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So, this is a trope common to any number of science fiction worlds: humanity emerges from its solar system to discover that there are a bunch of alien races out there, but, importantly, at least the major players are all within decades of each other when it comes to technological advancement.

Star Trek is perhaps the most egregious example of this, but lots of other continuities have the same basic structure: humanity (or another race) may have primitive warp drives/proton torpedoes/sun harvesters, but not so much that any fight is a foregone conclusion, if and when it comes to a fight. This is generally handwaved, if it is addressed at all.

Given the rapid pace of advancement of technology (particularly weapons technology), any more than an effective century of disparity would seem likely to produce the kind of imbalance that would make conflicts entirely one-sided. Over the course of an intelligent species' evolution, a century seems like an awfully narrow window.

So: What would a reasonable mechanism be by which this result could be accomplished?

Assumptions: FTL transport is possible and cost-effective to transport actual beings over interstellar distances (soft sci-fi), life is relatively common (one in a hundred stars has a planet with a biosphere), limited deus ex machina (ideally would prefer to avoid "God did it").

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    $\begingroup$ This is in part the practical thinking behind the Fermi paradox. $\endgroup$ – Adwaenyth Aug 4 '17 at 10:32

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If you're talking about levelling just the technological playing field, the obvious answer would be trade. A second answer would be the limits of physics.

Trade

Assuming natural resources are ultra-plentiful on non-intelligent-life and non-inhabited planets & things (suns, comets, asteroids) there shouldn't be a reason to fight with your neighbours over them. And once you can build a few robots there should't be any sane reason for slaves.

The only reason you would even want to talk to any other aliens is to trade information or things that they've made. Maybe your culture is growing old & bored, and thrives on new stories even. It would be easiest to trade basic technical info to obtain their "stuff," you don't have to make & deliver anything, while just showing them how to build faster & bigger ships so you can get more stuff delivered to you faster. Basic enough info that it still works, but not so advanced that they could fly over and blow up your planet at the slightest whim.

If some species think that's a bad idea and don't want to give technical info to "lesser" species that could threaten them sometime in the future, that's fine, they won't. But all it takes is one species willing to trade, or even just one ship from one species and Pandora's box is open.

Physical Limits

Second, maybe the best technology & weapons have physical limits that just can't be surpassed. A musket from 400 years ago and a modern assault rifle are worlds apart, but both use similar physics & are both still dangerous.

I'm not a (theoretical) physicist, but maybe nuclear reactions can only get so big (like a sun), or "ray-guns" have a maximum theoretical power, and once you can build a reactor or a bomb or ray-gun, then another thousand years of tweaking the details won't result in much more "bang for your buck." Going from a 20% efficient ray-gun to a 90% efficient one would be a big jump, but they're both still effective enough.

In that case, someone with a basic entry-level weapon could still fight against the thousand year old species, but the minor tweaking details would still give the old species the advantage, most of the time, making for a not-completely-one-sided conflict.

The first season (or two?) of Star Trek's Enterprise show often focused on technology. For example their weapons start off basically working, after some "tweaks" they're up to a level similar enough to fight with the much older Klingons. It also showed technology traded to others. Cloaking devices eventually going from Romulans (and the future?) to Klingons, and "holodecks" from a Xyrillian ship to a Klingon ship, and in "future" series' the Federation.


Wrapping the two ideas together a little, the Star Trek episode "A Piece of the Action" ends with Dr.McCoy realizing he left his communicator behind on the planet, possibly teaching a basic civilisation the key to replicating all the Federation's advanced technology...

This page has a nice review with some dialogue like:

SPOCK: Captain. If the Iotians, who are very bright and imitative people, should take that communicator apart—

KIRK: They will, they will. And they’ll find out how the transtator works.

SPOCK: The transtator is the basis for every important piece of equipment that we have.

KIRK: Everything.

MCCOY: You really think it’s that serious?

