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April 10th, 2007

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12:49 am - Musings in interstellar colonization in novels and RPGs
I posted this on RPG.net, but am into the idea sufficiently that I thought it might make interesting discussion here.

In both most SF RPGs and films, and in many SF novels, planting a colony on the planet of a distant sun is often likened to settling the American frontier or various other forms of pre-modern colonization, with people building houses out of local materials and facing a world they know very little about. That can make for interesting role-playing or fun (if fluffy) novels, but is ludicrous from the perspective of hard SF. Also, I wonder what adventure opportunities might be missed by going in this direction. What if it was a far more high tech process. In thinking about this, it also occurred to me that the following ideas would be especially interesting in a setting where interstellar travel is either a setting w/o FTL travel, where relativistic starships take months of subjective time and decades of external time to travel between stars or (at fastest) relatively slow FTL travel, taking months to go from one star system to another – the best example of this in popular knowledge is warp drive in TOS Star Trek – even at ordinary cruising speed, the Enterprise (cruising at warp 6) took a month to travel to another Sector (80 light years), while most civilian ships take 4 months to travel this far, and a month to travel to a nearby star.

Consider interstellar colonies planets using something like the moderately advanced nanotechnology from GURPS: Transhuman Space or Centauri Knights.The most obvious first step when the ship arrives at the planet is to throw a huge bunch of satellites into orbit - you already have your starship there, so that's exceptionally easy. In a few days, the planet has a new crop of GPS sats, comm sats, and satellites for observing the weather, geology, and natural features. You have accurate maps and anyone landing on the planet will have GPS, relatively accurate weather prediction, and instant communication anywhere on the planet to go along with that.

Then, you land and start the colony. Even if the ship was traveling at relativistic speeds or going through a wormhole, a good policy for a colony of maybe 5-10,000 is to have them travel in some form of suspended animation – it's far cheaper and the colonists take up far less space. So, while the colonists remain in suspended animation, robots (possibly with the assistance of a few colony leaders who have been awakened) go about the task of selecting the site for the colony. Then, using a simpler variant of the living city from Luna City (my own creation), in the GURPS: Transhuman Space book High Frontier. This is essentially, a huge living organism that provides its inhabitants with climate controlled shelter, light, water (and a variety of other beverages), and various sorts of fruit useful for snacks or as food in difficult times, all for free. The interior can be shaped with easily-made hormone sprays. A version designed to live on a habitable planet would require even less tending and care than one designed to live on the Moon. Combine this with some nanotechnological factories (the fully automated descendants of this nascent technology to automatically produce all manner of durable goods, and it's time to wake up the colonists to a world where they can live in high tech comfort.

So, you've eliminated the hardscrabble farming and similar ruralisms of many tales of new colonies and replaced them with urban stories that can be told anywhere in the setting. Also, the colonists will have a good general knowledge of the surface of their planet. One point that interests me is what won't they know about their world? What sorts of adventures can be run beyond the boundaries of their small city? Naturally, colonists will venture into these regions – they have a whole world to explore and anyone signing on to interstellar colonization is bound to be interested in this.

My thoughts are:

  • Strange and dangerous animals waiting in caves, underground tunnels (like giant ant-lions or trap-door spiders), or underwater - all places orbital sensors will have a hard time reaching.
  • Crime or the rise of extremist political religious movements among some of the members of what (despite all the comforts and advanced technology) remains a small and very isolated group of a few thousand people.
  • Sentient or near-sentient inhabitants that lack anything more than stone-age technology, but are clearly intelligent (or nearly so).
  • Alien ruins – perhaps the ancient ruins of an entire civilization, perhaps the somewhat more recent ruins of a small colony. Time and weather could have hidden most of them, especially if the aliens lived underwater or in underground tunnel complexes, or deliberately hid their cities for some reason.
  • The colony is a research station to study alien ruins, low-tech (or perhaps totally non-technological sentient beings) or something similarly interesting). However, because interstellar travel takes months (if you have slow FTL travel) or decades (if you have relativistic travel) any research station you build is effectively a long-term colony. Issues surrounding this become increasingly complex if the colonist-researchers start having to balance their own needs vs. the needs of the beings they are studying. Alastair Reynolds' excellent novel Revelation Space, dealt with these very issues on the planet Resurgam.
  • If FTL travel exists, then the planet may also be a base for smugglers, raiders, or other criminals who use various stealth technologies to hide and are either interested in hiding from the colonists, or finding some way to take their stuff and perhaps even enslave them.

My basic take would be to have a pocket of advanced technological civilization in the midst of an (at best) partially known world where even the best orbital surveys will not reveal the details of on-site exploration. Moreover, here you have a few thousand colonists who have many resources, but who are also cut off from the rest of humanity and cannot expect any help from the outside for at least either a month or two (in an FTL setting) or several decades (in an STL setting), so they must rely upon themselves to solve their problems. This also introduces the possibility of internal conflicts in the colony, including the rise of dangerous cults or similar forms of extreme and potentially very dangerous behavior.

