Putting the life back in science fiction

When you colonize a planet, what do you mine first?

Just a brief, science-fiction question.  The background is that I realized I didn’t know much about, but I suspect it turns out to be terribly, terribly important for designing colonies on other planets:

When you colonize a planet, what do you mine first?Here’s some background to help you think about it.

First off, let’s ignore mining little asteroids and leaving habitable planets alone for environmentalist street cred.  That won’t work very well.  Planets are useful, because the combination of gravity, plate tectonics, water, and even life means that some incredibly useful elements and molecules get concentrated in useful places.  Think springs of fresh water, for instance.  If you’re dealing with a small asteroid, it hasn’t done any gravitational sorting, let alone plate tectonics, so it’s basically a bunch of atoms in some high entropy combination.  The atoms, even the molecules are there, but you’ve got to spend a huge amount of energy concentrating and synthesizing the stuff you need.  It’s probably less useful than a modern landfill when it comes to minability.

If you’re limited in the resources you have, it makes sense to find a planet.  Even Mars is better than a small asteroid, but the less work you have to do with making (or filtering) air, shielding from radiation, having gravity, etc., all means you’ve got more energy and materials left for growing your colony.

That said, you’ve landed your spaceship(s) on a planet, you’ve claimed your landing area for the Terran Biosphere, and now you’ve got to not just keep everyone and everything from dying of starvation or some worse fate, you’ve got to get it growing, have some babies, grow your crops and other symbionts, and get your new baby biosphere big enough that a bad day won’t wipe it out.

Assuming you’ve got a source of cleanable water nearby, and something like a fusion plant on your spaceship for some amount of electrical power, what do you go for next?  Iron?  Lithium?  Petroleum?  Methane?  Rare Earths?  Copper?  Silicon? Aluminum?  Something else?  Which of these would be easy to spot from orbit, and which do you need to have a lot of prospectors looking for (I suspect concentrated deposits of rare earths are in the latter category…).

The reason this kind of discussion matters is because of history.  There are some inherently stupid things (like California water law or African Americans being second class and exploited for labor) that were enshrined early on during settlement, and even though they’ve become burdensome, they’re an essential part of how the states and the US were formed.  As you can see in the current political season, it’s proving to be really, really hard to change them, even though we’d all be better off if they were fixed.  Because of this, I think the early decisions made during colonization ultimately determine how the colony develops, perhaps even its long-term fate.

On a functional level, fusion power is great, but you need batteries to store that energy.  That means you need to find battery materials, such as lithium and probably rare earths, and that’s difficult.  Alternatively, you could go for petroleum (assuming the planet’s biosphere makes this kind of stuff) because the early wells have a very high energy return on energy invested (think gushers), and the stuff isn’t just good for fuel, you can also use it for petrochemicals and plastics.  Ditto with methane.  The problem is that if you base your colonial energy structure on petroleum, you put yourself in the same climate change trap we’re in now, which may limit the lifespan of your colony.

Anyway, what resources would you go for first, which ones are easy, and which are hard?


40 Comments so far
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Interesting question. My first instinct would be iron, since so much of it is needed for really anything recognizable industrial. But with iron you also need carbon, Mo, Ni, Zn and a host of other alloying agents to make the steels modern industry wants.

For electronics you have another menageri of stuff you want.

So I have no idea what to mine first (also because I know nothing of mining, come to think of it) but I guess one institution the settlers will have is the BOMF – Board of Mass Flows: To analyze what goes into the settlement, identify bottlenecks proactively and allocate mining capacity accordingly. For the first years, maybe longer, expect crucial equipment to be reallocated between mines on a regular basis.

Comment by martin089

First off, you’d have to do core sampling to see what’s where, how much and at what cost/effort to extract. I’m thinking specifically of essential nutrients including trace micro-minerals because this will determine how tight the ties both economic & political with Mother Earth will have to remain. IOW, I would not mine for corporate profit mostly because it’s unlikely that Mars has any element that would justify the exploration/shipping costs and/or could not be developed in a lab somewhere on Earth at a fraction of the cost.

Next, I’d strongly encourage a policy of use vs. exploitation of resources. On Earth, most life can sustain itself by just grabbing at almost always available low hanging fruit. Such abundance means that people can justify abusing, overusing or throwing away resources. That’s not an option on Mars, so the first society there would have to very consciously develop a ‘saver’ or ‘minimalist’ lifestyle mentality. Therefore unreclaimed /unreused garbage production per capita could probably become a key statistic in measuring the overall health and effectiveness of populations, business enterprises, new products, etc. This also means that passively vs. actively powered high-tech gadgets would have greater importance than current SF assigns it.

An example: Mars needs shelter, water, water storage, food production and a means of ensuring all of its population gets adequate micronutrients in its diet. A series of connected caves a few hundred feet underground could serve as habitat and storage. Despite next to no atmosphere, Mars
has some strong dust storms. Water on the surface would immediately and permanently be lost via evaporation. A cave is comparatively low-tech vs. building storm resistant domed and pressurized skyscrapers and surrounding suburbs, parks, etc. Most importantly, underground habitats would minimize heating, cooling and humidification requirements consequently reducing overall energy needs. Underground habitats are probably also more effective for keeping air in. Solar PV, wind turbine and some nuclear would probably provide all the energy needed.

Comment by SFreader

Biology is going to be rather critical. If there isn’t any, or it doesn’t use P, then a phosphorus salt deposit is going to be rather critical to run your agricultural food production (assuming N2 is in the atmosphere).

Lifestyle will have to be fairly basic, so metals like iron/copper/tin will be needed to make metal implements and tools.

IMO, the more technological the lifestyle, the harder it will be to start from scratch with just the resources of a star ship. Heinlein’s approach of going with farmers was probably a good idea in retrospect.

As Stross has suggested in the past, a minimal industrial civilization might require around 1 million people. That number is not likely to be available in a colony ship.