KIRK: Serious? Serious, Bones? It upsets the whole percentage.

MCCOY: How do you mean?

KIRK: Well, in a few years, the Iotians may demand a piece of our action.

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    $\begingroup$ For example beam divergence affects even perfect lasers due to diffraction, so you can't increase range of your laser riffle without limits. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Aug 4 '17 at 5:40
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    $\begingroup$ “maybe nuclear reactions can only get so big (like a sun)” – oh, they can. A supernova is to an H-bomb like that H-bomb to, don't know, a balloon popping. (Probably in fact rather like an H-bomb to a single sugar molecule getting digested.) Your point still stands, in that those super-violent events might turn out uncontrollable. — @Mołot that's an unconvincing example. Beam divergence can be made arbitrarily small (at least when you don't have to worry about atmospheric distortion) by increasing the aperture or decreasing the wavelength. An advanced civilisation might just use X-Ray lasers. $\endgroup$ – leftaroundabout Aug 4 '17 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ Although I was hoping for a mechanism external to interspecies interaction, this does seem like the most feasible solution. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Aug 5 '17 at 17:22
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"The Asgard would never invent a weapon that propels small weights of iron and carbon alloys, by igniting a powder of potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulfur. We cannot think like you do." Thor, Stargate SG-1 S4E1

This is a very complex question, which is undoubtedly why so many SciFi worlds bypass dealing with it. The central issue is that any truly alien species (as in, developed on a completely separate world and therefore beholden to a completely different environment) will be completely alien in nature. The implication of this is that as a species we are mostly incapable of actually imagining what an alien would be like biologically, let alone socially or technologically.

Star Trek gets around this with the Federation's handy Theory of Convergent Development, which is how they explained all those episodes on other planets with totally-not-Nazi Nazis and totally-not-western Westerns.

But let's look at it analytically:

Most depictions of sentient aliens in SciFi are shown as vastly superior to us, either physically, mentally, or technologically. But that is just as likely to not be the case.

For example, here on Earth the primary state of life is direct competition. Predators fighting predators for the prey, prey eating the plants, plants trying to not get eaten while still spreading seeds, etc. But what if we imagine an alien species where the primary method of competition was symbiosis/parasitism? Or even a planet where adaptability was the most needed trait due to a highly unstable environment?

We don't think about it a lot, but humans are actually pretty good at surviving at the purely biological level. We don't think we are because we compare ourselves to lions and elephants, creatures we evolved to directly compete against; over those animals we have only our superior intellects and planning skills.

But imagine that species from the planet based on symbiosis. Perhaps they pilot biomechanical spaceships and their technology is directly integrated into themselves. After all, how else would they design it, coming from a planet where everything functions at the most basic level by its ability to integrate with other organisms? To us, they would appear as a single life form instead of a ship piloted by individuals.

In this situation, our weapon technology would in all likelihood be overwhelmingly more advanced for the simple reason that we make weapons to kill things, whereas they would most likely make weapons to break things apart. Imagine a weapon that destroys an organisms ability to communicate. On a symbiotic world that would be devastating, as bad as a neurotoxin. To a human though, it would be a horrific weapon but hardly deadly. Unleash a communication killing weapon on a human army and they'll just keep attacking, albeit with little to no organization.

And this is only one example.

To summarize: there are lots of things that could even the playing field. The key thing to think about is what biology/psychology/technology the aliens have and why they have it. And if you find yourself imagining something mostly human-like, then it isn't really a true alien. Once you can imagine that, then you can imagine why their technology would be ineffective, or what we might come up with to counteract it.

