The Setup

A while back, I read an article in which the author compared the rise and fall of civilizations in the universe to a forest.

In the forest, small plants come into being, grow, and die over relatively short time spans. Living in the shadows of much larger trees, these small plants compete with one another for the basic resources of life: sunlight, water, and carbon. The large trees, on the other hand, tower over the forest floor and have, compared to the smaller plants, an unlimited supply of resources. The forest, then, is a hierarchical ecosystem dominated by the ancient, firmly established trees, in which the smaller plants (and smaller trees) are just sort of along for the ride. When one walks into Redwood National Forest, after all, he most likely notices all the giant trees before noticing the shrubbery. (I wouldn't know for sure, as I've never been. It's on my List).

Similarly, the Universe is teeming with many small civilizations that continually rise and fall over the course of millennia... but only a relatively few civilizations that have reached the top of the Foodchain (capital 'F').

My story concerns such a civilization... let's call them the Foo for lack of a better name, as I'm a computer programmer by trade, and some habits die hard.

Let's say that, by our reckoning, the Foo are at level somewhere between III and IV on the Kardashev scale, and have the agency to affect change on a universal scale. These people built and abandoned Dyson spheres long ago. They have engaged in stellar architecture, creating both the art and the engines of their economy with the very stars themselves. Now, they are well into the age of galactic engineering. They have intimate knowledge of the nature of reality itself, hard won over countless mega-years of evolution.

Now, though, the Foo have a Problem.

The Problem

Spoiler alert: I do not know what the Problem is. Perhaps it is the impending heat death of the Universe. Perhaps it is something utterly alien to my own limited understanding. I just don't know. This is the specific question for which I am currently seeking guidance.

The Out of the Box Solution

All of this, I must confess, is to serve as the backdrop for the story I really want to tell. The Foo, you see, facing an existential threat whose solution lies beyond their own understanding, must seek an "out of the box solution." Well, perhaps it would be more precise to say that the Foo have decided to seek an "inside of the box solution."

Being so keenly self-aware has given the Foo an insight that just might save them: they realize that they have reached the limits of knowledge they are capable of obtaining from within the context of their own experience. They understand that, although they are nearly omnipotent, they are still bound by the "baggage" they carry from the previous stages of their evolution. Without outside help, there will always be questions for which they lack the proper context to answer (or even know to ask).

As it happens, the Foo have decided to devote their entire economy to constructing a full scale simulated reality of a new universe, simulated at the quantum level in full fidelity. Their goal is to monitor the evolution of all of the civilizations that arise therein, observing them through all the various stages of evolution until they discover one with the potential of solving their own particular Problem.

Although this concept is ripe for further questions and discussion (what is the substrate of this simulation? What is the level of precision? How can they possibly assimilate all that data? What if the Foo are already in a simulation? How does time pass in the simulated reality compared to the Foo's reality?), I really just want to focus on the nature of the Problem for now. The other stuff will come as this idea germinates.

Thank you for your time. I very much look forward to joining your community.

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    $\begingroup$ Hi. Welcome to Worldbuilding! It shouldn't take any reputation to post an answer, either in meta or here. If you are having trouble answering, please post a screenshot exhibiting the problem in a question in meta. $\endgroup$ – Brythan Jan 25 '16 at 5:51
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    $\begingroup$ Thinking out of the box here (sorry, couldn't resist)- would the problem itself being the civilization unable to find a problem they can't solve be valid in the context of the question? $\endgroup$ – aspiring_sarge Jan 25 '16 at 9:22
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    $\begingroup$ This is borderline Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but couldn't they be after the ultimate question: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/1129/15501 $\endgroup$ – Bell App Lab Jan 25 '16 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ Ellesedil's comment reminded me of Jack Chalker's Well World series where a supersentient post-Type 3 civilization went, "Welp, we did everything. We explored the entire universe (it's tiny) we're the only life in it and our society is so post-scarcity that every single citizen has god-like control over their own planet. So let's create a new universe and populate it with all kinds of sentient life because we're bored and lonely." And they did. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Jan 26 '16 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ This very much reminds me the set-up for Iain Banks' "Excession". Without going into spoilers, the Problem there involved an external (wrt the Universe) object and a possibility to cheat the heat death. $\endgroup$ – fjarri Jan 27 '16 at 4:01

13 Answers 13


The easiest Problem to deal with is quite simple: they're wrong.

