Monday, August 9, 2010

The Dun Hills of Earth

Buffalo in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
The subgenre of Romance that I call Space SF is often not really about space, or only partly about space. This point is raised again by a blog post last week by SF writer Charles Stross. [Link fixed!] Go read it, and report back for commentary and discussion.

(If anyone got a fragmentary version of this post in your RSS feed it is because I accidentally hit the 'publish' button instead of the 'save' button.)

Stross beats up on libertarianism, so I don't have to, but his core point is not political (though it does have political implications). Our vision of our space future is, first and foremost, about new worlds, inspired of course by the original New World, new at least to the Europeans who stumbled upon it 500 years ago.

This is why Firefly worked so well, even though its only nod to space realism was one silent rifle shot. It had the tropes we cherish most - the space tramp steamer, the rugged frontier worlds, the whore with a heart of gold. It even had its old fashioned hostile injuns, the Reivers, safely removed from any claim to human sympathy, the perfect anti-Na'vi. Joss Whedon stripped Space SF (or at any rate 'Murrican Space SF) down to its most basic essentials, released our inner Bat Durston, and made it fly gloriously, if alas briefly.

But the great precondition to all this is habitable frontier worlds, whether made so by nature, terraforming, or outright manufacture in the form of habs. Either of the last two demands a very high techlevel, and even if you can build ecologically self-sustaining jumbo habs they won't be 'frontier' worlds. (Unless, perhaps, as commenters on the last post have suggested, they are abandoned habs.)

The best option is natural shirtsleeves planets. For these you need interstellar travel, and even then they may be hard to come by. My own guess is that most 'Earthlike' planets, by astronomical standards - lifebearing worlds with liquid surface water - will be uninhabitable by humans, at least without major terraforming. Earth itself was not human habitable for most of its history.

There are other complications to the classical space colonization trope, even if shirtsleeves planets are at hand. Homesteading was an agrarian age phenomenon, and even by the later 19th century most immigrants to North America were coming for urban jobs, not 40 acres and a mule. Even farmers will be reluctant to settle worlds where the crops they bring in are light years from their markets. (Unless you can grow the equivalent of pepper in the 16th century, something that pays starship freight.)

In space itself, as Stross says, there is precious little room for those rugged-individualist frontier tropes. Space is just not that sort of environment, short of truly heroic tech assumptions. And there is little place in space itself for classical style colonization. Once it is technically and economically possible at all, some people will live in space simply because they want to live in space. But far more will go into space without intending to settle there, and given time some will end up living there permanently.

True space colonization, if it happens, is likely to be accidental, as transport nexus stations draw in enough secondary- and tertiary-sector activity that they evolve into towns and ultimately cities. And the tropes that belong to them will be urban tropes - perhaps, for example, hardboiled detective fiction - rather than the classical frontier tropes.

Related Posts: There are a bunch, but for now I'll link to two posts on Transport Nexi, and A Solar System For This Century.

This buffalo-rich image is of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.


Sean said...

This may sound like a killjoy comment but the idea to me of colonizing extrasolar habitable planets in a hard science-fiction setting is arguably more ludicrous than settling Venus. From a solely biological prospective, I'm quite weak in the area of maths.

Take for example the European colonization of the Americas. You could compare it to the Holocaust, albeit unintentionally. Colonists escaping Europe brought with them a myriad of pathogens that the natives simply had no defence against. And if wikipedia and its sources are to be believed then the colonist, through mere accident, wiped out 95% of the indigenous population.

Now imagine the impact of this occurring on an alien world already teaming with life? A pandemic of Chicxulub proportions would take place. And if this world has intelligent life, congratulations for sparking an interstellar conflict.

If we were to inhabit such worlds then I would wager they would be self-contained research stations similar to those found in Antarctica. Expeditions would be conducted by robotic drones but if a Human element is required then they should most definitely wear an EVA suit, for the purpose of not dying from the alien equivalent of the common cold and not causing mass extinctions.

Like they have no defence against our germs, we would have no defence against theirs.

Byron said...

The link to the blog post is messed up. I have to say that I do doubt people will go to the stars to farm Earth plants, at least not directly. If they go, it will be because some resource was there. Avatar did that nicely, in that the unobtanium they were mining was a superconductor formed by a massive impact, so it couldn't be duplicated on Earth. If we find something like that, or spice in Dune, then farms might spring up to support it. It depends on the environment, though.

Byron said...

Sorry about the double post, but we cross-posted. I personally think that being able to interact biologically with another planet at all is chancy. It could have different chirality or something like that, making it so we can't eat them, and they can't eat us or get our diseases. This discussion reminds me of Schwartzvall in AVT. Of course, if we could interact, then we're as likely to get their diseases as they are to get ours.

Milo said...

I think naturally Earth-compatible biochemistries are the molecular equivalent of Rubber Forehead Aliens - less obvious since the problem lies in places invisible to our macroscopically-biased senses, but no more realistic.

Even if we find a world with an oxygenated atmosphere, water-based life, biochemistries with plenty of stuff our metabolism can burn for energy, and nothing downright poisonous to us... that's a lot of ifs... then it still wouldn't carry all the nutrients we need. Carbon-based life forms will probably be common, but there are a lot of carbon-based molecules. Will we find the right vitamins, amino acids, etc.? Biochemistry is a whole lot of essentially random choices of complex molecules that end up working. We won't see those same choices made on anything that doesn't have an evolutionary relationship to us.

It would be rather embarrassing for our space explorers to end up dying of scurvy. They think they have such advanced technology, and then they still falling for the same old trick...

I say that natural lifebearing planets will be of purely academic interest. For colonization, we'll seek out airless balls of rock that have enough (frozen) water for us to start working the terraforming machinery. Maybe a nitrogen atmosphere would make a nice starting point, if we can find it, but certainly no life forms that we didn't bring in ourselves. This isn't likely to limit our colonization options overmuch - airless rocks are plentiful. Why ruin beatiful and unique worlds when the boring ones are better suited for being warped for our needs anyway?

Sean: There is a fundamental error in your analysis. The victims of the Europeans' pathogens in America were humans. Members of the same species of us, with shared ancestry and near-identical genetics, but who had been isolated from any contact for millenia. The buffalo survived our germs just fine... until we hunted them for food. Aliens are much, much, farther related from us than buffalo, and correspondingly more immune to our pathogens.

Also, see above about biochemistries. Even in the off-chance that we find a world that stores its genetic information in nucleic acids using adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine/uracil, then the table of which nucleobases code for what is still pretty much completely random (will they even be grouping them in threes?). It would be like trying to run a computer virus on the wrong operating system. If they aren't using nucleic acids, then more like trying to run a computer virus on a different processor architecture.

Researchers would still (as you suggest) wear environment suits, but they would be to protect against temperature differences, pressure differences, unbreathable atmospheres, poisonous atmospheres (in the sense of simple molecules like Titan's cyanogens, probably not organic toxins), and the like.

Milo said...

Regarding frontier freedom in space, I would suggest looking at ships in the Age of Sail. They were close, tightly-knit communities, but very far from anyone not on their ship. Ships acted sort of like a sovereign nation. It wasn't libertarian - the other crew won't like it if you decide to shirk your duties on a ship. But it provided freedom from society, in a way - as long as you get along with the other people on your ship. If you don't like the captain, you can mutiny against him and democratically elect your own, as many pirates did. But you had better elect someone who knows what he's doing, and keep cooperating with your fellow crew members for the most part, or you sink.

Both spaceships and fledgeling habitats will work kind of like that, I think.

Two things make spaceships less isolated than sailing ships or Wild West towns. The first is that despite the long times they spend in transit, they still need to regularly stop at civilization for propellant. (Except, hmm, if you have a ship that's equipped to mine its own propellant from random asteroids, without any supporting infrastructure...) It's much harder to go pirate and live on your ship permanently. The second is much better communications technology, so while the space cavalry might be two months' travel away from you when you're in trouble, they still know you're in trouble.

Once you've actually terraformed a planet, though - in the sense of creating a large breathable atmosphere that doesn't need to be held in by domes - then life becomes much easier and less infrastructure-intensive. Furthermore, adding an atmosphere isn't something you can do partially - it's whole planet or bust. So unless you colonized with enough people to cover the entire planet, there's probably opportunity for freeloaders to arrive and take advantage of land that you've added air to but not done much else with. They may still need infrastructure for water and artificial fertilizer, depending on how thorough a job you did on terraforming.

But even so, this planet will still already have at least one advanced-infrastructure outpost, namely the one that did all the difficult terraforming in the first place. Unless it's ridiculously oppressive, you'd think people would prefer to live there if they could.

Rick said...

The link has been fixed.

And welcome to another new commenter!

Germs in the classical sense could be the least of the problems for habitable-planet colonization. Biology is not my strong field, but my guess is that infectious disease requires very similar biochemistries. All terrestrial microbes are our relatives; exogerms won't be.

It may be that biochemical evolution everywhere/often takes the same path, or the Old Ones might have had a hand, but my guess is that exobiologies will vary widely in details even if the structures are generally similar, proteins and such.

Which also means we won't be eating exotic native fruit - or if we do, it will just pass through undigested, probably not good for, um, regularity.

A bigger risk might be acute allergic reactions, and perhaps something like fungal infestation. Plants eat dirt, so to speak, and some alien plants might find us to be rich, warm, moist soil. :-)

But I suspect that what we'll find most are planets that resemble Earth but have unbreatheable atmospheres. Particularly too much carbon dioxide. According to current views Earth is near the inner edge of the solar HZ.

I don't think gene modding people to breathe CO2 rich air will be easy - genetics is not a simple array of on-off switches. And you can't remove much CO2 or global cooling will throw the planet into an ice age or even full snowball.

There could be a lot of lovely but noli me tangere planets out there.

Milo said...

Remember, even Earth didn't have free oxygen in the atmosphere until life showed up and made some.

Milo said...

Hmm. I looked up carbon dioxide on Wikipedia and it is indeed harmful in large amounts, but it looks like humans can easily put up with at least 10 times Earth's current CO2, and with adaptation possibly around 100 times Earth's CO2. That's a fair amount of leeway if we find a planet that needs the CO2 to stay warm.

There might be other greenhouse gasses we can use, although ultimately, whatever we use, we'll still have to breathe.

Anonymous said...

Thinking about it, I'd have to imagine that living on another world would be like living in a giant shopping mall; although it would have to be one that has hotels and apartment buildings, farms and factories, and municipal utilities included in its structure. Further thinking about living in space makes me wonder if living in an enclosed colony wouldn't be more akin to living on a military base? The level of control, the disciplne, the amount of self-contained social structure and physical infastructure all seem more like a military base than a civilian town...maybe we have a ready-made example right under our noses and we just didn't see it? Interesting to think about...

Ferrell said...