Comment by alexandertolley

Asteroids — as far as we can tell from stony meteorites — are indeed poor sources of most elements. Bodies with a nickel-iron composition are considerably more useful. They are competitive with or superior to the majority of terrestrial ores for nickel, iron, and various siderophile elements (siderophiles have been preferentially depleted from the crust and concentrated toward the core on Earth; said elements are gold, cobalt, iron, iridium, molybdenum, nickel, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium, germanium, silver and tungsten).

I’ll assume that iron, nickel, and the other siderophiles are going to come from asteroids. I’ll assume that the planet is Earth-like except that it’s never been inhabited by humans. On the planet itself, I’d say the first things to mine for are limestone and quartzite. You can get sodium hydroxide from seawater by electrolysis. I’m going to assume that colonists have plenty of energy available because otherwise it’s hard to imagine how they crossed between stars in the first place.

Given iron-nickel asteroid material, seawater, limestone, quartzite, and energy, you now have access to:

– Soda-lime glass and vitreous quartz for making windows, corrosion resistant piping and reaction vessels, structural fibers, greenhouses, etc.

– Carbon, methane, methanol, and a whole menagerie of polymers and chemicals derived from them. That’s assuming that you reuse the CO2 released from limestone during calcination.

– Elemental silicon for logic and memory devices, sensors, photovoltaics, solid state power devices, silicone polymers, electrical steel alloys etc. This is produced in its initial crude form by heating quartzite lumps with carbon in an arc furnace. The sensor, power, logic, and memory devices require advanced purification but PV cells, alloys, and silicones can be manufactured with silicon that has undergone simpler or no additional purification steps.

– Quite a few steel formulations — at least anything you can make from the set of elements {iron, carbon, silicon, nickel}. Remember that steels only need a little carbon for alloying; the high carbon consumption of terrestrial primary steel production is because they’re starting from iron oxides and using carbon as reducing agent. Your colonists don’t have to start with oxides.

– Refractory oxide for high temperature furnace linings (calcium oxide), cement, and concrete. You can crush quartzite to different sizes to produce both the aggregate and the nice sharp sand you want for making concrete.

Between steel, aggregate, concrete, glass, silicon, and polymers you’ve already got most of the mass needed to build recognizable modern infrastructure. I’d say that the next target is aluminum because you need a metal with low electrical resistance for electrical equipment and wiring. Asteroids are a lousy place to look for bauxite or aluminum-rich clays. You’ll either need obsessively good light-element recycling like you’d have for space based material processing or you’ll need to find a planetary source of fluoride for the aluminum refining process. Over time small amounts of fluorine are lost as fluorocarbon gases from anode side reactions and need to be obsessively captured/recycled (you could nip some very long lived greenhouse gas emissions in the bud here…) or replaced from external sources.

Around the time you develop aluminum refining you probably want to find a more abundant source of concentrated carbon too, for making aluminum refinery anodes if nothing else. Woody biomass should work just fine, since I’m again assuming that you need reduced carbon compounds just for materials and chemicals. You’re not simply setting fire to carbon compounds to e.g. make steam for electrical power plants.

For stationery batteries the old nickel-iron Edison batteries would be good, since they’re rugged and simple and you have plenty of nickel and iron. That’s assuming that nothing vastly better has been discovered meanwhile.

Comment by Matt

Oh, and if you want to locate dry salt lakes for their lithium, boron, and other useful minerals, they are among the easiest types of mineral deposit to detect via remote sensing. Hyperspectral imaging from orbit and/or aircraft plus gravimetry should be able to give your colonists a big head start on identifying mineral deposits even before you take a single core sample.

Comment by Matt

Dumb question: What, if anything, can be done to alter a planet’s gravity (e.g., Mars)? Could you lob asteroids onto it to help increase mass, therefore gravity … or is a planet’s gravity field more than the sum total of the mass on/in it?

Most Earth-based life seems to do better in gravity, so just wondering …

Comment by SFreader

I think David Brin got there first (possibly second) with Earth, about the same time Dan Simmons came up with the same idea in Hyperion: drop a wee little black hole into the center of the planet. If it’s small enough, it won’t even intercept enough atoms to feed itself, and it will eventually evaporate away. Building the black hole is the minor technical challenge you have to overcome to do this…

Comment by Heteromeles

Good comments! One thing I’d reiterate is that the energy issue is deceptive: they colony ship might have a big energy generator, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a bunch of distributed energy systems, which you’d need if you were mining all over the place. That’s one of the key problems now with switching our grid over to renewables, although we see it as not having enough high energy, lightweight batteries. I suspect there’s a lot to be said for colonies shipping out with a supply of rare earth elements, just so they can build the electronics and high performance motors and generators they need while they develop local sources.

Another issue is that you need insulation, as well as conductive wires. It’s all well and good to string a grid with aluminum wires and ceramic insulators, but that kind of system gets to be a bit more dicey in homes. Eventually, they need a good supply of polymers and elastomers from somewhere.

Finally, I love Martin’s idea of the Board of Mass Flows, although probably it would sound better as something like the Board of Materials (it’s da BOM). The politics around such an institution could more than drive a novel, especially if each planet had their own version.

–For instance, is it a political board? Who gets to be on it? How is it structured? What is their jurisdiction and powers? What do they do about scofflaws? If the board lasts long enough, two things happen: one is that people figure out the ways to game the system, and the other is that the system gets too hard to manage bureaucratically, leading to all sorts of interesting inefficiencies, politics, and possibly a (catastrophic) loss of trust in the BOM as an institution.

