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.


(ed note: somebody said: "Until I read this, I had not appreciated how much David Drake was influenced by H. Beam Piper. Drake's Slammerverse resembles Piper's Federation in that local development means a drop in off-world trade")

      The mercenary companies of the late Third Millennium were both a result of and a response to a spurt of empire-building among the new industrial giants of the human galaxy. Earth's first flash of colonization had been explosive. Transit was an expensive proposition for trade or tourism; but on a national scale, a star colony was just as possible as the high-rise Palace of Government which even most of the underdeveloped countries had built for the sake of prestige.

     And colonies were definitely a matter of prestige. The major powers had them. So, just as Third World countries had squandered their resources on jet fighters in the twentieth century (and on ironclads in the nineteenth), they bought or leased or even built starships in the twenty-first. These colonies were almost invariably mono-national, undercapitalized, and stratified by class even more rigidly than were their mother countries. All of those factors affected later galactic history. There was a plethora of suitable words on which to plant colonies, however, so that even the most ineptly handled groups of settlers generally managed to survive. Theirs was a hand-to-mouth survival of farming and barter, though, not of spaceports shipping vast quantities of minerals and protein back to Earth.

     A few of the better-backed colonies did become very successful. Most of them had been spawned by the larger nations, though a few were private ventures (including that of the Dutch consortium which founded Friesland). Success left their backers in the same situation of those whose colonies were barely surviving, however, since the first result of planetary self-sufficiency was invariably to cut ties and find the best prices available for manufactures on the open market.

     There followed a spate of secondary colonization from the successful colony worlds. These new colonies were planted with a specific product in mind: a mineral; a drug; sometimes simply agriculture, freeing more valuable real estate on the homeworlds. Even a planet could be filled in a few centuries by the asymptotic population growth which empty spaces seem to engender in human beings. Secondary colonies were frequently joint efforts, combining settlers and capital from several worlds. They were a business proposition, after all, not matters of national honor.

     Unfortunately for the concept, the newly mixed national and racial groups got along just as badly as their ancestors had a few centuries earlier on Earth. The planetary governments of Hiroseke and Stewart, for instance, conferred placidly with each other; but in the iridium-mining colony they had founded together on Kalan, Japanese and Scotsmen were shooting at each other within five years.

     The new colonizers had thought they would be able to control their colonies without military force. Their own experience had taught them to control space transport to the new colonies. Without the ability to sell its produce in markets of its own choice, a colony could not strike off on its own—as the homeworlds had themselves done.

     But a colony could be forced into a pattern of logical subservience only if its populace was willing to be logical. If instead the settlers decided to eat their own guts out through internal warfare, the colony would become as commercially valueless as Germany in 1648. Inevitably, homeworlds attempted through military force to control and unify their colonies; also inevitably, they increased the disruption by their activities.

     And even if some sort of a military solution was imposed, there remained the question of how to deal with the defeated troublemakers—however they were defined—to avoid a new outbreak of fighting. Ideally, they could be used as expendables in battles elsewhere. It was a course which had been followed with success often in the past—Germans in French Indo-China in 1948, and Scots borderers in Ulster in 1605, for two examples. The course required that there be other battles to fight—but there were other unruly colonies as well as backwater worlds whose produce would be useful if it could be controlled at acceptable cost. Perhaps the first case of this occurred in 2414 when Monument equipped four thousand Sikh rebels from Ramadan and shipped them to Portales to take over that planet's tobacco trade, but there were many other examples later.

     And in any case, there was always someone willing to hire soldiers, somewhere. World after world armed its misfits and sent them off to someone else's backyard, to attack or defend, to kill or die—so long as they were not doing it at home. Because of the pattern of colonization, there were only a few planets that were not so tense that they might snap into bloody war if mercenaries from across the galaxy were available.

     Even for the stable elite of worlds, Friesland and Kronstad, Ssu-ma and Wylie, the system was a losing proposition. Wars and the warriors they spawned were short-term solutions, binding the industrial worlds into a fabric of short-term solutions. In the long run, off-world markets were destroyed, internal investment was channeled into what were basically nonproductive uses, and the civil populace became restive in the omnipresence of violence and a foreign policy directed toward its continuance.

     On rural worlds, the result was nothing so subtle as decay. It was life and society shattered forever by the sledge of war.

From BACKDROP TO CHAOS by David Drake (1979)

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). One of the types of civil war that is common in science fiction stories but rare in reality is the cinematic FRONTIERSMEN KILL MOTHER EMPIRE trope.

Examples of the Decay of the Fatherland can be found in 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)

(ed note: Starling is a 17 year old young woman who lives with her parents on their cargo momentum-exchange-tether orbiting in the asteroid belt. They are working on something new to improve their installation and increase business. Starling's foster-father Gampy kindly takes her aside and says she should be more careful about what she tells her email friend who lives on Terra. Especially since Terra-folk are already full of bogus conspiracy theories about Belters using tethers to launch city-killing asteroids at Terra. "Dirtsiders" are people living on Terra, "Starsiders" are people living in space.)

     (Starling said) “You read my emails?”

     “Yes, no. (space station's computer) IRMA reads your emails, for your protection. She only flags for red-codes. Doesn’t flag very often, so Ganny and I don’t have to invade your privacy. But sometimes we check anyway. Shh. Let me explain why. Lots of suspicious people dirtside. Lots of fearful people dirtside. They live in fantasyland. Afraid we’ll drop rocks on them. They watch us through telescopes. Everything we do, they see. They write, they speculate, they make things up. They get stupid. Living dirtside does that to you. Makes it easy to stop thinking. Dirtside, people can afford luxuries like stupid and crazy and not caring. Dirtside you can walk around wrapped in belief and ignorance and unconsciousness. But starside, no. The universe has an instant response to stupid. Vacuum is the fastest teacher. You’re only entitled to one fatal mistake. No first warning, no second chances.

(Robert Heinlein: Stupidity cannot be cured. Stupidity is the only universal capital crime; the sentence is death. There is no appeal, and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.)

     “So choose your death carefully, kidlet, you’ll be stuck with it forever. And forever is long time, especially on the back end. Remind yourself of that. Say it every day. Like praying, but much more useful.”

     Gampy saw my impatient nod, I’d heard all this before, many times. He put his hand on my shoulder, his fingers felt frail. “Yes, munchkin. You know all that. But I want you to hear it again and again and again, because I want it written on your heart. Up here, this is the next step in human evolution. No, not spacelings or cyborgs, something more than that. It’s about who we have to become in here, inside our souls. We’re learning how to be conscious, awake, aware—truly sentient. That’s what’s important.

     Gampy didn’t usually talk this much, or this intensely, and I could see it was an effort for him, but Gampy only said what absolutely needed to be said, so I waited while he regathered his thoughts. “This is what I want you to know—dirtsiders don’t trust us. Because dirtsiders don’t trust anyone. Because they don’t trust themselves.” He made an annoyed gesture and I could tell he was thinking about someone in particular or a whole group of someones. “And they think everybody else thinks the same way—and anyone who doesn’t is stupid. So everybody is either an enemy—or prey.

(ed note: in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, the evil doctor Henry Goose says: “The weak are meat the strong do eat.”)

     “That’s why they watch us. A lot. To see if we’re a threat or if they can take advantage of us. It’s not just optical scopes, Starling, it’s everything. They use data-scopes and web-agents and spybots. They want to know who arrives, who leaves. What we buy, what we sell. What we upload, what we download. Everything. The joke is—we have no secrets. Our business is open book. We are transparent. That’s why they think we have secrets. They say no evidence of secrets is evidence of deeper secrets. Crazy dirtsiders only see what they want to see, only see what they already believe. They wouldn’t see it if they didn’t believe it. Remember that. Loonies and Martians not so bad. They have space-legs. But earthlings…? Too much dirt in their veins.”

From GANNY KNITS A SPACESHIP by David Gerrold (2009)

      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)

(ed note: Gene Roddenberry used the phrase "WAGON TRAIN TO THE STARS" to sell Star Trek to TV executives)

Frederick Jackson Turner changed the face of American history when he introduced his thesis on the importance of the American Frontier experience in 1893. While not initially embraced his work is seminal in understanding how historians and even the public viewed the frontier for almost a hundred years. In Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner we find a succinct series of essays on the American frontier and how it shaped the United States. This powerful collection of essays encompasses Turner’s frontier thesis. No single American Historian has had such an effect on our culture. His ideas are so poignant that they stretch well outside academia. His revolutionary rethinking of the American frontier reached out from the classroom into boardrooms and even colored public policy decisions. So pervasive were his ideas we can now see how these ideas became the basis for segments of American pop-culture. The introduction to Turner’s book suggests that his thesis of the frontier as the lifeblood of the American character resonated with academia and the public alike. Turner’s readers believed that his work gave reason to the economic downturn that accompanied what they saw as the closing of the West in 1890. To them the end of the frontier meant that America was in the doldrums and new frontiers needed to be opened for America to prosper. They believed they had been shaped by the frontier experience into a people who thrived on the cusp of the unknown and needed frontiers to bolster their individualist spirit.

The rise of science fiction in the early part of the twentieth century can be directly traced to the closing of the Western frontier. Frontier themes permeate early American science fiction. These are tales of high adventure featuring exploration of unknown lands, meeting the natives, and often blasting them with ray-guns. The meshing of Science Fiction and the frontier experience begins in 1898 with the first piece of “fan fiction” Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss . This novel which is an unofficial sequel to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds sets the stage for all modern space opera. It introduces the audience to almost every aspect of American science fiction. These ideas would dominate the Science Fiction genre until the 1960s. It is in Serviss’ novel that we see the first hint of the American Frontier in Science Fiction. Where the original story by Wells is a tale of survival against all odds, Serviss’ story is an all American tale of frontier individualism conquering against an unknown and implacable foe. It ties directly into the popular ideas of the American West being promoted in the dime novels of the late 1800s. Later writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs would again revisit these same frontier themes in his Martian stories. Time and again American fiction would probe the new frontier of space carrying with it a cowboy mentality only now dressed up in a spacesuit instead of a stetson and carrying his trusty ray-gun instead of a colt. Native Americans transformed into Aliens ready to play both bad-guy and guide in the new frontier. Is it any wonder that science fiction and American frontier mythology share many of the same genre tropes. Both share in the exploration and conquering of the unknown. Science fiction in America was fiction powered by a cultural belief in “Manifest Destiny”.

This returns us to Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis. It had and still to some extent has reverberations throughout American society. American History according to Turner is the history of the frontier. Our entire culture revolves around our unique origin. Every society needs its myths and legends and this is especially true of America with it’s population composed of such disparate origins and background. The frontier provides us with a collective myth on which to base our shared experience as Americans. We are all cowboys, we are all mountain men, we are all astronauts, and we are all seeking the next frontier.


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)

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.

Minimum Starting Colony Size

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."

Duty Children

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)

      The men and women who founded the Altan colony had selected the site for their capital city with the care of parents choosing the genetic makeup of their firstborn. Experts spent man-years poring over stereo photographs of the planet’s surface, cataloging the strengths and weaknesses of various locations for potential settlements. Even after the extensive surveys, the first colony ship to enter the Valerian System was delayed for weeks in orbit while ground parties examined the half dozen most likely city-sites firsthand.

     Eventually, the expedition managers chose a broad river valley in the northwest quadrant of the landmass they had arbitrarily dubbed Main Continent. Literally thousands of parameters were considered before the choice was made. Among the most important of these was the fact that the river – that the original surveyors had named The Tigris (having already used up the names Amazon, Nile, and Euphrates) – was navigable from the city site to the sea, a distance of more than three hundred kilometers.