For a slightly softer but more creative look at this concept, take a look here: http://imgur.com/gallery/hINj1xf

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  • $\begingroup$ Sounds like someone's been to /r/HFY $\endgroup$ – eyeballfrog Aug 4 '17 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ @eyeballfrog actually no. I don't go on Reddit often $\endgroup$ – enpaul Aug 4 '17 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for aliens not being humanoid. It annoys me to no end that most sci-fi writers (and, of course, this includes videogame makers) think convergent evolution is a thing. Whatever's out there surely looks nothing like us. And another +1 for the funny link. $\endgroup$ – Rain Aug 4 '17 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ Sounds more like Olaf Stapleton's Star Maker. Super good book. It included an ocean planet with the dominant race actually being a symbiotic, telepathic pairing of two races, one of which were like whales and the other some kind of land-capable crustaceans, I think. $\endgroup$ – Dave Aug 4 '17 at 23:50
  • $\begingroup$ If resources are finite, competition is a given. Mutualism being much more common than it is on earth would not change that. $\endgroup$ – Borsunho Aug 5 '17 at 10:11
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I think Stargate SG1 managed this quite well.

(May contain some spoilers about Stargate SG1, so if you haven't seen it and plan to, don't read the main text, just read the bold bits.)

Most of the 'aliens' they encountered were actually humanoids that had advanced to varying degrees of technology, most of which was behind their own, but a handful were truly superior to them in every way.


Steal Weapons:

As soon as you can, start stealing the weapons of superior hostile races.

One species, the Goa'uld, were a parasitic race that stole all their technology. One of the first things the Tau'ri (Earth humans) did when they knew they were outmatched was steal as many Goa'uld weapons as they possibly could as soon as they possibly could.

In a way it would be equivalent to a roman soldier coming to the future and stealing a policeman's handgun (except this handgun fires energy bolts and takes a very long time before it needs reloading), as soon as they understood the simple "point and click" interface, they'd be a genuine threat. If they could actually understand how it worked (which in this case the Tau'ri eventually did), they'd be an even bigger threat.


Make Powerful Allies:

Ally yoursef with a more powerful race.

Other advanced races tended to be more peaceful or preoccupied with other enemies. One race in particular (the Tollan) allied with the Tau'ri but refused to give them weapons. (This was due to an incident in which they previously gave an advanced power source to a less advanced race in their own solar system and that race turned the power source into a weapon that managed to destroy their own planet, rendering the whole system uninhabitable.)

It was one of these advanced races (the Asgard) that truly offered Earth protection. Early on in Earth's adventures into space, the Asgard contacted them about a treaty they could sign with some of the more moderate Goa'uld that would prevent the Goa'uld from attacking them on the grounds that if the Goa'uld attacked the Asgard would come and wipe them out. (The treaty was a sort of half-bluff, the Asgard were capable of wiping out any Goa'uld faction that didn't comply with the treaty, but their hands were mostly tied by another war they were fighting.)


Learn From Others:

Reverse engineer your gifted and stolen technology in order to be a better contender.

Eventually, Earth acquired some of the Goa'uld's smaller space-faring vessels and managed to learn enough from them to develop their own space-faring vessels. It took a lot of trial and error but they got there in the end. They even eventually managed to build their own completely Earth-designed space ship with full FTL travel.

They also developed their own power-sources by reverse engineering alien power sources, which was thankfully less hard.

Lastly, one of their allies eventually agreed to hand over all their technological knowledge to the Tau'ri (in the form of a handful of easy-to-use databases) because their entire race was dying and they saw the Tau'ri as the best candidate to use the knowledge for good.

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Anyone who advances technologically will be ganged up on by the other races.

Let's imagine 2 people standing in on opposite sides of a big wad of cash in the centre, and both people are willing to kill for it.

Both people have a revolver on their hip, and go to draw.

One of the people is secretly an alien, and has a ray gun hidden behind his back. It's more accurate (100% vs 50%), but with the same rate of fire.

In this scenario, he will draw the ray gun and fire. His odds of surviving are 50%, as the other person gets 1 shot at him.

His odds if he used the revolver are 25% chance of killing and surviving, 25% chance of killing and not surviving, 25% chance of not killing and not surviving , 25% chance of surviving and not killing, which loops back to round 2 at the same odds as the first. So his odds of surviving with the revolver are 1/3.

