The Early Years
Orion's Arm was originally the brainchild of M.Alan Kazlev (henceforth known as MAK), but would never have happened without the enthusiasm and input of many other people right from the start. After nearly a decade, the Orion's Arm universe has grown so large that no one person can take the credit. It is a shared creation, and each of those who contribute become a part of that universe.

The Birth of Orion's Arm

Space opera, The Singularity and Keeping it Real

For some time, MAK, who had previously been a fan of the cyberpunk genre, had been thinking of writing a space opera that would be based more on hard science than fantasy. He realized that the trouble with most science fiction ("SF") was that it did not address the fact that the future would be radically different from the present. Often SF, especially space operatic SF (generally the most popular and enjoyable genre) featured amazing starships, faster-than-light ("FTL") travel, and other astonishingly advanced, or even ridiculous technology. Yet somehow human beings, and even society, remained the same as they are today. There was a strange juxtaposition between the godlike technical capacity, and the human beings that still lived "three score years and ten". Only rarely did these people possess cybernetic augmentations, they often lacked simple nano-scale technology, or utilized ideas fully understood even in today's real world. This was especially true of movies and television, where the quality of writing and ideas tended to be greatly inferior to that found in published novels by serious SF writers. It seemed every planet the protagonists landed on was habitable — with breathable air and no dangerous microorganisms — and the indigenous alien cultures they encountered were just like the ones we have, or have had, here on Earth.

MAK knew what he wanted, but before he could create a plausible space opera, another serious problem needed to be addressed — The Technological Singularity (or simply The Singularity). MAK realized that the concept of the Singularity would doom any attempt to create a conventional space opera. Up to that time, the space opera had been based on a modern pre-singularity world, or rather a modern world projected into the future. A place where the nations of Earth became entire civilizations, and naval vessels became starships. Unknown to MAK, Vernor Vinge, who had created the idea of the Singularity, had come to realize the same thing. Mr. Vinge's solution — as found in his book Fire Upon the Deep — was to modify the laws of physics to allow 'zones of thought', so that the Singularity would be impossible in the plane of the galaxy. Mr. Vinge reasoned that this was the only way to prevent a Singularity from consuming the universe. Put another way, if everyone ascends beyond the bounds of what we understand as "humanity", we have no space opera.

MAK's solution was rather different. He had always found something annoyingly religious in the optimistic Transhuman belief in a "technorapture": the collective ascension of all sentient beings come the Singularity. This seemed too much like simple millennialism. He reasoned that it was quite possible for the Singularity to occur, and even for superhuman artificial intelligence ("AI") to emerge, while the bulk of humanity continued as they always had. Just as the appearance of complex animals on Earth during the Cambrian Explosion did not render early microorganisms obsolete — in fact it did just the opposite by providing them with a wider array of ecological niches — so to then the emergence of transapient minds may not mean the end of ordinary sophonts. Those that broke the Singularity barrier, AI or otherwise, would go on to become godlike; but humans, as we understand them today, could remain.

Those that ascended, as breaching the Singularity has come to be called, might view the rest of humanity in a number of ways. Some might see them as pets, some as vermin, and others may see them as something to be nurtured. Another factor that MAK found annoying was the demonizing of AI. He wanted to avoid the ideas presented in movies like Terminator or The Matrix, where these new intelligences were only interested in exterminating humanity. This dual realization — that the Singularity would not mean an automatic technorapture, and an optimistic view of how post-Singularity AI might benefit humanity — paved the way for a more believable, transhumanist space opera. This became the foundation of the setting: A universe ruled by a number of godlike post-Singularity beings, but where humanity and other sapient beings also had their place.

A novel Idea

MAK envisioned the possibility of a new and original, high quality and hard science space opera, something that was lacking, and that the world was ready for. He figured there were many people out there as disappointed as he was with the mush being served on television and film. While he enjoyed reading SF as a kid, he had come to feel that even the great works of the genre, written in the 50's and 60's, had become completely dated — even if the philosophical ideas they presented were timeless. New possibilities in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and even genetics had simply opened up new possibilities unknown to those earlier authors.

In 2000, MAK discussed with Donna Malcolm Hirsekorn the possibility of writing a novel, to be titled Orion's Arm. The original idea was for them to work together to create either a novel or a television script, something interesting that would combine adventure with transhumanist insights. This idea went astray when Donna, working from MAK's parameters, proposed a story about former lovers raised by the AI Orion. These lovers would later become sworn enemies, one at the head of Orion's fleet, the other leading a pirate fleet. MAK, who still battles the challenges of sticking to one story line for very long, began exploring an idea regarding enigmatic aliens that are discovered at the edge of known space, and bringing about the destruction of the human descended ("Terragen") AI civilization.

