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April 1, 2010 4:57 PM   Subscribe

Sci fi filter: I need examples of stories where the final confrontation involves some sort of massive compendium of knowledge being used to avert a global or universal catastrophe.

It can be any medium of sci fi (film, TV, books) but what I would like to know is:

1. What is the story's catastrophe, which can only be avoided via using this codex of information?


2. How is that catastrophe actually diffused via this knowledge?

Please note: I'm thinking more along the lines of an immediate environmental catastrophe, the dying of the sun, etc-- and the compendium of knowledge could be a super computer or alien library in a crystal or something, but it holds the key to stopping this catastrophe. (I'm not interested in books of spells, as magic falls more into the fantasy genre rather than science fiction.)

I'm not well-versed in sci fi, but I'm pretty sure this is a common story trope. I just can't think of any examples that fit. For example in The Fifth Element the girl was a perfect being who could fight well, and averted a catastrophe via fulfilling a prophecy, but that had nothing to do with her having special knowledge.

And in Serenity, the girl has one small piece of information that the heroes use to expose an evil empire's dastardly plots. But it's not like the girl employs a huge amount of information to achieve this exposure, she just knows one clue.

Any examples would be much appreciated! Thanks in advance.
posted by egeanin to Grab Bag (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Ultimate Vision, the version of the character from Marvel's Ultimates line, is essentially an alien, artificial lifeform that has traveled countless light-years of space and eons of time attempting to warn cultures about Galactus. She gathers information from each culture, continually adding to her arsenal of powers, with which she's able to defeat a piece of Galactus.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:06 PM on April 1, 2010

In Rim Lamforth's magisterial The Stars, The Stars the humans defeated the aliens by uploading the entire Wikipedia to their database, in every human language. The Basque language version made the alien computer blow up.
posted by zadcat at 5:07 PM on April 1, 2010

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

The invading alien ship is defeated only because the oldest avout have spent thousands of years aquiring the knowledge and ability to navigate parallel universes of possible events in sort of a quantum-mechanics, collapse-the-appropriate-waveform way.
posted by chrisamiller at 5:11 PM on April 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Titan A.E.

Animated film about life in the universe following the destruction of Earth by an alien race which saw humans as a threat to their dominance of the galaxy. The catastrophe is that without a home (Earth), the human race is dying out and is threatened with extinction. Hope exists, as the protagonist learns, of a ship built by his father called the Titan. Titan has the technology to save the human race. The movie is spent hunting down the Titan while avoiding the alien race of earlier. The Titan is discovered to be a compendium of knowledge, i.e, a library of DNA along with technology to rebuild a new planet for humans.

Movie ends with the heroes successfully activating the Titan and Planet Bob Earth 2 being created, with humanity's extinction averted by the creation of a new home.

Stargate SG-1 also plays with the idea, as well. One being when Earth is threatened with destruction and the team discovers an ancient alien device that is used to save the earth. This would be the episode/season finale that helped segway into Stargate: Atlantis. There are other situations where finding artifact or knowledge X also saves the day.
posted by Atreides at 5:26 PM on April 1, 2010

Didn't Foundation cover all of this?
posted by Max Power at 5:41 PM on April 1, 2010

Sorry to make reference to books I haven't actually read yet (they're on my to-read list), but you might consider the Greatwinter Trilogy by Sean McMullen. From what I can tell, the series involves several layers of catastrophe -- weather, war, supernatural phenomena, genetic engineering, etc. -- and also the development of the Calculor, essentially a gigantic computer made of human components, in a post-technology context. See the first and third volumes, Souls in the Great Machine and Eyes of the Calculor.

Maybe someone here or elsewhere can give you the simple synopsis you need?
posted by kypling at 5:44 PM on April 1, 2010

(spoilers ahoy!)

In terms of scale, I don't think you can do much better than Diaspora by Greg Egan. The "humans" (actually, their artificially intelligent descendants) who've gone looking for signs of alien life find a barren planet whose entire atomic composition has been altered, indicating the presence of an incredibly advanced civilization. It turns out that the individual subatomic particles of the planet's matter have been used to encode a message warning of a catastrophic explosion in the galactic core that will incinerate everything for hundreds of thousands of light-years, along with the technology to escape to a parallel universe.

There's also Arthur C. Clarke's 3001, in which computer viruses from a long-sealed vault on the moon are used to defeat (or at least slow down) the monoliths which are threatening humanity. And in some of the later books in Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, the original colonists' descendants rediscover an ancient AI that has enough lost knowledge to help them wipe out the invading Thread.

Also, a lot of stories involve this idea in terms of intelligence, rather than knowledge. For example, in Vernor Vinge's classic 1981 novella True Names, the protagonist uses a brain-to-computer interface to take over most of the world's networked computers; the goal is to temporarily become intelligent/powerful/knowledgeable enough to stop a rogue AI from taking over the world. One of the ramifications is that he has instant access to every military and corporate database in the world. Vinge's novel A Fire Upon the Deep and David Brin's Earth involve similar phenomena.
posted by teraflop at 5:47 PM on April 1, 2010

The Childe Cycle
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:51 PM on April 1, 2010

I came to say Anathem by Stephenson also. Possibly hostile aliens detected and engaged by scholastic monks with deep and wide logic and maths training.
posted by Babblesort at 6:24 PM on April 1, 2010

For what it's worth, I'm pretty sure that the chief source of this trope is Walter Miler's great and highly influential novel A Canticle for Liebowitz [1960]. It is not precisely what you're describing, but the hope expressed throughout the novel and the aim of many characters is to preserve something of man's learning which will prevent the future destruction of mankind through nuclear holocaust. I highly recommend it.
posted by koeselitz at 6:29 PM on April 1, 2010

Kind of Sci-Fi, in The Dark Knight, batman uses the cellphone-listening-machine-thing to avert the fall of Gotham.
posted by 517 at 6:53 PM on April 1, 2010

Not a perfect fit, but "The Last Question", by Isaac Asimov, has a super-intelligent computer saving the universe from inevitable heat death...only it does it after everything else has died and it's more like the computer being god creating a new universe.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 7:36 PM on April 1, 2010

Alastair Reynold's "Revelation Space" series, where the compendium of knowledge comes from a hero's parallel-universe selves who don't make it.