Combine that with the various mysteries any new planet could reveal and it sounds like a very nifty adventure, especially if you make the planet truly alien, like Wayne Barlowe's Darwin IV.

So, what other possibilities for adventure can you think of? I'm not particularly interested in massive technological breakdowns that transform the high tech settlement into hard-scrabble farming – I'm interested in what fun and nifty things can be done with the setting largely as it stands. What sorts of scenarios would you run? How would you make the world exciting?
Current Mood: busybusy

(9 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:April 10th, 2007 11:55 am (UTC)
This is probably slightly inspired by the Canadian drama Regenesis, but I think a scenario with a potentially deadly alien virus could be interesting. Imagine being potentially months away from the top of the line technology and a group of xenovirologists having to find a cure for a deadly virus with limited resources in a short amount of time while at the same time having to contain the virus to the planet because if it escapes it could be a futuristic version of the black death.

Dealing with the panic that would ensue with a group of people knowing they were going to die and facing their fight or flight fears. They would want to get back to Earth where the technological resources to find a cure would be greater, but if they headed back the virus could potentially kill 99% of the human race -- assuming they could survive the long journey back to earth. Would suspended animation slow the spread of the virus? What about a virus that could not be contained by standard quarantine techniques? What if it affected the machines and robots as well as the people? I think you could really go a long way with this scenario.
[User Picture]
Date:April 10th, 2007 12:16 pm (UTC)
Let's take that one step further--not all the colonists die from the virus, but a percentage survives, and no one can figure out why. However, the colonists start acting strangely, alien in and of themselves. Something Other has been introduced. Make the virus a sentient symbiotic being that is bringing the colonists more in line with subtle ecologies on the planet. Suddenly, those infected can now "hear" the plants, rocks, other forms of sentience...and realize that life on said planet and what "colonization" entails is not as one sided as they thought.

Ok. Now someone run this for me?
[User Picture]
Date:April 10th, 2007 12:54 pm (UTC)
I like that. What if we made it a sort of synesthesia virus? As in the surviving colonists senses were completely transformed so that they were hearing colors and seeing sound. Part of the drama would be trying looking for a cure while at the same time trying to cope with an entirely new set of senses. Imagine trying to develop a microscope that you could use with your ears because you hear colors? It could get pretty crazy.

Then there would be the other aspect of whether you'd even want to find a cure. Maybe those that have the virus and survive don't consider it to be a disease. It could be considered a gift or a blessing to the survivors who have a whole new range of senses and connection to the new planet.
[User Picture]
Date:April 10th, 2007 02:32 pm (UTC)
Of course, we could lose the eco-fluffy in touch with all the planet's life and that life is sentient line, to something akin to intelligent viral species that inhabit the planet/life forms as their hosts-and this is the homeworld. A little Orson Scott Card-esque, but then...what if those sentient wee things were hostile to our colonization?

Synethesia is simple, and might make for derranged humans if we tweak it..then, why, boys and girls, it's ZOMBIE KILLIN' TIME!

Sorry. I got carried away.

Going back to my cube, now. ;)
[User Picture]
Date:April 10th, 2007 12:16 pm (UTC)
I will add to my musings with Rhianna's take, that I dearly love Pitch Black/Alien brutal survivalist narratives. :)

[User Picture]
Date:April 10th, 2007 04:38 pm (UTC)
I was reminded of Passages in the Void, where planets undergo a pretty intensive preparation phase before the actual colonization.

Technical trouble would always be one source of interest. Sure, automated factories are there to build everything you need... but due to some mix-up somewhere down the line, the factories you got were optimized to a gravity 0.5 Gs lower. And they should be equipped with much heavier radiation shielding than they are.

The beginning for a short story I wrote a couple of years back (in Finnish only, unfortuntately) had the following premise:

Nearly entirely covered by forest and jungle, the seventh moon of the fifth planet in the Nega system houses twelve colonies established there generations ago by a long since fallen empire. Located on different sides of the planet, the colonies are separated from each other both by the distance and the constant solar flares making radio communication impossible (not to mention the monsters ravaging the forests and the fact the planet seems sentient and hostile to the intruders).

While the hostility of the forest and being cut off from supplies prevents the colonists from expanding out of their cities, the built-to-last total conversion reactors, hydroponic farming and top of the line recycling systems allow the settlers to last indefinitely. Not everybody's satisfied in just remaining in place, however, so each of the twelve cities maintains an elite ranger corps that's trained in survival and is engaged in constant deep-forest warfare with the other cities and the monsters of the forest.
[User Picture]
Date:April 10th, 2007 06:06 pm (UTC)
Orbital sensors would probably have trouble with rainforest canopy, too. There could also be sentients that might be hard to identify as such from a survey because they have a sufficiently alien perspective or are sufficiently advanced we can’t recognize what they have as technology. (Elizabeth Bear’s Carnival has an interesting variation on that theme.)

