Worldbuilding: Space Opera Clichés

I commented on this post of Charlie Stross’s before now – about when it was first posted back in ’16 – on G+, but while I wait for compilers to compile and linkers to link, I thought I’d post a commentary on the giant list of hoary and terrible space opera clichés here, too, with specific ‘verse relevance.

Here’s the list, or at least those bits of it I felt like commenting on:

Planetary civilizations
This subheading covers common cliches/mistakes made in discussing inhabited (Earthlike) planets and the people who live on them.

  • Planets are small and easily explored

Depends what sort of exploration you have in mind.

On the one hand, there’s no denying a planet is a lot of real estate.

On the other hand, you can fit a satellite constellation capable of producing an arbitrary-resolution sensor map of a planet into the cargo hold of a free trader or scout these days.

On the gripping hand, acquiring the data is easy: processing the data is not. Sure, you can read every page of every book on the planet that happened to be open and visible at the time, but you’ve got to identify them first.

  • You can fly anywhere at Mach 2.2+ without worrying about Air Traffic Control and NOTAMs

Well, you can – because if you ignore Atmospheric Control and skyway routine, the people you have to worry about are air defense command.

  • Coriolis force, trade winds, cyclones, what are those?

In the case of the last of the above, a bloody nuisance. Especially in the case of worlds like Phílae, which averts the below entry by being almost all ocean, and thus having absolutely huge hypercanes that circle the globe multiple times and make a cat 5 hurricane, Earth-style, look like a fart in a bathtub.

  • Oceans are small, land-locked, and mainly useful for fishing

Sticking just to the original Thirteen Colonies alone, while Sevára resembles this to some extent (30%- water coverage, which might as well be land-locked since it’s a chain of seas around a single continent), they also include Phílae, which is 95%+ water, with most of the single small continent buried under the northern polar ice-cap (also water). Most of the population lives, you guessed it, on, in, or under the sea.

Most garden worlds are somewhere in the middle.

  • Deep carbon cycle, subduction, ionosphere UV splitting of water, long-term terraforming stability: why worry about little things like that?

Why, indeed?

I mean, the Protectorate of Balance, Externality, and the Commons (in particular the Offices of the Atmohydrosphere and Bioecology) and the Ministry of Settlements and Habitation do worry about things like that, as do various ecotects working for ecopoesis corporations, their liability carriers, and the obligators who write out the terms of the million-year warranty complete with comprehensive lists of things to do and not to do to, with, on, or near your shiny new planet.

But unless you’re in the ecopoesis or planetary management business, even in a civilization that thinks on those timescales, you personally as a representative of 99.999% of the population probably don’t need to. And from a fictive point of view, planning the next aeon’s atmospheric replenishment cycle is not what you might call an action-packed field.

(As a side-note, we can contemplate how many civilizations whose governances have the more traditional mayfly-like political attention span are going to have a really embarrassing Three-Generation-Rule moment when the warranty runs out and they realize they haven’t done any of the recommended maintenance to ensure their planet will still have an atmosphere.

And their revered ancient ancestors seventeen governances ago lost the paperwork somewhere in between the time the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas.

But it’s not like the Worlds have been around for long enough for most of the grand acts of ecotecture to be showing their age. Hell, most of ’em still have that new planet smell.)

  • Plate tectonics is easily ignored, unless the plot requires a Volcano/Earthquake

Again, it’s something of a specialty

  • Some planets have a breathable atmosphere but no water

Maybe occasionally possible if you don’t breathe oxygen and live on The Planet Of Massively Hygroscopic Rocks… nah, can’t happen. Forget it.

Space and cosmology
Common blunders in cosmology, planetography, orbital mechanics, and related.

  • Planetary ring systems are picturesque, not dangerous

Planetary ring systems are picturesque and dangerous. But if you can’t acceptably solve the problem of dangerous, why the fnargl would you set up shop near one?

(General rule ignored by Obstructive Naysayers: sometimes problems are solved.)

  • Planets rotate east-to-west

While not true *here* by the IAU definition, true in the ‘verse, because *there*, the direction of north is determined by which end of the spin axis spins counterclockwise when viewed from above. Planets which have retrograde rotation are deemed to be upside down from a N-S point of view.

(This difference is probably because in Eldraeic it sounds bloody stupid to have the sun setting in a direction whose name literally means “sunriseward”, and there’s not anything particularly useful to be gained by aligning north and south across planets anyway, especially since they all have different axial tilts. If you need to talk about which planetary pole is above the invariable plane of the star system, you’d call it the acme pole and eliminate the ambiguity.)

  • Planets have magnetic poles that approximate their rotational axis

The thing about magnetic poles? They don’t have to approximate the rotational axis, certainly (just look at Uranus, which is 60 degrees off), but especially in the case of lithic worlds, they very often do.

Why? Well, a typical lithic world (like, say, Earth) gets its magnetic field from its spinning iron core. (Technically, convection currents in the outer core powered by core heat, shaped by the Coriolis force, but the spin and spin axis are important here.) And given viscosity of molten rock, friction, and the like, planetary cores tend to end up with a fairly similar spin and spin axis to the rest of the planet.

  • You can change orbital inclination easily

With torchy torch drives, you can. Although that does depend on having the aforementioned torchy torch drives.

  • Actually, hitting a space rock or other spaceship is no big deal, a bit like being in a minor car accident
  • … Even though the kinetic energy released by an impact increases with the square of the velocity, and you’re travelling hundreds to millions of time faster

A world of nope.

  • Gas giants are good for mining volatiles

Being big piles of volatiles, yes – although relative abundances are, of course, relevant…

  • … Because dealing with Mach 6 wind shear, 10,000 Bar pressure, and a lethally deep gravity well is trivial

…10,000 bar, huh. According to my handy-dandy chart of the Jovian atmosphere, that pressure is reached somewhere way down below -132 km (which is where Galileo stopped transmitting), beneath the cloud layers and the tropopause. At that sort of level, the pressure is around 12 bar, which is where hydrogen becomes a supercritical fluid.

Which means the really obvious question is why exactly I need to plunge that deep into Jupiter to skim gas? What’s wrong with the 0.1 bar zone, at the top of the tropopause, or hell, chunks of the stratosphere? You can skim freely through that without going anywhere near the dire pressures down below, and here’s the fun part, that also means skimming the gravity well, and that the winds aloft are easier to deal with. And as a free bonus, you don’t get nearly so much miscellaneous crap in your hydrogen-helium mix to filter out.

(I picked Jupiter here, as my example, because it’s pretty much the pessimal case.)

tl;dr It’s not trivial, but it ain’t no thing.

  • … Because we need volatiles such as 3He, to fuel our aneutronic fusion reactors (hint: Boron is cheaper and much less scarce)

It also requires a substantially higher ignition temperature (200 keV vs. 30keV for the ‘verse’s preferred 3He-2H or 5.2 keV for 3H-2H), has a poorer energy density, and is inconveniently solid, not to mention actually less conveniently ubiquitous.

(On this latter, boron ores are lithophile evaporites, which basically means they get concentrated in the Earth’s crust and further concentrated by hydrologic processes. Boron “ores” you’re likely to find in space are going to be crap-grade ore, because there’s not a process concentrating them.)

  • Supernovae happen routinely and are no big deal

The CASE INFERNO ANTEDILUVIAN team beg to differ.

  • Interstellar space is totally empty
  • … You can fly as fast as you like without worrying about dust particles
  • You don’t have to worry about interstellar gas, either

While the in-system speed limit of 0.1 c is based on safe flight control, the lighthugger speed limit of 0.9 c is based on the survivability of said lighthuggers behind the best foreshield and associated technologies that science and engineering can produce.

  • … Except when there’s not enough of it to keep your ramscoop accelerating
  • Incidentally? Ramscoops totally work! (Larry Niven said so in 1968.)

They make great brakes, though.

  • Don’t let the fact that space is full of exciting high energy physics put you off going there, squishy meatsack-persons!

“It’s not like the multitude of ways in which other places can kill you nastily put us off from going to those places, either.” (Your humans may vary.)

(Again: problems? Have solutions. Solving problems is what sophonts – and even prosophonts – do. This is what sapience is for. If you’re just going to sit on your ass and complain about mean old high-energy physics making things haaaaard, you might as well be a rutabaga.)

Biology is complicated—so much so that many SF authors suffer from Dunning-Kruger syndrome in approaching the design of life-supporting planets.

As a general note on the below items, while you can argue that the native biochemistry is one we can’t possibly derive nutrients from or argue that the native microbiota will eat our crops and give us parasites and allergies while the ship’s rats run free like Australian rabbits, it takes some chutzpah to try and argue both at the same time.

  • The native flora and fauna use a biochemistry that we can derive sustenance from

Not all of the time, or even the majority of the time, but surprisingly often. The phase space of biochemistry is big, but it ain’t that big, and it’s filled with local optima, like amino acids, and simple sugars, and fatty acids, and – well, you get the picture.

  • … This includes weird-ass micronutrients

This, on the other hand, no. By and large, if you’re going to try and subsist on exoflora and exofauna, you will need your nutritional supplement pills, or tailored yoghurt, or Exploratory Service-grade gut flora. And most of it will need some kind of pre-processing to take out those portions of the exobiochemistry that isn’t only indigestible, but actively toxic. (The process of ecopoesis – on garden worlds – and ecosystem blending thus tends to require a lot of genetic and other bioengineering.)

  • Pay no attention to the native microbiota, they’re harmless

For the same reason as above, also mostly nope. If you can eat them, they can eat you. Viruses you don’t have to worry about, mostly, since they depend on identical genetic mechanisms and encoding, but bacteria, fungi, etc., just need a compatible growth environment, which is much easier to meet.

