Literature: Despoilers Of The Golden Empire

Despoilers of the Golden Empire is a novella written by Randall Garrett in 1959; it was originally published in Astounding Science Fiction under the pen name of David Gordon. It tells the story of the expedition of Commander Frank into an alien world, far away from his home, in search of the gold his civilization needs in order to keep operating, and the victory of his army over the alien natives.

The story can be found here.


Due to the nature of this story, even the names of many of the tropes involved in the story constitute major spoilers. The trope immediately below is the only trope that can be mentioned without whiting out a large portion of the text. As a result, do not open the below folder until you have read the entire story.

  • The Ending Changes Everything: The final sentence of the story significantly changes its scope, turning a normal piece of science fiction into a brilliant work.
    And thus died Francisco Pizarro, the Conqueror of Peru.

     This work provides examples of: 
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": Invoked heavily throughout the story. Horses are called carriers, guns are referred to as a "power weapons", and various people and institutions are given names which the reader is unlikely to recognize.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: Subverted; the religion in question is Christianity, and Jesus is invoked by name at the end.
  • Deconstruction: Of science fiction's use of unusual terminology to invoke a sense of wonder.
  • Doing In the Wizard: The entire point of the story, but especially the ending, revealing that all the poetic language was used to mislead the reader into thinking they're reading a work of science fiction.
  • Earth All Along: The entire story is set on Earth. The character knows this, but the reader doesn't.
  • Exact Words: The entire story, but especially the introduction.
    To the collective mind of the Empire, gold was the prime object in any kind of mining exploration. The idea of drilling for petroleum, even if it had been readily available, or of mining coal or uranium would have been dismissed as impracticable and even worse than useless.
    • Impractical and worse than useless because it was the 1500s.
    Throughout the Empire, research laboratories worked tirelessly at the problem of transmuting commoner elements into Gold-197, but thus far none of the processes was commercially feasible. There was still, after thousands of years, only one way to get the power metal: extract it from the ground.
    • A reference to alchemy.
    There wasn't a scientist worthy of the name in the whole outfit, unless you call the navigator, Captain Bartholomew, an astronomer, which is certainly begging the question. There was no anthropologist aboard to study the semibarbaric civilization of the natives; there was no biologist to study the alien flora and fauna. The closest thing the commander had to physicists were engineers who could take care of the ship itself—specialist technicians, nothing more.
    • These sciences barely even existed in the 1500s.
    It has since been conjectured that the Great Nobles were mutants in the true sense of the word; a race apart from their subjects. It is impossible to be absolutely sure at this late date, and the commander's expedition, lacking any qualified geneticists or genetic engineers, had no way of determining—and, indeed, no real interest in determining—whether this was or was not true.
    • They had no geneticists or indeed knowledge of genetics, because it was several centuries before genetics was even discovered.
    The sun, a yellow G-O star, hung hotly just above the towering mountains to the east.
    • All absolutely true, because they are still on Earth.
    Due to atmospheric disturbances, the ship's landing was several hundred miles from the point the commander had originally picked for the debarkation of his troops. That meant a long, forced march along the coast and then inland, but there was no help for it; the ship simply wasn't built for atmospheric navigation.
    • Why would a spaceship end up landing on the coast? The answer is, of course, that it isn't a spaceship.
    The commander's first shot picked off one of the leaders in the front ranks of the native warriors, and was followed by a raking volley from the other power weapons, firing from the windows of the mud-brick buildings. The warriors in the front rank dropped, and those in the second rank had to move adroitly to keep from stumbling over the bodies of their fallen fellows. The firing from the huts became ragged, but its raking effect was still deadly. A cloud of heavy, stinking smoke rolled across the clearing between the edge of the jungle and the village, as the bright, hard lances of heat leaped from the muzzles of the power weapons toward the bodies of the charging warriors.
    The charge was gone from the commander's weapon, and he didn't bother to replace it. As Hernan and his men charged into the melee with their carriers, the commander went with them.
    • The commander's first shot is also his only shot, his weapon being a single-shot weapon from the 1500s.
  • Foreshadowing: The entire story foreshadows the ending, but gets increasingly more obvious as the story progresses towards its conclusion.
  • The Hero Dies: Commander Frank is assassinated at the end of the story, just as he was in real life.
  • Historical Fiction: The story of Francisco Pizarro's conquest of Peru.
  • Historical In-Joke: All the references to science that they didn't have in the 1500s are examples of this. More subtly, the story only references civilizations which existed prior to the 1500s when it invokes ancient civilizations for the purposes of comparisons.
  • Psychic Powers: All powers attributed to various Catholic saints.
    Once indoctrinated into the teachings of the Universal Assembly, any man could tap that Power to a greater or lesser degree, depending on his mental control and ethical attitude. At the top level, a first-class adept could utilize that Power for telepathy, psychokinesis, levitation, teleportation, and other powers that the commander only vaguely understood.
    • Commander Frank himself was a low-level initiate, just enough to occasionally use the Power to strengthen his resolve and help himself carry on. It was not altogether unexpected for a Spaniard living in the 1500s to exhibit religious zeal.
  • Purple Prose: Used to trick the reader into thinking they're reading a science fiction story.
    The metal was Element Number Seventy-nine—gold.
  • Red Herring Twist: The wording of the prose of the entire story and the references to scientific knowledge which didn't exist in the 1500s are specifically meant to trick the reader.
  • Religion Is Magic: First-class adepts of the teachings of the Universal Assembly (referred to as the Truth in the story) are noted as having various magical or psionic powers. Naming aside, the results are exactly the kind of miracles attributed to Christian saints — "first-class adepts" of the teachings of the Bible. Levitation to begin with...
  • The Reveal: The end of the story, giving us Commander Frank's full name.
  • Science Fiction: Subverted. The story is written in the style of your typical science fiction novella, but is actually a work of historical fiction. The one actual lie (as in, not subject to exact words or the unusual translation convention) admitted to in the apologia is a meta one about this — of course a reader would have every right to expect a science fiction story, since it is in a magazine of science fiction... but that's not an untruth in the story itself or by the author.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: The entire story is full of very scientific prose.
  • Subverted Trope: The entire story uses subverted tropes in order to mislead the reader as to what sort of story they're reading.
  • Techno Babble: Played with and deconstructed. Very fancy, scientifically advanced language is used throughout the story, and the characters' ignorance of many scientific facts are noted throughout. This is because the story was set in the 1500s, and no one possessed said knowledge at the time.
  • Translation Convention: All of the characters' names, and the names of various institutions and organizations in the story, are translated into their English equivalents to deceive the reader. Referring to the priesthood, politicians, and their religion in various translated terms helps hide who and what is being referred to throughout the story.