In SFF world, I keep seeing chained destruction/ deactivation of an army similar to how individual nodes in a network of a mainframe go down because of a virus. For example:

  • In Avengers movie, when Ironman nuked the Chitauri mothership, Chitauri army on Earth died.

  • In Star Wars: The Phantom Menace movie, when Anakin destroyed the droid control center in space, the separatist droid army on Naboo got deactivated.

  • In recent episode S08E03 of Game of Thrones (which motivated this question),

    when Arya Stark killed the Night King, all of the White Walkers died.

Which SFF work first showed this?

  • Please, re-phrase the title so that it can reflect the question content more clearly.
    – user931
    Apr 30, 2019 at 12:53
  • 4
    Proposition: "where did the 'master element/mothership dies, all minions follow' trope originate?" But I'm not overly happy with that result so leaving it as a suggestion
    – Jenayah
    Apr 30, 2019 at 13:09
  • 2
    Hmmm I wonder what that spoiler could be? Did Jon Snow get killed and all the humans died? hmmm lol Apr 30, 2019 at 16:41
  • 1
    Conceivably Daenerys could have been killed and all the dragons died, or maybe Bran got killed and all the animals he was controlling died.
    – Adamant
    Apr 30, 2019 at 17:34
  • 3

5 Answers 5


Since nobody has jumped in with anything better, and I haven't found anything older in a quick search, I'm going to suggest Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959).

The "brain bugs" control the warrior and worker bugs, and killing a brain bug will cause the workers and warriors under its control to at least lose conscious volition if it doesn't immediately kill them. (I don't know that its clear if they simply die, or just freeze until they collapse and die.)

In the tunnels under Klendathau, Sergeant Zim grabs a brain bug and uses it as a shield because the warriors can't shoot it without "committing suicide."

(It's not a single point of failure for the entire race, but for a single colony at least.)


I'll suggest that the destruction of the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings (specifically Return of the King published in 1954), which caused Sauron to fall into nothingness. When he did, his armies of orcs and trolls lost the will to fight and were easily destroyed, and his stronghold of Barad-dûr collapsed.

  • The first one I thought of.
    – Spencer
    Apr 30, 2019 at 23:35

Since your seem happy to accept deactivated droids I offer as a real obscure example the 1979 (so beating Ender Game by a few years) German young adult novel "Notsignal aus dem All" (part of a series called "Weltraum-Tramps") by one Ralph Henders (almost certainly a pen name, and certainly not a good book by any description), published by Egmont-Ehapa.

An evil AI uses an army of converted domestic robots to oppress the alien people that have constructed it, and when it's disabled by the eponymous "Space Tramps" the robot army shuts down.

I don't think any reviews or anything exist, only a few offers for used copies.

Even back then this seemed like a trope, so I am pretty sure there must be a lot of earlier examples.

  • 1
    The brain "IT" in A Wrinkle in Time (1962), except I've already suggested something from 1959.
    – DavidW
    Apr 30, 2019 at 13:59
  • @DavidW, please make these answers, not comments. Apr 30, 2019 at 14:04
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    "Ender's Game" was a novellete published in 1977, so it beats your suggestion.
    – Spencer
    Oct 6, 2019 at 2:43

1985 Ender's game

A classic work that includes a scenario like this is Ender's game by Orson Scott Card, published in 1985.

I'm not certain if that's the first one, but it's a good starting point so we'd need to look at early SFF and ignore the most recent thirty years or so.

  • 5
    Starship Troopers (1959) - with the "brain bugs" - predates this by more than 25 years.
    – DavidW
    Apr 30, 2019 at 13:47

I came back and read this question again, and it occurred to me that maybe we should think of this a different way.

Perhaps H.G. Wells's 1897 novel The War of the Worlds will fit the bill.

Sure, there is no evil mastermind controlling the invading Martians, no linchpin individual whose removal makes the whole army collapse.

But the Martian invasion does in fact collapse suddenly and completely, and they all die, but not by any action of humans.

In another moment I had scrambled up the earthen rampart and stood upon its crest, and the interior of the redoubt was below me. A mighty space it was, with gigantic machines here and there within it, huge mounds of material and strange shelter places. And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians—dead!—slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.

TVTropes defines a Keystone Army as

an invasion force or army that's seemingly unstoppable, except for one particular weakness in the form of a well protected but very fragile component.

The Martians' weakness is their immune systems, which are admittedly not particularly well protected, but this occurred to neither the Martans nor Earthlings:

For so it had come about, as indeed I and many men might have foreseen had not terror and disaster blinded our minds. These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things—taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many—those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance—our living frames are altogether immune. But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.

(Full text here)

  • 2
    Bacteria killed them individually. That's not chained destruction.
    – user931
    Oct 6, 2019 at 4:15
  • It's a long time since I read it but was there not a chain reaction in Proxima Centauri by Murray Leister?
    – Danny Mc G
    Aug 3, 2021 at 3:15

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