Corralled Cosmos

"When the star gates could take them no further they turned against each other, igniting conflicts that would last for centuries."

The trouble with space being so mind bogglingly huge is that virtually everything we know about civilization wouldn't apply to a world with infinite horizons, and the fans aren't going to appreciate that.

Cue the Corralled Cosmos. Thanks to the magic of plot convenience there is now some impassable obstruction to keep people herded into a relatively manageable area, where they will be sure to explode into a ratings friendly conflict sooner or later. The corral itself can take many forms. It might be a physical barrier like a black hole, asteroid field, or a particle storm. It might be Handwaved away to those who ask as "lawless space" where any number of Space Pirates or eldritch abominations might be waiting to ambush you. Hell, maybe there's just a whole lot of nothing. Whatever form it takes, the message is clear: "we don't go there".

Of course, this can be justified if the limitation is to one planetary system - the difference between the timescale and technology necessary for Casual Interplanetary Travel and Casual Interstellar Travel is enormous.

Compare The Wall Around the World and Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Diebuster, humanity has been confined to a limited area in the Solar System because of the presence of the 'Jupiter Express', a massive swarm of Space Monsters located between Jupiter and Saturn. This phenomenon establishes this series as an Alternate Continuity to Gunbuster, as it implies that on this timeline the Space Monsters weren't defeated by the efforts of the heroes from the original series. Except that isn't true. The 'Jupiter Express' turns to be an automatized planetary defense system that has been mistaking the Buster Machine pilots for the enemy, and the real monsters are still out there.
  • In Legend of Galactic Heroes, the space between the Galactic Empire and the Free Planets Alliance is a nearly unnavigable gulf that destroys any ship trying to traverse it except for two small (relatively speaking) corridors: one holding the Phezzan system, and the other the Imperial fortress Iserlohn. The possibility of going around the gulf is mentioned, but never attempted.

  • Star Wars — The expanded universe's "hyperspace storms": unexplained anomalies that prevent conventional hyperspace travel beyond the galaxy's boundaries. Another such barrier separates the well-known galaxy from the Unknown Regions slice, where everything too freaky elsewhere is fair game.
    • Also, punching in random coordinates into the hyperdrive and hoping is extremely dangerous, as you might hit a celestial body's mass shadow in hyperspace and explode. Or come out in the middle of a star.
    • The hazards were ignored entirely by most authors, the boundaries were usually treated as political. Traveling to other galaxies was possible, they just saw little point with so much of their own galaxy unexplored.

  • The Dark Side of the SunTerry Pratchett. There's nothing physically restricting people from going further than 53 light-years from Wolf 359 with their matrix engines, but there's no point, as all fifty-odd known races are contained within this area, the 'life-bubble', thanks to Precursors.
  • In the Vorkosigan Saga, interstellar travel is through naturally occurring wormholes. Most wormholes don't lead anywhere useful, and planets with breathable atmospheres are therefore rare and highly prized.
  • Even with the presence of hyperspace, it still takes a long time to get anywhere in the Honor Harrington universe. The distance between two points in normalspace may be shorter in hyperspace (progressively shorter as you go to each higher band of hyperspace, but at the cost of needing better particle shielding to survive up there), but it still takes a while to get anywhere even at those faster apparent speeds (wormholes are extremely lucrative for the controlling star systems because they're near-instantaneous and can shave hundreds of light-years off a journey). In addition, hyperspace is populated by gravity waves that will tear a ship apart; until someone figured out how to sail along the grav waves and the major ones were well-plotted, hyper travel was extremely dangerous. It's still not advisable to just sail randomly throughout hyperspace because the grav waves do move, and most of the galaxy and major grav waves in hyperspace haven't been mapped. You can, of course, travel in normalspace, which is how the cryo-sleeping original colonists of many settled worlds first got to those planets, but that would take hundreds of years.
  • In the co-written by David Weber Starfire series, interstellar travel is via jump points between stars, with the actual physical distance between connected stars not necessarily having anything to do with where they are in physical space. As a result the only stars most people care about are the ones they can get to and the routes needed to get there, with some stars only having a single (known) way in and out. It's stated at one point that the only people who care where stars really are are astronomers.
  • Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle explained in an essay that they specifically designed the FTL system in "The Mote in God's Eye" to produce this effect, so they could plausibly build the type of civilization they wanted to write about. The FTL itself was quite similar to the Weber story above, although "Mote" did it first.
  • In the Star Trek novel Dark Mirror by Diane Duane, it's revealed that the Terran Empire turned to attempting to invade the Federation universe because they had reached the limits of their Alpha Quadrant, with thousands of light-years of empty space between galactic arms frustrating any attempt to expand the Empire further.
  • In the Grand Central Arena, the crew of the first manned flight through hyperspace discovers that, rather than the empty void they were expecting, hyperspace contains an enormous structure of physical barriers created by the Precursors that forces any species that wants to go outside its own solar system to do so according to the Precursors' rules. At one point the protagonists ask what would happen if they tried to get around the restrictions by sending a Sleeper Starship or a Generation Ship to another system without ever passing through hyperspace, and get a reply along the lines of "We don't know exactly, but it's been tried occasionally and none of them have ever been heard from again".

