Remember that the main difference between a colony and a base is that the inhabitants of a colony do not intend to ever leave.

In our solar system, the planet Mars is a pretty inhospitable place to live, but there are large numbers of people who'd jump at the chance to colonize the red planet, just for the sheer romantic awe of it all. If a paradise planet was discovered and starships are available, the number of potential Martian colonists would be a drop in the bucket compared to the Paradise colonizers. Which is good for science fiction writers interested in writing about interstellar empires. No colonized planets = no Galactic Empires. This is the trope called Settling the Frontier.

Having said that, I must point out that Charles Stross has an incendiary essay where he is of the opinion that space colonization is implicitly incompatible with both libertarian ideology and the myth of the American frontier. Rick Robinson expands upon that in his essay The Dun Hills of Earth.

As an amusing side note, in a science essay called "The Sight Of Home" Isaac Asimov once calculated how far an interstellar colony would have to be from Terra before Sol was too dim to be seen in the colony's night sky with the naked eye. Turns out that colonies further than 20 parsecs (65 light-years) cannot see Mankind's Homestar, because Sol's apparent magnitude is dimmer than 6.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke in a science essay called Space, The Unconquerable noted "For no man will ever turn homeward from beyond Vega to greet again those he knew and loved on Earth."

Since Vega is twenty-six light-years away from Terra (round down to 25), an explorer who travels in a relativistic slower-than-light starship to Vega then turns homeward will arrive at Terra with Terra having aged 50 years. Assuming all the astronaut's friends were 20 when the journey started, they will now be 70 years old. This is the poetic "three-score and ten" standard lifespan, so most of the astronaut's friends will have perished due to old age (presumably the astronaut is younger due to relativistic time-dialation).

A Space Colony is when a colony is not on the surface of a planet, but instead is a huge space station. They are discussed in detail here.

And when a mature colony starts making noices about "No Taxation Without Representation", the time is ripe for a War of Independence.

The always-worth-reading Rick Robinson has written quite a few essays on the topic in his Rocketpunk Manifesto blog. The comments are worth reading as well.

Motives For Colonization

As Rick Robinson mentioned, the real reason for extraterrestrial colonization is so that science fiction authors and game designers will have a marvelous background for their creations.

But who are we trying to kid? Science fiction, particularly hard SF, is not known for engaging the whole range of human experience. This is no knock on it; all the branches of Romance are selective.

The truth is that we want space colonies so that they can rebel against Earth, form an Empire, and generally play out History with a capital H, with lots of explosions and other cool stuff along the way.

From ON COLONIZATION by Rick Robinson (2009)

A more dubious reason is that the author is writing about Bat Durston, that is, they are being lazy by writing a space western. Westerns are set in the wild west, the corresponding location in science fiction is an interstellar colony.

Understand that I'm talking about lazy writers who are taking a western story and simply removing shooting irons and substituting with Winchester laser rifles or Colt proton blasters. The tired old "calling the jackrabbit a smeerp" trick. Un-lazy writers can and have written award-winning novels which technically are "westerns set in space" but are not pulling a Bad Durston: examples include Heinlein's juvenile novels and the TV series Firefly.


Jets blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere of Bbllzznaj, a tiny planet seven billion light years from Sol. He cut out his super-hyper-drive for the landing...and at that point, a tall lean spaceman stepped out of the tail assembly, proton gun-blaster in a space-tanned hand.

"Get back from those controls, Bat Durston," the tall stranger lipped thinly. "You don't know it, but this is your last space trip."

Hoofs drumming, Bat Durston came galloping down through the narrow pass at Eagle Gulch, a tiny gold colony 400 miles north of Tombstone. He spurred hard for a low overhange of rim-rock...and at that point a tall, lean wrangler stepped out from behind a high bolder, six-shooter in a sun-tanned hand.

"Rear back and dismount, Bat Durton," the tall stranger lipped thinly. "You don't know it but this is your last saddle-jaunt through these here parts."

Sound alike? They should — one is merely a western transplanted to some alien and impossible planet. If this is your idea of science fiction, you're welcome to it! YOU'LL NEVER FIND IT IN GALAXY!

What you will find in GALAXY is the finest science fiction...authentic, plausible, thoughtful...written by authors who do not automaticallly switch over from crime waves to Earth invasions; by people who know and love science fiction...for people who also know and love it.

From the rear cover of the first issue of GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE (1950)

But there are a few semi-plausible reasons we can use as a fig-leaf for our galaxy-spanning space operas.

Population Explosion

But Terra becoming overpopulated can not be solved by colonization.

Back in the 1960's it was feared that the global population explosion would trigger a Malthusian catastrophe as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse pruned humanity's numbers. That didn't happen, but at the time a few suggested that population pressure could be dealt with by interplanetary colonization.

Noted science popularizer Isaac Asimov pointed out the flaw in that solution. Currently population growth is about 140 million people a year, or about 400,000 a day. So you'd have to launch into space 400,000 people every day just to break even. If you wanted to reduce global population, you'd have to launch more than that. It is a lot easier to use contraception.

The other thing to note is that as nations become industrialized, their population growth tends to level off, or even decline. This removes population pressure as a colonization motive. See Demographic Transition.


     All in all, I was tired and jumpy by the time I got home. I had listened to the news on the way home; it wasn't good. The ration had been cut another ten calories—which made me still hungrier and reminded me that I hadn't been home to get Dad's supper. The newscaster went on to say that the Spaceship Mayflower had finally been commissioned and that the rolls were now opened for emigrants. Pretty lucky for them, I thought. No short rations. No twerps like Jones.
     And a brand new planet.

     The spuds were ready. I took a quick look at my ration accounts, decided we could afford it, and set out a couple of pats of butterine for them. The broiler was ringing; I removed the steaks, set everything out, and switched on the candles, just as Anne would have done.
     "Come and get it!" I yelled and turned back to enter the calorie and point score on each item from the wrappers, then shoved the wrappers in the incinerator. That way you never get your accounts fouled up.

     Dad sniffed the steaks and grinned. "Oh boy! Bill, you'll bankrupt us."
     "You let me worry," I said. I'n still plus for this quarter." Then I frowned. "But I won't be, next quarter, unless they quit cutting the ration."
     Dad stopped with a piece of steak on its way to his mouth. "Again?"
     "Again. Look, George, I don't get it. This was a good crop year and they started operating the Montana yeast plant besides."
     "You follow all the commissary news, don't you, Bill?"
     "Did you notice the results of the Chinese census as well? Try it on your slide rule."
     I knew what he meant—and the steak suddenly tasted like old rubber. What's the use in being careful if somebody on the other side of the globe is going to spoil your try? "Those darned Chinese ought to quit raising babies and start raising food!"
     "Share and share alike, Bill."

     Dad sat back and lit his pipe. "Want me to clean up tonight?"
     "No, thanks." He always asked; I always turned him down. Dad is absent-minded; he lets ration points get into the incinerator. When I salvage, I really salvage.

From FARMER IN THE SKY by Robert Heinlein (1950)

     I was not even planned on. The untaxed quota for our family was three children, then my brother Pat and I came along in one giant economy package. We were a surprise to everyone, especially to my parents, my three sisters, and the tax adjusters. I don't recall being surprised myself but my earliest recollection is a vague feeling of not being quite welcome, even though Dad and Mum, and Faith, Hope, and Charity treated us okay.
     Maybe Dad did not handle the emergency right. Many families get an extra child quota on an exchange basis with another family, or something, especially when the tax-free limit has already been filled with all boys or all girls. But Dad was stubborn, maintaining that the law was unconstitutional, unjust, discriminatory, against public morals, and contrary to the will of God. He could reel off a list of important people who were youngest children of large families, from Benjamin Franklin to the first governor of Pluto, then he would demand to know where the human race would have been without them? after which Mother would speak soothingly.

     Dad was stubborn. He could have paid the annual head tax on us supernumeraries, applied for a seven-person flat, and relaxed to the inevitable. Then he could have asked for reclassification. Instead he claimed exemption for us twins each year, always ended by paying our head tax with his check stamped "Paid under Protest!" and we seven lived in a five-person flat. When Pat and I were little we slept in homemade cribs in the bathroom which could not have been convenient for anybody, then when we were bigger we slept on the living-room couch, which was inconvenient for everybody, especially our sisters, who found it cramping to their social life.
     Dad could have solved all this by putting in for family emigration to Mars or Venus, or the Jovian moons, and he used to bring up the subject. But this was the one thing that would make Mum more stubborn than he was. I don't know which part of making the High Jump scared her, because she would just settle her mouth and not answer. Dad would point out that big families got preferred treatment for emigration and that the head tax was earmarked to subsidize colonies off Earth and why shouldn't we benefit by the money we were being robbed of? To say nothing of letting our children grow up with freedom and elbow room, out where there wasn't a bureaucrat standing behind every productive worker dreaming up more rules and restrictions? Answer me that?
     Mother never answered and we never emigrated.

From TIME FOR THE STARS by Robert Heinlein (1956)

Malthusian growth model

The Malthusian growth model sees population growth as exponential.

P(t) = Poert
P=  P(0) is the initial population size,
r = population growth rate
t = time

Growth of microbe populations are often used to illustrate this. Let's say an amoeba will grow and divide into two amoeba after an day of absorbing nutrients.

Day 1: 1 amoeba
Day 2: 2 amoeba
Day 3: 4 amoeba
Day 4: 8 amoeba

And so on. Population doubles each day. Exponential growth is famous for starting out slow and then zooming through the roof.
On the left is exponential growth in cartesian coordinates. On the right in polar coordinates, radius doubles every circuit.

Malthus imagined a rapidly growing population consuming all their available food supply and then starving to death.

Logistic growth

Sometimes populations have suffered Malthusian disaster. More often rate of growth slows as the population approaches the limit that resources can support. This is logistic growth.

P(t) = Le-rt / (L +( e-rt - 1))

Where L is the maximum population local resources can support.
At the start, logistic growth resembles exponential growth. But as the population nears the logistic ceiling, growth tapers off. Above the blue boundary represents the limit to growth. In red is the logistic growth curve, the thinner black curve is exponential growth.

What slows growth?

In Heinlein's science fiction, war limits growth. This was also the foundation idea of Niven and Pournelle's The Mote In God's Eye -- War is the inevitable result of burgeoning populations.

The Four Horsemen of Apocalypse -- plague, war, famine and death are seen as natural outcomes of uncontrolled population growth.

A declining fertility rate is a less ominous way to step on the brakes. It is my hope most people will choose to have small families. And indeed, current trends indicate people are voluntarily having fewer kids. Still, there are skirmishes as various entities compete for limited resources.

Bad vs worse

A growing population, a growing consumer appetite, a limited body of resources. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see growth must eventually level off.

Whether it levels off via the 4 horsemen or moderation and voluntary birth control, either option sucks.  It's disaster vs stagnation.

Above is a Johnny Robinson cartoon from the National Space Society's publication.

I believe our solar system is possibly the next frontier. That has been the thrust of this blog since the start. If we do manage to break our chains to earth, it will be a huge turning point in human history, more dramatic than the settling of the Americas. The potential resources and real estate dwarf the north and south American land masses.

While settling the solar system allows expansion, it won't relieve population pressure on earth. Settlement of the Americas did not relieve population pressure in Europe, Asia and Africa. Mass emigration is impractical.

Rather, pioneers jumping boundaries starts growth within the new frontiers. I like to view the logistic growth spiral in polar form as a petri dish. When a population within a petri dish has matured to fill its boundaries, it sends spores out to neighboring petri dishes. Then populations within neighboring petri dishes grow to their limits.
The first petri dish still has a population filling the limit. They have not escaped the need to live within their means. I take issues with critics who say space enthusiasts want to escape to a new planet after earth has been trashed. Space enthusiasts know earth is fragile, more so than the average person. It is noteworthy that Elon Musk is pioneering planet preserving technologies such as electric cars and solar energy.

But even if mass emigration from Europe or Asia was not possible, the expansion into the Americas energized the economy and zeitgeist of the entire planet. It provided investment opportunities. Also an incentive to explore. This is the greatest benefit of a frontier. Curiosity is one of the noblest human qualities and I hope we will always want to see what lies over yonder hill. And that we will keep devising ways to reach the far side of the next hill. Satisfaction and contentment are for cattle. If we lose our hunger and wander lust we will no longer be human.


Mining Towns

Some planets might be miserable hell-holes that are poor advertisements for immigration, but might have other attractions. Remember one of the possible MacGuffinites (profit-motive reason to colonize space in the first place) is Mining. This may occur in a near-future solar-system colonization situation, or in a far-future faster-than-light starship galactic colonization situation.

But in both cases there is the personally-depressing but author-plot-wise-interesting phenomenon of the dreaded Resource Curse. Meaning you personally wouldn't want to live there but science fiction authors delight in such situations for their protagonists to strive against.

Since there is a short supply of perfection in the universe, Eden-like paradise planets might be few and far between inside a sea full of zillions of bad-lands mining worlds.

This can also be an entertaining scenario if a paradise planet is discovered to have a valuable deposit of something-or-other. Hilarity will ensue as the greedy faction in search of short-term gain go to war with the paradise faction who like things just the way they are, thank you very much. The greedy faction has no problem with strip-mining paradise and turning the entire planet into a toxic waste dump, not if it makes them rich. Naturally if a paradise person stumbles over the resource before anybody else knows (and has read the Wikipedia article on Resource Curse) they will go to insane lengths to cover up the secret.


The resource curse, also known as the paradox of plenty, refers to the paradox that countries with an abundance of natural resources, specifically non-renewable resources like minerals and fuels, tend to have less economic growth, less democracy, and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources. This is hypothesized to happen for many different reasons, and there are many academic debates about when and why it occurs. Most experts believe the resource curse is not universal or inevitable, but affects certain types of countries or regions under certain conditions.

Resource curse thesis

The idea that resources might be more of an economic curse than a blessing began to emerge in debates in the 1950s and 1960s about the economic problems of low and middle-income countries. The term resource curse was first used by Richard Auty in 1993 to describe how countries rich in mineral resources were unable to use that wealth to boost their economies and how, counter-intuitively, these countries had lower economic growth than countries without an abundance of natural resources. An influential study by Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner found a strong correlation between natural resource abundance and poor economic growth. Hundreds of studies have now evaluated the effects of resource wealth on a wide range of economic outcomes, and offered many explanations for how, why, and when a resource curse is likely to occur. While "the lottery analogy has value but also has shortcomings", many observers have likened the resource curse to the difficulties that befall lottery winners who struggle to manage the complex side-effects of newfound wealth.

Economic effects

The IMF classifies 51 countries as “resource-rich.” These are countries which derive at least 20% of exports or 20% of fiscal revenue from nonrenewable natural resources. 29 of these countries are low- and lower-middle-income. Common characteristics of these 29 countries include (i) extreme dependence on resource wealth for fiscal revenues, export sales, or both; (ii) low saving rates; (iii) poor growth performance; and (iv) highly volatile resource revenues.

A 2016 meta-study finds weak support for the thesis that resource richness adversely affects long-term economic growth. The authors note that "approximately 40% of empirical papers finding a negative effect, 40% finding no effect, and 20% finding a positive effect" but "overall support for the resource curse hypothesis is weak when potential publication bias and method heterogeneity are taken into account."

Dutch disease

Dutch disease makes tradable goods less competitive in world markets. Absent currency manipulation or a currency peg, appreciation of the currency can damage other sectors, leading to a compensating unfavorable balance of trade. As imports become cheaper in all sectors, internal employment suffers and with it the skill infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities of the nation. This problem has historically influenced the domestic economics of large empires including Rome during its transition from a Republic, and the United Kingdom during the height of its colonial empire. To compensate for the loss of local employment opportunities, government resources are used to artificially create employment. The increasing national revenue will often also result in higher government spending on health, welfare, military, and public infrastructure, and if this is done corruptly or inefficiently it can be a burden on the economy. (If it is done efficiently this can boost economic competitiveness - effectively acting as a wage subsidy). While the decrease in the sectors exposed to international competition and consequently even greater dependence on natural resource revenue leaves the economy vulnerable to price changes in the natural resource, this can be managed by an active and effective use of hedge instruments such as forwards, futures, options and swaps, however if it is managed inefficiently or corruptly this can lead to disastrous results. Also, since productivity generally increases faster in the manufacturing sector than in the government, so the economy will have lower productivity gains than before.

Dutch Disease first became apparent after the Dutch discovered a massive natural gas field in Groningen in 1959. The Netherlands sought to tap this resource in an attempt to export the gas for profit. However, when the gas began to flow out of the country so too did its ability to compete against other countries' exports. With the Netherlands' focus primarily on the new gas exports, the Dutch currency began to appreciate, which harmed the country's ability to export other products. With the growing gas market and the shrinking export economy, the Netherlands began to experience a recession. This process has been witnessed in multiple countries around the world including but not limited to Venezuela (oil), Angola (diamonds, oil), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (diamonds), and various other nations. All of these countries are considered "resource-cursed".

Revenue volatility

Prices for some natural resources are subject to wide fluctuation: for example crude oil prices rose from around $3 per barrel to $12/bbl in 1974 following the 1973 oil crisis and fell from $27/bbl to below $10/bbl during the 1986 glut. In the decade from 1998 to 2008, it rose from $10/bbl to $145/bbl, before falling by more than half to $60/bbl over a few months. When government revenues are dominated by inflows from natural resources (for example, 99.3% of Angola's exports came from just oil and diamonds in 2005), this volatility can play havoc with government planning and debt service. Abrupt changes in economic realities that result from this often provoke widespread breaking of contracts or curtailment of social programs, eroding the rule of law and popular support. Responsible use of financial hedges can mitigate this risk to some extent.

Susceptibility to this volatility can be increased where governments choose to borrow heavily in foreign currency. Real exchange rate increases, through capital inflows or the "Dutch disease" can make this appear an attractive option by lowering the cost of interest payments on the foreign debt, and they may be considered more creditworthy due to the existence of natural resources. If the resource prices fall, however, the governments' capacity to meet debt repayments will be reduced. For example, many oil-rich countries like Nigeria and Venezuela saw rapid expansions of their debt burdens during the 1970s oil boom; however, when oil prices fell in the 1980s, bankers stopped lending to them and many of them fell into arrears, triggering penalty interest charges that made their debts grow even more. As Venezuelan oil minister and OPEC co-founder Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo presciently warned in 1976: "Ten years from now, twenty years from now, you will see, oil will bring us ruin... It is the devil's excrement."

Enclave effects

Economic diversification may be delayed or neglected by the authorities in the light of the temporarily high profits that can be obtained from limited natural resources. The attempts at diversification that do occur are often grand public works projects which may be misguided or mismanaged. However, even when the authorities attempt diversification in the economy, this is made difficult because resource extraction is vastly more lucrative and out-competes other industries. Successful natural-resource-exporting countries often become increasingly dependent on extractive industries over time. The abundant revenue from natural resource extraction discourages the long-term investment in infrastructure that would support a more diverse economy. This lack of investment exacerbates the negative impact of sudden drops in the resource's price. While resource sectors tend to produce large financial revenues, they often add few jobs to the economy, and tend to operate as enclaves with few forward and backward connections to the rest of the economy.

Human resources

In many poor countries, natural resource industries tend to pay far higher salaries than what would be available elsewhere in the economy. This tends to attract the best talent from both private and government sectors, damaging these sectors by depriving them of their best skilled personnel. Another possible effect of the resource curse is the crowding out of human capital; countries that rely on natural resource exports may tend to neglect education because they see no immediate need for it. Resource-poor economies like Singapore, Taiwan or South Korea, by contrast, spent enormous efforts on education, and this contributed in part to their economic success (see East Asian Tigers). Other researchers, however, dispute this conclusion; they argue that natural resources generate easily taxable rents that more often than not result in increased spending on education.

Incomes and employment

A study on coal mining in Appalachia "suggest that the presence of coal in the Appalachian region has played a significant part in its slow pace of economic development. Our best estimates indicate that an increase of 0.5 units in the ratio of coal revenues to personal income in a county is associated with a 0.7 percentage point decrease in income growth rates. No doubt, coal mining provides opportunities for relatively high-wage employment in the region, but its effect on prosperity appears to be negative in the longer run."

Another example was the Spanish Empire which obtained enormous wealth from its resource-rich colonies in South America in the sixteenth century. The large cash inflows from silver reduced incentives for industrial development in Spain. Innovation and investment in education were therefore neglected, so that the prerequisites for successful future development were given up. Thus, Spain soon lost its economic strength in comparison to other Western countries.

A study of US oil booms finds positive effects on local employment and income during booms but "that incomes per capita decreased and unemployment compensation payments increased relative to what they would have been if the boom had not occurred."

Political effects

Natural resources are a source of economic rent which can generate large revenues for those controlling them even in the absence of political stability and wider economic growth. Their existence is a potential source of conflict between factions fighting for a share of the revenue, which may take the form of armed separatist conflicts in regions where the resources are produced or internal conflict between different government ministries or departments for access to budgetary allocations. This tends to erode governments' abilities to function effectively.

Even when politically stable, countries whose economies are dominated by resource extraction industries tend to be less democratic and more corrupt.

Armed conflict

According to one academic study, a country that is otherwise typical but has primary commodity exports around 5% of GDP has a 6% risk of conflict, but when exports are 25% of GDP the chance of conflict rises to 33%. "Ethno-political groups are more likely to resort to rebellion rather than using nonviolent means or becoming terrorists when representing regions rich in oil."

There are several factors behind the relationship between natural resources and armed conflicts. Resource wealth may increase the vulnerability of countries to conflicts by undermining the quality of governance and economic performance (the "resource curse" argument). Secondly, conflicts can occur over the control and exploitation of resources and the allocation of their revenues (the "resource war" argument). Thirdly, access to resource revenues by belligerents can prolong conflicts (the "conflict resource" argument).

A 2004 literature review finds that oil makes the onset of war more likely and that lootable resources lengthen existing conflicts. One study finds the mere discovery (as opposed to just the exploitation) of petroleum resources increases the risk of conflict, as oil revenues have the potential to alter the balance of power between regimes and their opponents, rendering bargains in the present obsolete in the future. One study suggests that the rise in mineral prices over the period 1997–2010 contributed to up to 21 percent of the average country-level violence in Africa. Research shows that declining oil prices make oil-rich states less bellicose. Jeff Colgan observed that oil-rich states have a propensity to instigate international conflicts as well as to be the targets of them, which he referred to as "petro-aggression". Arguable examples include Iraq’s invasions of Iran and Kuwait; Libya’s repeated incursions into Chad in the 1970s and 1980s; Iran’s long-standing suspicion of Western powers; USA's relations with Iraq and Iran. It is not clear whether the pattern of petro-aggression found in oil-rich countries also applies to other natural resources besides oil. A 2016 study finds that "oil production, oil reserves, oil dependence, and oil exports are associated with a higher risk of initiating conflict while countries enjoying large oil reserves are more frequently the target of military actions." As of 2016, the only six countries whose reported military expenditures exceeded 6 percent of GDP were significant oil producers: Oman, South Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, Algeria. (Data for Syria and North Korea were unavailable.)

The emergence of the Sicilian Mafia has been attributed to the resource curse. Early Mafia activity is strongly linked to Sicilian municipalities abundant in sulphur, Sicily's most valuable export commodity.

A 2016 study argues that petrostates may be emboldened to act more aggressively due to the inability of allied great powers to punish the petrostate. The great powers have strong incentives not to upset the relationship with its client petrostate ally for both strategic and economic reasons.

Authoritarian rule

See also: Rentier state

Research shows that oil wealth lowers levels of democracy and strengthens autocratic rule. According to Michael Ross, "only one type of resource has been consistently correlated with less democracy and worse institutions: petroleum, which is the key variable in the vast majority of the studies that identify some type of curse." A 2014 meta-analysis confirms the negative impact of oil wealth on democratization. A 2016 study challenges the conventional academic wisdom on the relationship between oil and authoritarianism. Another 2016 study finds that resource windfalls have no political impact on democracies and deeply entrenched authoritarian regimes, but significantly exacerbate the autocratic nature of moderately authoritarian regimes. A third 2016 study finds that while it is accurate that resource richness has an adverse impact on the prospects of democracy, this relationship has only held since the 1970s.

There are two ways that oil wealth might negatively affect democratization. The first is that oil strengthens authoritarian regimes, making transitions to democracy less likely. The second is that oil wealth weakens democracies. Research generally supports the first theory but is mixed on the second.

Both pathways might result from the ability of oil-rich states to provide citizens with a combination of generous benefits and low taxes. In many economies that are not resource-dependent, governments tax citizens, who demand efficient and responsive government in return. This bargain establishes a political relationship between rulers and subjects. In countries whose economies are dominated by natural resources, however, rulers don't need to tax their citizens because they have a guaranteed source of income from natural resources. Because the country's citizens aren't being taxed, they have less incentive to be watchful with how government spends its money. In addition, those benefiting from mineral resource wealth may perceive an effective and watchful civil service and civil society as a threat to the benefits that they enjoy, and they may take steps to thwart them. As a result, citizens are often poorly served by their rulers, and if the citizens complain, money from the natural resources enables governments to pay for armed forces to keep the citizens in check. It has been argued rises and falls in the price of petroleum correlate with rises and falls in the implementation of human rights in major oil-producing countries.

Corrupt members of national governments may collude with resource extraction companies to override their own laws and ignore objections made by indigenous inhabitants. The United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee report entitled "Petroleum and Poverty Paradox" states that "too often, oil money that should go to a nation’s poor ends up in the pockets of the rich, or it may be squandered on grand palaces and massive showcase projects instead of being invested productively". A 2016 study finds that mining in Africa substantially increases corruption; an individual within 50 kilometers of a recently opened mine is 33% more likely to have paid a bribe the past year than a person living within 50 kilometers of mines that will open in the future. The former also pay bribes for permits more frequently, and perceive their local councilors to be more corrupt.

The Center for Global Development argues that governance in resource rich states would be improved by the government making universal, transparent, and regular payments of oil revenues to citizens, and then attempting to reclaim it through the tax system, which they argue will fuel public demand for the government to be transparent and accountable in its management of natural resource revenues and in the delivery of public services.

One study finds that "oil producing states dependent on exports to the USA exhibit lower human rights performance than those exporting to China". The authors argue that this stems from the fact that US relationships with oil producers were formed decades ago, before human rights became part of its foreign policy agenda.

One study finds that resource wealth in authoritarian states lower the probability of adopting Freedom of Information (FOI) laws. However, democracies that are resource rich are more likely than resource poor democracies to adopt FOI laws.

Gender inequality

Research links gender inequality in the Middle East to resource wealth, and likewise for the problems of "petro-sexual politics" in Nigeria. A study in the US finds similar results: resource wealth leads to lower levels of female labor force participation, lower turnout and fewer seats held by women in legislatures.

International cooperation

Research finds that the more that states depend on oil exports, the less cooperative they become: they grow less likely to join intergovernmental organizations, to accept the compulsory jurisdiction of international judicial bodies, and to agree to binding arbitration for investment disputes.


A 2008 study argues that the curse vanishes when looking not at the relative importance of resource exports in the economy but rather at a different measure: the relative abundance of natural resources in the ground. Using that variable to compare countries, it reports that resource wealth in the ground correlates with slightly higher economic growth and slightly fewer armed conflicts. That a high dependency on resource exports correlates with bad policies and effects is not caused by the large degree of resource exportation. The causation goes in the opposite direction: conflicts and bad policies created the heavy dependence on exports of natural resources. When a country's chaos and economic policies scare off foreign investors and send local entrepreneurs abroad to look for better opportunities, the economy becomes skewed. Factories may close and businesses may flee, but petroleum and precious metals remain for the taking. Resource extraction becomes the "default sector" that still functions after other industries have come to a halt.

A 2011 article that examines the long-term relationship between natural resource reliance and regime type across the world from 1800 to 2006 reports that increases in natural resource reliance do not induce authoritarianism. With a focus on alleviating the methodological biases of earlier studies, the authors find evidence which suggests that increasing reliance on natural resources promotes democratization, the opposite of what the Resource curse theory suggests. The researchers provide qualitative evidence for this fact across several countries both here, and in another article; as well as evidence that there is no relationship between resource reliance and authoritarianism in Latin America. The main methodological bias of earlier studies, the authors claim, is the assumption of random effects: "Numerous sources of bias may be driving the results [of earlier studies on the resource curse], the most serious of which is omitted variable bias induced by unobserved country-specific and time-invariant heterogeneity." In other words, this means that countries might have specific, enduring traits that gets left out of the model, which could increase the explanation power of the argument. The authors claim that the chances of this happening is larger when assuming random effects, an assumption that does not allow for what the authors call "unobserved country-specific heterogeneity".

These criticisms have themselves been subject to criticism. One study re-examined the Haber-Menaldo analysis, using Haber and Menaldo's own data and statistical models. It reports that their conclusions are only valid for the period before the 1970s, but since about 1980, there has been a pronounced resource curse. Authors Andersen and Ross suggest that oil wealth only became a hindrance to democratic transitions after the transformative events of the 1970s, which enabled developing country governments to capture the oil rents that were previously siphoned off by foreign-owned firms.

A 2011 study argues that previous assumptions that oil abundance is a curse were based on methodologies which failed to take into account cross-country differences and dependencies arising from global shocks, such as changes in technology and the price of oil. The researchers studied data from the World Bank over the period 1980–2006 for 53 countries, covering 85% of world GDP and 81% of world proven oil reserves. They found that oil abundance positively affected both short-term growth and long-term income levels. In a companion paper, using data on 118 countries over the period 1970–2007, they show that it is the volatility in commodity prices, rather than abundance per se, that drives the resource curse paradox.

From the Wikipedia entry for RESOURCE CURSE

     Mass automation is undermining our democracy in a very specific way: it's acting as the ultimate "resource curse."
     "Countries with an abundance of natural resources, specifically non-renewable resources like minerals and fuels, tend to have less economic growth, less democracy, and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources."

     Scholars debate the causes of the resource curse, but one popular theory has to do with the way autocrats fund themselves relative to democracies.
     Autocrats, it turns out, need a lot of wealth to pay their cronies. No dictator rules alone; they need someone to run the military, someone to collect the taxes, and someone to enforce the laws. Those people have to be paid, and handsomely, or they'll overthrow the dictator (or just allow the dictator to be overthrown). This is called "selectorate theory" and this video is a great introduction.
     Oil wealth, specifically, undermines democracy because when autocrats have access to oil wealth, they don't need to depend on their citizens very much. (Indeed, many oil-rich autocratic countries just allow other countries to come in and drill it, keeping local labor entirely out of the loop.)
     Resource-cursed autocracies tend to democratize when the oil wealth runs out and they need to rely on the people's productivity to deliver wealth to cronies. When autocrats are forced to allow people to educate themselves and communicate with one another, democracy ensues.

     It can work the other way, too. In every democracy, there's a group of folks asking themselves a question: is now the time to try a coup, to replace democracy with an autocracy? As the value of capital increases and the value of human labor decreases, the advantages of staging a coup become more and more enticing.

     For years we've thought of human labor as the "ultimate resource." But it turns out that human labor isn't the ultimate resource. Robot labor that's just as good if not better than human labor is a resource beyond any we've ever seen.
     But that means that we're discovering/inventing the ultimate resource curse.
     We might use automation to fund universal basic income, or a class of elites could use it to undermine "unnecessary" citizens (the "unnecessariat"), establishing a corporate fascism.
     When the government depends on human productivity for our tax base, the government needs to keep us all well-educated and healthy. But soon, government won't depend on human labor.

     "Is now the time?" they're asking. And, increasingly, the answer is "yes."

Extremist Settlement

RocketCat sez

Whack-jobs who are far outside the mainstream, paranoid schizophrenics, Ted Kaczynski wannabees, or otherwise misanthropic bastards, alla'em wanna go somewhere lonely. They misinterpret Jean-Paul Sartre's aphorism "Hell Is Other People."

So they beat feet to some remote planet as isolated as possible. Ideally with a population of zero, but that's hard to do. There they can play Mountain Man.

Meanwhile, any cult leader knowns trying to use logic to convince your followers of the divinity of the UFO Two ain't gonna work. So Brainwashing 101 starts off with isolating your followers from their loved ones and anybody else who is rational. Cause it takes lotsa brainwashing to get the congregation to drink the Kool-Aid or eat the applesauce. Just one rational person saying "This is NUTS!" can break the spell.

In other words cults also wanna low population world to help with the brainwashing. Although they will probably spin it as "preserving culture".

Once the colony is established, the cult is free to become even more fanatical, and can institute even more draconian methods to purge the less than ideologically pure.

Groups whose members share ideologies that are considered extreme by the society they live in have a natural inclination to leave and found a remote colony far away from all those heathen unbelievers. And far away from the goverment with all its pesky laws preventing the groups from doing whatever they blasted well please.

You know, just like the Puritans or Jonestown.

In science fiction, a common theme is that the interstellar government reserves the more desireable Terran-like habitable planets for mainstream colonists. The kind that the government wants to encourage. Extremists who want the entire world for themselves have to be content with miserable hell-hole planets that nobody else wants. Because they are the kind that the government wants to discourage.

The cult's pathological determination means they are willing to put up with barriers like marginal planets that no sane person would colonize, problematic Generation ships, lack of support, donating all their worldly wealth to the colonization effort, and being cut off from all other human contact. In fact, the cult leaders might see settling a horrible planet to be an advantage, keeping away any heathen colonists from rational planets with their evil progressive ideas.

If the extremists manage to settle somewhere, they form what is called a Cult Colony.

Occasionally cult colonies becomes a big problem for the interstellar government if the extremist colony is too stubborn to die, instead expanding to create an extremist planet. These are the colonies that science fiction writers feature in their novels, since stories about failed colonies are very dull.

This is why you need a Colony Educational Service to try and keep the colonists from becoming wide-eyed fanatics. Such a sad occurrance will be very hard on the rank-and-file colonists. If the fanatics industrialize and start a crusade it could be very hard on the entire galaxy.


"The first space colonies had been conceived as utopias, planned by Earth idealists who wouldn't learn from history. New frontiers may attract visionaries, but more than that they attract oddities. Anyone who is more than three sigma away from the norm, in any direction, seems to finish out there on the frontier. No surprise in that. If a person can't fit, for whatever reason, he'll move away from the main group of humanity. They'll push him, and he'll want to go."

From THE McANDREW CHRONICLES by Charles Sheffield (1983)

If and when humanity ever goes out into space to establish colonies, unless we develop some sort of super-fast warp drive surprisingly early, the first few extrasolar colonies will be rather isolated for quite a while. They will also be rather expensive to set up. What sort of people would volunteer for such an endeavor? Who would willingly cut themselves off from all other human contact, leave all their friends, neighbors, and relatives behind, and strand themselves years away from any support, rescue, or even conversation quite literally light-years from home? And who could afford to build a Generation Ship, Sleeper Ship, or other large but low-tech means of journeying to another world with enough people and equipment to found a self-supporting colony on a brand new world?

A band of religious fanatics, that's who.

The sort of people who, in Real Life, build isolated compounds out in the middle of the desert. The sort who set out in leaky boats with names like Mayflower and cross vast oceans to build quaint little English villages in the middle of the wilderness on a barely-explored continent.

Even once colonization really gets going, there will still be groups of like-minded religious individuals who pool together their worldly wealth and found themselves a colony of their own, where they will be free from persecution (or perhaps just free to persecute the heck out of any of their number who aren't theologically pure enough).

This trope is for both colonies explicitly founded by monolithic religious organizations, whether mainstream or cult-like, and for colonies which, some time after their founding, become religiously monolithic due to a sort of revival fervor or the rise of a local charismatic religious leader who converts the vast majority of the population.

Frequently overlaps with Space Amish, when the rejection of technology is religiously based. Naturally qualifies as a Planet of Hats. In sci-fi, Mormons are a probably the favorite pick for this- although they are usually off-screen. If the cult develops unsavoury traditions that it hides from visitors, the result will be a Town with a Dark Secret.

Cult colonies are one possible outcome when Settling the Frontier.

Real Life

  • In 1630, members of another Puritan sect founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony forty miles north of Plymouth, establishing the city of Boston. They promptly made it illegal to be anything but a Puritan, and soon were expelling large numbers of their own members for not being sufficiently Puritan, which is how the nearby colonies of Rhode Island and Connecticut got started. (That Boston today is associated with liberalism and Irish Catholics is a supreme irony that probably has the founding Puritans rolling in their graves.)
    • One of the groups expelled from Massachusetts Bay Colony settled down in Rhode Island, where they promptly began expelling each other over disagreements. Eventually, everyone was gone except the preacher and his wife, who then had an argument, declared each other heretics, and excommunicated each other. Just in case you were wondering why the Puritans kicked them out...

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)

Decay of the Fatherland

I have noticed in a few science fiction novels a variant of the trope "Libertarians In Space". The idea is that when extraterrestrial colonies are opened; all the forward thinking, high-IQ, rugged individualist types will flee corrupt, welfare-bloated, decaying Terra and find a new free life in the colonies (TV Tropes calls them Space Cossacks). The result is that Terra will become a slum and the colonies will become shining beacons of libertarianism.

Often Terra becomes alarmed at their fall from power, and starts putting pressure on the colonies in order to maintain their dominance. Commonly a civil war or revolutionary war occurs (TV Tropes calls it the The War of Earthly Aggression).

Examples include Subspace Explorers by E.E. "Doc" Smith, Space Viking by H. Beam Piper, Take the Star Road by Peter Grant, Red Planet and Between Planets by Robert Heinlein, the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, Thin Edge by Randall Garrett, and the Coyote novels by Allen Steele.

I already pointed out how Charles Stross proves this to be a questionable scenario, at least when it comes to colonies where you need high technology just to make air to breath.

The trope seems to be founded on an idealized version of the opening of the American frontier. Which does not make sense, since according to the trope Britain should have turned into a third world country after the American Revolution. Which did not happen.

What it boils down to is: how valid you think the trope is depends upon how valid you think Libertarianism is.


      “But you think them. You underestimate the potentials of Earth. You forget that this was the stock of your own ancestors.”

     “Sure it was—half a millennium ago. And half a billion years before that, it was fishes. I’m talking about now. This is the dregs. That’s what you have left when the top quarter of each generation is skimmed off for seven hundred years and goes into space. It’s a flawed gene pool here. Look back over the past century. You won’t find any worthwhile talent that came from Earth.”

     Rank Has Its Privileges. That had never been more true than during the first decades of space development. One odd and predictable—yet unexpected—consequence of automation and excess productive capacity had been the re-emergence of the class system. The old aristocracy, diminished (but never quite destroyed) during the days of world-wide poverty and experimental social programs, had returned; and there were some curious additions to their ranks.

     It had been surprising, but inevitable. When all of Earth’s manufacturing moved to the computer-controlled assembly lines, employment needs went down as efficiency went up. Soon it was learned that in the fuzzy areas of “management” and “government,” most business and development decisions could also be routinely (and more effectively) handled by computer. At the same time, lack of results and impatience with academic studies had squeezed education to a few years of mandatory schooling.

     The unemployment rate grew to ninety percent. The available jobs on Earth called for no special skills—so who would get them?

     Naturally, those with well-placed friends and relatives. There had been a wonderful blossoming of nepotism, unmatched within the previous thousand years. Many positions called for prospective employees to possess a “stable base of operations and adequate working materials.” With living accommodations and family possessions passed on across the generations, the advantage lay always with those from the old families.

     Meanwhile, away from Earth there was a real need for people. The solar system was ripe for development. It offered an environment that was demanding, dangerous, and full of unbounded opportunities. And it had a nasty habit of cancelling any man-made advantage derived from birth, wealth, or spurious academic “qualifications.” Cancelling permanently.

     The rich and the royal were not without their own shrewdness. After a quick look at space, they stayed home on Earth, the one place in the system where their safety, superiority, and status were all assured. It was the low-born, seeing no upward mobility on Earth, who took the big leap—outward.

     The result was too effective to be the work of human planners. The tough, desperate commoners fought their way to space, generation after generation. The introduction of the Mattin Link (teleportation transport) quadrupled the rate of exodus, and the society that was left on Earth became more and more titled and selfconscious. Well-protected from material want and free from external pressures, it naturally developed an ever-increasing disdain for the emigrants—“vulgar commoners”—spreading their low-born and classless fecundity through the solar system and out to the stars. Earth was the place to be for the aristocrats. The only place to be, on the Big Marble itself. Where else could anyone live who despised crudity, esteemed breeding and culture, and demanded a certain sophistication of lifestyle?

From THE MIND POOL by Charles Sheffield (1993)

      "What the hell would the Destroyers want with technocrats?"

     They take anything that's any value to them—brains, slave-flesh, metals. And as many items of higher technology as they can find. That's why they put down an entire fleet. They strip a planet of anything useful they can carry before they destroy it.

     "That doesn't make sense, Jaycee."

     No, but it's fact.

     "Slave-flesh and metals I can understand, but not technocrats. They can surely train enough of their own."

     They appear to be concentrating on ones with a certain specialty—authorities on the patterns of chaos. Seems as though Onaris had one of the top men in that field.

     "I thought Terra had all the top men."

     That's a classical myth. In fact, the reverse is true. When the starships started the Great Exodus from Terra they took an unusually high concentration of very high IQ emigrants with them. It's not rare on a settlement planet to find two or three families still breedin' an almost pure genuis strain. Onaris had one family of decidedly genius strain—the Halterns. You're cast as Ander Haltern, direct ninth descendant of Prosper Haltern. Ander's probably one of the galaxy's top men on the patterns of chaos.

From PATTERNS OF CHAOS by Colin Kapp (1972)

      The hotel manager was a small-minded man with a narrow-minded outlook and a brain that was almost totally unable to learn. He was, in short, a “normal” Earthman.
     The manager had not lived in the atmosphere of the Earth’s Citizen’s Welfare State as long as he had without knowing that dogs eat dogs. He looked back at the card that had been delivered to his desk only minutes before and this time he read it thoroughly. Then, with a gesture, he signaled the Security men to return to their posts. But he did not take his eyes from the card.
     The manager had long since realized that he was dealing with a Belt man, not an Earth citizen, and that the registration robot had sent him the card because of that, not because there was anything illegal. Men from the Belt did not come to Earth either willingly or often.
     Still unable to override his instincts—which erroneously told him that there was something “wrong”—the manager said: “What does the ‘Sir’ mean?”
     Harry Morgan glowed warmly. “Well, now, Mr. Manager, I will tell you. I will give you an analogy. In the time of the Roman Republic, twenty-one centuries or so ago, the leader of an Army was given the title Imperator. But that title could not be conferred upon him by the Senate of Rome nor by anyone else in power. No man could call himself Imperator until his own soldiers, the men under him, had publicly acclaimed him as such. If, voluntarily, his own men shouted ‘Ave, Imperator!’ at a public gathering, then the man could claim the title. Later the title degenerated—” He stopped.
     The manager was staring at him with uncomprehending eyes, and Morgan’s outward smile became genuine. “Sorry,” he said condescendingly. “I forgot that history is not a popular subject in the Welfare World.” Morgan had forgotten no such thing, but he went right on. “What I meant to say was that the spacemen of the Belt Cities have voluntarily agreed among themselves to call me ‘sir’. Whether that is a title of ability or a title of courtesy, you can argue about with me at another time. Right now, I want my room key.”
     Under the regulations, the manager knew there was nothing else he could do. He had made a mistake, and he knew that he had. If he had only taken the trouble to read the rest of the card—
     “Awfully sorry, Mr. Morgan,” he said with a lopsided smile that didn’t even look genuine. “The—”
     “Watch those courtesy titles,” Morgan reprimanded gently. “’Mister’ comes ultimately from the Latin magister, meaning ‘master’ or ‘teacher’. And while I may be your master, I wouldn’t dare think I could teach you anything.”
     “All citizens are entitled to be called ‘Mister’,” the manager said with a puzzled look. He pushed a room key across the desk.
     “Which just goes to show you,” said Harry Morgan, picking up the key.

(ed note: The Belt civilization has developed a technology to make an ultra-strong cable. But they are sensibly keeping it a trade secret. Earth wants the secret, specifically Sam Fergus the CEO of People’s Manufacturing Corporation Number 873. Sam had a Belt citizen kidnapped and tortured for the secret, but the Belter died without talking. Sam also does not know that Harry Morgan has arrived from the Belt to avenge the death of his friend.)

     “Sure we have,” Fergus repeated. His grin was huge. Then it changed to a frown. “I don’t figure them sometimes. Those Belt people are crazy. Why wouldn’t they give us the process for making that cable of theirs? Why?” He looked up at Tarnhorst with a genuinely puzzled look on his face. “I mean, you’d think they thought that the laws of nature were private property or something. They don’t have the right outlook. A man finds out something like that, he ought to give it to the human race, hadn’t he, Edway? How come those Belt people want to keep something like that secret?”
     Edway Tarnhorst massaged the bridge of his nose with a thumb and forefinger, his eyes closed. “I don’t know, Sam. I really don’t know. Selfish, is all I can say.”
     Selfish? he thought. Is it really selfish? Where is the dividing line? How much is a man entitled to keep secret, for his own benefit, and how much should he tell for the public?
     He glanced again at the coat of arms carved into the surface of the diamond. A thousand years ago, his ancestors had carved themselves a tiny empire out of middle Europe—a few hundred acres, no more. Enough to keep one family in luxury while the serfs had a bare existence. They had conquered by the sword and ruled by the sword. They had taken all and given nothing.
     But had they? The Barons of Tarnhorst had not really lived much better than their serfs had lived. More clothes and more food, perhaps, and a few baubles—diamonds and fine silks and warm furs. But no Baron Tarnhorst had ever allowed his serfs to starve, for that would not be economically sound. And each Baron had been the dispenser of Justice; he had been Law in his land. Without him, there would have been anarchy among the ignorant peasants, since they were certainly not fit to govern themselves a thousand years ago.
     Were they any better fit today? Tarnhorst wondered. For a full millennium, men had been trying, by mass education and by mass information, to bring the peasants up to the level of the nobles. Had that plan succeeded? Or had the intelligent ones simply been forced to conform to the actions of the masses? Had the nobles made peasants of themselves instead?
     Edway Tarnhorst didn’t honestly know. All he knew was that he saw a new spark of human life, a spark of intelligence, a spark of ability, out in the Belt. He didn’t dare tell anyone—he hardly dared admit it to himself—but he thought those people were better somehow than the common clods of Earth. Those people didn’t think that just because a man could slop color all over an otherwise innocent sheet of canvas, making outré and garish patterns, that that made him an artist. They didn’t think that just because a man could write nonsense and use erratic typography, that that made him a poet. They had other beliefs, too, that Edway Tarnhorst saw only dimly, but he saw them well enough to know that they were better beliefs than the obviously stupid belief that every human being had as much right to respect and dignity as every other, that a man had a right to be respected, that he deserved it. Out there, they thought that a man had a right only to what he earned.
     But Edway Tarnhorst was as much a product of his own society as Sam Fergus. He could only behave as he had been taught. Only on occasion—on very special occasion—could his native intelligence override the “common sense” that he had been taught. Only when an emergency arose. But when one did, Edway Tarnhorst, in spite of his environmental upbringing, was equal to the occasion.
     Actually, his own mind was never really clear on the subject. He did the best he could with the confusion he had to work with.

From THIN EDGE by Randall Garrett (1963)

But space travel can't ease the pressure on a planet grown too crowded not even with today's ships and probably not with any future ships—because stupid people won't leave the slopes of their home volcano even when it starts to smoke and rumble. What space travel does do is drain off the best brains: those smart enough to see a catastrophe before it happens, and with the guts to pay the price—abandon home, wealth, friends, relatives, everything—and go. That's a tiny fraction of one percent. But that's enough.

From TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE by Robert Heinlein (1973)

That in itself might not have been serious, had not Earth grown steadily more jealous of its offspring during the two hundred years since the dawn of space travel. It was, thought Sadler, an old, old story, perhaps its classic example being the case of England and the American colonies. It has been truly said that history never repeats itself, but historical situations recur. The men who governed Earth were far more intelligent than George the Third; nevertheless, they were beginning to show the same reactions as that unfortunate monarch.

There were excuses on both sides. there always are. Earth was tired; it had spent itself, sending out its best blood to the stars. It saw power slipping from its hands, and knew that it had already lost the future Why should it speed the process by giving to its rivals the tools they needed?

The Federation, on the other hand, looked back with a kind of affectionate contempt upon the world from which it had sprung. It had lured to Mars, Venus and the satellites of the giant planets some of the finest intellects and the most adventurous spirits of the human race. Here was the new frontier, one that would expand forever toward the stars. It was the greatest physical challenge mankind had ever faced, it could be met only by supreme scientific skill and unyielding determination. These were virtues no longer essential on Earth; the fact that Earth was well aware of it did nothing to ease the situation.

From EARTHLIGHT by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1955)

“All right. On this basic factor there’s no disagreement whatever. No doubt or question. Tellurian labor is a bunch of plain damned fools. Idiots. Cretins. However, that’s only to be expected because everybody with any brains or any guts left Tellus years ago. There’s scarcely any good breeding stock left, even. So about the only ones with brains left—except for the connivers, chiselers, boodlers, gangsters, and bastardly crooked politicians and that goes for most Tellurian capitalists, too. Right?"

One of the most important effects of this migration, although it was scarcely noticed at the time, was the difference between the people of the planets and those of Earth. The planetsmen were, to give a thumbnail description, the venturesome, the independent, the ambitious, the chance-taking. Tellurians were, and became steadily more so, the stodgy, the unimaginative, the security-conscious.

Decade after decade this difference became more and more marked, until finally there developed a definite traffic pattern that operated continuously to intensify it. Young Tellurians of both sexes who did not like regimentation—and urged on by the blandishments of planetary advertising campaigns—left Earth for good. Conversely, a thin stream of colonials who preferred security to competition flowed to Earth. This condition had existed for over two hundred years. (And, by the way, it still exists.)

From SUBSPACE EXPLORERS by E.E. "Doc" Smith (1965)

And after they were gone, the farms and ranches and factories would go on, almost but not quite as before. Nothing on Gram, nothing on any of the Sword-Worlds, was done as efficiently as three centuries ago. The whole level of Sword-World life was sinking, like the east coastline of this continent, so slowly as to be evident only from the records and monuments of the past. He said as much, and added: "And the genetic loss. The best Sword-World genes are literally escaping to space, like the atmosphere of a low gravity planet, each generation begotten by fathers slightly inferior to the last. It wasn't so bad when the Space Vikings raided directly from the Sword-Worlds; they got home once in a while. Now they're conquering planets in the Old Federation for bases, and staying there."

He turned to Basil Gorrarn. "You see, the gentleman isn't crazy, at all. That's what happened to the Terran Federation, by the way. The good men all left to colonize, and the stuffed shirts and yes-men and herd-followers and safety-firsters stayed on Terra and tried to govern the Galaxy."

From SPACE VIKING by H. Beam Piper (1963)

Louie grimaced. “The reason’s simple, Vince. Look what happened after the gravitic drive came along. Most of those who left were in the top ten per cent of Earth’s population in terms of intelligence , drive and ability. They could see the way things were going here, and wanted no part of it. They sold all they had , cut all their ties, abandoned everything that held them back, and headed out. Not many had the guts or gumption to do that — it automatically culled all but the strongest candidates. Even then, they weren’t accepted into a colony group unless they had skills, knowledge and abilities that were needed; and they had to come up with a stiff fare payment besides, or work their passage, or accept indentured servitude for several years at their destination.

Result was, with so many good people leaving, Earth’s average intelligence dropped measurably during the Scramble for Space. It’s never fully recovered . That’s why they try to stop any more of the smart ones from leaving.”

Vince sighed. “You’re right, of course. The intelligence level on most colony planets still trends higher than on Earth.”

From TAKE THE STAR ROAD by Peter Grant (2013)

     “Mars is America,” Tori said, waving his beer expansively. “It’s exactly the same.”
     “It’s not America,” Malik said.
     “Not like it was at the end. Like the beginning. Look at how long it took to travel from Europe to North America in the 1500s. Two months. How long to get here from Earth? Four. Longer if the orbits are right.”
     “Which is the first way in which it’s not like America,” Malik said, dryly.
     “It’s within an order of magnitude,” Tori said. “My point is that politically speaking, distance is measured in time. We’re months away from Earth. They’re still thinking about us like we’re some kind of lost colony. Like we answer to them. How many people here, just at this table have had directives from someone who’s never been outside a gravity well but still felt like they should tell us where our research should go?
     Tori raised his own hand, and Raj followed suit. Voltaire. Carl. Reluctantly, Malik. Tori’s grin was smug.
     “Who’s doing the real science in the system?” Tori said. “That’s us. Our ships are newer and better. Our environmental science is at least a decade ahead of anything they’ve got on Earth. Last year, we hit self-sustaining.”

