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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Jörmungandr

Here is a story I recently wrote. It was written over the course of an afternoon, for a school assignment.

Jörmungandr

One of the first few expeditions found him. As they plunged off their boat into the icy Atlantic and slogged onto Snaeland at, as they dubbed it, Seydisfjordur, his hollow ravings echoed down from the foothills and caused much inquiry. A group of the Norsemen set out from the expedition’s shore-side camp, and hiked up towards the source of these cries. They found him living in the carcass of a busse; the ship looked like it had been washed into the mountains, its beams broken across the crevices of the hills, its oars splintered on the tall pines. The Norsemen, not a little confused, dragged the raving lunatic back to their camp and kept him in an uthu adjoining the longhouse. For the next two nights, the Norsemen argued over what to do. Some wanted to hang him as an offering to the All-Father, but most were willing to wait and hear the prisoner’s explanation before deciding. How could such a heavy ship be lifted inland as far as a day’s walk?

After a few days of food and drink, the man began to speak some sense. They found his name was Gormund. As soon as this news spread, everyone was intensely curious to hear his story. In slow strides of language, Gormund began a discourse. His clothes were ragged and his hair long and unkempt, but his tongue was as erudite as the best skald. Gormund held himself very calmly, but every word he spoke was laden with insanity. Over the course of two days Gormund disgorged an enthralling madman’s tale.

He detailed an expedition made from Volmong (after explaining that Volmong was a Norse settlement hidden away in the mountains of Iberia, which was met by much disbelief), which had raided a string of monasteries. As they found out, these monasteries housed adherents to the Societas Eruditorum. Soon they had Charlemagne breathing down their necks. Pressed, the settlement held a thing, in which they decided that Volmong was doomed. The settlement was the size of a hundred, and leaving was never really an option, though not for lack of trying. The Norseman’s place is on the sea, not in the highlands; the settlers of Volmong were folly for ignoring that. The slow caravan to the coast was cut down en masse by the underfed armies of the mainland conqueror. Only a handful of longships left the Iberian shore, and fewer navigated the Channel successfully.

On the third day of Gormund’s consciousness, his narrative was cut short when a lookout cried from the palisade. A Gaelic warship had appeared off the coast. The men, suddenly electrified by the chance of combat, began to arm themselves, and pushed off in one of their three longships, dragging Gormund along in spite of, as they found, his deathly fear of the sea. As their longship drew closer to the Gaelic craft, the Norsemen made out its shape: it had the contours, in the front, of a Roman bireme, maybe a trireme, but as it turned they saw that the back was rough and squarely built. When the ships were three thousand fot apart, the Norsemen saw why; a massive ballista was mounted on the head of the Roman warship.

Too late to reconsider tactics, and already heady from bloodlust, the Norse threw their backs into the oars and plowed towards the Gaelic ship at ramming speed. The Gaels loosed a flaming bolt from the ballista, which struck the drum beater. The weight of the shaft sheared his body in two, and the flaming oil spilled across the deck of the longship. With cadence broken, the oarsman made slower progress, but still they closed the gap between the ships. Another bolt was loosed, and it struck the side of the longship, shearing away many oars. Crippled, the Gaels lobbed flaming bales of hay onto the longship, and sat apart as the burning wreck sank into the cold Atlantic.

The Gaels dragged the two floating survivors aboard. One was conscious, and lashed out at his rescuers. They cut his throat and dumped him into the ocean. The other corpse was limp, but after some time of lying on the deck, he awoke, sputtering. The druid aboard hoisted the man up and pressed him against the forward mast, seeking fear in his prisoner’s eyes. But as the druid gazed, he saw a spark erupt within the Norseman’s eyes. Backing away in fear, he averted his gaze as the man’s face glowed an unearthly pallor. Gormund then spoke out in Gaelic, in an attempt to quell his captor’s fear. Of course, this was in his best interest; he didn’t want these Britons dumping his lifeless body in the cold Atlantic. He said, “I am Gormund, son of Bjiolnir. Bring me to Kaupang.” The Gaels could do nothing but obey him, and so they sailed to Kaupang. They left him on the ocean-shore of Outer Kaupang.

