The Great Houses arose as a reaction to - and against - the burgeoning power of the Megacorps in the post-Federation period. While many cultures embraced the stability offered by the 'corporate cultures' of the Megacorps and the ontologies they sold, others sought to keep them at arm's length while still garnering the benefits of Megacorp technologies and techniques. Still others rejected them entirely.
From the Late Federation period and into the Age of Expansion, the growing influence of the megacorporations and their ontologies in the astropolitical landscape was a cause for concern to those with opposing interests and ideologies. Many of the megacorps had grown to be something of a challenge to the Federation and with its passing that power grew even further, dominating a number of star systems and seeking to spread to more.
Beginning in the mid-25th century, a growing movement among the various anti-Megacorp civilizations began seeking to develop alternative ontologies and mental structures that could match the operational capabilities of the Megacorps while avoiding their more extreme capitalist inclinations as well as their tendency to form group minds (which most of the anti-Megacorp groups felt to be overly restrictive and antithetical to the concepts of free will and self-determination). Seeking a socio-memetic model on which to base their new designs, the memegineers settled on the royal and noble houses that had existed across much of Old Earth from the Agricultural through the Information Age. Seeking a unifying basis for their new ontologies, they settled on various combinations of genetic connection and the products of the then newly developing field of Neuropsychological Engineering. The results of their efforts took many forms, but came to be known collectively as the Great Houses.
While the Great Houses were - in principle - all based on the same basic concepts, they varied tremendously in the details of their implementation. Some Great Houses consisted of a single species, others were made up of multiple races and clades. Some were comprised almost entirely of virtual lifeforms and citizens, while others remained entirely, or mostly, embodied. Some used augmentation (biological or cybernetic) in particular ways, others used gengineering. Some used a combination of methods. While all members of a Great House would deliberately modify their minds to a single agreed upon way of thinking or other form of mental activity or communication, here also there was much greater variety in the details than was usually found across the Megacorps, with their focus on capital and labor.
Many Great Houses used a 'traditional' social structure with a ruling family or families providing overall direction and owning much of either the available living space (planetary surfaces, habitats, cybercosmoi, resource nodes (solar energy interception volumes, asteroids, comets, portions of planets or moons, bandwidth), means of material and informational production (vots, programs, encryption systems, nanofabrication templates, bots, neumanns, municipal and/or industrial grade nanoforges), or combinations of these. However, what constituted a 'family' could vary greatly. Some Houses employed elaborate systems of challenge and reward (sometimes taking decades or more to complete) by which new members could eventually earn a marriage proposal to join the family as a suitable match. Others offered membership to virtually anyone who would swear fealty (often in the form of a psychoware overlay - an early form of the Oaths used even into the Current Era) - and accept a proprietary genetic therapy or cybernetic augmentation. Others took the step of literally creating all of their members - cloning or engenerating them from a set of master genetic templates (Note:House Stevens is often assumed to have chosen this option, but the circumstances of their development as a Great House are more complicated.). Some Houses used upload technology to render the core Family functionally immortal while everyone outside the Family was a retainer or associate member. Still others used other methods.
Some Great Houses concentrated on mental structures and largely ignored the genetic component or family lineages. Polities such as the Virginis Combine were based on a Great House structure that used conceptication and memory copying technologies to allow all citizens to directly share all knowledge and experiences at will. Metasoft, defined by its Version Tree mental software standard, which influenced everything its citizens thought (or think to this day), was and is an even stronger example.
One commonality that virtually all of the Great Houses shared, regardless of their origin or focus, was that they did not form group minds or hive minds. While the use of teamware or creation of tribeminds was not uncommon, the loss of individuality that the more intensive forms of mental linkage promoted was universally avoided.
Life for those who declared allegiance to (or were born under) the aegis of the Great Houses offered many advantages, at their best almost approaching modern post-scarcity standards of living. Basic necessities, medical care, and education were generally free while costs for augmentations, housing, transportation, and start-up capital for new ventures were modest. Opportunities for entry into or advancement within the House economic or familial hierarchy were not uncommon for those willing to volunteer. In the case of particularly challenging activities - sometimes termed 'Deeds of Great Renown' for obscure reasons - that were seen by leadership to significantly further House goals or desires, this might extend to a minor ownership stake in House resources, or a 'favor' that a House client or their descendants could call in at some future date. In the most extreme cases, a 'credit' toward membership in the ruling Family or Elite itself - sometimes good for as much as three generations - might be granted, reducing the overall effort a client or their children or grandchildren had to expend to be considered worthy of an offer to join the ruling class.
