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Metals, especially iron and copper, are a critical part of a typical human civilization. A common setting in science fiction and fantasy is a world that is lacking in these materials. This lack can be used to drive the plot, or simply to provide an unusual background for the story.
This can be a reason for a Medieval Stasis
or the driving force behind the development of Magitek
or Organic Technology
. Bamboo Technology
is a possible (but uncommon) outcome.
There is an element of Zeerust
to this trope, as real world advances in materials science
is increasingly demonstrating the ways in which elements like carbon and silicon can be used to produce both structural materials and electronic components with little or no iron, copper or other traditionally used metals. In particular, many works in the science fiction genre start with the assumption that virtually all future technology would be based on metals like iron, and that the lack of it would result in a technological collapse since nobody could conceive of using anything else.
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- The Riftwar Cycle starts when magicians from metal-poor Kelewan develop a way to create rifts leading to other worlds. Scouts report that the world of Midkemia has unimaginable wealth in metal just lying around; a Midkemian viewing a magical recording of the events recognizes the "wealth" as being trash heaps and slag piles.
- A Planet Called Treason. In the backstory, a group of families attempted to overthrow the government of an interstellar republic and as punishment were banished to a planet without any accessible iron. Each family is given a teleportation device with the understanding that if they place something of sufficient value in it, they will be rewarded with iron. The story starts off when one of the families, now grown into a nation, starts conquering their neighbors using improbable numbers of iron weapons.
- Dragonriders of Pern. The planet Pern has limited amounts of available metal, meaning it is of little interest to the large corporations that normally colonize worlds, but perfect for a group of people who want to create a low-tech agrarian society.
- Ringworld, an unimaginably large artificial world, has no mineral ores: if you dig into a mountain, you'll hit the scrith underlying the sculpted landscape after a few hundred meters. After the civilization that built the Ring collapses, a space-faring civilization can't rise again because there's no ore and you can only recover so much metal from ruined cities.
- In Foundation, the planet of Terminus has so few mineral resources that its coinage is made of steel. As a result, they push miniaturization to levels that scientists of the Galactic Empire believed impossible.
- In the Seekers of the Sky, Earth itself was miraculously stripped of most of its minable iron in the backstory, leading to a civilization that is still struggling with industrialization around 2000 CE and where bronze swords are still common weapons.
- The titular planet in the Majipoor Series is ten times the size of Earth, and only habitable thanks to this trope. The lack of metal leads to Schizo Tech, with draft animals and Vibroweapons existing side by side.
- Spinneret involves humans colonizing an Earthlike planet with absolutely no surface metal, not even metal salts in the oceans, because it's the only world available. As a result, anything metallic — even fertilizer for crops — needs to be brought in from Earth. They very quickly discover why: there's an alien device that leeches metal out of the soil (or even merely in contact with the soil) and turns it into kilometers-long strands of super-strong cable.
- In Eater-Of-Bone, set in the Great Ship universe, a colony ship was catastrophically damaged and flung off of its trajectory, sending it towards one of the lone stars at the periphery of the Milky Way. The nigh-immortal Trans Human colonists are forced to settle on a world which is extremely metal-poor (particularly in salts and iron), making any kind of machinery precious beyond belief and every drop of blood lost a tragedy. One character laments that there's metal in the world, but so far below the ground that it is unreachable to the damaged machinery of the starship. The colonists cooperated with each other for a short time, but the strains of resource shortages fractured them into dozens of small groups, who often fight each other for resources. "Eater-of-bone" isn't meaningless, either, because even bone and marrow hold the metals required for metabolism.
- In Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series, the planet Darkover (Cottman IV) has a lack of metals compared to most Earth-type planets. The novel Darkover Landfall said that the planet didn't have a nickel/iron core, that the rock was low in metallic ores and that metals were very rare. The locals have developed Psychic Powers to a level verging on Magitek.
- The Riverworld was intentionally built this way as a way to get every human who ever lived and has been resurrected at the same time to concentrate on more spiritual issues.
- In King David's Spaceship, Prince Samual's World is noted to be copper poor. As a result, one Imperial thinks that world will have trouble building communication lines without imports of the metal.
- The Mote in God's Eye has Mote Prime. Because they've been trapped in their star system, the Moties have mined out their metals and have to scavenge from older relics.
- Many of the worlds in the Childe Cycle lack metal resources, and as a result have to import it. And because these worlds lack these resources (among others) it affects their economy in interstellar trade.
- Takis in the Wild Cards series. However, this merely served to push the Takisians towards Organic Technology, which they have mastered to the point of literally being able to grow things like space stations and travel through space in Living Ships.
- E. E. “Doc” Smith does this. In Triplanetary, the planet Nevia is so scarce in iron that ten pounds of it is an unimaginably large quantity; this scarcity, combined with the Nevians' development of a method for total mass-energy conversion of iron, gives iron a value so starkly indescribable that the Nevians invade our solar system in search of it. In The Skylark of Space, Osnome is rich in heavier elements but poor in sodium and/or chlorine, so that common salt - an essential part of the Osnomians' process for making the super-tough material arenak - is extremely rare and valuable; the quantity of salt in Seaton's cruet is said to be greater than the total amount known to exist on Osnome. There is also an inversion in that "X", the nameless quasi-stable transuranic element that catalyses the mass-energy conversion of copper, while vanishingly rare on Earth, is found to be so common on some distant planet that entire cliffs and mountains are made of native X. Apart from the scarcity of X, none of these vagaries of elemental abundance are remotely plausible by the light of today's knowledge, but at the time Smith was writing the processes of stellar nucleosynthesis for elements beyond helium were unknown, and more or less any distribution was as plausible as any other.
Live Action TV
- The Doctor Who classic serial "The Creature from the Pit" takes place on the planet Chloris which has an over-abundance of plant life and virtually no metal; the local dictator's power comes from having control of the only mine.
- The Dark Sun setting in Dungeons & Dragons is very poor in metals, which is why obsidian is commonly used for swords, armor, and such.
- Eclipse Phase takes it a step further with Solemn, which is infested with a bacterium that eats exposed metal, making it a bit of a Death World to Synthetic characters or those with external cyberware.
- Empire Of The Petal Throne uses this, along with the definitely tropical climate, to limit the armour available to characters.
- Some cultures developed this way thanks to a lack of access to metal. One of the more well know examples being Japan's lack of iron deposits (which lead to the traditional metal folding technique used in katanas - and other swords - to compensate).
- Within the first thirty minutes after the Big Bang, primordial nucleosynthesis produced large quantities of hydrogen and helium, a smattering of lithium, and nothing else. The hypothetical Population III stars were the first generation of stars formed from that original matter, and consequentially they had almost no metals* outside of those being formed in their core through fusion. The next generation (Population II) contained more heavy elements that had been released from the Population III stars' cores by supernovae, while the Population I stars (which include our Sun) have even higher proportions of metallic elements. Consequentially, planets from Population II and III stars are expected to be very metal-poor.