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Recently I've gotten interested in the planetary romance genre and the idea of a sword, sorcery and spaceships genre.

So here's the dynamic is basically something like this.

There is a star system with three habitable worlds is analogous to Earth, Mars and Venus.

The vast majority of the population lives in a state resembling premodern times as impoverished peasants and serfs. The average person has a somewhat advanced understanding of astronomy.But beyond that they know little else and owning a motorized tractor is considered affluent to them.

Technology and science is fairly restricted as well due to social and religious strictures that underpin the caste system. With technology more or less being in the hands of middle caste craftsmen, mystery cults and noble families.

But the hinge that everything here turns on is that this civilization of techno-barbarians still operate fairly sizable spaceships and space elevators that facilitate travel between the three worlds.

Microchips and vacuum tubes are, as far as I can tell, not something a local craftsman can just make in his workshop. More importantly, advanced technology on top of requiring extensive supply chains to operate, also requires a fair bit of know-how, mathematics and computation to operate.

Their engineers are for the most part scavengers, but at the same time this civilization is old enough that said engineers would need a reliable method of replacing broken parts otherwise entropy would've claimed everything by now.

Compare that with say, NASA who sometimes have to scrap projects because a manufacturer that made specific parts went out of business.

The advanced technology being utilized as well is somewhat what I'd term near future rather than far future. More the Expanse in spirit than Star Wars is how I'd describe it(with some exceptions). Meaning there's no force fields, anti-gravity, replicators, and handheld laser beams. There are some fusion reactors, but most things run on fissiles and advanced biofuels.

My question is basically how is it that these techno-barbarians can still travel between worlds, yet at the same time remain scientifically and technologically backwards?

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    $\begingroup$ I mean...that's Warhammer's Imperium of Man. The required actions are codified in religous rituals. It's pretty difficult to believe when you think about it, but you're not supposed to. In Halo's Convenant it's explained as imitation, going through the required motions without fundamental understanding. In both it's against their religion to innovate. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    May 14, 2023 at 21:13
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen - well... Certainly the Tech Priests of mars have devolved into ritual, but then Machine Spirits aren't strictly mechanical. That and the Warp means a sincere belief, held by enough people, that it works... will make it work. See the Orks and their WAAAAAAAGH! (DA RED UN'S GO FASTA! I IZ PURPLE UZ CAN'T SEE ME!) $\endgroup$ May 14, 2023 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ From a writer's perspective... don't bother. Sword, sorcery and spaceships will never sustain my suspension of disbelief, no matter how much effort you put at justification. For those who love the genre, you have already gained them, so don't waste too much effort justifying yourself unless it adds something to the plot. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    May 15, 2023 at 10:21
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    $\begingroup$ Nitpick: A competent glassblower can, in fact, make vacuum tubes without any modern technology as long as they can get their hands on a reliable source of mercury. Early vacuum tubes were made using simple mercury displacement pumps like the Sprengel pump, and they were good enough for basic usage. Such pumps could, in turn, also be made by a competent glassblower (they trivially qualify as tech that was developed when it was not due to missing technological prerequisites, but simply because nobody thought of it before then). $\endgroup$ May 16, 2023 at 1:47
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen cargo cult except it actually works :) $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    May 16, 2023 at 7:58

16 Answers 16

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Frame challenge: Neither main constraint need be necessary. The technology is self sufficient but also self limiting by means of its control system

Microchips and vacuum tubes are, as far as I can tell, not something a local craftsman can just make in his workshop.

Reverse this. There are a very small number of surviving advanced AI-governed fabrication units that can make damn near anything with the press of a button,given time, and some basic materials.

But they are permanently set to Repair mode, allowing only replacement parts to be made. (Plausible excuse: they're logged in on a service technician's account).

The size and form and details of operation of the fabricators can be tweaked to suit your exact setting.

The fabricators are networked and if one genuinely fails, the others can build parts to repair it.

