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View Full Version : Fleshing out a sci-fi setting - could use help



MartinV
08-24-2014, 10:19 PM
Hi, everyone.

I'm planning to write a hard sci-fi story to get some relief from all the fantasy I've been writing lately. I've been brainstorming about a penal colony on a toxic world. It's a mineral rich world (is this Master of Orion talking to me from the grave?) but the organic material is rare and consequently extremely valuable. This suggests interesting socio-economic dynamics, where habitats grow around mine sites or power generation units; the menu of the day is constant skirmishes for the limited resources using heavily armoured and radiation-shielded vehicles or possibly mechs.

If this is a penal colony, it should need a Warden to keep the prisoners from building ships to escape; a jailer would also act as a supplier of minimal organic material from the outside, provided they hand over very exotic minerals.

I'm looking for a discussion to flesh out this setting, technological as well as conceptual. You are welcome to comment on my ideas or post your own. You are very welcome to post any books or movies that you enjoyed that use technology that might be useful in such a setting. The setting needs to be gritty, people living on the very edge of survival (think Fallout or Matrix, possibly Dune, but scarcer, without any leftovers from the previous civilization). I hope this develops into a large discussion thread where sci-fi gems could be mined from.

Now... Fire away. :D

SamCoulson
08-24-2014, 11:41 PM
Personally Pitch Black comes to mind (Great movie, first in the Riddicks). Actually all Riddick movies have some version of this setting.

Other thoughts:

1. If it's mineral rich + prison you pretty much have to go with forced labor-prison camps where the prisoners mining, processing, etc. This could lead to other conflict potential where desperate non-inmates are sneaking onto the planet to mine and run themselves... thus 'honest' folks could get caught up in a prison camp.

2. Native life? The Riddick flicks always add in some monsterous life forms. It's a staple of Riddick, but are you going to go that way?

3. Who runs it? There is a lot of difference in a setting like this if you have a corporate entity running it, or if it's a government. Different kinds of corruption.. different personal investment and motives of the warden/etc. Just something to think about when you're in the world-building stages.

4. Also the standard sci-fi questions.. what kind of tech are we talking? laser guns or conventional? Alien races mixed in? or just human/humanoids? How available are advanced technologies (Scanners, etc).

5. Also, with power being an obvious resource, how do they get power? Does it get enough sun to have solar/some kind of radiation-gathering systems? Or does it need imported (or mined)? Scarcity of food, fuel are always good plot drives/considerations in survival-settings.

Once!
08-25-2014, 12:11 PM
Some random thoughts:

You could have an inside-out prison. There is a fortified building or habitat of some sort. The warden and his crew live inside this bubble with plenty of water, food, power, shelter, technology. Their own little oasis. All the good stuff is brought down into this oasis by shuttles who take it from nearby green planets.

The prisoners live on the outside. They are free to roam the planet as much as they want. But in order to survive they need to mine the precious minerals and bring them back to the fortified habitat to trade them for food and water.

This then riffs on the nature of freedom. There are no walls containing the prisoners but they are tied to the habitat because it's the only way to eat. Freedom isn't just about walls and bars. It's also about access to the things we need to survive and thrive.

Can the prisoners build spaceships? That's up to you. You could set it so that the minerals and equipment on the world are not capable of making complex machines. Or you could let them build their own scavenged craft.

Naturally the "prisoners" will want to storm the habitat, Riddick-stylee, to get to the shuttle. So the habitat will need some hunky defence mechanisms to stop them. Fr'instance the shuttle might not stay on the mining planet. When not being used it could be in orbit or parked at the top of an unclimbable mountain, or the bottom of the ocean, or ... you get the idea.

buirechain
08-25-2014, 05:10 PM
My first thought is that the warden would want to manipulate the prisoners so they're too busy fighting each other to try to do anything like create a space ship. You're already talking about a world where they're fighting over resources anyway, so just have the warden given them further incentive. Maybe make contests of some sort--where the prisoners trade mined materials for food, you could have whatever group brings in the least for a given week get no food, but the group that brings in the most gets not only the amount of food they earned (based on how much they mined), but also all the supplies that the lowest producing group would have earned.

If you use an idea like Once!'s, a sneaky warden, then, might manipulate the terrain near their fort/oasis so their are plenty of opportunities for one group to ambush another and steal mined goods that they're trying to trade in.

I'm not really sure, though, that the warden would need to worry too much about the prisoners would have much time on their hands to be building space ships, not when they're barely surviving, when some of their friends are starving to death and they have too worry about fighting each other. If anyone did get close to building a space worthy ship, their enemies would either sabotage it, or try to take it over. (I doubt anything spaceworthy would be easy to move, especially by a bunch of Mad Max style roving bands). I don't know what you're thinking about in the way of space ships, but while the prisoners obviously need to be able to maintain their armored vehicles and mechs, that's a far cry from something that could survive the vacuum. Especially when they need to put most of their time and effort into maintaining the armored vehicles and mechs.

