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Centuries ago, the world was locked in a three-way cold war scenario between three large empires with nukes. The tech level was roughly equivalent to 2000's technology in our world. Runaway climate change occurred as the three superpowers doubled down on fossil fueled development in an attempt to get an edge up on the others, various natural disasters and minor wars ended up escalating, and around 500 years ago, a large-scale nuclear war broke out, destroying all but minor remnants of the nations that fought it.

The rest of the world didn't fare much better -- the planet was ravaged by nuclear winter, agriculture could no longer support most of the remaining population, disease and conflict was rampant. Within 30 years, 95% of the population was dead, for one reason or another.

Things were tough for a while. But, as it nearly always does, life went on. Today, civilization has finally been restored to what it was before the fall. Technologically, think near future -- say (very roughly) 2050.

Okay, exposition over, here's the question.

There are basically two big landmasses on the planet. For illustration, imagine a huge continent like Africa + Eurasia together with the Americas glued alongside them, and then a smaller continent like Australia around where South America would be. So: huge diverse continent, and small, mostly desert continent, separated by huge stretches of ocean. The three empires inhabited the large continent. The small continent was mostly spared from the destruction simply by virtue of being a remote desert colony of one of the three powers that no one really cared about enough to nuke.

After the nuclear war, I want there to be almost no communication between the big and the small continent up until recently. Why might that be? Being spared from the war, the smaller continent recovered faster, so they were the first to launch a satellite after the apocalypse about 150 years ago. I want this to be a dramatic moment when people on the other side look up and see an unexpected sign of life, as well as advanced technology that they were quite far from recovering themselves. Problem is, presumably radio would have been reinvented before then, or they could simply build a ship. The desire to communicate was there on both sides, but it just was not possible for some reason. What reasons could there be?

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    $\begingroup$ On that timescale, I can actually think of nothing. A 95% die-back should've reduced the population to agrarian or worse, but you've said they've recovered to near-present-day technology. To be clear, was the satellite launched nowish, or 150 years before present day? $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Oct 4, 2023 at 20:58
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, global shortwave radio communications in reality were developed a third of a century before the first object was sent into orbit, and it only took that long due to a misperception of shortwave being useless for long range communication. These people would know better, and would be able to build shortwave radios basically as soon as they could scavenge enough electronics...they'd probably be talking globally before the population reached its minimum and started growing again, even if they couldn't build entirely new radios. $\endgroup$ Oct 4, 2023 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ Does the re-establishment of contact need to be a surprise to both of them? You could argue that the big continent's survivors were thrown back so far in available tech that intercontinental exploration is unfeasable and/or the land is so sparsely populated that it's unnecessary when there's so much empty continent to explore and settle. Wheras the population of the smaller continent, still being badly affected by a war fought by "outsiders", can very well become xenophobic and isolationist. With satelites they can see the other continent, but culturally they want nothing to do with it. $\endgroup$ Oct 5, 2023 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Cassiterite Unless you apply some purposeful isolationism, I don't see how it would be feasible for two civilizations with tech better than ours not to know about each other for more than a century, while living on the same planet. Unless the planet itself has some very exotic property (a "The Wall") that hermetically separates them both physically and electromagnetically, in such a way that even our current state-of-the-art science and tech couldn't penetrate it in any way. $\endgroup$
    – Neinstein
    Oct 5, 2023 at 9:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Cassiterite I think you should mention your last comment in the quesiton, as it's pretty important. Really you're asking about lack of communication between continents with 1900s-but-with-space-travel level technology, but your question currently reads as if you're asking about 2050 level technology. The fact that your story is set 150 years later isn't really relevant to the question. $\endgroup$
    – N. Virgo
    Oct 5, 2023 at 12:01

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Considering long wave radio transmission be pretty much 1910s, see Popov's experiments, and the fact that long wave radio signal can wrap Earth, it's pretty possible that if one side rediscovers radio, the other side would be technically able to receive those transmissions. Also the ability to transfer orders fast is what actually makes empires stand and not crumple under their own weight, thus reinventing radio communication is desired by all states, perhaps they could even coordinate research for the benefit of all sides, as this tech is pretty fundamental. The same applies to the leftover community on the other continent, so if both sides manage to initiate technological revolution, they are bound to eventually come into radio contact with each other.

