The Particulars of Colonization

How do you colonize another planet, anyway?

The fact that settling on planets other than Earth remains science fiction should tell you a thing or two about how difficult it is. Although we’ve been sending humans to space for over half a century, our only attempts at semi-permanent habitation beyond Earth’s surface have been in the form of space stations, most notably the International Space Station.

The longest period anyone has spent in space is a year and a few months–a far cry from the lengths of time that would be required for settlement of another planet. So, why is it so hard?

The most obvious hurdle is finding a suitable environment. Not just a supportive atmosphere (though that is essential), but appropriate gravity (not too high, not too low), enough sunlight (but not too much), and the right temperature. Most sci-fi tales that involve space exploration handwave these elements, conjuring plentiful human-friendly worlds. I can’t say I did much differently here, though it should be evident from the portrayal of the Trepsis colony in The Militiaman that the colony can’t really support itself. It receives regular runs of supplies and colonists, growing at a slow clip as infrastructure is built out. It is indicated at one point that early work involved determining what crops could grow in Trepsis’ soil. But with crops come insects, or at least they are a sensible thing to add, since they make pollination much easier.

To control growth of the colony, everyone is put on no-maintenance contraception, as well. No one is allowed to bring children with them, so it is mostly childless people who make the journey. A real offworld colony would probably have to take similar measures until it becomes sustainable on its own, at which point organic population growth could be tenable.

It’s also worth thinking about all the basic services we take for granted that would have to be implemented from scratch on a new planet: sanitation, roads, power, water, communications, production of basic needs. Buildings on Trepsis are constructed out of modular slabs transported en masse from Lexin, allowing rapid assembly of housing and other structures. They are in no way luxurious or even very durable, but they are cheap, provide sufficient shelter, and are easy to attach to infrastructure services.

For these reasons, a lot of manual laborers are required to start up such a colony. There is just so much to build, so many ditches to dig, so many services to set up. In the case of Trepsis, it probably goes without saying that the mining corporation responsible for establishing it spent the bulk of their resources and attention building a robust mining facility. Out of everything on the planet, the mining complex is clearly the most developed and technologically advanced, second only to the local mining company headquarters. Everyone else lives in relatively ramshackle, low-tech conditions–a clear sign of the priorities involved.

The physical requirements of setting up an offworld colony are only half of the equation, though. Social factors are at least as important, and knowing that Nytrolus populates the Trepsis colony through both direct selection and a volunteer lottery, there must be a lot of unseen work involved in deciding who gets to go, and who doesn’t. Those directly selected for resettlement to the colony are presumably physically and mentally equipped for the rigors of frontier life. Nevertheless, there are examples of alcoholism and a notable case of nepotism among those “carefully chosen.” It’s fair to say that Nytrolus isn’t running the most efficient and effective colonization operation. (And to be fair, the primary purpose of such colonization is resource extraction rather than the establishment of a functioning society.)

What about the volunteers? Though they are said to be chosen by lottery, odds are there is a system for filtering out those who might pose obvious problems to the smooth operation of the colony. Since the directly selected colonists are recruited for mining and administrative operations, everyone chosen by lottery is meant to find their own work–of which there is plenty.

Trepsis, as portrayed, is obviously a pretty bad example of a colony. Besides that, all of Lexin’s previous colonies have failed, so they are not very good at it! On Trepsis in particular, it’s known that their Chief Militiamen have a habit of dying mysteriously, likely due to untracked gang activity. Not exactly a place you would probably want to pack up and move to!

If we were to attempt to establish a colony away from Earth, it would likewise be an incredibly difficult undertaking. Even if a hospitable planet can be found, setting up basic infrastructure and housing would take a lot of time and effort, even if all the right equipment is brought to ease the process. Hardy, resilient people comfortable with the prospect of a likely one-way trip would also be essential–if things go wrong, they will almost certainly be on their own, their survival entirely in their own hands. Regular deliveries of more people and supplies would likely be required for a long time, too, until the colony is established enough to produce everything it needs and actually sustain itself–a process that could take years or decades. The number of people required to organize and sustain a self-perpetuating colony depends very much on the technology level one wants to maintain, too. A complete reliance on stone and wooden tools with no greater conveniences can be sustained with a few dozen or a few hundred people. But an extremely technically complex society like ours would require millions–up to 100 million people, by some estimates. So many people are needed because there are so many kinds of knowledge and specialization that need to be developed and maintained in order to perpetuate all the various disciplines, practices, and technologies we are familiar with. Starting with 1000 people, assuming a 10% annual growth rate (by a combination of inorganic and organic growth), it would take over 120 years to reach 100 million people! And of course, that is assuming compounding growth, which is highly unlikely to be sustainable. All this is to say: starting over isn’t easy! It would probably be the hardest thing humanity ever attempted.