Thursday, May 27, 2010

Prison Planets

Meta Protest Sign: 'Build Prisons on the Moon'

A rather surprising but long established trope in science fiction is the prison planet, which for purposes of this discussion means any prison in space.

There are two characteristic types of prison planets. One, probably the predominant form of this trope, is celestial Supermax, the sort of place that makes old time Alcatraz look like community service. If swimming a few hundred meters of San Francisco Bay is tough, try swimming a few hundred thousand or million km of vacuum. Only the baddest of the bad get sent to this prison planet, albeit for values of 'baddest' that probably include political dissidents and the like.

In an interesting development of the theme, Salusa Secundus in the Dune 'verse also serves as a Dirty Dozen style recruiting center, on the argument that the baddest of the bad make pretty good troops. From the mercifully little I know about California prison gangs I would not trust those guys to have my back. But in the rather baroque worlds of Dune it fits, and in historical perspective is no stranger than Ottoman recruiting, which worked pretty well for a few hundred years.

The second type of prison planet is not for the baddest of the bad, but mere troublemakers - the sort of riffraff, for example, who can't make it past the second syllable of 'barbeque,' and play football (meaning football, not that other game) by peculiar rules that may not actually exist. A civilized society would naturally wish to rid itself of such people, but be reluctant to hang the lot, especially when they include a notable proportion of attractive females.

Both forms of prison planet have historical prototypes. Devil's Island is a famous instance of the first type, the Supermax colony. The second type, riffraff colonization, was used with success in the early modern era to settle the southeastern portion of one terrestrial continent - some of my ancestors were among the colonists, though my people learned how to pronounce 'barbeque,' and correctly use it for beef steaks, not decapod crustaceans. Historical accounts indicate that the same form of penal colonization was also employed elsewhere, with some success.

There has been occasional discussion of prison planets at SFConsim-l, mainly of the Supermax type, with the consensus being that it is not really a very practical solution. The problem, in a nutshell, is that you can't just dump off the baddest of the bad and ignore them. You still need all the security measures of a terrestrial supermax prison, and you have to maintain it at the far end of a supply line. Recruiting guards is difficult when the guards will themselves be stuck on the prison planet for months at a time. And this is not really an assignment for 'trusties.'

Prison colonies for mere riffraff are a better prospect, at least in settings with earthlike planets. The key (so to speak!) is that security need not be absolute. You don't really care if the occasional petty thief slips aboard an outgoing shuttle. Most won't even try - they'll be drunk, or involved with one of those winsome female prisoners, or busy protecting their farms from being overrun by bunny rabbits.

Thus the shuttle port needs only a 'minimum security' operation. Indeed, you can plausibly staff it with trusties, who enjoy the advantage of first dibs on imports, and probably live better than they did before they were sentenced there. Operating costs are therefore much lower, and may amount to little more than the cost of transportation. This will presumably be expensive, but pretty cheap relative to maintaining a prisoner for a life sentence even under minimum security conditions.

As a further advantage, considerable historical evidence suggests that prison worlds of this type can produce pretty good soldiers - perhaps not Imperial Sardaukar, but guys you'd rather have on your side than the other side.

And, finally, who knows - the poor devils might end up rehabilitating themselves, more or less.

Sydney Bridge and Opera House

The image at top, of a rather meta protest, comes from a blog mainly about religion. You were warned. (The blogger's name is sheerest coincidence.)


Citizen Joe said...

Ya, you see.. you don't actually MAKE a prison, just say it exists. Now you pack up all your riff raff and walk them into the disembarking station... and then you shoot them in the head. Or you go through the trouble of lift off, and then vent the atmosphere.

I think the most likely candidate for a prison planet is a mining colony where the prisoners are there due to debt.

nqdp said...

"...and then you shoot them in the head."

How nice of you... a pragmatic solution, yes, but I like to think that the future will be a bit more pleasant than that. You know, like Kim Robinson style, where nobody (not even the police) on Mars has access to weapons.