(The eldrae had early experience with this with such conditions as bacterial cachexy, which is a bluelife bacterium which is more than happy to grow in greenlife, ultimately causing death from circulatory failure.

And which happens to need a completely different set of antibiotics to treat than greenlife bacterial conditions, ’cause it doesn’t have the same internal processes to interfere with.)

Most newly-encountered garden worlds come with their very own extensive suite of new exotic diseases to keep you busy. You don’t just take off your helmet and breathe the local air unless you’re either fixin’ to die or have an Exploratory Service-grade artificial immune system – and even if you have the latter, you do it cautiously.

  • … You won’t even suffer from hay fever! Much less systemic anaphylaxis.

Oh, you will. At least the hay fever – histaminic triggers are everywhere where there’s exoflora. (Bring your standard-issue strong histaminolytics.) Probably not the latter, so much; the bioengineers have had plenty of time to work on disastrous evolutionary bugs, and capping mast cell activation at a point below that at which it kills you was pretty close to the top of that list.

  • Ecosystems are robust; why not let your ship’s cat stretch her legs whenever you land?
  • … This goes for your ship’s rats, too

The question is not why you should let the rats, it’s how the hell are you going to stop the rats? Rats are everywhere, and always will be. Rats are the ultimate survivors and the most cunning stowaways. When the universe finally collapses into the screaming void, there’ll be a rat watching munching on some popcorn.

Any ecosystem that can be destroyed by a few rats will be. One just has to reconcile oneself to that.

…or you can co-opt them into your civilization (yay, smart-rats, a.k.a. Rattus faber) on the grounds that one way or another, like it or not, you are going to have rats, so you might as well try and achieve mutualism.

  • Terraforming is really simple; you can do it with algae capsules delivered from orbit

Good grief, no. Ecopoesis is a highly complex hands-on engineering discipline, and for every ecotect carrying it out, there is a small army of specialists in dozens of fields working under them applying hundreds of technologies to create an orchestrated symphony of gradual, managed change.

It’s not that hard to get some result, but getting a result that’s sticky, useful, and anything like what you intended to get… that’s hard.

  • There are no native parasites that might eat Maize, so we can turn the entire largest continent into a robot-run plantation

See above, mostly, plus an arbitrarily huge number of reasons why it would be both terrible and bloody stupid to turn an entire continent into a monocultural plantation.

(*There*, this even to the extent that current Earth agriculture practices it has long been considered a very bad no good idea that’s going to fuck your planetary ecology right up, even on your homeworld or a world whose ecology is entirely artificial. Massive-scale commodity green-goods production is something for arcology-sized vertical farms where you don’t have to demolish your way through a delicately-balanced ecosystem or contaminate the crap out of entire continental watersheds and even oceans.

Eutrophication, red tides and other algae blooms, and so forth, are generally interpreted by professional ecotects as a sign that You Failed Planetary Management Forever.)

  • You can keep a starship crew healthy and sane indefinitely using a life support system running on blue-green algae, tilapia, and maybe the odd soy bean plant

Only for relatively short periods. Now, specially engineered foodstuffs like algiprote, nutriyeast, and mycoprotein, those will keep you healthy indefinitely, but I wouldn’t want to vouch for the sanity of anyone who had to live off those indefinitely, even if they also had access to an unlimited supply of flavor-and-texture kits, and didn’t just end up chewing on a heap of rat bars.

  • Life support systems are simple, stable, and self-managing

Well, you wouldn’t need a Life Support Engineer if that was the case. Given a lot of time to work on these things, large, non-canned systems are self-managing to a degree – sane engineering design being to build appropriate negative feedback into the systems to keep ’em in the right zone without need for even automatic intervention – but microecologies will never have the buffers of macroecologies, and as such Direct Intervention will occasionally be Necessary.

  • It is safe to put bleach down the toilet on a starship; your algae/tilapia/soy will totally deal with it when it comes out of the recycler

You. Do. Not. Put. Harsh. Oxidizing. Agents. – or acids, or inorganics, or poisons, or raw hydrocarbons, or other such shit that downstream won’t like – Into. The. Black. Water. It’s not red water (i.e., industrial sewage where the water is acting as a carrier for all sorts of nasty shit and is heavily processed to be safe); it’s black water, which is treated via hot composting and biocleaning cascades before being reintroduced into the ecosystem.

And that’s something that’s been true *there* since long before space was a thing, so it’s not like anyone had to learn something new about life-support safety.

(So use eco-friendly enzyme-based cleaners, people! And keeping the pipes clean is what the genemod eels are for.)

  • Vitamins? Naah, we’ll just genetically modify the crew to make their own

Them or their gut flora. But that? That’s the emergency backup system and a way to make the trans-planetary micronutrient problem at least somewhat less problematic. You don’t want to rely on it as the first-string solution.

  • If you implant humans with the gene for chlorophyll they can magically become photosynthetic
  • … Okay, if you add the genes for RuBiSCO and the C3 pathway they can magically become photosynthetic

Well, first, that’d be a terrible design. What you want to do is give humans endosymbiotic chloroplasts, which is to say, the way plants do it. It’s not like they have genes for chlorophyll either.

  • … Because of course two square meters of skin is enough surface area to photosynthetically capture enough energy for a high-metabolic-rate mammal to live off

Indeed, it isn’t. (Nor does the green skin of a chloromorph-clade produce all the other necessities of a balanced diet.) But as in the case of those photosynthetic animals we know about, it does provide a useful energy supplement.

Also an excuse to dress skimpily and sunbathe at the drop of a hat, if you feel you need one.

  • Humans can too hibernate/deep sleep between star systems! All you need is a cold enough chest freezer
  • … Just as long as their intestinal flora go into cold sleep at the same time
  • … and so do the low metabolic rate arctic pseudofungi spores they picked up at the last planetary stop

I do not know if this is intended to include cryonics with skiffy cold sleep, here, but if so, there are certain thermodynamic limitations that suggest they’re going to have to be downright magical intestinal flora/spores to get much of a party going at 77 K.

Fingernails-on-blackboard time for me. (See also: Neptune’s Brood)

  • New Colonies may be either agricultural or mining colonies; rarely, resort colonies

New colonies (as in, intended to grow up and become a real world some day) are all general-purpose colonies. While interstellar shipping hasn’t remained obstructive-naysayer expensive, it’s still more so than local shipping, and only the heir to the throne of the kingdom of idiots bases their shiny new planetary economy on extractive-industry exports or importing basic necessities.

  • Everyone uses Money to mediate exchanges of value

See here.

Money is common, because money has many desirable features. But it’s far from the only means ever used.

  • Money is always denominated in uniform ratios divisible by 10

Six, 12 and 24, for the esteyn. Factors of two for the exval. Then you start considering more exotic currencies, and things gets complicated.

  • Money is made out of shiny bits of metal, OR pieces of green paper, OR credit stored in a computer network

Mostly the last, again because it’s convenient. As for the former: well, yes, these are clichés, but they’re clichés because they are strong local optima. Coin-alloy is hard-wearing and physical currency is useful if you’re away from the clearing network; the bills are likewise useful hard-wearing plastic silk (although in many colors for your convenience; only the Es. 24 is green). It’s the internal v-tag that actually represents the value of the money, though – no intrinsic value here! – and that’s something that has been attached to all sorts of different objects, including examples of historical currency from cowrie shells to silver pine-cones to droplets of mercury.

  • There is only one kind of Money on any given planet, or one credit network
  • The same kind of Money is accepted everywhere as payment for all debts

Despite the best efforts of restrictive governments everywhere, no. There are certain local legal tender rules (even in the Empire, if you take a dispute to a Curial court and for whatever legal reason can’t get specific performance for the original payment agreement, you’re going to have to take esteyn, and the exval is generally accepted by agreement due to, again, the utility of an agreed-upon exchange currency/money of account for interstellar trade), but there are lots of currencies around and people who use many of ’em.

Likewise, while there isn’t one credit network, the many credit networks tend to interoperate, so basic functionality is available everywhere except utter backwaters. Visa, anyone?

(And, on this note, wasn’t it you, sir, who pointed out down below the advantages of EDI/EDIFACT standards for commerce? Well, in a few thousand years, turns out people have also noticed the advantages of not having to tote letters of credit around via chains of correspondent banks. And you can’t have it both ways.)

  • Visitors are always equipped to interface with the planet-wide credit network

Mostly, yes. See above, see Visa, see things that happen because commerce works better that way.

(That the answer is only mostly is why you can convert money into physical currencies, letters of credit, the equivalent of hawala tokens, even the venerable and vaguely ridiculous gAu, and so forth. Usually at the starport.)

  • Barter is a sign of primitive people who haven’t invented money

At most, you might say that barter – in an economy that has nothing but barter, and no multilateral trade exchanges, etc., to grease the wheels – is a sign of economic inefficiency. Having barter as a segment of your economy, on the other hand, isn’t a sign of much other than a laudable willingness not to throw away tools just because you got a new one. And sometimes it’s the best tool for the job.

(Side note: the Empire is one of the few modern polities that still lets you pay your taxes service fee in goods or services, rather than money. Because (a) why not, and (b) people who are richer in goods or services than in liquid cash can be equally deserving of citizen-shareholdership, too.)

  • People who rely on Barter are simple, trusting folks (and a bit stupid on the side)

Primitive is not and never has been cognate to stupid, except in the minds of the stupid.

  • Inflation? What is this, I don’t even …
  • Deflation? What will they think of next?