A civilization like that presumably has some direction they believe they are going along. They're hopefully not just wandering aimlessly among the stars, using up the full energy of a galaxy here and there. They have to have some plan that's guiding them.

What if that plan is wrong?

What if they commit to the path, and then use up so much energy that when they realize that path will never take them to where they want to go, its too late. For most of us humans, there's plenty of energy to drown our past sorrows, and regain balance. For a nearly class IV civilization, that sort of wasteful use of energy is much harder to come by.

This would cause them to rethink everything, and potentially allocate some of their precious energy to simulations to try to rethink their plans. Most importantly, however, it has to be something they missed. That means they will want to have little unknowns creep into their system, offering clever solutions that the Foo could never think of on a cosmic scale.

If you want inspiration, watch any movie where there is a bad guy who realized he was going down the wrong path, but went so far that he feels he can never possibly come back. The TV series Blacklist has one such character. They know the solution isn't in their power, so all they can do is do their best to empower others, and see if they can get lucky and find salvation on the way.

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    $\begingroup$ Cort, I am strongly leaning towards your answer... however I want to pull bits and pieces from all the other answers! What's a Foo to do? $\endgroup$ – Trekkie Jan 25 '16 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ SG-1's Azgard are another example you could draw from. They did great amazing things, until they realized their cloning process had a flaw, and they had long lost the ability to reproduce without cloning. Or consider Trance from the TV show Andromeda, who has a strange perchance for a bonzai like art which seems to have a particular weight to it, like the bonzai she is crafting has more meaning than it might appear. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 25 '16 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ "For most of us humans, there's plenty of energy to drown our past sorrows, and regain balance" - not necessarily. If we went back now to the stone age, it would be much harder, maybe impossible, to reach our current level of technology, because the easily harvestable resources are no longer there. To advance to the bronze age, you need to have ore which you can mine with stone age technology. To advance to the industrial age, you need coal which you can mine with medieval technology. To advance to the modern age, you need oil which you can drill for with 19th century technology. $\endgroup$ – vsz Jan 25 '16 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz I don't mean to regain our previous state, I mean regain balance. If we went back to the stone age, there would be a great deal of energy available to support a human, because the sun is still burning. The human can find their place in the universe once again. When you control which suns are getting consumed, the number of ways you can trap yourself without even a sun to provide energy grow dramatically. There are many more subtle irreversible decisions to consider. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 25 '16 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ As a more close to home example, consider our ability to destroy the climate. A hundred years ago, we could do some pretty impressive damage with our access to fossil fuels. Nowdays, with a few poorly timed nuclear weapons, we could create an ice age of our own with a nuclear winter. In the past, it was easier to rely on the environment to help us recover. Now, with nukes, we cannot rely as much on the environment. Imagine if you had suns at your disposal, how little you could rely on to provide your soft landing. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 25 '16 at 22:27

Isolation and collapse to Kardashev Level 2 Civilization

If current theories about the Universe, Dark Matter, and Dark Energy are correct; then we're beginning a period of ever increasing acceleration of objects away from each other.

What this means is in the future, galaxies accelerate away from us so that they fall outside our light-cone. Eventually we won't see galaxies outside of our own ever again.

Similarly if the Universal Expansion continues, then the stars within our galaxy will begin accelerating away from each other. First, imperceptibly and later at ever increasing accelerations.

How do you remain a Kardashev III+ civilization without a galaxy's worth of resources to tap into?

What they see is sometime in their future there will be a collapse of their civilization to a primitive Kardashev level II civilization.

If we on Earth would find a civilization collapse difficult, how might a galaxy spanning civilization view its shattering into and isolation of its constituent stellar systems?