–On the other hand, what if materials allocation is run algorithmically? This is sort of like a planned economy, perhaps even with game-like attributes, where people or syndicates are differentially rewarded for whether they bring in critical materials or just a surplus of something that’s easy to get. However, even if it’s run by an AI (The Computer Is Your Friend. Trust The Computer), there still will be people trying to beat the system, it will still need human defenders, and it will still need an organization with political legitimacy around it to enforce its dictates and reward good players. As with a human board, over time people will figure out how to game or beat the system, and eventually the colony will grow too large for an algorithm to even get sufficiently good data, let alone keep accurate track of materials and run things rationally.

Keep it coming!

Comment by Heteromeles

Alastair Reynolds had, IIRC, a backstory about very slow robotic colony ships seeding planets with humans in an earlier era in his Revelation Space series. The now-extinct colonies founded at that time had a few huge fusion reactors because humans had mastered fusion but couldn’t scale it down from enormous tokamaks. If your colonists have a similar issue — you can put a big fusion reactor on the surface, but you can’t make any whole new ones until you have a broad industrial base — then it brings to mind an earlier Hot Earth Dreams challenge: how much industrial base can you build up in one geographically limited region? Ideally it should be near-ish to all of the following:

– A suitable crash-landing site for deorbiting chunks of iron-nickel asteroid
– Fresh water
– Sea water or another salt source
– Limestone
– Quartzite
– A forest or other easily harvested source of concentrated carbon. Limestone will do in a pinch if you have plenty of energy at the original site but it would be better to start with a more convenient source.
– The most important 2 or 3 other ores (aluminous clays? zinc or copper minerals?)

If those constraints aren’t binding enough, you probably also want to locate near enough the equator that there aren’t large seasonal variations in temperature or sunlight (assuming that you’ll be using solar power to supplement the big centralized energy source and to supply energy where it’s impractical to build transmission infrastructure).

To make methanol you need carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and a catalyst. Then from methanol you can make ethylene, polyethylene, ethylene copolymers, etc. If you want more fire-resistant flexible electrical insulation materials, the silicone rubber you can make from silicon and a small number of organic chemicals is a good alternative. With access to the sea for harvesting halogens, you could also make more fire-resistant polymers and elastomers by incorporating bromine and chlorine compounds into the structure, but those compounds and their manufacturing byproducts aren’t good for long term human health. Let’s not repeat that mistake on the new planet.

Comment by Matt

Asteroidal iron vs. planetary iron… That’s a tough one. Yes, you can get more iron than you can possibly need if you can mine the right asteroid. On the other hand, if you’ve done your hyperspectral studies from orbit, you can probably dig a canal from your colony to the nearest minable iron and use that. It’s not as big a source, but energetically it’s a lot closer, especially if you can use over-water transportation for at least part of the journey.

Otherwise, yes, it is a Hot Earth Dreams problem repurposed, since we’re setting up for a future that looks a bit like an alien planet. I’ve played with the idea of a story with simultaneous High Altithermal on Earth and space colonies, where there’s a lot of knowledge sharing, and colonists can be recruited from refugee camps on Earth, because at that point, living off Earth might be easier. Getting the colony/colonies independent before Terran civilization finishes downsizing would be their critical struggle.

Comment by Heteromeles

Energetic proximity depends a lot on the starting orbits for your iron-nickel asteroids. I’d expect our starfaring colonists to be able to locate objects that already swing near New Earth and slowly, gently nudge them into capture orbits so you can send pieces down the gravity well. Or maybe divert asteroids quickly and roughly, for that matter; these people might have incredible delta-V at their disposal if they built a working starship. But even if they relied on e.g. beamed power propulsion for launch from the solar system, and don’t have nearly as much power at this end of the journey, they should be able to wait patiently in orbit for quite a while as they nudge space based resources toward their new planet, perform exhaustive remote surveys, build their weather models, etc.

As you mention below, less abundant elements are kind of like technological micronutrients. I think it’s worth harvesting M-type asteroids so as to have a ready source of many kinds of metallic micronutrients without developing separate surface mines for nickel, cobalt, platinum group metals, etc. The siderophile elements in asteroids can supply the key catalytic elements for industrial chemistry as well as the transition metals you need for many different kinds of batteries and high performance alloys. When you’re making simple things like iron cookware and pipes you can probably use the asteroidal metal mix without separating it first. But if you need pure nickel for making high temperature alloys, cobalt for high power lithium batteries, or iridium for catalysts, you can also separate the mixed metal to extract individual elements.

Comment by Matt

I’m actually writing a (admittedly rather space operatic) story that occurs in the nearer end of the Deep Altithermal amid a backdrop of various (exoplanetary) space colonies, most of which have been able to treat Earth’s history with industrialization as a bit of a “rough draft” due to a successful version of this process. They’ve been around for long enough since then that many of them have failed or otherwise fallen into their own peculiar social and environmental lacunae, and they’ve invented social problems we don’t have words for — but they generally don’t face the intense resource, ecological and economic issues that Earth’s societies contend with (most metals that are not extremely common must be recycled or extracted as traces by diffuse fungal concentrators). They generally tend to emphasize solutions like “digging a canal between the good stuff and here” over “surveying one perfect asteroid and creating a total glut of that particular resource” because it leads to a more robust society in the long term.

(The stars are stitched together by networks of orbital habitats (ultimately dependent on interactions with planetary biospheres) and fleets, most of it run by an “empire” that’s less Space Rome and more Space Phoenicia, descended in deep historical terms from the institutions that managed early waves of offworld migration during the runup to the High Altithermal. Earthbound societies tend to the smaller, less-hierarchic and more nomadic, so they generally can’t afford the deliberately steep import costs for some of the nicer toys invented elsewhere.)

Comment by Simkha

The steps taken would depend on the type and size of the (new) plant. So, what are the constraints – type & size?

My alien planet POV is Mars because it’s closest, therefore, likeliest. Key difference is its low gravity. So, assuming that the first explorers/settlers decided to remain above ground, just how strong would building materials have to be? (I’m thinking 2-3 thicknesses’ worth of styrofoam coffee cup material could probably be adequate for strength and insulation. Therefore mining, metals and foundries not needed all that much.)

