What would it really be like to build a space colony?
June 22, 2012 7:49 AM   Subscribe

What would it really be like to build a space colony? Asking for a friend, because I love the question, but am not a sci-fi person myself:

I want a science fiction book/tv-show/movie/whatever that actually treats space colonization as the herculean task it will be. It's not going to be the higher tech Wild West full of bandits and empires and bounty hunters. That's child's play. It's going to be The Beach meets Alien meets The Hunger Games meets Millennium meets Pandorum meets every depressing documentary you've ever seen. We're going to have very few usable resources, constant threat of horrible death, and all of the misery those conditions cause us to inflict on each other. It's going to be a nightmare.

Does any one know a book/tv-show/movie/whatever that can fulfill my demands?
I'm also asking, I think, because this addresses one of the things that is off-putting about sci-fi to me. The real difficulties of building a colony make it seem impossible.

So, MetaFilter...what's out there?
posted by SLC Mom to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy of novels. I never cared for the writing style myself, but the entire premise of the series is that terraforming a planet, even with the technology of a sci-fi 23rd century, is incredibly dangerous, equally unproven, and will take the better part of a hundred years.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 7:51 AM on June 22, 2012 [15 favorites]

Yeah, I was gonna say the Mars trilogy, which doesn't really have the Thunderdome aspect, but does try to take the task seriously.
posted by OmieWise at 7:53 AM on June 22, 2012

The film Moon addresses the banal reality of space colonization in an interesting way. It is a fairly small-scale story though, so it doesn't really touch on ideas of massive system-spanning galactic empires. It is a wonderful film though, and any sci-fi fan should see it if they haven't already.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:53 AM on June 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

Battlestar Galactica is set against a backdrop similar to this: a dwindling human population, on the run, with limited resources and the near-constant threat of destruction from without and within.
posted by jquinby at 7:55 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

No no no battlestar galactica is not what you want, unless your friend likes low-budget soap operas. The Forever War, however, is.
posted by MangyCarface at 7:57 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding KSR's Mars trilogy. The writing improves as he goes, and the depth and breadth of the description of colonization is unmatched by anything else I've come across. He also avoids the common "hard" SF trap of populating his neato world with cardboard cutout characters. The men and women of the "first hundred" on Mars -- and their many descendants -- are varied and flawed and frustrating and fascinating in turns.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:03 AM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

(And as for the "horrible death" angle, while the books aren't exactly action packed they never forget how vulnerable we are when we're living in plastic bubbles on a basically poisonous planet.)
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:05 AM on June 22, 2012

Not the main plot point, but there are chapters in Robert Heinlein's Time Enough For Love that talk about colonizing a planet, how hard it is, and all of the planning that needs to go into it to survive.
posted by jillithd at 8:07 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also Alastair Reynolds. Revelation Space series. It's set when the colonisation is pretty much done, but there's no FTL travel or similar get-outs.
posted by BadMiker at 8:08 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Mars trilogy also emphasizes the political aspects of settling a planet - unlike some stories of colonization, it does not imply a unified, politically placid and basically benevolent Earth government behind the project.

If your friend doesn't require a lot of Science!, they might enjoy the Ursula Le Guin stories in The Birthday of the World and some of those in The Wind's Twelve Quarters. These stories emphasize the human aspects of space travel.

Oh, hey, and for sheer horror and depressingness and no successful settling at all, I cannot recommend Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To... enough. It is the story of a small group of people marooned on a planet that is not hostile, not terrible but not quite Earthlike enough for survival. It's also a takedown of "small group of humans totes repopulates an Earthlike planet after a crash using their amazing survival skillz".

And while we're at it, oh geez, your friend should read some James Tiptree short stories. "A Momentary Taste of Being" would probably be the best to start with - it's a novella about a ship on a long, long voyage to try to find an earthlike planet because earth is in a state of total social and environmental collapse. In its basic outlook, I'd say it's even more of The Bleak than We Who Are About To.... The short stories your friend wants can be found in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. (Not to be confused with the feminist WisCon SF cookbook Her Smoke Rose Up From Supper, although you might need some comfort cooking to recover from the Tiptree.)
posted by Frowner at 8:08 AM on June 22, 2012 [7 favorites]

And how did I forget? Some old school Sci-Fi includes Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsdawn where settlers really do have to bio-engineer livestock, research the geomechanics of the planet and deal with the hardship that they are literally light-decades away from civilization on a planet not quite what they expected.
posted by jillithd at 8:11 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was going to say Alastair Reynolds, too, but his new book Blue Remembered Earth. It's nearer-future than his other stuff, mid 22nd century, and although colonization has a foothold on the moon and, to a lesser extent, Mars, it's still fairly primitive and dangerous. There are some hints at what it took to get to the current state of affairs and it's the beginning of at least a trilogy that is going to span a long period of time, including the first human travel outside the solar system. I'm kind of biased because Reynolds is my favorite sci fi author ever, but I thought it was really great and set up some really interesting potential in future books.
posted by something something at 8:14 AM on June 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Kim Stanley Robinson is the gold standard. I reviewed his new book 2312 recently, which is set in a kind of parallel timeline to the Mars books and has even more on terraforming. Definitely start with KSR.
posted by gerryblog at 8:25 AM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Part of the background of Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space universe is the total failure of the "Amerikano" colonization effort -- his novella "Glacial" gets into the nitty gritty of one of the failed colonies.
posted by endless_forms at 8:28 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Wool series. (Previously) But oh wait, it isn't space colonization; it's post-apocalyptic Earth. Still, I think it ticks a lot of your boxes.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:32 AM on June 22, 2012

Nthing KSR, in particular because of the way he (well, his characters) have to really tangle with the philosophy, policy and politics aspects of terraforming and colonization.
posted by rtha at 8:38 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

The one-season TV show Firefly depicts the fringe plantes as being poor, barren, exploited, resource-deprived settlements that are the last refuge of the downtrodden.
posted by entropone at 8:41 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

For an idea of life outside of our solar system, Vernor Vinge, A Deepness in the Sky deals with life on ships. No faster than light travel (in the zone the book takes place in), so crews rotate in and out of cold sleep. So as a merchant you set out for a planet to trade, not knowing if by the time you get there they will be living in castles or orbiting habitats. Crew members age at different rates based on duty schedules.