    Live Action TV 
  • Appeared in at least one episode of Andromeda. People honestly have no clue what might be lurking right next door (in interstellar terms) to their own planet despite an empire that spans three galaxies because their FTL method doesn't involve traveling through that space.
  • Babylon 5 — The nature of hyperspace travel in the B5-Verse limits the large-scale area. Hyperspace travel requires beacons and jumpgates or uber-powerful ships to travel anywhere. Thus unknown space remains unknown for long periods and some areas are permanently cut off from hyperspace travel. So you have well-known areas of space where any trip is swift and unknown space where every trip is an expedition lasting years.
    • Only very large capital ships can create their own hyperspace jump points. Earth has Cortez-class explorer ships half the size of the 5-mile long station itself that actually build new jumpgates for ships as small as fighters to use.
  • Played with in Farscape where the vast bulk of space is unknown to the two Great Powers (the Peacekeepers and Scarrans) and called "The Uncharted Territories" where their knowledge ends and filled with unknown terrors. However this is where the bulk of the Moya crew's adventures take place since they are a bunch of escaped convicts (and Crichton).
  • Firefly — The 'verse lacks any sort of Faster Than Light travel and is a massively complex planetary system. The government also puts out the story that the Reavers are folks who went a little funny spending too much time on the edge of space. For those that don't believe this, the Reavers themselves constitute a perfectly good excuse not to go there and find out. These last two reasons do not survive the end of the movie.
  • Star Trek — The great barriers around the galactic core and the outside of the galaxy mean leaving the Milky Way isn't really possible. Not to mention that even at warp speeds, it would take forever to get there.
    • Not that that stopped them from getting there in the first episode. In both of the first two series, even...
    • In the first episode of Next Gen, Q literally corrals the Enterprise with a giant energy net in space, having decided humans are just too barbaric to be allowed out into the universe at large any longer, and demands that we corral ourselves back in our home system. Picard argues that we are capable of learning from our mistakes and growing into something more; the series is book-ended with Q giving him a chance to prove it.
    • In "Remember Me," Dr. Crusher gets zapped into a pocket dimension that she discovers is a rapidly-shrinking corral and everyone else gradually and retroactively ceases to exist.

    Table Top Games 
  • In Fading Suns it is achieved by the fact that interstellar travel requires the codes to local Portal Network, and even finding lost ones is difficult enough, let alone researching them anew. And then, those on the other side may have plans of their own.
    • In the same game going to the stars the old way (ie: sleeper ships) means serious trouble, as interstellar space is said to be inhabited by EldritchAbominations such as Void Krakens.
  • Used in the old RPG 2300 AD. Like the Mass Effect FTL (though 2300 did it first), you had to stop after a certain duty cycle in some kind of gravity well near a star or brown dwarf in order to safely reset the engine, giving the fastest ships a maximum travel distance of 7.7 light years. The game used the (at the time) accurate star list and locations around Earth, which meant that to reach a star, say, 8.5 light years away, you might have to head off in a completely different direction to work your way around. It also meant that some exploration paths simply ended because there were no more known stars within range, that some stars were only approachable by one route while others were hubs, and that you might have colonies dozens of light years away, but a star system much closer was beyond reach because it was further than 7.7ly away from another.
  • Ordinary Traveller has a jump drive that always takes a week to jump, which depending on the drive rating might be 1 to 6 parsecs. And most ships can only carry enough fuel for one jump of maximum range. Together this limits the size of the Imperium and necessitated a feudal system of governance.
  • In BattleTech the Successor States pretty much corralled themselves in the Inner Sphere, they lost the ability to manufacture new Jumpships in the first Succession War and many already colonized planets became unsustainable when their terraforming broke down. What few Jumpships remain are devoted to maintaining the Successor States or fighting one another.
    • The Clans can build Jumpships, and Warships, and thus are not corralled but outside the Inner Sphere most of the planets they've found are very poor in resources. And they invaded the Successor States for ideological reasons.
  • Warhammer 40,000: FTL is pretty much limited to the Milky Way for everyone.
    • Imperial navigation is limited to a large part of the Milky Way, as the psychic beacon they rely on to not get lost in the Warp is on Earth. The setting's Alexander the Great Expy was even stopped mid-conquest not because his men wanted to go back but because they refused to go any further than the very limits of the Navigators' ability to sense the beacon.
    • The Chaos legions prefer to stay in and around the Eye of Terror, the permanent Negative Space Wedgie caused by Slaanesh's "birth".
    • The Eldar are isolated in individual Craftworlds, which have enough difficulty surviving, let alone exploring. Whether the Webway even exends that far is another complication.
    • Orks are stupid enough to try and head for another galaxy, but fortunately they'd tear each other apart before they got there. And besides, why look to other galaxies for loot, plunder and violence when there's so much of it in this one?
    • The Tau don't rely on the Warp for FTL, but their method is much, much slower, which is why their empire is so much more restricted.
    • The Necrons are all buried in various tomb worlds and are slowly waking up, and while they might be able to leave the galaxy, they're more interested in retaking their planets than conquering new ones.
    • The Tyranids are the major exception: it's implied they came from another galaxy, fleeing from something even worse...