Revenge of the Fans

MAK had long ago realized that it was not unusual for fans and enthusiasts of an SF franchise to be more thoughtful and imaginative than the scriptwriters. Why not then create a shared universe, and ultimately a franchise, in which the fans and enthusiasts would contribute the material. He felt that no matter how good his own imagination, it would not be anywhere as interesting as a story in which many people had contributed ideas. From this basic idea, Orion's Arm, the collaborative project, was born.

The Infant Orion's Arm

On 6 June 2000, MAK and Donna established the Orion's Arm Writing Group, of which they were the co-founders. This involved first setting up the Orion's Arm Mail List. MAK then invited some of his friends that he knew from the Star Trek IRC channel he had frequented some years back, including Curtis Moore and Jason Kennedy-Davidson, both of whom contributed ideas. He also set up the Orion's Arm web site on the original Kheper server location. Graphic designer Bernd Helfert, who MAK knew from his cyberpunk writing days, was another person who joined at this time. In these early years it was Bernd's artwork that defined the distinctive "look" of Orion's Arm.

The first thing that was discussed on the mail list was what sort of space travel there would be. How to bridge the distances between the stars? MAK suggested several options: standard FTL / warp drive / hyperspace jumps as seen in so many franchises, jump gates as seen in the Babylon 5 franchise, a nexus of wormholes (he had read Hyperion by Dan Simmons and liked the idea of an AI-ruled civilization linked by wormholes), or slower than light only. The decision - such as it was with only three people actively contributing in the discussion - was that FTL or warp drive was too cliché and slower than light was much too limiting. So a network of immensely expensive, very high tech wormhole portals was decided as the structure that would link galactic civilization together. This idea blossomed over time into what is now known within the Orion's Arm universe as The Nexus.

Next was creating a history. Filling out even a superficial 8,000 years of future history for the Orion's Arm novel seemed like a daunting task. For more details and ideas, MAK browsed the web. Two sites in particular stood out head and shoulders above the rest. The first was Big Ideas, Grand Vision (BIGV) created by Anders Sandberg, the first SF project to present the different interstellar human colonies as each evolving in radically different ways, each with its own distinct and unique history. The second was Ad Astra by Richard Baker and David Dye's, perhaps the most authentic hard SF (SF that breaks no laws of physics) settings ever. The problem was both of these unique projects only presented history for the next few centuries. MAK wanted a space opera that would go thousands of years into the future, and decided on 10,000 A.D. as an arbitrary date. Despite this disparity Big Ideas, Grand Vision and Ad Astra would serve as models for the earlier portions of the Orion's Arm timeline.

At this early stage, the Orion's Arm universe was only a shadow of what it would eventually evolve into. There was an extended time line, with a series of dark ages, after which civilization returns, in a cyclic fashion. MAK at that time decided to reintroduce his idea of the mysterious aliens that threatened the reign of the AI gods. During these earlier years the AI were not as powerful as they would later become.

It was within this backdrop that the novel, or television script, that MAK and Donna were planning would be written.

The Great Shift From Writing to Worldbuilding

Towards the end of June there was an unplanned shift in emphasis from writing to worldbuilding. MAK had been discussing off-list with Anders Sandberg about adapting his BIGV to the Orion's Arm universe, and Anders eventually joined the list (late June 2000). The result was the start of the "Sandbergian Era", and for some 18 months beginning from 26 June 2000, Anders contributed a flood of astonishing material, the like of which has never been seen before, and quite possibly won't again this side of the Singularity! It was from these Sandbergian postings, that the bare bones of the setting, suggested by MAK, were fleshed out to create the Orion's Arm universe you see today.

As the historical timeline of the Orion's Arm universe began to be fleshed out, new empires and worlds were suggested, and discussions moved ever forward. It was during this time that The Hamilton Encyclopaedia of Exopaleontology, created by Aaron Hamilton, was incorporated. Orion's Arm was beginning to take on a life of its own, and by the end of 2000 the classic Orion's Arm universe was already firmly established. The AI gods had established empires known as "sephirotics" - utopias that may be comforting for some, and stifling for others. Of course there were always the adventurers seeking to explore what lies beyond these areas of protection.

As the Orion's Arm universe grew to become a truly unique and innovative exercise in hard science transhumanist worldbuilding, MAK became increasingly reluctant to have this marvellous creation culminate in destruction by aliens. Thus the original novels and space opera scenario were forgotten, and Orion's Arm became more and more a purely worldbuilding project. Instead of a novel, Anders, Donna, MAK, and many others have contributed short stories set within the rich universe created by this worldbuilding effort. These stories appear on the site, and in the ezine Voices / Future Tense, to be enjoyed along with the worldbuilding and other materials.

