I was reading some posts earlier today on our sister site Worldbuilding. In particular this question which discussed how an empire could communicate between cities/communities remotely.

The question jogged a very faint memory of a story that I read around 10-15 years ago which had a similar system in use as a minor part of the plot. I know that the story I read is not from Terry Pratchett or the other authors noted in the comments, therefore I'm hoping that you guys can help me out on this.

What I remember:

  • The book was a novel but a slim paperback book, maybe 200 - 275 pages.
  • A semaphore system using a kind of "morse code" was used to keep the communities of this story up to date with news, events, and possibly attacks from raiders.
  • The semaphore was I think usable in both daylight and darkness via using white coloured markers (during the day) or lanterns (at night).
  • The communities were separated but close to each other (possibly separated by water.)
  • The communities were low level technology, I don't recall any machines in the story.
  • There was a main protagonist and I recall that he went on a "quest" but I can't recall why.
  • The very vague recollections of the story would I think date the writing to late 1950's or 1960's.
  • No details come to mind on the cover I'm afraid on this one.
  • A recent book(s) with a similar device is the Destiny's Crucible series by Olan Thorensen. Your description is so similar that I wouldn't surprised if Thorensen was inspired in part by the book you remember reading so long ago. – Rocky May 26 at 18:46
  • @otis - yes it does, that's the same story so I guess this is a duplicate, and can be closed as such :) – Alith May 26 at 22:19

Jack Vance's The Blue World (1966) might be a possibility. It fits the time frame and physical description (190 pages).

The protagonist is a semaphore operator; he lives on a floating raft on an ocean world with no land. I hardly recall it though, so I'm just going to quote the summary from Wikipedia.

Sklar Hast, the protagonist, had achieved a measure of success and prosperity by passing his examination to be a “Hoodwink”, or semaphore tower operator – a prestigious position on the Blue World, a planet with no land at all. During the space of twelve generations, the descendants of a crashed prison ship have created a rudimentary civilization on the water-covered planet, living on huge sea plants. They also have no idea that their ancestors were criminals, believing them to have been the victims of oppressors. They have evolved a peaceful society, and ignore the hints in texts saved from the first generation of what their origins actually were.2

The world is mostly safe. However, they must beware the kragen, giant, semi-intelligent squid-like predators which roam the ocean. The colonists eventually develop a relationship with one of these, King Kragen. It drives off other kragen in return for offerings of food organized by an entrenched quasi-religious priesthood built up over generations. King Kragen grows to become the largest and most powerful kragen, demanding more and more food as time goes by.

When Sklar questions the need to continue to worship and feed this predator, King Kragen appears, wrecks his home and kills his mentor. Rather than regard this as divine punishment, Sklar suspects that the conservative priesthood has enough control over King Kragen to kill those who oppose their views, and to thus uphold their privileged status.

Sklar's mission is to convince his fellow citizens that they must kill King Kragen in order to be free. And, if so, to discover how can they do it in a world without materials to make weapons.

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  • This seems an excellent match, thought note that the signalling is done by flashing lights at the top of towers, not by any form of semaphore. The Hoodwinks are so called because they open and close hoods on the lamps to make them wink. – John Rennie May 26 at 5:45
  • This is it, thank you @davidw :). – Alith May 26 at 10:20

This may not be a sufficiently good match, but this kind of semaphore is featured in one of the stories in Pavane (Keith Roberts, 1968) (also discussed in this question). The specific story is "The Signaller" ("an apprentice semaphore operator is assigned to a remote station")

From Google Books:

For hours on end the towers to east and west were lost in the haze; if a message was to come now, the Signallers would have to light their cressets. Rafe prepared the bundles of faggots anxiously, wiring them into their iron cages, setting them beside the door with the paraffin that would soak them, make them blaze.


  • there's no quest
  • not super-low-level technology - sort of steam-punky there are guns and steam-driven road engines and ... although I'm not sure that there's much tech represented in this particular story other than the semaphores
  • the semaphores are the focus of this particular story (only it's only one of eight or so stories in the collection)
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  • Ha! Thought of Kite World flags and signals and then found a reference to Pavane. – SeaOttre May 26 at 7:10

A possibility is L. Sprague de Camp's classic time-travel novel Lest Darkness Fall. It was written in 1941, but has been reprinted many times since. My 1970s Del Rey reprint has 208 pages, which fits with your estimate.

The protagonist, Martin Padway is a modern archaeologist who gets transported back to Rome in the year 535 AD - just before the Gothic War that killed almost two-thirds of the population of the Italian Peninsula and precipitated the Dark Ages. Padway sets about to prevent this by introducing various technologies, including a semaphore system, using small telescopes, that allows rapid communication up and down the peninsula. Other innovations include Arab numerals, double bookkeeping, crossbows, pikes and printed newspapers. Knowing a lot of details about the upcoming war also helps.

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