     “Do you really think Earth hasn’t noticed?” Tori said. “You think the kids back at the labs on Luna and Sao Paulo aren’t looking up at the sky and saying That little red dot is kicking our asses? They’re jealous and they’re scared and they should be. It’s all I’m saying. If we do our own thing, the earliest they could do something about it still gives us months of lead time. England lost its colonies because you can’t maintain control with a sixty-day latency, much less a hundred and twenty.

From DRIVE by "James S.A. Corey" (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) 2012. Prequel to The Expanse

There is an ideology that they are attached to; it's the ideology of westward frontier expansion, the Myth of the West, the westward expansion of the United States between 1804 (the start of the Lewis and Clark expedition) and 1880 (the closing of the American western frontier). Leaving aside the matter of the dispossession and murder of the indigenous peoples, I tend to feel some sympathy for the grandchildren of this legend: it's a potent metaphor for freedom from social constraint combined with the opportunity to strike it rich by the sweat of one's brow, and they've grown up in the shadow of this legend in a progressively more regulated and complex society.

My problem, however, is that there is no equivalence between outer space and the American west.

But. But. But.

The west was inhabitable; it supported a healthy set of interlocking ecosystems in most of which a lone human being could find food and sustenance.

These conditions do not apply in space. You don't get to breathe the air on Mars. You don't get to harvest wheat on Venus. You don't get to walk home from an asteroid colony with 5km/sec of velocity relative to low Earth orbit. You don't get to visit any of these places, even on a "plant the flag and pick up some rocks" visitor's day pass basis, without a massive organized effort to provide an environment that can keep the canned monkeys from Earth warm and breathing.

I postulate that the organization required for such exploration is utterly anathema to the ideology of the space cadets, because the political roots of the space colonization movement in the United States rise from taproots of nostalgia for the open frontier that give rise to a false consciousness of the problem of space colonization. In particular, the fetishization of autonomy, self-reliance, and progress through mechanical engineering — echoing the desire to escape the suffocating social conditions back east by simply running away — utterly undermine the program itself and are incompatible with life in a space colony (which is likely to be at a minimum somewhat more constrained than life in one of the more bureaucratically obsessive-compulsive European social democracies, and at worst will tend towards the state of North Korea in Space).

In other words: space colonization is implicitly incompatible with both libertarian ideology and the myth of the American frontier.

From SPACE CADETS by Charles Stross (2010)

It began to be perceptible in the late 1960s, and was certainly recognized in the 1970s, that the intermix of frontier imagery, popular culture expectations, and Cold War concerns was beginning to break-down. This was true across broad swaths of American culture, but it was also very apparent when it came to understanding the history of spaceflight. First, the construct of the frontier as a positive image of national character and of the progress of democracy has been challenged on all quarters and virtually rejected as a useful ideal in American postmodern, multicultural society.

Conservative politicians became the bearers of the frontier mythology increasingly used to justify the space program as the Cold War slipped away, while liberals grew increasingly restless with the exploitation and oppression that the frontier myth seemed to imply.

NASA leaders have largely ignored the negative images conjured up in an increasing number of Americans minds by the metaphor of the frontier. For all their hard-headed practicality, for all their understanding of science and technology, they have been caught up in frontier allusion even to the present. For instance, James C. Fletcher, NASA Administrator between 1971 and 1977 and again between 1986 and 1989 commented:

History teaches us that the process of pushing back frontiers on Earth begins with exploration and discovery is followed by permanent settlements and economic development. Space will be no different. . . . Americans have always moved toward new frontiers because we are, above all, a nation of pioneers with an insatiable urge to know the unknown. Space is no exception to that pioneering spirit.

Astronaut, then senator, John Glenn captured some of this same tenor in 1983 when he summoned images of the American heritage of pioneering and argued that the next great frontier challenge was in space. “It represents the modern frontier for national adventure. Our spirit as a nation is reflected in our willingness to explore the unknown for the benefit of all humanity, and space is a prime medium in which to test our mettle.”

The image of the frontier, however, has been a less and less acceptable and effective metaphor as the twentieth century became the twenty-first century. Progressives have come to view the space program from a quite different perspective. To the extent that space represents a new frontier, it conjures up images of commercial exploitation and the subjugation of oppressed peoples. Implemented through a large aerospace industry, in their view, it appears to create the sort of governmental-corporate complexes of which liberals are increasingly wary.

Despite the promise that the Space Shuttle, like jet aircraft, would make space flight accessible to the “common man,” space travel remains the province of a favored few, perpetuating inequalities rather than leveling differences. They also assert that space exploration has also remained largely a male frontier, with room for few minorities.

The frontier metaphor has continued to inform space policy to the present. “The compulsion to know the unknown built our nation,” one NASA official had said in 1982. “That instinct drove Lewis and Clark to press across the uncharted continent.” Fletcher accepted the argument of a Space Station as the next step in exploration. Like the image of the pioneer settlement or army post on the American frontier, the Space Station offered a haven from the rigors of the “wilderness” and a jumping off point for forays into the unknown. This same metaphor found ready expression in the present-day effort to develop the Space Exploration Initiative to return to the Moon—this time to establish a permanent colony—and to go on to Mars.

In tandem with the metaphorical frontier of the nineteenth century, NASA also subscribed to an intellectual frontier that fostered scientific activities.

James Fletcher’s comparison of the Space Shuttle to the railroad of more than a century earlier was perhaps a more appropriate, and more negative, image of the frontier than he would have liked to admit. The western railroad and the Space Shuttle both engendered intense economic contests, lucrative contracts, and “no-holds barred” political struggles for primacy and perquisites. Indicative of this reality of the frontier experience in regard to the Shuttle, if not to the myth, Fletcher fell victim to the political pressures of individuals and groups who wanted him to use his office to further the economic well-being of his intermountain region and the people of his religion.

For the space program, as for the earlier experience, the frontier myth presents in a cyclical form the essence of what Americans want to believe about themselves. There are four basic stages of this cycle. The stages come together in the end to create a Panglossian “best of all possible worlds.” The first stage is a separation from civilization. In earlier eras colonists left Europe for America or departed the settled East for the “Wild West.” Now they will leave the Earth and move to a space station or a Moon base.

Second, there is a regression into a form of order that is something less than what had been known in the previous civilization. Frontiersmen had to learn to live in the new environment in which the ideas and even the tools they had mastered in civilization were no longer applicable. Like Jeremiah Johnson in the Robert Redford movie, the frontier taught hard lessons about life and death, survival and freedom. If these were not well received, there would be no success on the frontier. At the same time, the people who participated in the process were changed forever. The space program has a similar learning experience—how to stay alive in a vacuum, how to deal with weightlessness, etc.—and almost none of the lessons learned on earlier American frontiers are transferrable to the new environment of space. If we move outward, we will indeed evolve in the process. For instance, will humans born at a Moon colony, with its 1/6 gravity, be able to function on Earth any longer? An open question, to be sure, but one not unlike Europeans faced with the first settlements in America. Will some future Crevacour ask the question, “what is this new man” (or not to be sexist, this new person), this Lunatic (Moon dweller).

Third, conflict is a central and peculiar feature of frontiering, as Americans struggle against seemingly overwhelming forces seeking to wipe them out. The conflict in the American West was most often played out as humans against environment and as Euro-American against aborigines. In space it is humans against the environment, but it is certainly not at all unlikely that humans will encounter other life in space. The contact of cultures in the frontier was almost always bloody, and I suspect the same would be true in space as well.

The final stage is progress, a step toward some better future. In many instances these have been utopian in outlook. Many earlier Americans saw the frontier as a re-enactment and democratic renewal of the original “social contract,” together with the creation of personal virtue and collective good. This progress ultimately redeems the nation. Futurists view space exploration in the same way, and it has been played out in that way in many a space movie and science fiction novel. Whether this frontier experience actually holds such promise is an open question.

As a final point, I would like to suggest that the frontier myth is an incomplete but uniquely understandable way of looking at the space program. From the beginning of the space age the U.S. effort has been motivated by essentially three priorities. The first was Cold War rivalries with the Soviet Union and the desire to demonstrate the technological superiority of a democratic state over a communist dictatorship. The second was the lure of discovery of the unknown. The third was adventure. The first priority, oriented toward national security, has ceased to be important in this post-Cold War era. But the second and third priorities lie at the heart of the frontier myth and are still just as attractive as they were more than 40 years ago at the creation of NASA.


Earth itself becomes the Old Country, backwards, repressive, ossified in its ways, a place where individualism is cramped. Other planets, moons, asteroids, or artificial space habitats become refuges for misfits, rugged individualists, visionary entrepreneurs, transhumanists, and so on. This often results in The War of Earthly Aggression: Earth becomes a threat to these new islands of freedom in some way, and our heroes must overcome great odds in defending their newfound freeholds.

This trope can cover capital-L Libertarianism, personal and civil liberties plus laissez-faire capitalism, as Heinlein's works often did, but the general idea is more lower-case-l libertarianism, open to broader conceptions of liberty that needn't be, and indeed may challenge the hyper-capitalist variety.

This can be related to Privately Owned Society if we're talking the big-L type of Libertarianism and this society is presented as an ideal, rather than a form of dystopia.

These are some of the sorts of people that might end up as Space Cossacks.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)

Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free
You can't take the sky from me...
Firefly main theme

There is no hope and You Can't Go Home Again. The Empire is spreading out. Even The Federation has too many Obstructive Bureaucrats. There is no way for free men to get out of the reaches of The Government and even mounting La Résistance will be of no avail. So what do you do? You become Space Cossacks. You flee to the border and live in a tough area where you all have to be sharp. You set up as Space Pirates or as Hired Guns or as Intrepid Merchants. Or all of these at once. With you are various dissidents like people who feared being Made a Slave. There might be a Noble Fugitive or two, perhaps even a Defector from Decadence. You and your brave band of Fire-Forged Friends will struggle on to survive and maintain your freedom and heed no laws but your own and respect no authority but that of your Team Mom and/or Team Dad. Songs will be written of your deeds.

The Empire most likely officially considers these guys outlaws, either in the sense that they're to be shot on sight, or in the sense that they're "outside the law" and are to be left alone as long as they stay out of the way. Either way, they probably consider them useful, as they both screen the empire from external threats and tame the fringe worlds into a state ready to be colonised. They may also provide a handy place to send people who are to be Reassigned to Antarctica.

Given the parallels to the Wild West, a Space Western is almost sure to be set amongst such people.

The reference comes from the old Russian custom of disgruntled people fleeing to the steppes and joining a Cossack band.

If they persist for multiple generations they may become Space People.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


Earth might look good if you're living in the capital of the Terran Empire or The Federation, but what about for all the folks on the offworld colonies?

We've got news for you: The colonies have rebelled against taxes, telepathic Gestapo, and pretty much every other injustice that Earth has inflicted on them, spawning a movement that strongly parallels historical insurrections on an interplanetary or even an interstellar scale.

An interesting note is that, since the Earth loyalists are frequently The Federation, the War of Earthly Aggression has a much higher chance of subverting The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified than any other "rebellion" plot-line. As a general rule, however, The War of Earthly Aggression is usually depicted in morally ambiguous terms, with both the loyalists and the rebels having good reasons for the conflict, and often one can find Psychopaths on either side. Occasionally, both sides.

The trope title comes from "The War of Northern Aggression", a political term for The American Civil War. (Go ahead, guess which side applied the label.)

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)

Rate of Empire Expansion

Once you have decided that your Terran Empire is X number of light years wide or contains Y number of stars, it would help to have a realistic number for the amount of years it will take for the empire to expand to that size. Or from the other side, if you have decided how long the empire has been around, it would help to be able to figure out how many stars and how wide it is. This is a little more difficult.

The SETI scientists are always fretting about the Fermi paradox. As a result, there have been a couple of attempts to model the speed of galactic colonization by a hypothetical alien race. These can be used, keeping in mind that they always assume slower-than-light starships. Such models have inhabited planets colonizing nearby worlds. When the population of the colonies grows large enough, they send out their own colonization missions.

A comprehensive but mathematically intensive model is Burning the Cosmic Commons by Robin Hanson. Another interesting model is Computer Simulation of Cultural Drift: Limitations on Interstellar Colonisation by William Sims Bainbridge. I would like to explain how to use them, but I'm still trying to digest the models myself.

Newman & Sagan

Newman & Sagan (Galactic civilizations; population dynamics and interstellar diffusion. Icarus, 46, 293-327) attempted to apply the gas diffusion equation to interstellar migrations.

∂P/∂t = αP (1 - P/Ps) + γΔ2 ∂/∂x (P/Ps ∂P/∂x)


  • P = population of a settlement
  • Ps = the carrying capacity of a settlement
  • t = time
  • x = spatial coordinate
  • α = local population growth rate (percentage of current population)
  • γ = emigration rate (percentage of current population)
  • Δ = mean separation of settlements
  • ∂ = partial differential (Yes, I know. Scary Calculus. But don't panic)

The solution to the equation is:

P/Ps = 1 - exp((x - vt) / L)


  • L = Δ sqrt(2γ / α) = gradient length scale
  • v = sqrt(αγ / 2) = wave speed

However, when Newman and Sagan analyzed the problem, they came to the belated realization that the local growth rate (α) greatly exceeds the emigration rate (γ) so that L <<Δ. Translated into English, this means that the galactic colonization resembled an explosion more than it did a slow gaseous diffusion. Which means the equation is worthless for this purpose. Back to the drawing board.

Eric M. Jones

Eric M. Jones found a more promising approach. In Discrete calculations of interstellar migration and settlement( Icarus Volume 46, Issue 3 , June 1981, Pages 328-336. Costs $15 for the article) he uses a Monte Carlo simulation (i.e., rules are established then a lot of dice are metaphorically thrown). Jones found the following equation will approximate the Monte Carlo results:

v = Δr/ [(Δ/vs) + (1/α) ln(2α/γ)]


  • Δr = average radial distance traveled (i.e., distance as meaured from the center of the empire)
  • Δ = average distance traveled
  • vs = ship speed
  • Δx/vs = average travel time (years)

Jones says one can usually assume that Δr = 0.7Δ and neglect the travel time, resulting in:

v = 0.7αΔ / ln(2α/γ)

Assuming the mean separation between settlements (Δ) is 7.2 light years (2.2 parsecs), local population growth rate (α) is 10-3 per year, and the emigration rate (γ) is 10-4 per year, this means the colonization wave will travel at about 2 x 10-3 light-years per year (5 x 10-4 parsecs per year). This would colonize the entire galaxy in a mere 60 million years.

The emigration rate could become much larger. In the 1840's the great Irish emigration reached a whopping 0.01/year. The population of Ireland at the time was about four million, so the emigration was an incredible 40,000 per year or about one hundred per day.

Using the upper equation, with my figure of 8.3 light years for Δ, and a slower-than-light ship speed of 10% c, I figure an expansion wave speed of 1.93 x 10-3 light-years per year. Unfortunately, upping the speed of the ships has little effect. At 50% c it's 1.97 x 10-3 ly/yr, at 100 c it's still 1.97 x 10-3 ly/yr, at ten times the speed of light it's 1.98 x 10-3 ly/yr, and at one thousand times the speed of light it is still 1.97 x 10-3 ly/yr!

At this speed, it would take about 50,000 years to expand to a 100 light year radius empire, which seems like an overly long time to me.

But maybe not. Mr. Jones is talking about a population growth of 10-3 or 0.1% per year. The United States has a growth rate closer to 0.6%, and some nations are crowding 3.0%. If our empire had a growth rate α of 0.6% and a modest emigration rate γ of 10-4 per year, it could reach 100 light years in radius in about 6900 years. And if it had a draconian γ of 10-2, it could reach that size in a mere 260 years.


Issac Kuo questions the assumptions contained in Eric M. Jones's model:

One thing I don't like about these models is that they tend to be based around "average" trip distances and speeds. However, the rate of expansion will be determined by the "pioneering" trip distances and speeds.

The sorts of interstellar propulsion I find plausible involve an incredible amount of initial investment and economic buildup, but then the marginal costs for additional colonization missions are small. This suggests that the third generation of colonization missions might as well be long range missions. The second generation of colonies will have saturated the nearby systems so the only direction to expand is into long range missions.

For example, suppose it takes 5000 years to build up from an initial colony into something that can send out missions of their own. In the meantime, the home system could be sending out colonization missions at a rate of one per decade. By the time the first generation of colonies is up for sending out colonization missions, the nearest 50 systems have already been colonized. The first generation then sends colony ships to fill out the nearest 2500 systems.

Assuming no one has yet bothered to try any long range colonization missions, the result is a compact ball of 2500 colonized systems, of which only a thin shell on the outside can expand with short range missions.

It seems to me plausible that at least some of the "core" systems will embark on long range missions. Maybe some of those long range missions will merely just barely outrun the expanding border. That's a rather short-sighted strategy. Other long range missions will daringly punch across the galaxy, starting up seeds which won't run into the "slowpoke" border for dozens of millenia.

The result is an overall frontier of expansion that is defined by sporadic long range "seed dots". They fill out eventually, but it's entirely plausible for the overall rate of expansion to be entirely defined by far reaching long range high speed missions from the home system or early generation systems.

Issac Kuo

Rick Robinson had this to say:

Just glancing though your section there, the key challenge for a lot of purposes is time scale — and oddly, it doesn't have much to do with ship speed; an STL civilization might expand over the long haul nearly as fast as an FTL one.

The key issue - and this comes up in all sorts of contexts — is how long does it take for a planet to go from raw young colony to major world, the kind that could and might send out colonies of its own? This is the basic problem you have to solve for settings in which anyone has a space fleet of their own but Earth.

Let me try to put a few numbers on it.

The threshold for having a space fleet is arguably lower than for colonization, because a planet of 100 million people could probably maintain starships, but probably is not feeling a big population squeeze. To be sure, on some planets the habitable area will be pretty much filled, and even on the more earthlike ones the human presence is getting pervasive, so some impulse to colonize might be developing.

Whether a planet of 10 million people - the equivalent of a single large urban region — could realistically have a diversified enough economy to maintain and operate a fleet of starships seems a bit iffy, unless they are putting a massive effort into it, so massive that it may stunt their other prospects.

The most likely scenario for a world of 10 million people sending out a colony might be that they've decided their current home sux, and they're going to try their shot at another one.

Looking at the other end, how many people for a viable colony. I'd say 10,000 at the low end, with 100,000 seeming a lot more comfortable. That's the population of one semirural county. How many machine shops and such does it have, how much can they specialize for efficiency, and oh yeah, you need raw material, a mining sector and all that.

If you can't make it you have to import it, paying starship freight instead of truck freight, and what have you got for sale? The market for colony-world curios is going to get crowded fast, and if you really do have something to sell, you'll probably need more than a one-county economy to produce it in commercial quantities.

So I would say that you usually have to put 100,000 people onto a colony planet for it to thrive. Colonies with fewer than that can hang on, but if subsidies are cut off they may die off outright, or be stuck in a marginal existence; only lucky ones will overcome it and do okay.

For a colony to really go as a largely self-sufficient post industrial world it had better have on order of a million people — more or less the equivalent of Bakersfield and environs. I am certain that Australia has a Bakersfield, but I do not know what it is. Maybe our Oz contingent can inform us.

But once again, if they can't make it or pay starship freight for it they do without it, and the equivalent of Bakersfield has a tough challenge producing nearly all the needs of post industrial civilization. And for exports it is good to have one sizeable airport that can double as the shuttle port and provide steady employment for a lot of the techs.

Big proviso, so hold your pitchforks. This is predicated on the 23rd century, or 28th or whatever, having about the same productive efficiencies of scale that we are used to. If you have got replicators where you shovel dirt in one end and get a washing machine or air car out the other, things are different. But you still need a wide range of human skills, very hard for small communities to provide, maintain, and keep active.

So maybe my figures could all be squeezed down by an order of magnitude, so that a colony of 10,000 is fairly viable, a colony of 100,000 can maintain a full industrial base, and one of a million people can keep its own starships in service. That helps for story settings, but you wouldn't generally expect worlds like that to be active colonizers.

Finally, and most central to time scale, how fast do colony populations grow, either from immigration or birth rate? I would call a million emigrants from Earth each year a benchmark figure for large scale colonization. That's several thousand people each day, one huge ship or several merely big ones, and it still takes a century of sustained effort to plant 100 colonies, each of a million people.

From the colony's point of view, people are another expensive import, if you have to pay them to come. If they can afford a ticket and house stake they will only go to desirable colonies. If someone is paying to ship people to you, you may want to know why, because colonies could be a good place to dump dissidents, minor troublemakers, and similar riffraff.

On the export side, I'm more dubious of shipping off refugees, because by definition you're dealing with lots of them, and shipping them all off world is horribly expensive. Much more so than just plucking the town crank and town pickpocket off the streets and getting them to volunteer for emigration.

But by and large you expect that mass colonization involves people who weren't doing so great on Earth, because the supply of nut enthusiasts like people on this board who would actually like to colonize is limited, and a million people a year is a lot.

The other side of colonial growth is reproductive growth. Doubling the population each generation is about the historical sustained maximum. That corresponds to 10x per century, so Deseret World might go from 100,000 people to 10 million people in 200 years.

But even doubling per century is a pretty robust population growth rate. That's roughly 1.2x per generation. Unless you're growing 'em in vats, about half the women are having three or four kids, and one way or another the society encourages and accommodates itself to this.

It's no given that post industrial societies will generally have this population growth rate, though colony worlds may not follow the current trend in industrialized societies toward ZPG or even less.

If colony populations do tend to grow, I suspect the driving force is not the Heinleinian trope of ranchers with half a dozen marriageable — and "husband-high" — daughters, but the pervasive shortage of skilled specialists of all sorts. How this is transmitted to social attitudes I'm not sure, and no doubt can vary widely.

A colony with population doubling each century will go from 100,000 people to 10 million people in about 700 years, pushing us into the second half of the millennium.

Looking at it broadly, say that the age of colonization is around 2250-2350. That is a fairly common time frame for interstellar SF with a geocentric setting; (Star) Trek is vaguely in this era, AD2300 of course, and it's implied by some of Heinlein's interstellar stories.

After a century or so colonization from Earth sputters out, because all the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, and it is increasingly costly to reach virgin planets.

Emigration from Earth to the existing colonies can continue after that, but at some point the rate will likely fall. Successful colonies will no longer want people dumped on them, unsuccessful colonies can't absorb them, so emigration falls to the level of people who can pay to go and want to go, or who the colonies are willing to pay for.

So. At some point around 2400, colonization has tapered off and emigration is tapering off. We can guess that there are at least a dozen or so full colony planets - if you can reach any you can probably reach about that many (and you need a good handful for a decent scenario).

The upward limit is about 100 or so true colony worlds, set - regardless of how many worlds are in reach of your FTL - by the postulated size of the colonization wave. A hundred million people, a hundred worlds - an average of about a million immigrants per colony, though the distribution may well be oligarchic by a power law, a handful of colonies getting a large share of total immigrants, growing to populations of up to a few tens of millions, while most have less than a million and kind of struggle along.

Beyond and between the colonies there may be planets never made into self-sustaining colonies, but remaining as outposts, and likely with some permanent populations. If someone pulls the plug on these, though, don't miss the last bus out. Same with space stations and such.

As with the chronology, I think this is a fairly classical scale for a mid-interstellar setting — when there are already established colony worlds, that you can get to by starliner, not just outpost transport or even colonization ship.

There are enough worlds for a diverse interstellar setting, but few enough that people who deal with space, at least, will have some notion of them all as distinct places. (The way "Spain" conveys something to you, or "New Delhi," but "Florianópolis" probably does not.

A few of these colonies already in 2400 have upwards of 10 million people and some potential to colonize themselves, but these were the immigration magnets, so they probably still feel short-handed if anything, not inclined to send lots of people off.

It will take 200 or 300 years for smaller colonies with rapid population growth rates to start pushing up into the 10 million population range, and might have the impulse and capability to colonize. But it might take closer to 500 years for a substantial number of the original colonies to have much motivation to colonize.

The early goers, though, will have filled in the next layer of easy pickings. Here is where your FTL really matters - whether you can light off freely into the vastness to hunt for a suitable planet, or are constrained by a colonization sphere that is starting to grow again.

But broadly speaking, it seems that secondary colonization couldn't be expected in any serious way until sometime well after 2500, and perhaps not in a big way till sometime around 2700-3000.

Rick Robinson



     Reid Malenfant

     You know me. And you know I'm a space cadet.
     You know I've campaigned for, among other things, private mining expeditions to the asteroids. In fact, in the past I've tried to get you to pay for such things. I've bored you with that often enough already, right?
     So tonight I want to look a little farther out. Tonight I want to tell you why I care so much about this issue that I devoted my life toil.
     The world isn't big enough any more. You don't need me to stand here and tell you that. We could all choke to death, be extinct in a hundred years.
     Or we could be on our way to populating the Galaxy.
     Yes, the Galaxy. Want me to tell you how?
     Turns out it's all a question of economics.
     Let's say we set out to the stars. We might use ion rockets, solar sails, gravity assists. It doesn't matter.
     We'll probably start as we have in the Solar System, with automated probes. Humans may follow. One percent of the helium-3 fusion fuel available from the planet Uranus, for example, would be enough to send a giant interstellar ark, each ark containing a billion people, to every star in the Galaxy. But it may be cheaper for the probes to manufacture humans in situ, using cell synthesis and artificial womb technology.
     The first wave will be slow, no faster than we can afford. It doesn't matter. Not in the long term.
     When the probe reaches a new system, it phones home, and starts to build.
     Here is the heart of the strategy. A target system, we assume, is uninhabited. We can therefore anticipate massive exploitation of the system's resources, without restraint, by the probe. Such resources are useless for any other purpose, and are therefore economically free to us.
     I thought you'd enjoy that line. There's nothing an entrepreneur likes more than the sound of the word free.
     More probes will be built and launched from each of the first wave of target stars. The probes will reach new targets; and again, more probes will be spawned, and fired onward. The volume covered by the probes will grow rapidly, like the expansion of gas into a vacuum.
     Our ships will spread along the spiral arm, along lanes rich with stars, farming the Galaxy for humankind.
     Once started, the process will be self-directing, self-financing. It would take, the double-domes think, ten to a hundred million years for the colonization of the Galaxy to be completed in this manner. But we must invest merely in the cost of the initial generation of probes.
     Thus the cost of colonizing the Galaxy will be less, in real terms, than that of our Apollo program of fifty years ago.
     This vision isn't mine alone. It isn't original. The rocket pioneer Robert Goddard wrote an essay in 1918—ninety-two years ago—called The Ultimate Migration, in which he imagined space arks built from asteroid materials carrying our far-future descendants away from the death of the sun. The engineering detail has changed; the essence of the vision hasn't.
     We can do this. If we succeed, we will live forever.
     The alternative is extinction.
     And, people, when we're gone, we're gone.
     As far as we can see we're alone, in an indifferent universe. We see no sign of intelligence anywhere away from Earth. We may be the first. Perhaps we're the last. It took so long for the Solar System to evolve intelligence it seems unlikely there will be others, ever.
     If we fail, then the failure is for all time. If we die, mind and consciousness and soul die with us: hope and dreams and love, everything that makes us human. There will be nobody even to mourn us.
     To be the first is an awesome responsibility. It's a responsibility we must grasp.
     I am offering you a practical route to an infinite future for humankind, a future of unlimited potential. Someday, you know it, I'll come back to you again for money: seedcorn money, that's all, so we can take a first step—self-financing even in the medium term—beyond the bounds of Earth. But I want you to see why I'll be doing that. Why I must.
     We can do this. We will do this. We're on our own. It's up to us.
     This is just the beginning. Join me.

(ed note: thanks to Ian Mallett for bringing this quote to my attention)

From MANIFOLD TIME by Stephen Baxter (2000)

I came from Deneb," she said. “Do you know it?”


“Sixteen hundred light years from Earth—a system settled some four centuries after the start of the Third Expansion. It is quite different from the solar system. It is—organized. By the time the first ships reached Deneb, the mechanics of exploitation had become efficient. From preliminary exploration to working ship yards and daughter colonies in less than a century…Deneb’s resources—its planets and asteroids and comets, even the star itself—have been mined to fund fresh colonizing waves, the greater Expansion—and, of course, to support the war with the Ghosts.”

She swept her hand over the sky. “Think of it, tar. The Third Expansion: between here and Sol, across six thousand light years—nothing but mankind, the fruit of a thousand years of world-building. And all of it linked by economics. Older systems like Deneb, their resources spent—even the solar system itself—are supported by a flow of goods and materials inward from the growing periphery of the Expansion. There are trade lanes spanning thousands of light years, lanes that never leave human territory, plied by vast schooners kilometers wide. But now the Ghosts are in our way. And that’s what we’re fighting for!”

Pael said, watching me, “You see, child, as long as the explorers and the mining fleets and the colony ships are pushing outward, as long as the Third Expansion is growing, our economy works. The riches can continue to flow inward, into the mined-out systems, feeding a vast horde of humanity who have become more populous than the stars themselves. But as soon as that growth falters—”

Jeru was silent.

I understood some of this. The Third Expansion had reached all the way to the inner edge of our spiral arm of the galaxy. Now the first colony ships were attempting to make their way across the void to the next arm.

Our arm, the Orion Arm, is really just a shingle, a short arc. But the Sagittarius Arm is one of the galaxy’s dominant features. For example, it contains a huge region of star-birth, one of the largest in the galaxy, immense clouds of gas and dust capable of producing millions of stars each. It was a prize indeed.

But that is where the Silver Ghosts live.

When it appeared that our inexorable expansion was threatening not just their own mysterious projects but their home system, the Ghosts began, for the first time, to resist us.

They had formed a blockade, called by human strategies the Orion Line: a thick sheet of fortress stars, right across the inner edge of the Orion Arm, places the Navy and the colony ships couldn’t follow. It was a devastatingly effective ploy.

This was a war of colonization, of world-building. For a thousand years we had been spreading steadily from star to star, using the resources of one system to explore, terraform and populate the worlds of the next. With too deep a break in that chain of exploitation, the enterprise broke down.

And so the Ghosts had been able to hold up human expansion for fifty years.

Pael said, “We are already choking. There have already been wars, young Case: human fighting human, as the inner systems starve. All the Ghosts have to do is wait for us to destroy ourselves, and free them to continue their own rather more worthy projects.”

Jeru floated down before him. “Academician, listen to me. Growing up at Deneb, I saw the great schooners in the sky, bringing the interstellar riches that kept my people alive. I was intelligent enough to see the logic of history—that we must maintain the Expansion, because there is no choice. And that is why I joined the armed forces, and later the Commission for Historical Truth. For I understood the dreadful truth which the Commission cradles. And that is why we must labor every day to maintain the unity and purpose of mankind. For if we falter we die; as simple as that.”

“Commissary, your creed of mankind’s evolutionary destiny condemns our own kind to become a swarm of children, granted a few moments of loving and breeding and dying, before being cast into futile war.” Pael glanced at me.

“But,” Jeru said, “it is a creed that has bound us together for a thousand years. It is a creed that binds uncounted trillions of human beings across thousands of light years. It is a creed that binds a humanity so diverse it appears to be undergoing speciation…Are you strong enough to defy such a creed now? Come, Academician. None of us chooses to be born in the middle of a war. We must all do our best for each other, for other human beings; what else is there?”

From ON THE ORION LINE by Stephen Baxter (2000)

(ed note: obviously this assumes that faster-than-light starships are impossible)

4.1. Light Cage

McInnes shows that an expanding sphere of colonization cannot expand fast enough to avoid complete societal collapse due to exponential population growth and increasing population density (McInnes, 2002). Furthermore, after such a crash, the society may be so impoverished of resources that it is forever blocked from making a second attempt. If this theory is universally true of all civilizations, then it offers significant insight into the Fermi Paradox. McInnes extends the intuitive notion of a constant expansion rate with a steadily increasing population density to a linear expansion rate which maintains constant population density. However, the expansion velocity must have some maximum speed limit. To generate an upper-bound for this theory, McInnes considers a maximum expansion velocity of 1.0c. Obviously, in a real scenario, the expansion rate would be considerably slower, but that only exacerbates McInnes’ fundamental point which is that once the maximum expansion velocity is reached, population density once again begins to rise. Eventually, total societal collapse is inevitable. The only way to avoid catastrophe is to shift from exponential growth to logistic growth.

Given a specified growth rate and an initial sphere of some specified size, one can calculate the size of the expanded sphere when the increasing expansion rate reaches the 1.0c limit. McInnes calls this sphere the light cage. Assuming 1% annual growth and a starting sphere the size of Earth, he determines that the light cage is at a 300ly (light-years) radius and that the time to reach the light cage is 8000 years. Out of curiosity, we ran the numbers for a more realistic maximum expansion velocity. If we assume a maximum flight speed of 0.1c, a common estimate for fusion-powered starships such as Daedalus (Group, 1978; Matloff, 2005), which yields voyages to nearby stars on the order of decades, and if we assume a regeneration period of a few decades — and therefore comparable to the duration of the voyages themselves — then we estimate a more realistic maximum expansion velocity to be ~.05c. When applied to McInnes’ equations, this velocity reveals a far more realistic cage of a mere 15ly, and an associated saturation time of 7000 years. Interestingly, while a considerably slower expansion rate drastically reduces the cage, it only slightly decreases the time until the cage is hit. This follows naturally from exponential growth. To make matters worse, .05c may be entirely too fast if the stasis period between voyages is longer than the few decades of the previous estimate. If we briefly consider a maximum expansion velocity of .01c, we derive a cage of only 3ly!

Considering that there are only 52 stars within 15ly of Earth (and none within 3ly!), and that only some fairly small subset will support habitation, this does not provide us with very many systems to colonize before we implode in a population density catastrophe. More crucially, 15ly probably lies within the single-voyage horizon, which implies that early waves of colonization may fill the cage all at once as opposed to diffusing radially. In other words, according to light cage theory, interstellar travel hardly provides any population relief at all, right from the beginning.

McInnes is careful to admit that his model is continuous and symmetrical. Admittedly, galactic colonization is loosely like an expanding sphere, but more precisely it is like traversal of a rooted tree (a graph), where the root is the homeworld, vertices are solar systems, and labeled edges connect stars whose distances are below a maximum traversal threshold with the labels indicating interstellar distances (and associated travel times). In addition to the inherently discrete nature of this graph, the natural distribution of stars will impose notable asymmetries on the edge length and per-node degree (branching factor). McInnes admits to the simplicity of his model, but points out that such details should not affect the model’s outcome. We agree, but in practicality, a tree of no more than 52 nodes (probably far fewer), all of which have direct edges to the homeworld, no longer resembles a continuous sphere in even the weakest sense. A Monte Carlo simulation might help illuminate any interesting properties of the discrete model.

Assuming that the continuous model is apropos to the discussion, then we envisage two ways by which the model may not predict actual events. The first is admitted by McInnes, that populations may succeed in converting to logistic growth and therefore avoid the prescribed collapse. Given the calculation of a 15ly cage and the observation that it would saturate in a single emigration wave due to direct homeworld access, any hope of survival would depend on adopting logistic growth prior to interstellar colonization; any later would be too late to avoid disaster. However, Earth appears to be following just such a course, leveling off its population growth in the 21st century, long before undertaking interstellar travel (Haqq-Misra and Baum, 2009). Not only does this bode well for humanity, it suggests that other ETI civilizations can do the same...but such a conclusion weakens McInnes’ theory that the Fermi Paradox is resolved due to a finite expansion before societal collapse. If ETI are once again enabled to continue steady outward expansion, then the original questions underlying the paradox resurface.

The second challenge we would raise in response to McInnes’ model will be explained in section 4.3 when we introduce ITB theory. Briefly, we are unconvinced that interstellar distances don’t impose an insurmountable paucity of interaction events between solar systems such that contagions of societal collapse fail to adequately infect neighbors. Our final thoughts on McInnes’ model reflect on his postanalysis. He proposes the example of a civilization which permits exponential growth at its frontier but enforces logistic growth wherever resource limits are reached, i.e., deeper within the sphere. He shows how such a civilization could achieve phenomenal rates of unbounded expansion, filling the galaxy in a few millions years. While McInnes’ concedes this scenario, he nevertheless questions its validity by citing Landis’ percolation model, namely to doubt that the civilization would expand indefinitely. Considering that in section 3 we demonstrate some weaknesses of the percolation model, we likewise conclude that the proposed scenario stands relatively unchallenged. Should it turn out to be reasonable, then the Fermi Paradox remains, well, paradoxical.

Group, P.D.S., 1978. Project Daedalus : the final report on the BIS starship study. Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.

Haqq-Misra, J., Baum, S.D., 2009. The sustainability solution to the fermi paradox. Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 62, 47–51.

Matloff, G.L., 2005. Deep Space Probes: To the Outer Solar System and Beyond. Praxis Publishing Ltd

McInnes, C., 2002. The light cage limit to interstellar expansion. Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 55, 279–284


(ed note: this assumes that faster-than-light starships are impossible)

     “Something’s wrong,” Ben whispered.
     “There always is.”
     “I’m serious.” He let his fingers trace out a line across the black sky. “What do you see?”
     With the Sun eclipsed by the shadow of the FGB module, she gazed out at the subtle light. There was that bright planet, andthe dim red disc of rubble surrounding the Chaera black hole, from here just visible as more than a point source of light.
     “There’s a glow around the star itself, covering the orbit of that single planet,” Ben said. “Can you see?” It was a diffuse shine, Madeleine saw, cloudy, ragged-edged. Ben continued. “That’s an oddity in itself. But—”
     Then she got it. “Oh. No zodiacal light.”
     The zodiacal light, in the Solar System, was a faint glow along the plane of the ecliptic. Sometimes it was visible from Earth. It was sunlight, scattered by dust that orbited the Sun in the plane of the planets. Most of the dust was in or near the asteroid belt, created by asteroid collisions. And in the modern Solar System, of course, the zodiacal light was enhanced by the glow of Gaijin colonies.
     “So if there’s no zodiacal light—
     “There are no asteroids here,” Ben said.
     “Nemoto. What happened to the asteroids?”
     “You already know, I think,” virtual Nemoto hissed.
     Ben nodded. “They were mined out. Probably long ago. This place is old, Madeleine.”
     “It’s like a fragment of a GMC—a giant molecular cloud,” Ben said. “Mostly hydrogen, some dust. It’s thick—comparatively. A hundred thousand molecules per cubic centimeter... The Sun was born out of such a cloud, Madeleine.”
     “But the heat of the Sun dispersed the remnants of our cloud... didn’t it? So why hasn’t the same thing happened here?”
     “Or,” virtual Nemoto said sourly, “maybe the question should be: How come the gas cloud got put back around this star?
     They came at the planet with the Sun behind them, so it showed a nearly full disc. It glared, brilliant white, just a solid mass of cloud from pole to pole, blinding and featureless. And it was surrounded by a pearly glow of interstellar hydrogen, like an immense, misshapen outer atmosphere.
     They could see nothing of the surface. Their instruments revealed a world that was indeed like Venus: an atmosphere of carbon dioxide, kilometers thick, scarcely any water.
     There was, of course, no life of any kind.
     Ben was troubled. “There’s no reason for a Venus to form this far from the Sun. This world should be temperate. An Earth.”
     “But,” Nemoto hissed, “think what this world has that Earth doesn’t share.”
     “The gas cloud,” Madeleine said.
     Ben nodded. “All that interstellar hydrogen. Madeleine, we’re so far from the Sun now, and the gas is so thick, that the hydrogen is neutral—not ionized by sunlight.”
     “And so—”
     “And so the planet down there has no defense against the gas; its magnetic field could only keep it out if it was charged. Hydrogen has been raining down from the sky, into the upper air.
     “Once there, it will mix with any oxygen present,” Nemoto said. “Hydrogen plus oxygen gives—”
     “Water,” Madeleine said.
     “Lots of it,” Ben told her. “It must have rained like hell, for a million years. The atmosphere was drained of oxygen, and filled up with water vapor. A greenhouse effect took off—
     “All that from a wisp of gas?”
     “That wisp of gas was a planet killer,” Nemoto whispered.
     “But why would anyone kill a planet?
     “It is the logic of growth,” Nemoto said. “This has all the characteristics of an old system, Meacher. Caught behind a wave of colonization—all its usable resources dug out and exploited...
     Madeleine frowned. “I don’t believe it. It would take a hell of a long time to eat up a star system.”
     “How long do you think?”
     “I don’t know. Millions of years, perhaps.”
     Nemoto grunted. “Listen to me. The growth rate of the human population on Earth, historically, was two percent a year. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But it’s compound interest, remember. At that rate your population doubles every thirty-five years, an increase by tenfold every century or so. Of course after the twentieth century our growth rates collapsed; we ran out of resources.”
     “Ah,” Ben said. “What if we’d kept on growing?”
     “How many people could Earth hold?” Nemoto whispered. “Ten, twenty billion? Meacher, the whole of the inner Solar System out to Mars could supply only enough water for maybe fifty billion people. It might have taken us a century to reach those numbers. Of course there is much more water in the asteroids and the outer system than in Earth’s oceans, perhaps enough to support ten thousand trillion human beings.”
     “A huge number.”
     “But not infinite—and only six tenfold jumps away from ten billion.”
     “Just six or seven centuries,” Ben said.
     “And then what?” Nemoto whispered. “Suppose we start colonizing, like the Gaijin. Earth is suddenly the center of a growing sphere of colonization whose volume must keep increasing at two percent a year, to keep up with the population growth. And that means that the leading edge, the colonizing wave, has to sweep on faster and faster, eating up worlds and stars and moving on to the next, because of the pressure from behind...
     Ben was doing sums in his head. “That leading edge would have to be moving at light speed within a few centuries, no more.
     “Imagine how it would be,” Nemoto said grimly, “to inhabit a world in the path of such a wave. The exploitation would be rapid, ruthless, merciless, burning up worlds and stars like the front of a forest fire, leaving only ruins and lifelessness. And then, as resources are exhausted throughout the light-speed cage, the crash comes, inevitably. Remember Venus. Remember Polynesia.
     “The nearest analog in our own history to interstellar colonization,” Ben said. “The Polynesians spread out among their Pacific islands for over a thousand years, across three thousand kilometers. But by about A.D. 1000 their colonization wave front had reached as far as it could go, and they had inhabited every scrap of land. Isolated, each island surrounded by others already full of people, they had nowhere to go.
     “On Easter Island they destroyed the native ecosystem in a few generations, let the soil erode away, cut down the forests. In the end they didn’t even have enough wood to build more canoes. Then they went to war over whatever was left. By the time the Europeans arrived the Polynesians had just about wiped themselves out.”
     “Think about it, Meacher,” Nemoto said. The light-speed cage. Imagine this system fully populated, a long way behind the local colonization wave front, and surrounded by systems just as heavily populated—and armed—as they were. And they were running out of resources. There surely were a lot more space dwellers than planet dwellers, but they’d already used up the asteroids and the comets. So the space dwellers turned on the planet. The inhabitants were choked, drowned, baked.
     “I don’t believe it,” Madeleine said. “Any intelligent society would figure out the dangers long before breeding itself to extinction.”
     “The Polynesians didn’t,” Ben said dryly.

(ed note: The Chaera are the aliens who formerly lived on the murdered Venus-like planet. They currently live in miserable tiny space colonies orbiting a dangerous black hole artifact.)

     “But there remain mysteries,” Ben said. “The Chaera look too primitive to have constructed that artifact. After all, it manipulates a black hole’s gravity well. Perhaps their ancestors built this thing. Or some previous wave of colonists, who passed through this system.”
     “You aren’t thinking it through,” virtual Nemoto whispered. “The Chaera have eyes filled with salty water. They must have evolved on a world with oceans. They can’t have evolved here.”
     “Then,” Madeleine snapped, “why are they here?
     “Because they had no place else to go,” Nemoto said. “They fled here—even modified themselves, perhaps. They huddled around an artifact left by an earlier wave of colonization. They knew that nobody would follow them to such a dangerous, unstable slum area as this.
     “They are refugees.
     “Yes. As, perhaps, we will become in the future.”
     “Refugees from what?
     “From the resource wars,” Nemoto said. “From the hydrogen suffocation of their world. Like Polynesia.
     The core artifact trembled.
     And Nemoto kept talking, talking. “This universe of ours is a place of limits, of cruel equations. The Galaxy must be full of light-speed cages like this, at most a few hundred light-years wide, traps for their exponentially growing populations. And then, after the ripped-up worlds have lain fallow, after recovery through the slow processes of geology and biology, it all begins again, a cycle of slash and burn, slash and burn... This is our future, Meacher: our future and our past. It is after all a peculiar kind of equilibrium: the contact, the ruinous exploitation, the crash, the multiple extinctions—over and over. And it is happening again, to us. The Gaijin are already eating their way through our asteroid belt. Now do you see what I’m fighting against?
     Madeleine remembered the burster, the slaughter of the star lichen fourteen times a second. She remembered Venus and Australia, the evidence of ancient wars even in the Solar System—the relics of a previous, long-burned-out colonization bubble.
     Must it be like this?

(ed note: As it turns out, our solar system is not primordial. Venus used to be a Terra type planet, before a colonization wave swept through and murdered the planet. Millions of years later a second wave from a subsequent civilization swept through. This one killed most life on Terra with an asteroid bombardment. That is the reason Terra has continental plates and plate tectonics.)

     Life, Cassiopeia (the Gaijin alien) said, was emergent everywhere. Planets were the crucible. Life curdled, took hold, evolved, in every nook and cranny it could find in the great nursery that was the Galaxy.
     Characteristically life took hundreds of millions of years to accrue the complexity it needed to start manipulating its environment on a major scale. On Earth, life had stuck at the single-celled stage for billions of years, most of its history. Still, on world after world, complexity emerged, mind dawned, civilizations arose.
     Most of these cultures were self-limiting.
     Some were sedentary. Some—for instance, aquatic creatures, like the Flips—lacked access to metals and fire. Some just destroyed themselves, one way or another, through wars, or accidents, or obscure philosophical crises, or just plain incompetence. The last, Madeleine suspected, might have been mankind’s ultimate fate, left to its own devices.
     Maybe one in a thousand cultures made it through such bottlenecks.
     That fortunate few developed self-sustaining colonies off their home worlds, and—forever immune to the eggs-in-one-basket accidents that could afflict a race bound to a single world—they started spreading. Or else they made machines, robots that could change worlds and rebuild themselves, and sent them off into space, and they started spreading.
     Either way, from one in a thousand habitable worlds, a wave of colonization started to expand.
     There were many different strategies. Sometimes generations of colonists diffused slowly from star to star, like a pollutant spreading into a dense liquid. Sometimes the spread was much faster, like a gas into a vacuum. Sometimes there was a kind of percolation, a lacy, fractal structure of exploitation leaving great unspoiled voids within.
     It was a brutal business. Lesser species—even just a little behind in the race to evolve complexity and power—would simply be overrun, their worlds and stars consumed. And if a colonizing bubble from another species was encountered, there were often ferocious wars.
     “It’s hard to believe that every damn species in the Galaxy behaves so badly,” Madeleine said sourly.
     Malenfant grinned. “Why? This is how we are. And remember, the ones who expand across the stars are self-selecting. They grow, they consume, they aren’t too good at restraining themselves, because that’s the way they are. The ones who aren’t ruthless predatory expansionists stay at home, or get eaten.”
     Anyhow, the details of the expansion didn’t seem to matter. In every case, after some generations of colonization, conflicts built up. Resource depletion within the settled bubble led to pressure on the colonies at the fringe. Or else the colonizers, their technological edge sharpened by the world-building frontier, would turn inward on their rich, sedentary cousins. Either way the cutting-edge colonizers were forced outward, farther and faster.
     Before long, the frontier of colonization was spreading out at near light speed, and the increasingly depleted region within, its inhabitants having nowhere to go, was riven by wars and economic crisis.
     So it would go on, over millennia, perhaps megayears.
     And then came the collapse.
     It happened over and over. None of the bubbles ever grew very large—no more than a few hundred light-years wide—before simply withering away, like a colony of bacteria frying under a sterilizing lamp. And one by one the stars would come out once more, shining cleanly out, as the red and green of technology and life dispersed.
     “The Polynesian syndrome,” Madeleine said gloomily.
     “But,” Malenfant growled, “it shouldn’t always be like this. Sooner or later one of those races has got to win the local wars, beat out its own internal demons, and conquer the Galaxy. But we know that not one has made it, across the billions of years of the Galaxy’s existence. And that is the Fermi paradox.”
     Now a new image was overlaid on the swiveling Galaxy: a spark that flared, a bloom of lurid blue light that originated close to the crowded core. It illuminated the nearby stars for perhaps an eighth of the galactic disc around it. And then, as the Galaxy slowly turned, there was another spark—and another, then another, and another still. Most of these events originated near the Galaxy core: something to do with the crowding of the stars, then. A few sparks, more rare, came from farther out—the disc, or even the dim halo of orbiting stars that surrounded the Galaxy proper.
     Each of these sparks caused devastation among any colonization bubbles nearby: a cessation of expansion, a restoring of starlight.
     Death, on an interstellar scale.
     Her attention came to rest, at last, on a pair of stars—small, fierce, angry. These stars were close, separated by no more than a few tens of their diameters. The two stars looped around each other on wild elliptical paths, taking just seconds to complete a revolution—like courting swallows, Madeleine thought—but the orbits changed rapidly, decaying as she watched, evolving into shallower ellipses, neat circles.
     A few wisps of gas circled the two stars. Each star seemed to glow blue, but the gas around them was reddish. Farther out she saw a lacy veil of color, filmy gas that billowed against the crowded background star clouds.
     “Neutron stars,” Malenfant said. “A neutron star binary, in fact. That blue glow is synchrotron radiation, Madeleine. Electrons dragged at enormous speeds by the stars’ powerful magnetic fields...”
     Malenfant grunted. “Supernovae.”
     The two stars were growing closer now, their energy ebbing away. The spinning became more rapid, the stars moving too fast for her to see. When the stars were no more than their own diameter apart, disruption began. Great gouts of shining material were torn from the surface of each star and thrown out into an immense glowing disc that obscured her view.
     At last the stars touched. They imploded in a flash of light.
     A shock wave pulsed through the debris disc, churning and scattering the material, a ferocious fount of energy. But the disc collapsed back on the impact site almost immediately, within seconds, save for a few wisps that dispersed slowly, cooling.
     “Has to form a black hole,” Malenfant muttered. “Two neutron stars... too massive to form anything less. This is a gamma-ray burster. We’ve been observing them all over the sky since the 1960s. We sent up spacecraft to monitor illegal nuclear weapons tests beyond the atmosphere. Instead, we saw these.”
     “I saw what these things can do, Madeleine,” Malenfant said. “It would be like a nearby supernova going off. The ozone layer would be screwed by the gamma rays. Protein structures would break down. Acid rain. Disruption of the biosphere—”
     Madeleine watched as the Galaxy image was restored, and bursts erupted from the crowded core, over and over.
     Malenfant glared at the dangerous sky. “Cassiopeia, are you telling me that these collapses are the big secret—the cause of the reboot, the galactic extinction?”
     Madeleine shook her head. “How is that possible, if each of them is limited to a thousand light-years? The Galaxy is a hundred times as wide as that. It would be no fun to have one of these things go off in your backyard. But—”
     They were shown a cascade, image after image, burst after burst.
     Some of the collapses involved particularly massive objects. Some of them were rare collisions involving three, four, even five objects simultaneously. Some of the bursts were damaging because of their orientation, with most of their founting, ferocious energy being delivered, by a chance of fate and collision dynamics, into the disc of the Galaxy, where the stars were crowded. And so on.
     Some of these events were very damaging indeed.
     So it finishes, Madeleine thought: the evolution and the colonizing and the wars and the groping toward understanding. All of it halted, obliterated in a flash, an accident of cosmological billiards. It was all a matter of chance, of bad luck. But there were enough neutron-star collisions that every few hundred million years there was an event powerful enough, or well-directed enough, to wipe the whole of the Galaxy clean.
     It had happened over and over. And it will happen again, she saw. Again and again, a drumbeat of extinction. That is what the Gaijin have learned.
     “And for us,” Malenfant growled, “it’s back to the f**king pond, every damn time... So much for Fermi’s paradox. Nemoto was right. This is the equilibrium state for life and mind: a Galaxy full of new, young species struggling out from their home worlds, consumed by fear and hatred, burning their way across the nearby stars, stamping over the rubble of their forgotten predecessors.”
     But her mind was racing. “There must be ways to stop this. All we have to do is evade one collapse—and gain the time to put aside the wars and the trashing, and get a little smarter, and learn how to run the Galaxy properly. We don’t have to put up with this sh*t.”
     Malenfant smiled. “Nemoto always did call you a meddler.”
     BUT YOU ARE RIGHT, the Gaijin said. SOME OF US ARE TRYING...