When he reached a fishing village on the bay-shore, the villagers took him in as a fellow Norseman. When beseeched to explain his business, he refused. When pressed, he warily recounted his passage from Seydisfjordur. The villagers, realizing he was a madman, locked him in the boathouse. The next morning they sent an envoy to Inner Kaupang to inform the herad-lord of a madman who claimed to hail from Snaeland. The herad-lord, on a whim, called for the man to be brought to his longhouse.

The next day, Gormund was brought before Þorhrafn, the herad-lord. “I am Þorhrafn, son of Harald, son of Refrbrandr, chieftain of Kaupang and contender for the throne of Skiringssal. Name yourself,” commanded Þor.

“I am Gormund, son of Bjiolnir. I hail from this town.”

“You say you live here, eh? You claim to have come from Snaeland.”

“I was with a landing at Seydisfjordur, when a Gaelic warship sunk the Karvi we launched. I convinced the Gaels to transport me here.”

“A Gaelic ship got you? Hah! And you convinced a ship of victorious Gaels to ferry you a hundred vei? How’d you manage that? Got an all-tongue, do you?” The chieftain guffawed.

“Yes, I have been granted such powers by the gods.” At this, the herad-lord let out a cry, and doubled over laughing.

“Qlfuss tunga! Hah!”

“I was at Volmong, where we raided Societas Eruditorum bastions. They have unlocked many secrets of the gods.”

“Bahahaha! What is Volmong? You’re a crazy ‘kilg’n!” The chieftain turned to his attendant warriors, “Give his life to the All-Father.”

Gormund spoke out again, his voice slightly modulated, “Do you want to know how I got to Snaeland?” The warriors paused. “As I was sailing home, to Kaupang, when the worst storm any of us had ever seen beset our ships. Waves like giants walked among us, and threatened to carry our busse from the sea and into the sky. One by one, we lost sight of the other boats, their calls spirited away on more powerful gales, their image divided from us by sheets of water, and their wake obliterated by the churning of the sea. The sky and water were the same color, and the water so enveloped us that there became no difference between air and water, sky and sea, light and dark. The same wet grayness surrounded us for what seemed like an eternity.

“I hope the others fared better than our lot, but since you seem to be unaware of any return, I can only assume they succumbed to the sea, their valiant defense of the ship falling to a crushing blow of water… such a fate would be better than our own.

“At one point, I became distinctly aware that a set of eyes besides our own were among us. Yet every time I would turn to face the intruder, I found nothing. But then I, and others, noticed a transient murky form beneath us. Moments passed, in which the sea seemed to calm. Then a crew member cried out; the largest wave I have ever seen, seeming to rise above the sky itself, towered above us. As I watched, two glowing eyes pierced through the gray veil of the water, followed by a hulking, coiled shadow beneath the surface. I made out two enormous wings, limbs, and a wrapping tail. A silence descended, in which only the rushing of water was heard. Somebody cried, “Jormungandr.” Then the world went dark.

Jormungandr

“The next thing I recall is being found in Snaeland by the Seydisfjordur expedition. When I regained sanity, I remembered in a rush the campaign in Iberia. The Societas Eruditorum had given me things stolen from the vaults of the gods. Loki sent the World Serpent to apprehend me, to destroy my ship and return what was taken. Jormungandr’s storm carried our ship to Snaeland, and only I survived. I suspect that Jormungandr will return; he didn’t get what he wanted. My purpose in returning to Kaupang is to raise a force to fight him off.” As Gormund finished, the throne chamber echoed emptily. Þor considered these words, rolling his tongue around in his mouth as if appraising the taste of the tale. The only noise was the crackle of the fire. Then the herad-lord snorted.

“That is quite the tale. And one I’m not particularly inclined to believe. Even if I thought you weren’t a qlfuss, your story doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t the Serpent get you while in transit from Snaeland? Why not send a god to take back… whatever you stole, rather than a Loki-spawn, no less? Would not Jormungandr’s release of Midgard to attack you allow the oceans to spill over? And what was it that you stole?”