Comment by SFreader

Forgive me if you’ve heard me bang this drum before, but rare earth elements are more of a nice-to-have. Since you’re already moving a bazillion tons of mass between the stars, might as well bring some pure stocks of the REE along, but they are not critical for most applications. The terrestrial rare earth producers of our own time, especially junior miners trying to pitch to investors, have an interest in exaggerating the incredible value and necessity of what they hope to sell. And some environmentalists believe and further propagate the hype because, hey, why shouldn’t we be running out of critical metals at the same time we’re running out of critical habitat and so many other things?

REE are used in the phosphors used for color conversion in fluorescent and LED based lighting, but there they’re already facing competition from quantum dots fabricated from more readily mined elements. For display applications, rare earths also face competition from organic LED (OLED) displays that need neither rare earth elements nor quantum dots. The highest-volume use of REE is actually lanthanum and cerium catalysts used in oil refining, but we’re not planning on going back to the petroleum age on New Earth, so I think that use can be deprioritized. The highest-performance permanent magnets rely on REE, but in both motors and generators you can use electrical excitation in place of permanent magnets. Nickel metal hydride batteries rely on lanthanum, but NiMH is just one of many rechargeable battery chemistries.

Rare earth elements are still really important for various types of industrial lasers, laser amplifiers, and various other specialty optical components. So keep some REE on hand for those applications until you can extract them on the new planet. REE are pretty unimportant to computing and communication technologies with two notable exceptions: optical components for long-haul optical networking, for the same reasons as other industrial lasers, and spinning-platter hard disk drives. I certainly hope that conventional HDDs are obsolete by the time colonists can set off for another star.

Comment by Matt

I was actually thinking of rare earth elements in the generators in wind turbines and high performance electrical motors, but we’re pretty much in agreement. From what little I know about their mining history, they’re a pain in the ass to find, so rather than have the colony founder on the lack of a few pounds of some element for some minor-but-critical function, it’s probably better to lug it along.

Perhaps they’re the micronutrients of civilization?

That actually goes for a lot of elements, for things like organic chemistry (as you noted). Organic chemistry uses all sorts of different elements as catalysts and intermediates, so again, it’s probably simpler to bring some along rather than suffer horribly without. Whether or not the colony goes for petroleum I suspect is a matter of desperation and availability, more than anything else.

In the best case, petroleum is an excellent feedstock for all sorts of organic reactions, some of which we’d undoubtedly need. For example, want to run a molecular biology lab (possibly to genetically alter Terran life for a new world), or a hospital, without lots of disposable stuff? Contamination will almost certainly be a huge problem on new planets.

In the worst case, people will find coal and petroleum an easy way to power dispersed settlements, so it might be the fuel of rebellion against a colonial authority, its fusion generator, and the power lines it uses to wire people to its authority.

Going for petroleum again might seem suicidal, but then again, people try life-destroying recreational drugs, even in full knowledge of what they’ve done to previous generations. I’m not sure how you engineer temptation out of human nature.

Comment by Heteromeles

The colony will run as a command economy at first. The BOMF will advise the central planning whatever (CPW) and try to organize the raw materials neccessary. At first this will be largely linear programming (or even just linear algebra): We need these three dozen stuffs in this combination, what combination of mining allows us to get them. Or: CPW: “We want to build 10 combine harvesters” – BOMF “Earliest we can procure enough X is in two years, because [Reasons,] the combine harvesters compete with [list of projects] for ressources, see if you postpone one of these” and so back and forth.

Looking at recycling right now, it seems that it’s often easier to get fresh feedstock from nature somewhere than to mine landfills. Recycling works best as cradle to cradle design, or as large interconnected production acilities where the waste of one process feeds the next. Think large chemical plants or farms. The problem is that it’s hard to size these so that you can recycle a large fraction, because a lot of processes have to fit together. Our colony will be very far from a steady state for a long time, so organizing production around this kind of recycling will be hard. OTOH, our colony wil have plenty of space so expect huge piles or seas (maybe a few km downwind) of excess whatever, in case it’s needed later.

Picking up the idea of power supply and distribution, I’d expect our BOMF to operate one or a few stripmining teams organized around a somewhat mobile power plant. These teams will have lots of earth moving and other civil engineering equipment as well as lots mechanical sorting equipment than can be repurposed to many different tasks. They will descend on an area, stripmine what is needed, and leave, leaving behind huge refuse piles and tailing ponds. Colony needs to grow, now is not the time for cleanup.

Comment by martin089

Can organisms be engineered to concentrate all the elements you want from oceanic water and harvested fairly simply for the elements needed? Phosphorus certainly for use by terrestrial crops. Other elements, iron, some rare earths can also be concentrated. Engineering organisms might allow a wider range of elements to be concentrated and then extracted without resorting to mining. With the recent example of low-cost resin extraction of Uranium from seawater, perhaps this is the approach needed so that traditional mining techniques looking for concentrations of desired elements can be avoided, bypassing the decision process?

Comment by Alex Tolley

It might be possible for phosphorus and potassium.

Iodine was originally discovered in kelp ashes and that remained the commercial source before oil-associated brines were discovered with higher iodine content. Iodine makes up about 0.06 ppm of seawater: http://www.seafriends.org.nz/oceano/seawater.htm

Note that iron is roughly 20 times less abundant in seawater than iodine. The most abundant rare earth element, lanthanum, is *22,000* times less abundant in seawater than iodine. Even with the more abundant oil brine sources we have today, iodine sells for about 500 times the price of crude steel. I don’t think that engineered sea life is ever going to be a useful source of iron or rare earth elements.

Seawater can be used to produce bromine; it was done commercially on the Texas coast in the past. Magnesium was also commercially extracted from seawater in the past, again in Texas (and possibly other places; don’t recall from memory).