Part of the reality of space travel is that unless some MacGuffin changes things it will take hundreds or thousands of years to get out of the solar system. Planets will be few and far between vs. the enormity of space. Great sequels also in A Fire in the Deep and Children of the Sky.

My 2 favorite gigantic universes filled with various beings and issues--not so much the colonization aspects but the day to day life--are the Culture novels by Ian M. Banks, and the Eschaton novels by Charles Stross.
posted by th3ph17 at 8:53 AM on June 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Check out the book Packing for Mars. It's not Scifi, but a it's about the various difficulties of putting and keeping humans in space.

Riding Rockets is a book by a Space Shuttle astronaut and it chronicles the boring, mundane and terrifying possibilities and realties of getting into space. It's a very well told story, just don't be put off the sexism in the beginning. It's an excellent story of growth and learning for the writer.

Battlestar Galatica covers some aspects of what you're looking for, i.e. what's it like to live in a space ship with almost no hope of change. But it's always a background aspect, while other stuff is going on.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:00 AM on June 22, 2012

Revelation Space series. It's set when the colonisation is pretty much done, but there's no FTL travel or similar get-outs.

Strictly speaking there *is* FTL travel in the RS universe, but you would be well-advised not to use it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:05 AM on June 22, 2012

The Foreigner series by C.J. Cherryh kind of fits this. Small human population, somewhat humanoid aliens (handwaved away), and the world has a climate that is safe for humans. At the same time, they are vastly outnumbered by the aliens who have a distinctly different way of thinking than humans.

Embassytown by Mieville has an established colony on a world that is inherently hostile to human life and (although not as a primary focus) does examine what is needed to keep the residents alive and how dependent they are on technology/trade with their alien hosts.

Not as strong as KSR or some of the others mentioned, but also worth looking at.
posted by Hactar at 9:05 AM on June 22, 2012

Gregory Benford's novels frequently focus on the political aspects of interstellar travel (I'm thinking of In the Ocean of the Night and Across the Sea of Suns) and his collaboration with David Brin, The Heart of the Comet, is a masterpiece.

That novel features contemporary technology (there are no starships traveling at relativistic speeds thanks to some sort of Alien technology) and the various problems the colonists encounter are plausible.

One of my favourite books, and if there is anything similar out there that is a little more recent, I would love to read it!
posted by KokuRyu at 9:45 AM on June 22, 2012

I have not read KSR yet but it comes highly recommended to me by some rocket scientists of my acquaintance. Really looking forward to reading it myself.
posted by tel3path at 4:37 PM on June 22, 2012

You all are awesome, thanks so much!!
posted by SLC Mom at 8:52 PM on June 22, 2012

Allen Steele's "Coyote" is about the establishment of a colony on a remote planet.

But what came to mind is "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress." Earth established a penal colony on the Moon-- or rather, the first world did. The third world uses the UN's money to send up the unwanted. The plot of the novel revolves around its efforts to establish the political status of free people born to prisoners on the moon. But there's a fairly radically different culture on the moon in terms of family structure and the balance of power between the sexes, which leads to a lot of retrospective explication about how the moon's colony was established and so on. It's considered to be among the great libertarian novels for good reason, but don't let that put you off if you were so inclined-- it's a marvelous book, and has great action in the third act.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:03 PM on June 22, 2012

Oh, and how could I forget John Scalzi and his "Old Man's War" universe? In a nutshell, retirement-age first-worlders are recruited to join the Colonial Defense Force-- they're given youthful, hostile-environment-ready bodies and set out to conquer worlds so that Earth can colonize them with third-worlders. (Yes, it was inspired by "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," which I should've mentioned was by Robert Heinlein, as well as "The Forever War.") In this universe, there's a metric buttload of alien races out there, fighting over the galaxy's habitable planets for colony-space. Some of those aliens naturally like the same environment we do, and sometimes they wipe our colonies off a planet before installing their own. (Sometimes they eat our colonies.) That's when the CDF gets called in.

The main characters fight for a few books and, in the third, become colonists themselves, before a few things go wrong.

There's a good bit of gung-ho jingoism for Earth and humanity, but Scalzi's no right-winger, and his characters learn the big picture is one of survival, not imperialism. I think it's a brilliant innovation. The third and fourth books, "The Last Colony" and "Zoe's Tale" (The latter being a YA novel which retells the events of the former from the perspective of a teenager), feature the whole zero-sum colony game coming to a head.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:14 PM on June 22, 2012

If your friend can get behind YA, Pamela Sargent's Seed Series (Earthseed, Farseed, and the latest, Seed Seeker) are the best I've seen on this topic, dealing with environmental concerns and sociological concerns in one fell swoop. Beth Revis's Across the Universe has a bit of this, but the science is more loosey-goosey. And Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go has the bloody colonization of an inhabited planet as the backdrop.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:36 PM on June 23, 2012

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