Of course, that kind of hands of warden would be the perfect situation if you wanted someone to succeed in building a ship, or at least to come close.

MartinV
08-25-2014, 11:08 PM
It's great to see constructive responses. I dug up my notes on it to give more information.

My primary plan is to make every aspect of life on that planet as hard as humanly possible. This is not just a jungle for wild beasts to play in; this needs to put existence on the edge of a knife every moment.

The Warden is in fact an autonomous, robotic ship. It dumps organic material in exchange for the most precious minerals but it always makes sure that there is not enough for everyone. "Scarcity is the meal of the day and if you don't like it, lie down and stop sucking on the oxygen."

The prisoners are forbidden to build spaceships. The Warden watches from orbit constantly. If any would build anyway, the habitat would be destroyed from above.

The planet is toxic to the point where no human being or animal or plant can survive on the surface. No native life (for the moment, though some thing is waving at me from the mists). I'm thinking corrosive (chlorine?) gasses, constant cosmic ray bombardment, tectonic shifts, sudden gas eruptions, that sort of thing.

Yes, it is a forced-labour prison but not quite as you might think. The people on that planet are the crew of a resistance warship that has decided to surrender instead of fighting to the death. This alone is reason enough for hatred among them; not everyone was willing to surrender and even those that did are now thinking that they should have chosen differently.

The primary colony on that planet is the warship itself after making a controlled crash on the surface. The ship is too damaged to take flight again. From there, the ship's crew starts to spread out in all directions, looking for power sources and minerals. All habitats are underground so the ground acts as a radiation shield, which can make tectonis shifts a real problem.

About power sources - I'm thinking nuclear fuel is the only one that makes sense. Wind or water are out of the question. Geothermal could be an option but what do you use for energy transport if water is too rare to use?

What kind of tech? That's a good question. I didn't fix the technology level yet as it could be important to the plot later. Lasers were meant more as mining tools than weapons. As far as weapons go, there is ample use of explosive projectiles, depleted uranium shells, railguns. I don't want to use any semi-magic technologies, not unless they make perfect sense from a scientific perspective.

The area where I'm looking for creative ideas the most (but not excusively) is in the exotic minerals; I want this planet to be something unique when it comes to raw materials. This is where I'm most interested in suggestions. One application that comes to mind is high-temperature superconductors; I hope someone has some more interesting ideas in that area. As much as I like the spice from Dune, that wouldn't be helpful in my case (unless I missed a few applications of it; I will have to read it again.).

SamCoulson
08-26-2014, 05:09 PM
Personally I'd keep the actual material being mined as something innocuous or mundane (though valuable on the market). For realism you can pretty much pick any sort of rare earth mineral (or make one up) or some other luxury good that would have market value (a mineral compound that increases male virility or something with an air of absurd-ism). Unless it has some larger plot significance, it can just be a widget... I find there's something a bit more poetically gripping and true-to-life if people are fighting and dying for something that is just 'kinda' valuable.

The Warden system being automated is interesting. To me, that opens all sorts of big-picture plot windows: Maybe the war went bad and the robots took over.. where do you think they get the 'organic matter' they drop!?... What if the people on the planet are all that's left of humanity and they get out to find the stars are full of wreckage? (Damn dirty apes!)

But I digress. Interesting ideas.

Rags99
08-26-2014, 06:57 PM
Hi MatinV,

First of all you get a golden cookie for the "master of orion" reference. :)

I have some examples that might help.

1. Rura Penthe (Klingon penal colony). This was shown in great detail in Star Trek VI - Undiscovered Country and an episode of Enterprise (Scott Bakula). It was not toxic, but on an ice planet so if you escape, good luck surviving.
http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Rura_Penthe

2. Escape from New York with Kurt Russell (1981) is an entire prison city, with a wall erected around it.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy and MiB3 both have great (fun) prison settings with impossible escape (although they do, heh).

4. Mistborn by Brendan Sanderson has the unfortunate Skaa mining a rare mineral. If they dont fill a weekly quota they are killed.

5. The Running Man (Arnie) has prisoners with collars that explode if they leave the perimeter.

Reziac
08-26-2014, 10:56 PM
Geothermal: could it be done with a big heat-conductive shaft of metal?

As to organics being rare, this could mean dead bodies and bodily waste are both extremely valuable, and that you might have a black market in growing plants (algae?) for oxygen recycling.

Anyway, I think you have an interesting scenario.

MartinV
08-27-2014, 12:38 AM
First of all you get a golden cookie for the "master of orion" reference. :)

Thanks. I actually started playing it again this week, albeit the second one. Right now, my Sillicoids are kicking the Trillarians' butts. :D


Rura Penthe (Klingon penal colony)

I remember the movie. A frozen world is actually what the ship's crew thought they would be sent to, until their captors double-crossed them, brought them to the toxic planet and told to land or be shot into bits.

