An Earth set well into the next century is going through one of its periodical crises politically, and it looks as if this time they might really press the button for the Big One. If it happens, the only chance for our species to survive would be by preserving a sliver of itself elsewhere, which in practical terms means another star, since nothing closer is readily habitable. There isn't time to organize a manned expedition of such scope from scratch. However, a robot exploratory vessel is under construction to make the first crossing to the Centauri system, and it with a crash program it would be possible to modify the designs to carry sets of human genetic data coded electronically. Additionally, a complement of incubator/nanny/tutor robots can be included, able to convert the electronic data back into chemistry and raise/educate the ensuing offspring while others prepare surface habitats and supporting infrastructure, when a habitable world is discovered. By the time we meet the "Chironians," their culture is into its fifth generation.
In the meantime, Earth went through a dodgy period, but managed in the end to muddle through. The fun begins when a generation ship housing a population of thousands arrives to "reclaim" the colony on behalf of the repressive, authoritarian regime that emerged following the crisis period. The Mayflower II brings with it all the tried and tested apparatus for bringing a recalcitrant population to heel: authority, with its power structure and symbolism, to impress; commercial institutions with the promise of wealth and possessions, to tempt and ensnare; a religious presence, to awe and instill duty and obedience; and if all else fails, armed military force to compel. But what happens when these methods encounter a population that has never been conditioned to respond?
The book has an interesting corollary. Around about the mid eighties, I received a letter notifying me that the story had been serialized in an underground Polish s.f. magazine. They hadn't exactly "stolen" it, the publishers explained, but had credited zlotys to an account in my name there, so if I ever decided to take a holiday in Poland the expenses would be covered (there was no exchange mechanism with Western currencies at that time). Then the story started surfacing in other countries of Eastern Europe, by all accounts to an enthusiastic reception. What they liked there, apparently, was the updated "Ghandiesque" formula on how bring down an oppressive regime when it's got all the guns. And a couple of years later, they were all doing it!
So I claim the credit. Forget all the tales you hear about the contradictions of Marxist economics, truth getting past the Iron Curtain via satellites and the Internet, Reagan's Star Wars program, and so on.
In 1989, after communist rule and the Wall came tumbling down, the annual European s.f. convention was held at Krakow in southern Poland, and I was invited as one of the Western guests. On the way home, I spent a few days in Warsaw and at last was able to meet the people who had published that original magazine. "Well, fine," I told them. "Finally, I can draw out all that money that you stashed away for me back in '85. One of the remarked-too hastily--that "It was worth something when we put it in the bank." (There had been two years of ruinous inflation following the outgoing regime's policy of sabotaging everything in order to be able to prove that the new ideas wouldn't work.) I said, resignedly, "Okay. How much are we talking about?" The one with a calculator tapped away for a few seconds, looked embarrassed, and announced, "Eight dollars and forty-three cents." So after the U.S. had spent trillions on its B-52s, Trident submarines, NSA, CIA, and the rest--all of it.