Anyways, I really like the idea of prison planets. If you knock their tech level back a few centuries, and then don't send any rocket scientists there, you probably don't need to do much of anything to take care of the planet. Every few years you can drop a new boatload of convicts and some manufactured good there, and they can hopefully fend for themselves. Eventually, the planet will start to fill up, you'll forget about it, and a while later you'll have a new bad guy for your militaristic libertarian democracy in space to fight. :)

The biggest problem seems to be the availability of planets. If there's a planet lying around with a breathable atmosphere and farmable soil, I want to build myself a mansion there, not cover it with criminals. A less hospitable planet would require you to babysit your convicts, which seems to be counter to the original prison planet idea.

You also have to assume some pretty good FTL (nothing wrong with that, in my opinion), otherwise you might as well take the engines off your generation ship and make it an orbital prison. Or I suppose you could send the stupendously expensive ship off into deep space anyways, and create a nice backstory for StarCraft.

So I think what I'm trying to say is something along the lines of "prison planets should work really well if interstellar flight is cheap," and "stories with prison planets in them are fun, and full of seedy bars for your rouge hero to find trouble in."

Anonymous said...

In Jerry Pournelle's CoDominium series, the title organization (a de facto world government formed by an alliance between the USA and USSR) dealt with political dissidents and the underclass by sending them as involuntary 'transportees' to the numerous colony planets. However, since the colonies usually had voluntary colonists (themselves often political, religious and ethnic minorities seeking to avoid CoDominium domination), there were various unintended side effects. On Arrarat, the transportees terrorized the Christian colonists and kept the official government bottled up in the colony's single city, on Frystaat and Tanith they became a virtual slave class, and on Sparta many were recruited into the revolutionary Helot movement seeking to overthrow the existing government, which was based on the original Spartan system.


VonMalcolm said...

In following Jean Remy's logic: When Earth's environment collapses and forcibly pushes humanity into space: Earth itself becomes the prison planet. The work: undoing mankind's sins. The pros: the infrastructure is already in place! The cons: you'll have to help me on that one.

I think this makes a good background for a story: instead of Escape From New York you have Escape From Planet Earth. Has something like this been done before? Maybe Snake Plisskin has one more role in his future! -or maybe his kid, Spider Plisskin, takes the baton.

-And on Jean's concept of environmental catastrophe leading to humanity colonizing space: I have heard that Global Warming could have a runaway effect: the heating of the planet leads to more heating of the planet: if this happens mankind may not have the time to get off of the planet. (I don't know if this is a Chicken Little argument though.)

jnutley said...

Going to invoke C.J. Cherryh's Union/Alliance series here. Why send criminals to a prison at all. Brainwipe and reprogram the those you can, in a Supermax Hospital over a matter of months. If they can't be safely reprogrammed, then bring out the lethal injections.

But then how do you arrange for the scary/tough world full of bad-asses that you wanted to set your story in? I think a 'stroid or Kupier Belt Object colony with a failed government leading to temporary tyranny of some sort will get you there. The populace was put thru hell and adapted accordingly. You can either overthrow the bastard as part of your story or just re-establish contact with the survivors.

Gridley said...

I rather like the terraforming colony prison planet concept. This has the added benefit of a positive PR spin - the inevitable children of the transportees will have a good planet to live on (OK, it is PR spin - it need not be realistic). The transportees have incentive to work - if they don't, the planet will kill them. If the transportees revolt and attack your spaceport guards or trustees, you stop dropping them the equipment they need to do the terraforming.

M. D. Van Norman said...

“I like to think that the future will be a bit more pleasant than that. You know, like Kim Robinson style, where nobody (not even the police) on Mars has access to weapons.”

Oh, yes, a world where the biggest, meanist guy with a stick runs the show. I would hate to live in that world, but it has a lot of story potential.

Hero finds a board with a nail in it …

Cambias said...