(ed note: a coalition of advanced civilizations has located the next sterilize-the-entire-freaking-galaxy gamma-ray burster and are trying to prevent or at least delay the onset of its burst)

From MANIFOLD: SPACE by Stephen Baxter (2000)

Planting a Colony

Colonization is fairly straightforwards (given a shirt-sleeve habitable planet), though things can turn nasty if the new planets already have natives.


Habitability is the measure of highest value in planet-hunting. But should it be?

Kepler and the other planet-finding missions have begun to bear fruit. We now know that most stars have planets, and that a surprising percentage will have Earth-sized worlds in their habitable zone—the region where things are not too hot and not too cold, where life can develop. Astronomers are justly fascinated by this region and what they can find there. We have the opportunity, in our lifetimes, to learn whether life exists outside our own solar system, and maybe even find out how common it is.

We have another opportunity, too—one less talked-about by astronomers but a common conversation among science fiction writers. For the first time in  history, we may be able to identify worlds we could move to and live on.

As we think about this second possibility, it's important to bear in mind that habitability and colonizability are not the same thing. Nobody seems to be doing this; I can't find any term but habitability used to describe the exoplanets we're finding. Whether a planet is habitable according to the current definition of the term has nothing to do with whether humans could settle there. So, the term applies to places that are vitally important for study; but it doesn't necessarily apply to places we might want to go.

Whether a planet is habitable according to the current definition of the term has nothing to do with whether humans could settle there. 

To see the difference between habitability and colonizability, we can look at two very different planets: Gliese 581g and Alpha Centauri Bb. Neither of these is confirmed to exist, but we have enough data to be able to say a little about what they're like if they do. Gliese 581g is a super-earth orbiting in the middle of its star's habitable zone. This means liquid water could well form on its surface, which makes it a habitable world according to the current definition.

Centauri Bb, on the other hand, orbits very close to its star, and its surface temperature is likely high enough to render one half of it (it's tidally locked to its sun, like our moon is to Earth) a magma sea. Alpha Centauri Bb is most definitely not habitable.

So Gliese 581g is habitable and Centauri Bb is not; but does this mean that 581g is more colonizable than Bb? Actually, no.

Because 581g is a super-earth, the gravity on its surface is going to be greater than Earth's. Estimates vary, but the upper end of the range puts it at 1.7g. If you weigh 150 lbs on Earth, you'd weigh 255 lbs on 581g. This is with your current musculature; convert all your body fat to muscle and you might just be able to get around without having to use leg braces or a wheelchair. However, your cardiovascular system is going to be under a permanent strain on this world—and there's no way to engineer your habitat to comfortably compensate.

On the other hand, Centauri Bb is about the same size as Earth. Its surface gravity is likely to be around the same. Since it's tidally locked, half of its surface is indeed a lava hell—but the other hemisphere will be cooler, and potentially much cooler. I wouldn't bet there's any breathable atmosphere or open water there, but as a place to build sealed domes to live in, it's not off the table.

Also consider that it's easier to get stuff onto and off of the surface of Bb than the surface of a high-gravity super-earth. Add to that the very thick atmosphere that 581g is likely to have, and human subsistence on 581g—even if it's a paradise for local life—is looking more and more awkward.

Doubtless 581g is a better candidate for life; but to me, Centauri Bb looks more colonizable.

A definition of colonizability

We've got a fairly good definition of what makes a planet habitable: stable temperatures suitable for the formation of liquid water. Is it possible to develop an equally satisfying (or more satisfying) definition of colonizability for a planet?

Yes—and here it is. Firstly, a colonizable world has to have an accessible surface. A super-earth with an incredibly thick atmosphere and a surface gravity of 3 or 4 gees just isn't colonizable, however much life there may be on it.

Secondly, and more subtly, the right elements have to be accessible on the planet for it to be colonizable. This seems a bit puzzling at first, but what if Centauri Bb is the only planet in the Centauri system, and it has only trace elements of Nitrogen in its composition? It's not going to matter how abundant everything else is. A planet like this—a star system like this—cannot support a colony of earthly life forms. Nitrogen is a critical component of biological life, at least our flavour of it.

In an article entitled "The Age of Substitutibility", published in Science in 1978, H.E. Goeller and A.M. Weinberg proposed an artificial mineral they called Demandite. It comes in two forms. A molecule of industrial demandite would contain all the elements necessary for industrial manufacturing and construction, in the proportions that you'd get if you took, say, an average city and ground it up into a fine pulp. There're about 20 elements in industrial demandite including carbon, iron, sodium, chlorine etc. Biological demandite, on the other hand, is made up almost entirely of just six elements: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. (If you ground up an entire ecosystem and looked at the proportions of these elements making it up, you could in fact find an existing molecule that has exactly the same proportions. It's called cellulose.)

Thirdly, there must be a manageable flow of energy at the surface. The place can be hot or cold, but it has to be possible for us to move heat around. You can't really do that at the surface of Venus, for instance; it's 800 degrees everywhere on the ground so your air conditioning spends an insane amount of energy just overcoming this thermal inertia. Access to a gradient of temperature or energy is what makes physical work possible. 

Obviously things like surface pressure, stellar intensity, distance from Earth etc. play big parts, but these are the main three factors that I can see. It should be instantly obvious that they have almost nothing to do with how far the planet is from its primary. There is no 'colonizable zone' similar to a 'habitable zone' around any given star. The judgment has to be made on a world by world basis.

Note that by this definition, Mars is marginally colonizable. Why? Not because of  its temperature or low air pressure, but because it's very low in Nitrogen, at least at the surface. The combination of Mars and Ceres may make a colonizable unit, if Ceres has a good supply of Nitrogen in its makeup—and this idea of combo environments being colonizable complicates the picture. We're unlikely to be able to detect an object the size of Ceres around Alpha Centauri, so long-distance elimination of a system as a candidate for colonizability is going to be difficult. Conversely, if we can detect the presence of all the elements necessary for life and industry on a roughly Earth-sized planet, regardless of whether it's in its star's habitable zone, we may have a candidate for colonizability.

The colonizability of an accessible planet with a good temperature gradient can be rated according to how well its composition matches the compositions of industrial and biological demandite. We can get very precise with this scale, and we probably should. It, and not habitability, is the true measure of which worlds we might wish to visit.

To sum up, I'm proposing that we add a second measure to the existing scale of habitability when studying exoplanets. The habitability of a planet actually says nothing about how attractive it might be for us to visit. Colonizability is the missing metric for judging the value of planets around other stars.

If your universe contains faster-than-light starships that can visit a new colony planet every afternoon (including week-ends), then establishing a colony is relatively easy. Dump your colonists on the new planet with tents, MREs, and first-aid kits. Then ship in supplies as they need it.

If your universe only has slower-than-light starships such that a new colony will be lucky to see a ship every hundred years, then of course things become much more difficult. If the colonist have forgotten some vital machine, an unstoppable alien plague pops up, or other cosmic disaster strikes, the mother planet cannot do much more than send sympathetic radio messages to the soon to be extinct colony.

What is the minimum number of colonists? For genetic reasons, if the number of colonists is too small and no new colonists arrive via starship, the colony will eventually die out due to inbreeding. This is important on a slower-than-light starship colony mission were every microgram is expensive, you do not want to waste payload mass on unnecessary colonists, and follow-up missions are unlikely. However this is a non-issue with FTL starships bringing new immigrants every week, the new colonists will quickly swell the colony size large enough to avoid genetic problems.

The minimum number of colonists also applies to a Generation starship, which is after all sort of a traveling colony.

If you do not want to fiddle with math below, the bottom line is as follows. If the colony is to survive inbreeding for up to 100 years, you'll need a minimum of 500 randomly chosen colonists or 50 hand-picked colonists all who are unrelated and of breeding age. If the colony is to have enough genetic diversity to survive for thousands of years, you'll need a minimum of 5000 randomly chosen colonists or 500 hand-picked colonists all who are unrelated and of breeding age. That's if I have not made a silly mistake in arithmetic. Now you can skip to the next section.

Most researchers use a general rule invented by Franklin and Soule called the "50/500" rule. The "50" comes from Franklin (Franklin, "Evolutionary Change in Small Populations", 1980) and the 500 comes from Soule (Soule, "Thresholds for Survival: Maintaining Fitness and Evolutionary Potential", 1980). The 50 and 500 are values for a variable called Ne, the "Effective Population Number" (Kimura and Ohta, "Effective Population Number", 1977).

Ne = (4 * M * F) / (M + F)


  • Ne = Effective Population Number
  • M = number of unrelated, breeding-age (UBA) males
  • F = number of unrelated, breeding-age (UBA) females

You will please note that if M and F are equal, the equation simplifies to Ne = M + F, which is kind of obvious.

If M is approximately equal to F, a general rule is that both will be equal to about 10% to 20% of the total population, if the population is a random sample. If the population is nothing but hand-picked colonists, M and F could be 50% of the total population (i.e., the entire population is nothing but unrelated breeding-age males and females).

The larger Ne is, the better. The equation implies that Ne is reduced if there is a large difference between the number of UBA males and UBA females. Ne is also reduced by variations in the number of offspring per female, overlapping generations, and fluctuations in the population from generation to generation.

Franklin calculated that to avoid genetic inbreeding problems in the short term (100 years) Ne had to be a minimum of 50.

f = 1 / (2 * Ne)


  • f = Inbreeding coefficient per generation
  • Ne = Effective Population Number

Domestic animal breeders will accept f = 0.01 (inbreeding rate of 1% per generation), solving for Ne reveals Franklin's value of 50. The colony will experience significant viability problems due to inbreeding when f rises to 0.1, and the colony will probably die out when f reaches 0.5 to 0.6. The life-span of the colony before inbreeding caused extinction is (according to Soule)

t ~ 1.5 * Ne


  • t = number of generations til extinction
  • Ne = Effective Population Number

The number of years in a generation is more or less the average age of a female when she bears her first child. Probably about 25 years.

So a colony with f = 0.01 should last about 75 generations (1875 years), f = 0.1 will last 7.5 generations (190 years) and f = 0.6 will last about 0.8 generation (20 years)

In the long term Franklin figures you'll need Ne to be about 500. The idea is that you need to maintain enough overall genetic variability to evolve in step with the changing environment. Below 500 Franklin says "genetic variance for complex traits is lost at a significantly faster rate than it is renewed by mutation."

Ne can be achieved with a lower number of UBA male and females if a stockpile of frozen fertilized ova from off-world is available for host mothers. In Andre Norton's novels, such a hosted baby is called a "duty child." Breeding-age females will be obligated by the colony by-laws to bear one or two of these duty children in order to increase the genetic diversity of the colony. Soren Roberts notes that modern liberated women nowadays will be highly resistant to bearing duty children, and suggests that artificial wombs be employed instead. This will also help with the problem of couples who are infertile, non-heterosexual, or transgendered. Ne can also be effectively increased by such draconian measures as colony authorities enforcing a mandatory reduction in variations on family size, enforcing an equal number of male and female births, forbidding inbreeding, or through deliberate half-sibling or first cousin breeding (this can paradoxically increase effective Ne, but only after 16 generations). Such draconian measures can almost double Ne.


      The “magic number” of people needed to create a viable population for multi-generational space travel has been calculated by researchers. It is about the size of a small village – 160. But with some social engineering it might even be possible to halve this to 80.
     Anthropologist John Moore from University of Florida tackled the problem as part of a combined effort with space scientists to determine how in future humans might successfully undertake century-long journeys out into space.
     In the past, attention has been focused on cryogenics, sperm banks and military-style modes of operation, says Moore, but “the ‘right stuff’ for a journey into space is the family – a million-year-old institution designed to assist reproduction.”
     Moore has previously studied small migrating populations of early humans and has developed simulation software – called Ethnopop – for analysing the viability of small groups.

Marriage partners

     For a space trip of 200 years, perhaps eight to 10 generations, his calculations suggest a minimum number of 160 people are needed to maintain a stable population.
     This would produce around 10 potential marriage partners per person, he says, and if this seems a small number, “think about how many people you dated before you got married”.
     Room would be at a premium on any spacecraft and reducing the number of people initially required might be desirable. Moore suggests two strategies. The first is to begin with young childless couples, echoing the practice of Polynesian seafaring colonists.
     The second is to ask the space crew to postpone reproduction to later in woman’s fertile period, perhaps age 35 to 40, creating longer time gaps between the generations. This measure results in a stable population of just 80 but the consequences of the increased medical risks of late childbirth have not yet been considered.
     A potential concern is that small populations can suffer a damaging reduction in genetic diversity due to inbreeding, says Dennis O’Rourke from the University of Utah. He considered the same 10-generation, 200-year journey as Moore and looked at both genetic drift and inbreeding.
     “The decrease in genetic variation is actually quite small and less than found in some successful small populations on Earth,” he says. “It would not be a significant factor as long as the space travellers come home or interact with other humans at the end of the 200 year period.”

Gene screening

     O’Rourke believes that a more serious concern would be the presence of potentially damaging genotypes in the initial space pioneers. Genetic screening might well be needed, he says: “Any harmful recessive characteristics might lead to increased healthcare loads which would deplete scarce resources.”
     A final concern raised at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Boston was the possibility of infighting. Small communities isolated for long periods at research stations in Antarctic and even families travelling on long car journeys, provide examples of how small conflicts can quickly escalate.
     But Moore points out: “Some small island communities on Earth have lived in peace and harmony for thousands of years because they have developed ways of solving conflicts. These are not taken to Antarctica.”


(ed note: Cameron Smith calculates different results than John Moore)

Inbreeding In Outer Space

Despite the reasonable expectation that future space colonists will want to raise families, they would have to be incredibly wary of reproductive habits on other planets to prevent another very real threat to the colony's success: inbreeding.

Genetic diversity is essentially what contributes to a healthy human population—conventional wisdom suggests the larger the community, the more genetic diversity you'll find among the population. In small, isolated groups on earth, interbreeding among relatives has been shown to severely limit the population's genetic diversity, making it much more susceptible to diseases that would otherwise be very rare in a genetically diverse population.

If the goal is to maintain as much genetic diversity as possible to promote a population's survival for centuries, what is the population threshold that must be reached before people can start breeding on other planets?

In 2002, anthropologist John Moore calculated that, to maintain a stable population and minimize the risks associated with inbreeding, a colony would need to host approximately 160 unrelated people to maintain a high level of genetic diversity over a time span of 200 years. A more recent calculation performed by Portland State University anthropologist Cameron Smith suggests that Moore had wildly miscalculated.

According to Smith, the ideal population is somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 inhabitants if the goal is to maintain near 100 percent genetic variation over a time span of 300 years. When that population size drops to 500, the remaining genetic variation is at about 50 percent. At 150 persons, the genetic variation in 300 years will be roughly 20 percent of the starting variation. Should a plague hit these smaller populations, the lack of genetic diversity could prove to be disastrous for future Martians, suggesting that the first colonists might want to lay off the hanky panky until they are joined by more Earthlings—at least 10,000 more, to be exact.

Of course, 100 percent genetic variation would be optimal, but the simple fact of the matter is that we are far from capable of transporting tens of thousands of people to other planets or moons.


(ed note: Our heroes and heroines are building a space ark to fly a few survivors to the planet Bronson Beta, before the planet Bronson Alpha splatters Terra like a bug on an automobile windshield and wipes out the human race. From a genetic standpoint, the problem is that the ark will only carry about 30 people. Not 50, not 80, and certainly not 500. Making the problem worse is the novel is set in 1932, and it is unclear if human artificial insemination has been invented yet. Tony Drake and Eve Hendron have been forbidden to marry because of this, and Eve is trying to explain the reason why to an increasingly angry Tony using words of one syllable.)

      "Hello, Tony!" She tried to make it cool.
     "Eve, my dear!"
     "We mustn't say even that! No—don't kiss me or hold me so!"
     "Why? ... I know your father said not to. It's discipline of the League of the Last Days. But why is it? Why must they ask it? And why must you obey?"
     "There, Tony. Just touch my hands, like this—and I’ll try to explain to you…"
     …"I see that," Tony said. "What's in that to forbid my loving you now, my taking you in my arms, my—"
     "I wish we could, Tony!"
     "Then why not?"
     "No reason not, if we were surely to die here, Tony—with all the rest of the world; but every reason not to, if we go on the Space Ship."
     "I don't see that!"

     "Don't you? Do you suppose, Tony, that the second streak in the sky—the streak that we call Bronson Beta which will come close to this world, and possibly receive us safe, before Bronson Alpha wipes out all the rest—do you suppose, Tony, that it was sent just for you and me?"
     "What is your idea, then?"
     "It's sent to save, perhaps, some of the results of five hundred million years of life on this world; but not you and me, Tony."
     "Why not? What are we?"
     Eve smiled faintly. "We're some of the results, of course. As such, we may go on the Space Ship. But if we go, we cease to be ourselves, don't you see?"
     "I don't," persisted Tony stubbornly.
     "I mean, when we arrive on that strange empty world,—if we do,—we can't possibly arrive as Tony Drake and Eve Hendron, to continue a love and a marriage started here. How insane that would be!"
     "Yes. Suppose one Space Ship got across with, say, thirty in its crew. We land and begin to live—thirty alone on an empty world as large as this. What, on that world, would we be? Individuals paired and set off, each from the others, as here? No; we become bits of biology, bearing within us seeds far more important than ourselves—far more important than our prejudices and loves and hates. We cannot then think of ourselves, only to preserve ourselves while we establish our kind."

     "Exactly what do you mean by that, Eve?"
     "I mean that marriage on Bronson Beta—if we reach it—cannot possibly be what it is here, especially if only a few, a very few of us, reach it. It will be all-important then—it will be essential to take whatever action the circumstances may require to establish the race."
     "You mean," said Tony savagely, remembering the remarks at breakfast, "if that flyer from South Africa—Ransdell—also made the passage on that Space Ship, and we all live, I may have to give you up to him—when circumstances seem to require it?"

(ed note: the short answer Tony is "Yes."

It will be fractionally less infuriating if this is done with artificially inseminated "duty children" instead of a husband forced to allow somebody else having sexual relations with their wife. The wife will be upset as well.

But only fractionally. Even now eighty-odd years after the novel was written, there is a high percentage of men who become incandescent with rage when their wives give birth to a child who does not look like them. It is probably instinctive. The same goes for women angry at being forced to become baby-factories.)

     "I don't know, Tony. We can't possibly describe it now; we can't imagine the circumstances when we're starting all over again. But one thing we can know—we must not first fix relations between us here which may only give trouble."
     "Relations like love and marriage!"
     "They might not do at all, over there."

     "You're mad, Eve. Your father's been talking to you."
     "Of course he has; but there's only sanity in what he says. He has thought so much more about it, he can look so calmly beyond the end of the world to what may be next that—that he won't have us carry into the next world sentiments and attachments that may only bring us trouble and cause quarrels or rivalry and death. How frightful to fight and kill each other on that empty world! So we have to start freeing ourselves from such things here."
     "I'll be no freer pretending I don't want you more than anything else. What sort of thing does your father see for us—on Bronson Beta?"
     She evaded him. "Why bother about it, Tony, when there's ten thousand chances to one we'll never get there? But we'll try for it—won't we?"
     "I certainly will, if you're going to."
     "Then you'll have to submit to the discipline."
     His arms hungered for her, and his lips ached for hers, but he turned away.

     "We're going to get over," she said to him one day. "To get over" meant to make the passage successfully to Bronson Beta, when it returned. The camp had phrases and euphemisms of its own for the hopes and fears it discussed.
     "Yes," agreed Tony. No one, now, openly doubted it, whatever he hid in his heart. "How do you—" he began, and then made his challenge less directly personal by adding: "How do you girls now like the idea of ceasing to be individuals and becoming 'biological representatives of the human race'—after we get across?"
     He saw Eve flush, and the warmth in her stirred him. "We talk about it, of course," she replied. "And—I suppose we'll do it."
     "Breed the race, you mean," Tony continued mercilessly. "Reproduce the type—mating with whoever is best to insure the strongest and best children for the place, and to establish a new generation of the greatest possible variety from the few individuals which we can hope to land safely. That's the program."
     "Yes," said Eve, "that's the purpose."
     For a minute he did not speak, thinking how—though he temporarily might possess her—so Ransdell might, too. And others. His hands clenched; and Eve, looking at him, said:
     "If you get across, Tony, there probably must be other wives—other mates—for you too."
     "Would you care?"
     "Care, Tony?" she began, her face flooded with color. She checked herself. "No one must care; we have sworn not to care—to conquer caring. And we must train ourselves to it now, you know. We can't suddenly stop caring about such things, when we find ourselves on Bronson Beta, unless we've at least made a start at downing selfishness here."
     "You call it selfishness?"
     '"I know it's not the word, Tony; but I've no word for it. Morals isn't the word, either. What are morals, fundamentally, Tony? Morals are nothing but the code of conduct required of an individual in the best interests of the group of which he's a member. So what's 'moral' here wouldn't be moral at all on Bronson Beta."

From WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer (1932)

A post at SFConsim-l leads me to revisit a trope I have commented about here before. Space colonization, as imagined in SF and 'nonfiction' space speculation, is — surprise! — a riff on the English colonization of America, an experience shared by Clarke and Heinlein, albeit from different perspectives. Historically sort of colonization was driven first and foremost by cheap land.

This should be no surprise, any more than the American colonial analogy itself. It is like hydraulics. Provide a cheaper place to live and people will drift toward it, sometimes even flood toward it.

And the heart of the nutshell, as Heinlein once put it, is that there is no cheap land in space because there is no land at all. Land doesn't just mean a solid planetary surface (those are dirt cheap). Land means habitat, and in space the only way to have any is to build it youself. Which makes it expensive, especially since you have to build it up front.

Water can be pumped uphill, and people can be pulled toward expensive places to live by compensating attractions, or pushed there by pressures. But it is not a 'natural' process, and it can easily be reversed, hence ghost towns in rugged, played-out mining regions.

The sort of colonization envisioned in the rocketpunk era, most explicitly in books like Farmer in the Sky, but implicit in the consensus future history of the genre, is just plain unlikely, almost desperately unlikely, this side of the remote future or the Singularity, whichever comes first.

This is not the only possible sort of colonization. People have traveled afar, often spending their adult lives in some remote clime with no intention to settle there, marry, and raise a family, hoping instead to make their fortune and return home. The ones who don't make their fortune may end up staying, but that was not the plan.

Political colonialism often follows this pattern. The British colonized India, but I've never heard that any significant number of Britons settled there. (Human nature being what it is they did leave an Anglo-Indian population behind.)

A similar pattern has been common for trading outposts through the ages, whenever travel times have been prolonged. Even today, with one day global travel, people live abroad for years or even decades as expatriates, not emigrants. This, I believe, is a far more plausible scenario for the long term human presence in space than classic colonization. (And human nature being what it is, a mixed population will leave someone behind.)

Meta to this discussion — and not all that meta — is the delicate cohabitation of 'nonfiction' space speculation and science fiction. Space colonization has been driven first and foremost by story logic. For a broad range of story possibilities we want settings with a broad range of human experience. For this we want complete human communities, which means colonization in something like the classic SF sense.

But who are we trying to kid? Science fiction, particularly hard SF, is not known for engaging the whole range of human experience. This is no knock on it; all the branches of Romance are selective. The truth is that we want space colonies so that they can rebel against Earth, form an Empire, and generally play out History with a capital H, with lots of explosions and other cool stuff along the way.

I've suggested before on this blog that you can, in fact, get quite a lot of History without classical colonies. But another thing to keep in mind is that story logic doesn't necessarily drive real history. We may have an active spacefaring future that involves practically none of the story tropes of the rocketpunk era.

As a loose analogy, robotic diving on shipwrecks has done away with all those old underwater story tropes about divers trapped in a collapsing wreck, or bad guys cutting the air hose, but it has not at all done away with the somber magic of shipwrecks themselves, something the makers of 'Titanic' used to effect.

On the other hand, Hollywood has made two popular and critically acclaimed historical period pieces about actual space travel, and the stories are both an awful lot like rocketpunk.


There is another model of colonization you failed to mention - forced re-location. Worked for Australia, and to a lesser extent in other regions of the world. Expanding population pressures, or a desire to establish off-world colonies to ensure a countries continuance, could conceivably lead to some form of forced colonisation.

Given the prohibitive cost of space travel (now & for the foreseeable future) I find it unlikely that there would be any return of those kinds of colonists; or for that matter, the colonists in the scenarios you paint.


The Grand Banks attracted European fishing boats before Newfoundland attracted European colonists. Antarctica is no worse than Fort MacMurray in the winter: Workers would flock to that continent if we ever discovered viable oil reserves there. If you want to know where people are willing to live, just follow the money (Money draining out of the region is the root cause of people draining out of North America's Empty Quarter).

There are almost certainly large-scale 'deposits' of valuable ore in the asteroids. But is it worth sending up a thousand mining drones, a machine shop, five technicians, and their life support? Are the ore deposits in orbits that don't need too much fuel to get to? Is boron mined under these conditions competitive with boron mined in Turkey?

There's lots of energy available in space, and we seem to be slowly approaching the point where space collectors will be competitive with ground-based collectors. But there aren't a lot of moving parts on solar collectors, so technicians will be thin 'on the ground'.

The plausible mid-future looks more and more like human space as a series of automated mining platforms and research bases, visited by rotating crews of technicians and scientists. The closest thing to colonists are the crews working the cyclers, but even they work on 2-3 year contracts before going home to Earth.

It's very much like the ocean. People work there, they pass through it, but no one really lives there even if they love it.

Citizen Joe:

That model is more of the slave colony model. Although probably more of a commune rather than slavery. The point is that the workers aren't doing it for pay. In fact, on a colony, money (Earth money) has no real meaning. You can't eat it, and it has a really crappy Isp. So everyone has to do the best they can or everyone dies. That means the colony works to be self sufficient so that it can continue to survive. That does not explain the willingness to put up the initial expenditures to found the colony.

Initial funding could be part of a research or political fund. But without some sort of financial gain coming back, there's no reason for corporate investment. Corporate involvement could come from government contracts to maintain communication networks or repair facilities. Ultimately there needs to be some sort of financial return.

I personally like the idea of Helium-3 as the new gold. Assuming the development of He-3 Fusion, particularly the He3-He3 fusion model which throws protons for direct energy conversion rather than neutrons like other forms of fusion. The idea would be that Terrans don't want to pollute the only habitable world known, but still have an insatiable need for power. Thus the development of clean fusion. While there are meager amounts of He3 on Earth and some is available on the moon, He-3 is also the decay product of Tritium (which can be used as a nuclear battery). That decay is mildly radio active, but the production of of Tritium from Deuterium is a fairly radioactive intense process. If you can handle those processes in space, and then ship back the pure He3, that gives a rationale for exploration and continued existence of colonies in space.


One thing no one has mentioned yet is political colonists...those people willing to spend their life savings to travel to the most remote regions to get away from what they consider an intolerable government, or to wait out the end of the world; I don't see why , at some point in the near future, that those groups don't go off-planet to set up their colonies.

Another scenario; a long term scientific or industrial outpost attracts some would-be entrepreneur to set up shop to supply the outpost with some 'luxury' goods or services with the plan to make him rich and then return home...only he doesn't and he (and his family), are forced to remain permanently. Others, hearing about this guy, decide to try to succeed where the first one failed...the impromptu colony grows in fits and starts until, quiet by accident, you have a real city-state that no one planned, it just grew. Of course, then someone feels the need to have to figure out what to do about them...

Rick Robinson:

I am very partial to the ocean analogy. People have gone to sea for thousands of years; it has been central to a lot of cultures, but no one lives there.

Think of Earth as an island, and in the sea around it are only tidal outcroppings like Rockall or coral structures like the Great Barrier Reef. There's every reason to explore these places, and perhaps exploit them economically, but they are not much suited for habitation.

Forced colonization is sort of the counterpoint to what Ferrell raised, 'Pilgrim' colonization. Both are politically motivated.

But both of these require relatively cheap land, again in the sense of productive habitat, even if not appealing land. The point of penal 'transportation' is that it is cheaper to dump your petty criminals out of sight and out of mind than to keep them in jail. (And less upsetting to Englightenment sensibilities than hanging them all.)

The problem for colonization by dissidents is that, for at least the midfuture, only very wealthy groups could afford it, and the very wealthy are rarely dissidents. :-)

The Pilgrims were a very typical dissident group in being predominantly middle class. For story purposes, in settings where you have FTL and habitable planets, these are the sorts of people who could plausibly charter a transport starship and head off to some newly surveyed planet.

This gets back to the meta point. There are a lot of things that work fine as SF literary tropes, but you really have to make a couple of magical assumptions, like FTL, to use them.

Within the constraints of hard SF, though, you probably should find other workarounds.


I tried to plot out a plausible scenario where a small group of ideologically-motivated colonists set up shop in the Jupiter or Saturn moon systems. It just doesn't work. Any launch-cost and travel-time scenario that favoured the colonists also made it easy for larger or better funded groups to get there first.

The closest I came up with was a five-years to Saturn travel-time with Saturnian resources just sufficient to support the colony but not enough to attract megacorp or government attention. But then any reasonable life-support scenario I came up with had the colony dying out in less than a decade.

Ideological colonies will probably follow economic colonies. First the real estate will be developed, then the religious/social loons will move in. The Puritan Great Migration came after King James dumped cash into the Massachusetts colony to build up the economy.


Nice work, as always, and I think most of the points hold water. That being said, I still think there is room for some good old fashioned colonization- if only sometimes, and just barely.

You make a good point that colonization has at least in part been driven by cheap land, and land = habitat. My major addendum would be that habitat is a sliding scale — Las Vegas or Anchorage are not in climates that one would dare call human habitat compared to say, Costa Rica, but the technology of the day — air conditioning, for instance — ended up moving the habitat line, and suddenly the middle of Nevada or Alaska looked very cheap. Io or Ceres might be forever condemned to be a "rock," but someplace like Mars — where plants will grow in the dirt and the air (if pumped up to 0.7psi) and the natural lighting, with a decent probability of tappable aquifers, and gravity sufficient to prevent bone loss, it starts to look more like "land" — equatorial Mars might make for better farmland than quite a few chunks of Earth. Given that indoor and "vertical" agriculture with what amounts to nearly-closed loops are already starting to look cost-effective and environmentally friendly in the present era, and solar panels and nukes are urgently needed to take up the load on Earth, it may be that every city on Earth is packed with off-the-shelf technology that doesn't look much different from a space colony.

I think the legal realities involved also mess with some of the Antarctica analogies. Antarctica is a scientific and tourism enclave by law, not just convenience — mineral exploitation is off limits till treaty review in 2048. Other planets might fall into similar legal zones, but space is big...

The transit times and costs might also open a window for colonies. In Antarctica, the logical window to stay is one season, with Australia and the rest of the world a couple days transit away. If a Martian government/corporation/whatever is sending people onboard a low cost cycler, the trip is six months and the local stay is launch window to launch window, or 18 months, and the trip isn't cheap and the trips will be coed — I find it wholly conceivable that a couple that was of the "right stuff" to volunteer to go might look at those intervals, or a couple of them, as time worth starting a family in, and with a chronic labor shortage meaning high wages, it might not seem so bad to stay. 11 kids have been born in Antarctica, and there are a couple schools so people can bring their kids with them...

From ON COLONIZATION by Rick Robinson (2009)

When a few score million people have an entire habitable world to themselves, they do not often build high. That comes later, along with formal wilderness preservation, disapproval of fecundity, and inducements to emigrate. Pioneer towns tend to be low and rambling. (Or so it is in that civilization wherein the Commonalty operates. We know that other branches of humanity have their distinctive ways, and hear rumors of yet stranger ones. But so vast is the galaxy—these two or three spiral arms, a part of which our race has to date thinly occupied—so vast, that we cannot even keep track of our own culture, let alone anyone else’s.)

Pelogard, however, was founded on an island off the Branzan mainland, above Serieve’s arctic circle: which comes down to almost 56°. Furthermore, it was an industrial center. Hence most of its buildings were tall and crowded. Laure, standing by the outer wall of Ozer Vandange’s office and looking forth across the little city, asked why this location had been chosen…

…“You shall, you shall,” said Vandange, somewhat mollified. “I merely thought a conference with you would be advisable first. As for your question, we need a city here primarily because upwelling ocean currents make the arctic waters mineral-rich. Extractor plants payoff better than they would farther south.

Despite himself, Laure was interested. “You’re getting your minerals from the sea already? At so early a stage of settlement?”

This sun and its planets are poor in heavy metals. Most local systems are. Not surprising. We aren’t far, here, from the northern verge of the spiral arm. Beyond is the halo—thin gas, little dust, ancient globular clusters very widely scattered. The interstellar medium from which stars form has not been greatly enriched by earlier generations.

Laure suppressed his resentment at being lectured like a child. Maybe it was just Vandange’s habit. He cast another glance through the wall. The office was high in one of the buildings. He looked across soaring blocks of metal, concrete, glass, and plastic, interlinked with trafficways and freight cables, down to the waterfront. There bulked the extractor plants, warehouses, and skydocks. Cargo craft moved ponderously in and out. Not many passenger vessels flitted between. Pelogard must be largely automated.

(ed note: The visitors from Kirkasant claim they come from something like a globular cluster with so much nebulosity you cannot see stars farther away than a few parsecs. Such clusters apparently do not exist.)

“Uh…I thought of a cluster, heavily hazed, somewhat like the young clusters of the Pleiades type.”

“So did many Serievans,” Vandange snorted. “Please use your head. Not even Pleiadic clusters contain that much gas and dust. Besides, the verbal description of the Kirkasanters sounds like a globular cluster, insofar as it sounds like anything. But not much. The ancient red suns are there, crowded together, true. But they speak of far too many younger ones.

“And of far too much heavy metal at home. Which their ship demonstrates. Their use of alloying elements like aluminum and beryllium is incredibly parsimonious. On the other hand, electrical conductors are gold and silver, the power plant is shielded not with lead but with inert-coated osmium, and it burns plutonium which the Kirkasanters assert was mined!

“They were astonished that Serieve is such a light-metal planet. Or claimed they were astonished. I don’t know about that. I do know that this whole region is dominated by light elements. That its interstellar spaces are relatively free of dust and gas, the Dragon’s Head being the only exception and it merely in transit through our skies. That all this is even more true of the globular clusters, which formed in an ultratenuous medium, mostly before the galaxy had condensed to its present shape—which, in fact, practically don’t occur in the main body of the galaxy, but are off in the surrounding halo!”

From STARFOG by Poul Anderson (1967)

Growing a Colony


With respect to increasing the population of a colony, women are a more critical item than men.

If you wanted to create ten new babies in a year, the minimum requirement is one man and ten women. A single man can create ten babies in one year by impregnating ten women. But the only way for women to make ten babies in one year is with ten women, not one. Hunters know that if you do not want to make your prey extinct you'd better only hunt the bucks, not the does. The same goes when fishing for crabs and the like, throw the she-crabs back into the water.

Which means that with respect to growing the new colony, the colony can better afford to have a few men eaten by alien land-sharks than women. In new colonies, women might find themselves somewhat protected and forbidden to engage in dangerous occupations. The colony needs all the women it can get, the men are expendable.

There will also be an iron-clad tradition of "women and children first."

Once the planet is fully colonized, such cloistering will not be needed, but old habits die hard. In many science fiction stories, people from Terran cultures are often taken aback at the old-fashioned women-as-objects-to-be-protected attitudes of colonial cultures.

This trend might be moderated if the colony makes extensive use of artificial wombs. Though that assumes a colony industrial infrastructure capable of supporting such a high tech device.

Remember that in the early days when both the colony's population and genetic diversity is low, families may be forced to have "duty children", from fertilized ova imported from off-world. This helps prevent the dangers of in-breeding.


Let’s look at population statistics. (This stage of the creative process approaches sex, like violence, in terms of its quantitative results, rather than its messy particulars.)

How many people are there in 2290, and where do they live?

The results of the model can be seen in figure 4.

Virtually all the growth of population in the long run comes from rural populations. This is caused by something that always startles elitists: people are not stupid. Agriculture is labor-intensive, and as long as an additional person can produce food in excess of its consumption, it pays to have another baby. (Famines are generally caused by a drastic change from the expected future—war, drought, or land confiscation changes the value of children after they’re born.) In most parts of the world, the expected value of children doesn’t reach zero right out to the limit of human fertility.

By contrast, life in cities is expensive, and work children can do there is less valuable, so having kids really doesn’t pay. Thus over the long run (it takes time to alter perceptions, and peasants who move to the city don’t suddenly de-acquire children), city dwellers will have children at or below a replacement rate and rural people will have all they can. “All they can” globally currently corresponds to a global rural population increase of about 2.3 percent per year.

Luckily, practically everyone would rather live in the city. (The American back-to-the-land fetish is an extreme minority taste.) Currently a bit under half of one percent of global population moves from country to city per year. If that continues, by 2056, the growth of rural areas has reversed, and as they decline in population the rate of population growth slows. In fact, World War IV is so big that global population actually peaks at around fifteen billion in 2237 and declines to just under eleven billion by the beginning of the colonization era. Global population is then more than 95 percent urban (as opposed to 22 percent today).

For a quick extrapolation of spaceborne populations, assume a VNP makes work for 100 people and the percentage of spaceborne population that would be working in the energy industry declines steadily by 10 percent every twenty-five years. That gives a population growth rate of 6 percent (most of it supplied by immigration at first).

By the beginnings of interstellar colonization, there are 1.256 billion people living permanently in space. Go ahead and gasp—but it’s a slower rate than the European population increase in Australia 1788 to 1900, and Australia effectively cost more to get to.

…Arbitrarily, I’ve set the colony ship size at ninety-six adults, one million preserved human embryos, plus everything needed to fully establish the colony. I also assume that because our descendants get better information faster, and perhaps have a better way of using it, there are no mistakes on the order of Jamestown or Botany Bay.

…I gave each ship forty-eight couples of childbearing age and one million frozen embryos. What would that grow into?

This required only a very rough demographic model, because I just wanted to know what the population age profile and size would look like, and from past experience I knew that a “point entry” demographic model would give me the two digits of accuracy needed.

The quick-and-dirty spreadsheet I created is thus extremely crude. A point entry model is one in which all the major demographic life changes are assumed to happen simultaneously for everyone. So in this model:

  1. The ship arrives on the nineteenth birthday of all ninety-six adults.
  2. Exactly one year later, on their twentieth birthdays, each of the forty-eight couples adds a decanted baby (a former frozen embryo) to the family. In addition, one-third of the mothers give birth on their twentieth birthday.
  3. Every birthday thereafter, through the forty-ninth, all adult couples adopt a decanted baby (until the supply runs out) and one-third of them have an additional birth.
  4. All children pair off into couples on their nineteenth birthdays and are part of the reproductive pool beginning with their twentieth birthdays.
  5. Everyone drops dead on his or her eightieth birthday.

No doubt Lewis Carroll could have a lot of fun with such a society. One can imagine Big Day celebrations every January first, in which the whole family gets together to unbottle a new crowd of babies in the morning, attends a mass wedding at lunch followed by a mass birthing, and then goes out to the cemetery to watch old people drop into their predug graves before going home to the traditional dinner.

Yet although the results this model yields are different from the real world, for the story I want to tell, four hundred years after landing, they aren’t different enough to matter. The demographic profiles for two planets (size of cohort by age) are shown in Figure 5.

If you need a more accurate model (e.g., to get accurate effects of baby booms, plagues, or wars in the age profile), you can always improve the precision by cutting down the time represented by one iteration, making deaths or births depend on variable fractions of many age cohorts, and installing more leaks (bachelorhood, early death, individual preference, sterility) into the reproductive pool.

Just one warning—if you do try a more elaborate model, make sure that the total death fractions applied to each cohort add up to 1, as do the total fractions moved out of the reproductive pool. Few things screw up a demographic profile as thoroughly as immortality, negative people, perpetually fertile dead people, or reverse mothers!

From HOW TO BUILD A FUTURE by John Barnes (1990)

All societies are based on rules to protect pregnant women and young children. All else is surplus age, excrescence, adornment, luxury or folly which can — and must — be dumped in emergency to preserve this prime function. As racial survival is the only universal morality, no other basic is possible. Attempts to formulate a “perfect society” on any foundation other than “women and children first!” is not only witless, it is automatically genocidal. Nevertheless, starry-eyed idealists (all of them male) have tried endlessly — and no doubt will keep on trying.

From TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE by Robert Heinlein (1973)

(ed note: Wee Mad Arthur is a gnome, about six inches tall. He is a rat exterminator, hunting them with a crossbow.)

A minute later Wee Mad Arthur emerged into the daylight, dragging the rat behind him. There were fifty-seven neatly lined up along the wall, but despite his name Wee Mad Arthur made a point of not killing the young and the pregnant females. It's always a good idea to make sure you've got a job tomorrow.

From FEET OF CLAY by Terry Pratchett (1996)

As you could see with the example of Tristan de Cunha, most of the men died when that boat sank, but the colony was able to survive. The same thing would probably not be true if the majority of the women had died.

In general (at least with mammals), the ratio in size between males and females for a given species represents the mating ratio for that species. So, if males and females are the same size, then usually one male will be mating with one female (for a given mating period), and if males are twice the size of females, one male will mate with two females. The larger size is related to the number of other males they have to fight for access to the females.

In our species, males are slightly larger than females, suggesting that populations with slightly low male to female mating ratios (3 men / 4-5 women) have been the 'optimal' state over the last five million years or so. Note that this is not necessarily the actual ratio of males to females in the population, nor does it mean that the colonists could not adopt an even lower ratio at the outset, since one male can fertilize a large number of females at one time. Of course, the fewer males you have, the lower the Y-chromosome diversity will be.


For agriculturalists, children are valuable laborers, but for most of human existence, population was strictly regulated to remain in line with the carrying capacity of, say, the Outback or the Arctic. We can learn from extant foraging communities and from the archaeological records of their ancestors. Their rituals and taboos, their regulations of sexuality to keep populations low, might once again be of great value to our species.

Once space colonists arrive at their desired exoplanet, however, things will change yet again. The migrant population will be expected to explode upon arrival because—as we have learned in conservation biology on Earth—larger populations of any organism are always safer from extinction (local or general) than smaller populations. This will drive yet another shift in the cultural details of sex and sexuality, re-enacting the demographic shift from foraging to farming that occurred millennia before, back on Earth.

From STAR-CROSSING LOVERS by Cameron M. Smith (2013)

     “Is it true that you found bodies aboard?” Converse asked after Drake had been speaking for several minutes.
     “It’s true.”
     “And that one of them was a woman?”
     “What would a woman have been doing aboard a warship?”
     “She was wearing the uniform of a weapons tech,” Drake replied, “I presume she was a member of the crew.”
     “Women spacers, imagine that!” someone said.
     “It takes no imagination at all!” a contralto voice said from the edge of the crowd. Drake turned to gaze up at the new participant in the discussion. The woman was a reddish-brunette, with striking eyes, a heart shaped face, and an ample figure. She was dressed in a clinging, backless evening gown. She pushed her way into the inner circle and seated herself on the arm of an overstuffed chair that was part of the small conversational grouping around the settee. She turned to face the man who had made the comment about woman spacers.
     “The fact is that there have been many women spacers throughout history. The first was a woman named Valentina Tereshkova. By the time Antares exploded, the Grand Fleet of Earth was nearly twenty percent female. Some of the commercial starship crews had an even larger percentage of women. Check your history books if you don’t believe me.”
     “I stand corrected,” the man who had made the comment said. He glanced nervously down at the empty glass in his hand, and then backed out of the inner ring of listeners.
     “It’s true, you know,” the woman said, continuing in the same lecturing tone. “The Altan ethic restricting women from the so-called “risk professions” is a result of our ancestors’ need to populate this planet. It was not unusual for pioneer women to give birth to six, eight, or even ten children each. Raising such a brood leaves very little time for anything else, I assure you.”


The psychological pressures of being an astronaut are just one stressor on physical intimacy in the confines of space.

With public and private entities jostling to bring humans to places like asteroids, Mars and even Venus, longterm human spaceflight is getting sexy. Except so far, there's not much sex. That's a problem: Even before future Mars colonists begin contemplating extending the human germ line elsewhere in the solar system, astronauts and scientists will need to confront not only astronauts' physical and psychological health but the matter of coitus and reproduction outside of Earth's atmosphere. So far, that doesn't seem like a very good idea.

"[Space] is a dangerous environment [and] people don't really recognize that," says Paul Root Wolpe, the director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University and a senior bioethicist at NASA. "It's not an ideal place to have a child, and as far as we know might not be an ideal place to be pregnant."

Humanity has sent everything from rats, geckos, sea urchins and birds (although not bees) into space to study the effects of microgravity on non-human embryonic and fetal development, and the results have been far from promising. While reproduction has generally been successful, the mortality rates and gross abnormalities among the experiments' progeny continue to suggest that space might not be the ideal environment to put a bun in the oven.

In fact, the concept of procreating in space can sometimes seem like a callous, unethical, and terrible idea. It has long been known that microgravity environments contribute to a range of other adverse physiological effects in humans, such as bone and muscle deterioration. Combined with the uniquely stressful environment that is life aboard a spacecraft or at a colony, these influences on fetal and infant development could lead to serious physical abnormalities and mental handicaps in future extraterrestrials.

The risk of pregnancy in space isn't idle speculation: between 1989 and 2006, seven pregnancies were documented at Australian Antarctic research stations, an environment which is frequently used as a space analog due to its isolation. It's a staggering number and suggests that dangerous environs alone aren't significant deterrents for their horny inhabitants. NASA has already taken this into consideration.

Traveling to space pregnant is expressly forbidden by the space agency, so much so that female astronauts are routinely tested for pregnancy in the 10 days leading up to a mission launch. Once in space, many women continue to use the various contraceptives they were taking on Earth, albeit for different reasons.

"Part of the recommendation [to take contraceptives in space] is practical, much like competitive athletes take contraception continuously to prevent menstruation," said Marjorie Jenkins, a NASA advisor who serves as Chief Scientific Officer at the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women's Health. "Since we do not have human data about menstrual cycling in regard to long or short term space travel, it is not correct to assume that space travel would act as a natural contraceptive."

In addition to the difficult mechanics of giving birth in space, extraterrestrial pregnancy raises a host of thorny moral questions. Every astronaut who goes into space with NASA is not only a government employee, but also a human test subject. This means they are protected by "the Common Rule," the portion of the Code of Federal Regulations which outlines the scope of experimentation that can be legitimately performed on human subjects. The Common Rule has a s​pecific clause pertaining to when it is legitimate to perform scientific experiments on a pregnant woman or fetus, which basically boils down to determining whether the woman or fetus will directly benefit from the research and whether they are subject to more than a minimal level of risk by partaking in the experiment.

Extended stays in space—and the prolonged exposure to radiation that comes with it—also have the potential to damage human reproductive organs. While spending several months in space has not been shown to limit the fertility of astronauts, there are concerns that when this time is increased to a number of years, radiation exposure could prove to be very damaging to the reproductive organs of astronauts.

Astronauts spending six months at the ISS will be exposed to roughly 40 times the amount of radiation experienced during a year on Earth, and on a six-month journey to Mars, astronauts' exposure to radiation would be the equivalent of about 15 times the annual exposure limit for a worker in a terrestrial nuclear power plant.

Graham Scott, the Vice President and Chief Scientist at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, claims that "men and women can both be very well adapted to space," although he also notes that women are typically limited to flying only 50 percent the number of missions of their male counterparts because of effects that radiation can have on the female body, particularly the ovaries.

Despite these unpromising initial results, the scientists who think about these things aren't giving up. "If we intend for people to live on other planets the rest of their lives, we can expect that they're going to want to raise families there," said Wolpe. "It's a very interesting methodological question as to how we determine what kind of impact reproduction in lower gravity environments might have on gestation and child rearing."

While studies have shown the risks of making babies in free space, other research indicates that extended exposure to hypogravity—a decrease in gravitational force—does not adversely affect the ability to procreate upon return to Earth.

"A significant number of astronauts have conceived children after going to space," said Scott. "People worry that the radiation could be doing something to the female's eggs or the male's sperm, but children are able to be conceived after spaceflight." However, he notes, NASA recently began offering astronauts the opportunity to bank their eggs or sperm, "so we don't always know if these are in vitro fertilizations or natural conceptions."

At the moment, our ambition for long-term space exploration far exceeds the knowledge necessary to make it a successful venture, especially when it comes to sex and reproduction. What little we do know about reproduction in space seems to suggest that it is probably not a good idea. But as human history is wont to tell us, the mere fact that something is a terrible idea is far and away a reason to refrain from doing it. This seems especially true when sex is involved.

Barring technological or pharmaceutical interventions, it seems that future space travelers and Martian colonists will need to resort to a technique as familiar to astronauts on Earth as it is to ​astronauts on the ISS​: masturbation.

Hoping that future Martians will stick to masturbation is a rather unrealistic fantasy, however. The facts of human (and animal) nature suggest that humans will eventually give in to their more primal urges, and this does not bode well for the extraterrestrial societies of the future, given that un-tampered sexual relations in a microgravity environment are likely to produce a generation of mentally and physically handicapped inbreeds.

There remains a lot of testing to be done in the area of reproduction in space, so for the near future, it's safe to say that it's probably best to leave the baby making to the Earthlings.


Because of this holistic experience of studying a small, relatively self-sufficient community and trying to figure out all its parts and how they fit together, I find most discussions of space settlement curiously incomplete. Typically, they go to great lengths to explain how habitats will be built on a planetary surface or in space, how food will be grown in these habitats, and how the community will earn its way by mining or manufacturing some valuable product; then they skip on to few details about domestic architecture, local government, and the like.

Among the crucial elements of human life omitted, or glossed over, in these futuristic projections is the most basic one for the survival of any society: reproduction. How mating, the control of birth, and then the rearing of children are to be arranged is seldom even mentioned in discussions of space settlement. Yet, if our ventures in space were limited to communities of nonreproducing adults whose number would have to be constantly replenished with recruits from Earth, we could hardly expand very far into space.

Of course, it could be argued that no great attention will be required in this area—that people will carry into space whatever reproductive practices are current in their earthside societies. But, would that mean a high percentage of single-parent households and low birth rates? A distinguished demographer, whom Eric Jones and I invited to a conference on space settlement, explained his lack of professional interest in the subject by saying that he really did not think there would be much population expansion into space. He argued that the nations most likely to establish space settlements are those which have passed through the demographic transition from high to low population growth and that, furthermore, the highly educated, technology-oriented people who would be the ones to colonize space are those inclined to have the fewest children, perhaps not even enough for replacement of the population.

A population’s demographic past is not necessarily a reliable predictor of its future, however, as we should have learned after the surprise of the post-World War II baby boom in the United States. It seems obvious that, when people perceive that it is to their advantage to have many children, they will do so. For example, Birdsell has documented how, in three separate cases of the colonization of virgin islands by small groups, the population doubled within a single generation. Unless radiation hazards, low gravity, or some other aspect of the nonterrestrial environment constitutes an insuperable obstacle to our breeding in space, there is every reason for optimism about the possibility of population expansion in space.

Nonetheless, the export into space of some current features of mature industrial societies, such as the high cost of educating children, the desire of both parents to have full-time professional careers, and the lack of institutions to aid in child rearing, would certainly act to slow expansion. Space settlers interested in expanding their populations should structure community values and services in such a way that people would want to have more than one or two children and would be able to afford to in terms of both time and money.

Some of the practices from our remote past might even be relevant to our future in space. Suppose, for example, that the harshness of the airless, radiation-intensive environments of space, combined with the economics of constructing safe human habitats, dictates that the first space settlements would have to be small, containing well under a hundred people. Pioneering space colonies might therefore be in the size range of the hunting and gathering bands in which most of our ancestors lived before the discovery of agriculture and the consequent rise of urbanization. If so, space settlers might face some of the same problems relating to reproduction as did their distant predecessors: the genetic dangers of inbreeding, random imbalances in the sex ratio of children born into the group, and what might be called the “kibbutz effect,” wherein children reared close together are not markedly attracted to one another upon coming of age.