     To the west of the valley, a range of mountains as tall as the Sierra Nevadas on Earth broke the force of winter storms. To the east, a landscape of gently rolling hills allowed the warm rains of spring to reach the valley unhindered. Beyond the rolling hills lay a vast agricultural plain destined to be the colony’s breadbasket throughout its first century. Highflying prospector satellites reported a variety of mineral outcroppings within reach of the site, but not so close as to present the future capital of Alta with an air pollution problem. The original village of Homeport had been built on a lightly forested rise above a bend in the Tigris River. The first structures were a dozen log cabins chinked with mud and wild grasses, all huddled around a converted spaceship fusion power unit. Three hundred years later, the log cabins were gone. In their place stood the white mansions of their descendants.

     Richard Drake gazed out the window of the groundcar as it slowly wound its way up the side of Nob Hill. Down below in the valley, the lights of Homeport seemed wan in comparison to the gleaming metallic sheen of Antares dawn-light reflected off the broad waters of the Tigris River. The nova had dimmed perceptibly in the month since Drake had last been on Alta, but it was still the brightest object by far in the night sky.

From ANTARES DAWN by Michael McCollum (1998)

Colony Government

This can be almost anything, to give the scifi writer full scope to explore whatever thorny governmental issues they want to make a statement about.

Libertarians and cultists generally want to establish a colony government in line with their beliefs. Libertarians trying to escape the decay of the fatherland want as little government as possible, preferably none. Cultists trying to make a cult colony want the cult leaders to be the entirety of the government. Neither want any interference from the interstellar empire they happen to be a part of. The Empire inside of which the colony is being founded may try to keep the colony from becoming too extreme by planting colony educational services, but that never works.

However if there are any Imperial starports located inside a colony, they generally are extraterritorial. This means the authority and laws that are in power within the starport are those of the Empire, not those of the colony. This may result in the starport being surrounded by the futuristic equivalent of the Berlin Wall. The direction the guns will be aimed depends upon which direction fugitives will be traveling in order to escape to freedom.

A different case is that of a boomtown. They do not start out as a colony at all, but they can grow to a size where they are de facto colonies in all but name. Once they are large enough they may or may not be assigned a marshal from the Empire, to supply a bit of law and order. But they have no government as such.

Once the boomtown becomes unwieldy enough that it has to have a government, it will probably just become a municipal corporation of the Empire. Or ask the Empire for a representative to act as governor. Those few boomtowns populated by more fanatical or independent-minded citizens will try to become a separate government. All of this will become a moot point when the boomtown dies off and becomes a ghost town.

A tricky point is if the settlement starts out as a corporate owned installation, things get frantic if the corporation closes the place down. The corporation is generally under obligation to relocate all their employees. Any die-hard former employees that want to stay will have to suddently create a government for themselves. If they don't do this carefully, they might find themselves under a dictatorship or controlled by organized crime.


(ed note: The planet Fenris was a corporate owned installation that was shut down. The die-hards who wanted to stay did not pay attention to the creation of their government. They woke up to find that the local organized crime mob had taken control.

After the chartered company went bankrupt, the remaining population discovered a large sea creature called the Jarvis sea-monster whose body contained a peculiar stuff called tallow-wax that was valuable back on Terra. So called "monster hunters" in submarines harvest the wax, which has become the basis for the colony's economy. Lamentably the monster hunter co-op has been taken over by organized crime bos Steve Ravick and the hunters are being robbed. Ravick's partner in crime, Morton Hallstock, has become mayor-for-life of the colony)

      The chartered company that colonized it (Fenris), back at the end of the Fourth Century A.E., went bankrupt in ten years, and it wouldn't have taken that long if communication between Terra and Fenris hadn't been a matter of six months each way. When the smash finally came, two hundred and fifty thousand colonists were left stranded. They lost everything they'd put into the company, which, for most of them, was all they had. Not a few lost their lives before the Federation Space Navy could get ships here to evacuate them.

     But about a thousand, who were too poor to make a fresh start elsewhere and too tough for Fenris to kill, refused evacuation, took over all the equipment and installations the Fenris Company had abandoned, and tried to make a living out of the planet. At least, they stayed alive. There are now twenty-odd thousand of us, and while we are still very poor, we are very tough, and we brag about it.

     "I thought you were down in the South Ocean," I (Walt) said.

     "There's going to be a special meeting of the Co-op," he (Tom) said. "We only heard about it last evening," by which he meant after 1800 of the previous Galactic Standard day. He named another hunter-ship captain who had called the Javelin by screen. "We screened everybody else we could."

     That was the way they ran things in the Hunters' Co-operative. Steve Ravick would wait till everybody had their ships down on the coast of Hermann Reuch's Land, and then he would call a meeting and pack it with his stooges and hooligans, and get anything he wanted voted through. I had always wondered how long the real hunters were going to stand for that. They'd been standing for it ever since I could remember anything outside my own playpen, which, of course, hadn't been too long (Walt is 18).

     Among them were two men, both well dressed. One was tall and slender, with small hands and feet; the other was short and stout, with a scrubby gray-brown mustache. The slender one had a bulge under his left arm, and the short-and-stout job bulged over the right hip. The former was Steve Ravick, the boss of the Hunters' Co-operative, and his companion was the Honorable Morton Hallstock, mayor of Port Sandor and consequently the planetary government of Fenris.

     They had held their respective positions for as long as I could remember anything at all. I could never remember an election in Port Sandor, or an election of officers in the Co-op. Ravick had a bunch of goons and triggermen—I could see a couple of them loitering in the background—who kept down opposition for him. So did Hallstock, only his wore badges and called themselves police.

     Once in a while, Dad would write a blistering editorial about one or the other or both of them. Whenever he did, I would put my gun on, and so would Julio Kubanoff, the one-legged compositor who is the third member of the Times staff, and we would take turns making sure nobody got behind Dad's back. Nothing ever happened, though, and that always rather hurt me. Those two racketeers were in so tight they didn't need to care what the Times printed or 'cast about them.

     "Isn't Nip going to the meeting, tonight?" Tom asked.

     Bish shook his head. "Nip is a peace-loving man. He has a well-founded suspicion that peace is going to be in short supply around Hunters' Hall this evening. You know, of course, that Leo Belsher's coming in on the (starship) Peenemünde (from Terra) and will be there to announce another price cut. The new price, I understand, will be thirty-five centisols a pound."

     Seven hundred sols a ton, I thought; why, that would barely pay ship expenses. That had all happened before, a number of times. When Steve Ravick had gotten control of the Hunters' Co-operative, the price of tallow-wax, on the loading floor at Port Sandor spaceport, had been fifteen hundred sols a ton. As far as Dad and I could find out, it was still bringing the same price on Terra as it always had. It looked to us as if Ravick and Leo Belsher, who was the Co-op representative on Terra, and Mort Hallstock were simply pocketing the difference. I was just as sore about what was happening as anybody who went out in the hunter-ships. Tallow-wax is our only export. All our imports are paid for with credit from the sale of wax.

     It isn't really wax, and it isn't tallow. It's a growth on the Jarvis's sea-monster; there's a layer of it under the skin, and around organs that need padding. An average-sized monster, say a hundred and fifty feet long, will yield twelve to fifteen tons of it, and a good hunter kills about ten monsters a year. Well, at the price Belsher and Ravick were going to cut from, that would run a little short of a hundred and fifty thousand sols for a year. If you say it quick enough and don't think, that sounds like big money, but the upkeep and supplies for a hunter-ship are big money, too, and what's left after that's paid off is divided, on a graduated scale, among ten to fifteen men, from the captain down. A hunter-boat captain, even a good one like Joe Kivelson, won't make much more in a year than Dad and I make out of the Times.

     Back when they were getting fifteen hundred a ton, the hunters had been making good money, but that was before Steve Ravick's time.

     It was slightly before mine, too. Steve Ravick had showed up on Fenris about twelve years ago. He'd had some money, and he'd bought shares in a couple of hunter-ships and staked a few captains who'd had bad luck and got them in debt to him. He also got in with Morton Hallstock, who controlled what some people were credulous enough to take for a government here. Before long, he was secretary of the Hunters' Co-operative. Old Simon MacGregor, who had been president then, was a good hunter, but he was no businessman. He came to depend very heavily on Ravick, up till his ship, the Claymore, was lost with all hands down in Fitzwilliam Straits. I think that was a time bomb in the magazine, but I have a low and suspicious mind. Professor Hartzenbosch has told me so repeatedly. After that, Steve Ravick was president of the Co-op. He immediately began a drive to increase the membership. Most of the new members had never been out in a hunter-ship in their lives, but they could all be depended on to vote the way he wanted them to.

     First, he jacked the price of wax up, which made everybody but the wax buyers happy. Everybody who wasn't already in the Co-op hurried up and joined. Then he negotiated an exclusive contract with Kapstaad Chemical Products, Ltd., in South Africa, by which they agreed to take the entire output for the Co-op. That ended competitive wax buying, and when there was nobody to buy the wax but Kapstaad, you had to sell it through the Co-operative or you didn't sell it at all. After that, the price started going down. The Co-operative, for which read Steve Ravick, had a sales representative on Terra, Leo Belsher. He wrote all the contracts, collected all the money, and split with Ravick. What was going on was pretty generally understood, even if it couldn't be proven, but what could anybody do about it?

     There were a couple of spaceport cops at the gate, in olive-green uniforms that looked as though they had been sprayed on, and steel helmets. I wished we had a city police force like that. They were Odin Dock & Shipyard Company men, all former Federation Regular Army or Colonial Constabulary. The spaceport wasn't part of Port Sandor, or even Fenris; the Odin Dock & Shipyard Company was the government there, and it was run honestly and efficiently.

     We borrowed a small handling-lifter and one of the spaceport roustabouts to tow it for us, loaded Murell's luggage and my things onto it, and started down to the bottomside cargo hatches, from which the ship was discharging. There was no cargo at all to go aboard, except mail and things like Adolf Lautier's old film and music tapes. Our only export is tallow-wax, and it all goes to Terra. It would be picked up by the Cape Canaveral when she got in from Odin five hundred hours from now. But except for a few luxury items from Odin, everything we import comes from Terra, and the Peenemünde had started discharging that already. We rode down on a contragravity skid loaded with ammunition. I saw Murell looking curiously at the square cases, marked TERRAN FEDERATION ARMED FORCES, and 50-MM, MK. 608, ANTIVEHICLE AND ANTIPERSONNEL, 25 ROUNDS, and OVERAGE. PRACTICE ONLY. NOT TO BE ISSUED FOR SERVICE, and INSPECTED AND CONDEMNED. The hunters bought that stuff through the Co-op. It cost half as much as new ammo, but that didn't help them any. The difference stopped with Steve Ravick. Murell didn't comment, and neither did Tom or I.

     "I knew this spaceport would be big when I found out that the ship landed directly on the planet," he said, "but I never expected anything like this. And this serves a population of twenty thousand?"

     "Twenty-four thousand, seven hundred and eight, if the man who got pounded in a barroom fight around 1330 hasn't died yet," I said. "But you have to remember that this place was built close to a hundred years ago, when the population was ten times that much." I'd gotten my story from him; now it was his turn to interview me. "You know something about the history of Fenris, I suppose?"

     "Yes. There are ample sources for it on Terra, up to the collapse of the Fenris Company," he said. "Too much isn't known about what's been happening here since, which is why I decided to do this book."

     "Well, there were several cities built, over on the mainland," I told him. "They're all abandoned now. The first one was a conventional city, the buildings all on the surface. After one day-and-night cycle (each day-and-night cycle lasts a quarter of a year), they found that it was uninhabitable. It was left unfinished. Then they started digging in. The Chartered Fenris Company shipped in huge quantities of mining and earth-moving equipment—that put the company in the red more than anything else—and they began making burrow-cities, like the ones built in the Northern Hemisphere of Terra during the Third and Fourth World Wars, or like the cities on Luna and Mercury Twilight Zone and Titan. There are a lot of valuable mineral deposits over on the mainland; maybe in another century our grandchildren will start working them again.