Gaining Speed

Going into a new year, Orion's Arm continued to grow, and also faced a number of new challenges. Thanks to the input of Anders and others, Orion's Arm became a truly unique and innovative exercise in hard science transhumanist worldbuilding. It was during this time that the Orion's Arm Writing Group officially became the Orion's Arm Worldbuilding Project (a name that held until it was changed again in September 2007 to the Orion's Arm Universe Project).

Site revisions became a major problem. Anders preferred to retain a single original canon and build from that, while MAK wanted to keep revising and expanding things as the project grew. Eventually a compromise of sorts was reached — the Encyclopaedia Galactica. This newest component of the website was inspired by such works as the Encyclopaedia Galactica by Isaac Asimov, the Galactic Library by Trent Shipley (itself based on David Brin's Uplift series) and the 2600 Edition of the GURPS Encyclopaedia Galactica.

Over the years several other projects have started. Some have stalled, others have changed direction and still others evolved in unexpected ways. A number of graphic changes were suggested by Bernd, and were incorporated to improve the look of the site, although MAK's habit of adding more material to each page as new material appeared created a certain lack of consistency. An Orion's Arm roleplaying game made its first appearance in 2001, although it could never compete with the worldbuilding aspect of the project, and was eventually mothballed.

In 2002 Anders moved on to other projects, but new contributors stepped in to fill the enormous void left behind. While some have said that the quality of material diminished, the departure of Anders allowed other members to come into their own. MAK finally caught up on his reading, and began a campaign of his own to incorporate the many ideas he had found.

Another important shift during this time was a change in setting orientation. This was based in part on the ideas of John B (aka "Discwuzit"), who joined near the start of 2002, and in part on MAK's decision to move away from the more optimistic and AI-friendly Orion's Arm setting. So while the utopian element remained, there were also more regions of danger. This balance of optimism and pessimism made for a more exciting setting, with those humans who seek adventure away from the safe worlds facing greater danger along the way. Another leading force within the Orion's Arm community was Todd Drashner, whose attention to detail and optimistic view, served as an excellent counter-balance to the Discwuzitian pessimism. Their many on-list discussions have since become legendary. Meanwhile, Steve Bowers, who also joined in 2002, began filling in the Orion's Arm history and galactography with detailed entries of almost Sandbergian detail and richness, illustrated with evocative images he created using the Celestia software package. In 2004 Steve began the Orion's Arm Celestia discussion group in order to give others a venue to continue these efforts.

As time has passed the settings science continues to develop and establish itself on a more solid foundation. Contributions by members like Adam Getchell, whose papers on wormholes, drive technology and materials technology have been instrumental in initiating much of this growth.

List management was another serious issue, and as the group continued to grow so did the message traffic. Volume had risen from 100-200 messages per month in 2000, to over 1000 messages in January 2002 alone. In order to alleviate this challenge a group of members were granted the status of list moderators, and list behavior was canonized in the form of the Netiquette pages.

As is always the case when creative work is involved, issues of intellectual property rights arose. In the very beginning protections started as a liberal application of the Non-Commercial Creative Commons License. Over the years these protections have evolved into what is now known as the Terms, Copyright, and Submissions agreement.

In March of 2002 the Orion's Arm website was relocated to its own server and the domain www.orionsarm.com came to be. By the end of 2002, Orion's Arm had become too large for static html, and after many discussions — and a few delays — a content management system custom created by Trond Nilsen, was initiated to alleviate the problem.

One thing that became clear during this adventure, was that while soft science SF franchises were unrealistic, they did have the very important human element. The focus on worldbuilding within Orion's Arm had created a realistic universe, but it was cold and lacking life. In order to combat this imbalance, a couple of important new programs have been initiated over the years. First was the Café OA (later renamed The Nexus), started in September 2003, where our "right-brain" thinking membership can meet, share and inspire one another, away from the generally "left-brain" thinking Worldbuilders group. The second was the Orion's Arm ezine Voices / Future Tense (first published in August 2005), with Doc Bill serving as publisher, editor and overall inspirational enthusiast. Together these two programs form the spearhead of OA's charge into the human side of science fiction.

What lies ahead...

Expect change. New projects are being started all the time, the Orion's Arm Metaverse online game being a perfect example. The membership is always looking to flesh out areas lacking in description. The project is ever growing, changing - or better yet - evolving. Philosophies, technologies and ideas come and go, some are proven wrong and cast aside; others are born new and incorporated into the project. Yet despite this constant wave of changes, it is all in accordance with MAK's earliest vision, Orion's Arm has truly become a collaborative, community generated science fiction universe.

Where will it go from here? Only the future knows for sure.

See also

M. Alan Kazlev - Interview