@Milo: I wonder how would our plants fare in such a high CO2 concentration? Would we have to gengineer wheat to deal with 100X CO2?

Milo said...

The shopping mall may not be a bad analogy - in that a shopping mall is indoors, but different parts of the building are owned by different people with reasonable freedom to use for their own ends.

I don't think that the government owning your surroundings is in itself especially remarkable, or incompatible with freedom. Do you own the roads outside your home? Do you own the water pipes that keep your neighborhood supplied? A well-designed dome habitat would be designed so damaging one of the houses inside doesn't affect the actual life support infrastructure, any more than breaking a display window in a shopping mall causes the whole place to crash down. (Remember: "put enough people in one place, and one of them will do something stupid". Oppressive government cannot change this.)

Smaller space habitats would have some social differences simply because they're small, and villages work differently from cities. Especially if they're "everyone knows everyone else" size.

Space might be expensive in such a place, since extending the pressurized zone costs a fair bit more effort than clearing new construction area on Earth. This could lead to mildly cramped conditions.

Habitats in orbital or Lagrange point space stations (as opposed to on planets and moons) have more trouble, since they don't have easy access to raw materials. Still, the larger a social unit, the more it will be forced to adapt to the idea that most of those people aren't listening to you at any given time.

The "tightly controlled military-ish base" would be seen in stopgap habitats, where the real thing is still under construction. (In fact, I think colony ships would be designed so the ship itself can be landed, and its life support system used as a planetside habitat, rated to be self-sufficient for at least a few years if need be. Thus, society in these places would be more or less identical to society on a large ship.)

But overall, I think in a well-maintained dome habitat, you wouldn't really have such a hard time. You'd probably pay somewhat higher taxes, and you wouldn't be able to easily leave the city, but that's it.

Anonymous said...

Paraterraforming, or building massive tentlike structures filled with breathable air, could allow a world with a non-breathable atmosphere to be gradually settled and terraformed. The main limits would be if the outside atmosphere is highly corrosive, or is at such a high pressure that increasing the inside air pressure to match it would make it unbreathable.
On the subjects of homesteading, breathable atmospheres and compatible biochemistries, I'll be honest: I do like the classical Heinleinian 'American Frontier in space' trope that was continued by Pournelle in his CoDominium series and to a lesser extent by Drake in the Hammer's Slammers books.
I think genetic engineering could do a lot to make colonization possible: taking the gene(s) that code for a valuable compound out of one native lifeform that is hard to domesticate and putting it into one that isn't, as has been done on Earth with spider silk and goats; modifying Earth herbivores so that they can eat alien plants undigestible to humans and give us drinkable milk or edible meat (of course, both of these require a biochemistry that is not too far from Earth's to begin with). That could be the seed of an interesting story: tension within a scientific outpost on a new world where some would rather study the native life for its own sake and keep the planet untouched while others are more interested in facilitating colonization.


Thucydides said...

Robert Zubrin had a pretty funny way of mocking the idea that alien (Martian) life forms would infect astronauts; he pointed out that Humans don't get Dutch Elm disease and Elm trees don't get colds. (He also pointed out that importing top predators from other ecosystems isn't viable either; sharks simply won't take over the African savanna if you tried to import them to replace lions....)

As for libertarianism, it is a political philosophy which does acknowledge interaction and trade; the key is this is voluntary interaction and trade, not coerced interactions. These can take place anywhere and any time, doing this on a spaceship or habitat isn't a big deal. Indeed I can argue (and have argued) that more rigid societies built around autocratic structures or political philosophies like Socialism or the Fascist corporate state are inherently brittle and prone to failure due to the inability to respond to changing situations.

A short piece in Atlantic Monthly outlines the true dangers of overly complex and rigid social structures:
well worth reading.

Sean said...

Milo: You're incorrect in regards to two aspects, invasive viruses have caused and are still causing quite a calamity for native wildlife in the Americas. The West Nile Virus for example can cross the species barrier. And these aliens wouldn't be immune at all, as immunity is only developed after exposure. But I don't know, I still wouldn't desire to run the risk of an Andromeda Strain scenario, who knows how such an occurrence would pan out? Like you say, it could like running a computer virus on the wrong operating system.

But for the case of colonization and thus the creation of a 'frontier', terraforming Mars would be the avenue I would take.

An interesting site on how to accomplish the challenge, and after reading it, it doesn't seem like much of one.

Jim Baerg said...

Rick: "And you can't remove much CO2 or global cooling will throw the planet into an ice age or even full snowball. "

However as you remove CO2 you could compensate with much smaller quantities of CF4 & SF6 since they are long lived in an earth like atmosphere & have a large greenhouse effect a very modest industrial capacity would be sufficient to maintain the desired warming.

The very long atmospheric lifetime suggests an interesting setting for an SF story. Suppose a planet has been terraformed, mostly by warming it with CF4 & SF6, then some disaster knocks out technological civilization but leaves the biosphere intact. The surviving humans would have millenia to rebuild technology before the greenhouse effect is too diminished for the biosphere to survive, but they have to rebuild technology or they go extinct.

Geoffrey S H said...

Government controled Martian domes send out individuals into the terraformed landscape to catalogue the appearence of Earth life forms that have been imported in specially.

Byron said...

Sean, that requires having humans or human-like life at the other end. That is true in Hollywood, but unlikely in reality. While West Nile causes issues to animals here, I think that trees are going to be more closely related to us than any plausible alien. Plus, why do our diseases win? When the Europeans expanded into sub-Saharan Africa, they ran into malaria and yellow fever. We're as likely to get alien diseases as they are to get ours.
The libertarian aspect spoiled The High Frontier for me. At the end, O'Neil describes people actually going out to homestead an asteroid in a kit-built spaceship. I'm sorry, but that's insane. While I'm in favor of colonization, I know that life support is going to be a big deal. The adaptability of human life to other planets is going to be a huge determinant of who goes to other stars, but even if they are there, people won't go to get 40 acres and a mule. At least not by choice. Well, some might, but they'd be from the third world. That's an interesting thought. Americans send a colony to mine unobtanium, but they need farmers. Americans don't want to go, so they get Africans.

M. D. Van Norman said...

I’ve heard this one before. It’s true that garden-variety libertarians or starry-eyed dreamers won’t colonize space. They won’t build pyramids or great monuments either.

Of course, Marxists, Leninists, and Maoists are equally incapable of building an interplanetary civilization. What they do best is lead their followers to misery and privation.

Powerful, usually oppressive governments did, however, build the great monuments that our cultures look back on so fondly. Or at least they did until greedy but smart bourgeois wrested some economic power from the old aristocratic elites. That these new leaders often wrote of liberty and individual rights was probably just a coincidence.

Today’s monuments are made from glass and steel bolstered by the unseen coils of financial power. That any future space habitats will resemble glittering shopping malls is certainly not a coincidence.

Oh, there will always be regulations to irk the humble, garden-variety libertarians, and there always have been. Of course, when the interplanetary infrastructure has expanded beyond the “plausible mid-future,” even garden-variety libertarians and casual socialists will find their niches. I just wouldn’t count on the socialists to keep the air supply running for very long.

Some powerful government may have to build the road first, but it will be greedy capitalists rather than an army collectivized specialists that actually make the destination habitable.

Sabersonic said...

As I read the comments, a strange thought occurred to me. Any self respecting extraterrestrial/extrasolar habitat settlement that wishes to not rely upon imported agricultural products (for reasons hammered to death here and other blogs and websites), there will be farmers. They're not all just will solely be the "40 acres and mule" variety at first, rather they're the ones in lab coats with clip boards and pollinator wands. It may not be romantic image of the homesteader in fiction, but that is a farmer none the less.

I also have problems with altering one's genetic code to be biochemically similar to the local alien flora and fauna, but not because the complexity of genetic engineering and the hidden problems in the DNA that would surface. Rather it makes future colonists just that more susceptible to whatever bugs and ailments that plague the multi-cellular lifeforms of that world. Though to be honest, I haven't really thought about fungi or fungi-like infections of these potential colonists. Not sure if it's realistic or not, but its far more plausible then the Sirius Flu that evolved separately and independently from us. Though something tells me that allergens will be the top problem in any "sleeve shirt" environment beyond Earth.

As for domes and Paraterraforming, well chances are there won't be any "standard" habitat structures and settlement architecture such as the all too familiar dome city of sci-fi and space opera. Each will be unique to match the challenge of that particular world and the resources available. Even within our own star system there are possible (though not as plausible, let alone logical) colonial settlement architecture and solutions such as Terminator Rovers of Mercury, lunar regolith coverings for the moon in addition to polar crater settlements of the previous worlds, dirigible habitats of Venus, Subterranian vault settlements of dusty Mars and Icy Calisto, hollowed out asteroids and slag-formed orbitals and other such interesting designs. The downside is that there is no "standard" school of architecture engineering, at least for solutions independent of the worlds they are featured upon.

Granted, the article does buzz kill the romance of the traditional interplanetary homesteader, it does give credence and reason for potential "world builders" for lack of a better term to create unique settings and societies without the need to heavily rely upon age-old cliche's and troupes.

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Milo said...

To farm proto-terraformed soil, the main things you need will be artificial fertilizer. You also need water and air, but humans need those things too so you'll already have them anyway.

In absense of an atmosphere that supports rain, farms would require intensive irrigation systems, or hydroponics where the "irrigation" is the growing medium. This means farming will be more work than simply staking out some acres and scattering seeds - and you'll need legal access to the colony's water pipes, with likely government regulation on how much water you're allowed to use, or at least high prices per liter. Still, people have been irrigating land as far back as the Bronze Age. Depending on available infrastructure, this can be done on fairly small scales, well within reach of private homesteaders.

For plant fertilizer, you need a bunch of different minerals - but, fortunately, not organic stuff. There will be mining operations dredging the local soil for the necessary minerals and processing them into the appropiate ratios. This will be the hardest part of extraterrestrial farming, but can probably in principle be done with techniques already used for artificial fertilizer today. Prospecting for areas that have good concentrations of the needed chemicals might be part of the work of selecting the location for a colony. I have no idea how common those atoms are or where to find them.

Fertilizer manufacturers and farmers would probably be different people. They just sell to each other.

Turbo10k said...

I think the biggest buzzkill of whatever you 'Murricans hold as nostalgia for Western-frontier like exploration and colonization is...TIMESCALE!!