Our predecessors could avoid these problems with one simple institution: the practice of exogamy, whereby youths had to marry someone from outside their natal group, thus enlarging the effective breeding community to encompass hundreds of persons, not just a few dozen. Of course, it could be argued that sperm and egg banks, in vitro fertilization, and even in vitro gestation and genetic engineering may be so advanced by the era of space colonization that there would be no need for exogamy. Yet, marrying outside of one’s group can bring benefits that may not be obtainable by other than social means.

Exogamy can promote social solidarity by binding together otherwise separate and scattered communities into a network of units which, in effect, exchange marriageable youths. Although the Australian aborigines, for example, lived scattered over their desert continent in small bands averaging 25 men, women, and children, they were linked together in tribes of some 500 people. This larger tribal community was more than a breeding unit. At appointed times, the members of all the bands would gather together to arrange marriages, conduct rituals, and enjoy the fellowship of friends and relatives from other bands. Just as this tribal community provided the aborigines with a needed wider social group, so might a space age confederation of intermarrying space colonies help their pioneering inhabitants fight the loneliness of space.

Of course, a space age exogamy system would probably not replicate all the features of its archaic predecessors. Take, for example, the custom of female bride exchange, whereby the marriageable young women were sent to other groups, which in turn supplied brides for the young men who remained at home. Space age young women would surely object, on the grounds of gender equality, to any rule that required that they leave home to marry, while their brothers could stay. Conversely, adventuresome young men might not relish the idea that they must remain at home and import their brides. More than likely, if the ethos of space communities is explicitly expansionistic, then both males and females will vie for the opportunity to leave their natal community and, taking a mate from another established community, go off to found a new colony.

From SPACE MIGRATIONS: ANTHROPOLOGY AND THE HUMANIZATION OF SPACE by Ben R. Finney. Collected in Space Resources NASA SP-509 vol 4

They passed through the tinted plastic doors of the Administration Building. "Most of the people I've seen so far have retained much of their Polynesian ancestry in their face and physiques," Cora said.

"Oh, you know how it is," Mataroreva replied casually, "The Commonwealth's not so ancient that pockets of our settlers on nonurbanized worlds haven't retained their ethnicity. That's not to say you won't find ancient Northern Europeans or Central American farmstockers or Mongols working here on Cachalot. Not to mention a very few thranx (insectoid aliens), despite their natural hatred of large bodies of water. But the permanent residents, the ones who aren't here simply to try and get rich quick in the pharmaceuticals, say, derive mostly from the Polynesian or Melanesian ocean-going ancestors. I'm sure there is no genetic reason for it. But tradition dies hard in certain ethnic groupings as it does in families."

From CACHALOT by Alan Dean Foster (1980)

      Erik sighed. “I know. It’s okay Dad. We’ll get time.” His father put a rough arm around him, and squeezed. He was a strong man, not especially tall, but wide at the shoulders. His face was round, freckled and dark, with a grey-streaked beard and an energetic smile. A more African shade to Alice’s light-brown. People still liked to try and designate skin-tones and face-shapes with corresponding regions of old-Earth, but after so many generations away from home, the human race was all blending together. There were still some purely white, black or Asian people left, but those were rare, usually living on some exclusively settled world where they didn’t have to mix cheek-by-jowl with everyone else. Spacers, or those descended from Spacers during those long centuries where humanity had nowhere in particular to call home (Terra was destroyed by an alien attack), were now various shades of ‘tan’, the exact details of which were usually customed in some gene lab prior to birth.

From RENEGADE by Joel Shepherd (2015)

(ed note: Due to a cosmic accident, the planetary colony of Alta has been cut off from interstellar contact with the rest of the Terran worlds for longer than a century. Then one fine day a titanic blastship of the Terran interstellar navy unexpectedly arrives in the Alta solar system. The ship is horribly battle damaged and all the crew are dead.)

“If you will follow me, Captain,” young Symes said. The assistant engineer led Drake to one of the nearby bags via a safety line that had been strung through the compartment. Drake glanced through the clear plastic to the remains inside.

 He blinked, then shifted his gaze to the next bag to the right, and then to the third. “An Earth ship all right!”

“Yes, sir.”

On approximately half the worlds colonized by human beings, an overwhelming majority of settlers had consisted of a single (ethnic) type. Alta was an example of such a colony. The original inhabitants had been 95 percent Caucasian – a secondary effect of the fact that, two hundred years earlier, disaffected North Americans and West Europeans had colonized New Providence almost exclusively. Other races had populated other planets. Most of Garden of Harmony’s settlers had come from the mountains, steppes, and valleys of Greater China; most of those on N’domo from the jungles and veldt of Central and Southern Africa; most of Noumolea’s from the islands and peoples of the Great Pacific Basin.

Anthropologists in search of doctoral theses found little of interest on these worlds with their homogenous populations. They were far more interested in the other class of worlds – of which, Skorzen, Cinco de Mayo, and Roughneck were examples. The original settlers of these planets had been as thoroughly mixed a polyglot as the computers in charge of emigration visas could make them.

Yet, throughout history the young of the human species have managed to meet, fall in love, and marry; and to do so without regard to the wishes, customs, traditions, or prejudices of their elders. The result was that the original sharp distinctions between (ethnic) types quickly blurred following a colony’s founding. By the time of the Antares Supernova, homogenous populations of a single dominant racial type inhabited virtually all the planets of human space. The types were different from planet to planet, but the same for any given world.

They were the same, that is, on all planets but Earth. On humanity’s home world, the (ethnic) genetic pools were deep and their distribution uneven, the result of entire peoples having been isolated from one another for fifty thousand years in widely differing environments. That isolation had ended with the advent of universal air travel in the late twentieth century. The same forces that homogenized colonial populations were at work on Earth, but the sheer magnitude of the task ensured that human diversity would remain a fact for several more millennia.

 As Richard Drake pointed the beam of his helmet lamp at the first of Conqueror’s dead crewmen, a handsome black face that was deceptively peaceful in repose greeted him. The second crewman was white. The open brown eyes of the third were framed in prominent epicanthic folds. Such diversity among a starship’s crew could mean only one thing. That ship was manned by people from Mother Earth.

From ANTARES DAWN by Michael McCollum (1998)


In a colony, generally the food must be produced at the colony. Shipping food over interstellar distances is either prohibitively expensive or if not it sort of misses the point of establishing an independent colony in the first place.

In Asimov's FOUNDATION trilogy, the capital planet of Trantor is supplied with food from twenty agricultural planets. But Trantor is not exactly a "colony." In Asimov's THE STARS, LIKE DUST newly colonized planets become agricultural/herding planets, who export food to industrial planets. Again industrial planets are not exactly "colonies." The point is that industrial planets can pay for imported food with manufactured goods and Trantor can pay for imported food with Bureaucracy. But colonies have nothing worth exporting to pay for imported food.

So the colonist had better harness up Ole Bessy, start ploughing the north forty, and get some crops planted.

And remember David Drake said nobody ever fooled a farmer into thinking life was fair. One little capricious bit of bad weather will render all your back-breaking labor for naught.



About noon, when the island was no longer in sight, a whirlwind suddenly arose, spun the boat about, raised her into the air about three hundred furlongs and did not let her down into the sea again; but while she was hung up aloft a wind struck her sails and drove her ahead with bellying canvas. For seven days and seven nights we sailed the air, and on the eighth day we saw a great country in it, resembling an island, bright and round and shining with a great light. Running in there and anchoring, we went ashore, and on investigating found that the land was inhabited and cultivated. By day nothing was in sight from the place, but as night came on we began to see many other islands hard by, some larger, some smaller, and they were like fire in colour. We also saw another country below, with cities in it and rivers and seas and forests and mountains. This we inferred to be our own world. We determined to go still further inland, but we met what they call the Vulture Dragoons, and were arrested. These are men riding on large vultures and using the birds for horses. The vultures are large and for the most part have three heads: you can judge of their size from the fact that the mast of a large merchantman is not so long or so thick as the smallest of the quills they have. The Vulture Dragoons are commissioned to fly about the country and bring before the king any stranger they may find, so of course they arrested us and brought us before him. When he had looked us over and drawn his conclusions from our clothes, he said: “Then you are Greeks, are you, strangers?” and when we assented, “Well, how did you get here, with so much air to cross?”

— Lucian (ca. 125–180 AD), True Story, chapters 9-11 translated by A. M. Harmon (1913).

Lucian of Samosata’s most famous work, True Story, defies easy categorization. He most likely wrote it as a parody of the travel novels popular during the Antonine Era and more specifically Antonius Diogenes’ now lost The Wonders Beyond Thule. Modern critics have called it the first surviving work of both Science Fiction and Fantasy, and ironically it is the only work of both genres that is part of the school curriculum in Greece today.

We can see that already from the earliest work of science fiction space colonization, war and agriculture are important themes. Alas, unlike Lucian’s description, who like Herodotus implores us to go and travel to the places he just described to see for ourselves that he is telling the truth, neither the Sun, nor our Moon nor Venus have an Earth-like biosphere. The use of technology, though, can allow us to produce agricultural products necessary for human survival on other celestial bodies, provided that these bodies can provide in easily available form the resources that agriculture needs. This article at first describes in general terms what sort of resources agriculture can provide, and then lists the important elements and their forms necessary for an artificial ecology to function.

When designing planetary colonization we should take note that the biosphere of Earth provides resources and ecosystem services to people through large scale cycles that are hard to replicate. It is very hard, though, to create a completely enclosed system; resource inputs of several forms will be necessary in order to maintain a system that can sustain human civilization. On Earth cultivated plants assimilate carbon from the atmosphere during the growing season, which is then released back in the short term after the end of the growing season and in the long term through the geologic carbon cycle. Until a colony reaches a very large size, which it might never reach, we will most likely try to maintain our crops in a permanent growing season, planting a crop as soon as the previous is harvested, which in turn would mean that we need to be constantly adding resources instead of allowing them to be slowly released by decomposition.

Furthermore even if we do reach a balance of agricultural inputs and outputs in our artificial ecosystem, it will likely still require a large buffer, far larger than what is being cycled every year. For example if we only use agriculture to grow food and we grow our food exclusively from plants, we only consume a small part of a plant, less than 50% of aboveground biomass for annual crops and an even smaller part of tree crops. It is simply not possible to plan to colonize a body that does not contain in significant quantities easily available elements that we need, unless we set up large scale resource transfer from outside it. I believe that I am not the first person to raise the issues below, though I have not done a systematic search in the literature. All suggestions are welcome.

Resources from agriculture


Food, sustenance in all forms for the colonists, is the most readily available reason given to engage in agriculture in space. Any food grown is food that does not need to be transported from Earth, not to mention that there are a variety of psychological benefits from seeing it grow. We can divide edible crops into two categories, autotrophic organisms such as plants and heterotrophic organisms such as fungi and animals. Over the last 10 millennia we have domesticated a huge number of plants of which we eat a very wide variety of plant parts but rarely the entire plant. With heterotrophic organisms we can take advantage of the non-human edible parts of a plant and convert it into edible sources, though again we do not eat entire animals, except perhaps octopuses and their relatives. There is no such thing as the perfect diet for all conditions; we need to balance the macro and micronutrient needs of humans with the available resources and the need to maintain a healthy population. Also since plants produce their edible parts on an irregular basis we also need to store and preserve food, especially to guard against crop failure.


Usually when we talk about plants providing food and fiber, by fiber we often mean wood fiber. While we will likely see trees planted in arboretums, we are not likely to see forest style plantations for harvesting timber; colony space is too valuable and tree growth rate is too slow. Unless we can find a celestial body with forests, wood furniture will likely remain a luxury item reserved for the well off or for very specific uses where it is indispensable. Another use of wood fiber for which we will need a ready substitute is paper, it being much easier to produce paper than a factory making electronics. There is already on the market tree free paper made from bagasse, a byproduct of sugarcane processing, and several other plant waste fibers. Historically, before the invention of paper by the Chinese and its introduction by the Arabs in the 11th century to Europe, papyrus and vellum were the writing material, although it is highly unlikely that we will see vellum used in a non-ceremonial setting in space.

Moving on to other fiber uses, the most obvious one is for cloth making. Cotton fiber is the most popular of the vegetable fibers used, though other plant fibers are also used, such as flax, jute and hemp. Among animal fibers wool is the most popular, though silk and leather are also fine choices. On earth biologically derived fibers are today more expensive than petroleum derived fibers such as polyester. In practice, with the exception of Titan, celestial bodies are not known to harbor large bodies of hydrocarbons from which we can derive artificial fibers. The specific planting of crops and the selection of animals to be used in space will depend on the needs of the colony and the related infrastructure such as cotton gins that are needed to produce usable materials.


Before the industrial revolution most materials used for energy purposes were derived from the active biosphere, e.g. firewood. Today fossil fuels, biogenic in nature, mostly cover the energy needs of human civilization. There has been effort, though, to produce biofuels to substitute for fossil fuels since the oil crises of the 1970s. In Europe, which does not have large petroleum resources, coal has long been mined, and biofuels are subsidized by the Common Agricultural Policy. The purpose is not so much to cover energy needs with European resources but to keep farm prices from dropping too low and thus creating unhappy farmers that block the highways demanding better prices. In the US corn biofuel policy is more related to the political cycle, such as the first in the country Iowa caucus and its voters; after all the US is one of the largest petroleum producers in the world. The most successful bioenergy program in the world is considered to be that of Brazil, blending sugarcane derived ethanol into gasoline and thus abolishing the need for importing oil (Brazil is an oil producing country).

The use of biofuel in space is tied to the selection of the energy cycle for the colony. It is highly unlikely that we will use internal combustion engines to power a colony. Most likely energy sources will be either photovoltaics, which in the long term will require a plant to produce them out of silicon wafers, or nuclear, which requires an entire cycle of mining, refining and isotope enrichment. It is possible that we will see hydrocarbons as energy sources in the colony. Already there are plans to use abiotic processes to produce methane as rocket and rover fuel in future Mars colonies, and there it is possible to produce RP-1 from biological sources if a rocket is to require it. In general, though, I see biofuels occupying a niche source in a future colony. We might create biodiesel out of waste edible oils but we are unlikely to see entire sunflower plantations intended for biodiesel production.


According to Wikipedia there are over 300,000 tons of bioplastics produced each year, or 0.1% of the total global plastics production worldwide. Modern technological civilization is very dependent on a variety of plastics, even inside a greenhouse (e.g. drippers). Unless the celestial body colonized has prodigious amounts of easily available hydrocarbons available such as Titan, we will need to create very early an infrastructure to produce bioplastics for colony needs or else set up a logistic chain for plastics from Earth. Generally for bioplastics the feedstock is readily available plant material, such as cellulose or dextrose, though some animal sources such as casein (a milk protein) have been used. The harder part will be creating a production line for these bioplastics from the local raw material.

Elements for agriculture

What follows is a list of major elements that are necessary for plant growth. Some 17 elements are necessary for plants to survive, though the majority are required in minute amounts often easily available in the soil or as impurities in the fertilizers. Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen combined are responsible for 95% of plant mass. Often, though, due to pH element deficiencies can arise despite the presence of the element in the soil.


Carbon enters the biosphere when it is assimilated by plants through photosynthesis in the form of CO2. While there are a few methanotrophic bacteria known, it is unlikely that we will require carbon in any form except CO2 for agriculture. Plants can oxidize CO in the presence of O2 to CO2, but cannot use raw carbon. Thus if carbon is available in the environment but not in the form of CO2, we will likely need to set up processes to produce CO2 before plants can assimilate it.


Plants assimilate hydrogen mostly in the form of water. Water has an important function in plants both as the solvent of biology but also as the stream that allows the transport of elements inside the plant.


Oxygen as an element is assimilated by plants in the form of water and CO2. It is released to the environment in molecular form by photosynthesis, which is critical for the survival of animal life. Plants also use molecular oxygen from the environment during respiration, however they produce far more O2 than they consume, and this allows heterotrophic life to exist.


Plants require this element in a variety of forms but unlike the previous three they cannot assimilate it from the atmosphere. Rather they take it through the roots, more specifically through the soil solution in the form of nitrate. Nitrates, though, are highly mobile in the soil, which is why we also fertilize with ammonia, which is converted to nitrate by soil microorganisms over time. Both forms of nitrogen are typically produced in chemical factories on Earth using atmospheric nitrogen as a feedstock. In parts of the outer solar system they are available as rocks and ices.


Phosphorus is another element that is assimilated from the soil solution. Unlike nitrogen, though, it is not found in the earth’s atmosphere, rather we mine phosphate rocks and fertilize with phosphate salts. Some 80% of global phosphate mining exploits deposits of biogenic sedimentary rocks of marine origin. The other 20% is of igneous origin in the form of apatite. Outside earth it is this phosphoric apatite that will likely provide our phosphorus needs


Just as with phosphorus, potassium is mostly mined from sedimentary rocks, more specifically evaporites. While evaporites have been found on Mars and are likely present on Venus, for other bodies of the solar system we will need to locate other forms of the element and process it into the salts that plants require.


Iron has an intermediate position between micro and macronutrients, required in quantities that are small for macronutirents but large for micronutrients. Plants assimilate iron in ferrous (Fe++) form, often from organic iron complexes that contain ferric (Fe+++) form with the expenditure of energy by the plant. Since the concentration and availability of ferrous and ferric iron depend on the soil pH and other ion antagonists in the solution, very often we see plants with iron deficiency despite a large iron concentration in the soil and the parent rock. In hydroponic fertilization and urgent deficiency interventions we tend to use organic iron so as to provide a highly available form to the plants. Organic iron, though, is not necessary if we take pains to control the pH and antagonists such as calcium, phosphorus and carbonates.


Calcium is a micronutrient, not necessary in large quantities for agriculture. However it is often applied in macronutrient quantities in order to control soil pH. In areas of high rainfall such as the eastern US and western Greece we will find many soils that are calciferous in origin but have a low pH, because rainfall washes the Ca++ ions, lowering the pH to acid levels. Calcium is used in hydroponics to raise solution pH and it is likely necessary to stockpile and use calcium for this purpose rather than for the specific need of the plant for this element.


Sulfur is the opposite of Calcium in that it is used to lower soil pH. There is no shortage of sulfur concentration in agricultural soils on Earth; fossil fuel use has spread it far and wide. Pollution control measures have reduced atmospheric deposition in developed countries and it is likely that in a few decades sulfur fertilization will be necessary in some areas. So far, though, we are more likely to see sulfur in hydroponics, raising pH when it falls too low. Just as with calcium, plants do not require large quantities, but we may need to stockpile it for the same reasons.

Other micronutrients

The rest of the elements necessary are required in minute quantities and while pH is very important for their availability, their limited requirements mean that we will not need to seek them specifically. In general, micronutrient fertilization can become necessary and critical if we choose an agricultural system where we remove the entirety of the plant mass from the soil or substrate and do not allow any plant decomposition to take place, which is what we will do at first. The decomposing remains of the previous harvest are often the primary source of micronutrients for the next, even in intensive agriculture. If we remove the entirety of the crop each time, we will need to provide the elements that were mined in the process, though again, it is unlikely that we will need to search for extensive quantities.


This contribution was inspired by news reports of the first NASA Mars landing site selection symposium. They mentioned that along with geologists seeking interesting formations there were also colonization specialists arguing to select sites with mineral resources for metallurgy in the future colony. They did not mention plant specialists looking for areas having resources to grow plants. I did not write this contribution with Mars specifically in mind; it is intended as a general guide for all celestial bodies. Bodies with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will not require creating it from other elements. Bodies with nitrate rocks are advantageous to those with only gaseous nitrogen in the atmosphere.

Also, while we are fortunate enough to know the surface composition of several bodies of the solar system, we just don’t know enough about exoplanets to be able to judge which are more suitable for colonization. At best we have managed to infer the presence of some elements in the atmosphere of a few exoplanets but we are nowhere near a full resource guide. Human civilization has always been dependent on agriculture for a variety of resources to survive and thrive. This will continue to be true when we move beyond Earth.



The pros always site their new colonies close to a plentiful source of potable water. But for a variety of reasons the colonists might be forced to locate the colony at a relatively arid spot. That's when Luke Skywalker's Uncle Owen sets up a moisture farm.

Be aware that control of the water is the classic method to set up the tyranny of a Hydraulic Empire. If such a water monopoly has been established, the creation of air wells by the peasants will be Disruptive Technology and will enrage the powers-that-be. They will violently suppress air well technology because no monopolist takes kindly to anything that threatens their grip on power.

On the other tentacle if the hydraulic empire collapses this may cut off the supply of water altogether, depending upon how much technology and infrastructure is needed. The peasants will have to rapidly find alternative sources of water, perhaps including air wells, before civilization decays into Road Warrior or something.


An air well or aerial well is a structure or device that collects water by promoting the condensation of moisture from air. Designs for air wells are many and varied, but the simplest designs are completely passive, require no external energy source and have few, if any, moving parts.

Three principal designs are used for air wells, designated as high mass, radiative, and active:

  • High-mass air wells: used in the early 20th century, but the approach failed.
  • Low-mass, radiative collectors: Developed in the late 20th century onwards, proved to be much more successful.
  • Active collectors: these collect water in the same way as a dehumidifier; although the designs work well, they require an energy source, making them uneconomical except in special circumstances. New, innovative designs seek to minimise the energy requirements of active condensers or make use of renewable energy resources.


All air well designs incorporate a substrate with a temperature sufficiently low so that dew forms. Dew is a form of precipitation that occurs naturally when atmospheric water vapour condenses onto a substrate. It is distinct from fog, in that fog is made of droplets of water that condense around particles in the air. Condensation releases latent heat which must be dissipated in order for water collection to continue.

An air well requires moisture from the air. Everywhere on Earth, even in deserts, the surrounding atmosphere contains at least some water. According to Beysens and Milimouk: "The atmosphere contains 12,900 cubic kilometres (3,100 cu mi) of fresh water, composed of 98 percent water vapour and 2 percent condensed water (clouds): a figure comparable to the renewable liquid water resources of inhabited lands (12,500 km3)." The quantity of water vapour contained within the air is commonly reported as a relative humidity, and this depends on temperature—warmer air can contain more water vapour than cooler air. When air is cooled to the dew point, it becomes saturated, and moisture will condense on a suitable surface. For instance, the dew temperature of air at 20 °C (68 °F) and 80 percent relative humidity is 16 °C (61 °F). The dew temperature falls to 9 °C (48 °F) if the relative humidity is 50 percent.

A related, but quite distinct, technique of obtaining atmospheric moisture is the fog fence.

An air well should not be confused with a dew pond. A dew pond is an artificial pond intended for watering livestock. The name dew pond (sometimes cloud pond or mist pond) derives from the widely held belief that the pond was filled by moisture from the air. In fact, dew ponds are primarily filled by rainwater.

A stone mulch can significantly increase crop yields in arid areas. This is most notably the case in the Canary Islands: on the island of Lanzarote there is about 140 millimetres (5.5 in) of rain each year and there are no permanent rivers. Despite this, substantial crops can be grown by using a mulch of volcanic stones, a trick discovered after volcanic eruptions in 1730. Some credit the stone mulch with promoting dew; although the idea has inspired some thinkers, it seems unlikely that the effect is significant. Rather, plants are able to absorb dew directly from their leaves, and the main benefit of a stone mulch is to reduce water loss from the soil and to eliminate competition from weeds.


There are three principal approaches to the design of the heat sinks that collect the moisture in air wells: high mass, radiative and active. Early in the twentieth century, there was interest in high-mass air wells, but despite much experimentation including the construction of massive structures, this approach proved to be a failure.

From the late twentieth century onwards, there has been much investigation of low-mass, radiative collectors; these have proved to be much more successful.


The high-mass air well design attempts to cool a large mass of masonry with cool nighttime air entering the structure due to breezes or natural convection. In the day, the warmth of the sun results in increased atmospheric humidity. When moist daytime air enters the air well, it condenses on the presumably cool masonry. None of the high-mass collectors performed well, Knapen's aerial well being a particularly conspicuous example.

The problem with the high-mass collectors was that they could not get rid of sufficient heat during the night – despite design features intended to ensure that this would happen. While some thinkers have believed that Zibold might have been correct after all, an article in Journal of Arid Environments discusses why high-mass condenser designs of this type cannot yield useful amounts of water:

We would like to stress the following point. To obtain condensation, the condenser temperature of the stones must be lower than the dew point temperature. When there is no fog, the dew point temperature is always lower than the air temperature. Meteorological data shows that the dew point temperature (an indicator of the water content of the air) does not change appreciably when the weather is stable. Thus wind, which ultimately imposes air temperature to the condenser, cannot cool the condenser to ensure its functioning. Another cooling phenomenon — radiative cooling — must operate. It is therefore at night-time, when the condenser cools by radiation, that liquid water can be extracted from air. It is very rare that the dew point temperature would increase significantly so as to exceed the stone temperature inside the stone heap. Occasionally, when this does happen, dew can be abundant during a short period of time. This is why subsequent attempts by L. Chaptal and A. Knapen to build massive dew condensers only rarely resulted in significant yields. [Emphasis as in original]

Although ancient air wells are mentioned in some sources, there is scant evidence for them, and persistent belief in their existence has the character of a modern myth.


A radiative air well is designed to cool a substrate by radiating heat to the night sky. The substrate has a low mass so that it cannot hold onto heat, and it is thermally isolated from any mass, including the ground. A typical radiative collector presents a condensing surface at an angle of 30° from the horizontal. The condensing surface is backed by a thick layer of insulating material such as polystyrene foam and supported 2–3 metres (7–10 ft) above ground level. Such condensers may be conveniently installed on the ridge roofs of low buildings or supported by a simple frame. Although other heights do not typically work quite so well, it may be less expensive or more convenient to mount a collector near to ground level or on a two-story building.

The 600 square metres (6,500 sq ft) radiative condenser illustrated near the start of this article is built near the ground. In the area of north-west India where it is installed dew occurs for 8 months a year, and the installation collects about 15 millimetres (0.59 in) of dew water over the season with nearly 100 dew-nights. In a year it provides a total of about 9,000 litres (2,000 imp gal; 2,400 US gal) of potable water for the school which owns and operates the site.

Although flat designs have the benefit of simplicity, other designs such as inverted pyramids and cones can be significantly more effective. This is probably because the designs shield the condensing surfaces from unwanted heat radiated by the lower atmosphere, and, being symmetrical, they are not sensitive to wind direction.

New materials may make even better collectors. One such material is inspired by the Namib Desert beetle, which survives only on the moisture it extracts from the atmosphere. It has been found that its back is coated with microscopic projections: the peaks are hydrophilic and the troughs are hydrophobic. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have emulated this capability by creating a textured surface that combines alternating hydrophobic and hydrophilic materials.


Active atmospheric water collectors have been in use since the commercialisation of mechanical refrigeration. Essentially, all that is required is to cool a heat exchanger below the dew point, and water will be produced. Such water production may take place as a by-product, possibly unwanted, of dehumidification. The air conditioning system of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, for example, produces an estimated 15 million US gallons (57,000 m3) of water each year that is used for irrigating the tower's landscape plantings.

Because mechanical refrigeration is energy intensive, active collectors are typically restricted to places where there is no supply of water that can be desalinated or purified at a lower cost and that are sufficiently far from a supply of fresh water to make transport uneconomical. Such circumstances are uncommon, and even then large installations such as that tried in the 1930s at Cook in South Australia failed because of the cost of running the installation – it was cheaper to transport water over large distances.

In the case of small installations, convenience may outweigh cost. There is a wide range of small machines designed to be used in offices that produce a few litres of drinking water from the atmosphere. However, there are circumstances where there really is no source of water other than the atmosphere. For example, in the 1930s, American designers added condenser systems to airships – in this case the air was that emitted by the exhaust of the engines, and so it contained additional water as a product of combustion. The moisture was collected and used as additional ballast to compensate for the loss of weight as fuel was consumed. By collecting ballast in this way, the airship's buoyancy could be kept relatively constant without having to release helium gas, which was both expensive and in limited supply.

More recently, on the International Space Station, the Zvezda module includes a humidity control system. The water it collects is usually used to supply the Elektron system that electrolyses water into hydrogen and oxygen, but it can be used for drinking in an emergency.

There are a number of designs that minimise the energy requirements of active condensers:

  • One method is to use the ground as a heat sink by drawing air through underground pipes. This is often done to provide a source of cool air for a building by means of a ground-coupled heat exchanger (also known as Earth tubes), wherein condensation is typically regarded as a significant problem. A major problem with such designs is that the underground tubes are subject to contamination and difficult to keep clean. Designs of this type require air to be drawn through the pipes by a fan, but the power required may be provided (or supplemented) by a wind turbine.
  • Cold seawater is used in the Seawater Greenhouse to both cool and humidify the interior of greenhouse-like structure. The cooling can be so effective that not only do the plants inside benefit from reduced transpiration, but dew collects on the outside of the structure and can easily be collected by gutters.
  • Another type of atmospheric water collector makes use of desiccants which adsorb atmospheric water at ambient temperature, this makes it possible to extract moisture even when the relative humidity is as low as 14 percent. Systems of this sort have proved to be very useful as emergency supplies of safe drinking water. For regeneration, the desiccant needs to be heated. In some designs regeneration energy is supplied by the sun; air is ventilated at night over a bed of desiccants that adsorb the water vapour. During the day, the premises are closed, the greenhouse effect increases the temperature, and, as in solar desalination pools, the water vapour is partially desorbed, condenses on a cold part and is collected.
  • A French company has recently designed a small wind turbine that uses a 30 kW electric generator to power an onboard mechanical refrigeration system to condense water.
From the Wikipedia entry for AIR WELL (CONDENSER)

Huasco City is a port in the north of Chile. The city is a place of important agricultural development thanks to the Huasco River, but in the last decade the water flux decreased, which will probably lead to agriculture disappearance in the near future. A new strategy is required to obtain water from the Atacama Desert. In this place there is a climatic phenomenon called Camanchaca, dense coastal fog that has dynamic characteristic: condensation at great heights that is carried towards coastal zones by strong wind currents. Its origin is in the anticyclone of the Pacific Ocean that produces a layer of stratocumulus, covering the coastal strip from Peru to northern Chile. The base of the cloud is at 400 meters (with a variation of 200 meters) above sea level. The second layer contains minerals from the sea, in lower concentration than sea water.

The idea is to build towers that collect water from these clouds and provide it to new agricultural land along the coast. The towers are 400 meters-high, and designed to catch water particles in the air that come from the coast to the Valley of the Huasco River. The anticipated performance, ranges from two to ten liters per square meter of vertical surface. Each tower has 10,000 square meters of vertical surface, producing a minimum of 20,000 liters per day, and an impressive maximum of 100,000 liters. There will be enough water to start agriculture in this arid coastal region.

The tower is composed of four components with specific functions:

  1. Four sides of high density plastic meshes that serve as water collectors.
  2. Four sides of low density meshes (copper) that link the spiral arms.
  3. Four spiral arms that serve as structure and transport the collected water into the main cistern.
  4. A main cistern located in the base and divided in three parts: a water accumulator in the upper face, a multi-composite filter membrane in the middle, and a circulatory system that distributes the purified water.

a place where the water of a person's dead body could be reclaimed. On Arrakis, water was the most precious commodity. According to Fremen tradition, a man's water belonged to his tribe. As a result, the Fremen developed deathstills as a way of reclaiming the water of their dead, since it belonged to the tribe, and the dead had no further use of it.
not to be confused with dew gatherers. Collectors or precipitators are egg-shaped devices about four centimeters on the long axis. They are made of chromoplastic that turns a reflecting white when subjected to light, and reverts to transparency in darkness. The collector forms a markedly cold surface upon which dawn dew will precipitate. They are used by Fremen to line concave planting depressions where they provide a small but reliable source of water.
workers who reap dew from the plants of Arrakis, using a scythelike dew reaper.
a facility designed to reclaim the moisture in the air and funnel it to large catchbasins for later use by the Fremen. The air of Arrakis was usually hot and dry. However, at night, when the air cooled, some moisture would develop. This moisture would then be carried by winds across the surface of the planet. Essentially a large air intake, the windtraps would capture this air so that the moisture could be extracted from it by the Fremen, after it condensed.
From DUNE by Frank Herbert (1965)

Moisture Farm

A moisture farm was an area of land devoted to the production of water through the drawing of moisture from the dry air. It depended on vaporators, a type of device that could harvest excess atmospheric humidity. On hot and arid desert worlds like Tatooine, moisture farming was a vital activity. The Lars family, into which Luke Skywalker was adopted, owned one such farm. The family of Biggs Darklighter was rich enough to own twenty.

Banthas were sometimes employed on moisture farms. Droids were useful on moisture farms too. Owen Lars purchased the droids C-3PO and R2-D2 because of C-3PO's ability to speak Bocce and the binary language of moisture vaporators and, in the case R2-D2, because of the general utility of an astromech droid.

Moisture Vaporator

A moisture vaporator was a device used on moisture farms to capture water from a planet's air. They were typically found on desert planets such as Tatooine where water was scarce. Moisture farmers collected water using moisture vaporators for sale or for use in hydroponic gardens. Owen Lars, for example, was a moisture farmer.


Moisture vaporators were relatively tall and slender devices, used to harvest water from a planet's atmosphere. Costing up to 500 credits, moisture vaporators came in various different models, and could reach up to 3.5 meters in height. The devices were stationed at ground level and coaxed moisture from the air by means of refrigerated condensers, or chilling bars, which generated low-energy ionization fields. Captured water was then pumped or gravity-directed into a storage cistern, which adjusted its pH levels. Vaporators were capable of collecting 1.5 litres of water per day, even when the relative humidity of the air was only 1.5 percent. Higher-end models, such as those manufactured by Pretormin Environmental, were equipped with computers, which could adjust the strength of the ionization and refrigeration fields to compensate for changing wind speed and temperature. Patch-in droid units were used for communication with the binary brain unit of moisture vaporators, and could also interface with external droids.


Moisture vaporators were used throughout the galaxy, and most commonly found on dry desert worlds such as Tatooine,[5] though they were also used on more lush worlds such as Lah'mu.

Early colonists of Tatooine were forced to adapt to the planet's harsh climate, using moisture vaporators to gather any water they could from its dry air.

Years into the Galactic Empire's reign, there still existed many moisture farms across Tatooine, such as those of the Great Chott salt flat community. Working for profit and survival, moisture farmers with higher-end moisture vaporators could collect enough water for sale, while those who could not afford them used their water for hydroponic gardening. The Great Drought was a difficult time for many farmers, as they couldn't get the necessary water from their vaporators, and Jabba the Hutt collected heavy water taxes from them.

From the Wookiepedia entry for MOISTURE VAPORATOR


Colonies need to have schools or the equivalent to educate the colonists. Or they are going to be stuck at a subsistence farming level forever. It is practically impossible to recruit workers to run advanced infrastructure if nobody can read.

Yes, this will probably lead to societal tensions similar to what is currently happening in the US: dwindling numbers of jobs in rural areas, increasing numbers of jobs in urban areas, population flight from rural to urban, and remaining rurals becoming incandescent with rage.

The colony might also have a Colony Education Officer, to ensure the colony does not become a cult or something else nasty.


She had lived all of her sixteen standard years on Arrarat, and although her grandfather often spoke of Earth, humanity's birthplace was no home to her. Earth was a place of machines and concrete roads and automobiles and great cities, a place where people crowded together far from the land. When she thought of Earth at all, it seemed an ugly place, hardly fit for people to live on.

The early harvest was already gathered into the stone barn. Wheat and corn, genetically adapted for Arrarat; and in another part of the barn were Arrarat's native breadfruit melons, full of sugar and ready to begin fermentation. It had been a good year, with more than enough for the family to eat. There would be a surplus to sell in town, and Kathryn's mother had promised to buy a bolt of printed cloth for a new dress that Kathryn could wear for Emil.

She thought of what she would need if they struck west to found a new settlement. Seeds they would have; and a mare and stallion, and two pairs of oxen; chickens and swine; her grandfather was rich by local standards. There would be her father's blacksmithing tools, which Emil could learn to use.

They would need a television. Those were rare. A television, and solar cells, and a generator for the windmill; such manufactured goods had to be bought in the city, and that took money. The second crop would be needed this year, and a large one next spring, as well—and they would have to keep all the money they earned. She thrust that thought away, but her hand strayed toward the big sheath knife she wore on her belt.

We will manage, she thought. We will find the money. Children should not go without education. Television was not for entertainment. The programs relayed by the satellites gave weather reports and taught farming, ecology, engineering, metalwork—all the skills needed to live on Arrarat. They also taught reading and mathematics. Most of Kathryn's neighbors despised television and wouldn't have it in their houses, but their children had to learn from others who watched the screen.

(ed note: This was written in 1976, public commercial use of the internet was not until 1989. So nowadays instead of satellite TV, the children would be educated via satellite dish internet)

And yet, Kathryn thought, there is cause for concern. First it is television. Then light industry. Soon there is more. Mines are opened. Larger factories are built, and around them grow cities. She thought of Arrarat covered with cities and concrete, the animals replaced by tractors and automobiles, the small villages grown into cities; people packed together the way they were in Harmony and Garrison; streams dammed and lakes dirty with sewage; and she shuddered. Not in my time, or my grandchildren's. And perhaps we will be smarter than they were on Earth, and it will never happen here. We know better now. We know how to live with the land.

Her grandfather had been a volunteer colonist, an engineer with enough money to bring tools and equipment to Arrarat, and he was trying to show others how to live with technology. He had a windmill for electricity. It furnished power for the television and the radio. He had radio communications with Denisburg, forty kilometers away, and although the neighbors said they despised all technology, they were not too proud to ask Amos Malcolm to send messages for them.

The Malcolm farm had running water and an efficient system for converting sewage to fertilizer. To Amos, technology was something to be used so long as it did not use you, and he tried to teach his neighbors that.

The phone buzzed to interrupt her thoughts, and Kathryn halted the team. The phone was in the center of the plowed land, where it was plugged into a portable solar reflector that kept its batteries charged. There were very few radio-phones in the valley. They cost a great deal and could only be bought in Harmony. Even her grandfather Amos couldn't manufacture the phone's microcircuits, although he often muttered about buying the proper tools and making something that would be as good. "After all," he was fond of saying, "we do not need the very latest. Only something that will do."

From WEST OF HONOR by Jerry Pournelle (1976)


A colony has to rapidly boot-strap a technological infrastructure. While this is underway, the colony will have to use whatever primitive technology that can be supported, such as horses.

To build infrastructure the easy high-tech science-fictional way, equip the colony with a Santa Claus Machine. The first thing the colonists should do is use it to make more Santa Claus Machines and put them in dispersed locations. Because Terminally Dependent Societies are just a single point of failure away from collapse.

This is also why a Multipurpose Monocultured Crop is a bad idea, see Irish Potato Famine.

Marcin Jakubowski has a vision: an Open-sourced blueprint for civilization. He and the people at Open Source Ecology are trying to develop what they call a Global Village Construction Set (GVCS). This is a a modular, DIY, low-cost, open source, high-performance platform that will allow a small community to build a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts.

It is more or less a "civilization starter kit".

It seems to me that this would also work admirably as technology seed package for an interstellar colony. It is also very handy in a long established colony if the local situation turns all Road Warrior on you. Not to mention the zombie apocalypse. Or as insurance packages placed in strategic planets by a Galactic Empire in case the long night falls.

The GVCS is a set of fifty machines that support each other, allowing a a technolgy base to be grown and maintained. Each of these machines relies on other machines in order for it to exist. The various components designed to have the following properties: Open Source, Low-Cost, Modular, User-Serviceable, DIY, Closed-Loop Manufacturing, High Performance, Heirloom Design, and Flexible Fabrication. There is a list of the fifty machines here. In the links below, the interesting part of the description is the "product ecology." This is a table showing From (which of the other machines are used to build the machine in question), Uses (which of the other machines are needed to run the machine in question, and required feed stocks), Creates (the output of the machine), and Enables (the industries and other machines that are enabled by this machine).

I do note this seems aimed at creating a major industrial base. By which I mean: machines for creating thread, cloth, and clothing seem to be absent. I guess they assume they will have the blueprints to 3D print a spinning wheel and loom.

CEB Press produces Compressed Earth Blocks (CEB) from onsite soil
Cement Mixer
Dimensional Sawmill pattern-cuts lumber
Universal Seeder
Hay Rake
Microtractor a small, 18 hp version of the full-sized tractor
Rototiller and Soil Pulverizer
Hay Cutter
Bakery Oven cooks bread
Dairy Milker
Microcombine small-scale harvester-thresher
Baler compresses hay and other dispersed material into bales
Well-Drilling Rig a device for digging deep water wells
CNC Precision Multimachine for milling, lathing, drilling to make precision parts
Ironworker Machine cuts steel and punches holes in metal
Laser Cutter
Plasma Cutter
Induction Furnace
CNC Torch/Router Table cuts precision metal parts using a plasma torch
Metal Roller shapes metal bar stock
Rod and Wire Mill
Press Forge
Universal Rotor a tractor-mounted rotor that can be fitted with a wide array of toolheads
Drill Press
3d Printer Manufactures objects by additive technology
3d Scanner Can scan an object and generate a blueprint suitable for a 3d Printer or CNC Precision Multimachine
CNC Circuit Mill CNC (computer numerical control) mill produces electrical circuits by milling and drilling copper-clad circuit boards
Industrial Robot a robotic arm which can perform certain human tasks — such as welding or milling
Power Cube a multipurpose, self-contained, hydraulic power unit that consists of an engine coupled to a hydraulic pump
Gasifier Burner a clean and efficient burner that gasifies the material that is being burned prior to combustion
Linear Solar Concentrator produces heat or steam from solar energy
Electric Motor/Generator turns electricity into torque and vice-versa
Hydraulic Motors
Nickel Iron Batteries
Modern Steam Engine
Steam Generator
50 kW Wind Turbine Generates 50 kW of electricity from wind power
Universal Power Supply
Aluminum Extractor from Clay dissolves aluminum from aluminosilicate clay, then extracts it by electrolysis
Bioplastic Extruder extrudes plastic stock into various forms
Simplified Automobile
Simplified Truck

(ed note: the Kirkasant are descendants of refugees fleeing far from the collapsing Terran Empire. Probably Admiral McCormac's fleet, as recounted in the novel The Rebel Worlds.)

In a dim way, he could reconstruct the story. There had been a fight. The reasons—personal, familial, national, ideological, economic, whatever they were—had dropped into the bottom of the millennia between then and now. (A commentary on the importance of any such reasons.) But someone had so badly wanted the destruction of someone else that one ship, or one fleet, hounded another almost a quarter way around the galaxy.

Or maybe not, in a literal sense. It would have been hard to do. Crude as they were, those early vessels could have made the trip, if frequent stops were allowed for repair and resupply and refilling of the nuclear converters. But to this day, a craft under hyperdrive could only be detected within approximately a light-year’s radius by the instantaneous “wake” of space-pulses. If she lay doggo for a while, she was usually unfindable in the sheer stupendousness of any somewhat larger volume. That the hunter should never, in the course of many months, either have overhauled his quarry or lost the scent altogether, seemed conceivable but implausible.

Maybe pursuit had not been for the whole distance. Maybe the refugees had indeed escaped after a while, but—in blind panic, or rage against the foe, or desire to practice undisturbed a brand of utopianism, or whatever the motive was—they had continued as far as they possibly could, and hidden themselves as thoroughly as nature allowed.

In any case, they had ended in a strange part of creation: (the Cloud Universe) so strange that numerous men on Serieve did not admit it existed. By then, their ship must have been badly in need of a complete overhaul, amounting virtually to a rebuilding. They settled down to construct the necessary industrial base. (Think, for example, how much plant you must have before you make your first transistor.) They did not have the accumulated experience of later generations to prove how impossible this was.

Of course they failed. A few score—a few hundred at absolute maximum, if the ship had been rigged with suspended-animation lockers—could not preserve a full-fledged civilization while coping with a planet for which man was never meant. And they had to content themselves with that planet. Once into the Cloud Universe, even if their vessel could still wheeze along for a while, they were no longer able to move freely about, picking and choosing.

Kirkasant was probably the best of a bad lot. And Laure thought it was rather a miracle that man had survived there. So small a genetic pool, so hostile an environment…but the latter might well have saved him from the effects of the former. Natural selection must have been harsh. And, seemingly, the radiation background was high, which led to a corresponding mutation rate. Women bore from puberty to menopause, and buried most of their babies. Men struggled to keep them alive.

Often death harvested adults, too, entire families. But those who were fit tended to survive. And the planet did have an unfilled ecological niche: the one reserved for intelligence. Evolution galloped. Population exploded. In one or two millennia, man was at home on Kirkasant. In five, he crowded it and went looking for new planets.

Because culture had never totally died. The first generation might be unable to build machine tools, but could mine and forge metals. The next generation might be too busy to keep public schools, but had enough hard practical respect for learning that it supported a literate class. Succeeding generations, wandering into new lands, founding new nations and societies, might war with each other, but all drew from a common tradition and looked to one goal: reunion with the stars.

Once the scientific method had been created afresh, Laure thought, progress must have been more rapid than on Earth. For the natural philosophers knew certain things were possible, even if they didn’t know how, and this was half the battle. They must have got some hints, however oracular from the remnants of ancient texts. They actually had the corroded hulk of the ancestral ship for their studying. Given this much, it was not too surprising that they leaped in a single lifetime from the first moon rockets to the first hyperdrive craft—and did so on a basis of wildly distorted physical theory, and embarked with such naïveté that they couldn’t find their way home again!

All very logical. Unheard of, outrageously improbable, but in this big a galaxy the strangest things are bound to happen now and again. The Kirkasanters could be absolutely honest in their story.

“But…what I overheard on Serieve, a time or two…did I miscomprehend? Are there truly women among you who do not bear children?”

“On the older planets, yes, that’s not uncommon. Population control—”

“We shall have to stay on Serieve, then, or worlds like it.” She sighed. “I had hoped we might go to the pivot of your civilization, where your real work is done and our children might become great.”

Laure considered her. After a moment, he understood. Adapting to the uncountably many aliennesses of Kirkasant had been a long and cruel process. No blood line survived which did not do more than make up its own heavy losses. The will to reproduce was a requirement of existence. It, too, became an instinct.

He remembered that, while Kirkasant was not a very fertile planet, and today its population strained its resources, no one had considered reducing the birthrate. When someone on Serieve had asked why, Demring’s folk had reacted strongly. The idea struck them as obscene. They didn’t care for the notion of genetic modification or exogenetic growth either. And yet they were quite reasonable and non-compulsive about most other aspects of their culture.

Culture, Laure thought. Yes. That’s mutable. But you don’t change your instincts; they’re built into your chromosomes. Her people must have children.

From STARFOG by Poul Anderson (1967)

The human consequences of the singularity reverberated endlessly, too. The exiles hadn’t simply been dumped on any available world; in almost all cases, they’d been planted in terrain that was not too hostile, showing crude signs of recent terraforming.

And the Eschaton had given them gifts: cornucopias, robot factories able to produce any designated goods to order, given enough time, energy, and raw materials. Stocked with a library of standard designs, a cornucopia was a general-purpose tool for planetary colonization.

Used wisely, they enabled many of the scattered worlds to achieve a highly automated postindustrial economy within years. Used unwisely, they enabled others to destroy themselves. A civilization that used its cornucopia to produce nuclear missiles instead of nuclear reactors—and more cornucopias—wasn’t likely to outlast the first famine, let alone the collapse of civilization that was bound to follow when one faction or another saw the cornucopia as a source of military power and targeted it. But the end result was that, a couple of hundred years after the event, most worlds that had not retreated to barbarism had achieved their own spacegoing capabilities.

Newpeace had been settled by (or, it was more accurate to say, the Eschaton had dumped on the planet) four different groups in dispersed areas—confused Brazilian urbanites from Rio; ferocious, insular, and ill-educated hill villagers from Borneo; yet more confused middle-class urban stay-at-homes from Hamburg, Germany; and the contents of a sleepy little seaside town in California.

Each colony had been plonked down in a different corner of the planet’s one major continent—a long, narrow, skinny thing the shape of Cuba but nearly six thousand kilometers long—along with a bunch of self-replicating robot colony factories, manuals and design libraries sufficient to build and maintain a roughly late-twentieth-century tech level McCivilization, and at ten-meter-tall diamond slab with the Three Commandments of the Eschaton engraved on it in ruby letters that caught the light of the rising sun.

From IRON SUNRISE by Charles Stross (2004)

During the early years of a colony's development, GAILE provides the basic industrial equipment necessary to the survival of a modern society. This equipment varies from one colony to the next depending upon such factors as climate, landing sites, terrain, mineral and food sources available, and the general development plan formulated by the pioneers themselves. The following is a typical list of items GAILE might provide:

  1. A gigawatt torroidal fusion core power plant
  2. A computer complex including data files containing all of Human knowledge
  3. Basic seed crops for up to ten years food supply
  4. Cell banks containing fertilized eggs of domestic animals
  5. A biolaboratory for analysis of native life, control of disease and the development of food sources better adapted to the new environment
  6. Automining and refining equipment for the production of industrial materials
  7. Factory equipment capable of producing, on a limited basis, all forms of mechanical and electronic equipment up to and including computer master switching centers and class one robots
  8. A few antigravity vehicles for local transportation of people and goods
  9. Modular sections which also can serve as temporary housing for new immigrants are carried on GAILE's starships

With this basic equipment and the knowledge stored in their central computer, pioneers have been able to construct modern industrial societies from wilderness within 100 years.

From HANDBOOK FOR SPACE PIONEERS by L. Stephen Wolfe and Roy L. Wysack (1977)

The Prerequisite Problem

One problem with outfitting a new colony with infrastructure is the prerequisite problem. Often in order to manufacture item Alpha you will need tool Beta. And if you do not have tool Beta you will have to manufacture it, whereupon you will discover that manufacture requires tool Gamma. And so on.

The solution is to be sure you bring the tools required to manufacture the tools and items at the bottom of the chain of dependencies. This will allow you to boot-strap your way upwards. The Civilization Starter Kit was designed with this in mind.


(ed note: Stevens and Nadia are marooned on a planet, and have to build an "ultra-radio" to call for help. Steve quickly runs into the hard facts of infrastructure, how everything depends on something else)

"Not necessarily—there's always a chance. That's why I'm trying the ultra-radio first. However, either course will take lots of power, so the first thing I've got to do is to build a power plant. I'm going to run a penstock up those falls, and put in a turbine, driving a high-tension alternator. Then, while I'm trying to build the ultra-radio, I'll be charging our accumulators, so that no time will be lost in case the radio fails.

"It's going to be a real job—I'm not try to kid you into thinking it'll be either easy or quick. Here's the way everything will go. Before I can even lay the first length of the penstock, I've got to have the pipe—to make which I've got to have flat steel—to get which I'll have to cut some of the partitions out of this ship of ours—to do which I'll have to have a cutting torch—to make which I'll have to forge nozzles out of block metal and to run which I'll have to have gas—to get which I'll have to mine coal and build a gas-plant—to do which...."

"Good heavens, Steve, are you going back to the Stone Age? I never thought of half those things. Why, it's impossible!"

"Not quite, guy. Things could be a lot worse—that's why I brought along the whole 'Forlorn Hope,' instead of just the lifeboat. As it is, we've got several thousand tons of spare steel and lots of copper. We've got ordinary tools and a few light motors, blowers, and such stuff. That gives me a great big start—I won't have to mine the ores and smelt the metals, as would have been necessary otherwise. However, it'll be plenty bad. I'll have to start out in a pretty crude fashion, and for some of the stuff I'll need I'll have to make, not only the machine that makes the part I want, but also the machine that makes the machine that makes the machine that makes it—and so on, just how far down the line, I haven't dared to think."

As Stevens had admitted before the work was started, he had known that he had set himself a gigantic task, but he had not permitted himself to follow, step by step, the difficulties that he knew awaited him. Now, as the days stretched into weeks and on into months, he was forced to take every laborious step, and it was borne in upon him just how nearly impossible that Herculean labor was to prove—just how dependent any given earthly activity is upon a vast number of others.

