Interstellar Colonization Will Never Happen

There really isn’t an economical explanation for why a civilization would engage in long-range interstellar colonization.

To begin with, though, let’s look at interplanetary colonization. Why, for example, would someone fund the establishment of a permanent colony on Mars with the intent for it to become eventually self-sustaining? It’s not to relieve population pressure. Stuff is so ridiculously expensive to get into space that you’d be better off (from a monetary perspective) paying the people to live in the Sahara. It’s not for resources; asteroid mining is almost certainly a feasible economic opportunity, but the cost of lifting resources into orbit is again the obvious barring factor. It could be scientific, but scientific missions wouldn’t need to be self-sustaining or long-term. Perhaps a stint of 20 years on the surface. It could be done by a separatist group (plenty of people want to go start small settlements in the wilderness), but even if the money was raised (which is unlikely), the colony will lie on the fringes of human society. They would probably be unable to arrange a return trip, even if they wanted to, and nobody else (except more fringe groups) would want to continue colonization.

There is one argument that seems reasonable: outposts could serve as refueling stations for outbound craft (asteroid mining operations, etc). However, it would make more sense to pull these resources from asteroids and place an automated fuel refinery in high orbit around Mars (or other suitable candidate).

Many of the reasons listed above carry over to interstellar missions. The only difference is that groups would have much more trouble raising money for the mission, and that now lifting stuff into orbit isn’t the only tough part, but also accelerating your spaceship to a speed which makes for a bearable trip length.

Here are some scenarios where we do send a colonizing mission: we discover evidence of alien life, or the ruins of an alien civilization. It would only make sense to send a colonizing mission. Sending a scientific detachment with a planned return trip would be so expensive that it wouldn’t be worth it. I mean, it would be worth it, but nobody would be able to raise the funds.

Another scenario in which most of the above arguments go out the window: we build a space elevator. That removes the gateway for getting into orbit. We could expect many more people accessing and living in orbit (because they feel like it and the price is low enough). Once the population already flying around the solar system reaches a critical mass, colonizing Mars becomes a trivial step.

ADDENDUM

Actually, it came to me after I wrote this post that there may be one reasonable explanation for colonizing Mars: if we fail to find an economical way to increase biomass production either on Earth or in space, we will need large tracts of arable land. Terraforming Mars would provide this. However, the cost of lifting and storing that biomass may make it less preferable to aerocultures in orbit.

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Zones of Thought

I recently finished a book by Vernor Vinge called Children of the Sky. It was the sequel to A Fire Upon The Deep. They are part of a continuing series called the Zones of Thought series, which has overtaken the Known Space (by Larry Niven) series as my favorite series of books.

The series is based on the premise that the galaxy is divided into these so-called “Zones of Thought”. They dictate the level of automation and intelligence physically allowed in that region of space. They are an inherent property of the galaxy, but their boundaries can shift, either slowly over thousands of years or rapidly in “zone storms”. They radiate out from the center of the galaxy.

A map of the Zones of Thought

A map of the Zones of Thought

The zones are as follows:

At the center of the galaxy are the Unthinking Depths. Intelligent thought is impossible, and computers fail. Humans turn into animals.

Beyond the Depths is the Slow Zone. The speed of light is the ultimate cap on speed and hyper-intelligence is impossible. Computers cannot become sentient.

Above the Slow Zone is the Beyond. In the Beyond, faster-than-light travel and communication is possible, and automation becomes much more capable. The Beyond falls into layers; FTL drives increase in capability as you get “higher”. Machines built in the High Beyond will work less efficiently or fail in the Low Beyond. Most of interstellar civilization exists in the Beyond.

The highest Zone is the Transcend. The Transcend is the subject of much study in the Beyond in the field of Religion. This is because the Transcend is populated by hyper-intelligences called Powers that are essentially gods. Products manufactured in the Transcend are often sold to the Beyond, such as anti-gravity fabrics, machinery, etc. Powers sometimes interact with Upper Beyond civilizations by sending “emissary ships”.