Think about it. Say we get our most common frontier planet:
Mars sized, thin atmosphere full of stuff we don't like, poor soil, minerals we DO like underground.
Step 1: Set up a robotic base over there for purely mining and scientific purposes. 10 years (i'm being optimistic and forgiving).
Step 2: Set up a terraforming station. It treats the atmosphere using elements from the soil (remember, we're lucky). It also introduces extromophilic bacteria and other microorganisms that bridge the gap between alien and terran biology. 1000-100,000 years for the little critters to create a familiar landscape à la green scum.
Step 3: There is now a large need for specialized lab coats and qualified workers. We bring in the domed-city trope. More like Underground city trope though. No gen-geneering, just "canned monkeys". We hopefully reach a point where we can grow our food outside, but have to live inside. 100-1000 years.
Step 4: We now have a planet with sustained complex terran life-forms, reaching up to the level of rodents. The environment is friendly enough in terms of composition and pressure to allow our newly-arrived colonists to go outside with a filter and thick clothing. 10,000-1,000,000 years.
Step 5: Shirtsleeve 'Murricans arrive! Give or take how much they can give up on fast food.

Best timescale for colonisation of a hospitable planet: 20-100,000 years. Most realistic: Several million. Quite a change from the 18-th century style posters saying:

Join the new world NOW. In a month, you can own LAND, HORSES and POLITICAL FREEDOM.

Milo said...

You'll need ordinary people to settle long before you've terraformed the entire planet. Those scientists need food too.

Most likely, even once you've added an atmosphere (not easy!), most of the planet will still be "desert", except for small patches where you've worked on making the soil fertile. (Although air is difficult to add simply because of the sheer bulk necessary, at least air homogenizes well. Spew out nitrogen anywhere, eventually it'll cover the planet in roughly equal amounts.) This means that there'll be room for outdoors farmers long before the planet looks truly Earthlike.

No human is going to bother terraforming a planet if it'll take millions of years. (Note my wording. No human. A post-singularity transhuman might. Who knows.) However, I don't think it'll take that long to make a semi-comfortably livable planet, if you're not attached to immediately recreating the richness of Terra's ecosystems. Again, we already have artificial fertilizer today.

The green scum might be useful to naturally produce large amounts of fertile soil, but (as you say) the amounts of time involved encourage finding different solutions. If you do use green scum, you'll use it locally, not wait for it to spread across the planet.

Sean said...

Byron, I acknowledge and made a point of that, but for Human colonists exploring/and or settling an alien world the consequences will be far more severe for the native lifeforms rather than the few dozen intrepid adventurers if such an occurrence is possible. That said I do concede on the pathogen, it would be highly unlikely to suffer from an alien disease/virus. That said there should definitely be precautions regardless, why take the chance?

Milo said...


Aaron Lee said...

Stross did speak at length in another post about the habitability of our own planet over space and time. (edit: Can't seem to find the link and I have to go... now)

It proved the point quite well that we occupy a very small spatial and temporal area. Earth spent quite a while, as was mentioned in the comments above, as a stinky lava ball that couldn't even support our bacterial originators.

Foregoing that first issue now that I've directed, perhaps, some toward something to munch on. What about the space injuns?

Chirality was a fascinating discovery (many thanks, Milo, this changes a lot of my world background work :P) but what does that mean for interaction. Clearly we can't smoke the tobacco D-type chirality based aliens cultivate, but does this mean we will have zero real interaction with their live elements, such as antigens. Or does it mean our throats will swell like balloons and we'll die of anaphylitic shock? I'd assume it would sort of be like an alien antigen telling a white blood cell to bark rather than attack.

Milo said...

If you ingest materials not designed to work with our biochemistry, then they will either (A) do nothing and simply go in one end and out the other, (B) poison you in some way due to accidental effects your body never planned for (think less deliberate poisoning, and more an alien chemical looking at your cells and asking "What does THIS button do?"), or (C) give you basic energy, but no nutrients. I expect that most chemicals will be (A) with if you're lucky a smattering of (C) in chemicals simple enough that they can reasonably have been invented multiple times, but even one (B) chemical that just happens to be ubiquitous in those life forms will totally ruin your day. (Imagine trying to feed an alien that considers most of our biochemistry to be perfectly tasty except for happening to find nucleic acids to be poisonous, and you'll see what I mean.)

Note that your senses may deceive you, which could make you die of starvation because you fooled your body into thinking it's not hungry by eating stuff you can't actually digest.

This is assuming you can interact with their biochemistry at all (approximately same temperature as us, etc.). From our point of view, a creature on Titan would be a living explosion hazard. From the point of view of a Titanian life form, we're the walking globs of superheated magma.

Thucydides said...

I think humans (or even post humans who have any sort of residual connection to human motivations) will be smart enough to develop "fast terraforming".

Most potentially habitable worlds or moons are likely to be cold and barren like Mars, so the first order of business is to add water and energy to the biosphere. A hail of comets, chunks of ice from near by gas giants moons or rings will do nicely to start (a bit of clever astrogation is needed to prevent the incoming impacts from being so huge that they strip away the newly forming atmosphere)

Now that the place is warmer and wetter (complimentary conditions, since water vapour is a far more potent "greenhouse gas" than almost anything else in nature), an army of bioengineers takes the stage, releasing generations of colonizing creatures designed to take maximal advantage of the current conditions. As the planetary conditions change, old generations of creatures die off while the geneering team releases new iterations in a process of "staged evolution". Habitants stay safely tucked away in domes, caves or orbital habitats while the grunt work is happening on the planet's surface.

Everything from bacteria and algae to trees and naked mole rats will be created and released, and as previous generations die or are marginalized to tiny niche environments, they provide biomass for the next generations to go on.

This process is topped off by a soletta or platoons of mirrors to regulate the amount of solar energy the place receives, and really ambitious people or posthumans can also take steps to change orbital and spin parameters to taste. Except for altering orbits, this could be largely complete in a millenium or so.

If this is too much work, you could reengineer animal life to have a photosynthetic layer where skin is today.....

Rick said...

I tend to agree that terraforming will be a very gradual process, so slow that it is hard to picture humans doing it. But religious motivations, perhaps?

On economics, the vogue for pure theoretical types - libertarian, Marxist, whatever - may turn out to be a 20th century phenomenon, a consequence of the great transition from agrarian to industrial civilization.

On a more practical level, people living in a domed structure or space hab may have a very 'urban' conception of freedom, while taking the basic regulatory structure for granted. (Which doesn't mean they won't bitch about it - think New Yorkers.)

Jim Baerg said...

BTW regarding biochemical incompatibility of the lifeforms from different planets. Poul Anderson used it very well in a story he wrote in the late 1950's _The Man Who Counts_.

His characters are on a world with incompatible life far from the human base & the lack of anything edible aside from supplies they brought along gives a time limit for rescue & the toxicity of earthly & native biochemistry to each other becomes an important plot point in several other ways.

Milo said...

Moving large masses of water takes some effort, though. It might be rigged up by using part of the comet itself as reaction mass, but it would still be a difficult undertaking for plausible midfuture techlevels.

If you do decide to icebomb a planet, make sure you take this into account in your planning. It's not a good idea to already have your domed terraforming station on the planet when you start bombing...

Fortunately it isn't really necessary. Water isn't that hard to come by. All major gas giant moons except for Io have plenty of it. Luna, Mars, and even Mercury are believed to hold some, which may suffice as long as we're careful with it. (One oasis in a completely dry desert is preferable to the entire planet being a desert where it rains once a year.) So basically, anywhere we could possibly care to colonize in the near future already has some water. The challenge is to melt it into a usable temperature.

I'd be more worried about where to find the stuff we need for an atmosphere. Even if you live in a domed city, you'll want air that doesn't need to be imported from Earth. Oxygen, fortunately, is everywhere - both in aforementioned water and in rock. The main issue is the sheer amount of rock that would have to be processed, and the energy involved. Nitrogen is more problematic - I haven't been able to find numbers on how common it is on other planets, but it at least seems to be less ubiquitous than oxygen, and we need a lot of it. (Yeah, yeah, it's inert, but all-oxygen atmospheres are a serious fire hazard.) We'll also need some carbon dioxide (the exact amount being tweaked based on the temperature we want), which plants can later turn into useful organic materials. Again, I don't know how common carbon is out there. Anyway, nitrogen and carbon are the important stuff to look for - there's other stuff in our atmosphere (there's actually more argon than carbon dioxide), but we don't realy need it. In fact, I'm wondering if, once we start exploring alien ecospheres, checking an atmosphere for argon might be a useful way to identify whether it's natural or artificially created...

In order to truly terraform a planet to the point that it can support life without large irrigation and fertilization projects, you would need some way to introduce correct nutrients to soil. (Hmm, would you? Plant nutrients are essentially inorganic minerals, so they might already be there, just add water. That seems off to me, though. We have good soils and bad soils on Earth, and which is which depends on what's been living there in the past.) There might be microbes that can help with that, but I have no idea which.

After that, I would more or less just plop down a bunch of plants. Let natural selection decide which of 'em survive. (Hint: don't pick ones that need insects for pollination.) Keep growing the ones that do. Repeat going upwards through the food chain, if desired. Remember, though, that Earth is shaped by the actions of many microbes that have been extinct for billions of years. We aren't going to be able to get a hold of them to repeat the process, so we're going to have to wing it.

As for photosynthetic animals, those already exist.

Rick said...

Poul Anderson was ahead of his time! Most SF of the midcentury era took biocompatibility for granted, unless the planet had a different biochem entirely (like lipid and hydrogen), in which case the planet probably wasn't earthlike in any sense.

Creating soil seems like basically a process of turning sand into dirt. I seem to recall that in old time SF a common starting point was lichen. Whatever stuff you use might take hold rapidly (no competition), but building up soil will still be a prolonged process, because you need a lot of it to support an ecosystem.

Rick said...

Forgot to add - pretty cool about the sea slugs!

Turbo10k said...

What about the planet's magnetic sphere/tectonic activity? I don't see any way to regulate THAT.

Milo said...

Rick: "Earthlike" is relative. My first thought upon seeing the now-famous photo from the Huygens probe on Titan was "Wow, that looks so different from basically every other extraterrestrial field of rocks astronomers have photographed... wait a moment, that's exactly the kind of rocks you would expect to see on Earth! They're rounded by erosion!". Of course, the liquid that eroded them is methane, and the rocks are oxidane, but IMO, close enough.

I'm wondering, if we accept a planet that has carbon-and-water-based life forms like us, are there any other options for the major atmospheric chemical besides oxygen? Our metabolisms are based on some specific chemical reactions - plants use light to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen and organic chemicals, while animals eat organic chemicals and breathe oxygen and then burn them into carbon dioxide for energy. Surely there are other metabolisms possible.

Turbo10k: So what? Tectonic activity just causes earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. It's necessary for a planet to survive on its own over geological timescales, but over civilization timescales, it doesn't matter.

Magnetic fields are a little more useful because they protect against cosmic rays. Hmm. Most likely you'd need to find a different way to protect against them. Anything we can put in the atmosphere that'd help?