“The all-tongue, to name one.” Gormund paused, and was about to speak again but was interrupted by a courier, bursting into the chamber.

“The sea is boiling!” he cried. Everyone rushed outside. Gazing at the sea from atop the town-fort walls, they saw that indeed, the frothy waves had sheets of steam rising off them. A storm had come up, and dark clouds coated the Kaupang coast. Giant waves smashed the shore, breaking some of the boathouse piers. Then, from the water, a tower column of scales and flesh emerged, atop which sat a terrible head, with a maw lined with innumerable teeth. A horror fell upon the lord and his warriors.

Gormund muttered under his breath, “Jörmungandr.”

A Solution for Difficulty Curves and Power Creep

Most games portray you as a hero of some sort. A common trope is for the hero to be either inexperienced at the beginning of the game, or lack his equipment. This gives a reason for why the hero does not just plow right up to the main baddie and kill him at the beginning. In any case, a lot of games suffer from a strangely shaped difficulty curve. The game starts out fairly easy as the player learns the ropes, then the enemies get harder. Finally, you max out your stats and the game begins to get easier again.

Granted, the best games suffer from this less, but a lot of games have trouble with this type of power creep. Spore is a prime example of a ridiculously easy endgame (the space stage was essentially a sandbox). Some developers solve this by making enemies more powerful as the player progresses. This can work in games where, for instance, the enemy starts to realize just how much of a threat you are. In open-world games like Skyrim, though, this makes little sense.

Yahtzee, of Zero Punctuation, mentioned in one of his Extra Punctuation an inkling of an idea for a game that is designed with this problem in mind. I have taken the liberty of gripping the nebulous concept by the horns and fleshing it out.

The game is based around the power suit you wear. It is a magnificent piece of High Technology. Unfortunately, this means that nobody is quite sure how it works. The machining of the piece is much too fine to replicate, in any case, which means any replacement parts have to come from other pieces of High Technology, which are few and far between.

At the start of the game you escape from the main fortress of the Bad Guys with some sort of Valuable Item (perhaps information). You raid the armory and steal the suit before plunging yourself deep into the wilderness around the citadel. You spend the game running from a cadre of pursuers, trying to make your way to the border. At every encounter with an enemy, it is up to you to protect your suit as much. Each blow is physically simulated and, depending on where you place armor, where the hit was, how hard it was, etc. a component on your suit has the potential of breaking. Parts also wear down over time.

The most critical part of the game is deciding how to keep your suit in working order. Some systems are critical, like the pneumatics that let you move (damage to arm parts may impair aiming speed, damage to legs may reduce speed or jump height, etc), and some are dispensable, like weapons. If a critical system receives a hit and becomes in critical danger of breaking down, you have to stop and either fix it with any spare parts you find, or scrap a non-critical system on your suit to get the essential parts.

This meta-game with the suit solves the problem of power creep. You are at maximum power at the beginning, but enemies are also at the greatest density. Slogging through the wilderness and fighting enemies wears your suit down, so by the end you are barely limping along. As time goes on, you have to choose which weapon or system to scrap for parts. This means that you get a sample of all abilities at the beginning, and can keep the ones that best suit your play style. One of Bioshock’s biggest problems was that there was no incentive to try new plasmids. I’m sure the majority of players just improved the starting set, because buying new powers was too much of a liability.

I like the idea of having the game being mostly free-world. You can choose the best path through the different types of terrain to avoid encounters. Cold environments, wet environments, and sandy environments all have different types of wear and tear on the suit. Roads are easy to traverse (meaning less food consumption and lower likelihood of suit failure) but are more likely to find troops on them. Towns and other population centers are more likely to hold supplies (food and maintenance items are critical for survival) and spare parts, but the citizens will raise the alarm if they see you, and there are likely to be troops in towns.