A Fire Upon The Deep is based around a malevolent Power that is awakened from an archive in the Low Transcend that is the subject of a human expedition. The Blight, as it is called, proceeds to wipe out local civilization in the High Beyond. Only a single human ship escapes from the “High Lab” in the Low Transcend, and it carries a portion of the archive that, if reunited with the Blight, will destroy it. The Blight recognized this (it had been defeated in a similar way long in the past) and set out to destroy the Countermeasure.

Another human group figures this out and, with some help from another Power that is subsequently murdered (nobody is quite sure how Powers work) by the Blight, escapes the Blight’s invasion and travels to a world at the bottom of the Beyond where the ship carrying Countermeasure has taken refuge. The Blight pursues them, causing havoc in that part of the galaxy.

In the end, Countermeasure uses some strange Transcend technology to harness the system’s star (it actually goes dark for a little) and cause a massive Zone storm that extends the Slow Zone to engulf the world and the Blight (30 light years out from the world) and much of the Beyond in that part of the galaxy. This traps the Blight and the humans in local space, giving the humans a century or more to build up the technology of the civilization on the planet before the Blight builds ramscoops and comes to destroy its nemesis once and for all.

What really interested me about the book was the world the humans become stranded on. It is inhabited by an interesting alien race. Each alien is composed of 4-8 individual “members”, and so they are referred to as packs. Each member is a dog-like animal that communicates with the others using “mind sounds”. This raises some interesting consequences; for one, two packs cannot get extremely close to each other without losing consciousness; it is very hard for packs to work collaborate and thus it is hard for new technology to be made. Their civilization has been stuck in a medieval state for a long time. Packs also live for a very long time. They replace old members either through inbreeding (within their own pack) or by breeding with another pack. The only way for a pack to die is if all of the members die, which pretty much only happens in combat (or sickness). Packs can also split into two or merge. Also, each member contributes different aspects of personality to the pack. This means that packs can be planned, called broodkenning. Essentially, people can be “built”. Of course, when the first four humans land on the planet, all hell breaks loose.

The four humans from the High Lab are a family, with a small boy and a adolescent girl. The two parents are killed in an initial attack launched by the militaristic northern kingdom the humans set down in. A pair of traveling packs see the attack and kidnap the wounded girl, taking her back to a more understanding, peace-loving kingdom (ruled by “Woodcarver”) in the south. The boy is captured by the northern “Flenserists”. He doesn’t realize that they are malicious though, and ends up befriending a pack that was built entirely from puppies (usually such packs become autistic). The two are manipulated by Flenser and start communicating with the human rescue expedition. Woodcarver’s kingdom has a dataset from the girl, and they use it to build cannons and prepare for war with Flenser in the north. However, Flenser has the support of the rescue party (since they don’t know that Flenser is evil). Eventually Woodcarver defeats Flenser in a battle just as the rescue party arrives.

Vernor Vinge always creates interesting aliens. There are others in his series, such as the Spiders in A Deepness in the Sky and the Skroderiders (sentient plants, essentially), who are space traders in A Fire Upon The Deep. I draw a lot of inspiration from his stories, both in character design and plot creation.

Warhammer 40K

I used to play Warhammer 40k, which was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. It’s a tabletop wargame, in which players buy, assemble, and paint their own models. They then battle it out on custom-made terrain using a set of rules, occasionally augmented by custom rules. The main rulebook is a hefty tome, but most of it is fluff (stories, guides to modeling, strategy, and pictures) and fringe cases. There are numerous races, and each uses its own ‘codex’, which contains both the background of the race within the universe, as well as the choice of units and the rules and lore surrounding each type. Although the game is pretty well balanced, it also relies heavily on probability, meaning that even the best strategy is at the mercy of the luck gods (as some gamers say). By this, I mean that every single action (other than flat movement and choosing targets) is dependent on the dice. So I suppose that dice-rolling is a legitimate skill in the world of 40K.