Now, lets say there are 3 people around the cash.

If the alien draws his ray gun, both of the other people will aim for the alien. After everyone has fired once, human 1 is dead, human 2 is alive, and alien has a 25% chance of being alive. If he survives, then he fires and kills person 2. , and has a 50% chance of being killed in return. His total odds of surviving are 12.5%. By contrast, the other people have an average of 37.5% (0 and 75%) chance of surviving. The people with the revolvers are 3x as likely to survive as the alien with the ray gun.

If instead he drew his revolver, then one of two things can happen, the three can fire at the person on their left, or two of the three can gang up on someone.

If everyone fires left, then all the possibilities after 1 round are equally likely (12.5%). These are:

All live.

All die.

Only alien lives.

Only person 1 lives.

Only person 2 lives.

Two people live in any combination (A+P1, A+P2, P1+P2).

So that is 5 options where the alien dies, 2 options where they have a 1v1 dual, and 1 option where they win. The 'everyone lives option is not included, for the same reason that rolling a 6 sided die and rerolling all 6s is the same as rolling a 5 sided die.

If he is in a 1v1 dual, as above he has a 1/3% chance of living.

So his total odds of winning are 1/8 + 2/8 * 1/3. This is 5/24, or 20.8%.

The alien is nearly twice as likely to survive if he keeps his ray gun hidden.

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    $\begingroup$ What if the alien has a bulletproof vest? i.e. better defensive tech. He will guaranteed survive if they can't kill him. $\endgroup$ – Mathmagician Aug 4 '17 at 4:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Mathmagician - shields exist in lots of scifi. They generally can be overloaded by either sustained or concentrated firepower. To go straight to impenetrable shields sounds like too big a leap. $\endgroup$ – Scott Aug 4 '17 at 4:19
  • $\begingroup$ How well did the Iroquois, Zulu or WWII Polish do? "Pretty well, considering" is a terrible epitaph. $\endgroup$ – user25818 Aug 4 '17 at 5:24
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    $\begingroup$ OP didn't require all planets to be equal and survive, just that a bunch of the major players are roughly equal. WWII is an example that demonstrates my point. Germany attacking Poland led to Germany being defeated by a larger number of countries. $\endgroup$ – Scott Aug 4 '17 at 5:32
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My first thought would be that everyone else went away. Perhaps we live in a relatively bad area of the universe and all the life forms that could do so left.

Think about what humans are doing. We want to get to Mars, because that's the next "great leap for mankind," but after that, are we really going to stay in our little corner of the galaxy, poking around on every little planet out there as our home world deteriorates? Absolutely not! We'll be on the first ship out, once we have a ship to take us. Our technological boom is powered by the destruction of our planet, to the point that we might never be able to save it, so once a viable escape option becomes a realistic and nearly certain option, the odds are good that we'll damn what's left of the planet to finish our ship and then be off to the best planet we can reach. That probably won't be the nearest one, or the occupied one. It will be far away and it will have the kinds of elements we deem desirable in a home-world.

It seems to me that most intelligent (the use of 'intelligent' to describe species that wreck their planets may be a stretch, but you know what I mean) species would probably do the same thing we humans are doing, and as you said, technology advances so quickly that once the first breakthrough in this technology is made, the rapid expedition of life from a planet is not far behind. This creates a natural separation of those-with-awesome-tech from those-without-awesome-tech, and if we assume that our planet (or whatever planet you may be writing from) is in a district of space that no one wants to live in once they know there's an alternative, it's quite reasonable to assume that the only life-forms we would have contact with in our pre-overpowering-technology stage would be other species in pre-overpowering-technology stage. It's not because that's the only age of life there is, it's just that that's the only age of life that hasn't left yet.

Along this same vein, you could work in that some life-forms built up to near-overpowering-tech levels, then crashed their societies, either through destruction of resources or overpopulation or what-have-you, and now are either primitive once more, barren wasteland planets, or maybe some kind of steam-punk blend of futuristic lost technology in a less-advanced society.