The possibility is there that they have too differing languages to not being able to understand what does the other side transmit, yet locating the source of a strong radio signal is possible with a little advance past initial discovery (modified radars), thus in a matte4r of decades either side would find out that the source of transmissions they receive is off their charts, so an expedition would ensue by either side, whoever thinks that contact with the outsiders would benefit them.

Also you pretty much forget that there was an epoch of Great Geographical Discoveries, that sufficiently predates inventing radio. In case the re-emerging states would desire expansion, they will commence a task to their fleet together with local shore control, in order to find any lost artifacts in the ravaged wasteland elsewhere, those that would embark on an expeditions to seas unknown might hit the forgotten continent as they collect maritime data on currents, winds, islands left etc.

To answer your title question

You asked "Why might there be no communication between continents for centuries after a civilization collapse?" - the answer is pretty simple, it took more than centuries for the remaining population to reach medieval tech level, as people were concerned with survival primarily. Having electric artifacts left over from pre-war times doesn't help unless you've regained knowledge of electricity, yet the supply chain on any modern power plant (even solar, even water-based) would not survive the nuclear war, thus there will be only remnants of stuff that was using electricity, without means to power them. (Some machines would be reworked into being powered by horse etc, yet these deteriorate too, and most easily accessible resources would be excavated, leaving no easy access to copper/iron/coal/oil aka energy sources, thus eventually all artifacts would become dust)

Seeing a satellite launched? Likely won't be noticeable

There are quite a lot of satellites in orbit currently, and while those that are on LEO would descend by drag while the civs would recover from post-war apocalypse, those that are located on SSO, let alone on geosync, won't, and those on SSO are visible at night as moving star-like objects. So people would get accommodated to seeing some moving stars, perhaps would use them to measure time, provided they would differ one from another and there isn't too many of them, and seeing another moving star might well be missed, unless the satellite would go "beep beep" and trigger radio receive across the globe. Astronomers of the mainland might be able to detect a new satellite and initiate a global outrage of "HUMANITY IN SPACE ONCE AGAIN!", yet should the mainland still be in 1500s due to technilogical drop, they won't really bother.

Also a frame challenge

"Being spared from the war, the smaller continent recovered faster, so they were the first to launch a satellite after the apocalypse" - since the pre-war civ was at least at 2000 tech level, there have to be major levels of goods transfer, at least for the power that had that colony on the small continent. As colonies usually go, the high-level industry was moved off the colony, leaving them dependent on mainland's production, in order for them to not revolt and gain independence. There might be other methods of keeping the colony in line, but all involve inducing dependency on the mainland and transfer of goods and personnel both ways. Then the war boomed, the mainland gets bombed, the colony gets abandoned, and then nuclear winter struck, leaving people in the colony without tech support for whatever installments of high-tech (power plants, computer centers, energy grid) they had, making them too go black. And getting out of black would prove very hard, especially with reduced population and deteriorated agriculture and general nature crippling. Even spared by war actions, the colony might get extinct instead of remaining afloat and with electricity.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the detailed points - I think this is the most helpful answer so far. Actually, the two sides drip feeding info to each other via medieval/early modern-equivalent ships is a really cool idea, I just wonder if crossing the ocean like that would really be easier than getting radio to work again? Cultural and language reasons would certainly contribute too. $\endgroup$ Oct 5, 2023 at 9:03
  • $\begingroup$ Not enough data on what would be easier, but given that there are reported landings of islanders of Polynesia to South America, with an unidentified date but old enough to be forgotten, I expect travelling by ship or boat would be easier than building radio. Sailships were roaming high seas long before there was any thought of employing electricity IRL. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Oct 5, 2023 at 9:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Cassiterite When do you think radio was invented? Before or after every European country with a coastline started empires around the world? For that matter, before or after the USA was established as a reaction by colonists (some of whom, like Ben Franklin, travelled backwards and forwards regularly and kept regular correspondence with many people around the world) to mismanagement by direct rule from London? $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Oct 5, 2023 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham yes, I get it, we invented radio after intercontinental travel. You'll be shocked to hear that I was, in fact, aware of this ;) But inventing something is not the same as rebuilding it after you lost it. Because while you might lack the industrial base to build the equipment, you'll still have old textbooks, manuals, the laws of electromagnetism etc laying around. You know how to do it, and perhaps more importantly, you know that it's even possible in the first place. The Spanish empire would also have made inventing radio a high priority if they had known it was a thing. $\endgroup$ Oct 5, 2023 at 10:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Cassiterite But equally you'll have all the facilities around for boat-building too. The lesson from history is that roads don't work without serious ongoing maintenance, and you can't move significant quantities of anything with horses anyway. Coasts and rivers were the only way to transport anything around your country. And that's even before we think about fishing as a food source. If the info for building radios is still around then I agree, it'll happen sometime. I think boats will come first though, because they don't need a deep industrial base. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Oct 5, 2023 at 15:03
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Typically, such reasons are made by people, not so much limited by technology. There is basically always a way to deliver a message if someone wants it badly enough. If communication was not blocked actively, the two continents would eventually be talking to each other in one way or another.

