Imagine for the moment that one is a member of a technologically advanced civilization. Further suppose that one stumbles across an unfamiliar world populated by beings whose technical sophistication is far below yours. There are two (preliminary) options, here: one can either make overt contact or one can avoid it.
For historical reasons—that throughout Earth history, first contact between dissimilar cultures was generally followed by vigorous efforts by whichever culture enjoyed a military advantage to strip-mine the other of goods and services—many science fiction authors (particularly during the mid-century period when various empires were winding down) gave their settings laws encouraging non-interference. One might call this a Prime Directive.
While non-interference has the advantage that one will not have directly caused calamity, it can be hard for observers to sit on their hands watching disasters well within their ability to prevent or mitigate because of a non-interference pact. Furthermore, it’s hard to gin up a satisfactory plot from total non-interference. Just ask Uatu the Watcher. So…there seems to be a tendency for many SF works that mention such a directive to actually be about efforts to circumvent it.
There are many such works. Here are a canonical five.
“Finished” by L. Sprague de Camp (1949)
Unlike many Prime Directives, the misleadingly named Interplanetary Council’s codicil against supplying advanced technology to underdeveloped worlds like Krishna has very little to do with what’s best for those worlds’ inhabitants. The Council’s concern is that some extra-terrestrial Genghis Khan armed with purchased WMDs might then turn them on the members of the IC. Therefore, as long as the technological embargo is maintained, the Council is perfectly happy to allow its citizens to play tourist on Krishna.
Krishnans are neither blind nor stupid. Prince Ferrian of Sotaspé orchestrates a bold plan to smuggle illicit information past the watchful eyes of the IC guardians. Thus, the otherwise inexplicable steam-powered warship. Nor is the prince foolish enough to have just one scheme. If the off-worlders somehow manage to deal with his steamboat—and they most certainly will try—Ferrian has a back-up plan about which the off-worlders can do absolutely nothing.
The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. (1968)
The members of the Federation of Independent Worlds are, without exception, planetary democracies. Worlds not so governed are not accepted as members, nor are they informed of the Federation’s existence. Instead, the Interplanetary Relations Bureau, IPR for short, covertly monitors promising worlds. One might expect from the motto emblazoned on IPR base walls—”DEMOCRACY IMPOSED FROM WITHOUT IS THE SEVEREST FORM OF TYRANNY”—that strict non-interference is the rule. In fact, subtle nudges are allowed, provided they are so subtle as to remain undetected.
Kurr’s absolute monarchy has proven extraordinarily resistant to IPR’s methods. For four centuries, IPR agents have watched in despair as the kingdom stagnated. Cultural Survey agent Jef Forzon arrives knowing nothing about Kurr’s peculiar history, and no idea why someone specializing in art has been seconded to the IPR base there. He quickly discovers that the team’s dire assessment of Kurr is hopelessly optimistic. The situation in Kurr is far worse than the IPR realizes.
Decision at Doona by Anne McCaffrey (1969)
Although the majority of humans are far too cosseted and decadent to consider trading Earth’s overcrowded cities for pioneering lives on frontier worlds, the tiny minority of non-degenerates are sufficient to establish colonies…provided empty worlds can be found for them. Humanity’s first attempt to make contact with an alien race ended with the total extinction of the contactees. Ever since then, humans have followed a strict non-interference policy.
Doona seems a perfect candidate for settlement, offering verdant wilderness and a reassuring lack of natives. However, hardly have the men established a foothold that could house the shipload of women and children even now approaching Doona than an alien community is discovered a mere stone’s throw from the human village. More to the point, the human village is discovered by the aliens. A supposedly comprehensive planetary survey managed to overlook a thriving alien civilization. What then for non-interference?
Enchantress From the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl (1970)
Unlike certain Federations one could name, the Federation in Engdahl’s SF fable is so dedicated to non-interference that it conceals the Federation’s very existence from worlds too immature to join the galactic government. Instead, it adheres to a strict policy of covertly monitoring and documenting lesser civilizations, even the starfaring ones. Those worlds that survive the natural maturation process are welcomed into the Federation. Those that self-doom are left to their fate.
Pre-industrial Andrecia presents the Federation with an uncomfortable edge case. Andrecia has been noticed by the Empire and deemed suitable for brutal exploitation. Cultures eliminating themselves with nuclear fire are one thing. Innocents being invaded by off-world imperialists are quite another. However, the Federation’s laws are quite strict: if the Federation’s Anthropology Service is to save Andrecia, it will have to use means that do not reveal to either Andrecia or the Empire that the Federation exists.
The Federation’s plan depends on Ilura, a powerful psychic. Ilura swiftly becomes too dead to play her role. The only available replacement? A young, untrained stowaway named Elana…
The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree by Lee Killough (1980)
Before it fell, the Galactic Union demonstrated why interference in backward worlds was a bad idea. The Sodality that replaced the Union therefore adheres to non-interference. There is no leeway for oversights or lapses. When the native Shree were discovered on Nira in the wake of a Sodality mining operation being established on that planet, the operations were shut down and the off-worlders evacuated. In the centuries since, the only interferences permitted were covert Department of Surveys and Charters surveys, carried out once every half-millennium.
Newly minted monitor Chemel Krar is in charge of the latest survey. She has no intention of permitting any of her subordinates to reveal the Sodality’s existence to the Shree. Pity that by the time the team sets down on Nira, the Shree have been in contact with off-worlders for centuries. Too bad that some of the off-worlders responsible would rather kill the entire research team than risk the legal penalties for illicit contact.
Chemel evades capture and the ensuing attempts to kill her. However, her surviving teammates have scattered, leaving Chemel marooned on her own. This forces an awkward choice on the monitor: spend her life hiding from Shree and off-world traders? Or try to alert the Sodality by allying with the very natives nobody is supposed to contact?
Establishing and then subverting non-interference pacts is a highly popular pastime for SF authors. No doubt examples abound, but I don’t have the time to trek through the whole of science fiction looking for them. Please feel free to mention and discuss interesting works in the comments below.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.