You could also make some kind of historical event that allowed for the evolution of life at a specific time. Like, maybe there was some kind of massive super-nova/black-hole/worm-hole/antimatter something-or-other that created a wave of magnetism or some such that allowed for the evolution of life from the elements. This wave would travel out, and as it passed over a certain area in space, it would spark life on every 1 in 100 star systems. Because life started at about the same time in the same neighborhoods of space, the life on those planets would be about the same age. As you went farther from your home-world, you'd find life that increasingly differed in age from your own species.

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  • $\begingroup$ If there are 1billion planets suitable for life in the galaxy and technology always appears, and the gap between the first and last is 1billion years then we have 1planet a year, 100 civilizations with similar tech in the galaxy along with millions of planets full of dumb life. $\endgroup$ – Donald Hobson Aug 4 '17 at 14:49
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You don't need to have a level playing field.

There are millions of civilizations in the galaxy, all at random levels of development. The ones which happen to be at or near the highest levels will consider one another peers, and from their point of view there is a level playing field. There are scads of other civs out there, but they ... don't count from a astropolitical point of view. They are variously ignored, conquered, used as proxy or buffer states, or, well, eaten.

(Note that if the lesser-equipped civs survive long enough as slaves/clients/buffets for long enough, it is likely that technology will diffuse from the big neighbors and the more backward groups will gradually start being more competitive)

Note also that this could vary per region. Our spiral arm could, by chance, be a very low-tech region. The high civilizations of our arm have never met the mighty empires of galactic center; if they did, they'd be humbled. Think Aztecs -- primus inter pares in their region until something completely unexpected showed up. This is a common trope in sci fi series ... after defeating the local bad guys, there's suddenly an invasion of even tougher bad guys from somewhere else!

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The classic pattern in science fiction is that, from the perspective of an interstellar civilization, there are three known plateaus for civilizations: planet-bound, interstellar, and "sublimated". The technological cliff that must be overcome to move from planet-bound to interstellar is almost always faster-than-light travel; the cliff that must be climbed to achieve "sublimation" is a mystery. Planet-bound civilizations are unable to interact with interstellar civilizations -- at least not on their own terms -- and "sublimated" civilizations are incomprehensible to, and usually unwilling to interact with, interstellar civilizations.

Other answers have covered forces that would tend to equalize technologies among interstellar civilizations, but the other important detail is that these two cliffs represent a lower and upper limit on technological development. There's only so far that a planet-bound civilization can go, and there's only so far an interstellar civilization can go, prior to sublimation. The most advanced interstellar civilization cannot easily overwhelm the least advanced, and an interstellar civilization will relatively quickly reach technological parity with the more advanced through communication, trade, and espionage.

In short, interstellar civilizations would reach relative parity due to rapid communication of interstellar travel, and the relatively narrow range of technologies on that plateau.

I'd argue that these plateaus are at least implicit in Star Trek, and are often quite explicit in space opera; overcoming one or the other cliff is an explicit victory condition in many 4X games. Occasionally the result of being unable to overcome one of the two cliffs is explored, as in Iain Banks's Against a Dark Background.

An interesting variation, in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, was adding a geographic component to the constraints. This made it more clear why civilizations that had achieved more advanced plateaus rarely interfered with civilizations on lower plateaus: to do so meant physically travelling to areas in which travel and thought itself was slower, and they were rarely willing to do so.

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The Prime Directive

In Star Trek, there are aliens that are unbeatable, but they tend not to conquer less advanced civilisations. From the point-of-view of a prewarp civilisation, the Federation would be unbeatable. The prime directive prohibits the federation from interfering with prewarp civilisations however. The Q-continuum would have no trouble defeating the Federation, but they have something similar to the prime directive, so they mostly don't mess around with the Federation.