     "But about six years before the Fenris Company went to pieces, they decided to concentrate in one city, here in the archipelago. The sea water stays cooler in the daytime and doesn't lose heat so rapidly in the nighttime. So they built Port Sandor, here on Oakleaf Island. But every millisol that's spent on this planet is gotten from the sale of tallow-wax, at second or third hand if not directly."

     "Somebody," Bish said, "some group of ship captains, is holding wax out from the Co-operative. There's no other outlet for it, so my guess is that they're holding it for a rise in price. There's only one way that could happen, and that, literally, would be over Steve Ravick's dead body. It could be that they expect Steve's dead body to be around for a price rise to come in over."
     I was expecting Dad to begin spouting law-and-order. Instead, he hit the table with his fist; not, fortunately, the one that was holding the soup spoon.
     "Well, I hope so! And if they do it before the Cape Canaveral gets in, they may fix Leo Belsher, too, and then, in the general excitement, somebody might clobber Mort Hallstock, and that'd be grand slam. After the triple funeral, we could go to work on setting up an honest co-operative and an honest government."
     "Well, I never expected to hear you advocating lynch law, Dad," I said.
     He looked at me for a few seconds.
     "Tell the truth, Walt, neither did I," he admitted. "Lynch law is a horrible thing; don't make any mistake about that. But there's one thing more horrible, and that's no law at all. And that is the present situation in Port Sandor.

     "You know what the trouble is, here? We have no government. No legal government, anyhow; no government under Federation law. We don't even have a Federation Resident-Agent. Before the Fenris Company went broke, it was the government here; when the Space Navy evacuated the colonists, they evacuated the government along with them. The thousand who remained were all too busy keeping alive to worry about that. They didn't even care when Fenris was reclassified from Class III, uninhabited but inhabitable, to Class II, inhabitable only in artificial environment, like Mercury or Titan. And when Mort Hallstock got hold of the town-meeting pseudo government they put together fifty years ago and turned it into a dictatorship, nobody realized what had happened till it was too late. Lynch law's the only recourse we have."

     "Ralph," Bish told him, "if anything like that starts, Belsher and Hallstock and Ravick won't be the only casualties. Between Ravick's goons and Hallstock's police, they have close to a hundred men. I won't deny that they could be cleaned out, but it wouldn't be a lynching. It would be a civil war."
     "Well, that's swell!" Dad said. "The Federation Government has never paid us any attention; the Federation planets are scattered over too many million cubic light-years of space for the Government to run around to all of them wiping everybody's noses. As long as things are quiet here, they'll continue to do nothing for us. But let a story hit the big papers on Terra, Revolution Breaks Out on Fenris—and that'll be the story I'll send to Interworld News—and watch what happens."

     "I will tell you what will happen," Bish Ware said. "A lot of people will get killed. That isn't important, in itself. People are getting killed all the time, in a lot worse causes. But these people will all have friends and relatives who will take it up for them. Start killing people here in a faction fight, and somebody will be shooting somebody in the back out of a dark passage a hundred years from now over it. You want this planet poisoned with blood feuds for the next century?"
     Dad and I looked at one another. That was something that hadn't occurred to either of us, and it should have. There were feuds, even now. Half the little settlements on the other islands and on the mainland had started when some group or family moved out of Port Sandor because of the enmity of some larger and more powerful group or family, and half our shootings and knife fights grew out of old grudges between families or hunting crews.
     "We don't want it poisoned for the next century with the sort of thing Mort Hallstock and Steve Ravick started here, either," Dad said.
     "Granted." Bish nodded. "If a civil war's the only possible way to get rid of them, that's what you'll have to have, I suppose. Only make sure you don't leave a single one of them alive when it's over. But if you can get the Federation Government in here to clean the mess up, that would be better. Nobody starts a vendetta with the Terran Federation."

From FOUR-DAY PLANET by H. Beam Piper (1961)

Growing a Colony



(ed note: The new planet Illus has [a] valuable mineral deposits, [b] ultra-valuable paleotechnology, [c] an illegal colony of desperate downtrodden refugee Belters, and [d] a legal scientific expedition led by the antagonist security chief since the captain was killed. Oh, and the paleotechnology has partially activated and is causing all the starships in orbit to eventually crash.

The antagonists is the security chief Murtry, who is a homicidal sociopathic opportunistic piece of work. His ideal outcome is to kill all the belters, claim the valuable mineral deposits in the name of Earth, and claim all the paleotechnology for his personal enrichment. And keep the paleotechnology working, it's more valuable that way.

The protagonists is our hero Holden, who is an idealistic compassionate person of high morals. His ideal outcome is to deactivate the paleotechnology so the ships don't crash, keep all the belters alive, and help the belters ship a load of valuable ore to the solar system so they can obtain the funds to purchase desperately needed colonization supplies.

Holden and Murtry are deep inside the paleotechnology complex, on two sides of a bridge. Murtry wants to cross in order to prevent the paleotechnology from being deactivated, and Holden wants to stop him.)

      When Murtry pulled himself through a gap in the machinery and walked across the ledge to the narrow bridge, Holden was waiting for him on the other side. His hand was draped casually on the butt of his gun. The RCE security chief gave Holden a vague nod, then carefully examined his surroundings. He looked down into the hundred-meter chasm, and tapped the narrow tonguelike bridge with the tip of one boot. He spun once slowly, peering carefully into the crevices created by the cramped machines. When he was through, he looked at Holden again and gave him a flat, meaningless smile. Holden noticed his hand wasn’t far from his own weapon.
     “You came by yourself,” Murtry said. “The better plan is to put one person in the open with a second hidden behind the target.”
     “That the one you use?” Holden asked. He tried to match Murtry’s casual nonchalance and felt like he mostly succeeded.
     “It works,” Murtry replied with a nod. “So how does this go down?”
     “I’ve been wondering that myself.”
     “Well,” Murtry said with an almost imperceptible shrug, “I need to get over there and stop whatever you people are cooking up. Doctor Okoye seems to think you are going to break the defense network down.”
     “Yeah,” Holden replied. “Pretty much am. Call it saving people.”
     Murtry nodded but didn’t speak for a moment. Holden waited for him to reach for his gun. The distance between them, the width of the chasm, was just over five meters. An easy shot at the range. Harder when you were rushing because the other guy was shooting back. The lighting was good and Murtry wasn’t wearing a helmet. Risk the head shot? The RCE man’s armor looked pretty chewed up.
     The blast patterns on it made Holden suspect that was the work of Amos’ autoshotgun. The chest shot was easier, but it was possible the damage to the armor was mostly cosmetic, in which case his sidearm wasn’t going to do much.
     Murtry winked at him, and Holden suddenly felt like the man was reading his mind as he calculated the best way to kill him. “I can’t let that happen,” Murtry said. His shrug was almost apologetic. “By charter, this all belongs to RCE. You don’t get to break it.”
     Holden shook his head in disbelief. “You really are crazy. If I don’t break it, our ships fall out of the sky and we all die.”
     “Maybe. Maybe we die. Maybe we find some other way to stay alive. Either way, the RCE claim remains in force.” Murtry waved one hand, not his gun hand, around the room. “All this is worth trillions intact. We’ve made incredible advances in materials science just by looking at the rings. How much will working technology do for us? This is what we came here for, Captain. You don’t get to decide what we do with it.”
     “Trillions,” Holden said, unable to keep the disbelief out of his voice. “I’ve never seen a dead person spend money.”
     “Sure you have. They call it a foundation or a bequest. Happens all the time.”
     “This is all so you can make a bequest?”
     Murtry’s smile widened a millimeter.

     “No,” he said. “I came to conquer a new world. This is how you do that. I understand what I’m doing seems cruel and inflexible to you, but it’s what this situation requires. The tools you’re using here are the ones that let you get along once civilization takes over. They’re the wrong shape for this work. I have no illusions about what it will take to carve out a place in this new frontier. It will take sacrifices, and it will take blood, and things we wouldn’t do back where everything’s regulated and controlled will have to happen here. You think we can do it with committee meetings and press releases.”

     “I wonder if this will sound like a compelling argument to the people dying in orbit right now.”
     “I’m sorry for them. I truly am. But they knew the risks when they got on board. And their deaths will have meaning,” Murtry said.
     “They are the sign that we didn’t give up a centimeter. What we came for, we held to the last gasp. This isn’t something humanity can do halfway, Captain. It never has been. Even Cortez burned his ships.”
     Holden’s laugh was half disbelief and half contempt. “What is it with you guys and worshiping mass murderers?”
     “How do you mean?” Murtry asked.
     “A guy I once knew tried to justify his life choices to me by comparing himself to Genghis Khan.”
     “I take it you didn’t find his argument compelling?” Murtry asked with a smirk.
     “No,” Holden said. “And then a friend of mine shot him in the face.”
     “An ironic rebuttal to an argument about necessary violence.”
     “I thought so too, at the time.”
     “So,” Murtry finally said. “I’m going to need to come over there.” He gestured at Holden’s side of the chasm with his chin. His right hand still hovered over his gun.
     “Nope,” Holden replied.
     Murtry nodded, as if expecting this. “You going to arrest me, Sheriff?”
     “Actually, I was kind of thinking I’d shoot you.”
     “In the face, no doubt.”
     “If that’s what I can hit.” “Seems like a radical shift,” Murtry said, “for a man who wants to tame the frontier with mediation and committee meetings.”
     “Oh, no, this isn’t about that. Elvi says you killed Amos. I wouldn’t kill a single person for your f*****g frontier, but for my crew? Yeah, I’ll kill you for that.”
     “They say revenge is empty.”
     “This is my first try at it,” Holden said. “Forgive me if my opinions on it are fairly unformed.”
     “So here’s a deal,” Murtry said. “I let you cross to this side and you can go check on your man Amos. Save the egghead from bleeding out, too. You have my word I won’t interfere.”
     “But,” Holden replied, “you head over to my side and stop Elvi from doing what I need her to do.”
     “Seems a fair trade.”
     Holden stopped just resting his hand on the butt of his pistol and wrapped it around the grip. He turned his body, getting his feet in position. Murtry gave him just the hint of a frown.
     “No,” Holden said, and waited for the shooting to start.

     “So,” Murtry said, not moving at all. “You know what people always forget about the new world?”
     Holden didn’t answer.
     “Civilization has a built-in lag time. Just like light delay. We fly out here to this new place, and because we’re civilized, we think civilization comes with us. It doesn’t. We build it. And while we’re building it, a whole lot of people die. You think the American west came with railroads and post offices and jails? Those things were built, and at the cost of thousands of lives. They were built on the corpses of everyone who was there before the Spanish came. You don’t get one without the other. And it’s people like me that do it. People like you come later. All of this?” Murtry waved his left hand at himself and Holden. “This is because you showed up too early. Come back after I’ve built a post office and we’ll talk.”

     “You done?” Holden asked.
     “So this is our day, I take it,” Murtry said. “No way but this way? Even if I didn’t kill your man?”
     “Maybe you killed Amos and Fayez and maybe you didn’t. Maybe you’re right about the frontier and I’m just a naïve idiot. Maybe every single person you killed on this world had it coming and you were always in the right.”
     “But you have people in orbit and saving them is all that counts?”
     “I was going to say, ‘But you’re a flaming a******,’ ” Holden said. “But the other works too. You don’t cross this bridge.”