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    $\begingroup$ In general, the heat death of the universe. This will require quite an "outside the box" solution. $\endgroup$ – Comptonburger Jan 27 '16 at 0:27
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    $\begingroup$ I believe one of Stephen Baxter's books (Manifold Time?) addressed this. In it, the K4 level descendants of humanity decided that the Universe needed a reboot in a prior (our) era. $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Jan 27 '16 at 0:31
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    $\begingroup$ I listened to a TED talk recently in which the speaker spoke of a time in the far distant future, at the point where stars are accelerating away from each other faster than the speed of light, when our descendants would look up into the sky and find it difficult to believe that there ever were stars. They would have access to records, detailed analysis, history documented both digitally and in analog, that would be screaming the truth. However, as the Ted speaker hypothesized, they would not believe it. That scenario writ to a K4 civilization that has collapsed to K2 sounds all the more tragic $\endgroup$ – Trekkie Jan 27 '16 at 2:26


An understanding that as they're no longer challenged they're no longer changing. As they're no longer changing, they're no longer evolving. Like the old tree, their civilisation is rotting from the inside out and will in due time collapse under its own weight, leaving the space for the smaller civilisations to take their place in the universe.

They consider themselves to be the best and the brightest but the only thing they can think of to do is the same as every other primitive civilisation. Namely sex and drugs and rock and roll.

The civilisation has lost its direction, they're not developing new technologies because there's no reason to. Nobody can think of anything that they can't already do or a reason to do it.

Revolutions are for young people with short lives, near immortals who are already old can't change. The whole operation is probably effectively a gerontocracy already, they need a revolution and they can't have one.

  • $\begingroup$ Good one. Not because they can't do something now, but because they won't be able to do much of anything in a million years. Or, per Asimov in Foundation, their demise is unstoppable. Someone has to begin anew, right now, while the current society can nurture them. $\endgroup$ – Tony Ennis Jan 25 '16 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ +1. Much like Asimov's Foundation series. Another concept in that series was how inefficiencies can creep in when you think at large scales. For example, the empire made shields for entire planets, so couldn't conceive of a personal shield where efficient use of power is paramount. $\endgroup$ – Wayne Jan 25 '16 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ Similarly, the Q Continuum from star trek: memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Q_Continuum $\endgroup$ – nograde Jan 25 '16 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ One of the Superman reboots said something similar about Krypton. "In the few short decades I have studied these Earth savages, I feel I have rediscovered wonders that we had long ago forgotten..." (from memory). $\endgroup$ – Beta Jan 25 '16 at 21:37

The Foo are, simply, boring. Extending the forest analogy, the Foo are the towering redwoods, the biggest, best thing around. As time goes on, the trees just keep growing; while at first they reach towards the heavens, eons later they are surrounding entire suns to capture the energy. A Dyson sphere, after all, is at its soul merely a really efficient tree - using the energy of the sun to grow. The Foo continue to evolve, but the pressure for evolution isn't the base survival of the bushes and plants of the forest floor; it's simply that they need to be big enough to live forever. While tiny plants must do all sorts of tricky things to survive, the big trees ignore them entirely. They are neither fast nor curious. Inventions come through working through all possible methods of moving from point A to point B; iterative design gives perfect results if you keep working for a thousand years.

The Foo aren't apex predators; they only need light and heat to survive. They don't hunt. They may not even forage. They live for thousands, maybe even millions of years. The dead rocky worlds they expanded to, have been terraformed into mild, pleasant city-worlds, populated with a people whose single-minded goal is to live forever, as efficiently as possible. It's not that they haven't discovered war, or other sentient life; it's that wars are over so quickly, and sentient life dies out so fast, that they never really even notice them. Like redwoods ignoring a wolf, the Foo don't even register other races as anything more than present.

And then they walk into the Bar (sorry, couldn't resist). The Bar are a war machine, burning planets and harvesting the energy, eating everything they can. They are the Spinosaurus, the Great White Shark, and the polar bear, all wrapped up in one: the ultimate apex predator. Now, trees are efficient; they don't need to be a thousand feet taller than their neighbor to get the most sun, just a few inches. Predators, however, go overboard. A polar bear doesn't need to be as big as it is to catch a few fish; that might be what it chooses to eat today, but only because it's so big it can eat anything it wants.

Suddenly, the mighty trees are threatened by a species willing to torch a forest to eat some squirrels. A species that is inefficient, overpowered, and hungry. The Bar are willing to destroy anything to get the resources they need, and that includes the Foo. Like trees versus a T-Rex with flamethrower arms, they are bewildered and frightened. They can't wait a thousand years to iterate over the designs for a plan to fend off the Bar; they need a solution now. They don't have the imagination to even realize what they could use to protect themselves; the usual choices are "grow taller" and "grow thicker bark", neither of which can be done quickly. Even in the most dire situations of their past, facing fire, pests, and famine, the Foo only needed to be strong enough to weather through. Now, survival may not even be an option.