Well, if you ask the Imperial Board of Money and Values, they’re both ways to lie to yourself about the state of your economy and hope that they become more or less true before the bottom falls out.

(Inflation, in particular, is all too common in the Emerging and even Second Tier markets as a way of delivering an illusion of prosperity while – given who usually ends up with the seigniorage – acting as a form of stealth asset tax.)

  • Sales tax? What’s that?
  • Income tax? What’s that?
  • Import duty? What’s … (rinse, spin, repeat)

Robbery, robbery, and robbery, but they do tend to exist in various less civilized places. Emerging markets, one might say.

(If the Culture’s meme is “money is a symptom of poverty”, the relevant meme here is “taxation is a symptom of incompetence”. If you’re a sovereign service provider that’s bad enough at its job that it can’t persuade people that its services are worth purchasing, then you suck as an SSP.)

  • If you fail to repay a bank loan you may be arrested and held in debtor’s prison

Depends on the polity, but in the Empire, there’re no prisons period, so…

(Also, imprisoning people so they can’t generate any income to pay back their debts is, to put it kindly, kinda dumb even for most of the galaxy’s awowed mustache-twirlers.)

  • … Or sold into slavery

No, obviously, but you may voluntarily accept an indenture. This usually means that you’re trying to preserve your reputational capital by making a good-faith effort to repay your otherwise unrepayable debts, or that you wish to avoid bankruptcy on the grounds that while inalienable property is still inalienable, the liquidator is likely to give the reasons you went into unrepayable debt about five kinds of side-eye.

(They are known for being considerably gentler with “I attempted something and fucked up, or circumstances happened” than with “I’m a spendthrift deadbeat”.)

  • … Or your organs can be seized
  • … Because your body is just one of your fungible assets, right?

As per inalienable property above, only your second and subsequent bodies that don’t qualify as tools of the trade are liable for seizure (y’know, luxury goods). Again, turning bankrupts into the perpetually-impoverished-due-to-inability-to-earn is not good policy. Just good assholery.

  • People on planets have not heard of Ponzi Schemes
  • People on planets have not heard of Credit Default Swaps or the Black-Scholes equation

Most of the common kinds of financial skullduggery are fairly well-know. If you want to try and rip off people this way, you may want something more exotic and a world that’s still trying to catch up shortly post-contact. Like a negative-frequency trading scam.

  • If money is made of shiny bits of metal or green paper, banks have vaults where they store lots of money
  • Money sitting in a bank vault is worth something

Well, you’ve got to keep the physical tokens somewhere, but really, it’s more of a cupboard than a vault, specifically because money sitting in a bank vault isn’t worth anything, even its face value.

(When the bank takes it in, beyond the cashier’s float, it’s transferred to a digital account and the v-tag in the coin or bill is blanked. When they give it out, the reverse process happens. If you steal the physical tokens sitting in the bank’s storage cupboard, what you have is a pile of scrap metal/plastic that isn’t even worth scrap value, since even if you melt them down you can’t take a lump of highly distinctive coin-alloy to a recycler without it being very obvious what you did.)

In any case: banks aren’t money-stores, unless you go to a very specialist outfit indeed. That’s not how banking works, despite the ignorance most everyone has on the topic. You’re loaning them your money to do useful things with.

Vaults are for safe-deposit boxes, et al.

  • Visitors to a Colony can leave their money with a bank between infrequent visits without fear of consequences

If it’s connected to the clearing network, you don’t need to. If it’s not… yeah, that’s probably a bad idea. Convert it to something generally convertible, and take it with you.

  • Banks are stable, because …
  • … The planetary government will never let a bank go bust, because …
  • … The galactic emperor will never let a planetary government go bust, because …

This, again, is somewhat policy and therefore polity-dependent, but Imperial banks are mostly stable because its governance will let a bank go bust. The lack of a lender of last resort or any legal powers to otherwise bail out a failing bank encourages what one might describe as a more healthy attitude towards taking on risk and hedging it than that of banks in polities which declare them too big, or too necessary, to fail.

It helps that its citizen-shareholders are educated in how fractional-reserve banking actually works and advised to pick the risk levels they wish to accept, and thus the reserve ratio they want out of their bank (etc.), accordingly.

  • Traders on starships land on planets to load and unload cargo
  • … Or they carry their own orbit-to-surface shuttle

In high-volume trade and/or around developed worlds, no: that’s very inefficient compared to transshipping at orbital ports and letting the local cargo lighters and longshorebots do the next step in delivery.

On the other hand, tramp traders hauling low volumes to undeveloped worlds that don’t have all that developed orbital infrastructure? Well, how else are they going to get it groundside?

  • … Which is as easy and safe to operate as a fork-lift truck

In an absolute sense, no. In a relative sense, for people with good technical educations appropriate to their society, a shuttle-operator’s ticket and when it’s been a mature technology for multiple generations? Yes.

  • Cargo is bought and sold in starports

It seems a mite cruel to point out that the right to buy and sell speculative cargo at dockside from your little tramp trading ship is still a thing, right now, today, in this 21st century of ours. It makes up a very, very small part of the market, certainly, compared to mighty container ships and their fancy supply-chain systems, but it’s certainly still there . Shit, I’ve personally watched goods being bought and sold at dockside off a wooden-hulled sailing dhow working the Pacific routes. In Dubai, even, which is obviously not at all a city known for its massive investment in modern shipping and trading technologies…

(I mean, yes, there’s obviously something of a bias in what we see in space operas, but that’s because people tend to prefer reading about The Exciting Life of the Free Trader, not Yet More Days Doing Exactly As The Shipping Company’s Head Office Tells Us To, While Bored Out Of Our Collective Skulls.)

  • It is profitable to ship crude break-bulk cargo like timber or foodstuffs between star systems because starships are cheap and easy to repair and operate

They are (again, by the relative standards of a society that is wealthy and educated and in which they are well-established mature tech), but it’s still not for, say, trash pine and generic wheat.

If you’re talking about a particular planet’s exotic hardwood-analogs or its local versions of Kobe beef or Tokaj eszencia, on the other hand, super-premium products all, that can be profitable.

  • Break-bulk shipping in open cargo holds has never been improved upon
  • Multimodal freight containers, EDI/EDIFACT standards for commerce, bar codes, bourses, and RFID technologies are just inferior and unnecessarily complicated alternatives to a bazaar or indoor market

Well, I just talked about freight containers… which includes mention of their v-tags, the modern alternative to bar codes and RFIDs. As for EDI/EDIFACT, the folks behind the Accord on Trade, the Imperial Banking & Credit Weave, the Hundred Precise Protocols of the Integral Accountant/Galactic Financial Documentation Standards, and so on and so forth have been pushing that forward and outward for millennia, at this point.

That being said, the nit I have to pick here is mostly that this makes no distinction between large trade and small trade which will still continue to exist in the shadow of large trade, as I point out above – and the tools of one are not the tools of the other. All these things coexist quite happily with bazaars and floating markets, because it’s a case of the right tool for the right job, not one-size-fits-all.

  • Insurance underwriting? Arbitrage? What’s that? (rinse, spin, repeat)

Necessary? Inevitable?

  • All cargo starships need plenty of unskilled deck hands to help load and unload cargo

Large freighters working for freight lines don’t: they run from highport to highport, and the highports have plenty of longshoresophs and their longshorebots for hire. There’s no point in carrying them from place to place with you when you won’t need them in the middle of the trip.

Small free traders working backwater routes and hicksworlds, on the other hand, do need cargo handlers and handling equipment, because there’s no guarantee the place they’re arriving at will have the necessary. But those aren’t unskilled deckhands – you want a certified loadmaster and some spacehands with cargo handling certificates (probably cross-trained to do other jobs while under way), since screwing up your cargo loading can cost time, money, and Not Going To Space Today. Unskilled labor it ain’t.

  • Piracy is a huge problem for space traders
  • All cargo starships need gun turrets to fight off swarms of space pirates

For the most part, no, in most regions. It’s virtually impossible to get away with piracy in developed systems stuffed full of sensors (there ain’t no stealth in space!), traffic, and patrol craft, and most star nations patrol their space. Some patrol well beyond their space; the IN runs a lot of extraterritorial patrols as part of their stargate plexus security mission.

But where there is heavy political instability (“Warwilds”), especially the kind that leads to ex-navy crews with ex-navy ships, rogue star nations who openly or covertly sponsor piracy, or a power vacuum waiting to be filled (such as in the Shadow Systems, where no-one really wants to have fun down in the tarpit), there is piracy along with other local problems. Civilization’s navies and privateers (a lot of privateering is “buy a Q-ship, go to the bad part of town, wait for trouble to come to you, then shoot it”) can keep it down, but they can’t make it impossible.

(As a side note, most pirates are at least as big a threat to poorly defended colonies and drifts as they are to merchies, probably more. It’s not like they care what they raid, and those places have the advantage of not being able to flee.)

  • … Cargo starships with guns can fight off space pirates

Depends on a number of factors.

As a general rule, you can get away with this under two circumstances –

  1. When your merchie isn’t really a merchie; it’s a Q-ship, naval auxiliary, or euphemistically named “frontier trader”, with a military-grade hull, drives, weapons, etc.; or
  2. When the pirates aren’t the successful pirates mentioned below using ex-naval starships themselves, and you’re basically blasting away at the spacegoing equivalent of Somalis in skiffs.

When this isn’t the case, you can’t go up against a ship of war with a merchant hull and expect to win. Recommended procedure is to dump cargo and run like hell, screaming on the distress channels, and hope like hell that the pirates are more interested in seizing it than in killing you.