The major reasons why anyone would block it are: taboo and crime. They can coexist, and they can reinforce each other.

If it was crime to do anything with the enemy, and the other continent was an enemy, communication with them would be outlawed. If this practice continues long enough, even thinking about such communication can become outlawed.

Of course, there will always be people who break the laws and taboos, but that is another story.

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    $\begingroup$ To borrow an idea from another answer, part of the problem may not be present day devices, but an artifact of war jamming many shortwave communications. $\endgroup$ Oct 5, 2023 at 8:26
  • $\begingroup$ This is the only way @Cassiterite. Make the spared continent purposefully refuse to contact the big continent for whatever reason (fear? population control? war-related defensiveness?) that fits your story. Hardcore isolationism. Refuse to respond to any contact attempt, destroy literally anything that approaces the proximity of the continent. Ban any use of long-range radiowaves. Othervise it's simply infeasible that your people don't know about a high-tech civilisation on the other side of the planet, while having tech better than ours. $\endgroup$
    – Neinstein
    Oct 5, 2023 at 9:22
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Oi! Those limey bogans blew the bloody world to the dunny. We're cross as a frog in a sock at em 'cause we've had a gutful. What makes ye think we would yak with the mainland? Most of them carked or gone walkabout anyway. Who here wants a mob of crooks and nippers shipping in to get on the dole? I say rack off and Hooroo to you.

In all seriousness, a grudge could be held and become a cultural touchstone/taboo. Keep the radios quiet lest the jerks who blew up the world find out we (on the smaller continent) don't have it as bad.

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civilization has finally been restored to what it was before the fall. Technologically, think near future -- say (very roughly) 2050

-- in which case the ability to sustain contact between distant landmasses depends on what technologies remain available in 2050, which cannot yet be known. It's 27 years away; enough time to discover as well as to lose quite a few technologies. You don't even need a world-shattering calamity for this to happen; all it would take is for them to become unaffordable for long enough to cause the supporting industries to go bankrupt, and the associated supply chains to be redirected to other parts of the economy (or go bankrupt too), and then they won't be coming back due to lack of both supply and demand.

So, perhaps the technological level of 2050 is lower than today's, and restoring only to that level is insufficient to establish contact with a distant landmass.

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    $\begingroup$ Radio amateurs can tinker radio equipment reaching across the seas out of basically junk, without requiring any "unaffordable" technology (like semiconductors, if the microchip industry were to collapse) $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Oct 5, 2023 at 6:36
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    $\begingroup$ You don't need that much energy. You don't need a complete fully functional power grid. You could use a hand-cranked dynamo or even a potato battery if really necessary. It's not about sending a cat video on the internet, it's about sending simple messages. People have managed to do it in POW camps during WW2. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Oct 5, 2023 at 8:33
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    $\begingroup$ If a government or any large organization wants to communicate long distance and needs more power, they will build a steam engine to do it. If it's not for commercial application, then it doesn't matter how inefficient it is. You'd really need total anarchy and tribalism lasting for many centuries so that knowledge gets lost, in order to prevent this in any sort of future organized society (and even then they will rediscover it much quicker than when it was discovered first, due to all those artifacts lying around). And the question implies that technology recovers to near modern levels. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Oct 5, 2023 at 9:06
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    $\begingroup$ @ihaveideas it is usually possible to reach halfway around the world on amateur radio frequencies with a power of less than 10W given the right "radio weather", i.e. meteor scatter, bouncing off the moon, ... 10W can easily be generated by a human on a bycicle-like contraption for hours and hours, so "electricity demand" cannot be the limiting factor. $\endgroup$
    – arne
    Oct 5, 2023 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ @ihaveideas Time to learn about radio wave propagation then. It's all about the frequencies. The lower, the farther they reach with the same power. While mobile phones and wifi are in the GHz range, there amateur radio frequency bands around a couple of hundred kHz, making the frequency 10000 times lower and that much more far-reaching. $\endgroup$
    – arne
    Oct 5, 2023 at 13:25
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Decadence

