Starships Are Not Hotels

Seeing as I wrote a little earlier on why my universe is compliant with one of the common misconceptions about space travel, I figured I’d follow it up with a few words on the other one I bend all out of shape: Rockets Are Not Hotels.

Well, actually, I’m mostly compliant with this one. As the Atomic Rocket site points out, there’s no point in going to the trouble and expense and engineering difficulty of putting a pressure hull around the payload/cargo (which mostly doesn’t care), the fuel (which definitely doesn’t care, and on the off-chance that a cryogenic deuterium tank springs a leak, you want it to leak outside into space – never mind hydrogen’s awkward habit of diffusing through damn near everything), the engines (which also mostly don’t care; the engineers might, you might think, but they have maintenance robots to teleoperate and weren’t planning on making a personal acquaintance with the business end of a fusion torch anyway; it’s not good for the chromosomes), and so on and so forth. So the spaceships of the Worlds, by and large, maintain that large-framework-of-struts-with-everything-bolted-onto-them, sometimes with a nice shroud/fairing over the top  for purely aesthetic reasons and/or to support the radiators.

On the other hand, though, the habitable areas of Empire’s starships are at least as luxurious – in their own way – as the Enterprise, and have been for quite some time, mass penalty or no mass penalty. (Phoenix Zero, the first orbital flight, described as resembling “an explosion in a girder factory that had previously collided with a chemical plant, sitting atop a giant steel washer”, avoided this, but they’ve been getting steadily more luxurious ever since.)

There are four main reasons behind this:

1. While there is no escaping the Tyranny of the Rocket Equation entirely, it does start looking a mite less tyrannous when you start out with nuclear-pulse (“Orion”) drives as your launchers and move on from there to various other nuclear engines. Also, while you still have to suffer the mass penalty in operation, it helps once you get construction in space going and so don’t have to bring all that mass up from downwell in the first place.

2. Marketing. The Spaceflight Initiative was never a government or a government-supported program, in the Empire’s history. They knew their audience, investors, contributors, etc., and their tastes pretty well, and so they knew perfectly well that to keep the money flowing, it would help if they could make all their spacecraft look as sexy as, say, the Dragon 2.0.

I believe the technical term is "freakin' gorgeous".

I believe the technical term is “freakin’ gorgeous”.

3. Crew health. Compared to humans, eldrae need much more personal space. They build bigger to reflect this, ’cause living all piled up on top of each other like we do in cities – and in European cities, especially, in my experience – is just intensely stressful and unpleasant for them – a typical apartment size there, for example, is the quarter-floor or double quarter-floor. Which is one thing if you’re just making a relatively short orbital flight (although still hardly pleasant), but once you’re going to be asking people to live in a starship for weeks or months at a time, not making it big and comfortable is just asking for cabin fever to the point of outright psychosis.

And on that note, it’s also much, much cheaper to pay people to invent creative super-light materials like glassboard and aerogel, etc., than it is to pay the medical bills – or pay people enough to be willing to do it in the first place. The supply of people willing to put up with terrible conditions for the sake of going to space will always be smaller than the supply of people excited about going to space in comfort, which is important once your promises inevitably dwindle from “you could be the first soph on the moon!” to “you could be the 17th soph to service Geostationary Communications Satellite #5”.

4. Sybarites. The Imperials have been a decadent bunch of folks for as long as they’ve existed. Certain comforts and, y’know, standards of civilized living are expected as the default, and everyone knows this. So, if the Initiative is spending twenty-two billion esteyn on its lunar mission, its Directorate aren’t even going to think twice before signing the check for another two billion on top in luxuries, decent-sized cabins to put them in, and extra propellant to lift said luxuries and cabins, allocated to “crew comfort and marketing”. In their civilizational paradigm, it’s just good business.

By Their Own Words

“Order, Progress, Liberty”

– official, Charter-enshrined motto of the Empire

“Secure against Eternity.”

– corporate motto, Crystal Flame, ICC

“All debts must be paid.”

– official motto of the Curia

“Because enough… is never enough.”

– corporate motto, Decadence, ICC

“Through reason alone, we ascend.”

– motto of the Eupraxic Collegium

“Every coin Our given word.”

– carved above the main doors of the Exchequer

“Knowledge is its own justification.”

– official motto of the Fellowship of Natural Philosophy

“We do what we can, because we must.”

– very unofficial motto of the Fellowship of Natural Philosophy

“Between the Flame and the Fire.”

– official motto of the Imperial Military Service

“Civilization has enemies; we kill the bastards.”

– barrack-room paraphrase of the motto of the Imperial Military Service

“Until no man dares command another.”

– motto of the Sanguinary Enforcers of the Liberty Ethic

“The truth that sears away the Darkness.”

– corporate motto, Telememe, ICC news division

“When all else fails, we stand ready.”

– corporate motto, Ultimate Argument Risk Control, ICC

“[redacted for reasons of state security]”

– motto of Imperial State Security, Fifth Directorate

Counterpoint: Tourism

My colleagues have spent most of this issue telling you all the conventional reasons why you ought to visit the Empire: the outstanding natural beauty, the many places of historical significance, the music, the food and wine culture, the chance to experience their literary, gaming, and entertainment culture up close, or even just to witness all the eccentricity on display.

I’m here to tell you why you shouldn’t.

Firstly, it’s all so wretchedly anodyne. For a land notorious for its decadence – and it is decadent – it has all the bohemian credibility and counterculture of a consciously-designed theme park. Something about Imperial libertism has converted every imaginable vice from drug parlors to autophagy restaurants into friendly, commercial experiences that simultaneously defang the shock one might rightly feel at some, and robs the others of even the slightest frisson of transgressive pleasure.

Second, one of my colleagues mentioned, when discussing how safe the Empire is to visit thanks to its ubiquitous law enforcement, the to-be-avoided experience of collecting a half-dozen on-the-spot fines for littering on your first day there. Well, while the Imperial legal system is notoriously rigid, that’s not the true visiting-the-Empire experience. That would be discovering that due to the equally uncompromising use of reputation networks and the near-complete lack of any public-privacy or antidiscrimination laws, you’ve been deemed Officially Not Polite Enough to customer service staff and are paying 120% over market for everything.

Then there are the weapons. Yes, we know it’s just the local political climate – and incidentally, unless your idea of a pleasant holiday is a knock-down drag-out argument, don’t use that word or any of its derivatives; it’s almost reflexive – but everybody, everybody is carting a gun and probably a sword around, too! That they make a point of how low their rate of violent crime is compared to the Worlds’ average does not make this look any better; given that, why would well-adjusted people need to carry all that hardware around?

But most of all, it is the subtext of the entire experience. In small doses, it’s not so bad, but on any extended visit, the sheer flawlessness of the place starts to hurt the eye.

We all want to make our worlds better, our lives better, our selves better. But there’s a point beyond which further improvement is counterproductive.

And this point comes well before I start looking around desperately for any scrap of litter, any accumulated dirt, any stain, crack, or hole, any building – not acclaimed as historical – with some signs of wear on it, any traffic that’s not moving with exacting regularity, or just one single solitary person who is not one of the eldritch-beautiful people.

There’s no fuzziness to the Empire at all. No soft edges, no comforting blur, nothing that’s been permitted to be less than its idealization, and the result is a place that is profoundly disquieting for those of us from locales with more realistic expectations.

And if disliking that makes me an “entropist”, well, that’s why I won’t be going back.

– from the Empire-centric special edition of Worlds Traveler magazine