The catch is that any alarms you raise will alert the search parties to your general presence and means a higher chance of encountering troops. Same goes for any military engagements in which an enemy scout or survivor escapes. The game is part stealth (avoiding conflict), part tactics(managing the suit, choosing your world route), part combat (winning conflicts you get into). At the end, instead of a boss fight, you have a final battle at the border of the kingdom as the search parties converge on your position and a friendly militia comes down from the other side of the border to help you across.

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.

Interstellar Travel

The most important part of writing science fiction is laying down a set of rules which stays constant throughout the book. In A Fire Upon the Deep (aFUtD), there was hyperwave, anti-gravity, hyperspace, and the Zones. In The Mote in God’s Eye (tMiGE), there were only two pieces of technology which violated physics: the Alderson Drive and Langston Field. Each was defined very clearly. Nothing is more infuriating than when an author saves the day with a previously undisplayed loophole.

Cover of A Fire Upon the Deep

The interesting thing about tMiGE is the interstellar travel. Scifi authors usually couple FTL travel with FTL communications; in tMiGE, the only way to send a message to another star system in a timely manner is to send a messenger ship. In addition, jumps between systems can only be made from specific points within each system, determined by the mass of the star and the arrangement of surrounding systems. aFUtD uses a similarly interesting, but completely different, device. Starships in the Beyond make micro-jumps, instantaneously jumping between two points in space and then calculating the next jump. This means that to go faster you just need more computing power. Systems built for different regions of the Beyond work differently; a bottom-lugger isn’t as fast as a state-of-the-art battleship except close to the Slow Zone.

In the fictional world I’ve been developing through a short story, interstellar travel is also interesting. Like tMiGE, the only way to go faster than light is with a spaceship. In my universe, ships have a minimum size requirement; messenger probes are out of the question. An interstellar drive has two parts: the ring, and the spikes. The ring manipulates space, flattening the local regions of the universe around the ship. While in theory a ring could be any size (bigger rings make bigger fields in a not quite linear fashion), it would lack control and have a tendency to fall into gravity fields. That’s why a ship needs spikes. Spikes are long, thin sensors that monitor the properties of the universe in small regions of space. They help the ring avoid massive bodies, correct for small spatial inconsistencies, and deactivate in the correct place. The more spikes a ship has, the safer and more precise it is. The higher quality a ring a ship has, the faster it can go. A ship that was too small wouldn’t be able to avoid planetary bodies or have a large enough detection field to navigate in flattened space. Ok, so maybe there is a little bit of Handwavium. But not THAT much.

You may be wondering: if the spikes hold sensors, why not just make a bigger spacecraft and imbed the sensors within the hull? Good question, reader. The answer is: you could. That is, if you are filthy rich. Rich people sometimes drive crazy cars and build crazy buildings, so certainly some people would make stylish spacecraft. At the end of the day, though, your spaceship is still occupying the same volume of space. It uses more sensors (unless you want minute pockets within your spaceship to expand and explode), and it only gives so much more interior space. It masses more, which means more energy or fuel to boost it through regular space. Spaceships aren’t like cars, either. Stylish lines are going to count for very little; even space stations don’t have windows, and nobody uses video to navigate. The result is that most spaceships are spheres inside a forest of spikes. Not very romantic, is it?

Mass is going to be the limiting factor on spaceship size. Unless you have very expensive spikes, you are still going to redimensionalize hundreds of thousands of miles from your target. You need some sort of in-system propulsion system. Since it is impractical to put a high-powered propulsion system aboard an already too-small ship, most spaceships would use local services: tugboats. Even obscure areas could afford one or two spacecraft with excellent traditional drives that can ferry interstellar craft around in cubic space. This also solves the problem of giving interstellar craft big dangerous drives that create exhaust. Except for military ships, redimensionalizing craft wouldn’t run the risk of toasting someone behind them. Military ships would be the exception; your enemies aren’t going to help you invade their system, so you need your own engines. On the other hand, military ships would be significantly different already. Most attack ships would be gigantic; they need to carry ship-board weapons, planetary craft, and a propulsion system. Military ships also carry prized interstellar equipment; governments are going to outfit their fleet with the finest rings and spikes.

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