I can imagine extracting sulfur from the sea if you don’t have any convenient land based concentrations or fossil-refining-byproduct sources. The sea contains over 4 ppm boron and if you desalinate water for drinking or agriculture the boron needs to be removed anyway; you get 4 grams B for every thousand liters of purified water. Lithium extraction might be practical in the future. A few years ago a South Korean company was planning to do exactly that but then lithium prices fell (now prices are back up, but for how long?).

Fluorine is relatively abundant in seawater (13 ppm) but I don’t know of any convenient way to concentrate it. If you handwaved it in fiction with “genetically engineered clams that concentrate fluorapatite in their shells” I’d be willing to accept that.

Comment by Matt

Obviously we can get Na, Cl, Mg, Ca, etc. The point is that organisms that replicate and can be harvested simply are easier to bring along on a starship than mining equipment, let along the effort to locate and mine the ores. If the resin approach works well for different elements and the resin can be made easily, then that is another approach.

Bootstrapping a civilization from a colony ship is going to be hard as the required infrastructure is immense. It may take a long time, many generations, to recapitulate a high tech society that can sustain itself. Imagine just trying to produce semiconductor chips for much of modern equipment. OTOH, recreating early 20th-century technology might be much more doable.

By the time we can build star ships, it may be a problem even finding a crew that wants to live in such primitive conditions as this for the rest of their lives, and for the generations following them. People can barely manage to go camping for a weekend without dragging along high tech toys.

Comment by Alex Tolley

“Bootstrapping a civilization from a colony ship is going to be hard as the required infrastructure is immense. It may take a long time, many generations, to recapitulate a high tech society that can sustain itself. Imagine just trying to produce semiconductor chips for much of modern equipment. OTOH, recreating early 20th-century technology might be much more doable.”

A starship is itself a sustainable high tech society, one that lasted centuries or more as the population traveled between stars*. Either these starfaring people have compact industry-inna-can machines, like nanofactories, or they know how to build high tech machines that last an extremely long time. Either of these magic wands is pretty good insurance against losing the complex tech before colonists are able to make more.

Maybe colonists don’t have a sustainable starship because warp drive, wormholes, or some other authorial fiat allows them to leap between systems faster than known physics permits. But in that case it should also be logistically feasible to import high complexity goods to the new colony until it’s mature. A low-tech human colonization effort in another star system sounds pretty damn implausible; it’s like imagining a low tech human colonization of the bottom of the ocean. The different parts of the premise don’t hold together.

I have no idea how to actually build any of the magic wands needed to make starships work (compact, sustainable, high-tech civilization OR a way to thumb your nose at the light speed barrier), but given that we’re imagining the part after a successful journey between stars, I think we can infer that one or more of those miracles is already available to the colonists.

If readers really want the hoary old starships-and-subsistence-farmers again, I suppose you can justify a tech collapse with “…after the first wave of people landed a horrible accident destroyed the starship along with most of the colony equipment.” But it needs some deft handling by the author to make the perfectly timed accident believable, because it takes overcoming an enormous number of hazards to make it between stars in the first place. Accident-prone starships don’t deliver living colonists to another planet’s surface in the first place.

*A modest fraction of light speed is about as fast as anyone can imagine sending a macroscopic object through space without pure handwavium. Project Daedalus imagined traveling between stars at a bit more than 0.1 c via enormous fusion rocket; Breakthrough Starshot imagines a more ambitious 0.2 c with beamed power propulsion and using craft far too small to carry human beings.

Comment by Matt

Well, I was thinking of FTL starships (mostly because I think starships lasting generations is as much of a stretch, even if it doesn’t obviously break any physical laws). That takes care of the problems of traversing deep space, but doesn’t necessarily make it easier to mine asteroids.

The ultimate problem is what I think of as “The Polynesian Problem”–how to boil down your culture into two components: the stuff you can carry on one or a few ships, that you can use to terraform your island, excuse me planet, plus a large database of knowledge for how to live off the sea and land. Well, this is where the metaphor breaks down, unless we’re talking generation ships, because living off space resources is a lot harder than fishing coral reefs and the open sea, which is what the Polynesians mostly did. But having a suite of plants and animals that they could farm with on all sorts of islands was another key innovation.

In any case, colonies have to be more like ancient Polynesian voyaging efforts than turnkey setups for building planned communities on alien worlds. The key technology is that the colonization groups need to carry or be able to make everything they need to make another starship out of raw materials on an Earth-like world (or in a solar system if you want to stretch), including the ability to make the infrastructure (food, housing, people, etc.) needed to support the effort of making the ship. If they can do that, then I’d say that, at a first guess, they’ve got a halfway decent chance of having the colony succeed. Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder to build a starship than it is to build a wooden sailing ship.

Comment by Heteromeles

I think this pair of premises conflicts somewhat. Ok, starships don’t automatically imply sustainability, because these are FTL starships that can deliver people in such a short timeframe that they don’t need to be self-sufficient. They’re maybe more like sailing ships than like asteroid colonies gone interstellar. The other premise is that the colonists have only one chance to bring stuff they need from back home. Once they’ve arrived no additional human experts, spare parts, or forgotten machines will be coming — everything must be made locally or foregone. But if interstellar travel is roughly comparable to a long sea voyage, why wouldn’t more help be available from the Old System? The early English colonies in the Americas were disastrous. They didn’t get it right the first or the third time. England kept on shipping over supplies and fresh colonists until the new world birth rate outpaced the death rate — and that took decades.

Maybe the colonists are fleeing the tyrannical Solarian Monarchy* for parts unknown and that’s why they can’t communicate with home or get further supplies after they run away from the solar system… but how did they build a starship under the tyrant’s nose in the first place? I’m going to guess that building a space structure large enough to hold a colonization group is going to be noticeable even before the structure gets its warp engines installed. It’s doubly hard to sneak this sort of thing if humans are still pretty crap at long-term living in space and most of humanity dwells on Earth’s surface.

