-swapping, teleportation, force fields, phasers, lightsabres, and alien-human crossbreeds. In the first sense of “hard SF” it’s firm, not squashy.

  • Flat Black certainly balances its hard-science tech with at least some technology based on the soft sciences. It has a functional engineering discipline based on developmental psychology, which is used to make Imperial servants turn out like that. It features a social engineering disciple based on economics and sociology, which is used to design institutions and treat social ills. And of course the cultural oddities of the many colonial societies are generally more prominent in Flat Black adventures than the technology of weapons and tools. It’s close. But it’s not quite there. Although the characters in Flat Black adventures and stories are sometimes workers in the the soft sciences and soft engineering disciplines, they are usually not. And when they are, the adventures are not about their work but able other things they do in places that their work sends them. And though the distinctive cultural settings of the exotic worlds are prominent in adventures, they are designed with far more attention to their exoticism than the social science behind them, if any. I try not to be desperately unrealistic, but no-one would call my work on Flat Black “obsessed with social science”.

  • The opposite of “hard SF” in the third sense is the original sense of “space opera” in the original sense coined by Forrest J. Ackerman: stock stories, often clichéd adventure, in which the SF setting is pure stage-dressing, in which the spaceship could just as well be a stage-coach or a horse, the blaster a six-shooter, the aliens Injuns. Though Flat Black adventures should be adventures first and foremost, they ought really to be adventures in which the distinctive physical and cultural background of the exotic alien planet makes a big difference. Not stock adventure that could be re-skinned to be set anywhere, but adventures so rooted in the oddities of their own exotic worlds that they could not be set anywhere else.

Futurism or speculation

A lot of writers use science fiction to present their projections of what the future seems likely to be, especially in terms of technology, social development, and the impact of technology on social development. Or they use it to convey warnings about the way things seem to be going. Or they present their speculations about the ways that things might turn out if some hypothetical event or development occurs. And in all that they are very often making a veiled comment about the way that things are.

There’s nothing of that about Flat Black. I don’t think we’ll ever develop FTL travel or reach the stars, and I don’t think that if we did the result would be at all like Flat Black. There is nothing of projection about Flat Black. In every detail I started out by designing the setting in the epoch of adventure, and I designed it to accommodate the sorts of adventures I wanted to run. The technology and history were all worked out backwards, interpolated backwards from the moment in which the campaign was set to the present of writing, and not in any particular extrapolated forwards from the now to writing into a future being discovered as I went.

I do not suggest that the technology of Flat Black is where we’re headed for or even really likely. I don’t think that the sociology and politics is a reasonably projection of the future, and in particular I don’t think that we need or will get anything at all like the Empire to control the threat of aircraft or spacecraft abused as weapons or vectors for weapons.

As for commentary: I designed Flat Black in the late mid Eighties, when a lot of things looked pretty grim, and the universal awfulness of colonies in Flat Black did reflect my view at the time that everyone in every countries was cocking everything up, not by some freakish coincidence and not because of intervention by the malicious divine, but because of human and social failings with deep fundamental roots in economics and biology. Things have actually got a lot better over the last thirty years, and my view has become cheerier. But colonies in Flat Black are still dumps, because that’s what the needs of the adventures calls for.


Utopianism is another strong streak in SF. Many SFnal settings have been devised to map out their authors’ ideas of what society ought to be like. In most cases the psychology, the anthropology, the sociology, the political science, and especially the economics of these blueprints are appallingly ignorant or atrociously wrong-headed. I wrote Flat Black in response to Tonio Loewald’s ForeScene: the flawed utopia, which was the only other ForeSight SF setting available at the time, which embodied many of its author’s ideas about how things ought to be. Now, I thought that a lot of ForeScene’s utopian content was cock-eyed and some nonsensical, and I also thought that the attempt to base an SF setting on utopian ideas was misguided. Flat Black is my reaction against the second issue, not the first. It tried to make a better setting for RPG adventures, not a better utopia. Indeed, I tried in many ways to make the universe of Flat Black thoroughly nasty, a dystopia with only small and scattered bright spots.

That being the case, it would be an error to suppose that anything that is in Flat Black it there as my recommendation of a good thing.