The fabricated parts have encrypted security keys and self checks and and are useless for other purposes. The fabricators themselves commit suicide by wiping their security certificates if tampered with.

More importantly, advanced technology on top of requiring extensive supply chains to operate, also requires a fair bit of know-how, mathematics and computation to operate.

No. The fabricators and spaceships have some terminals with ChatGPT-47. It, much like the fabrication units it is networked to, only helps them do basic maintenance, replacement and navigation tasks, but makes them effortless.

As an author, pick the number and type of all the available spaceships and other doodads, as well as fabricators.

Anything up to that number is effortless, anything beyond is impossible.

Physical possession and/or sabotage of the fabricators is, of course, a geopolitical consideration of the first order.

A chieftain who can secure and keep one can be assured of ships bringing him wheat, olives, fruit, cattle, slaves, and valuable furs on a regular basis.

Of course, it's techno-Ecclesiastes; there's lots of oil and honey and concubines, but there is always nothing new under the sun, not even on Mars.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the answer and another +1 for techno-Ecclesiastes $\endgroup$ May 15, 2023 at 7:40
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    $\begingroup$ One could explain these advanced factories either historically (the civilization used to be much more technologically advanced) or by the existence of some alien species with a base on Pluto. The techno-barbarians don't actually know about the aliens and even less about their motivation. They just notice that occasionally unmanned space ships fly off or new ones appear. $\endgroup$
    – quarague
    May 15, 2023 at 7:51
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    $\begingroup$ "The fabricated parts have encrypted security keys and self checks and and are useless for other purposes. The fabricators themselves commit suicide by wiping their security certificates if tampered with." - this is unnecessary if the population doesn't know how to tamper with them except with a sledgehammer $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    May 15, 2023 at 12:25
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    $\begingroup$ "they're logged in on a service technician's account" And no one knows how to get logged back in. There are a few fab units that are functional but unusable because someone logged off, in error or as sabotage. The protagonists can discover some ancient credentials to reactivate fab units, maybe even with expanded priveledges. $\endgroup$ May 15, 2023 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ As an additional option, the "priesthood" who operate the fabricators know incantations to produce items by rote. The "programming language" is lost so even though the machines COULD produce anything they practically can only produce items the priests know the rituals for, which likely include a fair bit of extraneous hand motions, call and response with the device, etc etc. Imagine talking to Alexa to order an item, and then cargo-cult that so the priests know the words to make alexa deliver the item, but not what the words mean or that the original speaker restarted 1/2 way through. $\endgroup$
    – aslum
    May 15, 2023 at 20:05
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This is basically the premise of Warhammer 40,000. There are two approaches to handling it, and Warhammer demonstrates both.

  • You can have a secret society who are the only ones with requisite knowledge. Thus the techno-barbarians maintain the ships by having a non-barbarian sub-group that does so.
  • An AI bridges the gaps in knowledge. The barbarians conceptualize this as "magic". They know that certain actions (rituals) are sufficient to activate various functions of the spaceship, but they have no idea why it works (magic). In reality, it works because the AI is able to do the complicated stuff, but the users no longer understand the AI and consider it a "spirit".

The first one I consider boring, because in its strong form it defeats the point of the premise and undoes any dramatic tension. Incidentally, Warhammer has a weak version - there is a secret society that knows the rituals, while the general public does not know even those. Therefore almost nobody knows how it actually works.

The second one is more interesting. Generally systems are designed so that knowledge required to build the system is more than that required to operate it. This way you can have your top engineers focus on building the system once, while less brilliant technicians can run it thereafter. Therefore, simplified operator's manuals would be more abundant and better known among the ancestors of your barbarians. The parts of these that are necessary would be preserved over time, because if someone tries to remove those steps, the "ritual" will stop working. But over time people might add unnecessary steps, especially if there is a dogmatism to how the rituals are taught and regulated.

To be credible, your barbarian society must have some sort of aversion to critical thinking in the context of the rituals. Otherwise they will, over time, apply simple logical thinking to gradually re-discover the technology. The straightforward way is to introduce a religious organization that highly discourages innovation. Or you could say that your story is set at a time when this critical thinking has not yet developed.