While we're on the subject of terraforming, I'd like to whine a little about the common "Humans have polluted Earth so badly that they're forced to flee to the stars and find a new home." trope. If we have terraforming technology capable of making another planet suitable for habitation, then why not just terraform Terra? Cleaning up our existing ecosystem should be easier than making a new one.

That said, the fact that Earth is the one human-habitable place that has a natural ecosystem might encourage an interstellar civilization to eventually start treating it as a nature reserve - but only once we have a stable interstellar civilization. None of this "desparate struggle by the last remaining humans to find a new home" (or "desparate struggle by the last remaining humans to make their new home livable", or "humans racing to get off the planet before it's too late") crap.

Yes, eventually the sun will die, which is a little severe even for terraforming. But we'll have billions of years before we have to worry about that.

Luke said...

Some accumulated thoughts:

As mentioned, us humans can survive much higher concentrations of carbon dioxide that is present in our current atmosphere. In fact, we often do - the CO_2 level inside rooms and offices is often much higher than outside, sometimes up to around the 1% level. Consequently, rocky planets with higher CO_2 concentrations may still be perfectly habitable as long as the concentration does not exceed a percent or two. This could provide plenty of extra greenhouse warming if needed.

Planets too much larger than ours may not end up being habitable. The problem comes because hot iron solidifies under pressure. Our planets core is already partly frozen, but at least the outer core is liquid. The liquid layer sustains our planet's magnetic field. A larger planet, however, will put more pressure on the core, freezing it out and quenching the magnetic field. Now, we do not know how important a magnetic field is for life. Our thick atmosphere does as much to protect us from space radiation as a magnetic field, if not more. However, a strong field may be needed to keep hydrogen photodissociated from water from escaping into space. If this is so, then large planets may be dry and barren, possibly evolving in a similar fashion to water-free Venus.

Alternately, large rocky planets big enough to gravitationally bind hydrogen better could end up with too much water. Water also solidifies under pressure, which would give these planets a thick crust of ice with a several kilometer thick ocean on top. There might be life, but no place to live.

Planets much smaller than earth seem to have problems keeping their tectonics going. This leads to a failure to cycle water from the surface to the lithosphere, resulting in the surface drying out and giving you Venus.

So only a small range of planet sizes may end up being habitable.

Which brings up a question - what is more appealing about living in a sealed habitat on a hostile planet than living in a similar habitat on Earth? Perhaps one dug underground, or under water. If you have the energy for space travel, presumably you could use the same energy source to provide artificial light for your hydroponics gardens. I have a vision of the future where people primarily live in underground cities on Earth, and leave the surface as parkland except for the occasional ventillation shaft or helipad (even the roads and trains could be buried). We would probably have a thriving ecosystem in our underground cities, too - starlings and pigeons and rats and coyotes and deer and black bears and tokay geckos and various roach species and silverfish and who knows what else that has adapted to live around people.

Lichen is probably not the best stuff for creating soil - it grows too slowly. Various dune grasses may work well, stabilizing the sand and adding organic matter when they die. In Earth ecosystems, dune grasses are colonizers once dune sand stops being deposited to fast, and rapidly turn the top layer into dirt suitable for shallow-rooted plants (rapidly being within a few years). Likewise, volcanic blast fields are colonized by a variety of planst which turn ash into dirt within a decade or so (lupines, at least, probably also various grasses and clovers. Lupines and clovers also add nitrates to the dirt, which other plants need to live).

I have a sneaking suspicion that the chirality of our planet's biomolecules is favored by the influence of the weak nuclear force (which violates parity symmetry, and thus can favor one molecule over its mirror image). If this is true, you might find that all biospheres everywhere use right handed sugars and left handed amino acids. There's a long way from this, however, and full biocompatibility. Also, there is absolutely no evidence for it.

Luke said...

Milo - the only thing you can put in the atmosphere to help against cosmic rays is more atmosphere. Shielding is basically a function of the amount of mass between you and the rays. Hydrogen-rich stuff is a bit better than other things, but you still need a lot of it. There's no magical shielding gas you can add in moderate quantities that will do any good.

Not that you need it. Our atmosphere already protects us against cosmic rays that are sufficiently energetic to punch through our planet's magnetic field - less energetic cosmic rays will penetrate even less far through the air in the way.

Milo said...

Luke: Don't make the mistake of leaping from "this is favored" to "this will always happen". Not a single living thing on Earth has evolved perfectly, there are always bugs in the system. Even if a particular trait of ours actually is desirable and found in most alien biospheres, there are likely to be some exceptions.

Regarding atmosphere, note that smaller terraformed planets will actually have more atmosphere over any given acre of land than large planets - in order to pressurize it into Earthlike density despite the lower gravity. (This may or may not actually translate to more air total, once you factor in the smaller surface area. I haven't done the math.)

Again, finding water isn't going to be a problem. Water is all over the place in our solar system, from our largest rocky planet (Earth) down to tiny moons (Mimas), and likely to be so in other solar systems as well. Venus is most likely dry because the intense heat has boiled off all the water (and some traces of it still remain in the atmosphere). It's liquid water that's problematic to find... but we'll get that for free with whatever techniques we use to make a planet's temperature acceptable for us.

I think the appeal of space colonization is that undersea habitats feel like a "dead end". Yeah, we could go there, but where next? Even with FTL nowhere in sight yet, people still feel that settling the solar system will be the next step in allowing us to explore the universe. (A Luna colony, as the very least, has been seriously proposed as a better place to build and launch spacecraft from.) At the very least, it'll give us better views of our local corner - the sky from Mimas is going to be a lot more to look at than the sunless depths of the ocean. There's also more preexisting ecology for us to mess up while constructing our domes.

Thucydides said...

If the conditions are so extreme that you need to live in a domed colony, the question becomes "why not live in free space?".

An Island Three or similar construct is about as technically challenging as a dome on the Moon, but has the advantage that the internal environment and ecosystem can be tailored to your exact specifications (or at least until the white mice come along and undercut your business...). Gravity, day night cycle, composition of the atmosphere and everything else is firmly under the control of the life systems engineers (who in due time become the "Hydraulic Emperors" of the construct), and even temperature control and heat acceptance/rejection is a function of the mirrors and radiators rather than random factors induced by orbital parameters, distance from the primary etc.

As well, a free flying colony has much lower requirements in terms of delta V to get to and from, can easily "graze" on asteroids, NEO's and the rings of gas giant planets for raw materials.

The only real advantage I can see of a planet (after the major terraforming operations have reached fruition) is the incredible inertia and huge amount of redundancy in terms of feedback loops in a fully fledged planetary ecosystem, more or less freeing people from the grip of planetary engineers a thousand years after the project starts. (Even then, these people may discover they are living a hunter-gatherer existence until the ecosystem becomes fully mature enough to support large populations and civilization).

In terms of "why" people will choose to settle on Island Three or the Moon, Mars and asteroids, go back to the Atlantic article on complexity and consider that people really like to see their efforts rewarded. If taxes and regulations are sucking the added value from people's efforts (or even turning additional effort into negative value), then people may prefer to move to where these burdens do not exist in such a developed form, and where their additional effort has a higher marginal rate of return than their former homelands. The end of the article is quite chilling, overly complex constructs are brittle and subject to sudden collapse, which makes ideas like "unwinding" large bureaucracies more science fiction than true political projects.
(This isn't to say it is impossible, India dismantled the "permit Raj" in the early 1980's and their economy has roared to life, creating a middle class of 300 million; equal to the entire population of the United States...)

The paradox is what sort of inducements can you have to create massive infrastructure projects in space to begin with? Island Three is far beyond the combined resources of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, and the ROI of asteroid mining and solar energy production isn't enough to lure ordinary investors (not yet anyway), so these sorts of projects are the realm of governments (and likely command economies to boot), hardly the friendly low tax and regulatory environment that attracts people.

The resolution might be Jerry Pournelle's dark vision of using these places as dumping grounds for people and groups deemed "disruptive" to the State (or Phillip K Dick's "Do Anderoids dream of Electric Sheep", where the colonies were offered as a refuge from a polluted and despoiled Earth).

Farmers may apply (or may find a notice in the mail), but not on Heinlein's terms

Milo said...

Thucydides: The overwhelming reason not to build habitats in space is lack of resources. Lifting mass into space is difficult, so if at all possible you don't want to have to lift the entire city-sized habitat's structure into space from the surface!

On a planet/moon, resources will be available, and you just need to build the industries to process them. The challenge becomes to send enough machinery over to allow you to "bootstrap" your factories.

I don't think mining asteroids is a viable solution. Even in the midfuture, space travel is likely to be too expensive for bulk transport of low-value materials. At least, the stuff you're shipping has to be worth more than the propellant you expend. In fact, since propellant would itself have to be mined away from the habitat, the mining ships cannot carry more propellant than they carry cargo on their inbound trip, or they won't be able to leave again. This limits your delta-vee, or makes you pay more energy for the delta-vee you need.

I don't see how terraforming encourages a hunter-gatherer society. Unless you planet can support large, self-sufficient ecosystems, you're likely to get a better mileage out of planned growth in monitored conditions - that is, agriculture.

Rick said...

I think that oxygen is highly favored for hydrocarbon life looking for more energy, because it is common, and such powerful stuff. (Which also makes it a deadly poison to early, anaerobic life.)

We won't really have a clue how the biochemistry plays out, though, until we have other life to examine.

'Earthlike' is indeed a relative concept. I tend to associate it first and foremost with liquid surface water. But by that standard, Earth was not 'Earthlike' during its snowball periods, even though it was already a lifebearing planet, and had been for a couple of billion years.

On CO2, according to current views of the HZ, it extends out to about 2 AU, and through much of that zone a habitable planet would have much more than 1 percent CO2. I think it gets up to about 5 bars, 5x total Earth atmospheric pressure, before you get a snowball. So many lifebearing, liquid-water planets, perhaps most, may have much more CO2 than humans can handle.

I have wondered what a planet would be like if it had a real hydrosphere, say 1000 km deep, instead of the thin muddy film of water that Earth has. If the hydrosphere is mostly ice, what happens at the lower edge, where it is in contact with the very hot mantle? I have some vague notion of a 'triple point,' beyond which H2O takes a form different from any of the familiar states of ice, water, or steam. But what its properties are, I haven't a clue.

Given an ecologically rich and biocompatable 'virgin planet' and a small population, I do wonder if a sort of sophisticated hunter-gatherer technology might develop. At least on the meat side, I can easily imagine that it would be cheaper to hunt than to raise cattle. Or hunting and ranching converge, with cattle simple turned loose on the range. Something similar might apply to fruit and the like, as well.

This doesn't mean that most of the population would be hunter-gatherers, any more than they are farmers today, but that the 'agricultural sector' would concentrate on skimming off the richest natural concentrations rather than artificial cultivation.