  • In Flat Black 90% of the world’s linguistic diversity remaining at 2000 is gone by 2100, and 90% of the rest by 2200, so that by 2353 there is a single universal language on Earth. That’s not my projection as a futurist. It’s not my fond hope as a utopian. I wrote that in to make RPG adventures in the setting more convenient.
  • In Flat Black most of the world’s cultural diversity remaining at 2000 is gone by 2100, and 90% of the rest by 2200, so that by 2353 there is a global hodge-podge of eclectic behaviours and faddish subcultures, no distinct cultures. That’s not my projection as a futurist. It’s not my fond hope as a utopian. I wrote that to let compound bizarre founding societies for worlds in the setting rather than projecting developments for real cultures and religions that would have been offensive.
  • In Flat Black many families and societies use pedagogical plans that were designed using advanced developmental psychology to make their kids grow up to plan. I’m not saying that that’s inevitable, I’m not recommending it as desirable, it’s just a feature of the setting that makes for some more bizarre and horrid societies for PCs to contend against.

Finally: the Empire in Flat Black is undemocratic and decidedly illiberal, also high-handed, smug, and culturally insensitive. And the circumstances in Flat Black have been contrived to make it hard to see how that can safely be changed. That’s not because I think an authoritarian technocracy is inevitable, nor because I think it might in any sense be needed because of pressing exigencies that make wishy-washy liberal democracy or social democracy or whatever impractical in the real circumstances. No. I an a die-hard proponent of liberal democracy, and the Empire in Flat Black is in my view a dystopian horror.

In a lot of Flat Black campaigns the PCs have worked heroically for the Empire. But that isn’t because the Empire constitutes the heroes of the setting. It’s because the choices are awful. PCs working for the Empire ought to be constantly under the pump to fix problems the right but hard way, because if they hesitate or fail a hard-nose, steely-eyed mink from one of the tough branches of the Service will show up with four stripes of braid and a plan to solve the difficulty in some tough decisive way that imposes a lot of stray costs and collateral damage.

I’m interested in the concept of a utopian campaign; utopia is one of the ancestral genres of sf, which is partly the result of (a) putting the Good Place into the future rather than in a distant land and (b) coming up with subtler ways of portraying it than a guided tour with lectures. The big problem seems to me to be figuring out what the campaign is going to be about. Of the classic conflicts, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Self seem to have reduced or zero scope in a utopia, as does the very SFnal Man vs. Machine. Man vs. God is possible (Olaf Stapledon did it), but it’s odd; I’m not sure why a society that embodies perfect justice and knows it needs a good god, or would accept one that’s not good. That seems to narrow down to Man vs. Nature, which a utopia could certainly be engaged it. But on one hand, it would be hard to engage players with a pure struggle for scientific knowledge or engineering accomplishment and make in interesting, and on the other, players who could engage with such a thing would be a really demanding audience.

It occurs to me that there’s one other conflict that could fit: Society vs. Society. On one hand, this could be a good and just society threatened with destruction by a larger and more powerful, but not good society—either a tragedy or a story of heroism. On the other, it could be a good and just society working to change another society for the better, without compromising its own principles. The second has obvious analogies in the non-utopian setting that Flat Black seems to be—though one of the isolated and peculiar cultures of Flat Black might also be the good and just society that is being destroyed by outside intervention.

Well, there is a lot of society v. society conflict going on in Flat Black, particularly in the struggle between the Colonies’ Rights faction of colonial governments (League of Repressive Autocracies), the Public Safety faction (Jackals), the Representative Government faction (Feds), the Economic Justice faction (Levellers), and the Empire. Bones of contention include the frequency, nature, and aims of Imperial intervention in unwilling colonies, the nature of the governments set up on new settlements, and (starting real soon now) that of the admission into the Senate of delegates from the new colonies set up before the Compromise of '84.

Many of the colonies most heavily involved in this struggle consider themselves to be utopias, and some particularly of the Jackals indeed have populations in which everyone is content and happy. But those look like dystopias from the outside. For example Simanta (which is a bit like Huxley’s Brave New World but with high biotech and a population of parahumans) and Todos Santos (where everyone gets psych-techs to make them diligent, resilient, tolerant, honest, and happy, considers that normal medical care — and shares the certified results with employers, voters, and prospective bedmates). Meanwhile others insist that they are utopias because they conform, or at least insist that they conform) with various political and economic doctrines that they fetishise, and make excuses about or baldly deny the evidence that many of heir populations are desperately or violently unhappy.