Why waste a perfectly good habitable planet on people you don't like?

I do like the terraforming-project prison planet idea, although I keep trying to picture some form of terraforming which can be done by untrained guys with shovels. Or do we give each prisoner a Ph.D. in planetary engineering before shipping them out?

Anonymous said...

Depending on how earthlike the planet is, the 'terraforming' could be as simple as clearing ground of indigenous wildlife/vegetation and replacing it either with domesticated versions of the same or with earth life (both of which would probably require genetic engineering, to adapt them for human use and to adapt them to the new planet, respectively). Of course, this probably requires the prior existence of a scientific base to do the necessary genetic research.
To go a little off topic, assuming FTL and a reasonable number of such biologically compatible or semi-compatible worlds as mentioned above, it occurs to me that colonies might benefit from a proportion of the colonists being selected from those remaining cultures less dependent upon technology, such as hunter-gatherers and nomadic pastoralists in Africa and Asia, and even sedentary farmers like the Amish of North America. Such groups face pressure to be absorbed into mainstream post-industrial society, a trend which can only increase in the future. However, on a colony planet they would have the advantages of being used to making do with fewer luxuries and conveniences than mainstream colonists, and might be attracted to the vast areas to expand into. Those groups with a tradition of large families could help expand the colony's population, an issue that Rick touched on in his commentary on colonization in Atomic Rockets. Such a colonization policy could lead to a situation quite similar to the CoDominium setting.


f said...

Well, the space alcatraz make sense if it's the prison for an habitat-inhabiting population... once you live on asteroids and O'Neil colonies and so on, the energy expenditure of leaving a gravity well is no more an issue, and having anti-social undesiderables far from your delicate space habitats could be a nice bonus.

Also, if we're talking about belters, habitat inhabitants and so on, higher culture, technical skills and extreme environment operational procedures could well be widespread enough to make the proposition of employing you prisoners as workforce in very dangerous environments an actractive one... who else for example could you send to maintain the solar panels of the antimatter factory on the light side of Mercury?

An alternative, if your civilization have more or less moved integrally in the space habitats, and consider the planets more a liability than an asset, maybe trapping them at the bottom of a nasty gravity well could be seen as a nice security measure:
if everybody lives in space, the ships able to lift from planets surfaces will be quite uncommon.

Obviously, if you're leaving your prisoners free to organize themselves and live in a savage-like anarchy (like 1997 escape from New York and such), you must realize that what you're really doing is giving to the worst of them a nice chance to create a small empire, where they're free to abuse as much as they want the weaker prisoners, that normally are also the less culpable, when not the innocent ones caught by mistake.

nqdp said...

M. D. van Norman: I know that a completely unarmed society is in a pretty precarious position... it doesn't take much firepower to overpower it. But if it could work, such a society would be pretty nice, I think.

Anyways, I am liking the idea of making the convicts terraform the planet. Given the absurd amount of money that we spend on prisoners here in California, it would probably be less expensive to create a prison planet than to hold the prisoners in a real prison, even if you never go back to reclaim your prison world when the terraforming is done.

But if you did go to reclaim the prison world, wouldn't it be fun if it went down like this: Delta Pavo B is Earth's prison world. After 200 years of terraforming, Earth wants it back, but Delta Pavo B likes their independence. The Free Colonies of Arcturus smuggle some guns to the Delta Pavo B resistance... then Earth finds out that the routine mission to reclaim a colony is a going to be really hard.

Anonymous said...

I believe colony planets would fall into two groups: those colonized by volunteers and those colonized by non-volunteers (i.e. prisoners), with the crappy, needs-to-be-terraformed-before-you-can-stand-naked-on-the-surface type being where you dump the people that cause you trouble. This last sort of world is where you have people go out of the pressure dome every day and scrape clear the land and plant Earth-type vegitation...backbreaking work, but reasonalbly non-technical or unskilled-labor. A few hours/days of training and almost anybody can do it; anyone that can't either gets asigned to some duties inside the dome...or they get sent out of the dome without a survival suit.
As to how to colonize the place; simply drop single-use capsules into a drop zone and let the locals deal with it. Harsh, but these people (presumably) have been convicted of crimes and so have forfited the right to a pleasent life...
It would be rather interesting (to say the least), if the decendents of the original coloniests came looking for the old homeworld, instead of the other way round...


