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Literature / Despoilers of the Golden Empire

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"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, note that many of the trope names below constitute spoilers.


  • 24-Hour Armor: The Commander orders that armor be worn around the clock (and for good reason). The reader is meant to think that it's some kind of Power Armor when it's just 16th century breastplates (explaining why the men find it hard to keep on all the time).
  • 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.
  • Death by Pragmatism: Inverted: One man disobeys the Commander's order that armor be worn at all times and is promptly killed by a snake-like creature.
  • Deconstruction: Of science fiction's use of unusual terminology to invoke a sense of wonder. Here, such terminology is used towards entirely mundane things of the 1400-1500s.
  • 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.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: The final sentence of the story significantly changes its scope, turning it from a sci-fi exploration story to a historical colonization exploration story.
    And thus died Francisco Pizarro, the Conqueror of Peru.
  • Exact Words:
    • The entire story, but especially the introduction. The epilogue is essentially the author explaining what the sci-fi language really means.
      Without the power metal, no ship could move or even be built; without it, industry would come to a standstill.
      In ancient times, even as far back as the early Greek and Roman civilizations, the metal had been known, but it had been used, for the most part, as decoration and in the manufacture of jewelry. Later, it had been coined as money.
    • While the juxtaposition suggests gold was found to be some kind of energy source after its use as coinage, it's "the power metal" because it's money, and the great works of 16th century society are powered by money.
      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. And no, it certainly isn't built for "atmospheric navigation". "Atmospheric disturbances", on the other hand, are naturally going to affect a ship that relies on sails.
      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, presented as if it were a science fiction counterpart thereof.
  • 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.
  • Historical Person Punchline: Pretty much the entire point of the story.
  • 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: 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. For instance, the Universal Assembly: the word "catholic" means "all-embracing, universal" and "church" is used as a translation for the Greek ekklesia which means assembly or congregation.