Here he was alone—everything he needed must be manufactured by his own hands, from its original sources. He had known that progress would be slow and he had been prepared for that; but he had not pictured, even to himself, half of the maddening setbacks which occurred time after time because of the crudity of the tools and equipment he was forced to use. All too often a machine or part, the product of many hours of grueling labor, would fail because of the lack of some insignificant thing—some item so common as to be taken for granted in all terrestrial shops, but impossible of fabrication with the means at his disposal.

At such times he would set his grim jaw a trifle harder, go back one step farther toward the Stone Age, and begin all over again—to find the necessary raw material or a possible substitute, and then to build the apparatus and machinery necessary to produce the part he required. Thus the heart-breaking task progressed, and Nadia watched her co-laborer become leaner and harder and more desperate day by day, unable in any way to lighten his fearful load.

From SPACEHOUNDS OF IPC by E.E. "Doc" Smith (1931)

The Deadlock Situation

If you have to competing actions that are both waiting for each other to finish, you will have the dreaded Deadlock situation. In the quote below from Bind Your Sons to Exile, the colony does not have enough workers so everybody is working overtime. The solution would be to manufacture labor-saving devices and automation. Unfortunately the colony cannot spare the workers to manufacture the labor-saving devices. Deadlock.

There are certain conditions that must exist in order to created the nasty Deadlock in the first place. And there are some standard solutions to Deadlock.


(ed note: Moria is the first inhabited asteroid. The mining colony is just barely hanging on by its fingernails, with not enough equipment and not enough workers)

     The valve system (for the hydroponic garden) was a maze, and the instruction sheet for the operators looked like an airline schedule: close Valve C-4 at 2240 hours, then pump fifteen strokes on Pump #5; open Valve 73-A at precisely 2244 hours and give seven strokes to Pump #6, then nine more on Pump #5.
     I looked at the maze of plastic pipes, valves, and pump handles. It would take 150 hours or more to understand any of it. "Couldn't you automate some of this?" I asked.
     Jesse sniffed, then chewed on a stem he'd broken off one of the plants. "Used to chew tobacco," he explained. "Pity we can't grow any here. Miss the stuff." He worked his jaw sideways and swallowed. "Sure we could, Duke. Back on Earth we had seven acres of greenhouses. Full hydroponics operation. Doris and I ran the whole show with three hired hands. Timers to run the pumps, solenoid valves to run the. timers — sure we could."
     "So why don't you?"
     He laughed. "No pump motors. Every electric motor we get ends up in the mine operations. Not enough solenoids for the valves. No timers. But we make do. Doing all right, too."

     The whole place was like that. There were dozens of simple improvements we could make, only we couldn't because we couldn't spare anybody to make the tools to make the parts to make the improvements. How do you make labor-saving devices if all your labor is on overtime to begin with?

     Eventually I came up with a plan. "What we need is wire," I told Commander Wiley.
     "Yeah. I know." He got two beers out of his cupboard. It was his only luxury, and nobody grudged it to him. Wiley worked harder than anyone else, and we never knew when he slept. "They didn't send us much last shipment—"
     "We can make it," I told him. "I want to build a wire-drawing mill."
     "And what do you use for insulation? Don't mean to belittle your work, Duke, but we've thought of that one — "
     "Sure. I did some checking with Flo in organic synthesis. She thinks she can make me some enamel that'll work for motor insulation." I sucked up a slug of beer and laughed. "Of course, first she's got to make starting chemicals. Since everything in her plant is on continuous production runs of stuff we need to stay alive, she'll need new reaction vessels. But the reactions need stirring, so either somebody's got to stand there and twirl the stirrer or we need an electric motor — "
     "Only you need insulated wire to make the motor,"
Wiley said. He wasn't laughing. "Every problem is like that. A ball of snakes."
     "That's not all, either," I said. "To make my wire-drawing gadget I need some precision milling. The mill operators right now do about half skilled work and half stuff anybody could do. I could get milling done by putting some of the farm people to the unskilled work in the mill, except that to get the farmers loose I need solenoids and pump motors to automate the farms to release the labor to do the milling to make the wire-puller to make the wire to make the solenoids — "
     I wasn't laughing either. "Do we try it?" I asked.
     He thought about it for a moment. "Yes. I like it. There's positive feed-back. You get started, and. I'll see if I can't pull a couple of people off the refinery. Let's do it."
     Fifteen hundred hours later (2 months) we had wire. We also cobbled up hand-turned coil-winding machines, which were easy because most of the parts could be cast. Pretty soon everyone in the station was carrying around a coil-winder and making motor and solenoid coils during their off-hours. We wound coils white we ate, while we watched TV casts from Earth, during general station-crew assemblies; I think some of the farmers' learned to wind coils in their sleep.

From BIND YOUR SONS TO EXILE by Jerry Pournelle (1976)

(ed note: this children's song describes a deadlock situation)

There's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza,
There's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, a hole.

Then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
Then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry, fix it.

With what shall I fix it, dear Liza, dear Liza?
With what shall I fix it, dear Liza, with what?

With straw, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
With straw, dear Henry, dear Henry, with straw.

The straw is too long, dear Liza, dear Liza,
The straw is too long, dear Liza, too long.

Then cut it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
Then cut it, dear Henry, dear Henry, cut it.

With what shall I cut it, dear Liza, dear Liza?
With what shall I cut it, dear Liza, with what?

With a knife, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
With a knife, dear Henry, dear Henry, with a knife.

The knife is too dull, dear Liza, dear Liza,
The knife is too dull, dear Liza, too dull.

Then sharpen it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
Then sharpen it, dear Henry, dear Henry, sharpen it.

On what shall I sharpen it, dear Liza, dear Liza?
On what shall I sharpen it, dear Liza, on what?

On a stone, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
On a stone, dear Henry, dear Henry, a stone.

The stone is too dry, dear Liza, dear Liza,
The stone is too dry, dear Liza, too dry.

Then wet it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
Then wet it, dear Henry, dear Henry, wet it.

With what shall I wet it, dear Liza, dear Liza?
With what shall I wet it, dear Liza, with what?

Try water, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
Try water, dear Henry, dear Henry, water.

In what shall I fetch it, dear Liza, dear Liza?
In what shall I fetch it, dear Liza, in what?

In the bucket, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
In the bucket, dear Henry, dear Henry, a bucket.

But there's a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza,
There's a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, a hole.

Traditional children's song

The Economics of Horses

Let's look more closely at the horse-doesn't-need-United-Steel argument. On a planet, it is highly inadvisable to utilize technology that cannot be supported by the planet's technology infrastructure. The home world might be using high tech goodies like The Jetsons, but the dirt poor colony worlds will be using stuff that is much less advanced.

The late lamented TV show Firefly got that right. Unthinking viewers were confused by a show that featured starship crew members riding horses through western style towns, but this actually makes lots of sense.

Think about it. On a new colony planet with no infrastructure, automobiles are worthless. A vehicle that requires gasoline as fuel isn't going to work very well on a planet with no oil wells nor oil refineries. Importing gasoline from off world will just drive the price out of reach for everybody. Not to mention the lack of a local source for spare parts (requires iron ore mining, steel mills, coal mining, electrical power plants, and factories to manufacture spare parts). And local repairmen. If the vehicle itself is an off world import it too will be much too expensive for the locals to afford. Without a car assembly plant, there will be no new cars.

It make much more sense to import a breeding pair of horses and seeds of crops horses will eat.

Examples of this can be found in Robert Heinlein's TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE (especially the "tale of the adopted daughter") and in Andre Norton's THE BEAST MASTER, LORD OF THUNDER, and THE SIOUX SPACEMAN.

It was extremely expensive in terms of uranium to keep an interstellar gate open and the people in this wagon train could expect to be out of commercial touch with Earth until such a time as they had developed surpluses valuable enough in trade to warrant reopening the gate at regular intervals. Until that time they were on their own and must make do with what they could take with them … which made horses more practical than helicopters, picks and shovels more useful than bulldozers. Machinery gets out of order and requires a complex technology to keep it going but good old “hayburners” keep right on breeding, cropping grass, and pulling loads.

From TUNNEL IN THE SKY by Robert Heinlein (1966)

Frawn herds ranged widely, and men, who perhaps on the other worlds of their first origin had depended upon machines for transportation, found that the herder here must be otherwise equipped. Machines required expert tending, supply parts that had to be imported at astronomical prices from off-world. But there remained a self-perpetuating piece of equipment that the emigrants to the stars had long known at home, used, discarded for daily service, but preserved because of sentiment and love for sheer grace and beauty — the horse. And horses, imported experimentally, found the plains of Arzor a natural home. In three generations of man-time, they had spread wide, changing the whole economy of both settler and native.

From THE BEAST MASTER by Andre Norton (1959)

Dart Rifles:

Strictly speaking this is not a military weapon, but it is widely used for hunting and the like on colonies so colonial militia sometimes use them for sniping.

The weapon fires a dart pneumatically, so it is as hard to detect as a needle rifle. The dart is reunsable and either drugged or poisoned. Its penetration is poor.

Since the air pressure can be (and usually is) hand pumped and the darts are reusable, colonists like it. All they have to buy are tubes of drugs (and these may be locally obtainable) rather than expensive ammunition or powercells.

From SPACE MARINES {miniature wargaming rules} by A. Mark Ratner (1977)

Corporal Anuraro showed me how to get into the canoe without swamping it. We don't have those things in Arizona. As they paddled me ashore, I thought about how silly the situation was. I was being paddled in a canoe, a device invented at least ten thousand years ago. I was carrying a pair of light-amplifying field glasses based on a principle not discovered until after I was born. Behind me was a steamboat that might have been moving up the Missouri River at the time of Custer's last stand, and I got to this planet in a starship.

From WEST OF HONOR by Jerry Pournelle (1976)

(ed note: Lazarus is telling Minerva the story of the time he and his wife Dora were on a pioneer planet and wanted to travel via mule-drawn Conestoga wagon to a new homestead.)

But why didn't I have Zack put us down on the spot on the map I had picked as being our likely place of settlement?- with everything we would need to start farming: and thereby avoid a long, dangerous trek. Not risk death by thirst, or by lopers, or the treacheries of mountains, or whatever.

Minerva, this was a long time ago and I can explain only in terms of technology available there and then. The Andy J. could not land; she received her overhauls in orbit around Secundus or some other advanced planet. Her cargo boat could land on any big flat field but required a minimum of a radar-corner reflector to home on, then had to have many metric tons of water to lift off again. The captain's gig was the only boat in the Andy J. capable of landing anywhere a skilled pilot could put her down, then lift off without help. But her cargo capacity was about two postage stamps—whereas I needed mules and plows and a load of other things.

Besides, I needed to learn how to get out of those mountains by going into them. I could not take Dora into there without being reasonably sure that I could fetch her out again. Not fair! It's no sin not to be pioneer-mother material—but it is tragic for both husband and wife to find it out too late.

So we did not do it the hard way; we did it the only way for that time and place. But I have never put the effort into a mass calculation for a spaceship at liftoff that I put into deciding what to take, what to do without, for that trek. First, the basic parameter: how many wagons in the train? I wanted three wagons so badly I could taste it. A third wagon would mean luxuries for Dora, more tools for me, more books and such for both of us, and (best!) a precut one-room house to get my pregnant bride out of the weather almost instantly at the other end.

But three wagons meant eighteen mules hauling, plus spare mules—add six by rule-of-thumb—which meant half again as much time spent harnessing and unharnessing, watering the animals, taking care of them otherwise. Add enough wagons and mules and at some point your day's march is zero; one man can't handle the work. Worse, there would be places in the mountains where I would have to unshackle the wagons, move them one at a time to a more open place, go back for each wagon left behind, bring it up—a process that would take twice as long for a three-wagon train as for a two-wagon one, and would happen oftener, even much oftener, with three wagons than with two. At that rate we might have three babies born en route instead of getting there before our first one was born.

I was saved from such folly by the fact only two trekking wagons were available in New Pittsburgh. I think I would have resisted temptation anyhow—but I had with me in the light wagon we drove from Top Dollar the hardware for three, then I spent that extra hardware on other things, bartering it through the wainwright. I could not wait while he built a third wagon; both the season of the year and the season of Dora's womb gave me deadlines I had to meet.

There is much to be said for just one wagon-standard equipment over many centuries and on several planets for one family in overland migration if they travel in a party.

I've led such marches.

But one wagon by itself—one accident can be disaster. Two wagons offer more than twice as much to work with at the other end, plus life insurance on the march. You can lose one wagon, regroup, and keep going.

So I planned for two wagons, Minerva, even though I had Zack debit me with three sets of Stoga hardware, then did not sell that third set until the last minute.

Here's how you load a wagon train for survival: First, list everything that you expect to need and everything that you would like to take:

  • Wagons, spare wheels, spare axles
  • Mules, harness, spare hardware and harness leather, saddles
  • Water
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Blankets
  • Weapons, ammunition, repair kit
  • Medicines, drugs, surgical instruments, bandages
  • Books
  • Plows
  • Harrow
  • Field Rake
  • Shovels, hand rakes, hoes, seeders, three- five- & seven-tine forks
  • Harvester
  • Blacksmith's tools
  • Carpentry tools
  • Iron cookstove
  • Water closet, self-flushing type
  • Oil lamps
  • Windmill & pump
  • Sawmill run by windpower
  • Leatherworking & harness-repair tools
  • Bed, table, chain, dishes, pots, pans, eating & cooking gear
  • Binoculars, microscope, water-testing kit
  • Grindstone
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Churn
  • Buckets, sieves, assorted small hardware
  • Milk cow & bull
  • Chickens
  • Salt for stock & for people
  • Packaged yeast, yeast starter
  • Seed grain, several sorts
  • Grinder for whole-grain flour, meat grinder

Don't stop there; think big. Never mind the fact that you've already overloaded a much longer wagon train. Search your imagination, check the manifests of the Andy J., search the ship itself, look, over the stock in Rick's General Store, talk with John Magee and look over his house and farm and outbuildings—if you forget it now, it's impossible to go back for it.

  • Musical instruments, writing materials, diaries, calendars
  • Baby clothes, layettes
  • Spinning wheel, loom, sewing materials—sheep!
  • Tannin & leather-curing materials and tools
  • Clocks, watches
  • Root vegetables, rooted fruit-tree seedlings, other seed
  • Etc. etc. etc. . .

Now start trimming—start swapping—start figuring weights.

Cut out the bull, the cow, the sheep; substitute goats with hair long enough to be worth cutting. Hey, you missed shears!

The blacksmith's shop stays but gets trimmed down to an anvil and minimum tools—a bellows you must make. In general anything of wood is scratched, but a small supply of wrought-iron stock, heavy as it is, must be hauled; you'll be making things you didn't know you could.

The harvester becomes a scythe with handle and cradle, three spare blades; the field rake is scratched.

The windmill stays, and so does the sawmill (surprise!)—but only as minimum hardware; you won't tackle either one soon.

Books—Which of those books can you live without, Dora?

Halve the amount of clothing, double up on shoes and add more boots and don't forget children's shoes. Yes, I know how to make moccasins, mukluks, and such; add waxed thread. Yes, we do have to have block-and-tackle and the best glass-and-plastic lines we can buy, or we won't get through the pass. Money is nothing; weight and cubage are all that count—our total wealth is what mules can take through that notch.

Minerva, it was lucky for me, lucky for Dora, that I was on my sixth pioneering venture and that I had planned how to load spaceships many years before I ever loaded a covered wagon—for the principles are the same; spaceships are the covered wagons of the Galaxy. Get it down to the weight the mules can haul, then chop off 10 percent no matter how it hurts; a broken axle—when, you can't replace it—might as well be a broken neck.

Then add more water to bring it up to 95 percent; the load of water drops off every day.

Knitting needles! Can Dora knit? If not, teach her. I've spent many a lonely hour in space knitting sweaters and socks. Yarn? It will be a long time before Dora can tease goat shearings into good yarn—and she can knit for the baby while we travel; keep her happy. Yarn doesn't weigh much.

Wooden needles can be made; even curved metal needles can be shaped from scraps. But pick up both sorts from Rick's Store.

Oh my God, I almost missed taking an ax!

Ax heads and one handle, brush hook, pick-mattock—Minerva, I added and trimmed and discarded, and weighed every item at New Pittsburgh—and we weren't three kilometers out of there headed for Separation before I knew I had us overloaded. That night we stopped at a homesteader's cabin, and I traded a new thirty-kilo anvil for his fifteen-kilo one, traded even, with the pound of flesh nearest my heart tossed in for good measure. I swapped other heavy items that we would miss later for a smoked ham and a side of bacon and more corn for the mules—the last being emergency rations.

We lightened the loads again at Separation, and I took another water barrel in trade and filled it because I now had room for another and knew that too heavy a load of water was self-correcting.

I think that extra barrel saved our lives.

From TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE: "Tale of the Adopted Daughter" by Robert Heinlein (1973)

(Lysander is the prince of the planet Sparta. Blaine is the governor of the planet Tanith. BuRelock is the Bureau of Relocation, who forcibly transport undesirable people from the over populated Earth to dump them on the various colony planets.)

"We have an excellent liqueur, rum based with flavoring from the Tanith Passion Fruit, but perhaps it's a bit early in the day for something so sweet. Tanith whiskey, perhaps?"

"Thank you." Lysander sipped gingerly at the dark whiskey. "That's quite good."

"Glad you like it. Bit like Scotch only more so. Some find it strong."

"Sparta's whiskey is descended from Irish," Lysander said. "We think it's better than Earth's best. We had a master distiller from Cork!"

"Much the same story here," Blaine said. "Whole family from near Inverary. Can't imagine what they did to annoy BuRelock, but up they came; Tanith's benefit and Earth's loss. One of my predecessors set them up in the distilling business."

From PRINCE OF MERCENARIES by Jerry Pournelle (1989)

The Economics of Slaves

Now there is a more nasty implication of the horse-doesn't-need-United-Steel argument. If a new colony can economically utilize horses, they can also economically utilize slaves. Or indentured servitude or debt bondage, with the hapless people theoretically capable of buying their freedom, but in reality they will perpetually owe their soul to the company store. Slavery in all but name.

In the early United States, as the north started to build their industrial infrastructure the slavery in the south could not compete economically. But before the industrial infrastructure existed, slavery made economic sense. Especially in that period when North America was initially being colonized.

Please note that this mainly applies when the colony is located on a planet with a shirt-sleeve environment, where people can breath the air and survive the temperatures (i.e., life-support is free). If the colony is located in, for example, a space station, then the life-support costs of human beings might make industrial infrastructure the cheaper option.

Also note that along with pirates, slavers are considered Hostis humani generis, Enemy of Mankind. The standard punishment for slavers is death.

The economics of slavery is covered in the short story "Logic of Empire" by Robert Heinlein (1941).

Ostensibly a tale about a man in the wrong place at the wrong time, and his struggle to free himself from the oppressive circumstances in which he is plunged, this story also serves to explain how slavery develops in a new colony.

Even in the future, the technology available to a new colony is always initially low. If a machine to do a necessary job is too expensive to import (say a wheat harvester, a water pump, or even a washing machine), a human must do it instead. If too many jobs must be done by hand and there is a shortage of labour compared with independent resources that free labour could take up ("land", although this condition is not clear in the story), a market for slavery develops. Decades later, while there is still an abundance of land, this market remains because the colony itself has quotas to meet and debts to repay — they cannot spare the resources to develop local industries to make the machines themselves and free labour does not have to bid its price down enough to outcompete slave labour.

From LOGIC OF EMPIRE entry in Wikipedia

Long before space travel, when we hadn’t even filled up Terra, there used to be dirtside frontiers. Every time new territory was found, you always got three phenomena: traders ranging out ahead and taking their chances, outlaws preying on the honest men — and a traffic in slaves. It happens the same way today, when we’re pushing through space instead of across oceans and prairies. Frontier traders are adventurers taking great risks for great profits. Outlaws, whether hill bands or sea pirates or the raiders in space, crop up in any area not under police protection. Both are temporary. But slavery is another matter — the most vicious habit humans fall into and the hardest to break. It starts up in every new land and it’s terribly hard to root out. After a culture falls ill of it, it gets rooted in the economic system and laws, in men’s habits and attitudes. You abolish it; you drive it underground — there it lurks, ready to spring up again, in the minds of people who think it is their ‘natural’ right to own other people. You can’t reason with them; you can kill them but you can’t change their minds.

From CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY by Robert Heinlein (1957)

Ander Nordholm had been a government man. He and his daughter were classed as outsiders and strangers by the colony group, much as were the other representatives of law from off-world—the Ranger Franklyn, Post Officer Kaus and his two guards, the medical officer and his wife. But every colony had to have an education officer. In the past too many frontier-world settlements had split away from the Confederation, following sometimes weird and dangerous paths of development when fanatics took control, warped education, and cut off communications with other worlds.

Yes, the Nordholms had expected a period of adjustment, of even semi-ostracization since this was a Believer colony. But her father had been winning them over—he had! Charis could not have deceived herself about that. Why, she had been invited to one of the women’s “mend” parties. Or had it been a blind even then?

But this—this would never have happened if it had not been for the white death! Charis’s breath came now in a real sob. There were so many shadows of fear on a newly opened planet. No safeguard could keep them all from striking at the fragile life of a newly planted colony. And here had been waiting a death no one could see, could meet with blaster or hunting knife or even the medical knowledge her species had been able to amass during centuries of space travel, experimentation, and information acquired across the galaxy.

And in its striking, the disease had favored the fanatical prejudices of the colonists. For it struck first the resented government men. The ranger, the port captain and his men, her father—Charis’s fist was at her mouth, and she bit hard upon her knuckles. Then it struck the medic—always the men. Later the colonists—oddly enough, those who had been most friendly with the government party—and only the men and boys in those families.

She could return; or she could remain here until the hunt found her—to take her as a slave down to the foul nest they were fast making of the first human settlement on Demeter; or somehow she could reach the mountains and hide out like a wild thing until sooner or later some native peril would finish her.

Her safety depended upon what the settlers would decide. She had no means of concealing her back trail. In the morning it would be found. But whether their temper would be to follow her, or if they would shruggingly write her off to be finished by the wild, Charis could not guess. She was the one remaining symbol of all Tolskegg preached against—the liberal off-world mind, the “un-female,” as he called it. The wild, with every beast Ranger Franklyn had catalogued lined up ready to tear her, was far better than facing again the collection of cabins where Tolskegg now spouted his particular brand of poison, that poison, bred of closed minds, which her father had taught her early to fear. And Visma and her ilk had lapped that poison to grow fat and vigorous on it.

There was a spacer, a slim, scoured shape, pointing nose to sky, the heat of its braking fire making a steam mist about it. But this was no vision — it was real! A spacer had set down by the village!...

Charis faced around toward the ship and waved vigorously, looking for the insignia which would make it Patrol or Scout.

There was none! It took a moment for that fact to make a conscious impression on her mind. Charis had been so sure that the proper markings would be there that she had almost deceived herself into believing that she sighted them. But the spacer bore no device at all. Her arm dropped to her side suddenly as she saw the ship as it really was.

This was not the clean-lined, well-kept spacer of any government service. The sides were space-dust cut, the general proportions somewhere between scout and freighter, with its condition decidedly less than carefully tended. It must be a Free Trader of the second class, maybe even a tramp — one of those plying a none-too-clean trade on the frontier worlds. And the chances were very poor that the commander or crew of such would be lawfully engaged here or would care at all about what happened to the representatives of government they were already aligned against in practice. Charis could hope for no help from such as these...

Charis had known some Free Traders. In fact, among that class of explorer-adventurer-merchant her father had had some good friends, men who carried with them a strong desire for knowledge, who had added immeasurably to the information concerning unknown worlds. But those were the aristocrats of their calling. There were others who were scavengers, pirates on occasion, raiders who took instead of bargained when the native traders of an alien race were too weak to stand against superior off-world weapons.

"It is simple, my friend." The trader's insolent tone to Tolskegg must have cut the colonist raw, yet he took it because he must. "You need labor. Your fields are not going to plow, plant, and reap themselves. All right, in freeze I have labor — good hands all of them. I had my pick; not one can't pull his weight, I promise you. There was a flare on Gonwall's sun, they had to evacuate to Sallam, and Sallam couldn't absorb the excess population. So we were allowed to recruit in the refugee camp. My cargo's prime males — sturdy, young, and all under indefinite contracts. The only trouble is, friend, what do you have to offer in return?...

So that was it! Charis drew a deep breath and knew there was no use in appealing to this captain. If he had shipped desperate men on indefinite labor contracts, he was no better than a slaver, even though there was a small shadow of legality to his business...

"You present a problem." The captain spoke to her again. "There is no processing station here, and we cannot ship you out in freeze-"

Charis shivered. Most labor ships stacked their cargo in the freeze of suspended animation, thus saving room, supplies, all the needs of regular passengers. Space on board a trader ship was strictly limited...

And as her eyes adjusted she saw that they had indeed set down in a wasteland.

Sand, which was a uniform red outside the glassy slag left by the thruster blast, lapped out to the foot of a range of small hills, the outline of which shimmered in heat waves. There was no sign of any building, no look of a port, save for the countless slag scars which pecked and pitted the surface of the desert sand, evidence of many landings and take-offs.

There were ships — two, three, a fourth farther away. And all of them, Charis saw, were of the same type as the one she had just left, second- and third-class traders. This seemed to be a rendezvous for fringe merchants...

"This is our chance, the big one, the one every trader dreams of having someday- a permit on a newly opened world. Make this spin right and it means-" His voice trailed off, but Charis understood him.

Trading empires, fortunes, were made from just such chances. To get at the first trade of a new world was a dream of good luck. But she was still puzzled as to how Jagan had achieved the permit for Warlock. Surely one of the big Companies would have made contact with Survey and bid in the rights to establish the first post. Such plums were not for the fringe men. But it was hardly tactful under the circumstances to ask Jagan how he had accomplished the nigh to impossible...

From ORDEAL IN OTHERWHERE by Andre Norton (1964)


Colonists will need a good supply of building material, preferably from a renewable resource. One that renews really really quickly, unlike petroleum. As it turns out there already exists such a thing, the wonder plant Bamboo.

Don't sneer. In the real world bamboo has a thousand and one uses. Blasted stuff grows so fast it looks like you are seeing it under time-lapse photography. Three to one hundred centimeters in 24 hours. It does not grow like a weed, instead weeds dream of growing as fast as bamboo.

And if you have long and skinny tubes, you can grow the stuff in a space habitat or asteroid colony. It probably grows taller in microgravity as well.

Bamboo also has a composition very similar to switchgrass, aka the feedstock used for bioethanol fuel. A recent study in China showed that bioethanol production from bamboo in China is both technically and economically feasible, as well as cost-competitive with gasoline (scientific paper here). Just the thing for a new colony that does not want to invest in the mining infrastructure required for the production of petroleum.

The useful substance Charcoal is usually produced by slow pyrolysis, the heating of wood in the absence of oxygen. Naturally this can be done using bamboo, producing Bamboo charcoal. The difference being that bamboo grows a heck of a lot faster than trees do, and interstellar colonists are in a hurry to become self-sufficient. As with conventional charcoal, bamboo charcoal can be used as a fireplace fuel, and as an activated charcoal filter. The latter is particularly useful if the colonists are unsure about how pure the water supply is. Not to mention its use in the production of whisky and vodka.

As a bonus, making bamboo charcoal also produced "bamboo vinegar" (pyroligneous acid). This is a primarily mix of acetic acid, acetone and methanol. But it also contains 400 different organic chemical compounds which can be applied for many purposes including cosmetics, insecticides, deodorants, food processing, and agriculture.

Bamboo is also perfect for making slide rules, if your colony cannot produce plastic or aluminum yet.


(ed note: in the novel Earth has been rendered uninhabitable and among the few survivors are the people in the space arks Noah and Pegasus)

Lester Rajani dominated the meeting. He is an expert on agriculture and forest growth. He is from Pakistan, and among the people in that part of the world he is famous as Mr. Bamboo. He has performed miracles in genetic alterations of bamboo plants. I never expected to be talking bamboo in my report logs, but there is a reason. Rajani may have saved us all. This man with dark skin and the deep, brooding eyes of a Russian poet is a genius. I am glad he fought me as hard as he did. For a while I judged him to be crazy.

The day I married Tanya and adopted her children was the same day I became intensely interested in Lester Rajani's work with bamboo growth, I write these extra pages so our sons may read them one day and pay homage to this man from a backward country who may have saved the future for them.

Rajani has a most extraordinary perception of the future. Apparently he has always had this trait. Marc Seavers tells me he considers Rajani the embodiment of a famous name in American history; he calls the man from Pakistan the Johnny Appleseed of the future. All nations have their Johnny Appleseeds; in the future our young ones must honor Rajani. Somehow he knew that our single greatest tool and supply source, while we were in space but most especially when we returned to Earth, would be bamboo, the giant grass that built and sustained so much of the world before our ultimate disaster. Let me emphasize that the Soviet, like the other technological societies, abandoned bamboo in favor of metals, ceramics, and plastics.

How foolish we have been! How utterly stupid we are in our present situation, to rely upon materials that are so limited to us! Ranjani spoke to me as he would to a child. He taught me that bamboo is the only truly renewable source of a thousand goods and uses. He spread his plants everywhere in Noah and in many parts of this ship. How can one argue with a man who uses space no one else does and grows his giant grass in incredible speed and profusion? It is strange to be a student to this man, but so be it. Rajani had me learn about the Giant, a bamboo native of Burma which grows more than a foot thick and better than one hundred and forty feet high. He pestered me so much that I gave him a full afternoon for his teaching. He seized on this fiercely. Among things I was ordered to learn was that, in the Giant bamboo, columns of living tissue are scattered throughout hollow culm walls, and that its joints, or nodes, provide tremendous strength. Why do I persist in writing all this? I said that Rajani might be the one who saves us all; I repeat it now. Who else but Rajani could grow a plant that becomes a building and construction material, a dozen tools, a variety of containers . . . the uses are boundless.

"You will need this giant bamboo, along with the more critical plants, when we make planetfall," he told us. "The Earth will be stripped of its precious fertile soil. There may be nothing growing but grass and weeds and bushes. Without the insects there will be no flowers. What we bring back will determine our future. There will be no trees. We must bring instant trees to Earth for the future generations, and it is the Giant that will do this. See here? It never takes from the soil, but enriches it. It binds loose soil together and firms it. Do we need scaffolding? Paper? Medical supplies? Heat and energy? Furniture? Wagons and boats? Drinking vessels. Conduits for water. For anything! And look how it grows! Aboard this ship seven feet a day! Under Earth gravity, crushing and relentless, it is still four feet every day."

Lester Rajani spoke also to the children. They must learn to work, plant, harvest, respect and love bamboo as he did, he told them, and he told them stories. I will repeat one here as he told it. The American woman-astronaut, Stacy Thorpe, has typed out the moment—

"Once upon a time, long ago and far away, so far away that no one knew where it really was, there were dragons who lived in Ishmoteer. This was a fabled and a truly marvelous land. Now the dragons here were considered to be magic, because with only the great bamboo forests about them, they did wondrous things. Using only their bamboo, they grew food and they built houses, they made their own furniture and floor mats and even their cooking utensils. They made wheels and wonderful chariots, and little cages for their pet crickets, because dragons have pets, also. They made paper for writing and telling stories and for very fine painting, They made all sorts of marvelous things. They made drums and flutes and fifes and pipes and clarinets and bongos and laughing music with their instruments. They made perfume, and fine jewelry, and even crutches for the dragons who stubbed their big toes. They made vases for their flowers and long tunnels to carry water and ovens and stoves for cooking and baking. They made writing pens and combs and shoes and when they went high into the mountains where there was snow they made sleds and toboggans and even skis. These dragons of Ishmoteer built soaring bridges and wonderful temples, they made candles from bamboo, and on warm summer evenings they sailed their bamboo boats and played music and sang songs"

"Were the dragons really real?" an excited little boy asked.

"And was there really an Ishmoteer?" cried a young girl.

Rajani smiled upon the children who had glided through the bamboo thickets of Noah, growing tall and straight under the ultraviolet suns crafted by man, glistening in the light of charred bamboo in the decorative lamps, looming over the bamboo chairs and benches, holding drinks in bamboo cups and gourds. Rajani brought a bamboo flute to his lips and an airy tune flew forth. He lowered the flute and his eyes shone.

"Of course the dragons are real," he told the children. "And do you know where Ishmoteer is?"

"Tell us! Tell us!"

"Why, look around you. This is Ishmoteer, and we are its dragons."

No, to survive we needed a physical barrier across the front of each ship, wide enough to span the vessel's full diameter and more. A barrier that could cause an incoming rock particle to disintegrate and somehow break up its force before it struck the main structure of a ship. (ed note: a Whipple shield)

"I can build you such a barrier," Lester Rajani said to me. He entered my command office and calmly told me he could do what our engineers, scientists, technicians, construction crews, metallurgists—the whole useless lot of them—could not. And he could do it quickly, without damaging or weakening any part of our two ships.

I asked him how long it would take to perform this miracle. He told me four to seven days. I almost threw him from my quarters but he was too quiet, too confident. Give me your construction teams and all the extra hands, the spacetugs, and in one week at the outside he would have the needed barriers in place. And, he added, he would be able to replace the barriers and keep replacing them as necessary. I would have thrown him from my sight except that in my sudden anger I lost my temper and my feet spun out from beneath me and I could barely move. But even as my hands groped for his throat he smiled at me. Never will I forget his question.

"Commander Tereshnikov, are you aware that in many instances bamboo is stronger than steel?"

Stronger than steel! Of course I did not know any such thing and I told him so in most unpleasant terms. He informed me he had already been preparing the barriers. None of this made much sense until I told him to speak with greater clarity and take each move one at a time. Here, as I recall it, is what he said:

"Bamboo can be made stronger than steel. It is much lighter than steel, so it is easier to handle. I start all this maybe fifteen days ago. Much of our Giant bamboo is ready for cutting. So we cut the tall grass, and we have been heating and drying them until two days ago. Then we have been containing them in a heat-soaking oven. This enables us to straighten them and cut them to any length we need. Have you ever been to Hong Kong? Of course not. If you had then you would recall that in that city all the scaffolding for building construction, no matter how tall, is made from bamboo poles tied together with strips of bamboo. After a typhoon you would see steel structures twisted and smashed—but not the bamboo. It endures, just as it has endured for centuries. I do not believe you have seen the most famous of all historical bridges. There is a great suspension bridge at Siuchuan in China that spans the Min River. The bridge is suspended by bamboo cables. The cables are wound about capstans and are tightened when needed."

I asked this madman from Pakistan just how long the bridge had lasted before it fell into the river. Again, I quote to the best of my ability:

"How long has this bridge lasted? When we left Earth it had been standing for more than one thousand years. Since five centuries before Columbus crossed the ocean. It still carries—I beg your pardon, it carried until the final destruction—full convoys of trucks. And it was still bamboo. A thousand years, a thousand years."

How would this man make us the barriers we needed? To him it was simple. The engineers adapted machine shop presses to create a pressure oven within which they laminated bamboo with plastic. What emerged were great woven and plasticized sheets, one layer over the other, of a thick and strong shield. How was he so certain all this would work? He and his people had been producing these thick sheets for weeks. He would never have wasted a minute of my time unless he was absolutely certain everything would work the way he said. His plan that he gave to me was that construction crews in pressure suits would bring the plasticized sheets to the bow of the ships. There, using scaffolding made of bamboo—he smiled as he called it the Hong Kong Treatment—the crews would build huge bow plates. The full growth of Giant bamboo, he explained, requires only sixty days. He had brought enough seedlings to produce bamboo for a hundred years.

Of course I gave full permission for Rajani to commence this critical work immediately. I notified all engineering and other personnel who would be involved that Rajani was the project chief and that I would consider any hesitancy in cooperating with him to be a direct challenge to me.

After this amazing farmer from Pakistan left me, I thought greatly on the meeting. I marveled at our incredible good fortune.

From EXIT EARTH by Martin Caidin (1987)

(ed note: Clarke County is an L5 space colony)

Torus S-16 was sometimes known as the Bamboo Farm. Unlike the other agricultural tori in the colony, which specialized in either food crops or algae production and thus were lined with long rows of hydroponics tanks, the Bamboo Farm resembled the Okefenokee Swamp. Instead of tanks, the upward-curving floor of Torus 16 was covered with vast, shallow pools of water and Mississippi Delta mud, imported at great cost from Earth. From this artificial swamp grew tall, dense glades of Arundinaria Japonica: Japanese bamboo.

The reason for bamboo cultivation in Clarke County were simple and practical. it was necessary to maintain an inexpensive, renewable supply of building material for structures within the colony; new walls were always being built, new homes and offices were always being planned. Yet it was prohibitively expensive to import huge amounts of wood from Earth, and even genetically tailored species of timber took much too long to grow in the colony, although a relative handful of decorative trees had been transplanted and grown in the biosphere and habitation tori. While lunar concrete was cheap and available resource—most of the larger structures, like the LaGrange Hotel, Bird Stadium, and the campus buildings of the International Space University were built with mooncrete—something less utilitarian than mooncrete was desired for houses, shops, and other small buildings.

The New Ark came up with bamboo as the perfect substitute. On Earth, the American strain of Japanese bamboo grew to heights of ten feet; in the lesser gravity of the space colony the reeds often topped twenty feet. Bamboo grows much faster than trees, and as a cultivated crop, requires less management. Since buildings in Clarke County were not subject to strong winds or extremes of temperature and only occasional rainfall, lightweight bamboo walls were more than adequate. It gave the homes in Big Sky and in the habitat tori a definite gone-native look., but the houses were sturdy and easily built.

As a bonus, surplus stalks were milled and refined as paper—one more item that did not have to be imported from Earth. Also, Clarke County paper was uses extensively on the Moon and Mars, which provided an additional boost to the colony's economy.

From CLARKE COUNTY, SPACE by Allen Steele (1990)

(ed note: in the novel, the people are living inside a generational starship but have forgotten this fact generations ago)

Beyond the barricade, men worked vigorously, hacking down the tall ponic stalks (bamboo), the edible sap, miltex, spurting out above their blades. As they were felled, the stalks were inverted to preserve as much sap as possible. This would be drained off and the hollow poles dried, cut to standard lengths and used eventually for a multitude of purposes. Almost on top of the busy blades, other sections of the plants were also being harvested: the leaves for medicinal use, the young shoots for table delicacies, the seed for various uses, as food, as buttons, as loose ballast in the Quarters’ version of tambourines, as counters for the Travel-Up boards, as toys for babies (into whose all-sampling mouths they were too large to cram).

The hardest job in the task of clearing ponics was breaking up the interlacing root structure, which lay like a steel mesh under the grit, its lower tendrils biting deep into the deck. As it was chopped out, other men with spades cleared the humus into sacks; here the humus was particularly deep, almost two feet of it covering the deck: evidence that these were unexplored parts, across which no other tribe had ever worked. The filled sacks were carted back to Quarters, where they would be emptied to provide new fields in new rooms.

From NON-STOP by Brian Aldiss (1958)

(ed note: making cloth and clothing from bamboo fiber)

Bamboo has bast fibers, similar to flax and hemp. Most things referred to as 'bamboo fiber' are actually rayon made with bamboo as a feedstock, but true bamboo fiber is possible. The raw material is high in lignin, so processing is often a combination of mechanical chopping and chemical or enzyme boosted bacterial retting. Lots more details here:

The tenacity of those fibers is less than half that of cotton. The resulting cloth won't be as durable or tough, but still falling between wool and rayon. That is to say, still useful and with a reportedly pleasant feel.

The yield of bamboo basts can be as high as 53 tonnes per hectare (5.365kg/m² or 14.7g/m² per day). As long as the net fiber yield is at least 15% of the gross bast mass then it is competitive with cotton. If it is over 31% then it is competitive with hemp.

yield source:

If we look back a ways (1909), at least one author noted yields as high as 44 tons per acre (an eye-popping 98.6 tonnes per hectare) and fiber yields as high as 44%.

source: Congressional Serial Set: pulp and paper investigation hearings. 1 January 1909. (available free)

Let's go with the modern optimistic yield (while noting that high-intensity hydroponics can almost certainly double that value) and a fiber yield of, say, 38%. That would give a fiber yield of 5.6g/m² per day or about 6.1m² per person. The plants require a three-year lead time and a third of the stand is harvested each year. Waste from this process would be suitable for paper or fuel alcohol.

I think the main drawback would be that bamboo grows very tall. A dwarf species could be found that grows to 4m after three years, but it's not certain the yield numbers would still apply. Even so, that's about 25m³ per person. Cotton by contrast grows to perhaps 130cm. Allowing 20cm for lighting and nutrient systems, that same 4m space could house two stacked crops. If a mild dwarf variety of cotton was developed that matured to 110cm or less, three stacked crops could occupy the same space and would become competitive again on a floor-space and volume basis.

Another drawback is that bamboo requires several years to develop for this purpose. Peak fiber yields occur at three years. Peak structural strength is typically seen around 5 years. For paper pulp or wattle it can be taken at 1-2 years.

Those drawbacks are certainly opposed by several advantages unique to bamboo. It's a structural material, can be used similar to wood (buttons, flooring, furniture) and resists bacterial and fungal attack. Bamboo resists high-pH environments and can be embedded in concrete; it could serve as the tension member in a reinforced regolith-block construction if metal is scarce.


As a member of the Graminae family, the composition of bamboo is highly similar to other grasses utilised for biofuel purposes (e.g. switchgrass, Miscanthus). Its cell wall is comprised of the polymeric constituents cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. The complex physical and chemical interactions between these components prevent enzymes from readily accessing the microfibrillar cellulose during the saccharification stage of its conversion into biofuel. As a result of this recalcitrance, a pretreatment stage is needed to maximise hydrolysis of cell wall sugars into their monomeric form.

Alternative approaches to reduce bioethanol production costs are still needed however, to ensure its competitiveness in a possible future scenario where neither tax exemptions nor subsidies are granted to producers. These measures may include improving sugar release with more effective pretreatments and reduced enzyme usage, accessing low cost bamboo feedstock or selecting feedstocks with higher/more accessible cellulose.

Littlewood et al.

In their study, the Imperial College London team used liquid hot water (LHW) pretreatment to enhance sugar release from bamboo lignocellulose while minimizing economic and environmental costs. Pretreatments were performed at temperatures of 170-190°C for 10–30 minutes, followed by enzymatic saccharification with a commercial enzyme cocktail at various loadings.

The economic analysis found that the lowest enzyme loading had the most commercially viable scenario (production cost of $0.484 per liter (US$1.83/gallon US) with tax exemption and a $0.16/liter (US$0.606/gallon US subsidy)) even though it produced the least amount of bioethanol and generated the greatest level of co-product electricity.

This economic result was primarily due to the significant enzyme contribution to cost, which at higher loadings was not defrayed adequately by an increase in the amount of sugar released, the team said.

A cost breakdown and sensitivity analysis of the 10 FPU/g glucan scenario demonstrated that the cost of raw materials was the greatest contributor, with bamboo and enzyme purchase accounting for 51% and 17% of the MESP, respectively.

The supply-chain model showed that bamboo would be competitive with gasoline at the pump in scenarios with enzyme loadings of 60 FPU/g glucan and lower.



A turtle carries its own habitat. While it is reliable, it costs energy. NASA makes the same trade-off when it transports habitats and other structures needed to lunar and planetary surfaces increasing upmass, and affecting other mission goals. Imagine a self-pitching habitat made of a light, fibrous material, with excellent mechanical properties. The material could be used dry, wet, frozen with water or as part of a self-produced composite which could allow such enhancements as radiation protection and a vapor seal. It is self-replicating so the habitat could be extended at a future date, and self-repairing. Some form of this material could be used for a habitat at destination, additional buildings, the shell of multiple rovers and furniture. The fibrous material is fungal mycelium, the vegetative structure of fungi consisting of branching, thread-like hyphae. Mycelial materials, already commercially produced, are known insulators, fire retardant, and do not produce toxic gasses. Metrics for these materials show compression strengths superior to dimensional lumber, flexural strength superior to reinforced concrete, and competitive insulation values. As mycelia normally excrete enzymes, it should be possible to bioengineer them to secrete other materials on demand such as bioplastics or latex to form a biocomposite. Mycelia are more flexible and ductile than regolith alone. As a standalone material or in conjunction with agglutinated or sintered regolith, a mycotectural building envelope could significantly reduce the energy required for building because in the presence of food stock and water it would grow itself. After the arrival of humans, additional structures could be grown with feedstock of mission-produced organic waste streams. Melanin-rich fungi have the ability to absorb radioactivity suggesting that melanized fungal mycelia could provide radiation protection. Lead found in the regolith, or other radiation blocking materials such as water could accumulate in the mycelia providing additional radiation protection. When protected, the mycomaterials can have a long life, but at the end of its life cycle the material could be become fertilizer for mission farming.

Our concept fits within the Mars DRA 5.0 'commuter' scenario, with the major difference being that the habitats and the shells of the rovers would be built at destination. On Earth, a flexible plastic shell produced to the final habitat dimensions would be seeded with mycelia and dried feedstock and the outside sterilized. At destination, the shell could be configured to its final inner dimensions with struts. The mycelial and feedstock material would be moistened with Martian or terrestrial water depending on mass trade-offs, and heated, initiating fungal (and living feedstock) growth. Mycelial growth will cease when feedstock is consumed, heat withdrawn or the mycelia heat-killed. If additions or repairs to the structures are needed, water, heat and feedstock can be added to reactivate growth of the dormant fungi.

The proposed work focuses on filling select key technical knowledge gaps such as the temperature range of mycelial growth, radiation protection, potential for algal feedstock and enmeshed biosensors, mass of inputs and finished product, and material properties of the materials. The potential for enhancing structural and sensing capabilities by the incorporation of the bacterium Bacillus subtilus, is novel. Architectural design concepts based on this vision will be examined for use in a mission context including mass trade-offs, and temperature inputs, as well as suggesting new terrestrial routes to infusion where rapidly built, lightweight structures are desired. If successful in developing a biocomposite material that can grow itself, NASA will have a radically new, cheaper, faster lighter material for designing habitats for extended duration lunar missions, Mars missions, and mobile habitats as well as furniture and other structures.

Colony Culture


Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. This number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 250, with a commonly used value of 150. Dunbar's number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.

Dunbar theorized that "this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size ... the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained." On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues, such as high school friends, with whom a person would want to reacquaint himself if they met again.

From the Wikipedia entry for DUNBAR'S NUMBER

Speculation about revolutionary developments is not, however, immediately relevant to a most pressing question about human adaptation to space: How can groups of people live and work together without psychological impairment or the breakdown of social order in the space stations, lunar bases, and Mars expeditions now being planned? Psychological and social problems in space living constitute, as both Soviet and American space veterans attest (Bluth 1981, Carr 1981), major barriers to be overcome in the humanization of space.

Coping with isolation from Earth, family, and friends and with the cramped confines of a space module or station has been enough of a challenge for carefully selected and highly trained spacefarers of the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. As those cosmonauts who have been “pushing the endurance envelope” the farthest attest, staying longer and longer in space provokes severe psychological strain (Bluth 1981; Grigoriev, Kozerenko, and Myasnikov 1985; Oberg 1985, p. 21).

Now life in space is becoming even more complicated as “guest cosmonauts” from many nations join Soviet and American crews; as women join men; and as physicians, physicists, engineers, and other specialists routinely work alongside traditional cosmonauts and astronauts of the “right stuff”. How will all these different kinds of people get along in the space stations of the next decade and the lunar bases and martian outposts which are to follow? What measures can be taken which would reduce stress and make it easier for heterogeneous groups of people to work efficiently and safely and to live together amicably for months or even years in these space habitats?

Among social scientists it has been primarily the psychologists (Helmreich 1983), with a few jurists, sociologists, and political scientists joining in, who have tried to address these problems of space living. However, inasmuch as among the diverse lot of people who call themselves anthropologists there are those who are intensely interested in interpersonal relations and small group behavior, it should not be surprising that anthropologists might also be attracted to work in this field. Interestingly, some recent recruits come from maritime anthropology, where they have worked on the dynamics of small-boat fishing crews.

These and other anthropologists interested in space can bring to the field a degree of “hands-on” experience in working with “real” small groups—be they fishing crews, Antarctic scientists, or hunting and gathering bands.

Here I wish to suggest two specific areas in which this cultural perspective of anthropology could be useful: (1) in addressing the problems of cross-cultural relations among heterogeneous space crews and societies and (2) in the application of cultural resources to develop models for space living.

Cultural factors should not, however, be viewed solely in terms of impediments to successful space living, for they may also constitute valuable human resources to be tapped in adapting to space. In addition to seeking to promote cultural harmony among heterogeneous space crews, we might also seek out, from the multitude of cultural traditions among the Earth’s societies, those practices and institutions which could best promote harmonious and productive life in space.

As an example, consider interpersonal problems in a space habitat. J. Henry Glazer, an attorney who has pioneered the study of “astrolaw,” warns against exporting to space communities the adversarial approach to dispute resolution based on “medieval systems of courtroom combat” (Glazer 1985, p. 16). In small space habitats, where people cannot escape from one another but must work out ways of interacting peacefully and productively, adversarial proceedings would irritate an already sensitive social field. And how could the winners and losers of bitter courtroom battles live and work with each other afterwards?

One obvious suggestion is that systems which are designed to detect interpersonal problems early and head them off through mediation should be considered for space living. Glazer, for example, calls for a new kind of legal specialist—not an adversarial advocate, but someone who settles disputes on behalf of the interests of all spacefarers on a mission. He draws his model from the Tabula de Amalfa, the maritime code of the once powerful Mediterranean naval power of Amalfi. Their code provided for a “consul” who sailed aboard each merchant vessel with the power to adjudicate differences between master, crew, and others on board (Glazer 1985, pp. 26—27; Twiss 1876, p. 11). In addition to looking to this and perhaps other maritime analogs, it is tempting to suggest that, with an eye to the more distant future of large space settlements, we also examine major contemporary societies in which harmony and cooperation is stressed. The example of Japan, with its low crime rate and relative paucity of lawyers, comes to mind—although its utility as a model for international efforts may be limited in that Japan is such an ethnically homogeneous society

Once we have learned how to live together amicably in space and to work safely and efficiently there, once we have developed ways of avoiding the health problems of ionizing radiation, microgravity, and other hazards of nonterrestrial environments, and once we have learned how to grow food in space and to produce air, water, and other necessities there, then humankind can actually settle space, not just sojourn there. New cultures and new societies will then evolve as people seek to adapt to a variety of space environments. This process of building new cultures and societies will undoubtedly contain many surprises. Yet, all the resultant sociocultural systems must provide the basic prerequisites for human existence if they are to be successful.
Bluth, B. J. 1981. Soviet Space Stress. Science 81, vol. 2, no. 7, pp. 30—35.
Carr, Gerald Paul. 1981. Comments from a Skylab Veteran. The Futurist 15:38.
Glazer, J. Henry. 1985. Astrolaw Jurisprudence in Space as a Place: Right Reason for the Right Stuff. Brooklyn J. Int. Law 11 (1): 1—43.
Grigoriev, A. I.; O. P. Kozerenko; and V. I. Myasnikov. 1985. Selected Problems of Psychological Support of Prolonged Space Flights. Preprint of a paper delivered at the Int. Astronaut. Fed. Congress, Stockholm.
Helmreich, Robert L. 1983. Applying Psychology in Outer Space. American Psychologist 38: 445—450.
Oberg, Alcestis R. 1985. Spacefarers of the ’80s and ’90s: The Next Thousand People in Space. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
Twiss, Travers. 1876. The Black Book of the Admiralty, Vol. 4. London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.
From SPACE MIGRATIONS: ANTHROPOLOGY AND THE HUMANIZATION OF SPACE by Ben R. Finney. Collected in Space Resources NASA SP-509 vol 4

Suppose that one or several planned large-scale missions to Mars come to fruition over the next few decades. Perhaps the first mission or missions are temporary scientific visits that endure a few weeks or months and then Mars is left vacant again. Even if it is only a handful of individuals temporarily on Mars for a few weeks or a few month of exploration, the camaraderie unique to these early Mars missions will be the first intimation of a distinctively Martian social milieu.

Beyond the transient exploration of a scientific mission, the vision of several Mars mission planners includes settlement, and these plans, if realized, will mean that eventually there will be large numbers of human beings living and working on Mars. We may see a patchwork of multiple settlements and multiple temporary scientific missions, existing side-by-side, each pursuing their own ends in their own ways. Some of the early explorers may chose to return and to remain, their lives having been touched and irrevocably changed by their initial encounter with the Red Planet.