Also, check out TV Tropes, a site which has every possible theme, meme, plot archetype ever conceived.
posted by sninctown at 7:52 PM on April 1, 2010

I meant...TV Tropes.
posted by sninctown at 7:52 PM on April 1, 2010

If you accept such a thing, there is a videogame from Bioware called Mass Effect whose storyline would fit your requirements.

[AHOY! SPOILERS!] Basically the human race discovered an ancient alien base on Mars and from there on discovered something called the Mass Relays that allow speed-of-light travel from a relay to another- thus allowing humans to explore areas of space they'd never have been able to reach otherwise and -of course- meeting other civilizations.

After a short armed conflict, the humans start interacting (peacefully)with the various alien species they meet and learn that all of them also discovered this mean of travel that was the work of a mysterious, extinct/vanished with almost no trace (since thousands+++ years) civilization called the Protheans. They also found an enormous space station left by the same race called the Citadel and that's where the various alien races built their "headquarters" and embassies and tried to learn from the Prothean technology and each other.

Stuff happens, but basically the game protagonist, Commander Shepard (a human of course), happens to find a incredibly rare artifact from the Protheans, a data beacon that downloads information into his brain. Human brains are not meant to process such data but with time Shepard is able to decipher some of the information and learns that something terrible wiped out the Protheans and that this threath now looms over all sentient organic life.
More stuff happens but in chasing a dangerous, seemingly mad rogue special agent from one of the alien races that is raising a massive army of robots, Shepard stumbles over a second beacon, receives more information and this leads him to be confronted by the horrifying entity the said rogue agent happens to work for.

It explains to him that the Citadel and Mass Relays weren't made by the Protheans but rather existed for insanely long before them. They had been created by a super-ancient race of sentient machines dubbed the Reapers- that's what that entity is-, that for an unexplained reason have in goal to wipe out all sentient organic life that'd reach a certain level of advancement (possibly cannibalize their technology). That had been going on for countless aeons.

At that point the protagonist understands that the Mass Relays and the Citadel were a giant trap: the spacefaring organic civilizations would of course start using the oh so convenient relays as soon as they'd figure what they do, and they of course would invest the Citadel- which was specially tailored to welcome organic life and take care of it's maintenance by itself conveniently using a race of weird, probably artificially-engineered organic drones that'd self-destruct if anyone would try to study them. The said drones served as "spies", and would eventually trigger a signal for the machines to come and wipe out the advanced organic lifeforms that invested the Citadel when the time was ripe.

Some more plot twists and turns happen but the protagonists are able to find the homeworld of the Protheans that hadn't ever been found before and there, they discover a A.I. that holds the knowledge of the last survivors of the Prothean race.
The Protheans discovered this but it was already too late and the mass extermination of all advanced organic life had begun- but they had a plan on how to stop it from happening.
They invested their last efforts into protecting this last base in the hopes that the future races to come after them would find it and be able to learn that precious knowledge from them and stop the next wave of total annihilation.


...sooo, sorry for that was very long. And my arms are starting to hurt from all that typing.
But I think this is a very, very good example and wow, it's probably not the kind of scenario you expect from a video game, isn't it?
That game's plot is more than worth a novel. :)
posted by CelebrenIthil at 9:37 PM on April 1, 2010

Oh, I forgot about the "How is that catastrophe actually diffused via this knowledge?".
Okay, so basically

[Spoilers again!] this knowledge indeed allows the protagonist to react timely. Lucky were everyone that the Citadel drones, being organic, had evolved over time and this caused them to fail to send the extermination signal in due time. But unlucky that the Reapers not being that careless, had left a "sentry" to go and take a look at what was happening after a (long) while. That was the nasty entity, Sovereign is his lil' nickname.
So, the protagonists still had to thwart Sovereign before he could manage to activate the extermination process by himself- which they do because there wouldn't be Mass Effect 2 otherwise. ;)
I haven't played the sequel yet but I can tell you that the said knowledge gathered in the first opus was then used to form a grand plan for the humans and aliens to prepare a defense for all sentient organic life- as you'll probably guess, the Reapers will eventually find out something is not going right and come back to exterminate them all.
posted by CelebrenIthil at 9:49 PM on April 1, 2010


In Anne McCaffrey's Pern series the characters eventually discover a long buried computer which gives them access to information about the colonization of the planet and a lot of forgotten science. They use the engines of the newly rediscovered colony ships to push the Red Star into a new orbit and forever end the menace of Threadfall.
posted by irisclara at 12:15 AM on April 2, 2010

Asimovs Foundation Trilogy. There is a planet colonized with a secret mission to collect all the worlds knowledge in an encyclopedia so that civilization can begin anew after their dark ages are over..or something like that
posted by MXJ1983 at 7:44 AM on April 2, 2010

Don't forget about that episode of Futurama where Fry had to use the knowledge of The Infosphere to go back in time and right a wrong.
posted by Servo5678 at 8:12 AM on April 2, 2010

Response by poster: You guys are the best! Everything is best answer material. Thank you!
posted by egeanin at 12:16 PM on April 2, 2010

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