A contrivance to satisfy myself if nobody else, harmonizing FTL with profound isolation: aliens will agree to FTL transport large colony groups of humans and all their equipment to the surface of another Earth-like planet that currently has no advanced tool-users. But the price the aliens charge for each shipment is enormous, like a riparian right to 1% of the Sun’s radiative output for the next 100 years. Buy too many voyages and the Earth will end up freezing in the shadow of the aliens’ Dyson swarm. Humans are going to buy only one shipment in the 22nd century, it’s one-way only, and the colonists are going to be isolated for a very long time.

*Or the tyrannical Solarian Democracy which has outlawed their cherished pre-teen marriage traditions…

Comment by Matt

Sorry if that was confusing. I’m still thinking in terms of space opera, because I’m playing with a story setting, not trying to design a working starship.

I’m also thinking about an unsustainable civilization that expands faster than individual colonies crash, because I suspect that’s closer culturally to us than something truly sustainable for centuries or millennia. “Growth is inevitable” is such an ingrained meme, at least in the circles I move in, that I think that The End of Growth will be as traumatic for many of us as any conquest by an alien tribe.

In any case, yes, stuff might be available from the homeworld. Depending on how realistic I want to get with biospheres, though, the trips for the colonists might well be one way, until they can demonstrate conclusively that they and their equipment aren’t plague vectors for some alien slime or some such.

Even in this situation, it freaking hard to set up a colony, because you’re limited to what you can persuade people to ship you one way. Obviously, there’s a strong motive for the colony to succeed (especially after humans realize that sustainable civilization is impossible), but at the same time, you don’t want contamination from one colony to wipe out another.

This also leads to an interesting economic situation, actually. Colonies are sinks, like children but worse, but failure to invest in a colony means that your civilization is doomed. How do you have to rewrite conventional economics before people accept investing in a future that doesn’t include them as something worthy?

Comment by Heteromeles

I don’t think you need to rewrite conventional economics to get people to support economic-sink activities like sending people to distant planets. People who support those activities just won’t be doing so on the basis of economic motivations. For example, in the present day with economics as it is millions of people still donate large sums of money to religious organizations that provide no economic ROI because they are believers. Elon Musk’s life goal is basically to become so wealthy, and advance so many technologies at once, that he can personally pioneer the human occupation of Mars. He’s building an Earthly fortune with the expectation of spending it on his vision for Mars. It’s not so different from a religious motivation IMO.

“I’m also thinking about an unsustainable civilization that expands faster than individual colonies crash, because I suspect that’s closer culturally to us than something truly sustainable for centuries or millennia.”

Mere centuries before the crash? If you want to use this angle, colonies can’t be particularly fragile or homeworld-dependent. A colony that grows so robustly as to exhaust the resources of an entire Earthlike planet in less than a thousand years must have robust growth in population as well as reaching a high-but-not-too-high level of technological development — high enough that Maltusian constraints don’t limit population like on preindustrial-Earth but not so high that they get good at closed-cycle resource use and low-emissions energy production.

Just to use some concrete numbers, Americans exhibit some of the highest per capita natural resource use rates of any nationality. Annual population growth in the US is currently about 0.7%. If you send 100,000 American colonists to New Earth and they grow at a fixed 0.7% it will take more than 1100 years for the Americans who colonized New Earth to grow their population past the present American population of ~325 million. (Of course another thousand years of 0.7% growth after that yields absurd Soylent Green levels of overcrowding — such is the power of exponential growth.) Very roughly approximating from those online ecological footprint calculators, once the population of people-living-like-present-day-Americans exceeds 1.4 billion the new planet goes into resource overshoot. That happens around 1360 years after colony founding in the case of 0.7% growth and initial population of 100,000. How long after the beginning of resource overshoot the population is forced into collapse is an open question, but there are experiments underway as we speak…

Comment by Matt

Yep. I didn’t run the numbers as you did, but I’d figured that the problems were about in that range.

It’s an interesting cycle (for Chinese curse values of interesting), which is why I was thinking about it as the deep background for a space opera. If it takes over 1,000 years for a colony to grow to where it would crash its resource base, a lot of information would get lost. For example, how do the administrators of Earth (or a previous generation of colonies) pass on their empirical lessons about the problems of dealing with a full planet? These lessons are meaningless to colonists living at low numbers and struggling with survival in alien biospheres. Unfortunately, the institutions that the struggling colonists create to enable their survival are the ancestors of the problems that will likely drag the colony down a thousand or more years later, which is why I was thinking about what they would mine first, and how they would do it.

Fortunately, for every colony, there’s probably a window of time wherein they’ve got enough resources to sponsor a big exploration and colonizing fleet before soylent green times, and quite probably, during the early stages of the crash as well. The problems of keeping bits of a technological civilization alive as global civilization crashes are kind of similar to the problems of colonizing an alien world, at least in my simplistic view.

The other interesting and/or nasty part is that a New Earth (or New New Earth, or whatever) might wake up to the peril it is in and send research vessels back to crashed parent colonies, even to Earth. The problem is, with thousands of years passed since the ancestral crash, the evidence for what caused it will be largely erased and completely forgotten. The survivors, like the colonists, had other things on their minds than maintaining a useful record for people millennia hence who were repeating their mistakes.

Another thing to contemplate is that such a story universe might have this crazy pattern of interstellar war over new colonies every thousand to few thousand years. I’m not sure what institutions would arise and disappear in the quiet times while colonies were growing (wandering Jedi knights? Missionary missions?). Hmmmm.