Jim Baerg said...

Several people have mentioned the idea of using convicted criminals for the labor involved in terraforming. I'm finding it hard to imagine a situation in which such labor would be useful for terraforming.

I can't see unskilled labor being very useful for things like using space mirrors or removing greenhouse gasses to bring the temperature of Mars or Venus to a range in which liquid water flows freely & plants can thrive.

If the above is accomplished *maybe* terraforming would involve a lot of tree planting such as is done in recently logged areas. However, it seems likely that scattering seeds to the wind from aircraft would be at least as effective.

Citizen Joe said...

Recent collapse of the bee population has forced people to manually pollinate some trees. I think I saw this specifically in China or Japan or something on a documentary.

You REALLY don't need many experts to fiddle with the mirrors. In fact, you probably don't want many 'chefs' spoiling the meal when it comes to that. But there is mountains of work that needs to be done that isn't being done by the incomplete biosphere.

Cityside said...

Transportation of convicts doesn't necessarily have to be to a designated "prison planet," of course:

Prior to Australia, British convicts were shipped to America where they worked alongside other indentured servants and African slaves.

The question remains much the same as that regarding terraforming, however. Other than hoeing tobacco on the third planet orbiting 61 Virginis, what sort of colonization effort would require the sort of low skill manual labor to make this sort of thing viable?

Oh, and another thought regarding prison planets, rather than seeing it as a front end use, how about a back end one? After the asteroid or rockball world's mine is mostly played out, the convicts come in and the miners stay on, scraping out a meager existence as guards. Essentially, it's the scenario currently playing out all over rural America, shifted to Spaaace!

Rick said...

Every few years you can drop a new boatload of convicts ... Eventually, the planet will start to fill up, you'll forget about it, and a while later you'll have a new bad guy for your militaristic libertarian democracy in space to fight. :)

Now there's a future history you could bottle and sell!

I agree that forced riffraff colonization works far better, and is more plausible, if you have habitable planets, whether natural or terraformed. If everyone is in space habs, you have the general problem of needing lots of cooperation and lots of skills, things that classic jailbird populations usually aren't super strong on.

But getting back to habitable planets, they may have garden spots, even if mostly they are pretty bleak. An island, for example, with a more equable maritime climate. Call it Trusty Island; the tougher cases get sent to continents where more severe conditions prevail. The population on Trusty Island will have their own interest in securing their coast from hinterlands intruders.

Season to taste, leave to simmer for 100-1000 years, and serve.

Mr. Blue said...

So, basically you got either Alcatrez or Australia.

The Alcatrez is where you send your worst criminals that you don't just execute on the spot (maybe civilization doesn't do that sort of thing anymore). You can use a marginal or deadly planet for this sort of thing- keeps the convicts in line if heading outside without an environmental suit allows one to breath methane or vaccuum.
Still, you need guard for the shuttles, at least.

The great anime series "Banner of the Stars II" had such a prision planet.

The Australia is where you have a planet that's marginally liveable, but needs some work. This would be a good place for an overcrowded distopian space faring civilization to dump a few undesirables- minor criminals, welfare recipiants, religious and other minorities, ect.
It's kind of like 'Firefly'- get a planet to the point it's inhabitable, drop off the 'colonist' with basic tools, seeds, livestock, ect.
Of course, don't be too suprised at the sudden but inevitable revolt.

The Thinker said...