In the case of an ongoing human presence, the numbers of human settlers will grow, eventually also they will become self-supporting and self-sustaining. Whether or not they formally declare their independence, they will be independent for all practical purposes. Given these eventualities, at some point we will need to recognize that an independent and distinctive Martian civilization exists. At what point in its development would we recognize a Martian civilization? What will be the character of this civilization?

A Martian Perspective

In the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet there is a striking scene early in the film in which two characters discuss the color of the sky, and one says, “I think a man could get used to this and grow to love it.” Will Martian settlers get used to the red skies of Mars and grow to love it?

Whether or not they love the red skies of the Red Planet, these red skies will be a fact of life on Mars no less than the red sands under foot. These Martian facts of life will collectively shape a distinctive Martian perspective, and a Martian civilization will grow out of a uniquely and distinctively Martian perspective. In What will it be like to be a Martian? I have already discussed that there will be something that it is like to be a Martian (borrowing from Thomas Nagel’s famous formulation that there is something that it is like to be a bat [1]), and in The Martian Standpoint (and Addendum on the Martian Standpoint) I discussed the emergence of a distinctively Martian perspective.

This perspective will be marked by properties in common with terrestrial civilization (such as being human) as well as properties not shared with terrestrial civilization (living life under a red sky, being able to pick out Earth in the night sky, having to wear a pressure suit outside, and so on). Most of that which is in common with terrestrial life will pass unnoticed, but the differences will be prominent in the minds of Martian settlers precisely because the differences will stand out against the background of unnoticed similarity.

Mars itself, its gravity, its weather, its seasons, the length of its day and coolness of the sun in the sky, as well as the adaptations that the settlers will have to make in order to live on Mars, will become selection pressures that will shape the social life of these communities. An individual human being who experiences what it is like to be a Martian, and who, as a consequence of living on Mars, has a Martian perspective, will be an individual participating in a community, all of whom are experiencing what it is like to be a Martian and to have a Martian perspective. Pride in being first on Mars will be mixed with equal parts homesickness, and, just so, every aspect of human moral psychology will find itself tested by the tension between old and new. From this dialectic will emerge an outlook unique to Mars, the Martian perspective, and this Martian perspective will inform all aspects of social life, from the most intimate introspection to the most public debates on what kind of society the Martians should build for themselves.

As the Martians go about building the economic infrastructure of Martian civilization, an intellectual superstructure will come into being in parallel with the built environment, and infrastructure and superstructure will be inseparably joined by the central project of Martian civilization, which at first will simply be the attempt to build a self-sustaining and self-supporting human presence on Mars. [2] What form the central project of Martian civilization will take after this initial goal is achieved cannot now be known. Martian society will be sufficiently small that it could be comprehensively motivated and unified by a central project, and the population of Mars will be sufficiently self-selected for scientific acumen and practical ability that whatever central project naturally grows out of the combined exertions of this population is likely to be as distinctive as the self-selected conquistadors who came to South America and the self-selected Puritans who came to North America.

A Tale of Two Planets: Terrestrial Civilization and Martian Civilization

Civilization on Earth has already passed through many stages of development, and it is at least arguable that at least some terrestrial civilizations have reached maturity, but a nascent civilization on Mars, while an heir to these mature traditions of terrestrial civilization, would be an entirely novel enterprise. The Martian civilization will be a new civilization, and as a new civilization it will begin its social development at its inception; it will not be a mature civilization of long-established institutions, but a tentative experimentation in institution building and in ways of life possible on Mars.

When a civilization originates in a given historical epoch, that historical epoch is expressed in that civilization, so that the civilization of classical antiquity expressed the world of the ancient Mediterranean Basin and the civilization of medieval Islam expressed the world of seventh century Arabia and the civilization of the industrial revolution expressed Enlightenment era northern Europe. Martian civilization, coming into being in the twenty-first civilization, would emerge from a radically different social context than any of these previous civilizations, and so it would express a radically different world than civilizations of the past. Martian civilization, then, could be a new civilization in more than one sense. It would also be a civilization de novo.

De novo civilization

For quite some time I have been planning to write about the possibility of what I call de novo civilization, i.e., civilizations that are newly constituted, but are distinct from those civilizations with which civilization began on Earth. The earliest civilizations in the world—the West Asian Cluster (Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, etc.), Mesoamerican, Peruvian, Chinese, and Indian civilizations, at a minimum—were all de novo civilizations, originating as something entirely new in the history of the planet. These original civilizations might be called “founder” civilizations, as they were the founders of all civilizations to subsequently follow.

Descended from these “founder” civilizations were a greater or lesser number of subsequent civilizations—depending upon the principles we adopt to individuate and therefore count civilizations—that were derived from the founder civilizations through descent with modification, through idea diffusion, through allopatric speciation, and so on. By identifying de novo civilizations as new civilizations distinct from this small, finite class of founder civilizations, I am suggesting that a new civilization can come into being through a new foundation (or a re-foundation) of some existing civilization. What particularly interests me most are those civilizations that “suddenly” come into being as the result of some relatively rapid historical change. Martian civilization would be such a de novo civilization arising from a new foundation.

The best example I can offer of de novo civilization is that of Byzantium. The Byzantine Empire is typically identified as becoming a distinct entity sometime between Constantine’s foundation of Constantinople (on the site of the earlier Greek city of Byzantium) in 330 and the reign of Justinian during the sixth century AD. Constantine spared no expense in furnishing his new Christian capital city, endowing it with art and sculpture essentially looted from other much older cities. An urban proletariat was even imported to populate the new metropolis. Eventually Greek speaking, and eventually Orthodox in its Christianity, Constantinople and the distinctive Byzantine civilization over which the city presided had inherited the traditions of Roman civilization, and as the city grew in size and influence there was no “breakdown” of trade or communication that isolated the region. When the last legal emperor of the western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustulus, surrendered control of Rome to the barbarian king Odoacer, the imperial insignia were sent to Constantinople for safekeeping. Thus Byzantium, still in touch with its parent civilization, nevertheless speciated and became its own distinctive civilization, different from Rome even while continuing to self-identify as Roman.

So it will be, I think, with Martian civilization, which will become its own distinctive civilization even while continuing to self-identify with essential elements of terrestrial civilization. The selection pressures upon terrestrial and Martian civilization will be so markedly different that the speciation of Martian civilization from its parent terrestrial civilization is nearly inevitable, although there will be ongoing commerce, communication, and conflict between Earth and Mars. Martian civilization will emerge as a de novo civilization even in the absence of a rupture between Earth and Mars; the transfer of some portion of terrestrial civilization to a human population on Mars will be sufficient for a new foundation of civilization, even if this is not what is intended.

V. Gordon Childe’s “urban revolution” on Mars

One of the most influential accounts of the origin of civilization is that of V. Gordon Childe, and, ironically, it was not explicitly cast as an account of civilization, but rather of the “urban revolution,” i.e., the origin of cities. [3] There is a vast literature on Childe’s “urban revolution” and it has become a commonplace among archaeologists, especially those archaeologists formulating theories about the origins of civilization, to employ Childe’s ten criteria for the urban revolution as a definition of civilization: something is a civilization if it possesses most of the items on Childe’s list. [4] Subsequent prehistorians have tinkered and tampered with Childe’s model, but for the most part it remains intact and continues to influence archaeological thought about civilization even today.

While Childe does not himself assert that the properties he identifies as characterizing the urban revolution constitute a definition of civilization, he may as well have said so, as this is the lesson that has been taken from the paper. In so far as “urban revolution” implies the revolutionary appearance of many cities, the lesson is justified. A rough characterization of civilization could be a network of cities actively engaged in cooperation and conflict with each other. [5] We see this pattern clearly in Mesopotamia, in Mesoamerica, in the Indus Valley, and will probably find it wherever civilization independently emerges.

Following this example, when there are a network of settlements on Mars actively engaged in cooperation and conflict with each other (as in the suggestion above that Mars may be a patchwork of settlements both temporary and permanent), we could at that point identify a Martian civilization. As Martian civilization grows, it will unify itself as a planetary civilization, all of which evolves under the uniform physical selection pressures of the planet, just as terrestrial civilization has evolved under the uniform selection pressures of Earth. On Mars, communication between regions of the planet will be nearly instantaneous, as is communication on Earth today, and the immediate neighborhood of Mars, its satellites and space stations, will also be a part of this instantaneous communications network. Mars will have its own internet, which will presumably be updated on a regular basis, much like a backup system where Mars and Earth each back up the other. Martian social media will be dominated by “Martian issues” just as terrestrial social media will be dominated by terrestrial issues.

Two planetary civilizations projected onto the cosmos

A planet is a natural unit for civilization, which I have expressed elsewhere by saying that planetary civilization is the natural teleology of civilization. [6] Beyond the scope of a planetary civilization communication will experience relativistic delays that become longer the more distant the parties to the communication. There will be communication between Mars and Earth, of course, but of a stilted and somewhat awkward variety, as there will be trade, probably a trickle of luxury goods (rather than staples) as once slowly moved along the Silk Road tenuously connecting the ancient east to the ancient west. Communication and commerce, however, will underscore rather than unify the natural planetary units of Earth and Mars. Exactly what is communicated and what is traded (as well as what is not communicated and what is not traded) will define a system of meanings and values, and these systems will be different on Earth and Mars. [7]

We can always formulate a more comprehensive conception of civilization that includes both terrestrial civilization and Martian civilization—presumably this more comprehensive conception will be “human civilization” as this conception will of necessity be based on those properties shared in common between terrestrial and Martian civilization—much as we can today speak of a planetary civilization that encompasses the many regional civilizations that have grown together as human transportation, communication, and commerce networks have come to integrate the planet entire. Perhaps this more comprehensive conception of civilization could also be called a de novo civilization. With planetary civilization converging on totality, the next stage of emergence in large-scale social organization will be the interaction of these distinct planetary civilizations—the civilizations of Earth, Mars, the moon, and elsewhere, including clusters of artificial habitats.

The expanding scope of large-scale social organization, from a network of cities involved in cooperation and conflict to a network of planets involved in cooperation and conflict and eventually a network of planetary systems engaged in cooperation and conflict, define stages in the development of a cosmological civilization. The civilization that we may yet build within our own solar system will be a model in miniature of an interstellar civilization in which it is a network of planetary systems engaged in cooperation and conflict that defines large-scale social organization. In this context, the different between terrestrial and Martian civilization may become significant.

In the settlement of the New World it is interesting to note the difference between those regions settled directly by European peoples and those regions settled not from the Old World, but from earlier settlements. Thus while New England was settled by Puritans from England, the Carolinas were settled by Caribbean planters. [8] Sugar cane was such a lucrative crop that every scrap of available ground on the Caribbean islands was planted in sugar cane plantations, but these plantations in turn needed to be supplied with foodstuffs and building materials, and so the Carolinas were settled in order to produce the sustenance and material goods required by the export-oriented monoculture of sugar plantations in the Caribbean. [9] The cultural differences between these regions persists to the present day, and is likely to continue to persist into the foreseeable future.

It would be reasonable to expect that a similar pattern will reveal itself in the settlement of the solar system, with some colonies being established directly from Earth, while other colonies may be established by Martian and Lunar settlements, once these latter have reached a sufficient state of development that they can mount outward colonization efforts themselves. [10] In this way, the characteristic differences between terrestrial and Martian civilization will be perpetuated throughout the solar system, and perhaps even throughout the galaxy, and may persist long after any rivalry between Earth and Mars is politically relevant.

But will it ultimately be terrestrial or Martian civilization that leaves the greatest imprint on the universe? The fact that Martians will have already made the leap from Earth to Mars, representing the first spacefaring diaspora, and the likely disproportionate scientific and technological knowledge and expertise in the Martian population to come, will predispose Martians to a central project for their civilization based on spacefaring. Once the Martians have assured their survival and independence, the solar system will be at their doorstep. Mars is the perfect base for a spacefaring civilization, with the lower gravity making the construction of a space elevator easier than on Earth, and being positioned close to the asteroid belt Thus even if a scientific and spacefaring civiization does not fully emerge on Earth, social conditions on Mars may be more favorable to such a development.


[1] Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?” The Philosophical Review, LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974): 435-50.

[2] I sometimes define civilization as an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project. I regard this formulation as tentative. Mass societies may be too large and too diverse to be defined by a single central project, so a mass society may have several central projects, but no single, dominant project—or it may have no central project at all. Prior to the advent of mass society, regional civilizations (not yet having converged on planetary scale) were almost always strongly marked by a central project, which almost always was soteriological or eschatological in nature.

[3] V. Gordon Childe, “The Urban Revolution,” The Town Planning Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Apr., 1950), pp. 3-17. (Careful observers of the Indiana Jones films will notice that the archaeologist protagonist of the films cites V. Gordon Childe.)

[4] In brief, Childe’s list includes, 1) extent and density of settlements, 2) division of labor, i.e., craft specialization, 3) surplus value transferred to social elites (which might also be called “capital accumulation”), 4) monumental architecture, 5) social stratification, 6) writing, 7) science, 8) art, 9) trade, and 10) prioritizing residence over kinship. I briefly touched on Childe’s conception of civilization in terms of the urban revolution in my talk at the 2015 Starship Congress, “What kinds of civilizations build starships?” in which I also gave an exposition of my understanding of economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure (cf. note [2]).

[5] Above in note [2] I said that I sometimes define civilization as an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project; I also sometimes define a civilization as a network of cities bound by relationships of cooperation and conflict. I regard all of these formulations as tentative; the definitive definition of civilization has yet to be formulated. The definition of civilization in terms of a network of cities is obviously a practical characterization that could be established by means of archaeology; a definition of civilization as a central project linking infrastructure and superstructure is much more abstract, and for the same reason it is much more likely to be adaptable to unforeseen developments in the future.

[6] The assertion that planetary civilization is the natural teleology of civilization may be true for only one historical stage in the development of civilization (I explored this idea in Counterfactual Suboptimal Civilizations of Planetary Endemism and Addendum on Civilizational Optimality). It could be argued that the natural extent of a civilization grows over time, so that the earliest manifestation is a city-state with a surrounding region, then an empire, then a regional civilization, then a planetary civilization, then a system-wide civilization, and so on.

[7] These systems of meanings and values constitute part of the intellectual superstructure.

[8] Similarly, in South America Chile was settled for purposes of supply rather than monoculture export.

[9] New England also came to rely on export-oriented monoculture, but of tobacco rather than sugar, especially the “tobacco colonies” of the Chesapeake Bay region. While Caribbean islands were not large enough both to produce sugar for export and to produce their own food, there was sufficient land in New England for both export and staple crops.

[10] It is to be expected that most if not all of the earliest settlement enterprises will be financial failures, if historical analogy holds: “Many early colonial adventures—like Cartier’s voyages, the Panfilo de Narvaez expedition, and Raleigh’s Guiana and Roanoke projects—were characterized by gigantic losses. By the end of the 1620s every single English colonial company had failed both financially and organizationally, and every single early French trading company had been dissolved; by 1674, the Dutch West Indies Company had gone bankrupt for the first of two times.” (A Companion to the Literatures of Colonial America, edited by Susan Castillo and Ivy Schweitzer, p. 64)


The man frowned, looking as though he did not believe her, not that it mattered whether he did or not. He and his companion were Habitat-dwellers, or Habbers as they were derisively called. Their ancestors had abandoned Earth centuries ago for the Associated Habitats, the homes they had made for themselves in space, and there were many who believed that, despite their appearance, the Habbers were no longer truly human, that their genetic engineering had far surpassed what Earth allowed among its people. Habbers might have their uses; some of them worked with the scientists and specialists of the Venus Project, and having them ferry settlers from the camps to Venus was certainly can convenience. Changing the orbits of a few asteroids so that they would come nearer to Earth and could be more easily mined had been another service of the Habbers to the home world.

Alonza could grant all of that, but loathed the air of superiority that Habbers exuded, as if the resources they provided and the necessary tasks they voluntarily undertook for Earth’s benefit were little more than crumbs thrown to beggars. She thought then of how the home world must seem to Habbers, with its flooded coastlines, melting ice caps, and an atmosphere that was still too thick with carbon dioxide six centuries after the Resource Wars. They probably thought of themselves as fortunate for having abandoned what they must see as a played-out world populated by deluded die-hards. Even these two Habber pilots had that look of superiority in their eyes, the calm steady gaze of people who seemed to lack any turbulent and upsetting emotions.

From FOLLOW THE SKY by Pamela Sargent (2004)


'An entirely old one, rather. The Tyranni are destroying the right of twenty billion human beings to take part in the development of the race. You've been to school. You've learned the economic cycle. A new planet is settled' — he was ticking the points off on his fingers — 'and its first care is to feed itself. It becomes an agricultural world, a herding world. It begins to dig in the ground for crude ore to export, and sends its agricultural surplus abroad to buy luxuries and machinery. That is the second step. Then, as population increases and foreign investments grow, an industrial civilization begins to bud, which is the third step. Eventually, the world becomes mechanized, importing food, exporting machinery, investing in the development of more primitive worlds, and so on. The fourth step.

'Always the mechanized worlds are the most thickly populated, the most powerful, militarily — since war is a function of machines — and they are usually surrounded by a fringe of agricultural, dependent worlds.

'But what has happened to us? We were at the third step, with a growing industry. And now? That growth has been stopped, frozen, forced to recede.

It would interfere with Tyrannian control of our industrial necessities. It is a short-term investment on their part, because eventually we'll become unprofitable as we become impoverished. But meanwhile, they skim the cream.

'Besides, if we industrialized ourselves, we might develop weapons of war. So industrialization is stopped; scientific research is forbidden. And eventually the people become so used to that, they lack the realization even that anything is missing. So that you are surprised when I tell you that I could be executed for building a visisonor.

'Of course, someday we will beat the Tyranni. It is fairly inevitable. They can't rule forever. No one can. They'll grow soft and lazy. They will intermarry and lose much of their separate traditions. They will become corrupt. But it may take centuries, because history doesn't hurry. And when those centuries have passed, we will still all be agricultural worlds with no industrial or scientific heritage to speak of, while our neighbors on all sides, those not under Tyrannian control, will be strong and urbanized. The Kingdoms will be semicolonial areas forever. They will never catch up, and we will be merely observers in the great drama of human advance.'

From THE STARS, LIKE DUST by Isaac Asimov

Helping Your Neighbor

RocketCat sez

Yeah, yeah I know. All you staunch pseudo-Libertarian types who have a two-year-old's deep-seated aversions to being told what not to do, have this paradisaical vision of space being the New Frontier. Specifically a place where men are men, women are women, and there are no pesky authority figures forbidding you to impulsively do whatever you blasted please at any given moment. The land where you can take advantage of all the benefits of society and feel no obligation to live up to the responsibilities. A place that you can become a Space Cossack.

Well, Mister Impulse-control-problem man, I've got bad news for you.

I know what you are thinking: "the space frontier is the same as America's pioneer days". Sorry, Charles Stross proved that idea kinda flopped outta the south end of a north-bound bull.

But there is a more fundamental problem: in a place where your space suit popping a seam can kill you in ninety seconds flat, a person who "does not play well with others" will have the life-span of a soldier who is a jerk to everybody in their unit. Not just that they'll arrange airlock accidents for your benefit, but because they'll be somewhat slow and reluctant to come to your aid when you scream for help. Either of which will make you a poor life insurance risk.

Yes, you just chug-a-lugged all that "wild west" dreck about "the only law is the law you make with your trusty six-shooter". Well, I'm sure the thought of your trusty laser pistol will console your dying agonies as your suit leaks air from that spot in the small of your back which is just out of your reach. All all alone.

And it is really really hard to have a dome raising bee with only one person.

But the point is that Libertarian rule only works in an area where the the population is One. Things get tense where there are two or more people.

And if you get a small Libertarian community, you will have either

  • [a] Open warfare
  • [b] A cohesive group who will hunt you down like the dangerous non-conformist pseudo-Libertarian mad dog you are
  • [c] A community of sheep enslaved by the biggest meanest sociopathic thug who just happens to be quicker on the draw than anyone else. Probably quicker than you, too.

Or [d] An outcry from the community to get rid of Libertarian social Darwinism and replace it with the rule of Space Law so as to establish a place where "decent people" can live. Which means it'll suddenly have rules, laws, lawyers, treaties, politicians, and everything else on Terra that you were fleeing from.

Laws will happen even quicker if something lucrative is discovered in the region. Then the mega-corporations will show up, smelling profit. They will quickly establish either national or corporate laws in order to protect their income stream. Either of which will outlaw Libertarianism. And either of which will have an army expeditionary force from their bought politicians or a large unit of corporate enforcers.

But what if by some magic means the corporations are prevented from coming and bringing their laws, so that Libertarianism can flourish? Well, then that region of space will remain a miserable back-water, with you growing a long beard and living the life of a prepper survivalist much like Ted Kaczynski, using powdered regolith for toilet paper. No laws = no civilization nor the benefits thereof.

The bottom line: you ain't gonna have a Rocketpunk Future without Space Law. It's TANSTAAFL, bub.

If you were a settler in the American Frontier back in the 1800s, and were a rugged individualist, you'd settle in some lonesome valley with nobody else closer than a couple of hundred miles.

Which would increase the chance of a future settler discovering the dessicated bones of your unburied body by about three orders of magnitude.

The continued struggle between people and governments. We all would like to be self sufficient, but we must trade a certain level of independence so together we can build something greater.

Unless it is your dream to farm and hunt away from civilization and build your own house and live knowing that you are one broken ankle away from starvation.

Vonmatrices (2017)

The point being that pioneering all alone is much like a trapeze artist performing with no net. The difference being that trapeze artists eschew nets to excite their audience, and the pioneer has no audience. Except their egos.

Having a neighbor to lend a helping hand when an unexpected catastrophe strikes could be the difference between life and death.


Because of this holistic experience of studying a small, relatively self-sufficient community and trying to figure out all its parts and how they fit together, I find most discussions of space settlement curiously incomplete. Typically, they go to great lengths to explain how habitats will be built on a planetary surface or in space, how food will be grown in these habitats, and how the community will earn its way by mining or manufacturing some valuable product; then they skip on to few details about domestic architecture, local government, and the like.

Thatching a Roof in Polynesia

A communal working group thatches a roof on the island of Nukuria, a Polynesian atoll located in the Bismarck Archipelago near New Guinea. In this atoll community of some 200 inhabitants, people work cooperatively on such chores as roof thatching, much as early American farmers used to help each other out with barn-building “bees.”

The isolation, small size, and relative self-sufficiency of such island communities allows the anthropologist studying them to gain a holistic perspective on all facets of life from birth to death. This holistic perspective in turn may enable anthropologists to foresee critical human elements in future space settlements that planners who are inexperienced in the functioning of small, relatively self-contained communities may ignore.

(ed note: imagine the inhabitants of a tiny asteroid colony cooperating in a "dome raising" bee for a new resident. )

From SPACE MIGRATIONS: ANTHROPOLOGY AND THE HUMANIZATION OF SPACE by Ben R. Finney. Collected in Space Resources NASA SP-509 vol 4

This principle also scales. Meaning that an entire planetary colony can increase their survival chances by several orders of magnitude if they have other colonies as neighbors. Naturally this depends upon the speed and range of starships to determine how close is close enough. It will have to be cheek by jowl if you are forced to use slower-than-light Bussard ramjets. The range will be much greater if you have starships with speeds measured in light-years per day.

A good example can be found in Joan Vinge's The Outcasts Of Heaven's Belt.

Warning: Spoilers!

The colony of Heaven's Belt was in a solar system with no habitable planets. But it had huge asteroid belts just jam-packed with valuable minerals and a ringed gas giant full of vital volatile gases. Heaven's Belt was rich, rich, rich. Lots of asteroid colonies with streets paved with gold.

Heaven's Belt did not need any help from any of their poor neighbors, thank you very much.

One of the poor neighbors is the planet Morningside, three light-years away from the Heaven's Belt system. They build a Bussard ramjet starship the Ranger and send a mission to Heaven's Belt. They go hat-in-hand, hoping to open some limited trade and sharing of Heaven's Belt's bounty.

They got a rather rude surprise

It seems that about three gigaseconds ago (about a hundred years) Heaven's Belt had a civil war. And all the factions have been slowly dying ever since. You see, if a planetary colony on a shirt-sleeve habitable planet falls into barbarism, everybody simply reverts to a non-technological agrarian society. If an asteroid civilization falls into barbarism, everybody dies.

It takes lots of technology to run the oxygen system, airlocks, spaceships, hydroponics, nuclear reactors, and other items vital for life in space. No technology, no life. The infrastructure of the system was wrecked enough in the war to start the downward slide.

Betha saw suddenly the fatal flaw the original colonizers, already Belters, must never have considered. Without a world to hold an atmosphere, air and water — all the fundamentals of life — had to be processed or manufactured or they didn't exist. And without a technology capable of processing and manufacturing, in a system without an Earthlike world to retreat to, any Dark Age would mean extinction.

From THE OUTCASTS OF HEAVEN BELT by Joan Vinge (1978)

The starship Ranger is attacked by the Discan dying faction, who mistake the Ranger for a raiding ship from the Demarchy dying faction. One of chemically powered Discan ships gets a lucky shot with a missile, killing most of the Ranger's crew.

The enraged captain of the Ranger savagely shows the Discan ships its tail. This both incinerates one of the Discan ships and crew into ionized vapor, and reveals to everybody living in the Heaven's Belt system the existance of the first functional fusion drive they've seen in three gigaseconds. The technology on the starship could mean the difference between life and death for the entire Heaven's Belt system! Or just for the faction lucky enough to seize it…

The hunt is on! All the factions want the starship. All the ship wants is enough hydrogen fuel to get back up to ramjet speeds so they can get the hell out of this Mad Max system and go home.

Hilarity ensues.

Anyway, after lots of adventures that you can read all about in the novel, the situation is finally resolved. Though only after the Discans, Demarchy, and the Ranger find themselves in a Mexican standoff.

The Ranger will be refueled with hydrogen, and allowed to depart in peace. In exchange, Heaven's Belt will be put into the Trading Ring. This is a network of neighbor star colonies, who help each other when one gets in trouble. The resolution was easier once everybody admitted that seizing the Ranger might slow the technological decay, but there was no way it could stop it.

     (Wadie of the Demarchy said) “Sooner than I could change Heaven…Ironic, isn’t it; that we (Heaven's Belt) began with everything and Morningside with nothing…and look who failed.”
     “We almost failed too—more than once.” Betha (captain of the Ranger) stared at the wall, looking through time. “So did Uhuru, and Hellhole, and Lebensraum. But we had help.
     “From where?

     “From each other. Planets like Morningside are so marginal any small setback becomes a disaster…but they’re the most common kind of habitable world (close to class M primary); they’re all like Morningside in our volume of space. But our worlds are within reach of one another. We set up a trade ring, and when one of us falls flat, the rest pick it up and put it back together. And that’s how we survive. That’s all we do; we survive. But it’s enough…it’ll have to be enough forever, now that our journey here has failed.
     “If you’d come before the war, Betha, maybe the five of us would even be doin’ some good. Heaven could have learned somethin’ then about sharing. Now it’s too late; there’s nothing left to share.”

     She shifted position again, wincing. “Wadie…you said the knowledge that put Heaven’s technology where it was is still intact. That if you could rebuild your capital industry, you could still make the Belt work again, and it could be everything it once was. You said even the Ranger could make the diiference…What if—what if we tied you into our trading network? lt’s feasible; the distance here from Morningside isn’t that much greater than the distances we already travel. If we gave you the means for recovery, you could give us what we wanted all along, a richer life for all our worlds—and you’d never have to see this happen again!”

     He listened to her voice come alive with inspiration; felt suddenly as though the pain and grief had lifted from her mind only to settle in his own. “That’s what I said. But I was wrong.”
     “We’ve gone down too far. We can’t recover now; death is a disease that’s infected us all. We’ll never work together now, even to save ourselves.”
     “But if they could understand that there was hope for all of them…”
     “How could you make them understand? You’ve seen how well they listen.” He slammed his hand down on the bench. “They wouldn’t listen!”

(ed note: The Ranger got the fuel it needed. Instead of instantly leaving the system, it honorably fulfills its promise to the asteroid colony of Lansing delivering a load of hydrogen. Because they act with honor, they are of course ambushed simultaneously by tasks forces from the Demarchy and from Discus. Who are also surprised at finding each other. Instant Mexican standoff, with nuclear weapons.)

(Captain Betha of the Ranger said) “And so we’re all going to die, and so are they…and so is Heaven.” Her voice rose. “And for what? This is insane—”

“Don’t you think they know that?” Wadie (of the Demarchy) moved toward her, almost touched her again. “They know it as well as we do. But they’re trapped here just like we are; all that’s happened in the last two and a half gigasecs (80 years) since the war, all the frustration and fear, has been leadin’ down to this…It had to end like this. Your own song says it—‘No one ever changed a world.’”

She drew away from him. “It’s the people who have to be willing to change! It didn’t have to end like this. If they could have seen that there was still a future…There could still be one now, but even you can’t see it; you won’t see it. You’re right, death is what you want…Suicide is the ultimate selfishness, and I’ve never seen a people more ready to commit it.” She unstrapped, pushing up out of her seat and away from him, her breath catching at the punishment of sudden movement. “You deserve it. Damn you all!”

(Wadie of the Demarchy said to MacWong, the leader of the Demarchy task force) “We’re all dead men unless you listen to me! Because of this ship, which you don’t have any more right to than Nakamore (leader of the Discus task force) does, or I do. For God’s sake, MacWong, there were seven people on this ship, who came three light-years from another system to Heaven; and five of them are already dead because of it. And now you’re goin’ to destroy the rest of them, along with the best ships left to the Demarchy and the (Discus) Rings? You’re all that’s left of Heaven Belt, and your own greed is ripping your guts out. You’re killin’ yourselves because you’re scared to die. Taking the starship won’t save Heaven, and it’s goin’ to finish you off instead, if you let it.

“But you don’t have to let it happen.” He nodded at Betha waiting beside him, silent with surprise. “These people came to trade with us because they wanted a better life. And in spite of what we’ve done to them, they’re still willin’ to trade. There’s a whole trade ring of worlds out there, holding each other up so that they never fall into the kind of trap we’ve put ourselves in. They can save us too. Heaven Belt can be all it ever was if we join them.” He waited, searching the screen for a response. “Let the starship leave Heaven, instead of destroyin’ it. You’ll accomplish the same goal but you’ll have everything to gain and nothing to lose.”

(ed note: And in the end, sanity prevails.)

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labours. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.
From THE OUTCASTS OF HEAVEN BELT by Joan Vinge (1978)

My Word Is My Bond

New colonies are always short on everything: supplies, time, manpower, you name it.

Especially reliable people.

Just like in the stereotypical US frontier cowboy movie, things are so tight and limited that there is not a lot of slack. You need friends and workers who can be relied upon. Ones that are guaranteed to perform the tasks that they promised to do.

In short: people who will keep their word.

In Jerry Pournelle's BIRTH OF FIRE among the Martian colonists, a person's most valuable possession is their word of honor. They might still be focused on money and profit like a laserized Ferengi {because air ain't free}, but there are dire consequences if you do any back-stabbing, lying, or cheating. If your word of honor is worthless, you will anger a lot of people and they will be slow and reluctant to come to your aid when you scream for help. Which will probably drastically shorten your life span. Like if your space suit pops a seam in a spot you can't reach with an emergency sealer patch.

Deliberately break your word once, and suddenly you are unreliable. Break it twice and no one will ever trust you again. Pseudo-Libertarian are not big on keeping their word because Caveat Emptor, but RocketCat has a word or two about that.

The old expression "My Word Is My Bond" means you will always keep your promise. It comes from "My Word Is As Good As My Bond", which is a variant on the 1800 London Stock Market expression "Dictum Meum Pactum" ("Said My Covenant"), which is probably related to the 1500 Scottish "O Kingis Word Shuld Be O Kingis Bonde".

Obviously this only applies in a sparcely populated pioneer-like situation. Once the place becomes crowded and "civilized" everybody's word devalues down to about used-car salesman levels.


(ed note: Pittson was convicted of a crime, and given a choice between prison or becoming a Mars colonist. He chose the latter. On Mars, a gentleman named Farr explains the situation.)

      "You'll know." Farr nodded to himself. "Now let me give you something else to think about. What do you have that's valuable?"
     That didn't take much thought. "Nothing at all."
     "Yes, you do. Your word. Is it good?"
     I didn't understand and my face must have shown it. He shook his head and said, more to himself than to me, "It's an idea that's gone out of fashion on Earth. Out here a man's word is either good or it isn't. No compromises. Marsmen trust each other. We have to know that when a man gives his word he's not thinking about some way to weasel out.
     "Pittson, nobody out here knows or cares what you did before you got here. You can start over. You can be anything you want to be. Anything you're good enough to be and will work hard enough for. Now go think about that."

     "Hell no. Retired years ago. So did the Old Man. He went to prisoner-chasin' and I went to farming. What do they call you, Pittson?"
     "Garrett's my name—"
     "Fine. Garrett, you were told to think about something. Did you?"
     "I'll make my word good."
     Sarge grinned. "Okay. And you can trust people, a little anyway, or you wouldn't have waited for me. Garrett, I have a big place out there. Lots of work. You'll sweat your balls off, and I won't pay you much, but you stick with me a Mars year—that's two Earth years—and you'll know the score and have a stake you can use to get out on your own. That's what you want, right?"

From BIRTH OF FIRE by Jerry Pournelle (1976)

(ed note: The small colony world of Beltane is rejoicing over the end of the Four Sectors War. This is because they are too civilian and stupid to realize that the war has triggered The Long Night and galactic civilization is collapsing. A rogue starship shows up claiming to be refugees but they are actually space vikings looking for a place to set up a raiding base. The colony leaders fall for the fake story even though they were warned. When a second rogue ship show up the colony realizes that they've been had, and tells the rogue ship to leave or the leaders will be forced to send them a strongly worded letter.

The rogue ships respond by nuking the second largest city.

But the rogues find out the hard way that Beltane was a biological experimental station when the surviving colony leaders unleash a genetically engineered lethal plague virus. The rogues are desperate to find the cure. The surviving rogues at any rate.

The protagonists are children and young adults who were in underground caves while all this excitement was going on. They do quickly figure out that the rogues are hunting them, hoping they know of a cure.)

      We hurried on until the swamp veered to the south, and we took a path more to the west. Meanwhile, we listened for the (rogue's) flitter, but when we were able to make such good time without hearing or seeing anything that suggested we were still the object of a search, we relaxed somewhat, but not enough to walk into the trap they had set.
     I had no (infrared) scope, but I did have something that anyone with even limited Ranger training developed speedily or else was no aid to such service at all—a sixth sense of warning. I stopped short as we came to where we must round an abutting pillar of rock, throwing out my arm as a barrier to halt Thad also.
     Instead of advancing, I inched back, pushing Thad. I listened, tried to sniff any alien odor (though scent is the least of all warning for my species). There was no sign of danger ahead—except that I knew something waited for us there.
     With a last rush I threw myself back into a pocket behind the rock, carrying Thad, half under me, to the ground. We lay there for a long moment, listening.
     I do not know how they knew their trap had failed. Perhaps they had the scope at their service to tell them we were near. They were hard driven, so hard driven that they tried now openly what they had failed to accomplish with their ambush.
     "We know you are there." The voice boomed among the rocks as it had in the air near the port. "We mean you no harm. We need your help—truce oath."

     Truce oath? Yes, once there had been such promises, and men had kept them. But for what had happened here on Beltane—after what we had seen—there was no trust in the "honor" of those we faced.

     "You need us, we need you—" the voice continued, and there was a note of desperation in it. "Look, we'll disarm. See—"
     Out into the moonlight beyond the rock spun weapons, four of them. They clanged down on the stone and gravel and lay with the light shimmering on them; a blaster, two lasers, and another piece I could not identify but had no doubts was just as deadly as the other two—perhaps more so.
     "We're coming out now—empty hands—truce oath—"

(ed note: The children act logically. When the rogues come out with their hands up, the children use their stunners to beam the rogues unconscious then run away.)

From DARK PIPER by Andre Norton (1968)

      Again Rerne tried to flex his upper arms. "If you will just loose me the rest of the way, Horan, I can bring in reinforcements."
     "No." Troy's dissent was flat and quick.
     "Why?" Rerne did not sound angry, merely interested.
     "We are criminals—remember?"
     "Where there is a common enemy there can be a truce. In the Wild I do have some small authority."
     Troy considered that. Trust was a rare commodity in the Dipple (the mega-slum that Troy comes from). If he gave his now to this man, as he was so greatly tempted to do, he would be putting a weapon in Rerne's hands just as surely as if he were to hand over the blaster. And again his suspicion warred with his desire to believe in the other.
     "A truce, until we are out of here," Rerne suggested. "I am willing to swear knife oath if you wish."
     Troy shook his head. "Your word, no oaths—if I accept." He paid that much tribute openly to the ranger. "Truce and a head start for me, with them."

     "Men waiting," Simba (the telepathic mutant cat, Troy's ally) warned.
     Well, that was to be expected—Rerne's men.
     "Not enemies," Troy replied.
     "We have you covered! Drop your blaster!"
     Troy spun halfway around as he caught a glimpse of a uniformed shoulder, a hand holding a blaster. His arm, still stiff from the cut, went up and his fingers gripped Rerne, pulling the other to him as a shield. He heard a gasp from the ranger and an exclamation of anger.
     "So this is the worth of a Clansman's word!" Troy spat. "Would your knife oath have held any better?" Then he raised his voice to reach the others. "We got out—this Hunter lord with us. Any attempted burn-down and he roasts too!"
     Rerne offered no resistance as Troy propelled him ahead into the open. There was a muttering behind but no bolt to shatter the gloom.

(ed note: as it turns out, Rerne did not break his word of honor. The ambush is men from a criminal conspiracy)

From CATSEYE by Andre Norton (1961)

Living Systems Theory

In 1978 James Grier Miller published his Living System Theory. His central thesis is that the systems in existence are open systems composed of twenty critical subsystems that process inputs, through-puts, and outputs of various forms of matter-energy and information.

This is relevant to our interests because LST can be used to analyze Space Stations, Spaceports, Planetary Bases, and Colonies. Spacecraft as well, for that matter. Such analysis can spot areas that can be optimized, places that are bottlenecks, and prime targets for sabotage attacks.

LST can also apply to a team of people, such as a spaceship crew. Here is a document where a member of the US Army tried to apply LST to armored fighting vehicle crews.

LST might allow the creation of a definition of "life" more sophisticated that "something that dies when you stamp on it". Current definitions are equivocal, controversial, or otherwise unsatisfactory. Which could prove embarrassing or worse if future space explorers stumble over an alien phenomenon that may or may not be a life form.

Robert Freitas Jr. even speculates that LST might be the foundation of a science of Cliology or the psychohistory envisioned by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation trilogy.

All of which should bring a smile to the face of science fiction authors and game designers searching for plot complications and critical paths. This will also have applications to games in areas similar to Resource management and Base Construction in Starcraft-like games. Not to mention spacecraft construction games similar to Kerbal Space Program.

Miller discusses applying LST to space exploration in Applications of Living Systems Theory to Life in Space, which can be found online here, and in PDF form here(on Volume 4, section VI). Other good reading on LST include Tank Crews and Platoons as Living Systems by Billy L. Burnside, A General Theory of Living Systems by Robert A. Freitas, Jr. and The Appropriateness Of Using The Living Systems Theory By James Grier Miller As A Diagnostic Tool by Lars Lorentsson.

The two types of resources handled are Matter-Energy and Information.

There are twenty different subsystem types. Two of these subsystems—Reproducer and Boundary—process both matter-energy and information. Eight of them process only matter-energy. The other ten process information only. Most of the subsystems are in pairs: e.g., the Matter-Energy Storage subsystem and the Memory subsystem are just like each other save that one is for matter-energy and the other is for information. See the table below.

There are five type of flow: Matter, Energy, Information/Communication, People, and Money. People flows are classed as matter-energy + information. Money flows are classed as a subclass of information.

Flows of Matter, Energy, and People connect to matter-energy subsystems. Flows of Information, People, and Money connect to information subsystems. Any of the five flows can connect to Reproducer and Boundary subsystems

And there are eight levels of living systems: Cell, Organ, Organism, Group, Organization, Community, Society, and Supranational System. This shows that living systems are fractals: a Organism living systems is composed of several Organ living systems. Robert Freitas Jr. suggests that there may be three more levels: Interplanetary Society, Interstellar Community, and Galactic Civilization.

According to Dr. Miller, a living system needs to have all twenty subsystems in order to stay alive. If any one subsystem is blocked or destroyed the system eventually dies. At a given level the system must either possess all twenty subsystems or at least have all missing subsystem functions available by being "dispersed".

Dispersed means one or more of the subsystems are absent but their jobs are delegated to another level (upward or downward). For instance, on the level of an organism's internal organs (Organ level), the "Reproducer" subsystem is absent and its job is dispersed upward to the level of the entire organism (Organism level). A single internal organ cannot reproduce itself, that function is delegated one level upward. An entire organism can reproduce itself by using a womb, in the process of which each individual internal organ is also reproduced.

Subsystems can also be dispersed outwardly/laterally/horizontally, that is, delegated to another position at the same level. In an army tank battalion, the battalion requires Matter-Energy Storage subsystems in the form of huge fuel tanks. Instead of each armored fighting vehicle in the battalion having its own Matter-Energy Storage subsystem, that function is dispersed horizontally to fuel tanker trucks that are also part of the battalion level.

The Subsystems of Living Systems
Subsystems which process both matter-energy and information
1. Reproducer, the subsystem which carries out the instructions in the genetic information or charter of a system and mobilizes matter, energy, and information to produce on or more similar systems. Please note it is intended to reproduce the entire system, not create replacement for individual components of the system.
Example: the charter of a group.
2. Boundary, the subsystem at the perimeter of a system that holds together the components which make up the system, protects them from environmental stresses, and excludes or permits entry to various sorts of matter-energy and information.
Example: A cell wall. Guards patrolling the fences and gates of an organization's property.
Subsystems which process matter-energySubsystems which process information
3. Ingestor, the subsystem which brings matter-energy across the system boundary from the environment.
Example: an organization's procurement or receiving departments.
11. Input Transducer, the sensory subsystem which brings markers bearing information into the system, changing them to other matter-energy forms suitable for transmission within it (e.g., writing a phone conversation down on paper).
Example: military scouts, telephone operators, personnel distributing mail, intelligence gathering units.
12. Internal Transducer, the sensory subsystem which receives, from subsystems or components within the system, markers bearing information about significant alterations in those subsystems or components, changing them to other matter-energy forms of a sort which can be transmitted within it.
Example: group ombudsman or sensor of group changes, internal inspection or auditing unit in an organization.
4. Distributor, the subsystem which carries inputs from outside the system or outputs from its subsystems around the system to each component.
Example: an organization's truck drivers and supply clerks.
13. Channel and Net, the subsystem composed of a single route in physical space or multiple interconnected routes over which markers bearing information are transmitted to all parts of the system.
Example: talking, telephones, radio.
14. Timer, the subsystem which transmits to the decider information about time-related states of the environment or of components of the system. This information signals the decider of the system or deciders of subsystems to start, stop, alter the rate, or advance or delay the phase of one or more of the system's processes, thus coordinating them in time.
5. Converter, the subsystem which changes certain inputs to the system into forms more useful for the special processes of that particular system.
Example: an organizations subsidiary groups operating oil refineries, electric generating plants, slaughter houses, etc.
15. Decoder, the subsystem which alters the code of information input into it through the input transducer or internal transducer into a "private" code that can be used internally by the system.
Example: language translation teams, deciphering secret messages, interpreting intelligence data, interpreting directives and regulations.
6. Producer, the subsystem which forms stable associations that endure for significant periods among matter-energy inputs to the system or outputs from its converter, the materials synthesized being for growth, damage repair, or replacement of components of the system, or for providing energy for moving or constituting the system's outputs of products or information markers to its subsystems.
Example: components involved in the cooking of food, factory production, maintenance and repair of equipment, building construction.
16. Associator, the subsystem which carries out the first stage of the learning process, forming enduring associations among items of information in the system. Information can come from input transducer, internal transducer, or memory.
Example: scientists
7. Matter-Energy Storage, the subsystem which places matter or energy at some location in the system, retains it over time, and retrieves it.
Example: refrigerators, lockers, stock rooms, fuel storage tanks.
17. Memory, the subsystem which carries out the second stage of the learning process, storing information in the system for different periods of time, and then retrieving it.
Example: filing sections, librarians, computer operators.
18. Decider, the executive subsystem which receives information inputs from all other subsystems and transmits to them outputs for guidance, coordination, and control of the system. This is the only subsystem that cannot be "dispersed" to another system above or below this system. It can be laterally dispersed i.e., decision making can be decentralized.
Example: group leader, headquarters or executive office of an organization.
19. Encoder, the subsystem which alters the code of information input to it from other information processing subsystems, from a "private" code used internally by the system into a "public" code which can be interpreted by other systems in its environment.
Example: speech writers, lobbyists, advertising departments.
8. Extruder, the subsystem which transmits matter-energy out of the system in the form of products or wastes.
Example: cleaning crews, sewage disposal units, delivery trucks and drivers, crews manning trains, barges, or other delivery systems.
20. Output Transducer, the subsystem which puts out markers bearing information from the system, changing markers within the system into other matter-energy forms which can be transmitted over channels in the system's environment.
Example: radio operators, public relations departments, news-releasing agencies.
9. Motor, the subsystem which moves the system or parts of it in relation to part or all of its environment or moves components of its environment in relationship to each other.
Example: moving crews, car pools.
10. Supporter, the subsystem which maintains the proper spacial relationships among components of the system, so that they can interact without weighting each other down or crowding each other.
Example: building managers and designers, walls, tables, chairs.

It is thus important to mention functions that serve as threatening to the system and its survival. LST is not only concerned with the attributes and functionality of healthy living systems, but also with aspects that function as menacing for the system (Tracy, 1992).

Processes that function as menacing for the system must be exposed and outlined, in order to find ways of dealing with them in appropriate ways. These malfunctions can cause the system to go towards states that is pathological. LST makes it possible to determine whether the condition of a system is pathological, by establishing a set of situations that, if not dealt with in time, functions as mortal for the system (Miller, 1995).

Miller & Miller (1991) has identified eight such situations:

  1. Lacks of matter or energy inputs
  2. Excesses of mater or energy inputs
  3. Inputs of inappropriate forms of matter or energy
  4. Lack of information inputs
  5. Excesses of information inputs
  6. Inputs of maladaptive genetic information in the template
  7. Abnormalities in internal matter or energy processes
  8. Abnormalities in internal information processes

Examples of each of these pathological situations are here given from the project management view (since this work is concerned with information systems development processes).

  1. Lacks of matter or energy inputs: The equipment needed for the project did not arrive when agreed upon (computers, hardware, laboratory equipment, etc.).
  2. Excesses of mater or energy inputs: Too much material and equipment arrived and had to be sorted with (equipment must be sent back to the supplier, invoices had to be corrected and revised).
  3. Inputs of inappropriate forms of matter or energy: The wrong kind of equipment arrived for the project (the wrong hardware or software, computers, laboratory equipment, etc.).
  4. Lack of information inputs: The project manager does not get the needed information in time during different phases in the project.
  5. Excesses of information inputs: The project manager gets too much information from various sources and finds it difficult to screen out appropriate information from inappropriate information.
  6. Inputs of maladaptive genetic information in the template: The account manager finds irregularities in the bookkeeping.
  7. Abnormalities in internal matter or energy processes: When the computerised production system was implemented, the system broke down and an analyse shows the new system had some incorrectness in the code.
  8. Abnormalities in internal information processes: A further investigation shows that the incorrectness in the code was due to some misunderstandings in the mapping of the new production flow.

I have always liked the games which let the player manage people. Most just simplify the process, leaving him with mindless automatons who just follow orders and, sometimes, maybe leave or attack when conditions become unbearable. Very rarely your underlings will have any ambitions beyond serving you and getting paid. Rome and Crusader Kings 2 are precious examples of the game where your vassals may plot against you.

Still, I sometimes dream about a game where the main difficulty would be managing an organization. Dealing with internal backstabbing, competition, disloyalty, corruption and inefficiency. Orders could be subverted, reports falsified, work deliberately sabotaged. I would also like it had some more forms of intra-organizational hostility than outright violence and hard-coded espionage options: AI should be able to see weaknesses in the enemy's organizational structure and act accordingly. Which manufacturing process to sabotage, which underling to bribe to turn a blind eye, which manager to best approach to strike a lucrative deal. Of course, this won't happen nowhere in near future.

One of the things we lack is a nice, simple model to describe an organization. Something standard enough that could incorporate anything from primitive tribal villages to corporations, governments and espionage organizations. Sounds hard, but I think I have recently found something.

Living systems theory is quite old (1978). Its main principle is that all living things operate at least a bit similarly. They need to take matter and energy from the outside any organize it using information to resist entropy, maintaining a stable state. Moreover, they tend to organize in levels: cell, organ, organism, group, organization, society, supra-national system, each level behaving somewhat similarly.

Have you ever criticized corporate personhood? Well, according to this theory, they are at least living beings. The same with nations or churches.

The book has over 1000 pages, so I'm just going to sum up the things that may be useful.

1. Variables and stresses

You can point out some numeric that a living system just needs to keep stable. A cell needs to keep its cell barrier intact to prevent the contents to spill out, enough food and oxygen to keep its internal processes running, proper temperature, etc. A corporation needs enough workers on proper positions, liquid assets to pay them and buy materials, enough materials to produce and products to be sold. If one of them goes beyond their normal boundaries it causes a stress. Most, if not all, activity of a living systems is reacting to existing and anticipated stresses.

This is important, because it tells a lot how an organization works. They are pretty inactive unless one of their important variables is, or will be, threatened. Even the most benevolent organizations will eventually evolve to care mostly for their own survival mostly, or dissolve. Moreover, they usually tailor their response to the threat magnitude. Until it happens, they are pretty content to just sit there.

Why don't all organizations just focus on gathering resources? Why are there churches, fund-raising organizations, hobbyist groups? According to the theory it is an example of specialization. An organization is composed of groups of people, so it needs to bring them in somehow. Some of them are created by the society (their suprasystem) to perform some necessary tasks and processes. If they cease to be needed, people will leave them and the society will eventually stop to support them. So churches need to satisfy their members' religious needs, soup kitchens need to feed the poor. Otherwise they are maladapted and won't survive.

In short: just stick to what makes an organization thrive. Ignore the rest.

2. Subsystems

Every living system needs to perform some particular functions to survive, so we can expect them to have some particular subsystems.

Obviously they need to react. Otherwise we have no living system, just a lump of concentrated matter. This is where the decider comes handy.

All living systems need to separate themselves from the outside world a bit, keeping harmful matter-energy and information outside. The boundary does that. on higher levels, from groups upward, it is much more fluid, but it is there. A family won't just let anyone into their house or let their valuables to be taken away.

Matter-energy flows in through ingestor, is distributed by distributor, processed by converter and, eventually, producer or stored in matter-energy storage. Wastes and completed products go through the extruder outside.

Information flows in through input transducer or is generated inside with internal transducer, then is translated by decoder into a form comprehensible to the decider.  Channel and net transmit the information, associator and memory make learning possible. Encoder re-translates the information that needs to go out into something else (like speech) and output transducer transmits it outside.

Last, but not least, the reproducer lets the system, well, reproduce.

What's important with these subsystems that they are abstract. The heart, for example, is only a part of the distributor. Lungs act as parts of ingestor (inhaling oxygen), extruder (exhaling carbon dioxide) and converter (binding oxygen with blood cells). Same goes for groups and upward.

Components are probably the most valuable part of this theory. Game AI could be programmed to recognize crucial parts of organizations and act accordingly without hard-coding everything. If a human village needs water to survive, then — in a siege — an obvious solution would be to cut off the stream, or send someone to poison the well. If breaking into the bank vault is too difficult because of the walls, then perhaps entering through the ingestor disguised will be more fruitful. If a nation is bothered by terrorist cells popping out, it needs to learn how they reproduce and prevent that — by arresting potential members or spreading its own propaganda to counter their influence.

There are also various hypotheses about how living systems govern themselves — how power and authority work, what are the most common stresses, how information-processing components distort the information (almost always to maximize their rewards and minimize punishments from the suprasystem), how are the signals encoded, etc. I am currently just walking around the book and thinking, how to best tackle the problem. Matter-energy processes seem pretty simple, but information will need a lot of work.