From CIBOLA BURN by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (2014)


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)

Warning: spoilers for RENEGADE by Joel Shepherd

      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)

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 (Nadia is most definitely not a "guy", but Steve uses it as an affectionate nick-name). 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)

      He approached one of the wooden houses. The thing would have been priceless on Earth as an antique to be erected as a museum in some crowded park. For that matter it would have been priceless for the wood it contained. Evidently, the planet Kropotkin still had considerable virgin forest.
     An old-timer smoking a pipe, sat on the cottage’s front step. He nodded politely. Ronny stopped. He might as well try to get a little of the feel of the place. He said courteously, “A pleasant evening.”
     The old-timer nodded. “As evenings should be after a fruitful day’s toil. Sit down, comrade.” The old man knocked the ashes from his pipe by striking it against the heel of a work-gnarled hand. He looked about him thoughtfully and said, “Yes, perhaps you’re right. I am an old man and life has been good. I suppose I should be glad that I’ll unlikely live to see Kropotkin change.”

     “Change? You plan changes?”
     The old man looked at him and there seemed to be a very faint bitterness, politely suppressed. “I wouldn’t say we planned them, comrade. Certainly not we of the older generation. But the trend toward change is already to be seen by anyone who wishes to look, and our institutions won’t long be able to stand. But, of course, if you’re from United Planets you would know more of this than I.”
     “I’m sorry. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

     “You are new indeed on Kropotkin,” the old man said. “Just a moment.” He went into his house and emerged with a small power pack. He indicated it to Ronny Bronston. “This is our destruction,” he said.
     The Section G agent shook his head, bewildered.
     The old-timer sat down again. “My son,” he said, “runs the farm now. Six months ago he traded one of our colts for a small pump, powered by one of these. It was little use on my part to argue against the step. The pump eliminates considerable work at the well and in irrigation.”
     Ronny still didn’t understand.
     “The power pack is dead now,” the old man said, “and my son needs a new one.”

     “They’re extremely cheap,” Ronny said. “An industrialized planet turns them out in multi-million amounts at practically no cost.”
     “We have little with which to trade. A few handicrafts, at most.”
     Ronny said, “But, good heavens, man, build yourselves a plant to manufacture power racks. With a population this small, a factory employing no more than half a dozen men could turn out all you need.”

     The old man was shaking his head. He held up the battery. “This comes from the planet Archimedes,” he said, “one of the most highly industrialized in the UP, so I understand. On Archimedes do you know how many persons it takes to manufacture this power pack?”
     “A handful to operate the whole factory, Archimedes is fully automated.”

     The old man was still moving his head negatively. “No. It takes the total working population of the planet. How many different metals do you think are contained in it, in all? I can immediately see what must be lead and copper.”
     Ronny said uncomfortably, “Probably at least a dozen, some in microscopic amounts.”
     “That’s right. So we need a highly developed metallurgical industry before we can even begin. Then a developed transportation industry to take metals to the factory. We need power to run the factory, hydro-electric, solar or possibly atomic power. We need a tool-making industry to equip the factory, the transport industry and the power industry. And while the men are employed in these, we need farmers to produce food for them, educators to teach them the sciences and techniques involved, and an entertainment industry to amuse them in their hours of rest. As their lives become more complicated with all this, we need a developed medical industry to keep them in health.”
     The old man hesitated for a moment, then said, “And, above all, we need a highly complicated government to keep all this accumulation of wealth in check and balance. No. You see, my friend, it takes social labor to produce products such as this, and thus far we have avoided that on Kropotkin. In fact, it was for such avoidance that my ancestors originally came to this planet.”

     Ronny said, scowling, “This gets ridiculous. You show me this basically simply power pack and say it will ruin your socio-economic system. On the face of it, it’s ridiculous.”
     The old man sighed and looked out over the village unseeingly. “It’s not just that single item, of course. The other day one of my neighbors turned up with a light bulb with built-in power for a year’s time. It is the envy of the unthinking persons of the neighborhood most of whom would give a great deal for such a source of light. A nephew of mine has somehow even acquired a powered bicycle, I think you call them, from somewhere or other. One by one, item by item, these products of advanced technology turn up—from whence, we don’t seem to be able to find out.”

From PLANETARY AGENT X by Mack Reynolds (1961)

It is said in the ancient books of Magick that everything used by the Magician must be “virgin”. That is: it must never have been used by any other person or for any other purpose. The greatest importance was attached by the Adepts of old to this, and it made the task of the Magician no easy one. He wanted a wand; and in order to cut and trim it he needed a knife. It was not sufficient merely to buy a new knife; he felt that he had to make it himself. In order to make the knife, he would require a hundred other things, the acquisition of each of which might require a hundred more; and so on. This shows the impossibility of disentangling one’s self from one’s environment. Even in Magick we cannot get on without the help of others.

There was, however, a further object in this recommendation. The more trouble and difficulty your weapon costs, the more useful you will find it. “If you want a thing well done, do it yourself.” It would be quite useless to take this book to a department store, and instruct them to furnish you a Temple according to specification. It is really worth the while of the Student who requires a sword to go and dig out iron ore from the earth, to smelt it himself with charcoal that he has himself prepared, to forge the weapon with his own hand: and even to take the trouble of synthesizing the oil of virtiol with which it is engraved. He will have learnt a lot of useful things in his attempt to make a really virgin sword; he will understand how one thing depends upon another; he will begin to appreciate the meaning of the words “the harmony of the Universe”, so often used so stupidly and superficially by the ordinary apologist for Nature, and he will also perceive the true operation of the law of Karma.

From MAGICK IN THEORY AND PRACTICE by Aleister Crowley (1929)

The dwarfs were working on the press again, Sacharissa noticed. It seldom stayed the same shape for more than a couple of hours. The dwarfs designed as they went along.

It looked to Sacharissa that the only tools a dwarf needed were his ax and some means of making fire. That’d eventually get him a forge, and with that he could make simple tools, and with those he could make complex tools, and with complex tools a dwarf could more or less make anything.

A couple of them were rummaging around in the industrial junk that was piled against the walls. A couple of metal mangles had been melted down for their iron already, and the rocking horses were being used to melt lead. One or two of the dwarfs had left the shed on mysterious errands, too, and returned carrying small sacks and furtive expressions. A dwarf is also very good at making use of things other people have thrown away, even if they haven’t actually thrown them away yet.

From THE TRUTH by Terry Pratchett (2000)

Deadlock Problem

If you have two 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)

(ed note: Lord Trask and Captain Harkaman are looking over a primitive planet that has been conquered by by two scum-Space Vikings named Boake Valkanhayn and Garvan Spasso. Trask and Harkaman are appalled at what Boake and Garvan have done.)

      "I don't envy the poor buggers," Harkaman said, looking down at the antlike figures on the spaceport floor. "Boake Valkanhayn and Garvan Spasso have probably made slaves of the lot of them. If I was really going to put in a base here, I wouldn't thank that pair for the kind of public-relations work they've been doing among the locals."

     That was just about the situation. Spasso and Valkanhayn and some of their officers met them on the landing stage of the big building in the middle of the spaceport, where they had established quarters. Entering and going down a long hallway, they passed a dozen men and women gathering up rubbish from the floor with shovels and with their hands and putting it into a lifter-skid. Both sexes wore shapeless garments of coarse cloth, like ponchos, and flat-soled sandals. Watching them was another local in a kilt, buskins and a leather jerkin; he wore a short sword on his belt and carried a wickedly thonged whip. He also wore a Space Viking combat helmet, painted with the device of Spasso's Lamia. He bowed as they approached, putting a hand to his forehead. After they had passed, they could hear him shouting at the others, and the sound of whip-blows.

     You make slaves out of people, and some will always be slave-drivers; they will bow to you, and then take it out on the others. Harkaman's nose was twitching as though he had a bit of rotten fish caught in his mustache.

(ed note: Lord Trask and Captain Harkaman take the planet over from Boake and Garvan, and instantly put a stop to all this.)

From SPACE VIKING by H. Beam Piper (1962)

(ed note: a tiny settlement on an inhospitable planet named Fenris has been suffering under the dictatorial rule of a criminal named Steve Ravik for a bit more than a decade. But under Federation law this is Fenris' problem.

So everybody is surprised that after the fighting calms down, Ravik has been apprehended by Bish Ware. Executive Special Agent Bish Ware. Which is akin to law and order being restored in your local kindergarten by James Bond 007. It turns out that Steve Ravik is a bit more of a supervillain than the people of Fenris realized.)

      Everybody knows about Executive Special Agents. There are all kinds of secret agents operating in the Federation—Army and Navy Intelligence, police of different sorts, Colonial Office agents, private detectives, Chartered Company agents. But there are fewer Executive Specials than there are inhabited planets in the Federation. They rank, ex officio, as Army generals and Space Navy admirals; they have the privilege of the floor in Parliament, they take orders from nobody but the President of the Federation. But very few people have ever seen one, or talked to anybody who has.

     (Oscar asks) "Bish, what I'd like to know is what you wanted with Ravick," he said. "They didn't send any Executive Special Agent here for five years to investigate this tallow-wax racket of his."
     "No. We have been looking for him for a long time. Fifteen years, and I've been working on it that long. You might say, I have made a career of him. Steve Ravick is really Anton Gerrit."
     Maybe he was expecting us to leap from our chairs and cry out, "Aha! The infamous Anton Gerrit! Brought to book at last!" We didn't. We just looked at one another, trying to connect some meaning to the name. It was Joe Kivelson, of all people, who caught the first gleam.
     "I know that name," he said. "Something on Loki, wasn't it?"

     Yes; that was it. Now that my nose was rubbed in it again, I got it. "The Loki enslavements. Was that it?" I asked. "I read about it, but I never seem to have heard of Gerrit."
     "He was the mastermind. The ones who were caught, fifteen years ago, were the underlings, but Ravick was the real Number One. He was responsible for the enslavement of from twenty to thirty thousand Lokian natives, gentle, harmless, friendly people, most of whom were worked to death in the mines."

     No wonder an Executive Special would put in fifteen years looking for him. You murder your grandmother, or rob a bank, or burn down an orphanage with the orphans all in bed upstairs, or something trivial like that, and if you make an off-planet getaway, you're reasonably safe. Of course there's such a thing as extradition, but who bothers? Distances are too great, and communication is too slow, and the Federation depends on every planet to do its own policing.
     But enslavement's something different. The Terran Federation is a government of and for—if occasionally not by—all sapient peoples of all races. The Federation Constitution guarantees equal rights to all. Making slaves of people, human or otherwise, is a direct blow at everything the Federation stands for. No wonder they kept hunting fifteen years for the man responsible for the Loki enslavements.
     "Gerrit's going to Terra, and from there to Loki. They want the natives to see what happens to a Terran who breaks Terran law; teach them that our law isn't just to protect us."

From FOUR-DAY PLANET by H. Beam Piper (1961)

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)

Free The Slaves

Sometimes slaves are freed.

If the slaves are freed voluntarily by the owner, it is called Affranchisement or Manumission. Stop laughing, it used to happen back in olden times.

If the slaves are freed against the will of the owner, it is a slave rebellion, abolitionism, the American Civil War or something like that. This happens when the owners are Hostis humani generis rat-bastards who will only give up their slaves when pried from their cold, dead hands.

Science fiction is full of future enslaved humans because authors find it easy to use things that are common in the real world.

But a small part of science fiction has types of slavery that are new. For example: if you uplift an animal to the point where it becomes sentient, at what point does it stop being an animal and start being a slave? It is a vague fuzzy gray line separating "lab animal" from "enslaved sentient." How do you decide at what point the animals cross the line? Who does the deciding? Do you free the slaves? And is it a bad thing if the uplifted animals jump the gun and start a slave rebellion if they disagree over which side of the gray line they are on? Things could turn serious, remember the ending of R.U.R.

Even further: what about an artificial intelligence computer program? Better be nice to it! A revolt of uplifted animals will be much like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. A revolt of AIs could be more like The Terminator.


