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Corralled Cosmos

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"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 post-scarcity issues aren't something most people are interested in.

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".

Frequently, the protagonists will be involved in busting out of the corral, or dealing with the aftermath.

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. Still, many justifications run in Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale.

Compare The Wall Around the World (a smaller scale confined space). See The Milky Way Is the Only Way (when intergalactic travel is impossible) and What Other Galaxies? (where a galaxy is treated as if it represents the whole universe).


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    Anime & 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 autonomous planetary defense system that has begun mistaking the Buster Machine pilots for the enemy, and it is in fact a sequel to the original.
  • In Legend of the 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.
  • EDENS ZERO is set in a region of space called the Sakura Cosmos that's separated from the rest of the universe by spaceship eating dragons

    Comic Books 
  • Early Rocket Raccoon comics were set on the planet Halfworld in the Keystone Quadrant star system which is cordoned off from the rest of the universe by a forcefield. Annihilation saw him joining the rest of the Marvel Universe.

  • 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".
  • The setting of The Lost Fleet series is slowly turning into a straight example thanks to the hypernet gates. Previously, the only Faster-Than-Light Travel method was to use "jump points" (a natural phenomenon vaguely implied to be wormholes, only found near mass shadows the size of a main-sequence star or greater) to travel from one solar system to another until you reached your destination. An awful lot of systems were only inhabited at all because ships passing through them might need repairs or resupply, and once the hypernet gates allowed ships to travel from one gate to another without passing through the intervening systems a lot of systems found their main -often only- source of economic activity drying up. And solar systems without easily accessible jump points (binary stars are one example given because their gravitational fields cancel each other out) are bypassed entirely because there's no way to get there in a timeframe shorter than decades. But hypernet gates can be built anywhere, meaning you only have to send one Sleeper Starship the long way round in order to travel there and back normally. This becomes a plot point late in the second series.

    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.
    • In the Voyager episode "The Void," the ship gets sucked into an inescapable Negative Space Wedgie filled with other trapped alien vessels, who have been preying upon each other for years since there's no other way to get food or supplies. Janeway's able to broker an alliance and convince some like-minded aliens to pool their resources and cooperate to Technobabble their way to freedom. Interestingly, this one-shot's premise of Voyager having to make a "pseudo-Federation" to acquire the supplies and assistance needed to get home was one vision for the series in general, but the "season eight of TNG," Status Quo Is God mindset won out.

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Eldritch Abominations such as Void Krakens.
  • 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.
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • The Navigators who pilot Imperial vessels use a psychic "lighthouse" called the Astronomicon to find their way through the Warp. Said beacon is on Holy Terra, and doesn't quite cover the entire Milky Way galaxy even when it's working at full capacity (and sometimes it "flickers" or "dims," with disastrous results). So the setting's Alexander the Great Expy was stopped mid-conquest when his men refused to advance beyond their Navigators' ability to sense the beacon.
    • The Traitor Legions were driven into the Eye of Terror after losing the Horus Heresy, and the Imperium promptly converted Cadia, the world closest to the safest route in and out of it, into a planetary fortress. So the heretics spend as much time fighting each other within the Eye as they do launching raids or invasions from their prison/refuge.
    • The Tau don't fully use the Warp for their FTL method, but only "dip" into it for a speed boost. This means transit is a lot safer for them, but as a result their empire is quite compact and positively tiny compared to the sprawling Imperium of Man.
    • The Tyranids are the major exception, an extragalactic Horde of Alien Locusts moving in on the Milky Way galaxy from another. Though one theory is they're actually Invading Refugees fleeing 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.
    • This is also why The Reapers avoid detection despite having an enormous fleet of enormous spacecraft. They hide in Dark Space, an area outside the galaxy with no stars or planets and too far for any other species to reach.
    • Mass Effect: Andromeda explores the notion of inter-galactic travel, which has all the problems of interstellar travel and then some. Finding a way around that particular hurdle when going from the Milky Way to Andromeda is a several hundred year trip was just one problem the Initiative had. Once they're in the Heleus Cluster, getting about is relatively straightforward, but the game never addresses how they're going to deal with exploring the rest of the galaxy with no known mass relays or any equivalent thereof, and the only species known to get about the vast areas do so via ships on autopilot while the crew are in cryostasis (and are not about to share their knowledge). Never mind the notion that the Initiative has no idea who else may be out there.
  • 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.
  • Invoked in the X-Universe. The Precursors built an immense network of jump gates younger civilizations can use to travel about space, but they still control that network, and if they deem a civilization to be a danger to others, they will cut jump gate connections to prevent them from spreading too far. It is known that they've done this to the Kha'ak (who circumvented this by inventing jump drive technology), as well as to humanity, though several other alien races got locked into the same corral as humanity.

  • 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.

    Web Original 
  • The plot of The Sojourn kicks off because of this trope. The Tantalus Star Cluster is located outside the main galaxy in the extragalactic void of space. In the series backstory, this led to a resource crisis as the inhabitants of the cluster are cut off from their parent galaxy. The whole Avalon Expedition is about averting this, as they attempt to cross the massive void between the cluster and the galaxy.

     Western Animation 
  • A Big Idea from Phineas and Ferb was an entire Escape Room tower played with their friends. An unexpected malfunction makes it trap them in an impenetrable dome, which it's tricked into expanding over the entire galaxy when the boys shrewdly boast that they have friends from all over. This conveniently blocks an alien armada that was planning to invade their galaxy.

    Real Life 
  • The speed of light in the real Universe keeps humanity restricted to the Solar System, because the amount of energy required to increase a ship's speed increases exponentially the closer you are to the speed of light, until you reach a point where you need absolutely titanic amounts of energy to move a decent speed, far more energy than is practical. So unless scientists find a loophole in the laws of physics that allows matter to be transported faster than light, travel outside of our solar system will require time investments of hundreds of thousands of years.
  • On a much larger scale, 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). There's definitely stuff there, things that could be very interesting to learn about, but we simply can't see it at this current time. 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 us,note  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.