Comment by Heteromeles

“Fortunately, for every colony, there’s probably a window of time wherein they’ve got enough resources to sponsor a big exploration and colonizing fleet before soylent green times, and quite probably, during the early stages of the crash as well. “

It is often assumed that we cannot send crewed star ships out until the economy of Earth is very many times that of the present day. Some of us assume that it will take a solar system wide economy to do so. If so, no smallish NEW Earth colony is going to be able to muster the resources for this exploration/colony fleet.

Comment by alexandertolley

True, if we’re talking about a slower-than-light ship. My rough guess was that a probe or small ship to Alpha Centauri would take roughly the equivalent of the energy of South Korea. Or more. Having that as surplus under any scenario looks a bit ridiculous. There’s a famous cartoon that can be repurposed for this issue.

If we’re talking about the impossible, then I’m thinking about colonies that can be set up with FTL ships that don’t take a huge amount of resources to build, although they may take some exotic ones and an exotic technical base.

Comment by Heteromeles

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Pingback by Labor Day Silliness: America as Rome, part duh | Putting the life back in science fiction

“Assuming you’ve got a source of cleanable water nearby, and something like a fusion plant on your spaceship for some amount of electrical power, what do you go for next? Iron? Lithium? Petroleum? Methane? Rare Earths? Copper? Silicon? Aluminum? Something else? Which of these would be easy to spot from orbit, and which do you need to have a lot of prospectors looking for (I suspect concentrated deposits of rare earths are in the latter category…).”
Given that you’ve got a fusion reactor with energy too cheap to meter (as they used to say) your main problem is solved. You don’t need to explore for stuff like coal or oil except maybe as feed stock for chemical synthesis.
If you’ve solved the contained fusion problem you’ve probably also solved a whole heck of a lot of other problems. Let’s imagine some form of absorption spectroscopy that lets you look into the ground to see what’s there. You would need a radiation source on one side of the planet and a receiver on the other, probably a steerable probe that would measure what frequencies were absorbed. You’d also have to find a source of radiation that would be ground penetrating but not sufficiently reactive with matter so that most of it would go all the way through the planet. Alternatively, you could develop a technology to create a beam that penetrates the crust of your planet but bounces off the mantle or the core and reflects back at you. Oh good, no prospectors with donkeys.
As for what to look for? Kind of depends on what your technology needs. Wasn’t too long ago, nobody really needed rare earths. Iron ore lay in the ground for a long time till somebody figured out how to smelt it.
Who knows what sorts of elements you would need to make various quantum gizmos work.
One thing is for sure, at least in this part of the universe is that the number of stable elements is finite. Planetary chemistry is also restricted by what sorts of reactions will occur. Regardless of where you are, Elements will clot together to get 8 electrons into their outer shell.
Seeing that you have perfected fusion reactors, that is, a contained small scale star, why not go all the way and start synthesizing elements by combining protons and electrons the way that stars do. Then you don’t have to waste time on prospecting.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

“Seeing that you have perfected fusion reactors, that is, a contained small scale star, why not go all the way and start synthesizing elements by combining protons and electrons the way that stars do. Then you don’t have to waste time on prospecting.”

Having one type of working fusion reactor does not imply that you can build up arbitrary elements by fusion. It’s bogglingly difficult to make elements heavier than iron because the conditions are extreme and it’s a net energy sink; even the largest stars produce elements like dysprosium and rhenium mostly in their death throes. It’s staggeringly more difficult to fuse two carbon-12 nuclei together (like large stars do stably, for a while) than to fuse deuterium with tritium. It’s enormously more difficult to fuse ordinary protium into helium, like even the smallest stars do, than to fuse deuterium with tritium. Mastering controlled D-T fusion would mean that you have a sustainable source of energy but it might not be scaleable downward to small generators and it certainly wouldn’t replace mining.

Comment by Matt

Indeed. One could try creating a supernova, but if that was possible, why are we even talking about simple colonization? Next, one might as well assume ST:TNG type replicators. Mining for elements is probably always going to be the most economical method.

Comment by alexandertolley

I threw out that idea of creating whatever element you needed by desk-top fusion because it is obviously ridiculously difficult if not impossible from an engineering standpoint. So that gets ruled out as an acceptable idea for a SciFi novel. And yet, faster than light travel which is not even possible in principle let alone from an engineering standpoint is commonplace in the world of SciFi. I get the sense that in general, to make SciFi universes possible is that we have to ignore the laws of thermodynamics. Lots more stuff is possible if you don’t have to obey those laws.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

I accept FTL for the purposes of discussion because it is the author’s privilege to set the rules for his fiction and I’m not the author here. I tend to prefer SF that doesn’t outright violate known physical laws. Author trumps accuracy though — I adore Iain M. Banks even though his Culture setting is loaded with physical impossibilities. It has every ridiculous thing from Star Trek save time travel. But it works for me because he uses these radical impossibilities to build a society radically different from anything in human history. It took a lot of forgetfulness and stupidity on the part of everyone in Star Fleet to keep the Star Trek setting as blandly unthreatening as it is. That’s a more unforgivable sin than simply violating known physics.

I am not interested in settings that introduce radical technology to anesthetize readers to strangeness instead of provoking them — e.g. the common trope of introducing inertia suppressors/gravity manipulation just so neither the author nor the reader have to think about the physical implications of crewed starship acceleration/deceleration. If real interstellar travel is possible at all it’s going to be as conceptually distant from the Apollo missions as the Apollo missions were from hot air balloons. Making up magic physics just so the distant future can superficially resemble late 20th century American experiences is not my cup of tea at all. If you want another story about the 20th century why not just read/write stories set in that time and place? Turning the 23rd century into a set-dressed 20th is like making a travelogue about some exotic locale that focuses most of its time on the interiors of Taco Bell, the Disney Store, and other multinational chains that the audience could experience without even crossing an ocean.