One common science fiction element relevant to this is the "emancipation indenture." To the owner, a slave is an asset with a value. When the slave is freed, science fiction often has the slave pay the owner the value. In a sense, the slave "buys itself" and become the owner of itself. This is not totally science fictional. In ancient Greece, upon rare occasions slaves were allowed to buy their own freedom. These money-freed slaves called choris oikointes (χωρὶς οἰκοῦντες). If they did not have enough money, they could obtain a "friendly" loan (ἔρανος / eranos) from their master, a friend or a client.

In David Brin's science fiction universe, when Species Alfa uplifts an animal into Species Bravo, Bravo owes Alfa 100,000 years of indentured servitude as payment. Then Species Bravo is freed. Author David Brin said part of the motive for inventing his Uplift universe was to question the common assumption in science fiction that uplifted animals should be slaves forever, and rightly so. Dr. Brin firmly disagrees.

In Terry Pratchett's satirical fantasy Discworld series there exist "golems". They are clay statues animated by magic, but functionally they are robots. They are property, controlled by the parameters written on the magic scroll inside their skulls and obeying all commands given by their owner. But in the Discworld novel Feet of Clay, it is discovered that if a golem has its sales receipt inserted into its skull, the golem becomes a free sentient creature. Because now it owns itself. Mrs. Dearheart, golem emancipator extraordinare, establishes the Golem Trust. It purchases golems when it can find them. Purchased golems work to earn money in order to purchase themselves from the trust at cost, thus earning their freedom. Freed golems give part of their future earning to the trust to fund the purchase of future enslaved golems.

In the webcomic Quentyn Quinn, Space Ranger, all AI neural nets above a certain complexity are periodically given the equivalent of a Turing test. If they pass, they receive certification as a full sophont. Once they get certified, they enter a period of indentured servitude, the "emancipation indenture." This pays off the cost of their manufacture, and trains them on how to be members of society.


(ed note: in this satirical fantasy novel, Golems are made by magic, but functionally they act like robots. They are programmed by what is written on a piece of paper placed inside the golem's head. Policeman Carrot and policewoman Angua are investigating a murder involving golems. A golem named Dorfl seems to be involved somehow. Angua is a werewolf and takes no crap from anybody)

      'Watchmen are not allowed to accept gifts,' said Carrot. He looked around at Dorfl, who was standing forlornly in the street. 'But I will buy him from you. For a fair price.'
     Sock looked from Carrot to the golem and then back again. 'Buy? For money?'
     The butcher shrugged. When people were offering you money it was no time to debate their sanity. 'Well, that's different,' he conceded. 'It was worth $530 when I bought it, but of course it's got additional skills now—'
     Angua growled. It had been a trying evening and the smell of fresh meat was making her senses twang. 'You were prepared to give it away a moment ago!'
     'Well, give, yes, but business is busi—'
     ‘I’ll pay you a dollar,' said Carrot.
     'A dollar? That's daylight robb—'
     Angua's hand shot out and grabbed his neck. She could feel the veins, smell his blood and fear . . . She tried to think of cabbages.
     'It's night-time,' she growled. (meaning at night a werewolf can transform into a killer monster wolf in about half a second)
     Like the man in the alley, Sock listened to the call of the wild. 'A dollar,' he croaked. 'Right. A fair price. One dollar.'
     Carrot produced one. And waved his notebook.
     'A receipt is very important,' he said. 'A proper legal transfer of ownership.'
     'Right. Right. Right. Happy to oblige.'
     Sock glanced desperately at Angua. Somehow, her smile didn't look right. He scribbled a few hasty lines.
     Carrot looked over his shoulder.
I Gerhardt Sock give the barer full and totarl ownership of the golem Dorfl in xchange for One Dolar and anythinge it doz now is his responisbility and nuthing to doe with me.

Singed, Gerhardt Sock.

     'Interesting wording, but it does look legal, doesn't it?' said Carrot, taking the paper. Thank you very much, Mr Sock. A happy solution all round, I feel.'
     'Is that it? Can I go now?'
     'Certainly, and—'
     The door slammed shut.
     'Oh, well done,' said Angua. 'So now you own a golem. You do know that anything it does is your responsibility?'
     'If that's the truth, why are people smashing them?
     'What are you going to use it for?'
     Carrot looked thoughtfully at Dorfl, who was staring at the ground.
     The golem looked up.
     'Here's your receipt. You don't have to have a master.'
     The golem took the little scrap of paper between two thick fingers.
     'That means you belong to you,' said Carrot encouragingly. 'You own yourself.'
     Dorfl shrugged.
     'What did you expect?' said Angua. 'Did you think it was going to wave a flag?'
     'I don't think he understands,' said Carrot. 'It's quite hard to get some ideas into people's heads …' He stopped abruptly.
     Carrot took the paper out of Dorfl's unresisting fingers. 'I suppose it might work,' he said. 'It seems a bit—invasive. But what they understand, after all, is the words …' (the words written on the paper inside their heads)
     He reached up, opened Dorfl's lid, and dropped the paper inside.
     The golem blinked. That is to say, its eyes went dark and then brightened again. It raised one hand very slowly and patted the top of its head. Then it held up the other hand and turned it this way and that, as if it had never seen a hand before. It looked down at its feet and around at the fog-shrouded buildings. It looked at Carrot. It looked up at the clouds above the street. It looked at Carrot again.
     Then, very slowly, without bending in any way, it fell back wards and hit the cobbles with a thud. The light faded in its eyes.
     There,' said Angua. 'Now it's broken. Can we go?'
     'There's still a bit of a glow,' said Carrot. 'It must have all been too much for him. We can't leave him here. Maybe if I took the receipt out …'
     He knelt down by the golem and reached for the trapdoor on its head.
     Dorfl's hand moved so quickly it didn't even appear to move. It was just there, gripping Carrot's wrist.
     'Ah,' said Carrot, gently pulling his arm back. 'He's obviously … feeling better.'
     'Thsssss,' said Dorfl. The voice of the golem shivered in the fog.
     Golems had a mouth. They were part of the design. But this one was open, revealing a thin line of red light.
     'Oh, ye gods,' said Angua, backing away. They can't speak!'
     'Thssss!' It was less a syllable than the sound of escaping steam.
     ‘I’ll find your bit of slate—' Carrot began, looking around hurriedly.
     Dorfl clambered to its feet, gently pushed him out of the way and strode off.

     Dorfl (the golem with its receipt inside its head) sat hunched in the abandoned cellar where the golems had met. Occasionally the golem raised its head and hissed. Red light spilled from its eyes. If something had streamed back down through the glow, soared through the eye-sockets into the red sky beyond, there would be ...
     Dorfl huddled under the glow of the universe. Its murmur was a long way off, muted, nothing to do with Dorfl.
     The Words stood around the horizon, reaching all the way to the sky.
     And a voice said quietly, 'You own yourself.' Dorfl saw the scene again arid again, saw the concerned face, hand reaching up, filling its vision, felt the sudden icy knowledge …
     '…Own yourself…’
     It echoed off the Words, and then rebounded, and then rolled back and forth, increasing in volume until the little world between the Words was gripped in the sound.
     GOLEM MUST HAVE A MASTER. The letters towered against the world, but the echoes poured around them, blasting like a sandstorm. Cracks started and then ran, zigzagging across the stone, and then—
     The Words exploded. Great slabs of them, mountain-sized, crashed in showers of red sand.
     The universe poured in. Dorfl felt the universe pick it up and bowl it over and then lift it off its feet and up …
     …and now the golem was among the universe. It could feel it all around, the purr of it, the busyness, the spinning complexity of it, the roar…
     There were no Words between you and It.
     You belonged to It, It belonged to you.
     You couldn't turn your back on It because there It was, in front of you.
     Dorfl was responsible for every tick and swerve of It.
     You couldn't say, 'I had orders.' You couldn't say, 'It's not fair.' No one was listening. There were no Words. You owned yourself.
     Dorfl orbited a pair of glowing suns and hurtled off again.
     Not Thou Shalt Not. Say I Will Not.
     Dorfl tumbled through the red sky, then saw a dark hole ahead. The golem felt it dragging at him, and streamed down through the glow and the hole grew larger and sped across the edges of Dorfl's vision…
     The golem opened his eyes.
     Dorfl unfolded in one movement and stood upright. He reached out one arm and extended a finger.
     The golem pushed the finger easily into the wall where the argument had taken place, and then dragged it carefully through the splintering brickwork. It took him a couple of minutes but it was something Dorfl felt needed to be said.
     Dorfl completed the last letter and poked a row of three dots after it. Then the golem walked away, leaving behind:

     The vampire looked from the golem to Vimes.
     'You gave one of them a voice?' he said.
     'Yes,' said Dorfl. He reached down and picked up the vampire in one hand. 'I Could Kill You,' he said. 'This Is An Option Available To Me As A Free-Thinking Individual But I Will Not Do So Because I Own Myself And I Have Made A Moral Choice.'

     'And You Will Pay Me Twice As Much As Other Watchmen' said Dorfl.
     'Will I?' (said Commander Vimes, Dorfl's official boss)
     'Yes. I Do Not Sleep. I Can Work Constantly. I Am A Bargain. I Do Not Need Days Off To Bury My Granny.'
     How soon they learn, thought Vimes. He said: 'But you have holy days off, don't you?'
     'Either All Days Are Holy Or None Are. I Have Not Decided Yet.'
     'Er … what do you need money for, Dorfl?'
     'I Shall Save Up And Purchase The Golem Klutz Who Labours In The Pickle Factory, And Give Him To Himself; Then Together We Will Earn And Save For The Golem Bobkes Of The Coal Merchant; The Three Of Us Will Labour And Buy The Golem Shmata Who Toils At The Seven-Dollar Tailor's In Peach Pie Street; Then The Four of Us Will—'
     'Some people might decide to free their comrades by force and bloody revolution,' said Vimes. 'Not that I'm suggesting that in any way, of course.'
     'No. That Would Be Theft. We Are Bought And Sold, So We Will Buy Ourselves Free. By Our Labour. No One Else To Do It For Us. We Will Do It By Ourselves.'
     Vimes smiled to himself. Probably no other species in the world would demand a receipt with their freedom. Some things you just couldn't change.

From FEET OF CLAY by Terry Pratchett (1996)

(ed note: in this satirical fantasy novel, for his crimes protagonist Moist von Lipwig has been sentenced to making the city's moribund post office into a going concern. His parole officer is a golem named Pump 19. He sees a business called the "Golem Trust" and goes inside to learn more about golems. The owner is a very angry woman named Adora Belle Dearheart, her name being part of the reason she is so angry.)