People might also have interesting pasts that will become significant. Some of the colonists might be fleeing trouble with the law back home.

One interesting form of interstellar commerce in an STL universe is information. Big message lasers could be set up sending data between the stars, with high bandwidth but massive lag time, where it’s just easier to send data back and forth proactively.
New information arriving from elsewhere could spawn all kinds of plots as people react to it, implement new technological advances, etc.

(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2007 06:01 am (UTC)

Re: I'm somewhat dismayed...

I'm dismayed by this possibility. Not somewhat dismayed, not slightly dismayed, but genuinely dismayed. In such a setting I would want to play the PC who was signed up with the colonial venture on the premise that he'd get to be in the wilderness, and then woke up living in the apartment above McDonald's.

The colony you describe is going to be tremendously familiar to all its residents. The streets are laid out the same as on their homeword, the food is the same. Many of the living buildings are the same as on their homeworld. The atmosphere is the same. The views inside this living organism are probably the same most places.

It seems exactly like the British conquering India and building British manor houses and public buildings in India. Conquering Canada and building British buildings there. Colonizing the Bahamas and building British buildings there. Oh, and how about some British buildings here in British-controlled Kenya and Nigeria, too? Don't you want some British buildings, too? Oh, sure, it's this biological construct that provides all your food and water and fresh air and really, we'll genetically tweak it so you're eating oranges instead of apples, and you're getting trout in the fishponds instead of bass or tuna. But it's like the Worthington section of Columbus, Ohio that's an exact, street-for-street, right-down-to-the-streetnames copy of the town in Connecticut where the original settlers came from.

Except that any alien ecology is going to orders of magnitude more alien than India or Kenya. If the ecology is absolutely ideal, some native life may be edible in that it provides calories and a few amino acids, but it's much more likely that every bit of native life on the planet is either poisonous or simply completely devoid of nutrition for humans, and if the colonists are not insanely lucky, if they want to grow crops in soil, they will need to sterilize it of all native life-forms to do so, and if they are not at least moderately lucky, they might even need to burn off all of the (alien and incompatible) organics in the soil and start with lichen and clay and make their own soil. This same life is likely to look profoundly alien, on the order of Wayne Barlowe's Darwin IV. We simply aren't going to be compatible with any existing alien ecosystems, which leaves open the question of why the colonists are not either terraforming a lifeless but promising world like Venus or a Mars-like world with somewhat higher gravity, or if this is too difficult and time-consuming (and it might well be both) living in subsurface colonies on a lifeless but organics (and other resources) rich world like Ganymede or Titan, and neglecting terrestrial planets entirely.

Log cabins made of alien logs, simple farms, and living off of the land are impossible unless the colonists wish to terraform large sections of the planet, or unless you are tossing biology out the window and doing total space opera.

On a more personal level, I have absolutely no interest in playing in a campaign involving hard-scrabble settlers colonizing a planet and getting their "hands dirty" doing so, it sounds somewhat less fun than watching paint dry. Absolutely the only use I can see for such worlds in a game I was running or playing in would be places for the PC's trading, research, or peace-keeping (ala Star Trek) ship to visit, help the locals out (or perhaps fleece them blind in a trading scam, depending upon the campaign) and move on, content in the knowledge that no matter what problems they might have on board their ship, at least they were not having to grub out a living on a planet.

(continued in next post)
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2007 06:04 am (UTC)

Re: I'm somewhat dismayed...

In any case, what I'd really like to see in a campaign is a truly alien planet along the lines of Darwin IV, where humans have a comfortable and highly advanced living city holding several thousand (or perhaps 10-15,000) people and, perhaps because of economies of scale for living cities) so large that it can hold as many as twice that number. Here, you can have all manner of interesting urban adventures. However, the focus of the campaign would be the alien ruins the PCs are there to study or exploit, or even better, the alien ruins, which might be from native life or might be from a now extinct colony, and in either case might have left behind either unrecognizably post-"human" descendants (perhaps hyperintelligent living crystals) or a largely non-technological sentient species, who might or might not be the descendants of the ruin builders or perhaps even a native life form the builders of the ruins uplifted, found and enslaved, or whatever...

So, the campaign can have interesting urban or political adventures as interludes to adventures in alien biology, anthropology, and technology. That sounds vastly more interesting to me than the standard (and IMHO vastly overused) "frontier settlement" model of interstellar colonies, and is also something I have not seen SF RPGs deal with much.

The closest thing to a published setting which contains any of this is Centauri Knights, which is somewhere between what you like and what I like - the setting features impressively high tech, including nanofactories, a planet-wide internet accessible via direct neural interfaces, but some locals do work in the bubblefarms tending the agricultural robots and suchlike. Given the entire Osiris system is filled with alien ruins and a variety of fully functional (if not always even remotely safe) alien tech, it would be a fascinating place for a campaign.

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