Marginally off topic for this post, but since Luke commented, here is a link at SFConsim-l to his concepts for a series of laser hand weapons, from combat 'rifles' to pistols.

Anonymous said...

All commercial fishing (except for fish farming) can be seen as an advanced form of hunting. Historically, the indigenous peoples of North America's Pacific Northwest had fixed settlements with large populations, unlike much of the rest of the continent, thanks to the rich fishing grounds offshore. On land, the line between hunting and herding can be very fine: the Sami of northern Scandinavia herd reindeer that are not fully domesticated.
Even if agriculture is dominant, there could still be people who go into the wilderness to hunt native lifeforms that provide valuable commodities. The fur trade in North America was a major business from the 17th to 19th centuries, and played an important part in European expansion across the continent, and the formation of Canada and the USA.


Milo said...

I actually did know about that oxygen-as-poison thing, but that actually helps demonstrate the issue. Before there could have been creatures that used oxygen as an energy source, there must have been creatures that produced oxygen as a waste product for some completely different reaction (in our case, photosynthesis, which actually requires net input energy). Thus no matter how useful oxygen is, it might never have gotten a foothold if no-one started producing it a a waste product in the first place.

The can be bigger reasons not to use oxygen: Titan's chemistry is simply incompatible with widespread free oxygen - yet hydrogen-breathing life forms are considered plausible. Might the hydrogen-acetone cycle postulated for Titan also be useful for non-methane-based life forms? (I don't understand the chemistry involved, unfortunately. Oxygen burning is so simple - break up the fuel into its component atoms, sprinkle oxygen on each one. I haven't been able to find a concise explanation of how reduction reactions work.)

Regarding the "triple point", I think you're thinking about the "critical point", beyond which stuff turns into a "supercritical fluid". This happens when you have high temperature and high pressure (for example, on Venus). You get something that's a hybrid between liquid and gas, although I don't understand the details either. The inability to have supercritical fluids at room temperature and pressure stymies intuition.

The ranching compromise between agriculture and hunting-gathering might work well, yes. As for "skimming off the richest natural concentrations" - well, yeah, if you can consider anything living on a terraformed planet to be "natural" ;) In such a place, ranching and terraforming would blend into each other, with no clear boundary between one and the other. The objective of terraformers would be to expand the ranch or build new ranches.

Turbo10k said...

It may be expensive to haul materials into space, it would be infinitely more so if you have to ship in something a planet being terraformed doesn't have enough of. Say on our otherwise cosy habitable earth-like planet, we don't have enough nitrogen to sustain terrestrial life. Ship it in? No way. Keep that nitrogen for you space hab's hydroponics!

Hunter-gather society are IMPOSSIBLE on a terraformed planet. It has the lowest energy efficiency of any exploitation system. Traditional agriculture cost more in energy and resources but gave relatively regular food supplies. Modern agriculture gives more food than humanity needs. Yeast culture, You're getting at a 100kg per dollar. Sci-fi shroom type culture will convert resources almost directly into food, and will be the holy grail for any self-sufficient space hab. Now imagine we could use those technologies on a planet, where you have massive reserves and gigawatts of free energy from geothermals and solar power. Food would start becoming the least of your worries, hunter-gatherers out the window. The only worry for colonists would be striking a balance between natural resource consumption and generation, as they have to leave enough for a fledging, fragile ecosystem.

On earth, as long as we have nitrates and water, we can grow as much as we want-life exists already since billions of years. On a colony only 1000 years old, resource management is going to be a problem.

Fun question: How would space hab food be different from colony food? Would chocolate be expensive enough to be shipped through space?!

Less fun question: Just how common are heavy metals on asteroids? Especially the handy radioactive ones.

Turbo10k said...

Further comments, in response to others;

Ice planets: A thousand kilometer thick ice sheet over ultrahigh pressure liquid water underneath? I see it as our molten mantle cold version. Increasing surface pressure/temperature would however have catastrophic results. Anything changing sunlight distribution would lead to a cascade with increasing atmospheric humidity increasing temperature and vice versa until MASSIVE cracks appear on the surface and everything goes bust for several millenia. Liquid planet presto lol. Plus, it better be a geologically dead planet. Variations in the underground continent would lead to pressure changes on the ice-sheet, leading to massive icequakes and yearly Marinas trenches. PERFECT SETTING 101-GIVE ICE.

Ranching-Hunting, fishing, ranching, herding, cultivating in a lab; I just see them all as different degrees of control you have over your livestock. In a colonial planet, without terraforming, our control would go down to micromanaging each individual livestock (I'm talking about cows, not crayfish). On earth, we could hunt freely on the American plains not 200 years ago. Our terraforming setting would have something between the two, ie ranching. Here, you don't let the cattle wander off or bet sick/killed by the hostile outside, but you don't care what they eat or when they mate. If that is the case, I think it is a viable technique to obtain meat as it is cheap in energy and surveillance, and could be done mostly robotically with future technology giving as tags that replace walls and herders.

Milo said...

Rick, see also: supercritical fluid, and to answer your original question, ocean planet.

I have no idea what the consequences of supercritical fluid on life would be (imagine a fish living in an airless ocean trying to imagine what a bird would be like, or vice versa!), but the "normal" kind of ocean planet might in principle be able to support life, except that it would have trouble with nutrients falling into the sunless abysses. On our planet, the richest life zones in the ocean are the shallow waters, where the seafloor is high enough up to be illuminated by the sun.

You can, of course, have a planet with much more water than we do without completely flooding it.

There's bound to be some compelling planet/moon classes out there that we simply haven't encountered yet. Over here, we have only one superdense-non-gas-giant-atmosphere (Venus), only one atmospheric moon, which is also our one methane-based hydrological cycle (Titan), only one gas giant with a ring system visible in photos (Saturn), etc. Clearly these aren't too common, so had we not had the luck to have one show up in our solar system, we might have never realized they could exist. Who knows what else is out there?

Carbon planets are an interesting speculative variation on rocky planets, which might reasonably support exotic life of some sort.

Turbo10k, regarding your asteroid question: An average asteroid probably has element concentrations similar to the overall elemental concentration of the solar system, minus hydrogen and helium. However, miners won't be looking for average asteroids, they'll be looking for ones with above-average concentrations of valuable materials. So the question is really how much variation there is in asteroid composition.

Thucydides said...

Having hunter-gatherers on a newly terraformed planet dosn't seem out of place, the planet will have a very stripped down and limited ecosystem at year +1000, so people who choose to live on the surface of a newly terraformed world will not be presented a wide range of choices in terms of where to live and what to eat. Probably the closest analogy in the American past is "free range" cattle herding. The cattle (or caribou or whales or whatever creature is released) will roam around looking for food, and the people will follow them for the same reasons.

Ecological engineers in orbit might assist by providing cues or using sensors to seek out areas of vegitation that havn't been exploited yet and seeding them with suitable livestock, but for inhabitents on the surface, they might have to wait until year +5000for a rich and diverse ecosystem to be firmly rooted.

What we think of as agriculture is fairly recent in origin. The Mycenean "Palace" culture seems to have existed by sending out gangs of peasants to harvest wild cereals, wild olives and suppliment the diet with nuts and berries. Meat was hunted by the aristocratic elites (and the European wild cow really needed hunting with a full suit of armour, shield bearers and so on; lions still lived in Europe during this time and cattle had evolved to fight lions...). This seems to qualify as "skimming off the richest natural concentrations" of vegetable, fruit and cereal products without being actual farming.

Since the actual people or post humans who will be doing this exist far in our future, it is difficult to assign motivations to them. They may be terraforming for quasi religious reasons, and living of the land that they created could be considered some sort of sacriment (while they live their comfortable day to day existence in cyberspace or tucked away in an Island Three).

Albert said...

Darn. You all are beating the terraforming to their obvious rational end.
Orbital colonies. Cheaper, easier, faster to build, maybe not safer than a planet, and surely not as fun as a planet.

I mean, how boring can be life on a space colony? You get only one extreme sport: EVA. And you miss all the awesome places and ludicrously large spaces Earth has.

Anyway, someone must state the obvious, so here it is: engineering the local fauna/flora to evolve an earth-similar environment and become sentient. (for earth-similar I mean "looking like Earth", its actual biochemistry may differ wildly)

It is also a pretty reasonable explanation for Star Trek aliens (and in fact was Star Trek's official explanation for it in a Next Generation episode)

There were also novels that called this Uplifting, and it was used as an e-peen indicator for the various alien races of the setting.


Milo said...

Actually, there is another extreme sport on orbital habitats: spelunking through its internal machinery. You'll get arrested (or worse) if caught, of course, but I did say it's extreme :D

In a large enough habitat with spin-based gravity, you can have more traditional extreme sports. But then, again, the question is where you're getting that much material.

Uplifting is more likely to give you a sentient creature with a natively evolved body plan and biochemistry, as opposed to a human replica.

Turbo10k said...

Then again you can have WoW in SPAAACE!!

Who needs extreme sports if you're never getting out of your chair except for work.

Thucydides said...

An Island Three will have lots of extreme sports opportunities due to the varying levels of "gravity" the rotating structure provides.

If a central cable is strung from "pole to pole" (for anything from a transport system to a suspended city in zero "G"), you can just bet someone will try skydiving or bungee jumping from the cable to the ground (with varying gravity and Coriolis forces to contend with on the way down). Other people will want to try and fly to the zero "G" region in aircraft, ultralights, balloons etc.

Even climbing a building on the surface will have interesting challenges, especially if someone decides to build an "office tower" type structure (for whatever reason). BASE jumpers will have a few weird things to watch out for as well.

Crawling through the tunnels has been mentioned, but think about what this would be like when going "underground" at the end caps with variable gravity and rotational forces. (This is also the place with the most tunnels, since the spaceport will be at one end [probably the dark pole] and heavy industry and solar energy collectors will be clustered around the solar pole). Skiing or skateboarding down the end caps might also be a sport people would try (once)!

Maybe the real reason to build an Island Three is to entice space tourists to part with their hard earned money.

Milo said...

Isn't that the reason for all space colonization?

Turbo10k said...

Or we could have the future equivalent of Eyemotion...Did nyone watch that film about commercial cloning, Island One? They had a boxing match which was entirely virtual, but you did sweat...

Or you could have the equivalent of parkour during an EVA...people jumping between radiators and sensors, getting from one hatch to another...

Oshi...the discussion just became what people would do to amuse themselves in the future...:-)

Milo said...

Light gravity would be pretty fun to play with on its own. Especially if it's light enough that humans can fly (in Earth-density atmosphere) with strap-on wings.