(There are certain odd exceptions depending on what qualifies as “fighting off”. Some merchies from civilizations with the Greater Immortality prefer to let pirates close as far as is possible, close the remaining distance themselves, and then detonate a fairly large bomb pour decourager les autres. Imperial captains are particularly notorious for this sort of thing, on the grounds of “fuck you, slaver”, deterrence, and having insurance carriers who support this policy.

Even some merchies who don’t have access to backup tech will do this on the grounds that a fairly large subset of pirates are psychopathic motherfuckers who torture and kill those they capture, and if you blow yourself up, at least you and your crew will die clean.)

  • Cargo starship crews can fix battle damage

Minor battle damage, yes, insofar as it tends to be indistinguishable from oops damage. The hole in your ship and the wrecked equipment inside it neither knows nor cares whether it was caused by a k-slug or a “golden pebble” meteoroid.

  • … All it takes is enough duct tape and determination

And a highly-trained engineer or two, and an adequate supply of spare parts.

… Because space pirate weapons are as deadly as shotguns, not H-bombs

It’s generally considered appropriate not to nuke, irradiate, or vaporize the cargo you’re trying to steal. This is similar to the reason that modern-day pirates don’t use mines and torpedoes. That particular type of pirate optimizes their weapons mix to disable without doing too much collateral damage because otherwise their business isn’t going to be profitable.

And you know that, ’cause you said “Space pirates will happily open fire on a cargo ship to damage it before boarding” like two lines further down.

  • … And starships cost no more to build and operate than a 1920s tramp steamer

Absolutely? No, of course not. Relatively? Yeah, pretty much, because the economy has moved on and everyone’s correspondingly richer.

  • Space pirates will happily open fire on a cargo ship to damage it before boarding

See above.

  • Space pirates need to board cargo ships in order to steal their cargo

Not usually, because as mentioned above, merchies tend to dump cargo and run when at risk of pirate intercept, and if the pirates have them under your guns at point-blank range, they could just order them to open up the cargo bay and transfer without boarding.

But, if that’s the case…

  • … And impress/conscript/enslave their crew

…they’re probably going to want to steal the ship, as well. Starships are expensive, even given the above, and can be sold on, or back to the owners. And then there’s ransom of the crew.

In any case, the pirates aren’t carrying a whole spare crew aboard, and in any case, taking only one ship per expedition (and then your hold is full) is wasteful. Thus, if they want to steal the ship, they’re not going to put a full crew on her; their prize crew is going to consist of one, maybe two, technically trained officers and a small brute squad to make the merchie crew work the ship for them until they get to Space Tortuga.

  • You can tell the difference between a pirate and a space trader with a glance

Actually, yes, for the most part. Three reasons: one, successful pirates are usually running about in ex-naval vessels or at least ex-naval auxiliaries, and a military ship really doesn’t look that much like a merchie – especially to recognition software.

Two, people dumb enough to try to use a merchie as a pirate ship are usually also dumb enough to stick spikes and guns all over it, because they’re not exactly representing the deep end of the gene pool, know what I mean? That stuff shows up nicely when you order your lidar to get you a hull map.

And three, there aren’t fixed shipping lanes in space. Courses diverge radically with thrust and departure window. You can be very suspicious of any not-positively-identified starship that’s on a course to intercept you outside the start and end of your voyage, because in the ordinary course of events that should never happen.

(A note on piracy in planetary orbit: in developed systems, this never happens. Why? Because being in planetary orbit means being within range of the orbital defense grid, and while the Orbit Guard may not be able to be everywhere in orbit, the grid can reach out and touch you anywhere with a gigawatt of sustained, high-energy nope.)

  • A cargo captain in a hole might easily turn to smuggling to improve their bottom line

…oh, yeah, that never happens at sea. Or in the air, for that matter. Ever heard the one about the pilot who ran an entire chain of seafood restaurants based on shipping unmanifested lobsters on his regular route? Or the one importing cheap fruit from East Africa, only caught when the fuel consumption was analyzed?

  • Navies are a lesser threat to smugglers than random encounters with pirates

Navies aren’t much of a threat to smugglers at all. Intercepting ships in naval craft is expensive in time and delta-v. What smugglers need to watch out for is the Orbit Guard and the Imperial Customs Service (in their orbital cutters and waiting dockside), or their local equivalents – often including the local revenuers – which loom much larger than pirates in the average smuggler’s eyes.

  • Nobody has ever heard of end-user certificates or bonded cargo

Oh, plenty of people have heard of them in places that care about such things, even if the average Imperial thinks about them in terms of “that annoying bureaucracy that the chaps down in Sovereign Liability Management should have dealt with already”.

  • Nobody ever thinks to ship their high-tax cargo via a free port or use complex financial arrangements to avoid customs duty without having to hire a dodgy armed ship with a poor credit rating

The smugglers in particular think of that, who are probably its greatest professional practitioners. Why take risks you don’t have to when you can law-fu your way to the same result? All part of the profession.

(Side note: smugglers generally use regular merchies, not armed craft. Protective coloration, and doesn’t attract the unwanted attention of everyone who can get a hull map off you.

Even custom-designed blockade runners tend not to be armed, on the grounds that getting into pissing contests with local security forces is (a) undesirable, and (b) detracts from the core mission of getting in and out quickly, quietly, and profitably. If it looks like that sort of thing is about to happen, you’re already so off-plan that you should already have started running.)


  • Planets have a single unitary government (or none at all)

While many planets don’t have a single unitary government –

(Although most of those have a supranational body to deal with space affairs, or a superpower in whose territory the primary starport is located and that’s more or less treated as the planetary government by offworlders. That’s because:

Okay. Look at Earth. It has 194 nations. Dozens of them are significant and rather more think that they are. Now consider that from the perspective of a decent-sized interstellar polity, and dealing with them individually starts looking like appointing an ambassador to the US per state. Now multiply that by the number of non-unitary governances in the Worlds, and it’s like appointing one to every county in the US.

By and large, star nations severally and the Conclave of Galactic Polities generally prefer not to deal with fribbling small change. On the rare occasions that an individual planetary nation comes to the attention of the big boys, it’s usually for as long as it takes a gunboat to deliver a kinetic explanation of why you don’t want to come to the attention of the big boys.)

– a lot of them do. Because most planets are colonies, and most colonies started out with one colonial administration that has the rights to the whole damn planet. There are freesoil worlds and multiply-colonized worlds, but they’re the minority, and usually have a similar “for planetary-level issues” body worked out that homeworlds do.

  • All planetary natives everywhere speak Galactic Standard English, or Trade Pidgin

Again, not all, but most developed or semi-developed worlds that aren’t also xenophobes have added an appropriate dialect of Trade to their local education system. Useful for commerce, interstellar amity, reading the extranet, instruction manuals…

It’s probably about as hard to find a Trade-speaker somewhere in the known galaxy as it is to find an English-speaker somewhere on Earth, which is to say, there may not be one right there, but the locals can usually dig up someone who’ll mostly understand you.

  • New Colonies can’t afford police, detectives, customs inspectors, or the FBI

Sure they can. I mean, New Colonies are more or less defined by being really small, so what you may have in these roles is one soph titled “Prefect of Security” who’s been seconded to the Watch Constabulary, the Office of Investigation and Pursuit, the Fourth Directorate, and the Imperial Guard of Borders and Volumes, while contracted to the colonial corporation and actually direct-reporting to the Office of Conlegial Relations, and still not being overworked…

…but they have them. They just have to change hats a lot.

  • New Colonies don’t require visiting spacers to conform to local dress codes or laws

That’s what startown is for, even on old worlds indeed. Not absolutely, of course, but since there are a lot of worlds and cultures with radically different ideas on such things, it helps to have a, shall we say, relaxed zone – be it official or unofficial – for visitors in the interests of your local commerce.

No-one is all that fond of visiting the Planet of People with Sticks Up Their Butts, especially if fines, fees, and bailing out half their crew for not wearing a purple flannel codpiece on Cheese Flushing Day is cutting into the voyage’s profit. Just see no evil, hear no evil, lie back, and think of the import duties.

  • New Colonies don’t have gun control laws

They mostly don’t, it’s true. In the case of some garden-world colonies that’s because there are usually things outside that might kill you, as far as anyone knows, but mostly it’s because it takes a certain degree of spare capacity in your governance to start enforcing a passel of mala prohibita. Law has costs, and new colonies usually have more important things to worry about.

  • New Colonies don’t have laws, or if they do they were written by a mad libertarian

Technically all laws in this universe were written by a mad libertarian. Even the natural ones. ;D

  • There is no unemployment because happy smiley frontier needs cowboys or something

On new colonies, there is no unemployment because a colonial corporation isn’t going to spend money to ship your ass to its colony outpost without having the job or two or three you’re going to be doing all planned out first.

Now, once it’s developed to the point that regular people start moving there, it’ll rapidly develop – assuming here a colony of one of the Core Markets civilizations – the same bloated delightfully plump leisure class that all Core Markets have.

  • If the planet is a colony of the Galactic Empire, the new Planetary Governor will be appointed by the local Sector Governor

If it’s an Imperial colony, what the central governance gets to appoint is a rector (or rectrix), whose job is to liaise between the nascent local governance and the Ministry of Colonization, et. al., until such time as the colony grows enough to be a full self-governing world. But they aren’t “the governor”; they’re just there to provide help and guidance during the initial, difficult stages of materializing an economy, governance, local culture, etc., etc., ex nihilo.