As all living systems have a genetic code, it seems almost natural to borrow the concept of memes from Dawkins. Decoder would translate gathered data to some simple symbols (hunger, danger, food, peace, etc.), which could be connected by the associator and stored. The decider could make the decision based on symbol being given — an individual who connects "corporation" with "danger", approached by its executive will do something else, than the one who connects it with "money". The main problem is that I'm not really sure how the symbols should interact with each other to even have some semblance of a coherent thought process. I will need to research more.

(ed note: this is an example of applying Living System Theory (LST) to US Army crews of tanks (armored fighting vehicles). This provides useful real-world examples of the subsystems.
Note that this was written before the 20th subsystem (Timer) was added to LST.
A tank crew is a team composed of four soldiers: tank commander (TC), gunner, loader, and driver. A tank platoon is composed of five tanks and their crews.
"Tables" are gunnery qualification tables, a test tank crews have to pass in order to be rated as qualified to operate a tank in combat.)

The target engagement processes of tank crews and platoons are further described below, in the context of the 19 critical subsystems prescribed by LST. The descriptions are necessarily brief, and do not cover all contingencies and details which might arise. However, they do provide an initial framework for understanding all structures and processes of tank crews and platoons; the utility of this framework for guiding research and improving operations is assessed in later chapters.

1. Reproducer. This subsystem does not exist at the levels of tanks crews and platoons; neither a crew or platoon can reproduce itself. Individual crew members and equipment components can be replaced (as part of the ingestor or producer subsystems), but intact crews and tanks cannot be created. During gunnery qualification tables, crews and platoons which cannot complete the course are rated unqualified. Qualified units cannot be obtained, except through continued training of existing crews and platoons. The reproducer subsystem is upwardly dispersed, at least to the level of division replacement. In the event of war, during the early stages of which it is anticipated that many crews and platoons would be lost, the reproducer process must be performed by the reserve system. It seems probable that a currently significant pathology of the overall military system is the lack of an adequately responsive reserve force. The reproducer process of military units is ultimately upwardly dispersed to the level of society, since Congress and the public provide the manpower and funds for replacement and reserve units. The bureaucracy involved in dispersal to this level probably prohibits the effective performance of such a reproducer process within the time-frames of modern warfare. The fact that this subsystem is critical for survival of the species sufficiently emphasizes the severity of this problem.

2. Boundary. The boundary of a tank crew is easily defined as the hull, turret, and cupola of the tank occupied. During Table VIII, all crew operations are performed within this perimeter. During wartime operations, this boundary may be somewhat extended, since individual crew members may leave the tank to scout, detect targets, or prepare firing positions (the possibility of components leaving the boundary of a system is not specifically addressed by LST). The importance of this subsystem during wartime is obvious, since penetration of the boundary by hostile fire usually means the death of the system. The boundary is maintained by keeping hatches closed, by using terrain features for protection during movement, and by firing from hull-down or turrets-down (partially exposed) positions. For platoons, the boundary can be considered as downwardly dispersed to individual tanks. It could also be defined in a less precise physical sense as the platoon sectors of fire or area of responsibility but the former definition seems to be more appropriate within the strict LST framework.

3. Ingestor. The matter-energy ingested by tank crews and platoons includes ammunition, fuel, water, food, and maintenance items (firing pins, flashlights, cleaning kits, etc.). These items are provided by the battalion supply system (S4) and are ingested (brought across the boundary) by various means. Fuel is ingested through hoses, ammunition is ingested through a hatch by the loader and other personnel, and food and water are brought in by individuals in canteens and rations. This process is thus to a large extent downwardly dispersed to individuals or outwardly dispersed to other personnel. During Tables VIII and IX, ingestion is accomplished prior to the exercise.

4. Distributor. The best example of the distributor process in tank crews and platoons is the stowage of ammunition in racks and the loading of the main gun and coax machine gun by loaders. The type of target anticipated may dictate a type, of ammunition to be preloaded in the main gun (termed battlesight ammunition), and, at the platoon level, anticipation of a variety of targets may dictate the preloading of different types of ammunition in different tanks. During target engagement the types of ammunition to be loaded are specified as an element of fire commands. Ammunition is placed in racks by loaders as directed in anticipation of the types of targets to be encountered. Other examples of the distributor subsystem in tanks include the distribution of matter-energy via fuel lines and electrical circuits.

5. Converter. This process does not occur extensively in tank crews and platoons, since it is largely outwardly dispersed; i.e., matter-energy is provided to these systems in a useable form. Components to which conversion is dispersed include ammunition manufacturers, ration preparers, fuel refineries, etc. Examples of the occasional occurrence of this process at the tank crew level include the setting of detonation time on a certain type of anti-personnel ammunition (BEEHIVE) by the loader, and the heating of rations.

6. Producer. The primary product of tank crews and platoons is firepower (steel on target). This is generally produced using the main gun by the TC issuing fire commands, the gunner laying on target and firing, and accomplishment of the firing sequence by the weapons system (detonation of ammunition charge in the breech). Firepower may also be produced by the TC or gunner firing their machine guns. Other products of tank crews and platoons include smoke for masking movement, and illumination of targets by use of searchlights or flares. Maintenance processes are also included in the producer subsystem; prepare-to-fire checks (sight purging check, computer check, rangefinder check, etc.), misfire procedures, and light maintenance tasks are performed by tank crews, while heavier maintenance tasks are dispersed to full-time maintenance personnel. Individual personnel replacement can also be considered as part of the producer subsystem, and it is upwardly dispersed from the crew and platoon levels, ultimately to the personnel assignment system (Military Personnel Center). The important role of crew and platoon personnel in incorporating and training new members should not be overlooked, however. The producer processes of tank crews and platoons are thus largely either outwardly dispersed or accomplished at the crew level; platoons disperse producing to crews in a coordinated fashion (e.g., one tank may provide illumination while others fire).

7. Matter-energy storage. Matter-energy is stored at the level of tank crews in ammunition racks, fuel tanks, batteries, water cans, etc. No matter-energy storage per se takes place at platoon level; the process is downwardly dispersed to individual tanks and crews, or outwardly dispersed to other units in the battalion. Components involved here include the supply, mess, and transportation sections of the battalion support platoon.

8. Extruder. The principal products of tank crews and platoons are removed from these systems through the main gun tube and machine gun barrels. Extruding for platoons is thus downwardly dispersed to individual tanks and crews (TC's, gunners, and loaders). Empty shell casings and other waste materials are kept on tanks during exercises such as Tables VIII and IX and are disposed of through hatches at appropriate later times. Cleaning of tanks is accomplished by individual crew members.

9. Motor. At the crew level this subsystem obviously includes the tank driver, engine, track, and other parts responsible for the movement of the tank. The TC may also be included, since he provides direction to the driver. The turret and gun elevation system are also parts of the motor subsystem, since they are involved in movement of parts of the tank. Thus all crew members, except perhaps the loader, are involved in the motor process. The motor subsystem for platoons is downwardly dispersed to the level of crews, since there are no platoon vehicles or movement independent of the five tanks. In Tables VIII and IX the primary motor function may be simplified to following a well-worn pathway; in actual combat it is a complex process, involving the use of terrain features for protection and the selection of optimal firing positions. In platoons the motor process must be coordinated among five tanks; for example, bounding overwatch techniques may be used, in which part of the platoon moves while the rest provides protection.

10. Supporter. In a physical sense the supporter process is governed by the interior design of the tank. Each crew member has an assigned position within the tank, and movement is restricted by the limited space available. For example, the loader has a limited operating area and he must stay clear of the recoil pathway of the main gun. This supporter process for platoons is downwardly dispersed to individual tanks. In a more abstract sense, the supporter subsystem is provided by command or leadership. The TC commands crew members to remain at their positions and accomplish specific tasks. One of the most important roles of the platoon leader is to maintain the proper spatial relationships among five tanks. Terrain features also play a role here. In LST the supporter subsystem is described in a physical sense; whether command or motivational support belongs here or elsewhere is a subject of later discussion.

11. Input transducer. Information is brought across the boundaries of crews and platoons in various ways. The TC receives instructions from higher echelons through the tank's radio, as does the platoon leader. These communications are primarily received from the next higher echelon (platoon leader or sergeant to TC, company personnel to platoon leader), but other radio frequencies may be monitored to provide additional information. During Tables VIII and IX, instructions are received from exercise controllers or scorers. Crew members acquire information used to detect, locate, and identify targets by observing the environment, with or without using sights. Each crew member has a clearly delineated sector of observation responsibility whether on a lone tank or as part of a platoon. Scanning is done continuously, first with unaided vision, then with magnified optics, searching strips 50 meters deep from right to left. Target acquisition information may also be obtained from dismounted observers equipped with binoculars and communications to the crew or platoon. The sense of hearing, as well as vision, is important in this process. Targets can be located at night using night vision devices or indirect illumination. The range to located targets can be determined by the TC using a rangefinder or other range estimation techniques, During target engagement, all crew members assist the TC in observing and sensing the effects of rounds fired. Information markers may also be brought onto tanks by individual crew members carrying training aids, checklists, etc. For example, the driver may post a card detailing starting and stopping procedures in the tank where he can easily see it. All crew members are thus involved in the input transduction process, and this process for platoons is largely dispersed to crews and individuals,

12. Internal transducer. The TC has primary responsibility for the process of monitoring information from within a tank crew, but all crew members are involved to some extent. The driver monitors gauge and instrument readings and changes them into verbal form for communication to other crew members or written form for recording in the vehicle logbook, as necessary. The gunner monitors the state of various switches, sights, and other parts of the fire control system. The loader selects appropriate types of ammunition based on shape and color,, and observes for weapons misfires or stoppages. The TC monitors the performance of the other crew members; for example, he observes the route selection and starting and stopping procedures of the driver, the ammunition selection and response of "up" by the loader, and the target acquisition by the gunner. If he observes that the gunner cannot identify and acquire a target or adjust fire correctly, he takes appropriate action to correct him or override his controls. All crew members thus continuously observe the state of each other and the tank and change their observations into appropriate verbal communications or actions. The same sorts of internal monitoring are carried out at individual and crew levels within a platoon. In addition, the platoon leader and platoon sergeant must monitor the states and positions of the other four tanks by visual observation and radio communications.

13. Channel and net. The primary communications channels in a tank crew are verbal ones using the intercom system; similarly, in a tank platoon FM radios are used. Flares, flag sets, arm signals, or other prearranged communications may also be used in a platoon in particular circumstances. In future warfare it is anticipated that jamming may lead to effective elimination of the channel and net subsystem. Since all subsystems are critical for system survival in the LST framework, alternative means of communication must be found. Platoons cannot be trained to perform satisfactorily in all situations without communications.

(ed note: this paper was written before the "timer" subsystem was added to the theory. I renumbered the items below to match.)

15. Decoder. Information is changed into internal codes or language in tank crews and platoons primarily through the issuance of fire commands by the TC or platoon leader. In general, the initial fire command issued by the TC consists of six elements (in practice, only four elements are frequently used). The first element alerts the crew of an immediate engagement (e.g., "gunner"). The second element informs the crew what ammunition and weapon is to be employed, and if the searchlight will be used (e.g, "HEAT"). The loader loads the specified ammunition in the main gun, if necessary, and responds "up". The third element describes the type of target to be engaged (e.g., "tank"), and the next two elements specify the direction and range of the target (e.g., "direct front, one thousand"). After the gunner has indicated that he sees the target (announced "identified"), the TC gives the execution element ("fire") and the gunner announces "on the way" and fires. The TC may delay firing by announcing "at my command", and he may override 'the gunner and fire the round himself by announcing "from my position". The gunner continues to fire and the loader continues to load until the TC announces "cease fire". Subsequent fire commands may include standardized announcements of sensings of rounds (where round went in relation to target) and corrections of the sight picture (where gunner is aiming). There are many other details and considerations in fire commands that cannot be listed here; the important point is that a tank crew has an extensive internal language primarily controlled by the TC. The platoon leader issues similar fire commands to all tanks in the platoon, with appropriate designations for individual tanks and the entire platoon, and elements for control of the pattern of fire. There are many instances, other than fire commands, of decoding in crews and platoons; for example, the TC decodes information into instructions for the driver, and the platoon leader provides movement instructions to TC's. Crew members other than the TC may perform decoding by announcing observations of targets, sensings of rounds, etc. Similarly, at the platoon level, TC's may decode information and provide it to the platoon leader in a standard format. Decoding is a frequently occurring process in tank crews and platoons, and it must be well enough practiced to occur rapidly (automatically) during target engagement. TC's and platoon leaders have a prime responsibility for decoding, but all crew and platoon members are involved to some extent,

16. Associator. This process of forming associations as input to problem-solving does not occur at crew and platoon levels, but is downwardly dispersed to individuals. Hopefully, during exercises such as Tables VIII and IX individuals are learning (developing associations) to perform their duties better and more rapidly. They are also learning to function together as a team, but from the LST perspective this represents individuals learning to work with other individuals, and not group learning per se. The extensive personnel turbulence ongoing in crews and platoons would seem to be a great inhibitor of this associating process. An example of associating during target engagement is target recognition by the TC or gunner; i.e., an object of a particular size and shape is observed and recognized as a dangerous enemy target to be fired upon. The incoming sensory information is thus associated with information stored in the individual's memory, and appropriate responses are made. Other examples include the TC's or platoon leader's assessment of the situation by evaluating target threats, routes, etc.

17. Memory. Information storage in crews and platoons is largely dispersed to the level of individuals; i.e., members bring information into the crew or platoon based upon their past training or experience. Examples of information storage by the crew are the entering of items (zero readings, gun tube wear, vehicle mileage, etc.) in the vehicle logbook and the preparation of range cards. An example of memory at the platoon level is the writing and use of platoon standing operating procedures (SOP's) and platoon fire plans. The platoon leader retrieves the necessary information for distributing and controlling fire from the fire plan. During Tables VIII and IX part of the memory process is outwardly dispersed to an observer or scorer, who records the results of the crew's or platoon's target engagements. Of course, a large portion of crew and platoon information storage is outwardly dispersed to preparers of technical manuals, field manuals, and other documents. Use of such institutional memory hopefully prevents units from having to reinvent the wheel too many times.

18. Decider. While all crew and platoon personnel are involved in making decisions to some extent, primary responsibility for this process resides with the TC and platoon leader. During Table VIII the TC decides which targets to engage in what order. During Table IX the platoon leader decides how to distribute the tanks and how to distribute and control their fire. Gunners may make decisions about adjustment of fire and drivers may make decisions between routes to be taken, but they do so under the direction of the TC, Decision making in these military units (as in most) is thus highly centralized within the component formally recognized as leader. As discussed earlier, the TC's and platoon leader represent echelons of decision making in a platoon, thus leading to its categorization as an organization.

19. Encoder. Information is normally prepared for external transmission from the crew by the TC and from the platoon by the platoon leader. This may involve some consolidation of information, but normally little encoding is necessary since higher Army echelons generally use the same codes as crews or platoons. In combat situations TC's or platoon leaders may encode information on fuel status, ammunition status, enemy movements, targets destroyed, etc. In Tables VIII and IX the encoding process is to some extent outwardly dispersed to observers.

20. Output transducer. The TC and the platoon leader normally use radios to output information from the crew and platoon, respectively. The types of information output in combat situations are generally those listed under encoding above. Output transducing is not an important process during Table VIII, but reporting procedures are evaluated during Table IX.


Dr. Miller lists nearly two hundred cross-level hypotheses of possibly general validity. Most of them have been discovered on one particular hierarchical level, and have then been tentatively extended and at least cursorily checked at two or more different levels. I cannot possibly list and discuss all of Miller's propositions here, but a few of my favorites include the following:

Hypothesis 3.3-1: Up to a maximum higher than yet obtained in any living system but less than one-hundred percent, the larger the percentage of all matter-energy input that it consumes in information processing controlling its various system processes, as opposed to matter-energy processing, the more likely the system is to survive.

In other words, a system cannot be "too smart." It is probably true that more complex species devote a larger fraction of their total cell mass to information processing than lower species, and no one has yet discovered a species that failed to survive because too much of its body was neural tissue. Modern organizations and advanced societies are committing continually higher percentages of their available matter-energy to the communications media and other forms of information processing, vastly more than "primitive" societies do.

Hypothesis A system which survives generally decides to employ the least costly adjustment to a threat or a strain produced by a stress first and increasingly more costly ones later.

This is a restatement of the principle of least effort. Amoebas, for example, will eat nearby food first before swimming to engulf more distant morsels. Artificially-increased acidity in a dog's bloodstream will be compensated first by hyperventilation or "overbreathing" (an attempt to produce alkalosis), and if this does not work, then by increasing the rate of chloride excretion into the urine (a more complicated adjustment). When goals are frustrated, people resort first to goal-shifting, then to rationalization, then repression, and finally psychosis if all else fails. An army, in order to repel an attack, may sacrifice first a squad, then companies of regiments, and finally, if still unsuccessfull, entire divisions may be thrown into battle.

Hypothesis Systems which survive make decisions enabling them to perform at an optimum efficiency for maximum physical power output, which is always less than maximum efficiency.

In other words, surviving systems are designed for peak loads, not normal loads. The most efficient system survives only if it can also put out maximum physical power when needed, especially in combat or competitive situations. The "fight-or-flight" response of many animals diverts blood from the gut to the extremities, enhancing fighting energy and providing faster clotting to seal wounds. The cooks in an army under attack are allowed to leave their camp stoves and pick up rifles to participate in a maximum defensive effort to preserve the organization. In wartime, a society may conscript soldiers, increase taxes, commandeer vehicles and living quarters, and divert industry to the production of specialized war material.

Hypothesis 5.2-8: A system usually associates with other systems which have arisen from similar templates rather than with those derived from dissimilar templates.

That is, "birds of a feather flock together." There are many examples at all levels of living systems. When different types of embryonic cells are mixed together randomly, they sort themselves out and grow together only with other cells of the same type. Organ transplants tend to be rejected by the receiving organism. Family members often keep non-members out of personal relationships. Ethnics arriving in the United States for the first time tend to live near others of the same ethnic group. Companies doing business in similar fields meet in conventions among themselves more often than they meet with other types of companies. Nations of comparable origin and heritage tend to vote together in the United Nations.

Hypothesis 5.2-13: Under threat or stress, a system that survives, in the common good of total system survival, temporarily subordinates conflicts among subsystems or components until the threat or stress is relieved, when internal conflicts recur.

In other words, external threats unite warring factions. If a man and wife are having an argument and a well-meaning neighbor tries to intervene, the pair will temporarily suspend their differences and join in the ejection of the interloper. Public opinion is less likely to support an employee strike in organizations that provide essential services (hospitals, police, fire departments) than in organizations providing less-essential services. During war-time or periods of national disaster, societal, economic and social differences are often submerged in an attempt to meet the common threat—or the society may not survive. Supranational systems may close ranks in the face of a perceived threat to global stability, as for example the United Nations peacekeeping forces stationed in and around the Middle East and elsewhere.

Dr. Miller himself has experimentally examined several cross-level hypotheses suggested by the general theory of living systems. His personal interest lies in the processes of the channel and net subsystem and the problems of information overload and underload in living systems. Drawing on his earlier investigations of individual neuron response to data input overloads, and applying the systems approach, Miller formulated the following two cross-level hypotheses:

Hypothesis 5.1-1: As the information input to a single channel of a living system—measured in bits per second—increases, the information output—measured similarly—increases almost identically at first but gradually falls behind as it approaches a certain output rate, the channel capacity, which cannot be exceeded in the channel. The output then levels off at that rate, and finally, as the information input rate continues to go up, the output decreases gradually to ward zero as breakdown or the confusional state occurs under overload;


Hypothesis 5.1-25: Channels in living systems at higher levels in general have lower capacities than those in living systems at lower levels.

Miller set out to verify or disprove his hypotheses. First he checked the published literature at each level and found surprisingly strong support. Encouraged, he returned to the laboratory and set up a number of experiments designed to test the two hypotheses at the five levels of cell, organ, organism, group and organization. (It's hard to perform controlled tests on whole societies and supranational systems.) At each level, the response of the channel and net subsystem to a variety of information input rates was measured and recorded. The median maximum transmission rates per channel were found to be as follows: 4000 bits/sec for the cell, 55 bits/sec for the organ, 4.75-5.75 bits/sec for the organism, 3.44-4.60 bits/sec for the group, and 2.89-4.55 bits/sec for the organization.

These results support the hypotheses. By extending his knowledge of nerve cell behavior to other levels, Miller has discovered what may well be a general property of all living systems: When information input rate goes up, output rate increases to a maximum and then decreases, showing signs of overload. Apparently cells, organs, organisms, groups and organizations each react to data overloads in much the same way, with lower maximum bit rates at higher levels of living systems. Organizations as a whole can process more information than groups or individuals because they can use multiple channels.

From A GENERAL THEORY OF LIVING SYSTEMS by Robert A. Freitas, Jr., ANALOG Magazine March 1980

Planet Roles

Some colonized worlds become known for certain functions.

Remember in The Stars, Like Dust colonized planets go through a economic cycle of general roles:

  • Step 1 - Subsistence Agricultural/Herding: newly colonized worlds focus on subsistence farming, all their energies expended in trying to feed itself.

  • Step 2 - Developing: the world starts exporting. It mines crude ore and exports it along with agricultural surplus. In exchange it imports luxuries and machinery.

  • Step 3 - Industrializing: the world starts building an industrial infrastructure as population grows and foreign investments increase. Local agriculture shrinks as food imports grow.

  • Step 4 - Mechanized: The world is fully industrializd. It exports machinery, invests in other industrializing worlds, and imports most of its food.

Just try to avoid the Planet of Hats syndrome and one-product planets. Remember that each planet is a world, as big and diverse and old and mysterious as ever Terra was.

Obviously the simplist way to avoid the trope is to use two or more of these types on a given planet.


In the Standard Sci Fi Setting, trade is common between star systems. Sometimes a planet becomes so specialized that it focuses on a certain commodity or service. Maybe it's building weapons or providing doctors. Whatever it is, the world trades this resource with other planets, becoming renowned for the export.

This trope isn't about a single Planetville; It focuses on the big picture on how individual worlds interact with each other. Subtrope of Planet of Hats, though any location (an asteroid, small moon, space colony) can serve as this. Compare/Contrast Single-Biome Planet.

Most SF tales assume Casual Interstellar Travel; it's possible for Slower Than Light ships to transport commodities, but the items being traded would have to be of extreme value to justify the high cost and long wait. It also often crops up if the setting is confined to a single solar system, which is slightly easier to justify as it only requires somewhat Casual Interplanetary Travel.

Well done versions of the trope will explain that a planet is widely known for its major export, while its other industries are neither profitable nor popular. It could also be used for comedic effect, by exaggerating it to the point of absurdity.

Economics aside, a planet has other values: political, cultural, religious, and military. The importance of the export directly influences the importance of the planet. For example, the Planet of Phlebotinum would have a lot of power and an armada protecting it. However, the Planet of Toasters would lack any economic influence and maybe warrants a corvette for protection. Meanwhile, the Planet of Judges, Robes, and Powdered Wigs would have political clout, but lack economic influence. The amount of protection depends on how much influence they have with their neighbors.

May correlate with Multipurpose Monocultured Crop, if the One Product is farmed instead of manufactured.




Political center of an interstellar government and a place of intrigue. The apex of culture and power, but also of decadence and corruption. Highly valued, expect the world to be well protected...unless no ships are available for whatever reason. Capitals of various space Empires tend to be highly urbanized. Also the center of the vast bureaucracies governing the stars.


Offers scientific curiosities and unusual matter (monopoles, antimatter, mini black holes), or a site of strange astronomical happenings (such as wormholes or black holes). If extra-terrestrial life is rare, then worlds with alien biospheres would be of interest. Scientists and corporations would love samples of strange matter, or get a chance to observe such strange phenomenon.


Center of mass production. Presented as industrial nightmares, with polluted skies and large crowded cities. Its products can include technology, but it's often less than state-of-the-art. Focused more on production/engineering rather than research. Often ruled by tyrants or a corporatocracy.


Grows crops and raises animals. There are typically two types:
  1. Worlds that only produce foodstuffs to feed places that can't produce enough subsistence, such as urbanized worlds or space stations. Not much value, except if the importer is totally dependent on them. Then the planet becomes an Achilles' Heel. Often rural in nature, but hydroponic bays and protein vats are not unheard of. Can be large tracts of cultivated land, or water farms on oceanic worlds.
  2. Planets which harvest an important crop that has unique attributes. Such flora or fauna could be used for medicinal uses, especially if it's a drug. Then it would be more profitable than a world that exports beef. Such farms tend to be jungle or death worlds.

Such worlds are usually peaceful, but could become unstable if the political situation changes. The local folk are religiously devout, originally settling such worlds to seek ascetic lives. The home of many a young adventurer and military / mercenary recruit - life on a farm world lacks excitement, and encourages wanderlust. Commonly metal poor, justifying why they don't have much industry.


Location of dangerous nature that no one visits. Could be a colony destroyed by plague or infested by alien locusts. Whatever the reason, the planet is no longer of any value, covered in ruins or wasteland. Only adventurers would willingly travel to these worlds.


Point or area where a wormhole/stargate/minimum hyperlimit exist that facilitates FTL transport. Vital for rapid transport (unless you want to slog decades across space), and in the cases of a Portal Network, a chokepoint.


Exports Mercenaries, coming in two varieties:
  1. Super Soldiers, often living in a military culture and/or harsh environment to develop their skills.
  2. Cannon Fodder, hired out only because the planet has nothing else to sell.

Along with these, various settings have specialized forces: armour warfare, Special Ops, sapping, urban warfare, etc. Life on these worlds tend to be tough, and often produces prideful fighters. Could be ruled under the military or an authoritarian society. Oddly enough in fiction, there are plenty of Libertarian cultures that don't mind setting up such worlds.


Harvests natural resources, often rare metals, minerals, or gases needed for industry.

Influence of a Mining world is dependent on what it gathers. A world mining Tin isn't going to be much value. However, a planet collecting Helium-3 (which can be used for fusion reactors) are going to be richer and better protected. Such places can range from terrestrial planets to asteroids to gas giants.

As business concerns, they're run by whoever owns the mines. Governance varies, but life tends to be hard and people poor. Another good source for military recruits - many sign up to avoid the harsh environment or receive better pay.

New World

Planet that is newly discovered and open for grabs. Expect new settlers or folks fighting over the planet. Such worlds would have little to export and much to import, due to a lack of infrastructure. If settled, frontier towns are likely. Local government is minimal at best. Because of the lack of infrastructure, these new colonies tend to be easily conquered.


Dumping grounds for "discontents". Expect these worlds to be unpleasant at the very least. Can range from orderly communities to work camps to lawless wastelands. If these worlds export anything, it's products of slave labor. If governed, it would be by the prison administration (authoritarian by necessity).


Places for tourists to visit and relax, often paradise worlds or something akin to Las Vegas in space. Mostly, it is a place for the protagonists to relax, especially if there's beaches. Not likely to be a major target, unless it's a strategic location or attacked for symbolic reasons.


Known for its research and development, and its state-of-the-art technology. The natives value logic and ruled by technocrats. Home to a lot of cool gadgets, new technology, and various scientists (mad or otherwise).


Instead of production, these worlds focus on training and providing professionals. Common in SF are:
  1. Medical: Devoted to healing others in body and mind. Includes Doctors and Psychologists.
  2. Education: Known for their universities and training centers.
  3. Financial: People who work with money, including loaning, banking, trading, escrow agencies, etc. Often ruled by Merchant Princes.
  4. Military Support: The supreme headquarters of the armed forces, academy for the fleet's officers, and boot camp for the army's troopers.
Other services can include lawyers, intelligence agents, engineers, beauticians, etc. May also produce items of great importance to these services, such as instruments if the planet is known for its musicians.


Places to build spacecraft. Since ships are vital to an interstellar empire, the yards are vital industries and military assets. Often military/government operated.


Planet notable for its black market products and services. With enough money, one can hire thieves, smugglers, and assassins. Otherwise, one can purchase slaves, illegal technology, and other contraband. The items provided by an Underworld need not be illegal, but merely taboo. Such locations are commonly seedy and ruled by those in the shadows.


Big Dumb Object

Artifact of Precursors, often a massive construct such as a Dyson Sphere or ringworld. Or recently made by a highly advanced civilization. Can be visited by intrepid explorers and researchers to produce Lost Technology. There is a disturbing trend for BDO's to be abandoned, acting as prisons for alien viruses, which are accidentally released by said explorers.


Structure that houses a huge database of the knowledge of an entire civilization. Many researchers visit here to learn from the accumulated knowledge. Often left behind by Precursors, though such projects are undertaken by more recent societies as a prestigious project. Expect it to be very quiet and vast, and attracts seekers of truth.

Phlebotinum Monopoly

When there's only one source of Immortality Drugs, Dilithium Crystals or Spice, and everybody needs it. Whoever controls this world can control the galaxy. Anticipate this world to warrant fleets or warships and armies to protect it, and many fights over it.


Where a Weapon of Really Mass Destruction is housed. Whoever controls the superweapon can decide the fate of the galaxy. In Space Opera, this is the site of a climactic battle.


In addition to the above types, there are several attributes that can affect the value of a world. Some may overlap or change over time, depending on the current situation.


Worlds or stations inhabited by Intelligent Extra-terrestrials. An important term for emerging space societies or where life is rare. Trade and travel depends on the temperament on the aliens.


Prohibited from trade, frequently with an enemy fleet enforcing the embargo. Smugglers and rebels would try to get pass the blockade for various reasons. Such embargoes continue until the political situation changes.


Trade hub, either acting as a key location on Hyperspace Lanes or housing the headquarters of one or more major corporations. Mercenaries and private security forces will maintain order. The destination of many Intrepid Merchants, but possibly plagued by piracy.

Cultural Hub

Major center of arts and learning, valued for its impact on society. Often focused on entertainment or academics, these tend to be ruled by open and free societies. The destination and home of artists, musicians, students, writers, and and other creative folks. Tourists are also common, which also means Street Performers are near.


Technology or infrastructure is lagging. Part of the Interstellar culture and trade, but often less advanced than the major powers. Except these planets to be impoverished, often new colonies or exploited conquests. Between the major powers, the Developing worlds would be caught between political struggles.


Has seen better days, and is now waning. They may have been over exploited and depleted of primary resources or undergoing a natural calamity. To escape their fate, refugees will flee to the stars. These planets tend to collect garbage, both physical artifacts and the seedier elements of society. If anything of worth remains, it's related to the planet's primary export.


Can support human life, or whatever species the protagonists are. Can range from Edens to barely habitable Death Worlds. In a setting were most planets are dead or uninhabitable (say Real Life), a planet with a breathable atmosphere is better than nothing.


Were a species originated from. A lot of historical and religious importance, because of its mystique of being where a species is born. The dominant species of an Empire will have their homeworld as a Primary Capital, although there are exceptions. The destruction of a Homeworld is often a major mistake for space tyrants: it not only crosses the line, but ensures that a native of that world would eventually destroy said tyrant.


Location of past importance, such as a battle or discovery. Often archaeological sites or monuments are located here. Because of this status, these places are seen as important symbols. For example: a dead moon may have little or no value, but military commanders may make choose to fight there since it was the site of a previous victory.

Holy Center

Place of major importance to a religion, with many places of worship and pilgrims. If the religion is benign, attacking this center is a sign that you're an evil jackass. More fanatical sects would protect these centers. May be governed by a Theocracy, though it depends on the faith.


Location is no longer accessible or has disappeared. This could be due to a variety of reasons: The local Gate has been destroyed, the wormhole that connected the location is now unstable, or something happened to the settlers. In either case, no one knows were it is and may become myth. Explorers may find these places again.


Location that akes no sides in a conflict, either forbidding sides from entering with force or acting as a third-party mediator. Generally worlds or stations that have little interest in fighting, but plenty of services to offer (shipyards, underworlds, pleasure planets, etc.). Often well prepared to make sure they maintain their neutrality.


Little or no high technology or advancements. Any inhabitants are either aliens developing civilization or the remnants of a failed colony, often savage. Expect wilderness and perhaps alien ruins. Any interest to these worlds are either for Science or Strategic. Travel to such worlds may be restricted, as to avoid exploitation or culture shock.


Travel to and from location restricted due to a medical emergency. A temporary measure until a cure can be found for the ailment, if at all. Except for medical craft and warships, no sane being would risk going lest they too fall victim. If the plague is left unchecked, the quarantined world may become permanently Forbidden. If it gets really bad, the planet may be sterilized.


Location makes this world a vital military target. Expect military fleets and fortresses here. With changes in warfare, space travel, and the political environment, a location could cease being a military prize.


The local political situation is bad, and society is barely holding together. Order can fall apart at a moment's notice. Merchants and travelers will avoid going there if they can help it. It results in less trade, and could lose its status as a trade or culture hub. If it's really bad, it may become a War zone or worse.


Location is the center of an armed conflict, with military ships and troops fighting each other. Mercenaries and arms dealers would be attracted to this place. Lost of life and destruction of infrastructure will negatively impact its value. Refugees from this world would be common. If this status lasts long enough, a planet may become Dying as well.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)

Throne World

The capital of the interstellar empire. Examples include Trantor and Coruscant. Both of these have cities covering every square centimeter of ground since you can never have too many bureaucrats when you are trying to administer a freaking galactic empire.

The Imperial Capital will be the biggest, and generally located in the center of the empire. Remember that Imperial reaction time limits the radius of the empire. The radius can be expanded by establishing secondary throne worlds called "sector capitals" near the limits of the central capital's sphere of influence.

Since throne worlds are the only thing maintaining control over the sector of the empire within the world's reaction time radius, they are targets for hostile action. Eliminate a capital (or even better, capture its bureaucracy), and you are well on the way to capturing an entire stellar sector. Since the Empire is not totally stupid; throne worlds are guarded by huge armadas of miliary spacecraft armed to their little pointy teeth, orbital fortresses bristling with weapons, extensive planet-based defenses, watchdog outposts, and far-flung combat scouts.


Political center of an interstellar government and a place of intrigue. The apex of culture and power, but also of decadence and corruption. Highly valued, expect the world to be well protected...unless no ships are available for whatever reason. Capitals of various space Empires tend to be highly urbanized. Also the center of the vast bureaucracies governing the stars.

Forge Worlds

In the Warhammer 40k game, "Forge World" is the colorful term for a planet that is wall-to-wall factories, totally devoted to manfacturing machines and other goods. In other fiction such planets are usually devoted to the military-industrial complex, cranking out weapons, ordinance, and combat spacecraft.

Forge Worlds usually do not exist outside of space operas, since it is a one-product planet. In reality a planet with a bit of industrial capacity will often accept a few military contracts.


Center of mass production. Presented as industrial nightmares, with polluted skies and large crowded cities. Its products can include technology, but it's often less than state-of-the-art. Focused more on production/engineering rather than research. Often ruled by tyrants or a corporatocracy.

Penal Colony

A Penal Colony or Prison Planet occurs when somehow it is cheaper or more politically expedient to ship prisoners to an interstellar colony instead of putting them in local jails. Good old Botany Bay.

Penal colony planets are invariably miserable hell-holes. The prisoners may or may not be forced to perform hard labor (often mining), if no labor is required the government thinks that the hardship of simply living on the planet is punishment enough. The morality become questionable if the prisoners start to have children, who then are being punished for the sins of their parents.


Dumping grounds for "discontents". Expect these worlds to be unpleasant at the very least. Can range from orderly communities to work camps to lawless wastelands. If these worlds export anything, it's products of slave labor. If governed, it would be by the prison administration (authoritarian by necessity).


Twelve years before, when I was ten years old, they had discovered the collapsar jump. Just fling an object at a collapsar with sufficient speed, and out it pops in some other part of the galaxy. It didn't take long to figure out the formula that predicted where it would come out: it travels along the same "line" (actually an Einsteinian geodesic) it would have followed if the collapsar hadn't been in the way—until it reaches another collapsar field, whereupon it reappears, repelled with the same speed at which it approached the original collapsar. Travel time between the two collapsars…exactly zero.

It made a lot of work for mathematical physicists, who had to redefine simultaneity, then tear down general relativity and build it back up again. And it made the politicians very happy, because now they could send a shipload of colonists to Fomalhaut for less than it had once cost to put a brace of men on the moon. There were a lot of people the politicians would love to see on Fomalhaut, implementing a glorious adventure rather than stirring up trouble at home.

From THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman (1975)

      Tycho Purple Penal Station had started out centuries before as the Soviet Lunar base, and had passed to the United Nations’ control with the final Soviet breakup. In the bad old days when UNLAC—the United Nations Lunar Administration Council—ran the Moon, Tycho had been made into a U.N. penal colony, and had rapidly devolved into the final dumping ground for the human refuse of the Earth, the Moon, and the Settlement Worlds.
     Tycho Penal was specifically intended to be not only escape-proof, but reprieve-proof. No prisoner was ever sent there under any sentence except life without parole.

     When the Lunar Republic was declared, eighty years before Marcia was born, the Lunar Colonists—the Conners—were very careful not to lay claim to the Tycho Penal Colony and environs. They were quite happy to let the United Nations administer the nightmare it had created for itself.
     Even after the Republic, the United Nations let Tycho Penal stagger along a few years as a prison, until a resolution passed the General Assembly banning the placement of any more prisoners at Tycho. UNLAC was stuck with the bills for a prison populated with old men and women too mean to die. The costs of running the place rapidly got out of hand—until it dawned on UNLAC that it would be cheaper to declare the place a separate republic, and announce that all current residents were naturalized citizens.
     The Lunar Republic promptly decreed that any bearer of a Tychoean passport found in the Republic would be escorted back to the Tycho border—with or without a pressure suit. Every nation on Earth, and all of the Settlement Worlds, refused to honor Tycho passports.
     So the convicts—and, by this time, their descendants—were technically free, but legally they couldn’t travel.

     Tycho was still tough to get out of illegally, for that matter. But the convicts could write their own laws, and own their own property. The Lunar Republic did allow some amount of legitimate trade, which provided ample cover for smuggling operations. It gave the convicts a window on the outside world.
     All in all, it wasn’t much of an opening. But it was enough for the smart cons to get rich, while the dumb ones starved. After a while, the inevitable happened, and one of the smartest, meanest convicts managed to muscle everyone else out of power and set himself up as the King of Tycho: Redeye Sid the First.

     That much was history—confirmable facts. The rest was half legend, half outright lie. Marcia had never quite decided which was which. The story went that Redeye Sid won the last open tract of Tycho in a poker game. A crooked game, some whispered. But no one could be sure, as Redeye was the only player to survive the game. Unless that tale was circulated by Sid to keep enemies in line.
     And then, in the tenth year of his reign, Redeye Sid dropped dead (or was poisoned) and left it all to his idiot (or perhaps mad genius or political malcontent) son Jasper, who listened to off-planet broadcasts a bit too often. More particularly, Redeye Jasper listened to the Purple Voice beaming down from NaPurHab (Naked Purple Habitat). He got religion. Or philosophy. Or paranoid delusions. No one could ever decide which.

     Whatever the Purple was, it had earned itself a prominent place in any history of the irrational. What the Purps were for, what they were against, what their goals were—all those issues were meaningless to the Purps. Alienating themselves from society, offending the world and then protesting the world for taking offense, that was the Purple way. The Purples drenched themselves in anger, anger for its own sake, absurdity as an art and a political policy, the overturning of any and all existing forms. That was the closest the Purps came to a goal, a Naked Purple ideal.
     Marcia thought back to the allegory that named the movement: Get naked, paint yourself purple, and walk down the street. If people were surprised, shocked, offended, or merely amused, rail at them for their small-minded, bourgeois ways. If they accepted you and let you be, despise them for being blinkered, too narrow-minded to see the special and the marvelous in this world. Any reaction, all reactions, or no reaction at all were grounds for contempt.
     It was a formula for attracting the ostracized, ensuring that recruits would feel left out, rejected by the world. And it gave Purps a way to feel superior to the hidebound, workaday world, making sure they could be accepted only by fellow Purps.

     It was the sort of anger at everything that might appeal to the irrational heir to a mad kingdom. Like Jasper.
     As with all converts to the Naked Purple movement, Redeye Jasper was required to sign over all his worldly goods to the movement. Such goods and property included the Kingdom of Tycho. So the Naked Purple movement came into possession of its own country.

     By the time the Purples moved in, Tycho hadn’t, strictly speaking, been a prison for decades, but the Lunar Republic’s government still held to the same Tycho policy it had retained for generations: Anyone could go into Tycho Penal, but no one could come out. Even after a hundred years, there were mighty few loopholes in that rule. In effect, it was still a prison. The Republic was not in the least bit willing to change that policy for the sake of a bunch of habitat crazies.
     The Naked Purples declared themselves liberators anyway. They moved in, took over, and officially renamed the place Tycho Purple Penal Station. They made much of all the contradictions and tensions bubbling in that name—and in the city itself.
     The Naked Purples and a mob of former convicts living cheek by jowl inside a former maximum security prison was a sure formula for confrontation. The murder rate spiked high, even for Tycho, that first year. But, surprisingly, mostly convicts were dying. The Purples swiftly demonstrated their talent for survival and control, and the situation settled down a bit.

From THE RING OF CHARON by Roger MacBride Allen (1990)

     I took Trans-Crisium tube to L-City but did not go home; Mike had asked about a meeting that night at 2100 in Stilyagi Hall. Mike monitored concerts, meetings, and so forth; someone had switched off by hand his pickups in Stilyagi Hall. I suppose he felt rebuffed.
     I could guess why they had been switched off. Politics—turned out to be a protest meeting. What use it was to bar Mike from talk-talk I could not see, since was a cinch bet that Warden's stoolies would be in crowd. Not that any attempt to stop meeting was expected, or even to discipline undischarged transportees who chose to sound off. Wasn't necessary.
     My Grandfather Stone claimed that Luna was only open prison in history. No bars, no guards, no rules—and no need for them. Back in early days, he said, before was clear that transportation was a life sentence, some lags tried to escape. By ship, of course—and, since a ship is mass-rated almost to a gram, that meant a ship's officer had to be bribed.
     Some were bribed, they say. But were no escapes; man who takes bribe doesn't necessarily stay bribed. I recall seeing a man just after eliminated through East Lock; don't suppose a corpse eliminated in orbit looks prettier.
     So wardens didn't fret about protest meetings. "Let 'em yap" was policy. Yapping had same significance as squeals of kittens in a box. Oh, some wardens listened and other wardens tried to suppress it but added up same either way—null program.
     When Mort the Wart took office in 2068, he gave us a sermon about how things were going to be different "on" Luna in his administration—noise about "a mundane paradise wrought with our own strong hands" and "putting our shoulders to the wheel together, in a spirit of brotherhood" and "let past mistakes be forgotten as we turn our faces toward the bright, new dawn." I heard it in Mother Boor's Tucker Bag while inhaling Irish stew and a liter of her Aussie brew. I remember her comment: "He talks purty, don't he?"
     Her comment was only result. Some petitions were submitted and Warden's bodyguards started carrying new type of gun; no other changes. After he had been here a while he quit making appearances even by video.

     After discussion opened, some sense was talked. One shy little fellow with bloodshot eyes of old-time drillman stood up. "I'm an ice miner," he said. "Learned my trade doing time for Warden like most of you. I've been on my own thirty years and done okay. Raised eight kids and all of 'em earned way—none eliminated nor any serious trouble. I should say I did do okay because today you have to listen farther out or deeper down to find ice.
     "That's okay, still ice in The Rock and a miner expects to sound for it. But Authority pays same price for ice now as thirty years ago. And that's not okay. Worse yet, Authority scrip doesn't buy what it used to. I remember when Hong Kong Luna dollars swapped even for Authority dollars— Now it takes three Authority dollars to match one HKL dollar. I don't know what to do… but I know it takes ice to keep warrens and farms going."
     He sat down, looking sad. Nobody whistled but everybody wanted to talk. Next character pointed out that water can be extracted from rock—this is news? Some rock runs 6 percent—but such rock is scarcer than fossil water. Why can't people do arithmetic?
     Several farmers bellyached and one wheat farmer was typical. "You heard what Fred Hauser said about ice. Fred, Authority isn't passing along that low price to farmers. I started almost as long ago as you did, with one two-kilometer tunnel leased from Authority. My oldest son and I sealed and pressured it and we had a pocket of ice and made our first crop simply on a bank loan to cover power and lighting fixtures, seed and chemicals.
     "We kept extending tunnels and buying lights and planting better seed and now we get nine times as much per hectare as the best open-air farming down Earthside. What does that make us? Rich? Fred, we owe more now than we did the day we went private! If I sold out—if anybody was fool enough to buy—I'd be bankrupt. Why? Because I have to buy water from Authority—and have to sell my wheat to Authority—and never close gap. Twenty years ago I bought city sewage from the Authority, sterilized and processed it myself and made a profit on a crop. But today when I buy sewage, I'm charged distilled-water price and on top of that for the solids. Yet price of a tonne of wheat at catapult head is just what it was twenty years ago. Fred, you said you didn't know what to do. I can tell you! Get rid of Authority!"

     "You! You're a wheat farmer—going broke. Do you know how much a Hindu housewife pays for a kilo of flour made from your wheat? How much a tonne of your wheat fetches in Bombay? How little it costs the Authority to get it from catapult head to Indian Ocean? Downhill all the way! Just solid-fuel retros to brake it—and where do those come from? Right here! And what do you get in return? A few shiploads of fancy goods, owned by the Authority and priced high because it's importado. Importado, importado!—I never touch importado! If we don't make it in Hong Kong, I don't use it. What else do you get for wheat? The privilege of selling Lunar ice to Lunar Authority, buying it back as washing water, then giving it to the Authority—then buying it back a second time as flushing water—then giving it again to the Authority with valuable solids added—then buying it a third time at still higher price for farming—then you sell that wheat to the Authority at their price—and buy power from the Authority to grow it, again at their price! Lunar power—not one kilowatt up from Terra. It comes from Lunar ice and Lunar steel, or sunshine spilled on Luna's soil—all put together by loonies! Oh, you rockheads, you deserve to starve!"

     She was trembling. Shorty patted her hand; she threw him a glance of thanks, then whispered to me, "How did I do?"
     "Wonderful," I assured her. "Terrific!" She seemed reassured.
     But I hadn't been honest. "Wonderful" she had been, at swaying crowd. But oratory is a null program. That we were slaves I had known all my life—and nothing could be done about it. True, we weren't bought and sold—but as long as Authority held monopoly over what we had to have and what we could sell to buy it, we were slaves.
     But what could we do? Warden wasn't our owner. Had he been, some way could be found to eliminate him. But Lunar Authority was not in Luna, it was on Terra—and we had not one ship, not even small hydrogen bomb. There weren't even hand guns in Luna, though what we would do with guns I did not know. Shoot each other, maybe.
     Three million, unarmed and helpless—and eleven billion of them… with ships and bombs and weapons. We could be a nuisance—but how long will papa take it before baby gets spanked?

     "You are right that the Authority must go. It is ridiculous—pestilential, not to be borne—that we should be ruled by an irresponsible dictator in all our essential economy! It strikes at the most basic human right, the right to bargain in a free marketplace. But I respectfully suggest that you erred in saying that we should sell wheat to Terra—or rice, or any food—at any price. We must not export food!"
     That wheat farmer broke in. "What am I going to do with all that wheat?"
     "Please! It would be right to ship wheat to Terra— if tonne for tonne they returned it. As water. As nitrates. As phosphates. Tonne for tonne. Otherwise no price is high enough."
     Wyoming said "Just a moment" to farmer, then to Prof: "They can't and you know it. It's cheap to ship downhill, expensive to ship uphill. But we don't need water and plant chemicals, what we need is not so massy. Instruments. Drugs. Processes. Some machinery. Control tapes. I've given this much study, sir. If we can get fair prices in a free market—"
     "Please, miss! May I continue?"
     "Go ahead. I want to rebut."
     "Fred Hauser told us that ice is harder to find. Too true—bad news now and disastrous for our grandchildren. Luna City should use the same water today we used twenty years ago— plus enough ice mining for population increase. But we use water once—one full cycle, three different ways. Then we ship it to India. As wheat. Even though wheat is vacuum-processed, it contains precious water. Why ship water to India? They have the whole Indian Ocean! And the remaining mass of that grain is even more disastrously expensive, plant foods still harder to come by, even though we extract them from rock. Comrades, harken to me! Every load you ship to Terra condemns your grandchildren to slow death. The miracle of photosynthesis, the plant-and-animal cycle, is a closed cycle. You have opened it—and your lifeblood runs downhill to Terra. You don't need higher prices, one cannot eat money! What you need, what we all need, is an end to this loss. Embargo, utter and absolute. Luna must be self-sufficient!"

From THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS by Robert Heinlein (1966)

(ed note: Criminal mastermind Bull Coxine was captured and sent to the Prison Asteroid. But his flunky Gus Wallace managed to avoid capture. Coxine devises an escape plan, covertly creates tapes explaining the plan, and manages to smuggle them outside to his pathetic flunky Wallace. Who implements the plan with the help of his own flunky Simms, somebody even more pathetic.)

      "Lissen," interrupted Wallace, "I'd rather try it and take the licking if we mess it up, than not try it and take that licking. I know which side of the space lane I'd better be on when the time comes!"
     Simms hesitated and then sighed, "Yeah, I guess you're right."
     "Come on. Let's listen to that story spool again."
     "Oh, no," moaned Simms. "I know that spool by heart! We've heard it at least fifty times!"
     "One slip-up," said Wallace, sticking his finger in Simms' face, "just one slip-up and we're finished! We've got to be sure!"
     With a reluctant shrug of his shoulders, Simms poured another cup of coffee and sat on the side of his bunk while Wallace inserted the story spool in the audio playback.
     They settled themselves and listened as a deep voice (mastermind Bull Coxine) began to speak in a loud whisper.
     "…The operation will take place on the night of October twenty-ninth at exactly twenty-one hundred hours. You will make your approach from section eleven, M quadrant—"
     Simms jumped up abruptly and switched off the playback. Turning to Wallace, he pleaded, "I can't listen to it again! I know it by heart. Instructions on how to get to the time capsule; instructions on what to take, and how to build an adjustable light-key after we get the plans; instructions on how to hijack the first ship and what to take. Orders, information, instructions! I'm sick of listening. If you want to, go ahead, but I'm going to work on the ship!"
     "O.K., O.K.," said Wallace, getting up. "Don't blow your jets. I hate the thing as much as you do. Wait a minute and I'll go with you."

(ed note: Captain Steve Strong and the three space cadets travel to the Prison Asteroid to ask questions of criminal mastermind Bull Coxine. Mainly questions about the crime wave of Wallace and Simms.)