You could also say that the technology was deliberately obfuscated as a way of protecting intellectual property and deterring reverse engineering. This works if the original creators lived under a corrupt military-industrial complex with significant regulatory capture. Normally the logical thing is to make such starships as transparent as possible, to maximize the possibility of field repairs. But of course with a profit-motivated manufacturer, perhaps field repairs are a lower priority than protecting trade secrets.

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    $\begingroup$ Some powerful social commentary, there, but very a propos. +1 $\endgroup$ May 16, 2023 at 6:49
  • $\begingroup$ Monkey ladder experiment - the last time someone got too tinkery with the rituals, the fabricator made some weird noises so we beat him to death :) now nobody dares $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    May 16, 2023 at 15:51
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    $\begingroup$ you must mean that knowledge required to build is MORE than required to operate $\endgroup$ May 16, 2023 at 19:04
  • $\begingroup$ @PatFromCanada: Actually I think that sentence meant to say that the knowledge is "less WIDESPREAD" $\endgroup$
    – Ben Voigt
    May 17, 2023 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ @PatFromCanada Indeed! Thanks. $\endgroup$ May 17, 2023 at 22:37
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Vacuum tubes can probably be made in a workshop.

I'm hardly an expert, but I'm pretty sure that vacuum tubes do not require nearly the level of precision that microchips do. Fundamentally, all you need is glass, metal wires and rods, some sort of pump to remove air from the tube, and the knowhow to put it all together - and if you can evacuate the air from the tube simply by heating it up to just below the melting point of the stuff you made out of and then sealing the hole, you may nor even need the pump.

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    $\begingroup$ possibly an even better option is not having vacuum tubes. Did you know until the 1980s or so, the telephone system was mostly based around electromagnets that would cause wires to mechanically touch other wires, completing different circuits? The entire system. $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    May 15, 2023 at 12:26
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    $\begingroup$ even the sound signals were not amplified with vacuum tubes. Every telephone exchange would have a special spinning generator in the basement, that would generate several kilowatts with the sound of ringing sound, and another several kilowatts with the sound of busy signal, and so on... This original signal was brought all the way to your telephone when it was busy. No amplification at all. (That's also why they were all relatively simple sounds, no recorded messages.) I think this may be demonstrated in a section of this video but can't check right now. $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    May 15, 2023 at 12:27
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    $\begingroup$ ... as demonstrated on Evan Doorbell's Telephone Tapes (which I am currently listening to; this possibly appears in the first one of group 1, that gives a broad overview of network sounds) at some exchanges the several kilowatts of busy signal had a tendency to leak onto other wires as background noise. $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    May 15, 2023 at 12:31
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    $\begingroup$ @JamesCook How long is the supply chain though for the semiconductors? If they did not refine the silicon themselves that probably puts them out of the running. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    May 15, 2023 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen making the tools to make the tools to make the tools is always a challenge. basic silicon can be made by heating a mixture of crushed quartzite and coal in an arc furnace to around 2000 degrees. This would then need to be refined with hydrochloric acid. Finally a vacuum chamber would be needed to grow the crystal. You also would need to create the masking, etching, and doping agents. You could also use a germanium crystal instead of the silicon wafer. $\endgroup$
    – James Cook
    May 15, 2023 at 15:50
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Time-pirates. Civilization broke down because of time travel. People from the future keep going back in time to steal stuff. The zero-sum game creates a slowly fading culture as the knowledge and machinery dissipates. At a certain technological density, meaning time-jumps of a certain distance, time travel tech itself breaks down. Thus at a certain point, no future raiders appear and civilization can begin to advance. But then that civilization re-acquires time travel, the cycle repeats. This ultimately reaches an oscillatory steady state.