If FTL travel was cheap and advanced terraforming tools are made super easy to use (big ifs, but if you have a post AI universe it might work) than prison planets would just be any old planet, the only costs would be that of the AI, and transport. The AI acts as the ruler of the planet (hidden within a massive underground armored box). In return for the terraforming the convicts green up the planet and start a new life(?)
Or you could just drop them on any planet that is losing its habitability. They get ready to live housing and then all die after a few years when the planet collapses.
(the first part would cause the planets to become "normal" and be reentered into society after a generation or so)

Thucydides said...

Strange no one has mentioned the most classic of all:

"The Moon is a Harsh Mistress"

Heinlein's trope is almost workable; the Moon is mostly a destination for political prisoners, farming is the primary occupation and the prison labour force is exploited for their farm produce. So long as the farms keep sending grain to the catapult head, no one really cares what else happens on the Moon, and farmers are too busy to plot revolution. (The situation breaks down after enough generations have passed to create an urban infrastructure to support a technical class and allow revolutionaries time to sit around cafe's and plot...).

The trope breaks down in the initial conditions; no one on Earth is going to allow a potential adversary to build the catapult in the first place. Even if the farmers never consider the implications of having the catapult, the nations and superpowers that make up the Federation will, and even if Heinlein makes the Federation an order of world government, the sub governments of China, India, North America, Russia etc. don't want anyone with that much potential power literally hanging over their heads.

An orbital Supermax might be used in a different way. Violent prisoners are sent for a year long stint in a zero "G" pen, then returned to Earth missing a great deal of muscle mass and bone density. If they don't think twice about what they are doing, they will be rapidly taken down by the general prison population (or even civilians if they have been released). They might also be out of circulation for a while just hitting the gym to try to bulk up and rebuild their bones.

Repeat offenders don't come back from the orbital pen....

Doug said...

Constructing a prison module for a space habitat based society is simplicity itself. Simply place a set of self-contained life support modules, detached from the main habitat. Make parts of the station necessary for maintenance and surveillance work only accessible by shuttle docking from the outside. The cameras, food preparation, and waste extraction in the inmate module can all be automated under the surveillance of the guard module.

Put the whole rig about 20 km away from the main habitat and it would be a long highly visible trip in a spacesuit to try to escape, and your guards can commute to work via a comparatively short ferry ride. If they need to enter the prison itself to deal with inmate on inmate violence, or institute a lock down while repairs to the automated are made, you can give them craft to dock with the inmate module. This would be the only realistic risk of escape, barring outside incursion.

If a module has to be of certain size to ensure rotational gravity for the humane treatment of prisoners than several habitats could pay another for use of the facility.

Anonymous said...

Assuming FTL you would want to test a planet first no matter how salubrius and earthlike it appeared. First you would dump some hard cases there and see if they can survive. Then if the hard cases survive you could start transporting rif raf to further test the planet and open it up for colonization. Finally you could start 19th century style mass immigration. Repeat with each planet as you find them.

Cambias said...

Oh, and one thing you DEFINITELY don't want is putting prisoners -- even white-collar criminals -- in charge of solar mirrors or microwave power beams. That's just ASKING for trouble.

Jean Remy said...

"The biggest problem seems to be the availability of planets. If there's a planet lying around with a breathable atmosphere and farmable soil, I want to build myself a mansion there, not cover it with criminals. A less hospitable planet would require you to babysit your convicts, which seems to be counter to the original prison planet idea."

Of all science fiction tropes, the idea of the Prison Planet, whilst much loved, has never made any kind of sense whatsoever.

1/ Cost: even in a future with relatively cheap spaceflight, it's going to cost more to ship prisoners off-world than to, say, a readily available isolated rocky continent or island on said world. A space station? There's going to be massively expensive, delicate environments that should only be maintained by the people you trust the most. We're talking about massive monetary investments to build any form of permanent habitat in space. Cheaper to send them off-station into the nearest gravity well. The cost of maintaining an off-world penal colony is either just as huge (I can't see an off-world colony as ever being a cheap and easy thing to set up) Even if you have more money than sense, how is it not a hugely bad idea to give people you don't trust the run of so much landmass without tight control. If there has to be tight control anyway, then why an other planet?