  • … It’s Governors all the way up (until you hit the Emperor)

Since one size doesn’t fit all, levels both above and below (and including) the planetary tend to vary considerably in governance form depending on local needs and tastes and traditions. All the Charter actually requires of them is that they have an individual-to-small-group to serve as an executive and some form of popular input (which does allow some Athenian democracies, even). But variety is definitely the spice of life.

  • Monarchy is the natural and perfectly ideal form of government

The latter would be a civilized constitutional diarchy that does as little governing as it can get away with, for all that representations of this system are few and far between.

Which I suppose makes it a highly unnatural form of government.

  • Only an Imperial Monarchy can ensure the good local governance of a myriad of inhabited planets scattered across the vast reaches of deep space

Mostly, what ensures the good local governance of a myriad of inhabited planets scattered across the vast reaches of deep space is a central governance that understands that local issues vary, therefore local solutions vary, therefore it should trust the local governances enough not to try and micromanage things by fiat from a hundred light-years away.

Well, not strictly ensures. But it’s a good start.

  • Monarchies are never a Single Point Of [Galactic] Failure
  • Monarchs are never stupid, mad, ill, or distracted by a secret ambition to be a house painter instead

Well, they certainly could be, which is why sensible monarchies – and diarchies – are not strictly hereditarian, but rather make the choosing of the Heir something that examines qualifications and ambitions carefully and stringently to ensure a lack of stupidity, madness, corruptibility, and unwillingness to do the damn job.

(In a nice formalized way that requires minimal resorting to tragic hunting accidents, or in the modern era, tragic airlock accidents.)

  • Democracies are always corrupt

A conclusion one could not possibly reach by studying Earth, circa 2018.

  • The standard punishments for a crime range from a small fine, to slavery in the uranium mines for life (about 18 months), to an excruciating death

Which, as we know, is not the case on Earth…

Of course, the bigger problem here is the notion of “standard punishments”, which brings up a big ol’ [citation needed]. For the most part, there aren’t standard punishments, except for a few designated by the Accords which run along the lines of “if we catch you in piracy or slave-trading, you can be summarily blown out of space”.

Meanwhile, in the Empire, punishments range from small fines, to larger fines with accompanying meme rehab, to euthanasia. The Meridianites tend to prefer (reasonably humane, as such things go) prison, with variably-effective indirect rehabilitative programs. The Consolidated Waserai Echelons apply shaming, military discipline, and if necessary the offer of a pistol with a single shot. The D!grith Association uses publicity, shunning, and exile. The Photonic Network renices you, in the nice(1) sense, and applies compulsory debugging. The Iltine Union has gulags and forced labor. Most codramaju associations will sentence you to consumption, which yes, does mean eating you and excreting the non-useful bits. The Hope Hegemony reduces your meritocratic karma, which may or may not result in ending up in the protein banks. The Under-Blue-Star League will do something that begins as cryptic and ends up as ironic. The Theomachy of Galia, now, they’re the ones who’ll send you to the uranium mines, with a side option on “have her stripped and sent to my torture chamber…”.

  • Trials are swift and punishments are simple and easy to understand
  • Justice is always punitive/retributive/exemplary, never compensatory/preventative/rehabilitative, much less poetic/cryptic/incomprehensible

Oh, that so depends on where you are.

(For myself, I would classify the Empire’s justice as compensatory / medical-rehabilitative / surgical.)


  • There is usually only one culture per planet

Sometimes. Colonies which start out with an integrated communications grid, or from a single source of expansion, tend not to build up much of an internal cultural delta. But absolutely no homeworlds behave this way, short of Something Very Nasty in their history.

  • … Pay no attention to the blank spots on the map
  • … And especially don’t go looking for the unmarked mass graves

Or in some cases, the marked mass graves. Some cultures are sufficiently far from the human baseline to build the We’re Glad We Killed These People Monument right next to the Mass Extinction Museum and the School of Why Other Cultures Are Below Us.

  • Planetary natives are either Colonists or Indigenous

…so, if they didn’t start out there, and they didn’t move (or were moved) there, where did they come from? Although, really, after a while, who goes around pointing it out? Everyone’s just folk now.

  • Lost Colonies may resemble Primitive Indigines but never Advanced

Lost colonies that are small enough to noticeably be colonies rather than developed worlds have a nasty tendency to resemble “dead”, due to lack of extremely vital resupply.

But it is perhaps worth noticing that each of the Empire’s original Thirteen Colonies – which are about as close as it has to “lost”, given that they were founded sublight – had developed advancements over their starting tech in ways that the homeworld had not, come Reunification. (Hence the resulting boom when people started sharing those ideas and developing synergies.)

  • New Colonies resemble Tombstone, AZ, circa 1880

New colonies resemble the aftermath of a collision between a freight yard, a science lab, an industrial park, and a particularly boring suburb of bungalows, with a couple of inflatable domes thrown in for flavor.

(They get more interesting once people stop using prefabs and start building for themselves, but it still isn’t going to look much like Tombstone.)

  • New Colonists live in log cabins, ride mules/horses and carry ~six-guns~ blasters
  • … You can find logs (cabins, for the construction of) everywhere on planets
  • … They’re like abandoned crates in first-person shooters

New colonists live in prefabs, ride skimmers, and carry gauss pistols. You can’t build with logs until you figure out what the local wood-analog is and if there even is one; even if you have a garden world you don’t want your transportation to risk poisoning or anaphylaxing itself on the local unknown vegetation; and everyone carries those anyway. Although on said garden world, where you can’t yet recognize and avoid everything that might want to snack on you, the need is considerably greater.

  • Psychologically speaking, everybody is either WEIRD or Primitive
  • Primitive (non-WEIRD) people are stupid and unimaginative
  • WEIRD people accept and embrace change and innovation; non-WEIRD people reject both

Oh, no, the galaxy isn’t dominated by the WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic). It’s dominated by the CUTER, who are Consensual, Urbane, Transsophont, even more Educated, and Rich(er). And who would probably not think all that much of the merely WEIRD.

(As for those who aren’t CUTER – well, in earlier articles I’ve already covered the very extensive taxonomy of terms for those poor sods. Primitive is included, but that one’s not a value judgment, nor does it imply stupid and unimaginative. There are plenty that are and do, though, no worries there.)

  • Colonies are usually modelled on WEIRD 1950s cultural norms
  • Colony People come in two genders
    • The Women on New Colonies are either:
      • … Barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen (because colonies need babies)
      • … Dungaree-wearing two-fisted starship-engineering-obsessed lesbians desperate to get off-world
    • The Men on New Colonies are either:
      • … Manly plaid-shirt-wearing heterosexual farmers breaking sod in the ~west~ new world
      • … Dastardly drunken muggers waiting behind the spaceport saloon for an unwary spacer

I asked the Ministry of Colonization about this. They told me the modal colonist is between 300 and 400 years old, has 2-3 degrees, and is extensively cross-trained for flexibility and redundancy in a truly remarkable number of disciplines. Because it turns out what brand-new colonies need is scientists and engineers to build all that infrastructure and figure out how to make it compatible with the planet.

While there are agronomists and farmers in the first wave, incidentally, the initial farming is done in artisoil in greenhouse domes, vertical hydroponic farms, and carniculture vats, because you don’t want to rush out planting your crops in alien soil until you’ve done science to it, at least enough to confirm what the Exploratory Service said and probably in more detail.

(Assuming your new colony world even has soil. Maybe it just has regolith and you can’t plant anything outside until you do a lot of dirt farming and make some soil. Maybe it has regolith and isn’t an ecopoesis candidate so you’ll never be able to farm outside. Lots of other possibilities.)

  • QUILTBAG: huh? Who are those people and why doesn’t somebody cure them?
  • … (Alternatively: everybody is QUILTBAG, pale patriarchal heterosexual penis people are extinct)

All these terms are meaningless: orientation is a choice in the era of mental editing. (Which I suppose is a variation on everyone being QUILTBAG, except that everyone’s just as QUILTBAG as they want to be. That’s the civilized way to do things – people shouldn’t have to be stuck with choices they didn’t make.)

  • You can recognize someone’s gender on any planet because:
  • … Women wear dresses or skirts with make-up and long hair
  • … Men wear pants (or occasionally suits of armor)

Yes, but not exclusively by a long shot (especially the hair, which is generally long for all). Even leaving out all the species which don’t wear such clothing or have different sets of genders or otherwise aren’t hominins.

  • … Hijra? Hermaphrodites? Transgender? Asexual? What are those?

Clades, mostly.

I will, however, take a moment to note that my universe has a transgender problem, or rather a specific transsexual problem, which amounts to their complete and utter invisibility on the page. (Yes, there have been some.)

See, the thing is, the logical locals hold pretty firmly to the principle that your ontology isn’t your ontogeny, and since changing sex is done by a full-body gender-flipped clone and mind-state swap, there is literally no physiological difference between the cis and the trans. It’s a historical datum, not a current state.

So, y’know, no-one invented the term transsexual on the grounds that it would make about as much sense as describing a caterpillar that became a butterfly as a transmorphal, or some such coinage. You are now what you are now.

  • On some planets people go naked, except for body paint
  • … This causes no problems, whether social or practical

That’s usually just the sophs with fur, which serves as body coverage and is oft annoying, when thick, to wear clothing on top of.

Otherwise, there are, well, social and practical problems, which lead to most nudity being situational. Like, say, the public baths.

  • The only place worse than a Colony World is Old Earth
  • Old Earth is
    • … An over-crowded overpopulated hell-hole
    • … An over-regulated bureaucratic hell-hole
    • … A poverty-stricken backwater and hell-hole
    • … Destroyed
    • … Lost (because everyone in the galaxy somehow forgot the way home)
    • … Mythical (and many people think it never existed)
    • … Somewhere to run away from
    • … (Rarely) Somewhere to run to

Old Eliéra, by contrast, is wild, rich, spotlessly clean, and largely tax-free, with crystal spires and optional togas. The only thing you risk on a visit there is catching a terminal case of cultural smugness.