I have run campaigns that touched on this, with the PCs working as clandestine operators in that struggle, but that’s just using the struggle of societies as a Mcguffin for personal conflict. Actual RP of the Society v. Society conflict would, I think, need a different approach.

This is causing me to realise that many of the SF settings I design are at least moderately utopian: there’s bad stuff going on that PCs get to deal with, but for most of the population most of the time life is pretty good. In Wives and Sweethearts, which is getting close to post-scarcity, people don’t join the Navy because they need a job; they join it because, for any of a variety of reasons, they think it’s the right thing for them to do.

Well, in Flat Black people volunteer for Imperial Service because they think it’s the right thing to do. But the setting is not otherwise utopian. Imperial Direct Jurisdiction is a perfectly pleasant place to live — if you are Doing the Right Thing, A bit cold and scaly if you’re not. And the things they do in the way of tracking and monitoring people, and in the way of raising their children to have character, resilience, diligence, honesty, and an inclination towards doing right things, are the stuff of dystopian SF novels.

The World State in Huxley’s Brave new World was delightful for its carefully-constructed population, and only repellent for unhappy outsiders such as the Savage and the readers. But it is considered a dystopian, not a utopian, novel. In Flat Black I suppose that utopias are all like that, happy places only for the not-quite-human creatures of utopian artifice.

In the last Wives & Sweethearts session, we ran into some people who seemed to be trying to construct their own utopia. They didn’t have enough resources (or people), and had resorted to theft. They seemed to hope they could bribe their way out of that, but hit the problems that the Navy is too honest for that, and that part of their utopia involved not using conventional money.

This suggests a distinction between designed utopias, which seem to be built round a particular idea, and thus are rather one-dimensional as cultures, and cultures which work their way towards being utopian by relieving the various constraints on their inhabitants.

The first kind are perfectly reasonable literary devices, for exploration of an idea, but tend not to be places I’d want to live. The second kind need some kind of additional constraint to become suitable places to set stories, such as the Royal Navy of Wives & Sweethearts, or the Special Circumstances organisation in The Culture, but provide nice lives for their inhabitants.

I agree with your categorisation. If I thought I knew how to make a perfect world, I’d be doing it, so my worlds tend to be approaching a type 2 status. There are people who are unhappy with what they get, just as there are today, but fewer of them.

(I have a long ramble in the W&S campaign notes about how crime works in a near-post-scarcity society, and one unexpected group of criminals that fell out of that was the very old: even with universal health-care, the runaway nature of medical costs as keeping terminally-ill people alive a bit longer gets increasingly difficult suggests that somewhere there’s going to be a cut-off in what the state will pay for. It may be a long way down into senescence and general decrepitude, but it’ll be there. And some people coming up against that will decide to do illegal things to get more money.)

In any case, while I find the puzzle of how to run an RPG in the utopian genre intellectually interesting, I prefer to read heterotopias. One of my absolute favorite scenes ever in all of SF is Oelita the Heretic, in Courtship Rite, going outside and falling on her face as God orbits overhead, in thanks for his saving her and her people from the horror of Earth, as exemplified by images of great piles of people slain in war who were not even going to be eaten. I totally got why that made sense for her—but to get that I had had to absorb the logic of a culture quite different from ours.

What makes a setting a heterotopia is that it has a cultural logic that can be seen as making sense in its own terms, but that starts out from different assumptions than ours. It’s not easy to do, though Poul Anderson occasionally managed it, and Charles Stross achieved hints of it in his portrayal of the Fair Folk in recent Laundry novels. I’ve tried to achieve that effect in some of my campaigns, and I’ve had the good fortune to have players who can work with it from time to time.

Shades of that idea about tragedy being the struggle of right vs right. Which I try to use most of the time; outright villains are too often boring.

Looking back at my recent campaigns, I don’t see many that were melodramatic good vs. evil, but I’m not sure I see any that were good vs. good. I’ve had a couple that were sort of good vs. inhuman, which is my basic take on horror as a genre: One based on the Laundry series and one on a cosmic horror interpretation of Transhuman Space (with most of the horrors coming from advances in technology that had gotten out of control). And I’ve run campaigns that were sort of describable as opportunists vs. risky situations.