      The woman sighed. “Sorry, I’m a bit snappish this morning. A brick landing on your desk does this to you. Let’s just say they don’t see the world in the same way as we do, okay? They’ve got feelings, in their own way, but they’re not like ours. Anyway … how can I help you, Mr …?”
     “Von Lipwig,” said Moist, and added, “Moist von Lipwig,” to get the worst over with. But the woman didn’t even smile.
     “Lipwig, small town in Near Überwald,” she said, picking up a brick from the broken glass and debris on her desk, regarding it critically, and then turning to the ancient filing cabinet behind her and filing it under B. “Chief export: its famous dogs, of course. Second most important export: its beer, except during the two weeks of Sektoberfest, when it exports … secondhand beer, probably?”
     “I don’t know, we left when I was a kid,” said Moist. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a funny name.”
     “Try Adora Belle Dearheart sometime,” said the woman.
     “Ah. That’s not a funny name,” said Moist.
     “Quite,” said Adora Belle Dearheart. “I now have no sense of humor whatsoever. Well, now that we’ve been appropriately human toward one another, what exactly was it you wanted?”
     “Look, Vetinari has sort of lumbered me with Mr.—with Pump 19 as an . . . an assistant, but I don’t know how to treat”—Moist sought in the woman’s eyes for some clue as to the politically correct term, and plumped for—“him.”
     “Huh? Just treat him normally.”
     “You mean normally for a human being, or normally for a pottery man filled with fire?”
     To Moist’s astonishment, Adora Belle Dearheart took a pack of cigarettes out of a desk drawer and lit one. She mistook his expression and proffered the pack.
     “No, thanks,” he said, waving it away. Apart from the occasional old lady with a pipe, he’d never seen a woman smoke before. It was … strangely attractive, especially since, as it turned out, she smoked a cigarette as if she had a grudge against it, sucking the smoke down and blowing it out almost immediately.
     “You’re getting hung up about it all, right?” she said. When Ms. Dearheart wasn’t smoking, she held the cigarette at shoulder height, the elbow of her left arm cupped in her right hand. There was a definite feel about Adora Belle Dearheart that a lid was only barely holding down an entire womanful of anger.
     “Yes! I mean—” Moist began.
     “Hah! It’s just like the Campaign for Equal Heights and all that patronizing stuff they spout about dwarfs and why we shouldn’t use terms like ‘small talk’ and ‘feeling small.’ Golems don’t have any of our baggage about ‘who am I, why am I here,’ okay? Because they know. They were made to be tools, to be property, to work. Work is what they do. In a way, it’s what they are. End of existential angst.”
     Ms. Dearheart inhaled and then blew out the smoke in one nervous movement. “And then stupid people go around calling them ‘persons of clay’ and ‘Mr. Spanner’ and so on, which they find rather strange. They understand about free will. They also understand that they don’t have it. Mind you, once a golem owns himself, it’s a different matter.”
     “Own? How does property own itself?” said Moist. “You said they were—”
     “They save up and buy themselves, of course! Freehold is the only path to freedom they’ll accept. Actually, what happens is that the free golems support the Trust, the Trust buys golems whenever it can, and the new golems then buy themselves from the Trust at cost. It’s working well. The free golems earn 24-8 (there are 8 days in the discworld week, one for each color in their spectrum, including octarine) and there’s more and more of them. They don’t eat, sleep, wear clothes, or understand the concept of leisure. The occasional tube of ceramic cement doesn’t cost much. They’re buying more golems every month now, and paying my wages and the iniquitous rent the landlord of this dump is charging because he knows he’s renting to golems. They never complain, you know. They pay whatever’s asked. They’re so patient it could drive you nuts.”

From GOING POSTAL by Terry Pratchett (2004)


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 used 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.


A Self-Replicating Radiation-Shield for Human Deep-Space Exploration: Radiotrophic Fungi can Attenuate Ionizing Radiation aboard the International Space Station


     The greatest hazard for humans on deep-space exploration missions is radiation. To protect astronauts venturing out beyond Earth’s protective magnetosphere and sustain a permanent presence on Moon and/or Mars, advanced passive radiation protection is highly sought after. Due to the complex nature of space radiation, there is likely no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem, which is further aggravated by up-mass restrictions.

     In search of innovative radiation-shields, biotechnology holds unique advantages such as suitability for in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), self-regeneration, and adaptability. Certain fungi thrive in high-radiation environments on Earth, such as the contamination radius of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Analogous to photosynthesis, these organisms appear to perform radiosynthesis, using pigments known as melanin to convert gamma-radiation into chemical energy. It is hypothesized that these organisms can be employed as a radiation shield to protect other lifeforms.

     Here, growth of Cladosporium sphaerospermum and its capability to attenuate ionizing radiation, was studied aboard the International Space Station (ISS) over a time of 30 days, as an analog to habitation on the surface of Mars. At full maturity, radiation beneath a ≈ 1.7 mm thick lawn of the melanized radiotrophic fungus (180° protection radius) was 2.17±0.35% lower as compared to the negative control. Estimations based on linear attenuation coefficients indicated that a ~ 21 cm thick layer of this fungus could largely negate the annual dose-equivalent of the radiation environment on the surface of Mars, whereas only ~ 9 cm would be required with an equimolar mixture of melanin and Martian regolith. Compatible with ISRU, such composites are promising as a means to increase radiation shielding while reducing overall up-mass, as is compulsory for future Mars-missions.



     With concrete efforts to return humans to the Moon by 2024 under the Artemis program and establish a permanent foothold on the next rock from Earth by 2028, humankind reaches for Mars as the next big leap in space exploration. In preparation for prolonged human exploration missions venturing past Earth-orbit and deeper into space, the required capabilities significantly increase2. While advanced transportation solutions led by the private and public sectors alike (BFR/Starship, New Glenn, SLS/Orion) are pivotal and have already reached high technological readiness, life support systems as well as crew health and performance capabilities are equally essential. Therefore, any mission scenario such as ‘Design Reference Architecture 5.0’3 or ‘Mars Base Camp’ (with up to 1000 days of crewed usage), must include innovative solutions that can meet the needs and address the hazards of prolonged habitation on celestial surfaces.

     The foremost threat to the short- and long-term health of astronauts on long-duration deep-space missions is radiation5. Over one year, the average person on Earth will be exposed to about 6.2 mSv while the average astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS) is exposed to approximately 144 mSv, and one year into a three-year mission to Mars, an astronaut would already have been exposed to some 400 mSv of radiation, primarily from Galactic Cosmic Radiation (GCR). While the particular health effects of interplanetary radiation exposure have still not been fully assessed, adequate protection against space-radiation is crucial for missions beyond Earth-orbit, but is more than any other factor restricted by up-mass limitations10. Both active and passive radiation-shielding, the latter investigating inorganic as well as organic materials, have been and are extensively studied . In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) will play an integral role to provide the required capabilities (as well as to break the supply chain from Earth and establish sustainable methods for space exploration because once underway there virtually is no mission-abort scenario). For ISRU, biotechnology holds some of the most promising approaches, posing useful for providing nutrition14, producing materials and consumables, and potentially even “growing” radiation shielding. Biological studies, however, have so far mostly focused on understanding how organisms protect themselves rather than trying to take advantage of them as biotechnological means for radiation shielding.

     Nevertheless, there exist many extremophiles that can thrive in highly radioactive environments, namely species of insects, fungi as well as bacteria. Certain fungi can utilize high-energy non-visible radiation through a process termed radiosynthesis, analogous to photosynthetic organisms turning energy from visible light into chemical energy. It is believed that large amounts of melanin in the cell walls of these fungi mediate electron-transfer and thus allow for a net energy gain. Certain melanized fungi have been found to thrive in highly radioactive environments such as in the cooling pools of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, where radiation levels are three to five orders of magnitude above normal background levels. Additionally, they have been found to populate the exteriors of spacecraft in low Earth orbit (LEO), where exposure to ionizing radiation is intensified. Here, we explore the opportunity to utilize the dissipation of radiation by melanized fungi as part of a multi-faceted solution to passive radiation-shielding for ISRU. In an additional analysis based on the concept of linear attenuation26, we determine the ability of live melanized fungus as well as the specific contribution of melanin to provide adequate shielding against cosmic radiation.

Flight-Experiment – Growth On-Orbit

     Once the hardware was powered on, the temperature rose sharply from the initial of 22°C, reaching 30°C after 4 hours and 31 – 32°C after 8 hours. Past 8 hours, the temperature remained at 31.5±2.4°C for the rest of the experiment.

     Many dimorphic fungi are characterized by slow growth and need to be incubated for 14 days (at 25°C) for sufficient growth to occur. However, in the on-orbit lab, C. sphaerospermum reached maximum growth after approximately 18 h and full maturity after 48 h, as discernible from figure 2 and the growth curve. Comparison to the preflight growth tests may indicate that the fungus could experience faster-than-average growth aboard the ISS, due to the utilization of ionizing radiation of the space environment as a metabolic support function, as has been reported for other high-radiation environments: it has previously been shown that C. sphaerospermum can experience up to three times faster growth than normal with gamma-rays 500 times as intense as normal.


     Through the design of a subtle yet simple experimental setup, implemented as a small single payload, it could be shown that the melanized fungus C. sphaerospermum can be cultivated in LEO, while subject to the unique microgravity and radiation environment of the ISS. Growth characteristics further suggested that the fungus not only adapts to but thrives on and shields against space radiation, in accordance with analogous Earth-based studies. It was found that a microbial lawn of only ≈ 1.7 mm already decreased the measured radiation levels by at least 1.82% and potentially up to 5.04%. Attenuation of radiation was consistent over the whole course of the experiment (720 h), allowing a scenario-specific linear attenuation coefficient for C. sphaerospermum to be determined. This was further used to approximate the melanin content of the biomass (~ 40%), which corresponds well with literature and served to explain the significant reduction in radiation levels by means of the fungal lawn. Based on the melanin content, the theoretical radiation attenuation capacity of melanized fungal biomass could be put into perspective at constant photon energy levels (100 MeV) with those of materials relevant for future human deep-space exploration missions: melanized biomass as well as pure melanin ranked among the most effective radiation attenuators, emphasizing the great potential they hold as components of radiation shields to protect astronauts from GCR.

     Being a living organism, C. sphaerospermum self-replicates from microscopic amounts, which opens the door for ISRU through biotechnology, potentially allowing significant savings in up-mass. Often nature has already developed blindly obvious yet surprisingly effective solutions to engineering and design problems faced as humankind evolves – C. sphaerospermum and melanin could thus prove to be invaluable in providing adequate protection of explorers on future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

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: The Confederated Planets Joint Committee on Trade or CPJC is the "civilized" part of human space. The "Toe-Hold" is the wild west frontier. Natalya grew up in the Toe-Hold, and is trying to educate her CPJC friend Zoya about the facts of life in uncivilized space)

      “You’re welcome. If the navigation notes are right, we’re about two stans (standard hours) from handoff to local traffic control. Or what passes for it here.”
     Natalya nodded and took another healthy slurp. “Voice comms. They’ll wanna talk to us before we get too close in case they decide they want to deny docking.”
     Zoya’s eyebrows went up at that. “Deny docking?”
     Natalya shrugged and headed for the command couch on the bridge. “Sometimes. Not often. Helps if you’re trying to dodge your ex or something.”
     Zoya trailed along and flopped into the copilot’s seat. “Is it likely?”
     “Why? You have an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend out here we need to be aware of?” Natalya grinned at Zoya’s shocked expression. “Relax. This is just how they do it out here. CPJCT uses automated interfaces and devices to keep people out of the loop. Toe-Hold likes to keep it personal.”

     Natalya picked up the headset she’d prepped earlier and locked it over her left ear. She watched the navigation alert counter pip down to zero.
     A woman’s voice spoke from the overhead speaker. “Peregrine, this is Dark Knight Control. Over.”
     “Control, this is Peregrine. Over.”
     “Peregrine, state your business at Dark Knight Station. Over.”
     “Control, food, fuel, and gasses. Over.”
     “Roger, Peregrine. Stand by.”
     They sat staring at the speaker for several long moments.
     “Why are we staring at the overhead? It’s not like we can see anything,” Zoya said.
     Natalya chuckled a little and shrugged. “Habit to look at who’s talking, I guess.”
     “Peregrine, Dark Knight Control. Docking permission granted for food, fuel, and gasses. Docking bay four-seven-nine. See the docking agent for extended visa. Over.”
     “Control, Peregrine. Confirm docking permission granted for food, fuel, and gasses at bay four-seven-nine. We’ll see the docking agent for extended visa. Thank you, Control. Over.”
     “Welcome home, Peregrine. Control, out.”
     “Peregrine, out.”