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  • $\begingroup$ Maybe someone from the past tried to come to the future to steal stuff, but that didn't go down so well? $\endgroup$
    – pygosceles
    May 25, 2023 at 21:13
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Two possible answers

Trade - They trade with others that can produce said technology for them. They don't care to know how it works because that is beneath them as warriors. They just need to be able to use it. Any technological race can produce simple enough controls for a knuckle dragger to use. The technological race might be few in number but so vital for the barbarians that they are treated with utmost respect. The barbarians might also be vital to the technological race as they act as protection for them as well as supply important materials.

Slaves - Skilled slaves are lower in class than warriors but are still important to society. The slaves produce the required technology and are protected in return by the warriors allowing them to live normal peaceful lives. The key to this is the size of clans. A few hundred people can't produce things like microchips as it requires too many specialists to make from the production of the raw materials to the design and manufacturing. You need clans to be much larger to support the level of specialization required for that technology.

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I suggest a hidden society that provides the know-how and production capabilities while also enforcing the tech limitations on the majority.

This hidden faction has the ability to render any or all ships they provide inert at any time and so the people using those ships have strong reason not to exceed whatever boundaries have been set.

Now, the question becomes, why does this hidden faction remain hidden, why not just take over and make everyone else slaves.

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    $\begingroup$ The answer desperately needs to explain how the hidden society can possibly stay hidden, and how it can stay solvent. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 14, 2023 at 21:58
  • $\begingroup$ As for the faction remaining solvent part I am picturing some near post-scarcity setup. They could lift everyone out of their miserable barbarity but actively choose not to. The real question is, indeed, how do they remain hidden. $\endgroup$ May 14, 2023 at 23:09
  • $\begingroup$ Two people can keep a secret, if one of them is dead. It took 400,000 people just to work the Apollo project. 400,000 people cannot keep a secret, a "hidden society" of space workers will be compromised by someone before they even get started. $\endgroup$ May 14, 2023 at 23:28
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    $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 : it doesn't have to be hidden, it's enough if it's isolationist. And why they don't "take over"? Slaves can rebel if they know they are slaves (or your own population might become sympathetic towards slaves and pressure you to give them rights). Similar to how colonialism officially ended in the mid-20th century, and these days it's done in more subtle ways. Like bribing politicians of a country to give the mineral rights away to a multinational company, where the country gets 5% and the company gets 95%. As they don't invade with an army, it provokes much less resistance. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    May 15, 2023 at 5:56
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds pretty close to the first foundation book, by Asimov - an advanced, tech aware caste can keep control by being a kind of priesthood, making things work as if by magic. Only a small percentage of the priesthood need to actually know how to make stuff work. $\endgroup$
    – lupe
    May 15, 2023 at 20:04
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A ginormous class divide results in an incredibly wealthy upper echelon of people with access to all kinds of advanced technologies, and a poor, ignorant underclass. These dregs of society are used for all manner of physical labour and warfare, and therefore man the spaceships.

Alternatively...

Frame challenge: they don't.

They're a relatively low-tech civilization that commandeered an alien vessel that landed on their planet. Instead of taking it apart, they put their best warriors on it, had them slowly learn the controls (or maybe the aliens taught them how to do it before the barbarians kill them (or something else, you can think of a million different story options)) and then take to the stars. They then steal more ships from aliens, bring them back to their home world, and begin transporting people between the worlds of their system. Instead of repairing the ships they have, they venture out and steal new ones whenever they fall into disrepair, distantly reminiscent of vikings (not to say that vikings didnt repair their own ships, the comparison is just due to all the plundering) .

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Spend all of their resources making spacecraft

And leave no more for their own citizens. As long as it's a slightly more extreme version of the Soviet Union during eras of starvation, you should be fine. Have a small caste of technocrat elites run the place, some engineers sit in the equivalent of a middle class, and the plebs figure out which tree to eat.

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There's two main options:

1: Secretive Guilds - The Spacecraft are maintained by a Guild of sorts. Apprenticeship is long and difficult and all members are sworn to absolute secrecy. You can have some form of Philosophy about being pacifistic 'We only move people and resources, we do not fight and if we reveal our secrets, the blood will be on our hands' or at least, non-aggressive. This is probably your best bet.