I wonder what centigee-level gravity would feel like. I think it would provide a sensation of drifting down like gently falling snow - enough gravity that you stay oriented with a clear "down" direction and don't have to worry about getting stuck in the air, but gentle enough that you still feel like you're floating. You could easily jump to the ceiling, but you wouldn't stay there unless you grabbed a handhold. Your strides would have so much strength to them (relative to the gravity) that normal walking becomes difficult, so you'd be more likely to move by hopping or slow-motion running, spending most of your time suspended in the air. Terminal velocity might allow you to fall any distance without injury...

Albert said...

Huh. Seems like you're enjoying it. :)

Anyway, I have my issues with zero-gee central areas. Unless they are isolated by the wind.

Uplifting is more likely to give you a sentient creature with a natively evolved body plan and biochemistry, as opposed to a human replica.
Well, granting sapience to a creature means that you have pretty much mastered the art of genetic tinkering, so why don't having a humanoid alien?
Will maybe look like Greedo (alien from Star Wars) though.


Milo said...

Gravity and windspeed increase with both the station's rpm, and your distance from the center. If your station has fairly small rpm and provides its gravity by having a really large radius (a reasonable assumption for a city-sized habitat), then someone near the center of rotation would barely feel it or the winds.

It's kind of like how gravity decreases with altitude on Earth, although in this case "altitude" is measuring towards the center of rotation, and the mechanism is different. The important difference for extreme sporters, though, is that on Earth altitudes high enough to negate your gravity would also put you in vacuum, while a station could still be designed to have a pressurized zone there. (Besides extreme sporters, such an "effectively not rotating too much" zone would also be useful for docking spaceships.)

jollyreaper said...

Fresh, new habitable worlds are a treasured trope in scifi but the only possible way to incorporate them is via precursor aliens and many people hate that trope. But it's the only way to manage it.

Where did these planets come from? Precursors did it. Why are they designed to human specification? Other way around -- we're on a precursor world so we're adapted to their specifications. So where are they? That's the great mystery, isn't it? Now that that's out of the way, let's start exploring.

Likewise the best way to give us bumpy forehead aliens is the Orion's Arm route where pretty much all the "aliens" are derived from base-model humans and the true XT aliens are bizarrely incomprehensibly alien. If it's humanoid, it's derived from human stock. If it's an AI god, you can trace it back to Earth.

Make the SF too hard and you end up removing any justification for getting out into space in the first place.

Rick said...

Milo, thanks for the links!

Milo said...

The justification for getting out into space is to encounter true aliens and find out what they're like.

For all our effort and educated guesses, we can only grasp at mist trying to picture something that's truly different from us, while still derived from the same laws of physics, and logically plausible.

Anonymous said...

The reasons for leaving Earth and taking month or even years to reach a destination are as varied as "I need to get as far away from them SOB's in charge" to something like "On the new world, people with machetes will not come for me in the night to hack me to death because I speak the 'wrong' language"...uplifiting is a neat concept, just don't upgrade the wrong creature; dogs maybe, but not bears!


Milo said...

What do you have against bears?

Thucydides said...

What will the Dogs decide to "uplift?"

Anonymous said...

Bears bite humans. Intelligent bears use BBQ sauce and steak knives...
Dogs will uplift cats, to have someone to lord over...


Milo said...

More people are bitten by dogs than bears. (Yet more are bitten by humans.)

Anyway, any truly intelligent creature would realize that eating other intelligent creatures is a dumb idea.

Rick said...

Because they are harder to catch? :-)

Milo said...

Also, because they tend to invent things like pointy rocks and nuclear missiles, and threaten you with mutually assured destruction if you dare to attack one.

jollyreaper said...

@ milo

Nothing tastes so sweet as a meal you had to work for.

Something I've never seen in scifi -- we have ultimate warrior predator species but we never see ultimate prey species. So if we consider the kzin to be a prime example of intelligent predators going out to conquer the galaxy, why not an anti-kzin? We'll call them mice. The mice developed intelligence to outwit intelligent predators. Tool-using and technology came from there. These mice retain a thrill of being hunted and eluded. So while the kzin go out and find humans to go hunt, a mouse would seek out the baddest predators in the galaxy to play kzin-and-mouse with. Which seems counter-intuitive as a survival trait until you realize that these mice are very good at computing the odds and are seldom killed in these hunts. Usually the table is turned on the strong predator.

We had the paranoid puppeteers but the mice would have less of the paranoid streak. They'd be social and engaging but always working three steps ahead to ensure a desired outcome. They don't meet force with force, they meet it with trickery so a stronger opponent tires himself out punching at shadows.

Milo said...

Predator elusion as extreme sport?

I would expect that most of them would just play elusion-themed video games/board games/LARPs, rather than seeking out actual predators to be hunted by. Just like we enjoy violent games more than we enjoy actual mall shootings. Annoying other people purely so you can enjoy fleeing them is pretty antisocial, no matter how you cut it.

Of course if some other species attacks them first, then yes, they'll use their elusion tricks in the fight, with a doctrine that emphasizes survival rather than destruction of the enemy. The unfortunate thing is that destroying your enemy is a pretty effective way to survive an encounter. (See: herbivores with horns.). So you'll have to figure out why your mice (who have invented nuclear power) don't find that to be the easiest solution. Also remember that herbivores are not automatically peaceful-unless-attacked-first, since real ones get into fights over territory or mates (varies by species, of course). In fact, few conventional human wars can be interpreted in a "predator-vs-prey" sense, they're always battles between equal species over resources.

Hmm. An interesting example is the Spathi from Star Control 2 (no scientific validity to speak of in their combat system, but a popular game). They're stereotyped as extreme cowards, prefer to run from trouble, are easy to intimidate, and do their best to avoid hostility. They also have one of the most powerful spaceships in the game, for the simple reason that they alone designed their ships with the aim of surviving battles, as opposed to every other species in the galaxy, which designed their ships with the aim of getting to watch pretty explosions - or, worse, designed their ships with the aim of dying gloriously, which are, understandably, the weakest species in the game. Though the most honorable-death-y ones, the Shofixti, at least have the excuse that their civilization has only recently been uplifted into spacefaring technology by outsiders, so they don't have very good tech yet.

jollyreaper said...

@ milo

You are very correct in terms of the dangerous herbivores out there. As I recall, hippos are supposed to kill more people in Africa than jungle cats or crocs. And nobody would confuse the bull in a bull fight as a pacifist just because he's vegetarian!

Violent, confrontational prey species are very likely but the specific thought I had was completely inverting the usual predator alien trope which is what made me think of the mice. Their psychological makeup is very inhuman which allows for a far different set of social dynamics than would be plausible for humans.

So as far as mice psychology goes, the first part is that they are collectivists. It's all about the whole, not the individual. Not hive minds but genetically hardcoded for self-sacrifice, but intelligent self-sacrifice. Extremely pragmatic. Mating selection is probably female's choice with no competition among the males; performance over the course of the year has proven the best males and no threat display or jumping about will change that opinion. They also have a strong sense of ecological balance and are inherently cautious about the unintended consequences of seemingly good choices made in the short term.

As for taking out the enemy first, that's a good point. They don't because that would make them bigger targets. I imagined them as coexisting alongside the usual scifi menagerie of intelligent races in mutli-species polities. They are never part of a big power base, are seen as charming and helpful and cute and are not taken as a threat. They hide in plain view. And by being ubiquitous throughout the galaxy, polite and helpful and unassuming, they can piece together what's happening quickly and do something about it. Not that anyone would know. But they're not like Pak Protectors who are a bit genocidal and heartless. Their main method of operation is taking important information and putting it in the hands/pincers/tentacles of the people who would act on it, that action in accordance with the wishes of the mice. Not that anyone would know where the information came from.

Love Star Control 2! But the Spathi are a bit too cowardly. They're the Don Knots of alien races.

Milo said...


"So as far as mice psychology goes, the first part is that they are collectivists. It's all about the whole, not the individual."

Collectivism strikes me more as eusocial psychology, as termites/ants/bees or, if you must have rodents, mole rats. I never thought of mice as highly communal - even if you find many in one place, that doesn't mean they'll stand up to protect each other. Of course, if these are just vaguely-micelike-aliens, none of this matters.

However, you receive many kudos for considering highly collectivist mentalities in a non-hive-mind manner.

"Mating selection is probably female's choice with no competition among the males; performance over the course of the year has proven the best males and no threat display or jumping about will change that opinion."

Then males will still compete, they'll just compete in performance over the course of the year, rather than entering a brief frenzy during mating season. Even so, a quick glance at humans will show that intelligent creatures are still wont to put things off until the last minute, and remember most strongly things that happened recently. So I would still expect competition between males to intensify as mating season approaches. Of course, violent competition wouldn't be very effective in a society that doesn't idealize combat strength, except in as far as that you can murder or cripple competitors to take them out of the running (which would, of course, be a crime). Deception regarding your performance would also be an effective way to cheat, especially in a large society where not everyone can keep track of everyone else.

"They also have a strong sense of ecological balance and are inherently cautious about the unintended consequences of seemingly good choices made in the short term."

Although any individual species might be such, herbivores in general are no less prone to overgrazing than carnivores are to overhunting.

"seen as charming and helpful and cute and are not taken as a threat"

Ooh. I like the sound of those aliens. Where can I get one?

Milo said...

A further elaboration on my dissertation. War resembles intraspefic territorial battles far more than predator-prey relationships (and therefore: anyone who thinks that making his warmongering aliens carnivores to highlight how aggressive they are, take note, it doesn't work that way!). Guerilla wars might be a little more cat-and-mousey, but they still involve the "mice" actively and aggressively attacking, and not in self-defense but because they found a vulnerable target. (Actually, maybe the guerillas are the sneaky predators and the conventional forces are the highly organized ants?)


There are other parts of human behavior that do lend themselves to such analogies. The best one is police work - it involves a very powerful entity (the police force backed by a government / predator) attempting to catch a much weaker entity that cannot possibly take on the powerful entity in straight combat, but is hard to find and pursue (criminals / prey). Criminals can also be seen as sort of predatory themselves, although they're more ambush predators than chase predators (primarily because open chases would leave them far too exposed to police - in areas where the government is very weak, criminals can in fact develop such brash tactics). Interpreting criminals as both predators and prey isn't inconsistent because food chains can have more than one level - think of defenseless citizens as tiny mice, criminals as small predators like foxes that are well-suited for eating mice, and cops as larger predators like tigers that are strong enough to easily kill foxes, but so large that they derive little sustenance from hunting mice. There's no way for us to tell, currently, whether it's inevitable for sentient species to in fact be so good at playing both sides of the hunt, as we have. It's worth noting that humans evolved from omnivores and actually were in such an intermediate stage, fairly high up the food chain but still living in fear of big cats until we developed fairly advanced tools. Has this shaped our flexibility to act as both predators and prey?

So hypothesizing the effects of evolving a species from a different portion of the food chain can be quite interesting... as long as you're not interested in telling a war story. A detective story, a political intrigue story, sure. There's bound to be plenty of other things to look at.

