Near Horizons

The fast road to tyranny.  Published by Macdonald & Co 1969

The fast road to tyranny. Published by Macdonald & Co 1969

The future of humanity in space is inevitably linked with the colonization of other planets, in our Solar System or beyond. Unless our descendants are to live permanently in spacecraft, of whatever dimensions may be feasible with their advanced technology, surfaces of other worlds are our only likely homes in the centuries to come. Which raises questions as to what those surfaces may be like.

Planets suitable for human colonization tend to fall into two broad categories in science fiction. Some may be appropriate throughout their length and breadth, as with the planet Doona in Anne McCaffrey’s 1969 novel Decision at Doona, though that world had different, unexpected problems for the colonists. Others are unrelentingly hostile, requiring endless human bravery and courage to defeat the obstacles being confronted, as in Harry Harrison’s Deathworld series from the 1960s.

But in all such cases, entire planets are available where human beings can be fruitful and multiply, once they have overcome whatever stands in their way. The situation could be significantly different if the land area for colonization is severely restricted, as might well be the case in reality. In Stephen Baxter’s 2009 novel Ark, it presents a real problem for the potential colonists of Earth II.

Larry Niven’s 1968 novel A Gift from Earth described an original and disturbing scenario on these lines. In seeking worlds to colonize, mankind sends out robot probes to nearby stars using ramjets which reach nearly the speed of light, so within a few years, messages come back of suitable planets. Then the colonists follow in much slower spacecraft on what is effectively a one-way trip – they rely on the robot having got it right, and there’s no going back. When a colony ship arrives at a planet orbiting Tau Ceti, it turns out that the only habitable area is the top of a huge mesa, around half the size of California, standing forty miles above an intolerably hot surface and poisonous atmosphere.

So, with such a restricted area for expansion, the crew take firm control of the situation, and of all the colonists when they emerge from suspended animation. Three hundred years later, pure-bred Crew descendants live “the lives of a divinely ordained ruling class” and the Colonists live under their strict dictatorship. In their powerless position, Colonists convicted of crimes (of which there are many) provide a gruesome source of spare parts for the Crew. As a Crew leader explains: “We own their bodies…We take them apart on the slightest pretext; and if they manage to die a natural death, we get them anyway, what we can save.” And there’s very little to stop the Crew’s absolute rule.

A feature of the BIS conferences on Extraterrestrial Liberty in recent years has been the likelihood of coercive cultures emerging in space colonies. Indeed, given the need to control key requirements for life such as air, water and food in at least the early days of any such colony, dictatorship seems inevitable. In An Essay on Extraterrestrial Liberty (JBIS, July 2008), Charles Cockell explained how easily such tyranny could evolve. One only need think of how a monopoly of the air supply on Mars is controlled in the 1990 film Total Recall to see how effective an abuse of such power could be.

Limited living space for a society could equally lend itself to dictatorship. The Nazis’ perverted idea of a need for lebensraum for those who they perceived to be racially pure was a pertinent factor in the development of the Third Reich, as it had also previously been in Imperial Germany. When the scope to expand is genuinely restricted, or effectively non-existent, such rule may be inevitable.

And natural leaders will always make themselves available to take charge – or sadly, and more likely, it may be those with a lust for power who find a handful of willing supporters and possibly a docile population. We must always beware of the big fish in a small pond – it’s a dangerous beast.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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