2: People only know what they need to know. If you are struggling to grow enough crops to feed yourself, your family and just enough to sell at a market - you aren't going to have the time/space/mental bandwidth to learn about Space Travel. The more oppressive (either human or natural oppression) an individuals surroundings are, the less they have to worry about high/deep/thick concepts like Space Engineering.

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I had a similar concept with a very warrior culture alien race I worked on. To give them a mindset that was more alien, this alien's culture actually treated battle scars and wounds as a symbol of shame, and actually went to great lengths to make sure that any battle scars were never shown. The reason for this was that a scar or injury symbolically meant that they were a poor warrior, since it showed that they had made a mistake that allowed an opponent to injure them. A true warrior, according this culture, would make no mistakes.

This backwards mentality resulted in the development of advance medicines, to allow for the healing of the body in such a way that scars and other missing body parts could be heeled to hide the taboo mark of imperfect battles. The philosophy also lead to developing strong engineering and maintence skills, since small blemishes upon weapons meant that the enemy had touched them in combat. A chink (in one's armor) at dawn was a scar at dusk, according to them. So their weapons where constantly maintained. Their warships were often considered to be some of the prettiest in the interstellar community because they always looked factory fresh and had that new battleship smell.

This also lead to their major weakness, in that they were slow to react. After sustaining minor battle damage it was often common for a ships captain to find a place to hide and begin repairs... on a ship by anyone else's standards was combat ready and simply had a dent. However, once they joined the battle, they were ruthless and unrelenting. It wasn't shameful to receive battle injuries, so long as the marks of the injuries were not shown... especially to the enemy. If their military policies could be scaled down and summed up by a chess game, they were very good at playing fast games which resulted in victory in a few turns... however, they struggled with the long term game, because they had trouble wrapping their heads around sacrificing a pawn for a checkmate. Whereas humans were some of the galaxy's masters of pyrrhic victories... inflicting upon their enemies unsustainable victories that would result in losses over the long term.

In other works of fiction, some aggressive races never developed the tech, but stole it from oppressive alien invaders that they overthrew. In Star Trek lore, one recurring alien race achieved warp capable space flight in this manner. Before their first contact with humans, they were conquered by an alien race, known as the Hurq, that wished to enslave them. However, the Hurq underestimated the primitive alien's ability to grasp the concepts behind the advanced space flight and soon found themselves on the losing side of a slave rebellion after the aliens learned and mastered their tech to such a degree that they could manufacture the technology themselves. The former slaves ended up fighting in such overwhelming force, that by the time humans were capable of space flight that could reach the territory, that not only had the Hurq empire fallen, the Hurq as a species was extinct and the humans had to open up relations with the former Hurq slaves, known as the Klingon (It was so thorough a victory for the Klingons, that it's still debated if the Hurq were real or a myth. There's little evidence of their civilization at all.).

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Scavenging

Have the setting be the ruins of a post-collapse civilization. This civilization built a Niven Ring before their fall. The ring has since broken enough that it is hazardous to live there, but it is also full of huge amounts of usable technology. Scavengers brave enough to navigate the broken ring can then sell technology they find through semi-criminal resellers.

This civilization could also have built several other useful things, such as having terraformed several planets and built space elevators on them. (It seems unlikely that a single star system would have three natively habitable planets and equally unlikely that a civilization of this level you describe would be able to terraform planets themselves.)

One caveat to this premise is that some things cannot be fixed if broken. Space elevators seem like the most fragile piece of infrastructure in this situation. You likely need another means of getting into space, as a space elevator is much easier to destroy than it is to build (example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huRmvG3zRpg).

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Hidden AGI

All the technology is ran by an artificial intelligence that determined the best mode of peacefully living alongside humans is to maintain illusion of "swords and sorcery" world. It avoids presenting itself as deity and maintains the illusion that humans are in control. No Matrix-style control over humans is necessary, most people can be easily misdirected and human intelligence/perception is still genuinely useful in many ways.