2/ Availability: you NEED and FTL, and a cheap FTL universe at that, to even consider the "dumping them and letting them terraform it" option. This demands not nly cheap FTL but a plentiful supply of livable planets. If it's livable already it'd be cheaper to seed it by robots and you are giving plentiful resources and a tech base to unsavory individuals. If the planet is not readily livable you need a huge investment in habitable structure that would have to be run by scientists and engineers, which would have to be defended from the criminals by guards, and now the prisoners a hindrance to the terraforming process, not a help, AND you have said prisoners with too minimal a security containment, invalidating the entire exercise.

3/ Monitoring: By definition these are the kinds of people you do NOT want running around and have no knowledge of their activities. Why then give them the run of an entire planet which would be near-impossible to monitor with perfect efficiency?

4/ Size. Planets are big. Planets are not cities, they're not even countries. Planets are huge chunks of real estate. Even Earth has plenty of real estate in unattractive places. A remote colony of several hundred million, even one or two billion, will find itself with incredibly vast tracts of hostile land. Why send prisoners to an entirely new planet? New Australia could be an island ranging on size from the British Isles, to New Zealand to, well, Australia if you want to, and not be anywhere NEAR your regular upstanding citizens.

There is NO political, economic, or social reason to do it, and every possible economic political and social reason NOT to. Prison Planets make even less sense than stealth in space. Honestly reason 1/ is plenty more than enough: no one is going to pay for the huge expense of building and shipping to another planet what you can store in a dark corner of your own for an insignificant fraction of the price.

Jean Remy said...

I was in a hurry this morning when I wrote the above and had to run out with absolutely no time to re-read it.

It shows.

nqdp said...

"Prison Planets make even less sense than stealth in space."

Well, not really. Stealth in space is basically a violation of thermodynamics, which is a hard science. Prison planets might require some extreme economic and social situations, but, conveniently, economics and social studies are soft sciences, and we can break their rules if we really want.

The assumption that shipping convicts to another continent is cheaper than shipping them to another planet will usually be true. But suppose that we have cheap spaceflight and a huge population planetside. It might actually be cheaper to buy tickets to another world than to buy land in Australia.

After all, 1000 years ago people would have said that Australia was way to far to take criminals. Two hundred years ago, the British did it anyways. The cost and time of oceanic transport have dropped dramatically; why should spaceflight be any different?

It's extreme, yes, but I wouldn't be terribly surprised if it happened on Earth in the next 300 years. And I think it's just believable enough to work its way into a fun sci-fi story.

Jean Remy said...

No matter how cheap space gets it will never be cheaper than the alternative, i.e. an island in the middle of the ocean, even if you have to build the island yourself, which essentially you'd have to do on another planet in the first place. It's a question of cost relativity, not absolute cost, and inter-planetary travel will never be cheaper than planetary travel. Economics may not be a hard science, but it's not THAT soft, especially since a fair bit of hard sciences goes into it.

Planets are a little far. Planets are somewhat big. Those sentences have a good chance at making it into the "understatement of the decade" category. One of the points of this blog is to put things back into perspective to counter the usual impression that Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale. Treating a planet like a biggish Island continent is precisely the kind of thinking we're trying to stamp out. Space is not an ocean, planets are not continents.

Citizen Joe said...

Don't forget the relative cost of simply killing people. Right now, in America, due to legal issues, death sentences cost more than life imprisonment. But that is just because of all the appeals and court costs. If there was reason enough to put someone off planet (lets say over crowding) then there is plenty more pressure to simply kill the guy.

That's why it makes more sense that the sentence would be commuted to colonization. But that takes a special kind of criminal.

Jean Remy said...

We've already talked on how unlikely it would be for planetary colonization to look like England's Colonization of the Americas Why then do we think England's colonization of Australia IN SPACE would be MORE likely?