Milo said...

So now we're on the subject of prey species, for a while I've been wondering about how (if at all) a sentient R-strategist species might develop. At first glance, K-strategism seems far better suited for technological civilizations, regardless of your ancestors.

An R-strategist species is one which puts relatively little value in any individual's survival, instead maintaining the population by outbreeding the death rate. Such species typically have lots of children, devote little care to any one child, and children quickly reach sexual maturity. Any individual would have a fairly low life expectancy, but those that do survive and manage to breed have enough children to make up for the loss.

There are two main problems with this in an intelligent species. The first is that while it works fine for simple animals where individuals are largely interchangeable (the only skills a mouse really needs to know are eat, breed, flee, and hide, and those are mostly instinctual), advanced societies rely more and more on specialization, with some individuals filling roles no-one else can. Having an important politician or a scientist working on a big project get randomly eaten by a fox (remember, R-strategism means everyone has low life expectancies and can die at any time) could set your civilization back by years.

The second problem is that regardless of how fast your body can grow, intelligent creatures need increasingly more time for education. What our society considers to be the "age of adulthood" is gradually increasing as the complexity of our technological infrastructure, and the amount of education needed to effectively contribute to society, increases. Once upon a time people could start combat training at the edge of 7, and no-one would bat an eyelid if you married at 12. Nowadays you need to be 18 just to be considered a legal adult, and even then you've only finished high school and still have college ahead of you. In a typical R-strategist scenario, most children would get eaten before they ever finish school and start contributing to society, wasting all the effort you put in. Once you've put that much time and effort into training new members of society, you might as well go the extra mile and protect them as well.

Milo said...

One approach might be to have the species gain sexual maturity as "children", starting to have children and continue the lifecycle while they're still young and mentally immature. (That they're too immature to make good parents doesn't matter much, since these are R-strategists so half the children dying from parental neglect or incompetence is just par for the course.) Only the most succesful ones would survive to gain a real education, and these "elders" would be respected and protected for their skills, while using sexually-mature-children for cheap labor and expendable soldiers. Sound pretty dystopian from a human point of view, but then, we're K-strategists...

Then again, since the "elders" would seem to be obviously the most fit, it might occur to someone to only let those breed, and then you start shifting into a eusocial hive scenario where the queen is everyone's mother...

Of course, there is the question of what's causing these high death rates in the first place, since it's hard to picture a predator succesfully hunting a sentient species on a large scale. Outbreeding doesn't really help against disease, and even less so against starvation. It could be intraspecific war (continuously, every generation without stop?), or maybe it's just their ancestors were R-strategists and they never entirely shook off the mentality even though it's no longer appropiate (in which case overpopulation is going to be a serious issue), but that's no fun.

By the way, note that all real prey species are R-strategists. To make good prey, an animal needs to be easy to catch and available in abundance. Both are R-strategist traits. A K-strategist animal might be hunted opportunistically, but are too difficult to target as your main prey, and are at high risk of being wiped out from overhunting if you do manage to catch them. (This is another reason why intelligent creatures won't eat humans.)

jollyreaper said...


I avoided saying eusocial because insect hive minds are common to the point of nausea in scifi and non-psychic euosocial behavior still looks a whole lot like that, especially when you have drones and queens and the like. I use the word "mouse" since it's considered the classic prey animal and if alien predators aren't bugs or lizards they're usually cats.

I'd rather avoid the common trope of "they're just like some familiar earth animal, except they have opposable thumbs and can talk."

And you are right, a year long performance is a test just as much as slamming antlers together, but the mice aren't humans with funny foreheads, they're alien with alien psychologies. Their pragmatism and knowledge of deceit and willingness to deceive others without deceiving themselves is what makes them so alien. You are right that a human in such a situation would be tempted to deceive an eligible mate or sabotage a rival. To a mouse, doing so would jeopardize the future of the nest and is simply unthinkable. It wouldn't be believable if the mice were presented as a human society but they're not people and don't think like us.

As for their ecological-mindedness, in nature the balance to poor behavior is an inability to circumvent natural limitations. Too many deer, they overgraze and they die down to a more sustainable number. Too many wolves, they kill too many deer and face starvation. Localized imbalances sort themselves out. Or not. A whole ecosystem can die due to the unbalance of one organism or maybe the environment changes. But humans use tech and are no longer constrained. We reproduce like mad and can continue to do so because of our intelligence.

The mice could do so as well but choose not to because poor behavior and poor stewardship of the environment threatens the hive. Like I said, inhuman psychology. And they make the hard decisions instinctively.

jollyreaper said...

Good point with the R/K strategies.

A couple scifi aliens have a life-cycle where eggs are dropped in the wild and masses of hatchlings are born. They compete and are sub-sentient for several years until their brains begin rapid development and they get smart.

As an example, sea turtles have a very high mortality rate as hatchlings but as adults they can live 80 years or so and aren't threatened by many things in the sea. Trees have a tendency to spam out seeds by the ton and the odds of any one seed hatching are slim but the resulting tree could be around for hundreds of years.

The hive mind answer is that the individual is not important and can be replaced. The somewhat biowank answer is that all technical skills are hardcoded into the genetic code and are instinctive. I don't really like either of them.

The one I haven't seen much of but do like is the idea of encoding racial memories into a bodily secretion that is shared among nestmates. Humans transmitted memories via storytelling and later developed writing. But imagine if not just ideas but direct memories could be shared. This avoids the queen and drone model of the hive mind but explains the close social ties.

I'm not sure how a memory could be transmitted via musk or milk but memory formation is a chemical process and the human brain is made of meat. Surely a transmittable and consumable memory should be possible though I have no idea how that would work -- but it's all chemicals. The result would be like experiencing past lives -- the individual still has a self-identity but can incorporate lessons learned by another as keenly as if he himself experienced it. Of course, that individual has to survive and make it back to the nest to share such a memory.

Personally, I'm still baffled by instinctive behaviors. I can understand a brain forming instinctive behaviors as it learns and I can understand picking things up during youth in instruction from a parent but it boggles my mind how the genetic code can carry information for a neutral net that hasn't even been built yet. Sperm and egg come together and that resulting zygote has all the instincts wired in right there. I can't bloody explain it.

Milo said...

"As an example, sea turtles have a very high mortality rate as hatchlings but as adults they can live 80 years or so and aren't threatened by many things in the sea. Trees have a tendency to spam out seeds by the ton and the odds of any one seed hatching are slim but the resulting tree could be around for hundreds of years."

I know that, but the problem is that to have a really R-strategist society, you'd want the R-strategism to actually show to some degree in the behavior of people in the society. If they have high mortality rates before reaching sentience but lose this trait once they actually start being people, then you don't really have anything interestingly different from humans.

"The hive mind answer is that the individual is not important and can be replaced. The somewhat biowank answer is that all technical skills are hardcoded into the genetic code and are instinctive. I don't really like either of them."


memory transmission stuff

What you're essentially trying to do here is speed up the rate at which information can be taught to others, so you can learn quantum mechanics in seconds or minutes. That has gotta be difficult to evolve (is that much information density even possible, and can the brain process that much at once?), though if you could pull it off, then yes, that would reduce the difference between individuals.

Living in a world where you know and directly "remember" what everyone else in the world is up to would be weird...

The question is what do these individuals do to emphasize their not-hive-mind-ness?

"it boggles my mind how the genetic code can carry information for a neural net that hasn't even been built yet. Sperm and egg come together and that resulting zygote has all the instincts wired in right there. I can't bloody explain it."

The same way you can encode a picture or a video game into a series of ones and zeroes.

Except DNA describes much more complicated programming and encodes it into As, Cs, Gs, and Ts.

Rick said...

Reading this discussion, I keep thinking that a lot of these speculative behaviors are well within the human range. For that matter the 'Murrican range. The clever prey outwitting predators? Bugs Bunny?

R-strategies imply that life is cheap. Societies in the agrarian age operated on that premise to a significant degree. It was common for half of children to die before age five, and their parents were necessarily fatalistic about it.

Human wave attacks have often been successful, and formations such as the phalanx aren't really much different - yes, they're wearing armor, but they're still marching into rows of spears.

Hive entities are really alien to the contemporary liberal west, but Western tradition has regarded them as an ideal - not so much ants, which we don't get along with, but certainly bees, symbol of hardworking prosperity. Plato's Republic.

I would not be surprised if intelligent species tend to be, like us, clever, social scavengers that can live on a wide variety of foods, and thus have to make a lot of judgment calls. I call it the niche of nichelessness.

This doesn't mean they'd look like us, even in a general way, because they could arise out of many ecological circumstances.

Milo said...

Nice point about our past R-strategism. Still, we seem to have mostly left that behind as technology advanced, with hard labor becoming less valuable and advanced skills becoming more valuable. Even so, we took quite a long time doing it - even during the industrial revolution, we were still using child labor. So that shows that R-strategism isn't particularly inconsistent with technological development. Would it be possible for a species where such behavior is more strongly ingrained to hang on to it longer, even to the point of, to pick a completely arbitrary yet contextually appropiate example, performing an Apollo-style moon landing (on their moon, of course, not ours) while still considering life to be cheap? What kind of advantages might a high-tech civilization gain from cheap unskilled labor? Also keep in mind that our reduction in death rate was in large part due to increases in medical and sanitation technology, something that any other high-tech society can presumably also do, unless they have some really difficult biology, or life is so implausibly cheap that people aren't worth the cost of medicine.

I wouldn't say that hive minds are actually that alien - actually, they're less so than individual minds with a eusocial mentality. A hive mind is simply a single organism with multiple bodies, but that has the mind and personality of a single (possibly very smart, possibly not) organism, and can be understood as such. Discussion of such an alien's "socialization" would need to look at how one hive communicates with another hive, not how individual units within a hive stay linked. This might prove to be different from humans, but is not necessarily much different from interactions between non-hive-mind organisms. (Some authors make the mistake of having the entire species be united in a single hive with a single queen. Nonsense. No system like that could ever evolve naturally.)

Thucydides said...

I think Milo overlooked one factor in his alien mouse model: The females would be in competition for the best males. Which sleek furry mousess wouldn't want the husky male who had collected the most nuts and berries over the year?

(In humans this behaviour is quite common as well, sometimes known by the pejorative term "gold digging")

Thucydides said...

Everyone is posting faster than I can keep up (or delete the multiple posts Blogger is inflicting); which suggests another advantage of an R strategy species: they can simply try everything at once.

If there is some organizing principle (sea turtles who have survived past the danger zone), then they can organize the thousands or millions of immature members into teams to carry out actions in parallel, trying out millions of possible premutations until a successful one is found. Land on the Moon? Send hundreds of rockets, artillery shells, mass driver pods etc. until one gets there.