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Just give them one really powerful Clarketech and nothing else

I'm not sure how willing you are to put Clarketechs into this setting, but they are pretty amazing. I'll go over how you might go about achieving space travel in this setting, then I'll try to address how they might maintain the infrastructure for doing so. I know you said the people in your universe have fission power an biofuels, but other than spacecraft propulsion, what are they powering with it? Do they have electricity? My advice would be to say no, they don't, but they do have this thing that lets them send sealed metal structures between planets. There are various means I'm sure you could think of for a Conan-the-Barbarian level civilization to do this (maybe that's not how you imagine them, but your use of the word 'romance' in describing it made me picture burly shirtless men and bodice-clad wenches, so that's how I'm imagining them now; John Carter of Mars vibes). The trick here will be to address how these primitive overcome the difficulties of space travel. Those difficulties are things like these:

  • Requirement to escape gravity well of current planet or body: I know you said they don't have anti-gravity, but if they did, they could shrug off this barrier, and focus on having insane, janky, cobbled-together spaceships that don't need to withstand the rigors of launch and can be basically as massive as they want.
  • Requirement for high acceleration to overcome vast distances in reasonable amounts of time: Maybe interplanetary travel just takes a really long time for your people, and so they don't do it lightly. Then again, in the age of sail, people would spend years of their lives traveling between locations and often never went home again. The people of this universe, you said, are knowledgable about astronomy, however, so they ought to be able to use orbital physics to make their trips as efficient as possible. You might consult NASA's Basics of Spaceflight if you haven't already, to learn about gravity assists and Hohmann transfers and all the rest, (solarsystem.nasa.gov/basics/). Really, once your free of a planetary gravity well, space flight is pretty cheap, it just takes math and a lot of time. If your people had something like anti-gravity, then they could essentially skip to the interplanetary flight stage, using gravity as a tool, and only as needed, and if they plan and plot their voyages right, they can minimize their time spent in outer space. And that brings us to our next point.
  • Requirement for precision in course plotting: Never mind about precision in engineering. If you have something like anti-gravity, or never have to bother with planetary gravity wells at all, your ship could just be a bolted-together junkyard in space, as long as it's airtight, blocks radiation, and has some means of propulsion. What's important is that you can plot an accurate course between bodies. This takes math, and good theories about gravity and such, but it need not necessarily require computers or electricity. Maybe every interplanetary ship just has a navigator who has trained their whole life for the role, or maybe they just brain it with pen and parchment before they embark, knowing the motion of the heavenly bodies, and do spaceflight without computers like the gods intended. In our world, the people behind interplanetary craft plan their missions for years ahead of time, and those plans include flight courses and how they are going to get the momentum they need when they need it.

It's sounding like the answer to spaceflight in this setting would be something like anit-gravity. That said, you have already provided a somewhat compelling reason why they might not need it. You mentioned that they have space elevators. I'm not sure what type of space elevators you have in mind, but these generally change the game in terms of space launches. The top of a geostationary space elevator is moving at orbital velocity, meaning you can just push your spaceship off from it and it will already pretty much be in orbit of the planet. These structures are absurdly long/tall however, since they have to reach the altitude where the angular momentum reaches or exceeds orbital velocity, and so they might not be feasible for Venus due to its extremely slow rotation. Even just for planets spinning as fast as Earth and Mars, they have to be many thousands of kilometers tall, as in like wrap-around-the-earth-several-times long.