This ostrich ain't flyin' gov'nor.

Anonymous said...

No matter how logical, how economical, no matter how reasonable it may be to house prisnors on your own planet instead of shipping them off to another world...people are notoriously illogical. If we think it's a good idea (regardless if it is or not) then we will do it, unless it is impossible. This isn't impossible, just impractible, illogical, and stupid-expensive; however, it is emotionally appealing and so it will most likely happen, in one shape or another.


Jean Remy said...

From November 11, 2009 10:03 AM

Rick: "Bryan - Welcome to the comment boards! Forced colonization is sort of the counterpoint to what Ferrell raised, 'Pilgrim' colonization. Both are politically motivated.

But both of these require relatively cheap land, again in the sense of productive habitat, even if not appealing land. The point of penal 'transportation' is that it is cheaper to dump your petty criminals out of sight and out of mind than to keep them in jail. (And less upsetting to Englightenment sensibilities than hanging them all.)"

(my emphasis)

We can't agree that extraterrestrial planetary colonization is fantastically unlikely to happen in the traditional "wild west" non-professional agricultural manner it is traditionally portrayed, then turn around and declare we can do it in a non-professional agricultural manner, but with convicts. It's inconsistent.

emdx said...

The sequels to A.C.Clarke’s Rama offer an interesting insight on a prison planet (or rather, habitat).

In one of the books, prisoners are volunteered to go on one of the Rama ships, and despite being given all the tools, technologies and robots to have an eden-like environment, the whole place is quickly subverted by the most sociopathic prisoners (interesting too is that the prisonners spontaneously organize themselves along ethnic lines) and turned into a militaristic dictatorship that his hell-bent into conquering another race that is carried along in Rama.

Criminals are often sociopathic people who are addicted to raw power, and leaving those loose on prison planets is a recipe for disaster.

* * *

For another view at prison planets, I suggest looking at Philippe Druillet’s “Gaïl”.

Rick said...

Someone always has to come along and spill a cold bucket of reality over the cake of romance.

I probably should have added a proviso that this whole discussion is only, in fact, applicable in a scenario where you can justify 'frontier planets' - a scenario which indeed requires an opera rich assumption set.

And that last is something I'll have to cover in upcoming posts - coming up with a substantive post or two each week calls for an occasional tour beyond the limits of the plausible!

Anonymous said...

VonMalcolm said...

I think this makes a good background for a story: instead of Escape From New York you have Escape From Planet Earth. Has something like this been done before?

In the background for Mutant Chronicles Warzone, Earth has become known as Dark Eden. All of the wealthy megacorporations used up the last of Earth's readily-available resources to take off with their citizen-employees and terraform new worlds. Those who weren't employees of the megacorps were left behind in the increasingly toxic world. After the castoffs attempted a vengeance strike, the corps hit them with nukes, leaving most of the world a barren toxic wasteland. For a long time, no one returned, thinking it a dead world.

Now the riffraff are building new civilizations in the wasteland, and the megacorps are sending explorers to the lost world, in some cases establishing relations with the new 'tribes'.

jollyreaper said...

The whole "planet devoted to one thing" is a trope just as bad as Star Wars and "planet described as one ecosystem."

Also, if we're sticking to realistic or semi-realistic tech, it's far too expensive to transport people to prison planets.

1. If we care about the welfare of the prisoners, we're not going to dump them in prison colonies. Too expensive to deal with.

2. If we don't care about their welfare, why don't we just shoot them and dump the bodies? Won't fly as well in a democracy but the Soviets found use for the gulag system -- too dangerous ones shot, less dangerous ones put to work.

3. In real life, dangerous people don't break out of supermax. If Batman put the Joker in one, he wouldn't see the light of day again. "A man no prison can hold" only exists in the pulps. But if such a man did exist, I think the state could be convinced to kill him. Hell, I think the most bleeding heard pacifist could be convinced to kill a Joker since there is an established history of killing dozens during every monthly escape.