  • Slavery is
  • … Ubiquitous
  • … No big deal
  • … Illegal but all the bad guys do it

Illegal and several of the bad guys do it. Not, I note, for economic reasons which mostly don’t make sense, but specifically for the evulz.

Technology – space travel

On the whole category of cheap and easy-to-operate spacecraft: impossible because –

(a) technology never becomes cheaper and/or easier to operate over time; and
(b) people’s ability to do things is also utterly invariant; and
(c) education and things included in it is also utterly invariant over time.

Or, y’know, not.

  • Rocket motors are simple to maintain and operate, too—they never break

Not never, but reliability has increased a bit over the, ooh, several millennia of engineering advancements that they have on us.

  • Reaction mass is incredibly dense, cheap, and easy to stash away in a spare corner

Cheap, yes (hydrogen is everywhere). Not so much the other two.

  • Oxygen is freely available in space

Well… it’s not available at most points in space, granted. But if we’re talking about space as a whole, there’s an awful lot of ice in it, which is just two simple operations away from being oxygen.

  • Spaceships are:
    • … bilaterally symmetrical

Radially symmetrical, for the most part, lest you be unbalanced about your thrust axis, fall off your tail, and not go to space today. Or not go to the part of space you intended to go today, at least. The bilaterally symmetrical ones tend to be aeronef interface vehicles that have to care about aerodynamic issues.

But also, I am assuming here that future people do not lose all sense of aesthetics, and while they may not go so far as to go out of their way to make ’em pretty, people are not just going to weld together arbitrarily asymmetrical junkpile craft just to say “look, I’m in space, and need give no shits about aerodynamics”. People care about what their stuff looks like.

  • … easily maintained by semi-skilled labour/shade tree mechanics

Only in places where the shade tree mechanics have a couple of degrees or degree-equivalents each.

  • … available second-hand in good working order from scrapyards

More like “available in order that will almost certainly kill you fairly rapidly” from scrapyards, although something that starts out as a junker, like this, might be salvageable with love, care, and lots of solid engineering. Mostly the latter.

  • Generating electricity aboard a spaceship without solar panels is easy

It gets easier if you can avoid a case of galloping nucleophobia.

  • … So is getting rid of waste heat

Probably the hardest problem in starship design, but not an insoluble one. Just one with very large and visible solutions, usually.

  • Faster than light travel is easy

Depends. Faster than light travel via stargates is easy for the starships. Inventing it and building the massive gate system, that’s really, really hard and expensive. But you only have to do the really, really hard bit once, then sell the service on.

  • Causality violation: what’s that?

Locally (i.e., an effect precedes a cause, but all effects still have causes)? A fun day out for all the family, provided that your family consists entirely of physics students.

Globally? Impossible, fortunately for those of us who enjoy living in a stable cosmos. Consistency protection says no.

  • There are no regulatory frameworks or licensing regimes for starships

Indeed not. On the other hand, there are those insurance underwriters we mentioned up above, who have some very firm ideas about what they’d like to see in terms of safety features and qualifications before you go charging about anywhere that might pose a hazard.

  • Nobody would ever think to run a starship up to 50% of light-speed and ram a planet

Oh, lots of people have thought of it.

But there is a very strong consensus in the Worlds against causing gigadeaths and destroying valuable worlds and their ecologies, which is what Chapter I of the Ley Accords is all about.

It’s happened exactly once, mostly because no-one ever believes in consequences until they happen to someone. Since those consequences amount to “We, for values of we equal to everyone else in the known galaxy, will hunt you down and kill you, along with your entire organization, your military forces, your government, and anyone else involved in the operation – which may, if we think it was done with popular support, involve bombing your entire civilization back into the stone age and possibly further down the evolutionary ladder,” everyone is highly incentivized to (a) not do this sort of thing, and (b) police their own crazies to make sure they won’t, either.

(This means that most asymmetrism in the ‘verse tends to have a sponsor with a tight grip on the throats of the actual asymmetrists, because no-one wants to inherit the thermonuclear responsibility for the local cave-dwelling whackjob.)

  • There’s no regulatory framework for shuttlecraft, either
  • … Because nobody has heard of Kessler syndrome

See above. The junk cleanup crews might also disagree on that one.

  • … Also, a space shuttle in-falling from low earth orbit totally doesn’t arrive at ground level with kinetic energy equal to about ten times its own mass in TNT, because if it did it would be a field-expedient weapon of mass destruction

See also: orbital defense grid, things it is good for apart from zapping military targets.

  • Flying a spaceship is not only easy, it’s easier than flying a Cessna

Well, obviously. There’s no weather, and piloting errors don’t make you immediately fall out of the sky and die.  It’s less intuitive than flying an aircraft, but that ain’t the same thing by half.

…and, of course, from a spacer point of view, they are intuitive. Space is where physics works in a nice obvious manner. It’s planets that bend it all out of shape.

  • Spaceships communicate across interplanetary or interstellar distances by radio
  • … Interplanetary radio works instantaneously

Radio’s for local, broadcast comms. Long-range point-to-point comms are a whisker laser thing. And yes, laser light is as slow as light.

  • GPS works in space beyond low earth orbit: who needs navigation skills these days?

No, but OPS does. Societies that colonize space are going to build designed-for-space navigation systems. (Sensible ones will also teach celestial navigation and ship backup equipment that uses it, because sometimes things break and its preferable if those times don’t kill everyone.)

Technology – Pew! Pew! Pew!

  • Missiles, with a constrained (small) propulsion system, can overhaul a much bigger/less constrained spaceship at great range

…occasionally at a few times and places, which mostly has to do with those being the times and places when people were willing to use drives on missiles (NWSR, anyone?) that they wouldn’t dream of attaching to a starship. But in general, no, they don’t.

  • Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties don’t bother to count Free Trader Beowulf’s point-defense nuclear missile battery for treaty purposes—only naval nukes count

Tactical nukes don’t count no matter who owns ’em. Too dinky. (Also, nuclear missiles make terrible point-defense weapons.)

  • Boarding actions have mysteriously made a come-back from the 1850s.

What, the boarding actions that specialized ships were built for during the First World War, that continued right through the Second World War, that the Marines in both the US and UK continue to train for today, that are widely used by modern-day pirates, that the Coast Guard commonly engages in while interdicting smugglers – something that you mentioned in the space navy context up above – and that are growing in importance in a wet naval context too, per Wikipedia? Those boarding actions?

The limited nature of boarding actions is because they’re very hard, not because they’re not useful.

  • Guns are still bang-sticks that require a human to point them at a target

That kind does exist, although with some flex on “point”, but autonomous weapons systems are much more combat-relevant on the battlefield.

  • Stun-guns have no unpleasant after-effects

The most common stun-guns have all the unpleasant after-effects of severe electric shock, since they’re electrolasers which work by, well, inflicting severe electric shock. Turns out there isn’t usually an easy, convenient, safe way to knock out even one species, never mind one that will work across multiple species.

  • Bullets are brainless

Flechettes are brainless. Gyroc micromissiles are anything but brainless.

  • You can dodge laser beams

Nope. You can, however, no longer be where the person firing the laser thinks you are, if that laser beam is in the hands of the average biosapience with electrochemical nerves. You can demonstrate this phenomenon with a laser pointer and a cooperative cat.

(If you’re facing down an electrophotonic opponent at close range, though, be it sophont or just someone’s guardian drone, you’re screwed.)

  • All starships need to carry armed guards, or at least a gun locker full of blasters for the crew when they’re visiting a Colony planet

Depends on the colony planet, but if you don’t have your own on most of the more hostile ones, a small army of starport concessionaires will sell or rent you one.


  • Aliens are multicellular organisms with nervous systems and musculoskeletal systems

Only if you generalize sufficiently (these are not your Earth cells, these are not your Earth nerves, and these are definitely not your Earth muscles); but they do generally have building blocks, something to think with, and a way to move, yes.

  • Aliens communicate in language

For the very broad definition of “a means of encoding information for transmission between entities”, trivially true for everyone except obligate solipsists. The Exploratory Service has had to expand their preconceptions about what constitutes a language a few times, certainly.

  • … Using noises
  • … Emitted by their mouths
  • … At frequency ranges we can perceive

…now those, those are not universals, which is why Eldraeic comes in something like fifteen differently encoded isomorphic versions.

  • Aliens are individuals
  • Aliens are eusocial hive organisms

…and everything in between.

  • Aliens want to trade with us

There’s this principle called comparative advantage, see…

(Which is not to say that some aliens can’t be as moronic on trade policy as, say, the average major political party, but certainly not all of them.)

  • Aliens want to exchange bodily fluids with us (ewww …)


  • Aliens are incomprehensible

As a general point relating to aliens in general, I’d point out that we all live in the same universe and are subject to the exact same natural laws, which includes things like the laws of economics. A degree of common ground is therefore damn near inevitable; incomprehensible or ineffable aliens are only so because you haven’t effed hard enough.

  • Aliens have been extinct for millions of years, but:
  • … have left treasures behind in their death-trap-riddled tombs

Usually, they’ve left relics or relics of relics behind in their junkyards, ruins, and miscellaneous storage places. (At least half of which are instantly mislabeled as ritual objects.)

  • … their ephemeral technologies still work flawlessly

Paleotechnology doesn’t work that way, unless you’re lucky enough to stumble upon something that happens to be unusually rugged, self-repairing, and extremely lucky. At this point, alarm bells should be going off in your head.