     "Stop your ship and be recognized!"
     The rasping voice on the audioceiver was sharp. A command to be obeyed.
     Tom turned away from the control board and looked at Strong who was already reaching for the ship's intercom.
     "Full braking rocket thrust, Astro," he yelled into the microphone, "and make it quick or we'll all be blasted into protons!"
     Tom and the captain gripped their chairs tightly as the ship bucked against the deceleration force of the powerful braking rockets. Gradually the freighter Dog Star slowed and came to a dead stop in space.
     "Hey!" yelled Astro over the intercom from the power deck. "What's going on up there?"
     "We've just entered the outer circle of defense on the prison asteroid, Astro," replied Strong. "We have to stop so they can sweep us with their radar and identify the ship."
     "But I sent them a message in Solar Guard code that we were coming," interjected Roger who was listening from the radar bridge.
     "They still have to make sure it's us," said Strong.
     "Identify yourselves!" commanded the voice over the audioceiver again.
     "This is space freighter Dog Star under temporary command of Captain Strong of the Solar Guard," answered Strong.
     "What's your business here?" demanded the voice again.
     "Interrogation of one of your prisoners. We have sent a coded message, under code Z for Zebra to your prison commandant, Major Alan Savage. If you'll check with him, you'll find everything in order," said Strong.
     "Very well," replied the voice crisply, and then added, "Remain where you are. Do not move from your present position or attempt to send any messages. If you fail to comply with these conditions you will be blasted!"
     "Very well," said Strong, "conditions are understood."
     "Boy," chimed in Roger, as he climbed down the ladder from the radar bridge, "they sure don't want any company here."
     "And for good reason," said Strong. "The most vicious criminals in the whole universe are confined here. Every one of them is capable of committing any crime in the solar code. And most of them have. The men here are the worst. They have refused psychotherapeutic readjustment to make them into new men."
     "But I thought they had to go through it, sir?" said Tom.
     "No," replied Strong. "Even criminals have certain rights in our society. They can either remain criminals and stay here, or be psychoadjusted and given new personalities. The ones that refuse are the ones on this Rock."
     "You mean," gasped Roger, "that the men on this asteroid deliberately chose to remain criminals?"
     "Yes, Manning," said Strong. "Rather than become healthy citizens of the system, they prefer to stay here and waste their lives in isolation with no hope of ever returning to society."
     "Can they change their minds after they get here?" asked Tom.
     "Any time. But when they get this far, they usually stay here. The men on Prison Rock didn't surrender easily. They are the toughest, most ruthless men in the universe."
     "Attention! Freighter Dog Star! Attention!" the audioceiver rasped into life again. "You have been given temporary clearance. A space launch will ferry you to the asteroid. You are warned that any weapons discovered on your person, or acts that may be construed as providing aid and comfort to the inmates of this prison, will be considered treason against the Solar Alliance and you will be subject to immediate disciplinary action."
     Tom and Roger glanced at each other, a worried look in their eyes. Strong just smiled. "Don't worry, boys. That little speech is read to every visitor to the asteroid."
     "Just the same, sir," said Roger huskily, "I would prefer to remain aboard the Dog Star and give you, Tom, and Astro the pleasure of the visit."
     Strong laughed. "They won't let you, Roger. They'll send up a crew of guards to search the ship. And the way these boys search makes a customs inspection look like a casual glance."
     "Attention Dog Star!" A younger voice suddenly came in on the audioceiver. "This is Lieutenant Williams aboard the space launch. We are approaching your starboard catapult deck. Please open the air lock and take us aboard."
     "They sure don't waste any time," commented Tom as he turned to the audioceiver. "Freighter Dog Star, Cadet Tom Corbett to Lieutenant Williams," he called, "the air lock is open and the catapult deck is ready to receive you." At the same time, the young cadet turned the valve that would open the outer air lock to the jet-boat deck.
     Five minutes later, the ship was swarming with tight-lipped enlisted Solar Guardsmen, who spoke to Strong and the cadets with cool courtesy. These were men who signed up for two years as guards on the Rock after competing with thousands of other enlisted men. A guard on the Rock was mid triple wages for the two-year isolation. But more than anything else the right to wear the bright white patch with a paralo-ray gun in the center denoting their service as guards on the Rock was prestige envied even by commissioned officers of the Solar Guard.
     After what Tom thought to be the most thorough search he had ever seen was over, Lieutenant Williams reported to the control deck where Strong and the cadets had been politely but firmly detained. He informed them that they were now ready to blast off to the Rock, adding that a more detailed search of the area between the ship's outer and inner hulls would be conducted after they had gone.
     "You mean," said Tom, amazed, "that you actually search the four inches between the two hulls? What in the universe could we possibly hide in there?"
     "I don't know, Corbett," replied Williams. "We've never found anything there." He turned to Strong and smiled. "But there's always a first time, isn't there, sir?"

     In a few moments the space launch was blasting away from the freighter and heading for a tiny planetoid in the distance. As they drew near, Strong and the cadets peered out of the ports to get a view of the prison, but were disappointed when Williams ordered the ports covered.
     He smiled apologetically at Strong and explained, "All approaches are secret, sir. We can't allow anyone to see where our defenses are located."
     "You fellows certainly believe in keeping prisoners in and visitors out!" commented Strong.
     "Anyone interested in coming to the Rock, sir," said Williams, "is under natural suspicion."
     The three cadets gulped, duly impressed with the severity of the prison routine.
     Soon they felt the unmistakable jar and bump of the small space vessel touching the surface of the planetoid. The jets cut out suddenly and Williams stood up.
     "Please follow me. Do not speak to anyone, and do not stop walking. Keep your hands in front of you and maintain a distance of ten feet between you and the man in front of you."
     He walked through the open hatch where a hard-faced enlisted guardsman stood rigidly, holding a paralo-ray gun at the ready.
     With a quick nod to the cadets Strong followed Williams through the hatch. At ten-foot intervals they followed him out of the hatch, with Tom bringing up the rear and the enlisted guardsman behind him.
     As Tom stepped out onto the surface of the asteroid he wasn't quite sure what he expected to see, but he certainly wasn't ready for the sight that greeted his eyes.
     As far as he could see, there was grass, spotted with small one-story buildings. To the left was a single towering structure built of Titan crystal and on top of it was the largest atomic blaster he had ever seen. He turned to ask the guardsman about the gun but was motioned ahead with a curt, "No questions. Keep walking." (the asteroid has some sort of handwavium paragravity and artificial atmosphere)
     Tom continued to walk. He noticed that they were heading for the tower. As he drew nearer, he could see men walking around a narrow catwalk at the top. They all carried paralo-ray rifles with miniature grids mounted on the barrel. Inside the rifle was a tiny radar direction finder. It was a simple but effective control against escaping prisoners. Each of the inmates of the Rock wore small metal disks welded to a thin chain around their waists. The disk was sensitive to radar impulses, and with no more effort than snapping a thumb catch on the rifle, the guard could locate and paralyze the nearest disk-wearing inmate.
     Tom was so full of questions it was necessary for the guard to warn him again, only this time in sharper tones.
     Entering the tower, they were scrutinized and cleared by an electronic beam that passed through their bodies and indicated any metal they might carry. Once through this last barrier, they were escorted to a slidestairs, where Williams left them.

     "Er—may I ask a question, sir?" asked Tom.
     The major smiled. "Go right ahead, Corbett."
     "It's about this whole setup," explained Tom. "I was expecting fences and prisoners and—well, most anything but green grass and small white buildings!"
     "The little huts you saw," replied the major, "are as much of a prison as we have. Each hut holds one prisoner. He has all the necessary furniture, in addition to audioceivers and story spools which he can change once a week. He also has basic garden equipment. All prisoners grow everything they eat. Each man is dependent on himself and is restricted to the hut and the area around it. If he comes within two miles of the tower, the guards will pick him up on radar and order him back. If he comes within one mile, they fire without further warning. Only one man has ever escaped. Coxine. And that was because we had a sick man on guard duty, or he never would have made it. He overpowered the guard, took his uniform, and stowed away on a supply ship. We caught him a year later."
     "Didn't your radar pick up the disk he was wearing, sir?" asked Roger.
     "That method of protection was only installed a few months ago," said the major.

(ed note: Strong questions Coxine at his little hut but gets no answers. Coxine still holds a grudge over Strong capturing him and throwing him into prison. But the interrogation is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Wallace's heavily armed spaceship, carrying out Coxine's master plan)

     Then, as if the space and sky overhead had suddenly been torn open, there was a flash of light followed by the roar of a tremendous explosion. The ground trembled. The air seemed to moan in agony. Strong and Astro wheeled around and looked toward the tower that shimmered in the light of the late afternoon sun. To their horror, they saw the unmistakable mushrooming cloud of an atomic blast rising in the synthetic atmosphere behind it. (the novel is a little nonchalant about atom bombs and nuclear mushroom clouds, but in its defence it was written in 1953. They hadn't quite realized how serious nuclear fallout could be)
     "By the craters of Luna—" gasped Strong.
     A second flash and explosion rocked the prison asteroid and suddenly the tower disappeared. Almost immediately, a spaceship appeared over the small planetoid and began systematically pounding the surface installations with atomic blasters.
     "Captain Strong," cried Astro. "Tom and Roger—they were in the tower!"
     "Come on," yelled Strong, "we've got to get back!"
     "You ain't going nowhere, Strong," snarled Coxine behind him. "I've been waiting a long time for this!" He suddenly struck the Solar Guard officer with a heavy rock and Strong slumped to the ground unconscious. Before Astro could move, Coxine smashed him to the ground with a blow on the back of the neck. They both lay deathly still.
     Then, as the atomic bombardment of the penal asteroid continued, the giant space criminal jumped into the jet car and sped away.

     The spaceship, which had somehow managed to penetrate the tight radar warning screen around the prison, had struck with merciless precision. Again and again, its atomic blasters had found the most important installations and had wiped them out. The first target, after the tower had been shattered, was the underground launching ramps for the asteroid's small fleet of rocket destroyers. But even after a direct hit, the guards were able to ready two ships to fight the attacking spaceship. The first was already diving in, her small one-inch blasters firing repeatedly (but was quickly shot down).
     Then the young cadet saw the invading spaceship move away from the area around the tower toward the horizon not too far away on the small planetoid. He followed it with his eyes and saw it suddenly land near a cluster of white prisoner huts. Tom gasped as the reason for the attack became clear.
     "But—but the prisoners are getting away!" yelled Tom.

     "I don't know who manned that ship, sir," said Williams, "but I can tell the reason all right. Every prisoner on the asteroid has escaped!"
     "Yes," mused Strong. "I thought that would be the answer. But how did that ship get through your defenses?"
     "Captain Strong," said Williams grimly, "I don't think there is any question about it. Someone broke the asteroid code. The attacking ship identified itself as the regular supply ship."
     "A Solar Guardsman?" asked Strong.
     "No, sir," said Williams. "I'd bet anything that none of our men would do that!"
     "Then who?" asked Strong.
     "Only one man would be smart enough to get the code and break it, and then sneak it off to the attacking ship!
     "Who?" asked Strong.
     "Bull Coxine!" answered the young officer through clenched teeth.

(ed note: Meanwhile on Coxine's ship, packed to the gills with hard-bitten prisoners. )

     Coxine's eyes narrowed into slits. "Get this, both of you!" he snapped. "What I said to those crawlers down below goes for you too. I'm the boss of this outfit and you don't even guess about what we're going to do, until I say so!"
     "But, Bull—!" whined Wallace.
     "Shut up!" roared Coxine. "And when you talk to me, you call me captain!"
     Wallace and Simms looked at each other. "O.K., Captain," muttered Simms.
     "Yes, sir!" corrected Coxine.
     "Yes, sir," said Simms quickly.
     "That's better," growled the giant spaceman. "Don't get the idea that just because you were able to follow orders that it makes you smart. Because it doesn't! It took me two and a half years to get the information collected onto these story spools and smuggle them out to you. Everything, from where to buy this spaceship to getting the light-key out of the time capsule, was my idea! My brains!"
     "Sure, Captain," said Wallace, "but we took the chances!"
     "Yeah," sneered Coxine. "You took chances! The only chance you took was in not paying attention to what I told you to do. I gave it all to you. Where to hold up the first freighter passenger, what to take, how to mount the atomic blasters, what code to use in getting through the prison defenses. The whole works! And I did it while sitting on the toughest Rock in the system. I smuggled it out right under the noses of those Solar Guard space crawlers. So forget about being smart, or you'll wind up with that scum below decks!"

From ON THE TRAIL OF THE SPACE PIRATES by Carey Rockwell (1953)

      AS THE tiny, star-like disk of the Sun sank behind the bleak rock plain, a whistle shrilled harshly through the chill dusk.
     "Attention!" barked a tall Saturnian guard.
     The hundreds of convicts in gray uniforms who had been excavating beryllium ore from the rock pits, stopped work. They shuffled sluggishly into columns and then stood waiting in sullen silence. These prisoners were a motley lot, representing every world in the Solar System. There were red-skinned Martians, brutal-faced Earthmen, sulky Neptunians with gray skins, and sly-looking white Venusians.
     This dreary, forbidding little world was Cerberus, one of the three moons of the planet Pluto. Here was located the great, escape-proof Interplanetary Prison, the living tomb of the most dangerous criminals of all nine worlds.
     “March!” snapped the guard. And the columns of convicts shuffled toward the distant, frowning mass of Interplanetary Prison.
     A prisoner in the last column glanced furtively at the guards. Then he whispered to the convict marching beside him.
     “Tonight,” he murmured meaningly. "All of you be ready."
     The other convict, a rugged, hard-eyed Earthman, gasped in astonishment.
     “It's crazy, Ul Quorn! ” he muttered tensely. “I don't know what your idea is, but you'll just get us all killed if you try it."
     Quorn made no answer, but there was a smile of confidence in his hooded eyes.
     Ul Quorn was different from the other convicts. He was a slender, small man who had the pallid red skin and high forehead of a Martian. But the fineness of his wrists and ankles, the handsomeness of his features, were Venusian. And his sleek black hair and black eyes were those of an Earthman. Ul Quorn was a mixed breed, the most dangerous convict that Interplanetary Prison had ever harbored. (this was written in 1940 and is disgustingly racist)
     Quorn’s hands were calloused from the months of harsh prison labor in the beryllium diggings. No one would have recognized in his silent, shuffling figure the criminal genius who had once terrorized the System by sheer scientific mastery and cunning — the half-legendary Magician of Mars!
     Quorn and his comrades marched silently on through the chill twilight, between vigilant guards armed with heavy atom guns. The dusk was deepening into darkness. In the starry sky bulked the great white sphere of Pluto, the ice-sheathed outpost world of the System. Beyond it gleamed its two other moons, Charon and Styx. (ed note: Pluto actually does have moons named Charon and Styx, discovered about 40 years after this was written. The fourth moon would have been named Cerberus but that name was already taken. So they used the Greek form of the name instead: "Kerberos")
     The black, massive walls of Interplanetary Prison loomed in the planet-light ahead. The great doors of inert metal were now open. Bright krypton-lamps cast a white glare on the sullen convicts as they passed across the main court of the prison to the massive cell-houses. Overhead droned fishlike Planet Patrol cruisers, keeping watch upon the moon.
     Ul Quorn’s column trudged into its own cellhouse, down a bleak cement corridor lighted by krypton bulbs. The hard-eyed guards watched as each prisoner entered his own little cell.
     “ Lock up! ” barked the captain of guards.
     The guards came along the corridor, flashing the tiny ray of their vibration-keys on each door-lock, thus sealing it electrically.
     "Aura on! ” came the final order of the officer.
     A soft glow filled the corridor, emanating from flat plates in the ceiling. This glow was a photo-electric aura which would instantly actuate alarms if a prisoner should somehow emerge from his cell into the corridor. (this is total technobabble, apparently some super-duper electric eye alarm)
     Quorn heard the guards depart. Two would remain on guard at the cellhouse entrance where the aura-alarms were located, he knew. The mixed breed sat down on his bunk and waited. The cellhouse grew quiet. There was soon no sound except the soft beat-beat of the ventilation system.

     UL QUORN finally rose softly and went to the ventilator-shaft of his cell. It was a six-inch opening covered by a barred grating. Deftly, he removed the grating and drew up four objects suspended in the shaft by cords.
     One of the hidden articles was an amazingly compact televisor set. The second was a stubby metal tube with a quartz lens in its end, the third a small glass globe mounted on a little cubical case, and the fourth a tiny, crude-looking atom-pistol. Quorn looked at the things with pride.
     “And they believed they could keep the Magician of Mars locked up here forever! ” he breathed to himself.
     Ul Quorn had achieved the almost incredible feat of secretly constructing these four instruments. For more than two years he had worked, cunningly smuggling in bits of metal and mineral from the mine-workings, and shaping them to his needs by sheer scientific wizardry.
     He touched the call-button of the tiny televisor and waited tensely. The instrument had no visi-screen. But soon a voice came from it.
     "Ul Quorn?” whispered a silky feminine voice, taut and thrilling. "I'm ready with the ship.”
     "Good, N’Rala!” murmured the mixed breed. “This is the night. Be here at the third hour, exactly."
     “I've memorized all your instructions," reassured the tense feminine voice. “I won't fail."
     Quorn turned off the televisor, thrust it into his jacket. He moved to the door of his cell. In his hand was the second of his instruments — the quartz-lensed metal tube.
     The tube was a makeshift vibration-key, similar to those with which the guards locked and unlocked the cells. It had taken all Quorn’s scientific genius to make this thing, and to compute the exact frequency of vibration to which it must be set if it were to unlock the cell doors.
     He peered out into the corridor, illuminated by the soft glow of the alarm-aura. There was no one there. Quorn thrust his improvised vibration-key out through the little barred opening in his cell door. Then he turned its tiny ray of tuned electric waves upon the lock.
     Click! The door was unlocked. Silently, Ul Quorn slid it open. But he did not venture out yet into the corridor. The moment he entered the soft glow of the aura out there, alarm bells would ring.
     Quorn took his third instrument, the cubical case crowned by a little glass globe. He touched a switch on its side. The glass globe emanated a spray of fine white radiance several yards around him. Quorn now stepped boldly out into the glow of the corridor.
     There was no clanging of distant alarms. The glass-globed mechanism he carried was radiating a "counter-aura.” This refracted the beams of the alarm-aura around him and thus prevented a break in the photo-electric warning circuit. (more technobabble)
     Quorn moved down the corridor toward the cellhouse entrance, as softly and stealthily as a Martian sand-cat. He peered around the end of the hallway into the guard-room at the entrance. Two uniformed guards sat chatting, their atom guns across their knees, relying on the aura-alarms on the wall to warn them if any prisoner should escape his cell.
     Quorn raised his crude little atom-pistol. One of the guards, a quick-eyed young Venusian, suddenly looked up.
     The tiny, needle-like ray of Quorn’s weapon drove instantly between his eyes. The other guard fell dead a second later.
     “Easy killing,” muttered Ul Quorn coolly. He went to the wall and switched off the aura-alarms. Then he picked up the atom guns of the two slain guards, hastened back along the corridor.
     The criminal used his makeshift vibration-key on the lock of a cell. The door slid open. The hard-faced, rugged Earthman in the cell gasped aloud.
     “Quorn! How the devil did you get a key? "
     “No time now to talk of that, Garson," rasped the mixed breed. "We've got to unlock the others, without rousing all the prisoners."

     THE two convicts went into silent action. Gray Garson, the Earthman, helped unlock ten other cells along the corridor. In them were the convicts with whom Quorn had previously discussed escape. They gathered silently in one of the cells.
     Quorn studied their hard, tense faces. Besides Gray Garson there was one other Earthman a grossly fat criminal promoter named Lucas Brewer. There was also Thikar, a giant, brutal, green Jovian space-pirate; Lu Sentu, a cunning-eyed, wizened Mercurian thief; Athor Az, a drowsy-looking Venusian murderer; Xexel, an old Saturnian criminal with a wrinkled blue face and filmy, evil eyes; two somber Martian killers; a sullen-looking Neptunian; and a hairy, towering Plutonian. (in Captain Future's solar system, all planets are somehow habitable and inhabited by their own peculiar species)
     "What's your plan, Quorn?” hoarsely whispered Lucas Brewer, his fat face quivering. “You've got us out of our cells but I don't see how we’re to escape from the Prison."
     “Sure, the Planet Patrol keeps watch around Cerberus night and day,” muttered Gray Garson. “No ship can land to take us away.”
     “We’ll get away despite the stupid Patrol," rasped Ul Quorn. “But before we start, I want one matter clearly understood. Once out of here, I give the commands, and the rest of you obey.”
     He read sulky dislike on their faces.
     “You fools!” he hissed. "Without me to lead you, you’d be tracked down and recaptured quickly."
     Lu Sentu muttered a doubt… "But what if they put Captain Future on our trail? ”
     At mention of that name, a lightning-flash of hate seemed to pass across the faces of the other convicts. There was a somber fire in Ul Quorn's black eyes, and his voice was harsh as he answered.
     “I hope they do — I’ve an old score to settle with Captain Future! And so do you all, for it was he who sent most of you here. Well settle with him, after we’ve won freedom and the treasure I'm after."
     “Treasure?” whispered Lucas Brewer, his small eyes sparkling. "What treasure?"
     "The greatest treasure in history!" Ul Quorn told them. “And once we’re free, I can lead you to it. We'll be rich, powerful, invincible!”
     Avarice was plain on every face in the vicious, motley group.
     “What is this treasure? Jewels, precious metals?" Gray Garson asked.
     “Something far greater than that," Quorn retorted. “Something so tremendous that it staggers the imagination. It won't be easy to secure, for it's in a well-nigh inaccessible place. But we can get it, if you obey me." (it turns out to be the Secret of Invisibility)
     Garson answered for them all.
     “We'll follow you, Quorn! But how are we going to get out of here and away from Cerberus?"
     “It’s almost the third hour,” muttered the Magician. “If my plan works, well be out of here soon.”
     He handed one of the atom guns to the big green Jovian.
     “You're a good shot, Thikar. Now follow me, all of you, and make no sound."
     They were starting down the corridor toward the entrance of the cellhouse when they heard a wild clangor of alarm cells suddenly vibrating through the night.
     “They've discovered our break! " cried Gray Garson.
     Quorn's black eyes blazed. “They must have had a secret spy-plate in that guard-room, blast them! I was afraid of that. Quick, out of here! ”
     Quorn knew now that somewhere in the guard-room had been hidden a spy-plate, an electric eye by which the chief of guards in the administration building could glance into each cellhouse at periodic intervals. Such a glance had probably revealed the two slain guards.
     The clangor of alarms was increasing and there was a sound of running feet out in the main court. As Ul Quorn and his band raced down the corridor toward the entrance, the convicts in all cell-houses awakened. They started to shout in bewildered excitement.
     Quorn and his companions burst out of the cellhouse into the night. The gray planet light of Pluto fell on a group of guards running toward them.
     “Get them! " snapped Quorn to the giant Jovian beside him. At the same moment he fired his own heavy atom gun from the hip.
     The ripping blasts from the two weapons flashed across the court and scythed down the oncoming guards before they were aware of attack.
     “We're done for! " wailed old Xexel behind Quorn. "We've not got a chance in a billion of getting out of here now! "

     ANYONE less iron-willed than Ul Quorn would have been unnerved. Alarm bells were still clamoring, more guards were running out of the administration building, and the roar of aroused convicts was growing in volume.
     Blue beams of krypton searchlights swung down from the guard-towers on the wall, searching the main court. And there was a far-away, increasing droning sound as black cruisers dived on the Prison from high above.
     “Patrol cruisers coming! " Gray Garson yelled.
     A blue beam bathed their group in its radiance as a searchlight found them.
     “Get that light, Thikar!” cried Quorn.
     Thikar’s atom blast snuffed out the light. But other beams swept toward them, and now the guards across the court were coming toward them on the run and firing as they came. Lu Sentu staggered in his stride as a flashing atom-blast grazed his shoulder.
     Ul Quorn paid no attention. His black eyes were intently sweeping the court. Then he saw what he was anticipating.
     In a dark comer of the great court, a small, torpedo-like rocket-ship suddenly appeared magically out of nothingness. It poised there, its flaming keel-jets keeping it a few inches above the paving.
     “Come on! ” cried Ul Quorn, plunging toward the craft.
     “Gods of Saturn, where did that ship come from? " gasped old Xexel, his filmy eyes bulging. "It just appeared out of nothing —” (a knowledgeable but naive scientist invented a ship that can travel in the fifth dimension, vanishing and appearing at will. Quorn had femme fatale N’Rala beguile the secret out of the scientist, murder him, and steal the ship. )
     Guards were sprinting to intercept the band before they reached the mysterious little craft. Quorn shot as he ran, with uncanny sureness of aim, and three of the foremost guards fell in scorched heaps.
     The door of the little ship opened. A lithe Martian girl appeared in it, tense and beautiful, her dark eyes blazing excitedly.
     “Good work, N’Rala! ” Quorn cried to her. “Quick, you men! ”
     His criminal followers tumbled into the little ship after him. Searchlights and atom blasts directed themselves at the craft. But then, as magically as it had appeared, the little ship suddenly vanished!
     The Planet Patrol cruisers that roared down over Interplanetary Prison began a frantic search. But though they searched all around the prison moon they found no trace of the mysterious little craft in which the fugitives had disappeared.

From THE MAGICIAN OF MARS by Edmond Hamilton (1969)

Pleasure Planet


Places for tourists to visit and relax, often paradise worlds or something akin to Las Vegas in space. Mostly, it is a place for the protagonists to relax, especially if there's beaches. Not likely to be a major target, unless it's a strategic location or attacked for symbolic reasons.


      If, from a distance of seven thousand parsecs, the fall of Kalgan to the armies of the Mule had produced reverberations that had excited the curiosity of an old Trader, the apprehension of a dogged captain, and the annoyance of a meticulous mayor — to those on Kalgan itself, it produced nothing and excited no one. It is the invariable lesson to humanity that distance in time, and in space as well, lends focus. It is not recorded, incidentally, that the lesson has ever been permanently learned.
     Kalgan was — Kalgan. It alone of all that quadrant of the Galaxy seemed not to know that the Empire had fallen, that the Stannells no longer ruled, that greatness had departed, and peace had disappeared.
     Kalgan was the luxury world. With the edifice of mankind crumbling, it maintained its integrity as a producer of pleasure, a buyer of gold and a seller of leisure.
     It escaped the harsher vicissitudes of history, for what conqueror would destroy or even seriously damage a world so full of the ready cash that would buy immunity.
     Yet even Kalgan had finally become the headquarters of a warlord and its softness had been tempered to the exigencies of war.
     Its tamed jungles, its mildly modeled shores, and its garishly glamorous cities echoed to the march of imported mercenaries and impressed citizens. The worlds of its province had been armed and its money invested in battleships rather than bribes for the first time in its history. Its ruler proved beyond doubt that he was determined to defend what was his and eager to seize what was others. He was a great one of the Galaxy, a war and peace maker, a builder of Empire, an establisher of dynasty.
     And an unknown with a ridiculous nickname had taken him — and his arms — and his budding Empire — and had not even fought a battle.
     So Kalgan was as before, and its uniformed citizens hurried back to their older life, while the foreign professionals of war merged easily into the newer bands that descended.
     Again as always, there were the elaborate luxury hunts for the cultivated animal life of the jungles that never took human life; and the speedster bird-chases in the air above, that was fatal only to the Great Birds.
     In the cities, the escapers of the Galaxy could take their varieties of pleasure to suit their purse, from the ethereal sky-palaces of spectacle and fantasy that opened their doors to the masses at the jingle of half a credit, to the unmarked, unnoted haunts to which only those of great wealth were of the cognoscenti.

From FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE by Isaac Asimov (1952)

      Tikil was really three cities loosely bound together, two properly recognized on the maps of Korwar's northern continent, the third a sore—rather than a scar—of war, still unhealed. To the north and west Tikil was an exotic bloom on a planet that had harbored wealth almost from the year of its first settlement. To the east, fronting on the spaceport, was the part of Tikil in which lay the warehouses, shops, and establishments of the thousands of businesses necessary for the smooth running of a pleasure city, this exotic bloom where three-quarters of the elite of a galactic sector gathered to indulge their whims and play.
     To the south was the Dipple, a collection of utilitarian, stark, unattractive housing. To live there was a badge of inferiority. A man from the Dipple had three choices for a cloudy future. He could try to exist without subcitizenship and a work permit, haunting the Casual Labor Center to compete with too many of his fellows for the very limited crumbs of employment; he could somehow raise the stiff entrance fee and buy his way into the strictly illegal but flourishing and perilous Thieves' Guild; or he could sign on as contract labor and be shipped off world in deep freeze with no beforehand knowledge of his destination or work.
     The War of the Two Sectors had been fought to a stalemate five years ago. Afterwards, the two leading powers had shared out the spoils—"spheres of influence." Several major and once richer planets had to be written off entirely, since worlds reduced to cinders on which no human being dared land were not attractive property. But a fringe of frontier worlds had passed into the grasp of one or the other of the major powers—the Confederation or the Council. As a result, the citizens of several small nations suddenly found themselves homeless.
     At the outbreak of the war ten years earlier, there had been forced evacuations from such frontier worlds; pioneers had been removed from their lands so that military outposts and masked solar batteries could be placed in their stead. In this fashion, the Dipple had been set up on Korwar, far back from the fighting line. During the first fervor of patriotism the Dipple dwellers met with good will. But later, when their home worlds were ruined or traded away across the conference tables, there was resentment, and on some planets there were organized moves to get rid of these rootless inhabitants…

     …Sixth Square lay on the outer fringe of the business district, which meant that Kyger was engaged in one of the upper-bracket luxury trades. Rather surprising that such a merchant would have need for a C.L.C. hireling. The maintenance force and highly trained salesmen of those shops were usually of the full-citizen class. And why animals? Horan swung on one of the fast-moving roll walks, his temporarily tattooed wrist held in plain sight across his wide belt to prevent questions from any patroller.
     Because it was early, the roll walks were not crowded, and few private flitters held the air lanes overhead. Most of the shutters were still in place across the display fronts of the shops. It would be midday before the tourists from the pleasure hotels and the shoppers from the villas would move into town. On Korwar, shopping was a fashionable form of amusement, and the treasures of half the galaxy were pouring into Tikil, the result of stepped-up production after the war.

     …Any pets offered to the wife of Var suk Sark would indeed be the most exotic as well as the most expensive obtainable. Suk Sark was of one of the Fifty Noble Families on Wolf Three. But the Gentle Fem San duk Var was not accepted in that lineage-conscious assemblage. Gossip was undoubtedly correct in ascribing the present residence of the Var household on Korwar to that fact. One could not buy one's way into the Fifty, no matter how limitless was the pile of credits one could dip into. But there were other circles one could impress with one's importance—many such on Korwar (the planet Tikil is on).
     Troy wondered how suk Sark enjoyed running his autocratic government of the Sweepers from so far away. The Sweepers in the galaxy as a whole were small fry, a collection of six minor solar systems, and they never ventured too far into the conflicts between the real lords of space. But sometimes even such small organizations had moments when their allegiance or enmity could tip the scales of an uneasy balance of power. Suk Sark was only one of the "powers" who, for one reason or another, made Korwar their residence, apart from their official headquarters.

     …Tikil was a luxury port. And the luxuries were not always within the bands of legal imports. Troy could name four forbidden drugs, a banned liquor, and several other items that would never arrive openly on the planet but would promise high returns for the men or man reckless enough to run them through port scanners. If Kyger had activities outside the port laws, however, that was none of his cage cleaner's concern.…

     …The merchant pressed a button. A small viewing screen moved outward from the wall at a comfortable eye level for the woman in the foreseat of the party. She was older than Var's consort, and far more elaborately dressed, affecting the semitransparent robes of Cynus, though they were not in the least flattering to her emaciated figure. Her voice was a shrill caw, but as Troy caught sight of her sharp-featured profile, he knew her for the Grand Leader One from Sidona. That was a matriarchate in name only now, a cluster of three small planets about a dying sun. But it still occupied a strategic point on an important star lane, and what power the Grand Leader Ones might have lost in battle they still possessed in alliances.

From CATSEYE by Andre Norton (1961)

Henning’s Roost was renowned throughout the solar system. Its reputation stretched from the intermittently molten plains of Mercury to the helium lakes of Pluto, from the upper reaches of the Jovian atmosphere to the subterranean settlements burrowed deeply into the red surface of Mars’ dusty plains. Wherever men and women worked at hard or dangerous jobs, wherever boredom and terror were normal components of life, The Roost was a standard subject of conversation.

Henning’s was a pleasure satellite, the largest ever built. Its owners had placed it in solar orbit ten million kilometers in front of Earth. There was a story told of a spaceman who had arrived at The Roost with a year’s accumulated pay in his pocket, stayed ten days, left flat broke, and pronounced himself well satisfied. It was a testimonial to the diversions provided by Henning’s management that the story was widely accepted as completely reasonable. Besides which, it was true.

Be that as it may, Chryse Haller was bored.

Chryse had arrived at The Roost two weeks earlier for her first vacation in three years. She had plunged immediately into the social whirl, sampling most of the diversions that were not ultimately harmful to one’s health. She had played chemin de fir, blackjack, poker, roulette, and seven-card stapo on the gaming decks. Later, she had enlisted as a centurion in a Roman Legion on the Sensie-Gamer deck and slogged for two days through the damp chill of a simulated Gaul. Her first battle convinced her that the difference between ancient warfare and a modern butcher shop is mostly a matter of attitude, and she began to cast around for new diversions.

     She let her gaze slip from his angry face and move to the viewscreen at the end of the small restaurant. The view was from a remote camera somewhere out on the hull. It showed a jumble of I-beams, pressure spheres, and hull plates framed by the black of space. “Let’s change the subject before we have an argument. I have been staring at that thing all morning. What is it?”
     He turned to follow her gaze. “Just an old worker dormitory used during The Roost’s construction. It’s abandoned now, of course.”
     “I would think the owners would keep local space clear of all such hazards to navigation. Wouldn’t be very good publicity for a shipload of tourists to run into that heap on approach.”
     He shook his head. “It isn’t as ramshackle as it appears. Look closely. See the thruster cluster jutting out near the airlock? There are twenty more scattered over the hull. That hulk and a half dozen others are slaved to the Roost’s central computer.”
     “Sounds like a lot of trouble to go to for a junkyard,” Chryse said.
     “It’s part of the service. The hulks make good destinations for clients with a yen to explore the mysteries of space.”
     “The what?”
     He laughed, his pique suddenly forgotten. “Haven’t you ever skin dived on a sunken ship?”
     She shook her head.
     “How about going up to Zeta Deck then? They have a near perfect simulation of the Esmeralda there. That was a Spanish galleon that sunk off Key West in the Sixteenth Century. They took sixty million stellars worth of treasure out of her back in the thirties.”
     Chryse shook her head. “I’m tired of simulated adventure.”
     He smiled, turning on the boyish charm. “That’s the reason for the hulks. They are the real thing. We could check out two vacsuits at North Pole Terminus and make a day long picnic of it if you like.”


The New Moon was really new—a glittering creation , of modern science and high finance, the proudest triumph of thirtieth century engineering. The heart of it was a vast hexagonal structure of welded metal, ten miles across, that held eighty cubic miles of expensive, air-conditioned space.

Far nearer Earth than the old Moon, the new satellite had a period of only six hours. From the Earth, its motion appeared faster and more spectacular because of its retro­grade direction. It rose in the west, fled across the sky against the tide of the stars and plunged down where the old Moon had risen.

The New Moon was designed to be spectacular. A spinning web of steel wires, held rigid by centrifugal force, Spread from it across a thousand miles of space. They supported an intricate system of pivoted mirrors of sodium foil and sliding color filters of cellulite. Reflected sunlight was utilized to illuminate the greatest advertising sign conceived.

But the rising sign, as it had been designed to do, held his eyes. A vast circle of scarlet stars came up to the greenish desert dusk. They spun giddily, came and went, changed suddenly to a lurid yellow. Then garish blue-and-orange letters flashed a legend:

Tired, Mister? Bored, Sister? Then come with me—The disk became a red-framed animated picture of a slender girl in white, tripping up the gangway of a New Moon liner. She turned, and the gay invitation of her smile changed into burning words: Out in the New Moon, just ask for what you want. Caspar Hannas has it for you. Find health at our sanatoria! flamed the writing in the sky. Sport in our gravity-free games! Recreation in our clubs and theatres! Knowledge in our museums and observatories. Thrills, and beauty—everywhere! Fortune, if you're lucky, in our gaming salons! Even oblivion if you desire it, at our Clinic of Euthanasia!

The first New Moon had been the battered hulk of an obsolescent space liner, towed into an orbit about the Earth twenty years ago. The charter somehow issued to the New Moon Syndicate in the interplanetary confusion following the First Interstellar War had given that gambling ship the status of a semi-independent planet, which made it a convenient refuge from the more stringent laws of Earth and the rest of the System. Caspar Hannas, the head of the syndicate, had defied outraged reformers—and prospered exceedingly.

The wondrous artificial satellite, first opened to the public a decade ago, had replaced a whole fleet of luxury liners that once had circled just outside the laws of Earth. The financial rating of the syndicate was still somewhat uncertain—Hannas had been called, among many other things, a conscienceless commercial octopus; but the new resort was obviously a profitable business enterprise, efficiently administered by Hannas and his special police.

His enemies—and there was no lack of them—liked to call the man a spider. True enough, his sign in the sky was like a gaudy web. True, millions swarmed to it, to leave their wealth—or even, if they accepted the dead-black chip that the croupiers would give any player for the asking, their lives.

The salons of chance occupied a series of six immense halls radiating from the private office of Caspar Hannas, which was situated at the very hub of the New Moon's wheel. The walls of the office were transparent from with­in, and Hannas, from the huge swivel chair within his ring-shaped desk, could look at will down any one of the halls.

They were huge and costly rooms. The walls bore ex­pensive statues, expensive murals, golden statues set in niches. And their polished floors were covered with thou­sands of tables of chanpe.

Beneath each hall ran an armored tunnel, unsuspected by most of the players above, where their losses were swiftly examined for counterfeit, counted, tabulated, and dispatched to the impregnably armored treasure vault be­neath the office of Caspar Hannas. A continuous tape, fed through a slot in the circular desk, revealed minute by minute the New Moon's gains and losses. The losses all appeared in red but that color was rarely seen.

"The laws of probability," Caspar Hannas always in­sisted, smiling his fixed and mindless smile, "are all I need. Every game is fair."

And cynics, it had been suspected, were apt to find their doubts very unexpectedly terminated in the Hall of Euthanasia.

"It would serve you right, Hannas, if I played all the night. Ah, so! Even if I broke your New Moon, and made you beg for the black chip of admission to your own Euthanasia Clinic!"

"He's still a fool." Caspar Hannas spoke to Jay Kalam, not troubling to lower his contemptuous voice. "A pathological gambler. I've seen thousands like him—egotistical enough to think they can invent some lunatic system to cheat the mathematics of probability. They never know when they've had enough, until they finally come begging for a free black chip. Davian probably will tomorrow, when he has lost what he wins tonight."

"They're all alike," he said. "They lose everything, and the syndicate pays their way home. But they aren't content. They never learn. They've got to get even. They sell their homes. They break their relatives. They borrow from their friends, until they have no friends. They live in squalor, and scrape and beg and steal—and keep coming back out here to try again to break the bank."

"But the syndicate doesn't encourage such patrons. The personal disasters they bring upon themselves tend to reflect on our establishment, and too many of them finally become bitter and desperate enough to create unpleasant public scenes by killing themselves at the tables, or even sometimes attacking our own people, instead of decently requesting that free black chip." He sniffed derisively.

From ONE AGAINST THE LEGION by Jack Williamson (1936)

The authority of the Solar System Government and its laws shall extend to every celestial body that revolves around the Sun.

THE framers of the Constitution of the Solar System Government supposed that that provision would insure the reign of order on every speck of matter in the System, be it planet, asteroid, moon or meteor. But they reckoned without the devious, subtle ingenuity of a certain Jovian named Bubos Uum. He saw in that paragraph a gaping loophole.

Bubas Uum was a notorious interplanetary gambler whose semi-criminal activities had already won him a term in the dreaded prison on Ceberus, the moon of Pluto. He had started a hidden gambling resort in the jungles of his native world. But after the Planet Police raided it and he was convicted, he had decided not to defy the law. Evading it was more profitable and less wearing.

Through a dummy company, Bubas Uum bought sole title to a small asteroid lying on the extreme outer edge of the asteroidal zone. He had it fitted with air and water creators, and built on it gambling palaces and pleasure gardens — all quite openly. The Planet Police had watched, ready to raid him as soon as he started operating.

Then Bubas Uum had sprung his surprise. Secretly he had had the little asteroid fitted with rocket tubes of gigantic power, enough to move it in space like a great ship. He turned on those tubes. Their blast impelled the little world against its normal orbit. Instead of moving on in its orbit, the little planetoid remained stationary in space — relative to the Solar System

Thus the Pleasure Planet, as he called it, did not revolve around the Sun but remained in one position in space. And thus, according to the Constitution, the law of the Solar System Government did not extend to the Pleasure Planet. The Planet Police had no authority there. The only authority was the word of fat, wily Bubas Uum, its owner.

The Pleasure Planet was, in fact, a lawless little world in the very heart of the System. Gambling flourished there on a lavish scale. Illicit interplanetary drugs could be purchased openly. The only restrictions were the discreet ones imposed by Bubas Uum's yellow-uniformed guards. From all the nine worlds came the rich, the bored, the dissipated, to enjoy themselves without restraint on the Pleasure Planet.


Cult Colony

Cult Colonies happen when a group of fanatics actually manages to form an Extremist Settlement. By definition the colonist's culture is outside of Empire societal norms. They can be quite uncomfortable places to visiting outsiders.

An Imperium-imposed Colony Educational Service team can try to prevent things from going too far downhill. Good luck with that, such a team is by definition "outsiders."


The space hippies want to found a hippie colony on Eden, it only lasts a few hours.
McANDREW CHRONICLES by Charles Sheffield
One of the generation starships heading out to found a colony is populated with Amish hoping to live a low-tech life. I'm sure the irony was intentional.
DUNE by Frank Herbert
Arrakis was settled by a Zensunni sect escaping persecution
GAEAN TRILOGY by John Varley
One of the protagonists comes from The Coven: an L5 space colony inhabited by neopagan lesbians who procreate by artificial insemination.
The Church of Latter Day Saints hires Tycho Station to build a generation starship intended to found a religious colony at a nearby star.
LUCIFER'S STAR by C.T. Phipps and Michael Suttkus
The Archduchy of Crius is a cult colony founded by Prophet Stephen Allenway. He and his followers were exiled from another cult colony who thought Allenway was too extreme even for them.
CHILDE CYCLE by Gordon R. Dickson
With the advent of interstellar colonization, humanity naturally fragments into one planet for each universal personality trait. These are called the "splinter cultures". The Dorsai value courage, and supply elite mercenaries to the other colonies. The Exotics value philosophy, the Friendlies value faith and fanaticism, Newton values hard science, Ceta values mercantilism, Cassida values engineering, etc.

Lost Colony

A Lost Colony is when somehow a colony loses all of its technology, and Terra loses all record of the colony's existence. The colony reverts to whatever technology is supportable (probably about pre-Industrial Revolution), and may even forget that they are not native to the planet. In pulp science fiction, writers were fond of using the shocker that Terra itself was a lost colony from somewhere else (a couple of such pulp stories also threw in a gratuitous "Adam and Eve" theme). This fell out of favor when evolutionary science had advanced to the point where it could demonstrate that mankind almost certainly evolved on Terra.

The part about Terra losing all records of the Lost Colony can happen many ways:

  • Terra can suffer a nuclear war (which the lost colonists might have been fleeing) thus destroying all the records
  • The colonists are founding a Cult Colony and carefully destroy all records of their destination before leaving
  • The colonists use a sleeper ship aimed at random which after a few thousand years happens upon a habitable planet unknown to Terra
  • The colonists use an experimental faster-than-light starship which malfunctions and lands them in a location unknown to them or Terra
  • Or any combination of the above

When contact is reestablished with Terra, what happens next is influenced by which of the two has the higher technology.

An amusing twist is when Terra is the lost colony.


Location is no longer accessible or has disappeared. This could be due to a variety of reasons: The local Gate has been destroyed, the wormhole that connected the location is now unstable, or something happened to the settlers. In either case, no one knows were it is and may become myth. Explorers may find these places again.


(ed note: The person talking is the chief of an interstellar law-enforcement agency. The "Enemy" is the interstellar organized crime syndicate)

He paused and indicated a chair. "Do sit down, make yourself comfortable." He sat down facing them. "As you know from history, four hundred years ago, there was a war of independence among our stellar colonies. During that war, four recently colonized planets were completely cut off. Vessels carrying vital equipment failed to arrive and, in the hundred-year combat which followed, the colonists on these worlds lost their technology. Superstition replaced knowledge. They slipped to a period roughly approximating sixteenth-century earth which was pretty good considering that they had only memory, records, and the clothes they stood up in with which to build. Every time someone died, knowledge died with them, you get the picture.

"It was felt, when the first cautious surveys were made, that it would be in the interests of these cultures generally, if they climbed to a period roughly approaching the twentieth century before being united with the Empire. The experts felt that too early a contact might have dangerous repercussions on these cultures. Further, with the growing strength of the Enemy they would undoubtedly be exploited, turned into side-shows and perhaps perish as individual and vital off-shoots of mankind's climb to the stars.

"Warning monitors were therefore placed in orbit round these planets and regular patrols instituted. It was known, needless to say, that Cisterine, the planet in question, was rich in Cuderium and here precautions were doubled.

"The Enemy, however, has some ingenious scientists on its payroll and they managed to by-pass the monitors and evade the patrols without triggering the alarms. Judging by figures to hand, they had mined and ferried out a couple of billions worth of Cuderium before they were discovered.

"While this was going on, the executives in charge became bored. They therefore decided to amuse themselves, playing God.

"The peoples of the planet's two continents, if not friends, had never been overt enemies, so the executives drummed up a little war to make their stay more interesting. It was then that some bright spark had the idea of making a profit out of it. Why not hook up some cameras? Make a good spectacular and profit out of indulgence appealed to them greatly.

"The spectacular (a popular TV show), as you did not see all of it, is worth mentioning. It depicted an heroic spaceman marooned on a primitive planet. He falls among a noble race whose lands and seaboards are being constantly ravished and plundered by the brutal Royal fleets of the adjacent continent. Out of love of the people and, incidentally, unlikely local materials, he builds a quick-firing gun and sallies forth in their only available ship to do battle for them. Needless to say, the battle scenes were impressive and the backgrounds so skilfully disguised that, but for your 'dream' we should never have put two and two together."

From BUTTERFLY PLANET by Philip E. High (1971)

Garbage World


"This must be the junk capital of the universe."

Daniel, The Transformers: The Movie

In Speculative Fiction, one will sometimes find that entire planets get used as interstellar landfills. Implicitly this means that it is somehow worthwhile to launch refuse into space and take it to another planet, possibly one that is located in another solar system, in order to dump it there, rather than give it a push towards the nearest star, dump it on a nearby worthless, uninhabitable rock, or just recycle the stuff (not to mention massive and cheap energy sources that make such launches worthwhile in the first place— just getting into space in the first place is a lot harder than most people think).

In many cases, the landfill-planet will even be habitable, if only barely, for the convenience of the protagonists who will naturally end up spending time there at some point. Hobo cities built out of scrap optional.

For this trope to work at all, the setting must have very Casual (and VERY CHEAP) Interstellar Travel. There are, however, ways to harden this trope: make the planet in question a useless dwarf planet in a nearby asteroid belt, Ceres-like (delta-v to reach such a planet could be really low), used only to dump garbage of space origin from the same system, and equipped with dirty recycling industries that make it more efficient to fling refuse there, rather than into the star. Rarely will it ever be a recycling planet of some kind, which would justify moving massive amounts of junk there. For this trope in a smaller scale, see Down in the Dumps.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


      The few stands of original timber towered above the second growth like hills; those trees had been there when the planet had been colonized.
     That had been two hundred years ago, at the beginning of the Seventh Century, Atomic Era. The name "Poictesme" told that—Surromanticist Movement, when they were rediscovering James Branch Cabell. Old Genji Gartner, the scholarly and half-piratical space-rover whose ship had been the first to enter the Trisystem, had been devoted to the romantic writers of the Pre-Atomic Era. He had named all the planets of the Alpha System from the books of Cabell, and those of Beta from Spenser's Faerie Queene, and those of Gamma from Rabelais. Of course, the camp village at his first landing site on this one had been called Storisende.
     Thirty years later, Genji Gartner had died there, after seeing Storisende grow to a metropolis and Poictesme become a Member Republic in the Terran Federation. The other planets were uninhabitable except in airtight dome cities, but they were rich in minerals. Companies had been formed to exploit them. No food could be produced on any of them except by carniculture and hydroponic farming, and it had been cheaper to produce it naturally on Poictesme. So Poictesme had concentrated on agriculture and had prospered. At least, for about a century.
     Other colonial planets were developing their own industries; the manufactured goods the Gartner Trisystem produced could no longer find a profitable market. The mines and factories on Jurgen and Koshchei, on Britomart and Calidore, on Panurge and the moons of Pantagruel closed, and the factory workers went away. On Poictesme, the offices emptied, the farms contracted, forests reclaimed fields, and the wild game came back.

     Coming toward the ship out of the east, now, was a vast desert of crumbling concrete—landing fields and parade grounds, empty barracks and toppling sheds, airship docks, stripped gun emplacements and missile-launching sites. These were more recent, and dated from Poictesme's second hectic prosperity, when the Gartner Trisystem had been the advance base for the Third Fleet-Army Force, during the System States War.

     It had lasted twelve years. Millions of troops were stationed on or routed through Poictesme. The mines and factories reopened for war production. The Federation spent trillions on trillions of sols, piled up mountains of supplies and equipment, left the face of the world cluttered with installations. Then, without warning, the System States Alliance collapsed, the rebellion ended, and the scourge of peace fell on Poictesme.
     The Federation armies departed. They took the clothes they stood in, their personal weapons, and a few souvenirs. Everything else was abandoned. Even the most expensive equipment had been worth less than the cost of removal.
     The people who had grown richest out of the War had followed, taking their riches with them. For the next forty years, those who remained had been living on leavings. On Terra, Conn had told his friends that his father was a prospector, leaving them to interpret that as one who searched, say, for uranium. Rodney Maxwell found quite a bit of uranium, but he got it by taking apart the warheads of missiles.

(ed note: and the people of Poictesme are poverty stricken. Because they have no starships, they are at the mercy of the merchant ships who show up. The merchants pay the people of Poictesme pennies on the dollar for their salvage, ship the salvage to other planets, then sell it for outrageous prices.)

From JUNKYARD PLANET by H. Beam Piper (1963)

Other Thoughts


An interstellar domain can have no definite borders; stars are scattered too thinly, their types too intermingled. And there are too many of them. In very crude approximation, the Terrestrial Empire was a sphere of some 400 light-years diameter, centered on Sol, and contained an estimated four million stars. But of these less than half had even been visited. A bare 100,000 were directly concerned with the Imperium, a few multiples of that number might have some shadowy contact and owe a theoretical allegiance.

Consider a single planet; realize that it is a world, as big and varied and strange as this Terra ever was, with as many conflicting elements of race and language and culture among its natives; estimate how much government even one planet requires, and see how quickly a reign over many becomes impossibly huge.

Then consider, too, how small a percentage of stars are of any use to a given species (too hot, too cold, too turbulent, too many companions) and, of those, how few will have even one planet where that species is reasonably safe. The Empire becomes tenuous indeed.

And its inconceivable extent is still the merest speck in one outlying part of one spiral arm of one galaxy; among a hundred billion or more great suns, those known to any single world are the barest, tiniest handful.

From "HUNTERS OF THE SKY CAVE" by Poul Anderson

Sergeant Imoto: Some years ago, my country chose to fight a terrible war. It was bad, I do not defend it, but there were reasons. Somehow those reasons are never spoken of. To the Western world at that time, Japan was a fairybook nation: little people living in a strange land of rice-paper houses... people who had almost no furniture, who sat on the floor and ate with chopsticks. The quaint houses of rice paper, sir: they were made of paper because there was no other material available. And the winters in Japan are as cold as they are in Boston. And the chopsticks: there was no metal for forks and knives and spoons, but slivers of wood could suffice. So it was with the little people of Japan, little as I am now, because for countless generations we have not been able to produce the food to make us bigger. Japan's yesterday will be the world's tomorrow: too many people and too little land. That is why I say, sir, there is urgent reason for us to reach Mars: to provide the resources the human race will need if they are to survive. That is also why I am most grateful to be found acceptable, sir. I volunteer.

General Samuel T. Merritt: Thank you, Sergeant Imoto. You're not a little man.


Let the sweet fresh breezes heal me
As they rove around the girth
Of our lovely mother planet
Of the cool, green hills of Earth.

We rot in the molds of Venus,
We retch at her tainted breath.
Foul are her flooded jungles,
Crawling with unclean death.

[ --- the harsh bright soil of Luna ---
--- Saturn's rainbow rings ---
--- the frozen night of Titan --- ]

We've tried each spinning space mote
And reckoned its true worth:
Take us back again to the homes of men
On the cool, green hills of Earth.

The arching sky is calling
Spacemen back to their trade.
And the lights below us fade.

Out ride the sons of Terra,
Far drives the thundering jet,
Up leaps a race of Earthmen,
Out, far, and onward yet ---

We pray for one last landing
On the globe that gave us birth;
Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies
And the cool, green hills of Earth.

from THE GREEN HILLS OF EARTH by Robert A. Heinlein (1947)

Atomic Rockets notices

This week's featured addition is COMPOSITE/CERMET NTR COMPARISON

This week's featured addition is NUCLEAR ORION SPECIFIC IMPULSE

This week's featured addition is SWIMMER STARSHIP

Atomic Rockets

Support Atomic Rockets

Support Atomic Rockets on Patreon