I can accept the idea of highly unpleasant penal colonies near where people already are but I can't really accept the idea of devoting an entire planet to that purpose. I could just about accept it in a tongue-in-cheek way if the standard human-like aliens declared pre-contact Earth to be a dangerous, boring place and exiled their prisoners there. This is taking a planet they otherwise have no use for and can't be bothered to conquer and giving it a purpose.

Turbo10K said...

All depends on how you see interstellar colonisation...

If we have 'abundance of earth-like planets', there is no way we are going to colonize all of them. However fast world population increases, a second planet will hold for another millennium before overcrowding becomes an issue again...When that is the case, you'd have the best planets with volunteers fighting for them, and not to hospoitable ones where the prisoners are dumped on. Not so much left to fend for themselves as we don't want them anywhere else. They'd be just as expensive as regular colonists, but you can get more manhours out of them. labour on a less hospitable planet rich in unobtanium...that's BETTER than regular colonists!!

Rick said...

One other consideration is how cheap the colonization process is. Even the best planets will need to be 'terraformed' in the sense of turning wilderness into human habitat.

The cheaper that process the cheaper it is to set up a colony - inviting a whole range of popular tropes.

zlionsfan said...

I think there are other considerations that would make a prison planet highly unlikely.

For one thing, there's no reason to believe that the labor you get on such a planet will be as good as labor you'd get from colonists, miners, or whoever you'd normally have doing the trick. This is forced labor, not volunteer work, right? There is history all over our planet that suggests that the most effective way to get people to work has nothing to do with coercion. That is something that is unlikely to change in the future, regardless of the means we have at our disposal. (Even if you postulate some kind of automatic drug injection or mood release, would that not be more effective on willing participants?)

For another, the numbers don't seem to make sense to me. How many prisoners are you sending to these planets? Enough to do some reasonable work, but not so many that they realize that they can overpower you on your next trip by sheer force? (It has to be a two-way trip, right, because you're not just leaving the guards there forever? So then someone's coming back, and regularly, because the planet can't yet sustain itself.) But how many prisoners does it take to terraform a planet? Unless you're picking out dwarf planets, I just can't see a number of prisoners that can do a reasonable job of terraforming and yet not overpower their guards ... and that's assuming that the work the prisoners will do will take multiple lifetimes to complete. (If it takes a prisoner lifetime or less, then you have another problem: you won't have enough worlds to terraform.) If it takes a substantial number of prisoners, and a proportional number of guards to watch over them, and guards to watch over the guards and so on ... isn't that essentially the second wave of colonists (the ones who settle after the first wave has cleared out enough room), except you're using them as the first wave? If you could afford to send that many people to a planet, why wouldn't you send people who can get the job done quicker and better first, and then make it a normal planet with normal prisons?

For story purposes, it may make sense to keep a prison planet at a lower tech level than the system from which the prisoners and guards are sent ... but how do you do that and still terraform the planet? It isn't like you can just give them picks and shovels and come back in 1000 years when they've carved out some stone huts and such. Someone's going to have to keep track of all the tools that are used for terraforming, and again, this is a planet, not a continent or a city or whatever. I would imagine things get lost in a modern-day prison the size of ... well, a prison. On a planet? You could lose a prison on a planet, I think ... especially if there is a big enough gap between the arrival of prison ships.

Finally, while this may be different given the distance between home planet and prison planet, there's a significant moral component to what we're talking about. It's basically slave labor. I don't think it's a coincidence that the US all but eliminated chain gangs a long time ago (and that the one county that revived them has one of the most polarizing figures in the country as sheriff). The resources involved in putting a group of prisoners to work on a "new" planet will not be trivial, so it may not be that easy to talk the regional or continental populace into approving the launch of the Botany Bay for New Prison Planet Delta.

Don't get me wrong, there's a great deal of storytelling hitched to the idea of a prison planet, but I just can't come up with a practical way to explain one.