The actual problem may not be directly related to their own, immediate death; it may be that the Bar are testing technology capable of ending the universe, or preying on the life forms that sustain the Foo, or using energy too inefficiently and hastening the heat death of the universe. Or, maybe, the Bar are actually the first sentient life the Foo have encountered, and they simply have no idea how to interact.

So what can they do? The Foo turn to all those tiny plants they have ignored since ages past. Using the absolutely foreign evolve-or-die mentality of the tricky little brush plants, they simulate high-speed realities, evolving digital sentient life that has to struggle to survive against predators and life forms encroaching on their energy. Hundreds of realities, all focused on one goal: avoiding extinction.

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    $\begingroup$ As an added note, I could not in good conscience add "Kung Foo" or even "Foo Fighters" to my answer. $\endgroup$ – ArmanX Jan 25 '16 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ you are grokking me w.r.t your so what can they do! That is very near to my thought regarding the use of simulation. Regarding competition with an upstart class IV power (love u went with Bar rather than kung ♡), though, I have thought of that. It was my first thought in fact, and I think it could be compelling IF I avoid making the conflict isomorphic to the run of the mil interstellar conflicts (writ large) of tried and true space operas. I dig this thinking though, especially in concert with Cort Ammon's answer (my current favorite). Thank you! $\endgroup$ – Trekkie Jan 25 '16 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Kieth L - as noted in my penultimate paragraph, if the Bar are actually an animal-based creature and the Foo are descended from plants, it may be that the Bar don't even realize the Foo are sentient. Or the other way around: the Foo suddenly realize that all those squishy meat things were actually living creatures and are horrified at stealing their suns, but have expanded past the point of change. $\endgroup$ – ArmanX Jan 25 '16 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Monty Well played! ArmanX I dont know if I would say the Foo are evolved from plants. There is a neat question here concerning whether plants could evolve thusly... (will update with link later)... but... wihout giving much more info out, I picture the Foo as having evolved from a competitive predator species but who transcended that nature once entering the post scarcity era. $\endgroup$ – Trekkie Jan 25 '16 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ Two humans and a Foo walk into a Bar... $\endgroup$ – user253751 Jan 27 '16 at 4:09

While I admire the Foo civilization, I do pity the individual Foo.

As you describe, they already have achieved everything. What's left to do? Nothing. So, with such a context, how to fill your life? I predict lethargy will take over. Turning into depression all too often.

That means major effort will go into recreational drugs and gaming. And that real progress is ...stuck.

Your Problem
This being said It will be either setting up the greatest game ever, for the millionth time. That would be going with the flow.

Or, setting up a super-simulation to find how to achieve fulfilling individual lives when everything has been done long ago. That would be going against the flow. As this has been tried many times already it now goes back to full evolution scale. They are clearly seeking the Undying Optimist. The current bug is how to guide them past the industrial/atomic/whatever phase.

It is getting hard by now to find grounds for next year's funding, so the danger of getting the hardware turned to gaming universe rendering looms ever larger.

Have fun!

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    $\begingroup$ I am not religious, but your answer made me think: You would guess that a Civilization with the power of the Foo will not pray to gods anymore, as they are the most powerful being in the universe. But searching for the meaning of life is a very low-level problem: Even such primitive civilizations like the humans know it. So, maybe the Foo will start becoming gods: creating life (in reality or in simulation, as the OP suggested). And that will help them find a purpose again, even if it is only helping their creations find a meaning in their life. $\endgroup$ – jwsc Jan 26 '16 at 14:37

Inferiority Complex

It strikes me that the main issue that such a vastly advanced race could face (one that would require the immediate construction of an entire artificial universe in order to come up with some truly "out of the box" thinking) is that they suddenly learned that they were trapped inside a box.

Let's say that your Foo scientists are working on ever more efficient forms of information-compression when suddenly they find that something that should work, doesn't work. Try as they might, they simply can't squash data like they want to. The conclusion they draw is that the only thing that would stop this super-compression from working is if their universe was already subject to some form of data compression. Imagine the way you'd feel if you suddenly went from thinking you were the Masters of the Universe to realising that you might just be some kid's highschool science experiment.