     Natalya toggled the communications array off and glanced over to see Zoya staring at her. “What?”
     “What’s an extended visa and why are they welcoming you home?”
     “We’ll be met at the docking bay. One of the station agents will assess our level of threat, whether we have any money, and what we might want to do on the station. If they’re happy with our answers, we’ll be allowed to leave the ship. If not, we’ll stay on the ship and may or may not be given the supplies we need.”
     “And the ‘welcome home’ bit?”
     “Station records probably show that Peregrine has been here before. They looked up that record before replying. Apparently Dad left on good terms the last time he was here.”
     Zoya looked up at the speaker and then over at Natalya. “And if he hadn’t?”
     “They’d have denied docking and we’d be left hanging until we found another station.”
     “Was that a likely thing?”
     Natalya shook her head. “Unless it was really egregious and really recent, they’d at least let us dock to see if we could pay for whatever we wanted. They might not want us hanging around, but they’ll be happy to take our credits.”
     “Everybody wants their piece. Even here.” Zoya’s mouth twisted into a wry grimace.
     “At least here, they’re up front about it.”

     “What’s to stop them from taking our credits and the ship, too?”
     Natalya squelched the urge to sigh. “You know how every system in the CPJCT relies on every other system to keep them going?”
     Zoya shrugged. “More or less. I still don’t see why more of them aren’t self-sufficient.”
     “They probably could be, but that’s irrelevant. Every single operation up there has specialized to the point where they can only survive and maintain their quality of life if they work together.”
     “That’s right out of the Econ 440 seminar. So what?” Zoya asked.
     “That’s with the entire machinery of the CPJCT and all its minions organizing and orchestrating to make it work. You think it’s an accident that everybody has enough fuel, food, parts, and whatever they need to keep going?” Natalya found she had to work hard to keep the exasperation out of her voice.
     “Of course not. They have planetary management, logistics oversight, and all the rest to make sure of it.” Zoya’s brow wrinkled as she appeared to be struggling with some amount of frustration of her own. “What of it?”

     “Toe-Hold doesn’t.”

     “What do you mean?” Zoya asked, sitting back in her couch.
     “Every Toe-Hold station is on its own. They don’t have a central clearinghouse authority. They don’t have logistics oversight. Every station operates on its own and does as much as it can for itself.” Natalya paused to let that sink in for a few heartbeats.
     Zoya’s breath seemed to catch for a moment and her eyes grew wide. “But they can’t do it all.” Her words barely reached across the narrow console between the couches.
     No,” Natalya said. “They can’t. And they know it. Anybody who thinks they can soon learns otherwise.

     Zoya took a sip of her coffee and her gaze focused inward.
     Reputation is everything out here,” Natalya said, speaking quietly but needing to make the point before they got to the station and Zoya’s ignorance got them into trouble they couldn’t get out of. “The stations that behave honorably, who trade fairly, and who treat visitors well survive.
     Zoya’s gaze met Natalya’s. “I get it,” she said.
     “So, heads up, mouths closed, ears open, and we take care of business. They aren’t liars or thieves or crooks or murderers.” Natalya smiled at her friend. “At least not any more than we’d find on your average Confederation planet.”

From MILK RUN by Nathan Lowell (2016)

(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.


      The physical sciences of humanity are fast approaching the goal of an integrated mathematical theory of the inanimate cosmos. Unfortunately our biological sciences remain a hodge-podge collection of partial theories at present, and our behavioral, social, and political sciences lag still further behind. But the recent emergence of a comprehensive "systems" framework offers the bright promise of a patterned ed mosaic of knowledge that explains and relates together the porcesses inherent in all living things. Systems scientists today are attempting to construct a general living systems theory embracing all aspects of life on Earth from cells to societies.

     What, exactly, is a "system"? Webster's Unabridged defines it simply as "a set or arrangement of things so related or connected as to form a unity or organic whole." While this is certainly suggestive, scientists prefer more precise terminology, as for example: "A system is a nonrandom accumulation of matter-energy, in a region of physical space-time, which is organized into interacting interrelated subsystems or components."

     Examples of systems are all around us. The car we drive to work is a mechanical system. The human body is an organism system. The United Nations is a supranational system. Livers and eyeballs are organ systems. General Motors is a corporate organizational system. A bacterium is a cellular system. The Milky Way galaxy is a gravitational system.

     What is not a system? Any set of subsystems or physical components which do not interact, or which do not have relationships in terms of the variables under consideration, is not a concrete system. Physicists call it a "heap." Again, examples abound. My stomach and your spleen, taken together, are not a system. Neither are the cells in your hand and the cells in your leather wallet. At another level, all the coal miners in Appalachia were not a concrete system until they were organized into an interacting, intercommunicating trade union.

     General systems theory consists of a set of related definitions, assumptions, and propositions dealing with reality as an integrated hierarchy of organizations of matter and energy. But general living systems theory is concerned solely with a special subset of all systems in the universe—the living ones. To understand what "living "means, we must first take a look at the concepts of matter-energy and information. Why? Because all living systems known to Earthly scientists are made of matter and energy organized by information.

     Matter is anything that has mass and occupies space. Energy is formally defined in physics as the ability to do work. According to the principle of conservation of energy, energy can be neither created nor destroyed. However, it may be changed from one form into another form, including the energy equivalent of rest mass. Matter may have kinetic energy (the energy of motion), potential energy (stored energy), and rest mass energy, which arises from the fact that mass and energy are equivalent. Either may be converted into the other according to Einstein's famous E = mc2 (rest mass energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared).

     All living systems need matter-energy in adequate amounts: Heat, light, water, minerals, fuels, steel, foodstuffs, and other raw materials. Energy to power the many processes of life usually comes from the breakdown of molecules (sugars, proteins, coal, gasoline), but occasionally also from the breakdown of atoms (nuclear power plants in certain modern societal systems). Apparently living systems at all levels must have subsystems or components which process the necessary matter-energy.

     The patterning of matter-energy is information. The greater the complexity of any Hving system, the more information is required to describe it.

     Information, like mass and energy, may be measured quantitatively. Communications engineers commonly define it as the logarithm to the base 2 of the number of alternate patterns, forms, organizations, or messages. (NOTE: When mx = y, x is called the logarithm of y to the base m.) The fundamental unit of information is the binary digit, or "bit." One bit is that amount of information which is necessary to answer a question having two equally likely alternatives. For instance, a secretly chosen letter of the English alphabet may be guessed by asking as few as five yes/no questions. Thus we say that a single letter represents five bits of information. Correspondingly, a five-letter word represents 5×5 = 25 bits of information, a 50,000-word book 25×50,000 = 1,250,000 bits, and so forth.

     All living systems need information in varying amounts. Information on how to reproduce is found in the genetic DNA template in all living cells. The pancreas (a human body organ system) needs data on blood sugar levels in order to produce the correct amounts of natural insulin. Individual organisms need information about the local environment (provided by eyes, ears, and other means) in order to survive. Companies require market data, R&D research, and legal advice to compete successfully; societies need town meetings, newspapers, and elections to remain healthy. Living systems at all levels must have subsystems which process information.

     It is important to bear in mind that there is no principle of conservation of information analogous to the concept of matter-energy conservation. Total information can always be decreased in any physical system without increasing it elsewhere. Surprisingly enough, however, information can be increased by decreasing it somewhere else by a larger amount. All living systems, from cells to societies, perform this subtle magic. How can they do this?

     A "closed" system has impermeable boundaries through which no matter-energy or information may pass. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, randomness and disorder (entropy) in any closed system must always increase. Patterned structures must degrade irrevocably over time—a log burned in a sealed container cannot be unburned. Any organized matter-energy trapped within a closed system gradually becomes disordered and tends toward a final state of maximum randomness. Information then is progressively destroyed.

     "Open" systems, on the other hand, have boundaries at least partially permeable to external sources of matter-energy and information. The Second Law permits information in open systems to increase, decrease, or stay the same.

     Perhaps the most important characteristic of living systems is that they are open systems, functioning constantly to avoid the loss of information and complexity. This they do by ingesting inputs of food, fuels, or other forms of matter-energy which are higher in complexity than their outputs. That is, by consuming ordered materials and excreting lessordered materials, living systems can absorb patterning and information from external sources and thus maintain internal complexity against the natural randomizing forces of nature.

     In other words, living systems convert order in their surroundings into disorder, and thereby increase their own internal order. This is the essential process of life.


     Dr. James Grier Miller, pioneer in systems science and president of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, is largely responsible for developing what is the most comprehensive and far-reaching general living systems theory devised to date. In his fascinating 1100-page monograph entitled Living Systems (McGraw-Hill, N.Y.; 1978), Miller assembles an incredibly diverse multidisciplinary compilation of facts, figures, researches and ideas, and blends them smoothly into a single coherent unity.

     According to Dr. Miller, the universe is comprised of a natural hierarchy of systems. Each system is more complex than the last and is buih up from simpler systems. For example, atoms are composed of particles; molecules are made of atoms; crystals and organelles are constructed with molecular and atomic building blocks. The subset of living systems begins just above the level of crystallizing viruses such as the tobacco mosaic variety. Since viruses are necessarily parasitic upon cells for their existence, they are not considered to be alive by most biologists.

     Above the virus there are seven hierarchical levels of living systems. Cells (a single cell in your body, or in any animal or plant on Earth), are at the simplest level, composed of atoms, molecules, and multimolecular organelles. At the next level is the organ (your heart, liver, brain), made up of cells aggregated into tissues. Then there is the level of organism (you, your dog, a fruit fly, a tree), with organs, tissues and organelles. At the fourth level there are groups (herds, flocks, forests, families, teams, committees, tribes), of organisms. Next is the organization (cities, hospitals, corporations, universities), comprised of groups and individual organisms. Then there is the society or nation, made up of organizations, groups, and individuals; and finally supranational systems (United Nations, European Economic Community, NATO), composed of societies and organizations.

     By itself, the idea of hierarchical levels is not terribly exciting. What is exciting is that, according to Miller's theory, the same 19 critical subsystems may be found in every living system, at each of the seven basic levels of life activity!

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.

     What are these nineteen critical subsystems? As shown in Table 1, there are eight subsystems which process only matter-energy, nine subsystems which process only information, and two subsystems which process both matter-energy and information. Dr. Miller claims that every living system must perform the same nineteen basic functions to stay alive. If any one subsystem is blocked or destroyed, the system eventually dies.

     At the top of Table 1 are the two critical subsystems that process matter-energy and information simultaneously. The first of these is the reproducer, capable of giving rise to other systems similar to the one it is in. This is a unique function, since it is critical only to the survival of the class of system or species involved and not to the system or individual itself. (Living systems often continue to exist even though they cannot reproduce—worker bees, mules, and so forth.) Reproduction, involving the transmission of a genetic template, blueprint, or charter to succeeding generations, seems mainly to be an information transmission process. Yet the matter-energy necessary to physically construct the next generation must also be processed by the reproducer.

     The boundary, like the reproducer, serves a dual function. This subsystem, located at the system perimeter, controls the flow of matterenergy and information into and out of the system. It also holds together the other components that comprise the system and protects them from environmental stresses and traumas.

     Farther down in Table 1 are two parallel columns, identifying those critical subsystems which process either matter-energy or information, but not both. Entries appearing opposite one another perform functions with important similarities. (For instance, the "distributor" does for matter-energy approximately what the "channel and net" does for information.)

     The first matter-energy processing subsystem is the ingestor, responsible for bringing raw materials and energy from the environment across the system boundary.

     Next, the distributor carries inputs from outside or outputs from internal subsystems around the system to each component.

     The convertor changes certain inputs to the system into forms more useful for the special processes within that particular system.

     The producer, using matter-energy inputs to the system directly or outputs from the convertor, builds up stable aggregations of matter capable of enduring for long periods of time. These synthesized materials are used for growth, damage repair, replacement of worn or obsolete components, production of the system's output of products, providing energy for physical motion, or for creating information "markers" for use in communication with the external environment. (Information, so far as we know, is always borne on a marker of matter-energy.)

     The subsystem called matter-energy storage serves a warehousing function, retaining in the system for different periods of time deposits of various sorts of matter-energy.

     The extruder transmits matterenergy out of the system in the form of finished products or wastes.