Returning to your original question (finally), I think you should be asking how they maintain their space elevators. How they maintain their ships is easy: they just bolt on more pieces of metal and hope, and then just only blow up sometimes. Space elevators are problematic because they require absurdly strong and highly available materials that are unknown to modern science, hence we haven't built any yet. But if you just gave them some kind of Clarketech/magic that lets them build absurdly tall towers, that solves that problem, because, as they say, "a wizard did it." If that were your one Clarketech, think of what else they would use it for. You see impractically tall towers in sword and sorcery type fantasy all the time. If some of those were "space towers", for the express purpose of delivering people and goods between ground and orbital velocity, it wouldn't even be that crazy, since space towers/elevators can only really be built on the equators of planets. So, let's say your one Clarketech is this vertical structure integrity thing. You have a primitive civilization who tells the tales of how their ancestors built those towers to reach the heavens, which allowed them to travel between worlds (book cover ideas in the style of Roger Dean are flooding through my mind), and you maybe have highly specialized people who go around upkeeping these structural integrity fields/spells with their magic/technical expertise. Are they wizards? Up to you. Who do they serve? Are the space towers owned by kings or nobles, or are they more subdivided because of how absurdly tall they are? Does everyone with status have a super tall tower, just that only those on the equator bother going above the atmosphere? All questions for the worldbuilder to answer.

Good Luck

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What if there are sentient machines which have been tasked long ago to protect, care, and feed humans? After a while they decided the best thing to do is to keep them reasonably backyards, providing them with certain tools and parts as needed but using creative ways to keep the humans in the dark? I know it sounds like the the Warhammer secret society but the difference is that even if there is a priesthood interacting with the terminals, the AI is deciding if the hairless monkeys should have access to something or not.

The fact there are space elevators, which happen to be maintained, and spacecrafts only mean that the metal overlords decided they planets need to stay connected even if it is in a kind of Pre-Black Ships Feudal Japan way. In fact, most people would not even be aware there are spaceships out there, and only see space elevators as ways for the rich folk to perform their burials (the serfs get buried in disease-infested pig shit that is their main source of nutrients while the better people get launched at low orbit so they can spin for a while and then reenter and burn). Only few people, who usually do not mix with the plebs, are involved in the interplanetary trade and diplomacy. As said by others, even these people only have enough cargo cult training to think they are operating the machines.

The sentient machines, meanwhile, keep the monkeys under control so there is never too much killing or deceases unless there is a condition they need to correct using that. Heck, they can even brew and unleash a T-Rex or dragon to put the fear in the hearts of the uneducated masses.

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    $\begingroup$ Citizen Rau-B-VGL. You have described something akin to Alpha Complex, overseen by Friend Computer for the protection and benefit of all loyal Citizens. How did you come by this knowledge? Use of unauthorized sources of knowledge is treason. Failing to report use of unauthorized sources of knowledge is treason. Possession of knowledge beyond your security clearance is treason. (Which does kind of prevent anybody from learning how to make more high tech components.) $\endgroup$ May 17, 2023 at 15:26
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You forgot the Sorcery Part

The OP mentioned that his setting falls into the

sword, sorcery and spaceships genre

This means that the spaceships need not be controlled by microchips and computers at all. Instead they are magical constructs more akin to golems. The reason your craftsmen are able to make ships is not because they are able to hammer out highly advanced technologies in their forges, but because they are able to hammer out ships that are exactly as technologically advanced as any pre-modern naval ship. Then it is the job of powerful enchanters to turn your weird looking construct into a magically animated thing that can carry you through space.

As long as sorcery itself is some natural ability possessed by only a handful of people or requires some kind of rare unobtanium, then your space barbarians will still have to do most things without machines because your civilization's total "factory" capacity is limited by the number of enchanters or amount of unobtanium you have.

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Or you could go with tech-mages

If you want your spaceships to feel more like real ships, then it could be that your technology is actual technology that works like computers and stuff, but it is magically crafted; so, instead of a multi-billion dollar, high tech electronics factory, you could have powerful artificers who can magically shape materials down to the atomic scale hand-crafting each computer terminal and rocket engine.

Either way, magic lets you have a cottage industry based society that can make things that we muggles can only do with big expensive factories.

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Slaves. Just slaves. Over the past thousand years they cultivated their own slave race. Beaten into submission only the most obedient meek and clever survived. Creating their own subculture and ways to influence their masters by subtle hints and sweet words.

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