  • … they’re extinct because they Sublimed
  • … they’re extinct because they became Decadent
  • … they’re extinct because they suicided
  • … (robot-alien remix): they’re extinct because they tripped over the Halting Problem
  • … they’re extinct because (insert dodgy social darwinist argument here)

Does it count as a dodgy social Darwinist argument if most of them canonically died out either due to some massive fuck-up of one kind or another, or due to being swatted like a fly by the indifferent forces of the universe (gamma-ray burst, supernova, climate change, ecosystem collapse, asteroid strike…)?

I mean, if you haven’t the necessary precursor techs to redirect asteroids yet, that’s not a social-Darwinism type problem if one wipes you out. If you have and were just too lazy to develop the capability – well, jury’s still out on that.

And a few more seen in the comments:

Everyone’s fully-trained and knows how the ship and equipment work to a high degree of detail, just like everyone today is a great driver and finds it trivially easy to, say, change a spark plug

Hey, some civilizations have higher standards than others.

Oh and another serious bugbear of mine: The biggest sources of problems with a spaceship are engines and life support, not plumbing and fluids. Slosh doesn’t exist (despite your artificial gravity!), the toilet pumps never get the wrong thing flushed down them, and the various sweet, grey and black water tanks (which I’m betting your ship doesn’t have the volume to hold anyway) never have any flaws, busted welds, weak connections or blocked ports.

Oh, no, you definitely need space plumbers. Lots of space plumbers.

(Although you might want to consider just how much plumbing there is in life support. Almost all of it, in fact.)

  • Everybody is crazy about having sex in space.
  • … Especially in micro-gravity…
  • … Because you just float and don’t push away from your partner(s) or start to spin…

There’s equipment for that. The ingenuity of sophontkind in this area truly passeth all understanding.

  • Despite interacting for thousands of years together, humans and AIs stumble over idioms and the AI’s inability to understand emotion or human cognition limits

I want to know how an AI (digisapience) without emotion and therefore emotional understanding could even work. What’s its motivation?

  • Interspecies sex is wildly kinky and / or addictive

Well, some cultures certainly think of it as wildly kinky, but that’s because they’re not very cosmopolitan.

  • Humanity could survive first contact with a more technologically advanced species without the culture shock and negative effects that colonized people have experienced in Earth history.

This is probably true for humanity. Anyone care to take a guess as to why it’s not a problem in the ‘verse’s general case?

  • Aliens sleep, and don’t think it at all weird that humans have to spend a third of their lives dormant.

Sleep is a common attractor, but certainly not a universal.

  • Corollary: Aliens require bedrooms, and are accustomed to providing same for travelers.

On the other hand, exodochia (i.e., those hotels specializing in the outworld trade) do tend to be run by people who have at least thumbed through a guide to Other Sophont Species And Their Wacky Habits.

When ships meet in space

As a first rule of thumb, ships don’t meet in space. Ships usually whip right past each other in space at high velocity. If you want to meet in space (a zero-zero intercept), you have to match velocity and position, burning a hell of a lot of delta-v to do so. Which means:

– Ships will always come to a relative stop at a distance sufficiently close they can cover a good portion of the human visual field to the naked eye.

This is actually true, because you aren’t going to expend all that delta-v unless you have some compelling need for actual physical interaction that can’t be done, for example, over communications channels or with projectiles of some sort. And since you need said interaction, parking any farther away than you have to is only making your own life more difficult.

  • The future banking system uses biometrics (retina scans, fingerprints) to verify identity, because of course those never change

Sophisticated authentication systems tend to use cognometrics, because biometrics do change quite easily. And they still need regular updating to account for drift.

  • Colonized planets never have annoying mild endemic diseases that travellers have to deal with

s/never/always/ . Although they usually have vaccinations or artificial immune system patches to “deal with” them.

  • Local businesses will always treat offworlders just like any other customers

Surprisingly the case on most civilized worlds, because of the unofficial rule of economics that says “if you screw them over, they won’t come back”. Not all worlds are civilized worlds, of course, so there are plenty of exceptions, but by and large this is a clue that has sunk in.

– Technology transfer between alien races will be very limited. Of course a primitive government couldn’t just ask a tramp freighter captain to download the Wikipedia of the more advanced polity when he drops off his ore delivery. Because reasons.

Technological information transfer like that is, well, easy and ubiquitous, as is buying handy high-tech goodies like a field cornucopia. Having the infrastructure to do anything useful with your new learnings, on the other hand, that’s not.

  • Computers never run out of storage space
  • Flash-drive equivalents are always able to hold all your data in one unit

Have you checked the Bekenstein Bound, recently? We are nowhere near the ceiling on data storage density, and it’s expanding rather faster than our need for data storage.

  • The Universal Internet always has the data you’re looking for replicated locally
  • The Universal Internet never has latency or capacity issues

I wrote that whole article on caching systems and bandwidth allocation on the extranet just for you.

  • Skin/hair/eye color modification is quick and easy, yet is somehow not subject to the whims of fashion

No, it’s totally subject to the whims of fashion. What do you think provided the incentive to make it quick and easy?

  • Nobody doing maintenance ever needs to consult a tech manual.

Only because the tech manual is build into the thing being maintained.

…and I’m done. (Only took me six months of filling in little bits here and there.)


9 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Space Opera Clichés

  1. Because most planets are colonies, and most colonies started out with one colonial administration that has the rights to the whole damn planet.

    How do you get rights to “the whole damn planet” under conventional homesteading doctrine in the first place? My understanding (and I’m assuming yours as well, given how you’ve brought it up whenever I’ve tried to raise the relevant issues) is that a homesteading claim is limited to the ground actually being transformed.

    If there is a quick and convenient way to claim that much volume entirely to yourself, I can easily see someone with access to a “von Neumann homesteading probe” grabbing every rock they can so as to drive the margin of production down and make an absolute killing from renting it all out.

    (I’ll grant that “space is mind-bogglingly huge”… but so is the proverbial second half of the chessboard.)

    • Well, there are a couple of answers to that, to be mixed and matched freely:

      First, you don’t. You get it under the messy rules of the Common Volumetric Accord, which is a compromise hashed together between a whole bunch of civilizations with very different ideas about how legal systems ought to work (ranging, in this case, from consensualism and right of first appropriation, through state sovereignty, through acquiris quodcumquae rapis (as Pratchett put it), to “If God gave it to us, it’s ours.”). Doctrine of the Ecumenical Throne notwithstanding, Imperial-issue law and ethics doesn’t hold sway across the entire galaxy. Yet.

      Second, colonial corporations are very, very big organizations, and capable of installing the requisite planet-sized infrastructure that colonists tend to want. And if you can homestead sovereign and infrastructural rights to a whole planet, you’re more than welcome to. (In sensible legal systems, acquiring those doesn’t get you all the rights to all the real estate on the planet, mind, because property rights are bundles and that would be quite the overreaching claim, but still.)

      (This is also how many colonists prefer it, because it’s nice not to have to provide everything yourself. And if you want to be an autarkic hermit, you can always get a family-size rock guaranteed to have no neighbors within a million miles.)

      Third, if you are a planetary development corporation that can do that kind of autoindustrialism – which for a variety of reasons involving the sheer amount of technical skill needed is unlikely – the Empire would have no particular problem with you going ahead and opening as many worlds for settlement as you felt like. However:

      Most colonial corporations have little ambition of becoming interstellar governances, which is a whole other ball game that doesn’t fit their core competencies or add much shareholder value; and

      Populations don’t generally grow fast enough in developed civilizations to make a giant land-grab profitable anyway, since the number of available colonists is finite; and

      You’re going to piss off a lot of people who see you grabbing all the good stuff out from under them, and even if you have a perfect legal right to do so under your own system, it’s unlikely to be worth the trouble, given the above.

      And preventing the ensuing battles over exactly who has rights to what and why under incompatible systems, to bring things back to the start, is why there is a Common Volumetric Accord in the first place.

      • Populations don’t generally grow fast enough in developed civilizations to make a giant land-grab profitable anyway, since the number of available colonists is finite

        Not, in the short term, no 😉

      • To give this a slightly fuller treatment than my (admittedly rather snide) earlier remark:

        First, you don’t. You get it under the messy rules of the Common Volumetric Accord, which is a compromise hashed together between a whole bunch of civilizations with very different ideas about how legal systems ought to work (ranging, in this case, from consensualism and right of first appropriation, through state sovereignty, through acquiris quodcumquae rapis (as Pratchett put it), to “If God gave it to us, it’s ours.”). Doctrine of the Ecumenical Throne notwithstanding, Imperial-issue law and ethics doesn’t hold sway across the entire galaxy. Yet.

        This could itself be used as a selling point for the scheme, incidentally.

        Second, colonial corporations are very, very big organizations, and capable of installing the requisite planet-sized infrastructure that colonists tend to want. And if you can homestead sovereign and infrastructural rights to a whole planet, you’re more than welcome to. (In sensible legal systems, acquiring those doesn’t get you all the rights to all the real estate on the planet, mind, because property rights are bundles and that would be quite the overreaching claim, but still.)

        As a tangential aside, how does homesteading on this scale work under these “sensible legal systems” (presumably including the Empire’s, I’m assuming)? I’m aware of the idea of the “bundle of rights,” but I was under the impression that if you’re taking something out of terra nullius in an act of original appropriation, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition — either you own a particular unit of owned and/or enclosed volume outright and thus can do whatever you wish with it, or you don’t and you can’t. One could make the argument that anything on a sufficiently large scale as to provide a planetwide benefit so as to raise its value to would-be inhabitants (such as full-body atmohydrosphere ecopoesis) constitutes an “improvement” that gives claim to the whole shebang.