Given that they're stuck in a box, the obvious solution would be to create a pocket universe to study how those inside (when given similar clues) are able to escape. Your Foo scientists and warriors could then use those same techniques to storm the very Gates of Heaven.

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    $\begingroup$ Thats a great insight. I have been giving a lot of thought to that scenario for quite some time. One can imagine that there is a real reality at the top of the stack... and this reality is running a sim in which there are many nested sims. There are a lot of fun thought experiments to have with this line of thinking. I like your storming Heavens gates idea for sure. $\endgroup$ – Trekkie Jan 25 '16 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ I think a good sci-fi story should be allowed to violate one principle of physics or mathematics, so the Church-Turing hypothesis is fair game. $\endgroup$ – Beta Jan 25 '16 at 21:39
  • $\begingroup$ That's close to what I've thought God's motivation might have been for creating our universe. $\endgroup$ – user2338816 Jan 28 '16 at 6:28

What could cause an nearly omnipotent race to need an out-of-the-box solution? A bet with another omnipotent race, of course.

Suppose two such races are fighting. Instead of bombing one another, they pose each other challenge problems. If a problem cannot be solved, one race wins. The wars would last ages in human terms. The challenges would be beyond the comprehension of humans in scope and subtlety.

Refer to the Shadows and the Vorlons in Babylon 5. They disagreed philosophically over the right way to shepherd younger races. As far as I can recall, however, they avoided direct conflict with one another as the results could have been horrific.

  • $\begingroup$ Won't the fights lose purpose if they last beyond the lifetime of any single unit(as a human is to humanity) in both civilizations? $\endgroup$ – cst1992 Jan 28 '16 at 9:31

As was noted in another answer, perhaps the Foo are looking for an out of the box solution because they want to leave the box.

The heat death of the universe is an unfortunate and inevitable consequence of physics. The solution is very simple though: travel to another universe.

But what if there was one other universe within traveling distance? What if the laws of physics in that universe were so different that all of the Foo's scientific knowledge was basically invalid in the new universe. (Look up discussions on "What if [some physics constant] was [some other value]" for inspiration on what this may look like)

The Foo must learn how to live in this new universe in a way that matches their own standards of living, but creating a colony and experimenting would take too long. Therefore, the Foo create a simulated universe with physical laws that match their desired home and watch as life evolves and innovates.

Bonus points if the simulated life attempts to break out like in Richard's answer

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    $\begingroup$ Oh this is a great answer... I really like the concept of simulating a new universe with different physical laws so that they don't have to repeat their own hard-won technological evolution. I had not thought of that. However I should note that in my current thinking with regards to this world I wish to build, other universes are merely simulations up or down or concurrent in the stack. Although I am very keen to work out how a civilization would break out of such a sim, I have not come up with a way that completely satisfies me. This is the subject of a forthcoming question in fact $\endgroup$ – Trekkie Jan 27 '16 at 2:37
  1. Someone has already mentioned it but didn't go all-in: a war with another similar race. There's plenty of room in the Universe to have more than one such race that have only recently become aware of each other and which may have a fundamental disagreement. (Perhaps the Galactic technology they have each designed is diametrically opposed in an almost matter-anti-matter way, such that both operating in the same galaxy destroy it.)

  2. Their Galactic-level technology has a fundamental flaw that has been there since its beginning. Only now, millions of years later, as they are beginning to understand universe-wide principals do they see that their technology dooms the universe. Or dooms their race. Perhaps they have fundamentally affected the mechanisms of consciousness, or perhaps they have discovered a Darker Matter which is more fundamental than Dark Matter and they now realize that they've been rearranging it in their Galactic engineering and now Galactic Clusters are doomed.

  3. If the Universe isn't big enough a stage, consider the Multi-Verse. The have finally discovered how to reach other Universes and it turns out that's a very bad thing with unexpected consequences. (Or they detect a similar race in another universe trying to reach ours and believe that they must prevent this at all costs.)

  4. Perhaps the Foo have forgotten something from their distant past. For example, millennia ago there was a debate about Galactic-level engineering because it wipes out all (other) life in the engineered galaxy. Some argued that this was immoral: they should find another way to advance their technology. Others argued that this other life is essentially non-sentient -- in comparison to themselves -- and that some race eventually has to step up to this technological level. In the ensuing struggle, the second camp wins, wipes out all those who oppose them, and hides any knowledge of this. The Foo come to regard all other life forms as non-sentient -- if they recognize them as life at all.