China shortly after Zheng He expedition began to close and self isolate the country. That was pushed by the necessity to keep under control a big population while preserving a strong pyramidal hierarchy. In short a decadent society. Similar examples can be found in other decadent societies. The late Ottoman empire was not so much isolated because the push by its neighbours was too strong, but it was not so open after all. Europe began its expansion shortly before the beginning of the renaissance and that expansion boomed during the renaissance. The internal structures of a society has a strong effect on its otward looking attitude.

What happened after the war? The destruction took out the tools to rebuild the machinery, but not the memory of the past abundance. The sense of loss pushed the people to rely heavily and put all their trust on few leaders and the world society fragmented in many small groups with a strong hierarchy. This pushed the few with a free attitude to rebel and flee, forming pirate groups at the borders.

Mind you, decadence might slow down the technological development, but it won't stop it completely, especially if the old books keep alive, at least in part, the old scientific knowledge.

To resume a combination of inward looking societies further isolated by barriers of pirate lands redeveloping slowly the old technology will make a good reason for the isolation.

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Main problem is that Your small continent is close to big one. If understand You correctly then less than 1000km water gap between. That can be sailed even by canoe. Can move Your continent more far avay? Like to point nemo? and remove all islands who are beetwen Australia and Asia? If can then have 10 000 km gap. it is a big problem for ship, even big one to sail and for planes - need big fuel tanks and big plane. It will be easier to fire satelite than go by ship or plane. Then most people on small continent think that on big one is no life at all - killed by nukes and then by radiation. Go there to empty land only to die from radiation - noone will spend a peny for that.

Another thing - distance can explain why not nuked - it is lots cheapier to make 5k km range rocket than 15k range one. And is much easier defence against rocket if have 2-3 hours to intercept than when have 15-30 minutes. Even can use orbital detonted nukes to stop them.

Then have nuclear fallout - big continent will be wiped but smal one - can even not be affected at all. Hardly, but in theory can make currents and winds that way. Ofc after years backround radiation will rise 2,3 even 10 times but not to deadly level. Next that can lead to almost no dop in population. And if that continent was mostly food suply one then have good start.

If can add no fossil fuels like oil and gas but give them carbon and You have reciepe for no combustion engines, only electric and steam ones, and no planes at all. Only trains and small electric cars in cities. If want - big steam trucks and farm equipment(if You are steampunk fan :))

Ice age can be hard on big continent due to continental climate. Will be harder and last longer. If have it then need good explanation how people even survived on big continent. And if survived then they maybe have simple telescopes when satelite was fired. Maybe not even that. Think more about medieval level there.

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  • $\begingroup$ Fossil fuels just make oil-type fuel cheap. Prior to their discovery people still had plenty of oils, and even used them for fuel, they were just more expensive. Various oils are easily-collected byproducts of making charcoal, and if you have no coal then making charcoal will be absolutely essential for working iron. So lack of fossil fuels would increase the cost and probably make airships more popular, but wouldn't preclude airplanes or other IC-powered machines. The diesel engine was originally developed to run on peanut oil after all. $\endgroup$
    – Perkins
    Oct 6, 2023 at 16:51
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Autonomous hunter-killer marine drones, and radically different human languages.

Frankly, the scenario is pretty unlikely, but this might not require too much suspension of disbelief.

They don't attempt to cross the ocean because the previous war left behind large numbers of nuclear-powered marine attack drones. These were reprogrammed by some suicidal or nihilist commander in the dying days of the final war, to simply destroy anything that strayed out of sight of land. So in the past, mariners simply set out and were never seen again. Today, the technology to fight a way through once again exists, but there would be significant cost in lives as well as money to create an armoured and weapon-bearing fleet ... and what reason to go up against an unknown but deadly threat? Might it trigger some doomsday weapon to even try?