The Great Houses quickly enjoyed some early success when competing against the Megacorps. Their diversity and greater willingness to form alliances - as well as a desire to simply see the Megacorps lose even if their House didn't win - led them to take business and influence away from individual Megacorps on a number of occasions. Thanks to the relative uniformity of their elites, the Houses also proved capable of coordinating among themselves on grand economic projects without the need for a market or a return on investment within the time frames the Megacorps were generally willing to consider. The Houses also proved themselves somewhat more flexible in cases where interstellar distances made centralized control problematic or impossible. While the Megacorps had procedures to handle such situations, they often involved complex bureaucratic 'audits' of each other's decision making and reasoning structures against company guidelines, a process that could take considerable time and resources. In contrast, any two parts of the same Great House had merely to confirm each other's relevant genetics and/or mind-state update logs before quickly moving to support each other in local endeavors, regardless of the amount of time spent operating separately.
Despite their advantages, the Great Houses suffered a number of setbacks in their dealings with the Megacorps as well. The Megacorps were generally more established and had considerable local resources at their disposal. Their use of heavy mental augmentation - up to and including group and hive minds - often allowed them to outperform a local branch of a Great House, all else being equal. Finally, there were - at least initially - many more transapients supporting - or even running - Megacorps than Great Houses. As such the odds were often in a Megacorps favor that a local 'Director' S1 or S2 would be on hand to support their branch office in a competition with Great House representatives who had no such support available. Sometimes a megacorp would exploit a smaller House's relative lack of resources by becoming a major sponsor and using this position to covertly subsume the House into the corporate culture.
The rivalry between the Megacorps and the Great Houses might have continued for centuries more, but the changing face of galactic civilization meant that this was not to be. The spread of post-labor and post-scarcity technologies and systems, promoted and encouraged by the spreading memetics of the ever more dominant high transapients and early archai, began to cripple the Megacorps, forcing them to move to more limited environments and activities than they had previously enjoyed. In contrast, the Great Houses, almost by their nature, were able to adjust to a focus on allegiance to something greater than the individual and otherwise better adapt to changing circumstances.
Great Houses in the Current Era
Despite being nominally better equipped for the changing galaxy, most of the Great Houses have either faded away or found themselves greatly reduced from their early glory. Some few have been destroyed, either in the Version War or other conflicts. Others have become clients of a specific Archailect or simply joined a Sephirotic civilization. In the Inner Sphere and close to the major centers, they content themselves with holding sway in a single star system, group of stars, or minor open cluster. However, away from the reach of the mighty hyperturings and overruling Archailects, the situation is very different, and in many of the more isolated areas of the Hinteregions, throughout the less developed Outer Volumes, and along the Periphery, the House system flourishes as much as it did during the late Expansion period. But as the AI Gods extend their reach outwards, these ancient regimes are repeatedly forced to either follow the path of their more restrained relations in the Civilized Galaxy or migrate and resettle even further out before seeking once again to establish local sovereignty.
Notable exceptions to this are the Communion of Worlds and Metasoft. The former is ubiquitous across the Civilized Galaxy and - although technically not starting out as a Great House - is generally seen as one of these with the adoption of the empath gene suite as a requirement of citizenship and its eventual very deliberate and publicized breaking away from Megacorp control. The latter has grown to be a major galactic power in its own right. Both are considered part of the Great Hexadecimal, although whether this is a side effect or the source of their continued success is cause for debate among those inclined to debate such things.
Akirate Stevens - Text by Anders Sandberg Breakaway clade from House Stevens. Joined the Solar Dominion and later in the Version War helped several raids on Stevens worlds. Has since slowly but steadily diverged culturally from the original House, growing ever more into a cyborg-AI symbiosis culture.
House Claida - Text by Anders Sandberg Minor non-aligned house, descended from the Claida family fortune. The Claida relativists created an insurance-arbitration empire in the late ComEmp era that has diversified and persisted to this day. Traditional ceoship is left to the Rojmaneo, the head of the clan and the only member allowed full interface with the Claida ancestral gnostic overlays.
House Digital Diamond - Text by M. Alan Kazlev Not a real "House" by Sephirotic standards, more a clade with some vec ceremonial traditions, but the Novamedia name stuck. The result of a merger/fusion/hybridisation in 3847 AT between the TRHN ai Digital Dreams #10010110110110110 and the early Post-Diamond Belt clade Diamond Light.
Veiler - Text by Anders Sandberg Shareholder group from the Veil Nebula worlds of Cygexpa. Originally based on the shares owned and invested by Incenti Jerwan during the late consolidation era which became owned by the Bank of Aucygnus after his bankruptcy. The Bank leveraged the shares into a controlling position of the local wormhole links, producing both enormous revenue and a long-running low-level dispute with the Friedmen. Over the centuries the bank became a democratic shareholder-house, largely supporting the slow expansion and political control advocated by the Adapawe.