    Until an oddball Foo scientist stumbles onto sentient life in a galaxy that's marked for engineering. And eventually there's a rebellion in which the rebels say that the Foo must destroy themselves to eliminate their power and willingness to destroy other life. Maybe someone eventually finds that the Bar -- the first race to reach their level -- did the same, allowing the Foo to eventually rise. Or perhaps the Bar had destroyed all other life in their universe and triggered a multi-verse in order to try to make amends.

  5. EDIT: Look at the Q in the Star Trek universe. They are extremely powerful, but not infallible -- a critical distinction. (They also suffer because they've done everything and they've lost the will to live, but other answers mention that.) What happens with omnipotence without omniscience? Not to mention morality: don't make the common mistake of thinking science defines or dictates morals; it doesn't. Science only describes what is and (perhaps) what could be -- to the accuracy of its tools and the honesty of its practitioners -- not what should be.

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    $\begingroup$ I really like this idea, in tandem with @Cort Ammon's. $\endgroup$ – Trekkie Jan 25 '16 at 23:07

I want to expand on @ArmanX 's answer.

Foo will get blindsided by Bar:

Yes, plenty of naughty Type 1 species will arise and slap-fight each other; but if they get too pesky, they can be eliminated. Somehow, Bar gets past this Great Filter.

Foo cannot eliminate Bar:

Assuming such a powerful civilization, we can assume they would poke around the other dimensions, not only terraforming planets, but actively changing time as well, probably in their favor. This makes for an easy process to eliminate Bar. For whatever reason, this is not the case now.

Convergent evolution:

Bar arises over and over, in every galaxy, in every Universe. The flame cannot be put out.

Bar steals Foos toys:

More likely, Bar started as a pesky Type 1 or lower civilization, but stumbled upon one of Foo's toys, and turned it into a weapon or shield that put them outside of Foo's ability to eliminate in their usual fashion.

The Solution:

So, I write sci-fi, and I have a similar thing going on in one of my books. The solution that Foo decides upon is simply to run away. Bar cannot challenge Foo if Foo simply vanishes from space and time altogether. Possibly some ancient broken things will be left around for Bar, or other pesky Type 1 civilizations to find; mostly though, if these other species are left to their own devices, they should just burn out, maybe taking a subset of all possible Universes with it, but nothing that cant be reshaped and reformed after the fire is out.

The best analogy is how to combat most fires - simply cut off its air|tech supply and let it burn itself out. Rebuild once the threat is gone of its own actions.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a neat idea. It almost makes me think of the predator-prey dynamic that you see illustrated in a first year differential equations class. Regarding time travel, I have a strong desire to bar (heh) it or, barring that (heh), at least shackle it with some strong rules. I'm a fan of the multi-verse concept... though in my model, I think of the "multiverse," if it exists, as a stack of nested sims running from a head node "real" universe. I'm really intrigued, though, by the predator-prey dynamic. Also, the idea of a Great Filter is one of my favorites (both way cool and terrifying). $\endgroup$ – Trekkie Jan 25 '16 at 23:03
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks @KeithL! If the Universe is Infinite, and there are an Infinite number of them in existence, which one is Head? At least a few concept I put squarely "out-of-scope" because my tiny human brain can't really make any meaningful assertions about it; and any creature operating in that space as problems and ambitions far outside the realm of things I can imagine. $\endgroup$ – vulpineblazeyt Jan 29 '16 at 19:38

Reading Bookeater's answer inspired this answer


Apathy is a very difficult foe to beat because you simply don't want to. So while the Foo civilization is mighty, powerful, able to do anything it wants; Foo individuals are gradually giving in to apathy and either committing suicide or withdrawing from productive Foo society.

The apathy may be caused by a perception of no great goals or achievements are left for the species or perhaps there's not room left for the improvement of individual Foo.

When you have nothing important left to do with your life do you continue contributing to society or do you seek forms of escapism like video games, simulations, and World Builder ( :) ).

Obviously some continue to contribute but over time, perhaps individual Foos are dropping out of productive society and plugging into various forms of escape.

The only thing left for the Foo to do is escape into simulations in which they are NOT beings of unlimited power.