Comment by Matt

To reply to my own comment, here are some authors that IMO do a good job of positing SFF where change makes the world strange instead of easy-to-absorb:

Iain M. Banks
Greg Egan
Hannu Rajaniemi
Peter Watts
Charles Stross
Alastair Reynolds
Bruce Sterling

In fantasy I seek out works far from magical-quasi-medieval-pastiche. I adore Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, John Crowley’s Little, Big, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books, and Felix Gilman’s stories of the Half-Made World. I’ve read all of the books in the Song of Ice and Fire Trilogy — so GRR Martin is obviously doing something right — but I don’t feel the urge to reread those the way I do my favorite fantasies.

Comment by Matt

I would definitely add Linda Nagata, Philip Dick, Cordwainer Smith and Brian Aldiss on my list. No doubt we all have our favorites in this regard.

Comment by alexandertolley

Just to be a brat, I’d argue that faking the 21st Century is precisely why it’s not stupid to talk about colonizing alien planets with a bit of magical physics. After all, there’s a lot that’s hard to talk about directly in the 21st Century

As with race and Cold War politics in the 1950s and 1960s, it’s hard to talk about the fundamental insanity of so much of global capitalism and unsustainability right now, because discussing it directly pushes too many buttons.

It’s even harder to talk about the craziness that is the American West, where the lifestyles of so many rock-ribbed rural republicans would be totally unaffordable except for massive government subsidies, from giving them water and electricity at massive discounts to propping up their crop prices. That kind of thing will get you shot in the wrong bar.

However, it’s a little easier to talk about the craziness of trying to build the equivalent of Fordlandia or even the American West on alien planets. To me, this isn’t so much about Space Westerns as it is a venue to talk about Western politics and society by substituting space for desert and planets for water.

That’s actually one way Star Trek succeeded on TV, at least in the original series. They didn’t have the budget to mimic freefall or build alien sets, so they did what they could, Dr. Who style, and used it as a way to talk about present-day issues that were too hot to touch otherwise. This isn’t to say their carelessness with their own continuity and manifold unforced errors didn’t and doesn’t drive me up the wall, but I have to admire the way they did accomplish some interesting art and social commentary, despite the limitations they worked under.

Comment by Heteromeles

“It’s even harder to talk about the craziness that is the American West, where the lifestyles of so many rock-ribbed rural republicans would be totally unaffordable except for massive government subsidies, from giving them water and electricity at massive discounts to propping up their crop prices. That kind of thing will get you shot in the wrong bar.”

The American West is a bit larger than dry California. There is plenty of water in some of the plains states, certainly enough for cattle barons who populated the west before the farmers. Today a farm or ranch would use gas or wind generators or solar panels for electricity, so no subsidized grid electric power needed.
Crop prices need not be regulated. They are for stability and social policy. Cattle prices too low? Just have your neighbors killed or run out of the area. Maybe even make train transport hazardous.
Despite price supports, individual farms continue to decline as big Ag continues to gain ground, so as social policy it is a slow retreat at best.

There is a peculiar delusion amongst farmers that they are individualistic, that government help isn’t, and that the Republican Party is their natural ally. Summed up a few years ago in that famous “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”

Comment by alexandertolley

I think you’re right about Star Trek being able to touch social issues that were generally excluded from TV at the time because it was coated in a veneer of SF strangeness. But if you go outside of TV into the world of print, in 1966 you could find works that took on hot-button social issues more directly than Star Trek did. See e.g. The Space Merchants for a biting satire of postwar American consumer society. Or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man touching on the black American experience in the pre-Civil Rights era. Or Stranger in a Strange Land for a shotgun criticism of too many conventions to list in this short post.

Star Trek was daring for TV at the time, middling if you include print fiction. Today it seems that the dynamic range of TV is greater than in 1966 — the daring stuff is more daring and the most stupid stuff is stupider. If you’re writing a novel the constraints of TV are less relevant anyway. You don’t need to worry about freefall scenes being difficult/expensive to film, for example.

If you want to portray issues of land, water, climate, wealth, and agriculture in the American West, Chinatown is a good example. The Grapes of Wrath is a good example. They didn’t transpose issues of the present or recent past onto a distant planet in the future; I don’t think they would have been improved had they been constructed that way.

Writing this I’m reminded of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest. It’s a wrathful criticism of colonialism and Western military power thinly disguised as SF. I read it for the first time a few years ago and I thought it was pretty dreadful. That’s despite loving most of the books she wrote and sharing most of her politics; I too detest colonialism and American military adventures abroad, but the book was not good. It made less sense, and didn’t become any more penetrating, by retelling a pastiche of 20th century atrocities in another time and place. If you want to fictionalize colonial logging camps run with slave labor then write historical fiction FFS. (I enjoy historical fiction too.) (Also, you might not want to trust my judgment. It did win a Hugo.)

Comment by Matt

I agree about print SF being more daring, and I also agree that it’s entirely possible to write a scathing critique. Indeed, there are plenty of them cited in Hot Earth Dreams. Heck, I’m thinking of ripping of Cadillac Desert, and that’s considered a classic.

The other issue with SF is entertainment, and that’s one of the things that Star Trek managed to do that most SF books didn’t manage quite so well.

Comment by Heteromeles

Star Trek does hold up as more entertaining than most of its contemporary dramatic presentations, IMO. I was just looking at the Hugo awards for dramatic presentation shortly before and after Star Trek’s two-season run. The Twilight Zone, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey; I have some fondness for these but Star Trek is more reliably engaging.

It’s murkier if we include print in the running. I think that Dune, Dragonrider, Flowers for Algernon, and Too Many Magicians are solidly entertaining (to name 4 print Hugo nominees from 1965-1969) and that they have aged better than Star Trek: TOS. If someone reads for pleasure and watches TV for pleasure I would be somewhat surprised if their all time favorites are tilted more toward TV, because print has more range… or that could be me incorrectly universalizing my own experiences.

Comment by Matt

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