    Video Games 
  • In Battlestar Galactica Online, the mysterious nature of the playable sector, far from known space, leaves both sides trying to figure out what's really going on and has turned their attention from escape.
  • EVE Online — While star gates make the massive eve universe traversable, there are limits to where they can be built and how far they can travel, which accounts borders and giant holes in the eve universe.
    • Capital ships are capable of jumping between systems without gates, but they can only jump to beacons activated by allies.
  • The backstory of Galactic Civilizations states that the only method of interstellar travel for most of the galaxy's history was via expensive and limited jump gates, essentially confining races to their homeworld. Then humanity developed a hyperdrive and opened the gate of the corral.
  • Halo:
    • If you want to go FTL, you'll have to travel through "slipspace". However, slipspace is rather unpredictable and inconsistent (not to mention quite dangerous without the proper precautions), and while humanity and the Covenant have colonized much of the Orion Arm, they don't yet have the technology needed to quickly or safely navigate to other parts of the Milky Way. While the Forerunners had the technology to quickly jump across the entire galaxy, intergalactic travel was still something of a hurdle for them, and they built only a few extragalactic installations in their entire history.
    • A smaller-scale aversion of this is the reason why the Cole Protocol (jumping to various random coordinates before making the final jump to a human world) is adopted to keep Earth's location hidden from the Covenant. Starships within human-controlled space could jump directly to Earth if they wanted, but this would essentially let the cat out of the bag. The Covenant eventually do find Earth, however, it's because they were looking for a Forerunner artifact on the planet, and were unaware it was also the human homeworld.
  • Mass Effect has limitations inherent to mass effect-based FTL drives. Spacecraft traveling on non-relay based FTL build up a static charge in their engines that must be discharged in a planetary magnetic field or it will eventually overload and fry the crew. This limits how far one can travel without finding planets for stopovers to expend the static discharge. If there are no planets between one's starting point and destination, then one can't get there without using a mass relay, and if the territory is unexplored, it would be foolish to go haring off into it without knowing if there's a planet to discharge one's engines at along the way. Further, even if a mass relay is discovered, longstanding galactic protocol dictates that the relay be left alone until its matching terminus can be discovered elsewhere, lest whatever is on the other side be hostile.note  Whenever a new system is charted by probes, or a new relay is activated, it tends to trigger a swarm of activity as various interests compete for settlement and resource exploitation rights. The resources across the galaxy may be vast, but only a finite amount of them become available at a time.
  • In Master of Orion 3, interstellar travel takes place on hyperspace lanes. Travel outside the lanes is possible, but takes so long that it's almost never worth it. Even if you want to try a surprise attack in an unexpected place, you'll take so long to get there that your fleet will be utterly obsolete and easily beaten by the time you arrive. The background story also starts out with a system near the centre of the galaxy located near an unstable wormhole. No-one who left was ever heard from again, since the other end of the wormhole moved every time anything traveled through it. The civilisation living there became extremely advanced, but never expanded beyond a single system.
  • Space travel in Sword of the Stars depends on species. Most are relatively unrestricted on where they can travel to, but there are two notable exceptions. The Hivers rely on a network of jump gates that they have to set up themselves so they're effectively corralled by their very slow interstellar travel. While humans rely on naturally occurring node paths.
  • In Elite, there was a maximum range of 7 light years for interstellar jumps. You could also purchase one-shot hyperspace jumps to travel to a new galaxy. However, since the galaxies were procedurally generated, it was possible for a star to be more than 7 light years from any other, so if you were unlucky you could end up corralled in a single system after travelling to a new galaxy.
  • Freelancer uses wormholes for jumps, so travel is only possible between fixed locations. Unstable and unregulated (and suspiciously plot-convenient) wormholes pop up from time to time, but it's still a long way from unrestricted travel to any system you want.
  • In Conquest Frontier Wars interstellar travel uses naturally occurring wormholes.

  • Schlock Mercenary: Before the Teraport drive was released interstellar civilization relied on "wormgates" that had to be placed at STL speeds, meaning that even after 100,000 years or so over 99.9% of the Milky Way had slipped through the "net". Unfortunately once the corral was broken open by the Teraport the various species were more interested in venting several millennia worth of pent-up frustrations towards one another than exploration.
  • In Quantum Vibe dark matter clusters around the solar system block all attempts at interstellar travel.

    Real Life 
  • This sort of happens in the real Universe. The edge of the observable universe is a horizon beyond which we don't know what lies (very likely more of the same stuff that makes our portion of the Cosmos). Even if more space will be observable in the future as light from objects located there reaches us, because of the acceleration of the Universe's expansion there's an upper limit on how far away we'll be able to observe (62 billion l. y. versus 46 billion l. y. for the current distance to the horizon). To make matters worse, if the Universe's keeps going faster and faster, as light from extragalactic objects no longer reaches usnote , that horizon will shrink to the point we'll see fewer and fewer galaxies with time, up to where it's just ours and whatever remains of the closest ones.