I played Tau, a young race (only 2000 years from sentience) both noble and technologically advanced. While most of the universe is in a dark age in which the most complex technology are relics from the golden age and machines are worshipped rather than understood, the Tau have both sleek and powerful technology, a sparkling civilization, and drive to spread harmony throughout the stars. Also, their units are absolutely amazing. The Tau are on battlesuits, which look incredible (with a great combination of smooth curves and hard edges, separated by engraved patterns) and can tote a deadly arsenal. There is also the fear factor. Tau Broadsides are renowned throughout the 40K community. These battlesuits carry around two massive railguns that can punch through any armor and spell certain doom for its recipient unless they are a heroic character or gigantic vehicle. To top the firepower, it also has one of the longest ranges in the game. Merely seeing a squad of those deployed can make any opponent tremble. You can count on the fact that they will focus on taking those out first; a fatal error, since the other elements of the Tau arsenal are almost as deadly.

Fire WarriorsClose upModified Broadside

The second army I started was Imperial guard. These guys are regular humans in a military pretty close to our modern one. Their lore isn’t as fascinating, and I mostly started with them because they look great (who doesn’t like model armymen) and because I wanted a different playstyle than Tau. They certainly deliver on that point. The strategy behind the IG is cannon fodder. With the exception of Tyranids (ravenous aliens who work off the same principle), IG have the cheapest men (in terms of points cost) and the worst weapons. Great tanks, though.

Warhammer held a great number of interests for me. It had elements of strategy, which led me to devise great spreadsheets for quickly building army lists. It had elements of design, both in the models and also in the terrain. Not only did I get to design my own army color scheme, but I also got greatly interested in modding, which used ‘green stuff’ (a type of putty) and assorted parts to create new characters. I created mods ranging from Tau fire warriors with cutdown battlesuit weapons and a Kroot hit team (for a custom gametype) to an alien infesting a space marine; with his ribcage broken wide open and tentacles taking over his limbs, it was grotesque. Warhammer had interesting and varied lore, which meant I could think up a plot surrounding my army as well as write entire fictions. What finally made Warhammer great for me was that it was analog. As soon as I got bored with the actual game, I could research custom gametypes as well as make up my own; all I needed was the models.

I stopped playing 40k because I started highschool. I didn’t have the time anymore, we were moving (meaning nowhere to work on the models or play the games) to get closer to both the school and my dad’s work, and neither of the friends with whom I used to play got accepted into my school, so I didn’t have any reason to keep working on my armies. Although I got all my models back out, I realized that I no longer have the time or dedication to work on an army, nor do I have anybody to play with (despite my school being renowned for its ‘nerdiness’, I have yet to meet an actual 40k player, rather than people who have merely “seen” or “hear about” it).

Plot has been Achieved

For a while I’ve been developing a set of characters who will certainly be the protagonists in the short story I’m writing. There are five protagonists, forming the crew of a small customized freighter called the Meridia. They work as private contractors, independently solving “problems”, or complex operations and tasks which require both skill and delicacy. Each crew member has a number of specializations, allowing them to collectively pilot their spaceship with only a fraction of the usual crew size. Every one of them is adept in combat and knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects. But they are hardly a veteran team, and having only recently met, they don’t have their team dynamics quite ironed out. Individually, however, they have years of experience in their respective fields and were notorious in the various parts of the galaxy where they worked alone.

But the characters haven’t had a clear purpose until now. I finally came up with a good idea for an overarching plot for my short story. It involves rebels, black hole generators, and perhaps aliens. I mocked up a military intelligence report, so I’ll let it speak for itself.
A report by ONGI on a joint operation between ONGI and OSCO.
Download as PDF

OSCO (Office of Specialized Covert Operations) will end up contracting the crew of the Meridia to infiltrate the rebel operations and discover the source of the tachyon tech. In the process, the crew uncovers a plot way beyond their league, yet it is up to them to stop the impending galactic war. Of course, the crew has had previous run-ins with these particular rebels. While transporting a piece of a key (cryptographic keys are one of the most precious physical cargoes), they have an unlucky encounter with a raiding party. They are forced to make a semi-blind jump with the Meridia, and end up stranded at a backwater spaceport. They manage to repair their ship before the rebels find them (tracking a jump is difficult and imprecise, meaning you have to go through the laborious process of sweeping a great number of systems in order to find the quarry) and barely make it out alive.