  1. Maybe they have to time share living in a simulation of a civilization struggling to really begin its space age.
  2. Maybe our reality is that simulation.
  3. Maybe we are both Foo shirking our Foolish responsibilities.
  • $\begingroup$ Dr. Manhattan from The Watchmen suffered from apathy. $\endgroup$ – Tony Ennis Jan 25 '16 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ I definitely like the idea of Apathy being the big bad. It's less obvious than the Foo-Bar dynamic and has the potential to be a more I have a very important Message for my readers type of story. $\endgroup$ – Trekkie Jan 25 '16 at 23:06

To borrow a common trope (and also blatantly steal from the Zones of Thought and the Expanse series')

They went and made themselves a monster

Either intentionally or accidentally Foo scientists created something terrible. I'd be very tempted to go with the ultimate form of a virus: Something smart, interconnected, nigh-on impossible to get rid of and capable of co-opting any stable computational system (including biological systems and entire ecospheres if it gets big enough) in order to propagate. This virus (lets break the trend and call it Manchu) can't be stopped by the Foo, despite their great power.

Every time Manchu threatens the Foo, the Foo crush it easily. But they can't crush it all, and it's starting to spread and spread exponentially, bootstrapping younger civilisations and using them to bypass the Foo's defences. With each civilisation it absorbs it gains new tricks, tricks that the Foo wouldn't have thought of until they see Manchu using them. The only solution? Get some tricks of their own.

If the Foo simulate a universe where viral agents are a powerful form of life it will give them a lot of information on good (but potentially unexpected) ways to combat Manchu, for example immunisation, creating a 'counter-Manchu' virus or just updating the biological firewalls of all civilisations near them. Every time they observe Manchu using a new trick they can add a virus with that trick to an appropriate civilisation. Say they observe Manchu hiding in their own battleships and using them to spread, then a small civilisation somewhere in their simulation suddenly runs headlong into an easily transmitted disease that hijacks the immune system. How does that civilisation cope?

Manchu pretty much represents the ultimate threat to the Foo: It won't stop coming, and if it gets enough of a foothold then it will be able to use the Foo's power against them. They will either submit to it's rule or die. Unless their tiny allies come up with an unexpected solution.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. And, Manchu could very naturally hop between reality and sim world since it is essentially just a malignant pattern. I like the idea of an evolved virus. Have you read the Frontier Saga by Ryk Brown? This sounds like the Bio-Digital Plague. $\endgroup$ – Trekkie Jan 26 '16 at 10:14
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithL: No, but the 'universe spanning plague' is a common trope, and it almost always has some way of controlling/interfacing with machines. My personal favourite is the Protomolecule from the Expanse series, though that's less a malignant virus and more a ridiculously overpowered wrench. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jan 26 '16 at 10:19
  • $\begingroup$ This reminds me of ASI: google.co.in/webhp?q=advanced+superintelligence $\endgroup$ – cst1992 Jan 28 '16 at 9:34

I would invite you to look into the Mass Effect universe. It has some similar points to the universe that you are building.

  • In mass effect the reapers are the dominant race in the galaxy.
  • The conflict they seek to avert is the struggle between organics and the synthetics. Namely the organics create synthetics to do their bidding and make their lives easier, but as the synthetics become advanced and become true AI the synthetics arise against their masters.

This is where it differs from your scenario.

  • The reapers never sought for a true solution, their policy was a scorched earth approach as evidenced by what may be a truly peaceful AI being present in the universe they were seeking to destroy.
  • They make the new civilizations develop along the technology path they intend by leaving their technology to be found making it easier for those civilizations to be destroyed when they deem it necessary. An inversion of the scenario would suggest the opposite with new civilizations finding alternative methods to achieve the very same goals without the intervention.

Moving away from the Lovecraftian setting, I would suggest having your FOO civilization surviving their ordeal at great cost and then electing to kick-starting other civilizations to arise 2001: A Space Odyssey style where they can make the choices the FOO made once, which then they monitor and step in if the experiment goes out of control.

  • $\begingroup$ Mass Effect is definitely one of my favorites. The Reapers are one of the most terrifying villains I have ever come across. I did not give any insight into the morality of the Foo... one of the questions I will be posting in the next few days will be concerned with their sense of right and wrong and how it might equate to our own. $\endgroup$ – Trekkie Jan 26 '16 at 23:28

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