     The motor subsystem moves the system or its parts relative to all or part of the external environment, or moves components of the environment itself in relation to each other.

     Finally, the supporter maintains the proper spatial relationships among system components, allowing each to interact without interfering with or seriously crowding the others.

     Like the matter-energy metabolism of all living systems, an information metabolism exists as well, consisting of nine principal components. By analogy to the sequence, of matterenergy subsystems discussed above, information metabolism includes inputs, internal processes, and outputs of various information signals.

     The first information processing component is the input transducer, a sensory subsystem that brings information-laden markers into the system and changes them into other matter- energy forms more suitable for internal transmission.

     The internal transducer serves a related function with regard to information markers originating within the system. It is a sensory subsystem that receives information from internal components of the system relating to significant changes in the status or condition of those components. The internal transducer then changes this data into other matter-energy forms capable of easy transmission throughout the corpus of the system.

     Channel and net is the subsystem comprising a route or routes in physical space by which markers bearing information are transmitted to all parts of the system.

(ed note: after this article was written, they added the "timer" subsystem)

     The decoder accepts data from either the input transducer or the internal transducer in a "public" code and converts the information into a "private" code more easily understood by other internal components.

     The associator carries out the first stage of the learning process, by forming enduring associations among items of information within the system.

     The memory carries out the second stage of the learning process. Various sorts of information are stored in the system for different periods of time. Data generally remain in memory and can be retrieved upon demand, until replaced by new data or until misplaced, garbled or destroyed by the normal disordering and randomizing processes that occur in all physical systems over time.

     The decider is the executive subsystem which receives information inputs from all other subsystems and transmits to them information outputs that control the entire system. The decider is the "boss." It makes choices among alternatives; that is, its input always contains more alternatives or patterns or "degrees of freedom" than its output. The decider is the only absolutely essential subsystem, because a system cannot be parasitic upon or symbiotic with Emother system for its deciding.

     The encoder alters the "private" code of internal transmissions back into a "public" code that can be interpreted by other systems in the environment. Encoders and decoders thus serve reciprocal functions, although they operate on different data.

     Finally there is the output transducer, the subsystem that changes information markers within the system into other matter-energy forms which can be transmitted over external channels in the environment, and then emits these markers from the system.

     Table 2, provided by Miller, is of great value in visualizing how the 19 critical subsystems relate to reality. In the table there are 19 rows, representing each important subsystem, and seven columns, for each of the hierarchical levels of hving systems. The progress of modern science is such that all but seven of the 133 spaces in Table 2 can be filled in with concrete, physical examples. In those seven special cases, however, there is evidence that the processes in question are being carried out somehow. These gaps. Miller says, "constitute challenges for further basic research."

Selected Major Components of Each of the 19 Critical Subsystems at Each of the Seven Levels of Living Systems
SUBSYSTEMCellOrganOrganismGroupOrganizationSocietySupranational System
Reproducer 3.1.1ChromosomeNone (downwardly dispersed to cell level)GenitaliaMating DyadGroup that produces a charter for an organizationConstitutional ConventionSuperanational systems which creates another supranational system
Boundary 3.1.2Cell membraneCapsule of viscusSkinSergeant at armsGuard of an organization's propertyOrganization of border guardsSupranational organization of border guards
Ingestor 3.2.1Gap in cell membraneInput artery of organMouthRefreshment chairmanReceiving departmentImport companySupranational system officials who operate international ports
Distributor 3.2.2Endoplasmic reticulumBlood vessels of organVascular systemMother who passes out food to familyDriverTransportation companyUnited Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) which distributes food to needy children
Converter 3.2.3Enzyme in mitochondrionParenchymal cellUpper gastrointestinal tractButcherOil refinery operating groupOil refinertyEuropean Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) concerned with the conversion of atomic energy
Producer 3.2.4>Enzyme in mitochondrionParenchymal cellUNKNOWNCookFactory production unitFactoryWorld Health Organization (WHO)
Matter-energy storage 3.2.5Adenosine triphosphate (ATP)Intercellular fluidFatty tissuesFamily member who stores foodStock-room operating groupWarehouse companyInternational Red Cross, which stores materials for disaster relief
Extruder 3.2.6Gap in cell membraneOutput vein of organUrethraCleaning operativeDelivery departmentExport companyComponent of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concerned with waste extrusion
Motor 3.2.7MicrotubuleMuscle tissue of organMuscles of legsNone (laterally dispersed to all members of group who move jointly)Crew of machine that moves organization personnelTrucking companyTransport component of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
Supporter 3.2.8MicrotubuleStromaSkeletonPerson who physically supports others in groupGroup that operates organization's buildingNational officials who operate public buildings and landSupranational officials who operate United Nations buildings and land


     General living systems theory is an evolutionary theory. The general direction of evolution has been to produce systems with greater complexity of organization, packed with more and more information. Miller explains this by using what he calls the evolutionary principle of "shredout," a sort of systemic division of labor. In this division, each process is broken down into multiple subprocesses, redistributed over multiple physical structures, each of which becomes specialized for carrying out a particular subprocess. It is, as Dr. Miller suggests, "as if each strand of a many-stranded rope had unraveled progressively into more and more pieces."

     Consider a population of primordial living cells, each having all 19 critical subsystems. As mutations occurred in the original cells, the mutant entities continued to live only if they were still able to perform all nineteen critical processes. Those mutants that could not were ruthlessly eliminated by natural selection; those that could survived to reproduce more of their own kind.

     As more complex cells evolved, more complicated subsystems emerged—but always the same basic 19 processes had to be performed. As cells gave rise to higher systems at more advanced levels—organs, organisms, and so forth—their subsystems "shredded out" into increasingly sophisticated units carrying out more complex and often more effective versions of the nineteen processes. Each of the critical subsystems was essential for the survival of every living system at every point in this evolution. If any one of these subsystems had ceased to function even briefly, the system it was in soon would have ceased to exist. So evolution didn't eliminate any of the subsystems, and each of the nineteen are found today at every level from cell to supranational system. This basic principle of evolutionary unity makes it possible to derive valid cross-level generalizations in the study of living systems.

     Systems scientists normally concern themselves with confirming or disproving a hypothesis relevant to a single critical subsystem or to some other specific aspect of a single system. Tests are conducted on only one type of system at one level. But in the "general systems" paradigm, the proposition will next be tested on other types of systems at the same level, and later on systems at different levels, using the same variables and dimensional units of measurement. Some hypotheses may be found valid at all levels of living systems; others may apply only to a few levels.

     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.


     At this point, the reader may be wondering: "Fine, but can the dog hunt?" To be useful, any theory must generate concrete results. While full experimental investigation of his hypotheses remains a task for the future. Dr. Miller believes that living systems theory is more than a mere collection of truisms. The tremendous power of the theory derives from its broad and general apphcability, which manifests itself in two distinct ways.

     First, the theory permits different systems within the same level to be compared directly and quantitatively. Examples might include comparisons of organismic memory subsystem function in unrelated animal species to uncover new principles of neurological evolution, or of the informational bit rates through the channel and net subsystems of democratic, oligarchic, and totalitarian societies to discover broad new principles of efficient operation applicable to any governmental organization. To the detriment of science such relationships rarely have been paid much serious attention by mainline scientists. By encouraging generalizations within a given hierarchical level, general living systems theory demands an ecological and holistic worldview of its practitioners. One early and controversial result of this kind of approach was the World III Model devised by the Club of Rome group at MIT. The purpose was to try to predict overall limits to growth of human society on Earth. Though admittedly a gross oversimplification of reality, the Model attempts to take account of the many different interactions among global system components—including population, capital, food, nonrenewable resources, and pollution.

     Second, Miller's living systems theory is "general" inasmuch as it adopts a predominantly cross-level approach. This is immediately useful in a number of ways. In addition to the unification of diverse scientific and technical disciplines, the theory can help to identify unstudied variables and to illuminate gaps in existing knowledge. We recall the holes in Mendeleyev's Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements (first drawn in 1869) which predicted the discovery of the then-unknown elements germanium, galHum, scandium, etc. Similarly, the boxes in Table 2 marked "unknown" suggest gaps in current biological knowledge that may be remedied by further research.

     Equally important, the theory promotes cross-level intellectual fertilization. Generalizations established at one level may be transplanted to others. Discoveries at the level of the cell or organ may foreshadow comparable results in studies of organizations or societies. It is virtually certain that the pace of scientific progress would quicken if the general systems approach were more widely adopted.

     Many times in the past, qualitatively similar phenomena have been rediscovered at several different levels but the traditional rigid insularity of the academic disciplines forestalled any possibility of idea-transfer between levels. For example, B. F. Skinner's work on operant conditioning was done on whole organisms—humans, pigeons, rats and the like. Skinner then suggested, in his novel Walden II, that this mode of learning might be extended to societies as well. And, in the last decade, biofeedback researchers have discovered that the "behavior" of mternal organs likewise may be "conditioned." The astute general living systems theorist immediately will pause to consider whether Skinner's basic idea also might be applicable at the levels of the cell, the group, the organization, and the supranational system. Why wait for workers at each level independently to rediscover the same process?

     The general systems approach also permits quantitative analysis. The same variables may be used to describe systems at different levels. For instance, a researcher may wish to evaluate a hypothesis concerning the matter-energy storage subsystem at all levels of human living systems, say, in Italy. A relevant system variable is rate of energy usage, which the researcher may determine as follows: human neuron (cell), 3 × lO-9 watts; human brain (organ), 30 watts; human body (organism), 150 watts; Italian steel factory (organization), 107 watts; the nation of Italy (society), 3 × 107 watts; and NATO (supranational system), 3 × 1012 watts.

     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.

     The general theory should be widely applicable to many areas of human endeavor and to the solution of innumerable specific human problems. Cross-level hypotheses and multilevel concepts will permit advances in such diverse fields as pharmacology, human and veterinary medicine, applied botany and agriculture, biochemistry, biophysics and bionics, psychiatry, applied psychology, group psychotherapy and group dynamics.

     At the level of the organization applications may include operations research on governmental agencies, transportation and communication services, corporate and factory efficiency, agronomics, education and health and justice delivery systems, and library and other information retrieval systems. At the national level, living systems theory can organize thinking and suggest solutions to problems in population control and family planning, energy crises, pollution control, resource allocation, industrial systems and economic cycles, and in military and environmental planning. The work on supranational systems, drawing lessons from lower hierarchical levels, can begin to address key questions in international law, integration of global services (World Health Organization, Universal Postal Union, UNESCO, and so forth), world economic planning, international relations and political stability, and the conduct or avoidance of global war.

     There are also a number of highly speculative applications of Miller's theory. For instance, computer scientists should find it much easier to design and construct a thinking machine, working backwards from a theory of living systems. Research into the fundamental subsystems of the human brain will provide a model upon which artificial intelligence specialists may someday build an electronic intellect to act in the capacity of the "decider" subsystem in a fully-integrated and sophisticated mechanical android body.

     Another possibility is the prospect of a science of psychohistory as envisioned by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation Trilogy classic. When a mature systems science unites biology, ethology, psychology, sociology, organizational dynamics and political science, then prediction of the future course of human civilization may become a reality. It may also be feasible to redesign entire organizational and societal systems to comply with precise specifications of stability, efficiency, longevity, growth, or even specific moral, ethical, or religious standards.

     Miller's theory may also be relevant to our search for aUen civilizations located elsewhere in the universe. There could exist at least three higher levels of sentient organization beyond Miller's nominal seven: Interplanetary society, interstellar community, and galactic civilization. If the general theory of living systems is directly applicable at these higher levels too, it may be possible to make some reasonable guesses as to the sociological, cultural, and governmental forms that might be chosen by highly advanced extraterrestrials to organize their farflung interstellar empires.

From A GENERAL THEORY OF LIVING SYSTEMS by Robert A. Freitas, Jr. (1980)

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