        Most colonial corporations have little ambition of becoming interstellar governances, which is a whole other ball game that doesn’t fit their core competencies or add much shareholder value

        Who said anything about “governance”? A landlord isn’t a state, are they? 😉

        …Alright, I’m guessing that that isn’t what you’re getting at. Still, given that this is the Associated Worlds we’re dealing with, the lessor could make the lease agreement as restrictive or unrestrictive as they wished; so long as the lessee holds up their end of the bargain and the rent (whatever the amount agreed upon) comes in on time by the end of every pay period, then the lessee should be free to make whatever arrangements they want for any services that the landlord doesn’t provide themselves.

        And if the lessee doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain… well, this being the Associated Worlds, I’m guessing distraint is relatively quick and painless (for the landlord, anyway).

        Populations don’t generally grow fast enough in developed civilizations to make a giant land-grab profitable anyway, since the number of available colonists is finite

        The number of available sites is also finite, and supply is much less elastic at that — especially in the absolute sense, on anything outside of geological time scales.

        I’m going to guess that the fact that the Associated Worlds is a “nearly-post-material scarcity” on the whole hasn’t eliminated the advantages that one particular plot of volume may have over another due to location, ready abundance of natural resources, or proximity to other services, and thus that the law of rent ( ) still applies. As you put it yourself:

        This is also how many colonists prefer it, because it’s nice not to have to provide everything yourself.

        I’m also guessing that in an economy as robust and developed as you’ve implied there are economies of scale such that even minute differences in per-unit prices may translate to rather large cost differences in the bottom line.

        Presumably, anyone who knows what they’re doing could set the terms of their lease such that they find a comfortable midpoint where their lessees would still get more utility out of that particular plot than if they had to do all the surveying, provide all their own materials, etc. themselves, while the lessor still makes a comfortable revenue from the rent collected (if not, strictly speaking, as large an amount up-front in a lump-sum payment). In fact, it need not be all that different in execution from how these planetary development corporations already do business — the only real change being that they still keep their underlying ownership in the volume in question itself. Nor would it be all that different than the land tenure scheme implemented in places in our world such as, say, Hong Kong or Singapore.

        After all, it’s not like I’m proposing that the people who would embark on such a venture would literally leave all that space entirely fallow and undeveloped until all the volume in the Universe were already locked up simply to run up the prices — that would be silly and impractical.

        You’re going to piss off a lot of people who see you grabbing all the good stuff out from under them, and even if you have a perfect legal right to do so under your own system, it’s unlikely to be worth the trouble, given the above.

        To quote something you told me in an earlier conversation when a similar line of questioning came up:

        “If you liked it, you should have put a ring^Wtitle on it.”

        Is it their fault that someone more motivated to do so got there first and locked them out? Is it their fault that those who might have wanted those particular sites now either have to deal on the new owner’s terms, or else settle for something a little more marginal?

        (I will say that it’s not entirely accidental that I’m arguing from the opposite perspective than the tack I was taking in that particular discussion… 😉 )

        • Is it their fault that someone more motivated to do so got there first and locked them out? Is it their fault that those who might have wanted those particular sites now either have to deal on the new owner’s terms, or else settle for something a little more marginal?

          No, it’s not. Which will mean absolutely nothing when the offended party and their friends turn up with a flotilla-sized serving of Fuck You, Heggie, because like I said:

          Imperial-issue law and ethics doesn’t hold sway across the entire galaxy. Yet.

          This could itself be used as a selling point for the scheme, incidentally.

          That’s why it’s not a selling point for the scheme. If you want to declare yourself sovereign unto yourself, disavow the Common Volumetric Accord and run around grabbing everything you can under realpolitik rules, you can do that – but if you’re going to ignore the finely negotiated rules designed to stop this sort of thing from turning into a military shit-show, you don’t get to complain when it turns into a military shit-show.

          Incidentally: when I say “Heggie”, I ain’t kidding. This sort of exponential autoindustrialism makes you look like a hegemonizing swarm, and a very good argument can be made that you are, in fact, a hegemonizing swarm. That isn’t going to make you very popular among people who’ve seen hegemonizing swarms in action, even before your friendly local perversion rips through them like a virgin field epidemic.

          In short: it’s not that you can’t do that, it’s that in any universe other than Theory, it may not actually be to your advantage so to do.

          (Other notes follow later.)

          • Alright, so we’ve pragmatically eliminated one of the more extreme means of implementing the plan, but what of the underlying plan itself — that of engaging in bare-minimum speculative homesteading, holding onto title for the underlying volume and renting it out to ensure a constant, near-perpetual revenue stream, and reinvesting the profits to homestead more volume exponentially?

          • Most of that wasn’t talking about the von Neumanns; just that you aren’t playing by those rules. However you plan on implementing Operation Exponential Landgrab, you’re disavowing the CVA and its generally agreed-upon rules.

            At which point you’d better have brought enough force to the table to handle the Combined Fleet Of Those Who Do Not Want A Getting-Away-With-That Precedent Set and the Individual Fleet Of Those Militarists Who Find Picking On Rogue Polities To Have Few Downsides.

            Regarding those other notes:

            Yes, rogue polity. Someone has to hold the sovereign rights, and in the absence of anyone else, it’s you. Congratulations: you’re now, will ye, nil ye, in the interstellar governance business, with all that implies internally and externally.

            And if you think you can be the landlord and leave the sovereign rights to your lessees to arrange, you’d better be careful to pick them such that the first thing your lessees do isn’t pass the Rent Control (With An Option On Eminent Domain, You Dumb Fucks) Act, or otherwise take advantage of the fact that now your leases are in the control of their legal system.

            (You seem to be under the impression that the way the Empire does things can be generalized across the Worlds. This is very much not true. In some cases, appealing to those ethical principles will do you about as much good as pleading the Fifth Amendment in front of a New Guinean highland tribal chief.

            If it’s not in the Accords, you can’t rely on it, and like I said up above, you had to walk away from the Accords in order to carry out this scheme in the first place.)

            In any case: populations in developed societies really don’t grow that fast [the Core and First Tier markets are basically all at the mostly-flat top of the s-curve], especially the segments which have bodies and insist on planets, which is why there are a bunch of less desirable systems sitting empty all through the Periphery, the Expansion Regions, even the main body of the Worlds (about 3/4, 1/2, and 1/4, respectively), and even if they did, population growth isn’t a driver of colonial expansion ’cause you can’t ship people fast enough to make a usefully-sized dent in the local population, and given those, you have no idea what your future requirements might be or where you might prefer to have them. (In short: most colonies are founded where they are for reasons other than “it’s a habitable rock, might as well ‘habit it”.)

            So: inasmuch as you need to pay for all the stuff you need to defend your holdings from the offended and the opportunists, and get into the state game, need to find lessees who are dumb enough to not realize that you’re a rentier cliché from Twenty-Four Economic Fables for the Young and Worthwise attempting to mulct them for the rest of ever, and need to find enough of them to fill up planets as you grab them, each of which is a sucking money-hole of maintenance costs until it reaches critical mass…

            …it’s an excellent way to lose your money, destroy your reputation, and get shot by someone’s navy.

            So, in a nutshell, it’s in the very long list of things that you can, theoretically, do – but which is such a terrible idea in practice that no-one actually does. Or not for very long, anyway.

        • As a tangential aside, how does homesteading on this scale work under these “sensible legal systems” (presumably including the Empire’s, I’m assuming)? I’m aware of the idea of the “bundle of rights,” but I was under the impression that if you’re taking something out of terra nullius in an act of original appropriation, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition — either you own a particular unit of owned and/or enclosed volume outright and thus can do whatever you wish with it, or you don’t and you can’t.

          Imperial systems, certainly, are a peck more nuanced than that. I’ve mentioned concepts like “roadsteading” before now, for example, in which steading the right of transit doesn’t necessarily let you do anything unroadly to the road. (You may be making and marking out the future route of Intra One-Twenty as you haul your family, friends, and rest of your wagon train to Space California, but you aren’t gaining exclusive and perpetual title to a strip of land one wagon wide and 4,000 miles long.)

          As for why the colony titles work this way? It’s mostly because the colonial corporations don’t want title to all the land on the planet with the ensuing management responsibilities, et. al. They’ll homestead the bits they need for their purposes (ecopoesis, et. al.) and allocate various lots around Landing, and maybe the odd planetary park and so forth, but —

          Well, I’ve mentioned before the various free land programs in every state of the US? That should give one a pretty clear idea of the value of unimproved land.

          And it’s much easier to attract colonists to go out there and homestead it and perform the hard labor of turning it into civilization if you don’t charge them for the privilege, especially in perpetuity. (Insert sweat-of-one’s-brow quotation here.)

          Then, since you are a business after all, you can instead charge them for useful infrastructure services, which people by and large are a lot happier to pay for.

    • With specific regard to the third one, there, and why people are cautious in their uses of autoindustrialism:

      If you make your von Neumann machines regular AI, or even thinkers (who, recall, need to be instructed to be creative even though they can be), and send them out to homestead colony worlds, then all the fascinating variations in the universe mean you’re likely to end up with some fucked-up planets from all the unknown unknowns out there, and quite possibly end up with some ecocides or even genocides that you, sir, are on the legal hook for.

      But if you make your von Neumann machines smart and sophont, then you’ve just created a new species, and that’s a whole other and much more complex ball game.

      In short: much like god-bothering, this is an area in which you only get to screw up once.

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