I brought up the prime directive since the question mentioned Star Trek. Higher powered beings may avoid conflict for other reasons, such as simply not caring about insignificant beings, or maintaining a nature reserve.

Of course, high powered aliens might care about lesser beings, perhaps seeing them as vermin to eradicate. However, the most interesting tales may simply be set in areas of space where human-like intelligences are permitted to exist. This may involve species settling into quanta of power, where they do not interfere with other quanta

  • prewarp: Conflict is primarily within the same planet. On Earth the USA has the greatest military technology. However, it would be unwise for the USA to declare war on the rest of the world. Note, that the USA would not be as strong without trade, so almost by definition it has to share some technology with its fellow prewarp rivals. Also, he USSR switched from an ally to a foe around the 1950s.

  • warp/interstellar: Can do things that we can only imagine, like bending spacetime to achieve FTL. Begins trade with other civilisations, resulting in a power arrangement similar to the pre-warp case.

  • trancendant: Weird energy beings that can do things that we can't really imagine. Their motives need not be clear to a human. Perhaps they don't really care what happens in what we call 3-dimensional space.

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Weapons are simply a means of delivering large amounts of energy to a small space, causing havoc and destruction. Given the vastness of deep space, it would not seem improbable that a major way for species to meet would be for both species to develop FTL travel. But, developing FTL travel means that you have developed a way to direct energy. You have the means to deliver almost limitless energy to anywhere you want. In turn, that means that you have pretty much reached or come within spitting distance of the limits for weapons development.

This is sort of like where the Soviet Union and the U.S. stand now. Sure, we can refine our nuclear weapons so that they are 20% more efficient, or 15% more destructive, or have 35% greater range. But what's the point. Whether we do or not, we have MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction.

So, back to the vastness of space... At the same time you develop FTL, and you have built-in access to FTL level weapons. You have also the technology for that level of energy control, which means that you can also develop defensive technology to match those weapons. Again, you are within spitting distance of each other.

At that stage, then conflict is a lot more about tactics than it is about being stronger than the other. You can see this in high level physical battles (UFC or boxing). Strength and speed are a big factor, but among the very top competitors, skills and strategy can and often do determine the outcome.

Another example of this is coach Tom Herman leading Houston to a victory over Florida State on Dec 31, 2015. Florida State had a team made up of higher recruited players, supposedly stronger and faster. But, at that level, given the right leader, even a team like Houston can challenge (and defeat) a team like Florida State, or number three ranked Oklahome in 2016.

The point is, there are technological plateaus, as there are plateaus in any kind of development. Areas reached where a hard technological or developmental or scientific limit keeps the players within a range close enough for leadership and tactics to be a greater deciding factor.

That is, until some alien race hits some paradigm shift, a technological breakthrough that takes them to a whole other level. At that level, of course, they can locate and destroy every other race at will, or they can rise above such needs or desires. We are just lucky to be in the galaxy where those races, so far, have chosen the latter.

I think that is a pretty good explanation. And I also think it is all BS. But then again, that's the point. Isn't it?

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Spoilers for Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, unfortunate but necessary.

Have a look at the Eschaton books by Charles Stross, Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, humanity is actually without biologically alien neighbours, but there are other human civilisations who are different enough for story purposes. The Eschaton is a weakly god-like agency, in this case an AI who, for purposes that remain opaque, spreads the greater part of humanity to the stars in a sphere about 1000 light years across and gives them cornucopia machines and some other toys available on Earth in that particular era and a couple of new ones (including FTL and a commandant not to use it for time travel or else) and enough people to make the colonies work. On the same day that the majority of people disappear SETI receiver stations start going haywire, the Eschaton has also pushed people back in time a year per light year of distance from Sol so the colonies that are 500 light years away are also 500 years older than Earth's civilisation technologically, and hideously advanced as evidence in Singularity Sky.

