There are basically three ways in which humans will colonize space: on Earth-like planets, on terraformed celestial bodies, or in in artificial habitats. Or, you know, in a crazy wanton combination of these. Whatever tickles your pen.
We’re eons away from such technological feats, but for fictional purposes, we’ve already colonized our galaxy hundreds of times over. Science-fiction authors all around have visualized humanity living in outer space in a variety of conditions, each with its own peculiarities. Of course, the best thing about writing stories set in futuristic habitats is the tremendous conflict potential. The thrill of the unusual, new and exotic dangers, the challenge of sustaining a different type of society.
All good fiction is born from conflict. Speculative fiction (science-fiction, fantasy, horror) benefits greatly from the bonus conflict potential generated by its wild settings. So let’s explore that potential a bit, shall we?
1. Earth-like planets
We find Earth-like planets out there increasingly often, some of them similar to Earth in size and density, others similar in chemical makeup, others similar in position and rotation. It’s a matter of time and technology until we find one that’s so close to the real thing, we’ll begin shifting our attention to traveling there instead of just staring at the sky.
But once we’re there, there are so many things that can go wrong, things that would make for a horrible future but awesome story material:
- the indigenous flora might be poisonous, impossible to eat and intolerant of Earth-imported plants
- the indigenous fauna might be impossible to control, either due to size (giant alien dinosaurs), numbers (insect plagues) or other features (flying predators, earth-dwelling predators that can chew through anything, etc.).
- the weather might be extremely hard to withstand (like daily hurricanes, acid rain, tsunamis, powerful freezing storms)
- the geological circumstances might be adverse (volcanic eruptions, frequent earthquakes, swampy ground that can’t hold buildings, no continents only isolated islands, etc.)
- meteorite and comet bombardment; just because Earth is fairly safe in our solar system (Thanks, Jupiter! Well, mostly… you bastard) doesn’t mean we’d be as well off on other Earths, in other solar systems
2. Terraformed celestial bodies
Celestial bodies could be anything: planets, moons, asteroids, comets. I doubt we’ll ever be able to build homes on stars, but in fiction, anything is possible with enough imagination (and a bit of madness thrown in).
The perils of building colonies on other celestial bodies depend on those particular bodies, but basically they are:
- different gravity
- too high, and we’d have great difficulty performing even the simplest of tasks like walking. We’d be clumsy toddlers all over again. We’d probably build mechanical aids to help us move, robotic exoskeletons that could malfunction in a myriad of ways. In a few generations, our musculature will adapt and we’ll all look like this.
- too low, and we’d suffer from bone and muscle atrophy and increased blood pressure in the upper half of the body (puffy faces, constant dizziness, headaches). We’d probably have intestinal problems too, not to mention difficulty keeping our food down if we hop around after a meal.
- toxic or no atmosphere; walking around in bulky space-suits all day every day will get really tiring, not to mention kill the fashion industry. Also, if there’s no atmosphere, there’s nothing to filter out radiation. We’d need some kind of domes (either material or electromagnetic or both) to protect our food from unwanted mutations, and our equipment from twitching
- external gravity; this one applies to living on a moon, particularly around gas giants or massive planets. If the moon has an own rotation as it revolves around the planet, then we’d have to deal with considerable tidal effects from the planet’s higher gravity every time our colony faces the planet.
3. Artificial habitats
Probably the safest habitats, since they would be entirely created by us for us, artificial habitats still harbor plenty of potential for disaster.
- failing life-support or recycling systems
- cosmic radiation over several generations leading to mutations or permanent infertility
- structure erosion due to long-term exposure to cosmic dust
- lack of resources like water, fuel and medication (food and air can be provided for quite “easily” through hydroponics, but even those need water from somewhere…)
Yeah, I know, a good space station has backup systems and sexy ships to send out for supplies. But shit might still go very wrong. It must. It’s cosmic justice.
And if the artificial habitat is somewhat limited in size, such as a modest space station, there is also a score of psychological problems that can appear, such as:
- neuroses and hallucinations
- phobias and anxiety disorders
- chronic boredom and apathy (and nasty pranking)
- wanton murder and sodomy, you know, the usual
Colonists might suffer from any or all of these psychological problems regardless where they built their new homes. People be crazy, especially in space. Especially when resources are limited and death can come in surprising forms at unknown times.
Plenty of conflict potential. Plenty of fictional fun!
For my novel The Deeplink, I spread humanity over seven colonies built on non-Earth-like planets and moons. Only a single colony is settled on an Earth-like exoplanet that was additionally terraformed, the rest are planted in various wastelands. They’re mostly cities protected by domes, or underground labyrinthine constructions. I have elaborate artificial habitats as well, but they’re not inhabited by humans… 😉
And what’s your favorite colonization scenario?
Where did or would you drop your setting anchor? Did you explore its dangers?
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This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2014.
In 2012, my C post was — Crimes Against Secondary Characters