On another note, the English language is crazy. Making up words is really fun, especially if you have a certain amount of education in Latin. The great thing is that people are able to understand any word you make up if you do it right. While I mostly mean scientific words, I also mean Jabberwocky/Ulysses style words too. For example, in that short summary I used two new words: terrasapient and extraspecial. I needed to use terrasapient because extraterrestrial is meaningless when you are a spacefaring race. Terrasapient refers to something sapient originating on Earth (humans). Extraspecial is similar, except that it means something is external to the usual system of classifying something by species. It basically means any alien lifeform.

Silent Protagonists

Why are game developers so loath to assigning personalities to the player character? Duke Nukem had one of the strongest personalities in a game, and the series was a big success (mostly). It seems that a paradigm has infiltrated the industry, teaching story writers that the player should be able to asset his own personality through the character’s actions. I can’t see why this has become such a popular concept, since in my opinion silent protagonists take away some of the game’s and story’s magic.

For instance, Halo CE was pure magic for me. The whole plot enchanted me. Halflife 2 had a story at least as good, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. The game was linear, so your character was going to do the same thing no matter what. They tried to let the player express themselves in a meaningless way. The game would have been improved ten fold if Gordon Freeman had a voice. Most of the cool story I learned after I played the game, while reading about auxiliary documents and developer commentary on wikis. I learned about the Combine and the different concepts behind them. The same logic powers Freeman’s Mind, a playthrough of Halflife 1 voiced over with what thoughts are going through Gordon’s head at the time. Its hilarious and adds way more depth to the game.

Gordon Freeman
What is this guy like? Nobody knows.

Crysis was such a cool game. The graphics were great, the plot was nice and solid, and you could relate to the characters. Crysis was way less linear than HL2, and THEY managed to create a versatile character. Crysis 2, on the other hand, had a weak main character who was just a pawn of the voices in his helmet. It was way less fun, although that probably also had to do with the worse gameplay and unexplained story. Speaking of which, I don’t understand the connection between the first game and the sequel. The aliens in the first game were aliens that possessed and lived in anti-gravity, with wiggly, blue bodies and tentacles. They also needed a cold environment to live in. They sent out robots to kill their opponent and stayed inside their massive spaceship. In Crysis 2, the aliens have become way less cool. They are red, squid-like aliens that use nano-suits. They have different forms, don’t use robots, and don’t need a weightless or cold environment. There are no big floating spaceships, except for ANOTHER spaceship buried under Central Park. A spaceship which apparently doesn’t have an inside, except for pipes full of biological weapons. Seriously, I could have written a way better story. A story in which the main character talks!

Some games are better off without dialogue, of course. Bioshock’s mind slave Jack is better off without a voice, except for narration. In fact, giving him a voice would be unnecessary and probably would have ruined the atmosphere. Skyrim substituted written dialogue for actual audio. While it let you imagine any voice for your character, I think a selection of voices would have also been OK. Strategy games don’t need protagonists, such as Starcraft or Command and Conquer. Sure, Starcraft 2 was fine with its cutscenes and personal characters, but the game also had very personal storyline. World in Conflict had a better defined player character (whether he was the protagonist or not is debatable), but he was still a mute.

I know that there are still lots of games with talking protagonists, but a lot of mainstream games don’t. I didn’t even mention some of the more popular games, like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. Anyways, the point is that I hope the game industry sees a resurgence of games with awesome characters like the Master Chief or Duke Nukem.

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