They don't communicate by radio because they have absolutely no idea what the people on the other side are saying. In an analogue in our world, the survivors in the Americas are now all speaking Navaho. A language with absolutely nothing in common with Eurasian languages, so much so that native speakers could be an effective "encryption" technique during WW2.

Also old wartime propaganda has mutated during the dark ages into religion and legend. The other side aren't human any more. They are demons, or cannibalistic mutants. Isolation, and radio silence, were seen as the best hope to avoid the fate that the large continent suffered for its sins.

The small continent may now have developed to the point that they use low-power frequency-agile microwave radio, which can't easily be distinguished from noise and which can't propagate far over the horizon. (This is omnipresent in our civilisation: mobile phones work this way!) Historically they avoided high power broadcast radio in favour of developing the "telegraph" and had something like an internet rather earlier in technological history than we did. (Maybe they also got steampunk computing: their "Babbage" worked out binary and logic using electromechanical relays).

The big continent for its part has most of the world accessible by land transport, and knowledge that "Australia" exists was simply lost in their dark ages. They have the same problem with the hunter-killer drones, and very little motivation to do anything involving the deep seas because there is still a huge amount of land at hand to explore and colonise.

Bear in mind that in our world, when the Chinese started building ocean-going ships, the perceived threat from the unknown and from other cultures was perceived as so great that a new Emperor ordered that the fleets be destroyed, and made navigating out of sight of the Chinese mainland a capital crime. So its not unbelievable that something similar has taken hold where there is far greater evidence of what may be a deadly threat.

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Superstition? Possibly spread by those in power whose power depends on there not being contact because of some big THING they know, or fear, would happen if there were contact.

Possibly in the war there was some bioweapon that some victims had immunity to, and they were the ancestors of everyone on Other Continent now. So people on the other continent would give you a lethal disease, maybe even deliberately, the way smallpox was weaponised in early America.

The other continent people think that everyone on your land is dead, and the place is radioactive slag? So they don't want to risk coming, and dying. Or the "dead" people don't want to tip off the others that they're alive, in case they come over and start a war that "we" don't have the resources to win.

Worst case tear up some paper and chuck it in a bucket, and draw out ideas til it makes sense. Really think about what you get.

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During the nuclear war someone launched satellites that scramble whole electromagnetic spectrum and they are still operational. No long range radio transmissions are possible.

Seas are heavily mined and too dangerous to cross.

Why noone explores with aircraft that's harder to explain.

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    $\begingroup$ "Satellites that scramble whole electromagnetic spectrum" are magical. You can as well have magical satellites that scramble the whole aerial navigation and create impassable maelstroms in the ocean. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 4, 2023 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ Satellites don't have 100's of years of lifetime operation. Their electronics don't last that long. They fail because of solar events and fall out of the sky. Their solar panels get punctured by space debris and stop providing power. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Oct 5, 2023 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ Depends how high you launch the satellite. Higher up means weaker signal but bigger footprint. An advanced civ could just make them REALLY BIG! They could stay up for centuries. If you only want jamming, you need a source of noise, and a big transmitter. That's easy and vacuum tubes won't degrade nearly as fast as doped silicon does. Handily there's loads of spare vacuum around, cos it's space, so build your thermionics big and tough enough, they could last centuries. If that's your aim. Solar panels are silicon, but build lots of spare capacity, or you could use nuclear instead. $\endgroup$
    – Greenaum
    Oct 5, 2023 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, bonus comment, but you could also build lots of these jamming transmitters, on the same satellite or different ones. Lots of spares so it can survive the odd micrometeor, plus put some shielding on it. It's all stuff they could've done in the 1940s if they'd had a way to launch it. So it's Dieselpunk! NASA put radioisotope thermal generators into deep-space probes, and they researched an actual working nuclear reactor, but nobody would have let them launch it, in case it broke up on launch. $\endgroup$
    – Greenaum
    Oct 5, 2023 at 20:02
  • $\begingroup$ which would magically make light disappear as well, and radioactive decay. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Oct 6, 2023 at 5:39

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