Now if those colonists had been dropped off without temporal displacement they'd all be on about the same footing, except for the Luddites who trash their nanotech and other modern machines. It might be a bit too "God did it" for your purposes but it could also give you some ideas.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've read both; big fan of Stross. This treads very close to the deus ex machina I wanted to avoid, however - it's easy to solve the problem if an all-powerful being of whatever sort (AI, "ascended" being, or deity) makes everyone be on an even footing. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Aug 5 '17 at 6:13
  • $\begingroup$ Someone forcing others to be roughly on the same footing is really the only realistic(!) way of doing it. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Aug 28 at 22:37
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Option #1 - warp drive has time-altering effects.

Warp travel's FTL qualities results in time travel. However, warp drive activation protocols negate this effect in a huge area. (Too big to try and drive out of it conventionally.) If you use warp drive, you won't ever notice the time travel effect, since it will be blocked anywhere you've ever been. However, any species which doesn't have warp travel (and thus doesn't have the warp drive buffer zone) will experience time much more quickly than the warp-capable species. This leads to a convergence of technology, as every species, which will ever achieve warp travel, achieves it at nearly the same exact time.

Option #2 - no shields, no super materials.

Every ship in the galaxy is a glass cannon - nobody can take a significant hit, even from primitive ships. So your superior tech may give you a 3-1 advantage and way better strategic maneuverability, but if you get surrounded or assaulted by overwhelming numbers you still die.

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There is no competition from higher level technologies because Science is not as blind and amoral as she normally appears.

At our infantile levels and all the way up to FTL level, Science is designed to be easy to figure out. There are no cultural or moral requirements which might keep a student from figuring out how things work. If anything, a little cruelty and selfishness on the part of the student, actually helps with the early studies.

But as you advance past simple things like FTL, the designers of the universe have encoded a higher set of minimum requirements. General pacifism and a post-scarcity escape from primal greed are not only good ideas, they are integral to understanding how the higher level aspects of our universe work.

The advanced studies in our universe simply can't be fathomed by minds which still understand concepts like nationalism, ownership or superiority-through-biological-distinction.

So most of the species who manage to get up to the FTL threshold, get stuck at that level, (squabbling among themselves for dominion over meaningless star charts) for centuries. The few civilizations which transcend their primal instincts continue on a journey of peaceful advancement and non-intrusive exploration, while everyone else compete the more visible roles of the conquerors and the vanquished. Those in the more visible roles stack up across time, no matter how long ago they mastered FTL, they really can't go any further using these old techniques. So they fight among themselves with more or less equivalent arsenals...

OPTIONAL PART ...until an emissary of peace returns from a place beyond their understanding to show them a better way.

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Big Brother Race

The first race to achieve FTL doesn't seek domination. Instead, they spread across the galaxy, and whenever they meet another sentient race, they share all their knowledge and technologies with them for free. Even if one race reached the stars a thousand years before the other, they both use tech provided by the First Ones, which is beyond anything they could achieve in a reasonable time.

And, well, with developed enough surveillance (and maybe some telepathy), First Ones can see any attempts of lesser races to develop ingenious technologies. Depending on technology in question, it either gets shared between everyone, or, well, disappears along with everyone that knew about it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not a bad idea; that said, you're still left with the issue that the big-brother race has to spread its ideas to a significant number of players in a very short amount of time, and then they all continue to advance at about the same rate as each other? $\endgroup$ – neophlegm Aug 29 at 9:48
  • $\begingroup$ @neophlegm A short amount of time on astronomical scale, sure. But, it's not that hard, assuming FTL is fast enough. Consider: in first hundred years after FTL they colonise one system. In next hundred years they colonise 2. In next --- 4. In first thousand years they colonise 1024 systems, in 2000 years they have a million systems, and the whole galaxy is under their control in just 3000 years. And, yes, they advance as the same rate, as any advancement is seen by the Big Brother and shared (or utterly disintegrated if dangerous). $\endgroup$ – Alice Aug 29 at 10:07

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