This massive parallelism would allow specific problems to be swarmed unti a solution is found, although it would also probably be heavily biased towards short term solutions (long term problems would be solved by another burst of parallel processing looking for a quick fix, with the next iteration solving the new problems created.)

In many ways this sounds like the classic free market and the meme of "creative destruction", or perhaps biological evolution.

Milo said...

Thucydides: You mean to address jollyreaper, not me. He's the one with mice. I brought up a different (but related) issue regarding fast-breeding life-is-cheap aliens... let's call 'em rabbits.

Anyway, yes, females would tend to choose the best males in their vicinity. So some males will be in much higher demand than others. This isn't really an issue as long as your culture doesn't value monogamy, which would most likely be an alien concept to these mice. A male can fertilize a large number of females in relatively short time, and I can't see many males (especially who were brought up in this culture) refusing to do so. Among humans this would cause serious discontent among the males who aren't being chosen, but apparantly the mice are more tolerant of this, especially if they get to promote their genes by helping out relatives who did get to breed. Of course, this does start to suggest a eusocial scenario where a few males do all the breeding...

Anyway, remember that an advanced society might have many measures of fitness. Is fitness health, or intelligence, or creativity, or sociability? Do you care if your supergenius dream mate is a quantum mechanic or a rocket scientist? This can help spread out the male breeding load, although there will still be a minority of mice who do most of the "work". Also I said "vicinity", which depends on how sociable they are... even (or especially) if you live in a dense city, you don't actually know most of your neighbors. But these mice do seem to be pretty sociable, from what I can tell, so this doesn't really apply to them... much. It's still hard to know everyone in a city.

Gold digging doesn't work in a non-monogamous culture... you're just having some sex with him, you're not marrying him, you're not getting any of his assets (unless he gives them to you to show off his fitness, of course).

Milo said...

Correction: gold digging can work in a non-monogamous culture, if that culture is instead polygamous. It doesn't work in a culture that has no long-term bonding at all, with people choosing a new mate each year. Sorry about the terminology mixup.

Milo said...

Interesting suggestion on the R-strategist rabbit conundrum. Nice insight.

The biggest problem with this is that at a certain point the rockets themselves are going to be more costly than the people you're putting on them. Any rocket that has even a small chance of landing safely on the moon is going to be quite expensive. So no matter how many astronauts you have, you still have a serious incentive to cut down the number of rockets you launch, by increasing the success chance of each one.

Turbo10K said...

In an R-strategist society, with billions of members all in the agrarian age, how can research develop at all? Without a magical 'memory transmission stuff', nothing person A discovers would be built upon or benefit person B. Unlike K-types, who have the benefit of longetivity, so a loong to time to think about anyhting, specialize, and whatnot, R-types would die before university in our terms. I think the natural evolution for any sentient species would be a K-type strategy on a hive mind level (it's already happening with globalization and the Internet). K-type strategy because that is the only way technology would develop, hives because it allows for extreme specialization therefore maximum resource efficiency.

Oh and it'll still be fun for readers. They'd get to follow the adventures of a whole hive, identified as a single individual, and not the day-long-lifetime of the sci-fi equivalent of a mayfly.

Plus, I don't see any species developping sentience at all if following an R-type strategy. It's too expensive to be used in a shotgun way.

Sentient species strategies would differ as in everyone is getting to the same end-point and just doing it in different ways ie aliens could very well have R-type strategists as ancestors but their descendants only have traces of that behavior...

Turbo10k said...

Is it likely?

Turbo10k said...

I think a big problem with such types of civilization is that even if they develop otherwise energy-intensive sentience, our human minds cannot be wrapped around a society who's individuals only live for a few years without some kind of magical 'memory transmission stuff', or in other words, a way to keep the individual alient the reader gets attached alive for the length of the story.

Milo said...

Yeah. It's very hard for us to truly portray a realistic alien mentality, especially since we've never found any actual aliens to study. While fixing this annoying problem is my main priority in space travel, it doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon, so we have to make do with what we've got.

All of SF is essentially about trying to realistically portray something that doesn't actually exist and can't be studied. But doing so with aliens does seem to be harder than it is with anything else. (Which, of course, is exactly the reason why aliens are such an intriguing research subject if we ever find some.)

Milo said...

As for keeping an individual alien alive, there are human stories that follow the viewpoints of many different characters, whether because the stories take place over many generations or just because they like showing multiple sides of an issue.

An R-strategist novel may well end up like that, with many short vignettes from the points of view of different characters, interlocking to form a larger story. Characters would be individually sympathetic but only play a small part of the whole. A human reader would still be turned off if many of the vignettes ended in death, but the style doesn't seem categorically impossible.

Turbo10k said...

Interesting...but not impossible I guess. Weber did it with his ant novels successfully, but only by giving great individualism and intelligence to the characters. I'll try one day to write the same event, but segmented into 'vignettes' and through the viewpoint of many characters.

Rick said...

People can and do ascribe a personality to places, from sacred groves to modern cities. So we might be able to learn to relate to the beehive more than to the transient individual bees.

Milo said...

Wouldn't that be like writing a story about the adventures of a faceless corporation? I'd try and figure out how to write an interesting story about a human city (as opposed to the people living in it) before trying to do the same with an alien city.

(I am assuming that that beehive here does not have a telepathic hive mind..)

Rick said...

Since the hive is an intelligent entity, it can have dialog lines, even if learning how to identify them is difficult, let alone translate them. Where's the real babelfish when you need it?

Turbo10k said...

"Since the hive is an intelligent entity, it can have dialog lines, even if learning how to identify them is difficult, let alone translate them. Where's the real babelfish when you need it?"

It probably wouldn't use 'dialogue lines' as such, but a hive mind could have several emotional states (if one third of the colony is happy and the rest feel menaced, the colony is in a 'feeling menaced' state)

Milo said...

Humans can have mixed feelings too, so that isn't a showstopper for hive entities.

Rick said...

We might experience the hive entity's mixed (and other) feelings directly, and more readily than its finished thoughts.

Suppose - this is being simplistic, and a bit precious, but it does for an example - that the individuals in the hive sing as they work. The moods of their singing vary; they respond to each other, and somehow their interaction becomes the higher thought processes of the hive-city itself.

The lyrics of these songs, probably very repetitious, might be literally fragments of thought, bouncing around the hive's metaphorical head.

Hey, if I were better at describing this I'd be collecting my Hugo, not writing it in a blog!

As for the hive's ability to have 'dialog,' presumably the species forms multiple hives, and the hives may interact. Probably they have to for the race to become fully sentient.

Hives might even have sex, in effect, by exchanging drones/princesses - who ever knew diplomacy could be so much fun?

Milo said...

If you have a hive entity that's eusocial in the sense of ants and bees, then I think it would be best to think of it in terms of human extended families, in a culture where loyalty to your clan is highly valued. Except here the loyalty is hardcoded into their genetics.

The queen is mommy. The neighbors are your sisters. Even if you have the occasional quarrel with your family, you love them and will support them through thick or thin.

"Suppose - this is being simplistic, and a bit precious, but it does for an example - that the individuals in the hive sing as they work."

Heh. When did Disney design a hive mind?

Perfectly sensible, though.

"As for the hive's ability to have 'dialog,' presumably the species forms multiple hives, and the hives may interact."

Definitely. Every eusocial creature in real life has numerous hives, and the idea of a only-one-queen-for-the-entire-species system was perpetuated by science fiction authors who have no idea how an actual hive works.

A single-hive system would be far too vulnerable to extinction if something happens to your one queen and her handful of replacements. Furthermore, a single-hive system could never evolve, because evolution works by survival of the fittest - which only works if you have multiple competing organisms/hives/whatever it is that actually reproduces.

"Hives might even have sex, in effect, by exchanging drones/princesses - who ever knew diplomacy could be so much fun?"

Heh. Especially fun if those drones are of the "mate once and then die" type. And are sentient, and completely at peace with their role.

(Termites are more sexually emancipated than ants/bees, by the way. They have both male and female workers, and the male reproductives tend to stick around.)

Sex would probably not be a private affair in a eusocial hive. The continuation of the family line is in everyone's interest, and for sterile workers, watching porn is the only thing that really stimulates them in "that" way. Everyone will be happy when a young princess starts contributing to the hive by mating for the first time.

Though maybe it might be private in terms of not letting people from other hives watch...

Of course we're actually discussing two different scenarios: (A) a eusocial hive of sentient but closely-knit individiduals, and (B) a eusocial hive where the hive as a whole is sentient, but its constituent individuals are not. And neither of those is completely on-topic for the idea of an R-strategist civilization (rabbits might come in large numbers but they aren't eusocial), although they're certainly fun too!

Anonymous said...

So, Rick..."The lyrics of these songs, probably very repetitious, might be literally fragments of thought, bouncing around the hive's metaphorical head.

Hey, if I were better at describing this I'd be collecting my Hugo, not writing it in a blog!"

...ok, that means that you listen to the symphony, and not the soloists, to hear the conversation of the hives. So listening to a conversation between hives is like listening to a concert...That is so cool! Keep thinking about that and maybe you will get that Hugo!


Turbo10k said...

Except that said symphony is just an analogy...Say we have a race of sentient ants. Pheromones and other chemicals released into the air would be communication method used. We'd have messages formed by different ratios of said chemical over another, like a flag system. Us human explorers would use chemical captors (digital noses exist already...) that would taste the air in a certain area of the hive, and with a database set up previously, create a general message. The more ants there is in a certain area, the more concentrated the pheromones become in the air and therefore the message is the most complex. Developping this, we'd have a brain-like organism the size of a city. The individual ants would act as neurons, with nodes being some sort of brain bug, creating a huge, complex parallel network.

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Michael said...

Sorry to dig up another undead thread, but as a dedicated Browncoat I just couldn't leave this statement alone:

"But the great precondition to all this is habitable frontier worlds, whether made so by nature, terraforming, or outright manufacture in the form of habs. Either of the last two demands a very high techlevel... "

The Firefly 'Verse did have a very high techlevel, it just wasn't available to everyone.

Joss Whedon, in the film Serenity, did eventually justify in-story the large number of terraformed planets by showing huge terraforming machines that did most of the work "in decades" (these may be the atmosphere processors mentioned later in the film). The way that this was presented seemed to imply (IMO) that these were some form of archeotech brought from Earth-That-Was, possibly not reproducible by the Alliance. A couple of episodes of the series stated that the remainder of the terraforming effort was hard, brutal work, and contributed to the short life expectency of the not-often-voluntary workers. The difficulty of terraforming might also explain the predominance of desert on many worlds.

The Alliance, with its long-settled and industrialized Core worlds would also seem to have a vested interest in keeping the Rim planets poorly developed and easily conquerable.

--Just my 2 cents.