Bodies and organic waste definitely gets recycled but no system is perfect. You can't eat the same molecule a thousand times, not without adding energy of some sort.

Rags99
08-27-2014, 04:51 AM
Thanks. I actually started playing it again this week, albeit the second one. Right now, my Sillicoids are kicking the Trillarians' butts. :D

I remember the movie. A frozen world is actually what the ship's crew thought they would be sent to, until their captors double-crossed them, brought them to the toxic planet and told to land or be shot into bits.

Bodies and organic waste definitely gets recycled but no system is perfect. You can't eat the same molecule a thousand times, not without adding energy of some sort.

SHAMELESS PLUG - Both games (Moo1 + Moo2) are both on sale at GOG for $5.99! To me, still the best strategy sims ever made.

The only issue I have with prisoners/slaves mining ore in the future is the efficiency of it. It would be better to use robotics wouldn't it? They don't go hungry, get sick or injured. They don't fall over dead or try to kill the guards....Robots also can go out in any environment. The best miners would be the Borg, those guys have the best of both organic and mechanical. :)

I am sure you can find a good reason but I believe you should consider (from a society viewpoint) why even have prisoners (cultural, religious?). It would have to be a fairly progressive society no? or else they would just kill the criminals or toss them into a pit, ala daleks.

Maybe I am over thinking this...

MartinV
08-27-2014, 10:04 PM
It would be better to use robotics wouldn't it?

I asked myself that same question. Obviously I need a good excuse for this plot to work. Testing such excuses is one of the reasons I created this thread.

The reason robots aren't used is because the atmosphere is full of charged particles. This makes remote control impossible, and any microchips that would make the robots autonomous would be fried by cosmic ray bombardment. Sensor equipment would also be too affected to give accurate reading. The cheapest autonomous units therefore are human beings who are dispensible since they are rebels against authority.

Once!
08-28-2014, 01:56 PM
The reason robots aren't used is because the atmosphere is full of charged particles. This makes remote control impossible, and any microchips that would make the robots autonomous would be fried by cosmic ray bombardment. Sensor equipment would also be too affected to give accurate reading. The cheapest autonomous units therefore are human beings who are dispensible since they are rebels against authority.

Purely a personal thing, but I prefer the argument at the end of the para to the one at the beginning.

If you say that they don't use robots because humans (criminals?) are cheaper, then you're painting a picture of a gritty hard-headed society which places a low value on human life. It's an explanation rooted in how people think and behave. Organic. Messy. Believable.

But I'd find to harder to believe an explanation based on technology. For that to work I would have to believe that there were cosmic rays capable of frying a computer that weren't lethal to humans. These seems the opposite of what I would expect - that robots ought to be able to function in places where humans can't go.

The human explanation gives me echoes of the slave trade and chain gangs. The techno argument seems to be the opposite of perceived wisdom (eg Blade Runner) that robots are more durable than humans.

Just my personal opinion, but then I do prefer explanations rooted in analogies from history or human decisions than in technology.

Reziac
08-28-2014, 06:39 PM
Now that Once! mentions it, I agree -- I buy the "humans are cheap and disposable" argument a lot more than the "wow this planet is rough" argument for the labor force, and I also agree that it does a lot more to paint the picture here than would any amount of explanation. Basically, it informs by example.

MartinV
09-01-2014, 12:12 AM
No, the planet too rough for robots is simply why no one had attempted to mine it already. And I think it makes a nice premise: "We're shipping you to a world that's too rough on mechanical beings. Good luck, soft organic thingies!"

As for the minerals being mined... Well, they use what they can and give the rare things to their jailors as instructed. Instead of this being some mystery compound, I could simply have a nasty twist: the mineral they're mining is worthless. It's simply something to focus on instead of thinking on how to hack the Warden ship and escape.

JJ Litke
09-01-2014, 03:41 AM
The Warden system being automated is interesting. To me, that opens all sorts of big-picture plot windows: Maybe the war went bad and the robots took over.. where do you think they get the 'organic matter' they drop!?... What if the people on the planet are all that's left of humanity and they get out to find the stars are full of wreckage? (Damn dirty apes!)

I love this! Even if it doesn't work out with whatever else you have planned, the people stranded there wouldn't know what's happening off-world. Or they might pick up some clues or rumors about it, which leads to paranoia, alliances, in-fighting, and plots against each other.

MartinV
09-02-2014, 12:15 AM
I've given a lot of thought on what will the jailors be like. For now, I call them Superiors, as they are superior in every way to the captives. There should be a very good reason for them to try to rebel even with the odds being so much against them. There must have been something fundamental, otherwise they wouldn't have risked it.

I was thinking that Superiors have some sort of neural link between them that enables them instantaneous communication across vast distances, sort of like an insterstellar internet. I could make them more Borg-like, which would make them more like machines. So far, this was not important to the plot as I'm concentrating on the prisoners and their existence. I'm willing to hear ideas and suggestions on that... Just saying.