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Fleshing out a sci-fi setting - could use help

  1. Aug 4, 2014 #1
    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 s 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 mechs. A penal colony needs a Warden to keep them from building ships to escape and to supply them with 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 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.

    Let the games begin! Ω∏
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 5, 2014 #2
    How "hard" do you want the setting to be? Will there be unobtainium and handwavium? Schizotech? What is the rationale for using the massively impractical "mech" concept as opposed to convential tanks or power-armor?
  4. Aug 5, 2014 #3


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    I think first it would be best to give a general outline of your setting. What's possible, what isn't, what major technologies exist etc. In a hard SF setting I'm finding it difficult to imagine why a penal colony would exist in the first place given that interstellar travel implies such fantastic wealth and technology that resource extraction should be cheap and easy. No need to ship prisoners and generate some form of volatile situation.
  5. Oct 6, 2014 #4
    Didn't think it would take me this long to come back to this thread. Let's see... outline.

    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 human life on the edge of a knife.

    The planet is toxic to the point where no human being or animal or plant can survive on the surface. No native life. I'm thinking corrosive (chlorine?) gas, cosmic ray bombardment, tectonic shifts, sudden gas eruptions, etc. Anything organic is under threat if not sufficiently shielded. The only water they have is the one they brought with them.

    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. 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 energy sources and minerals

    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 but again you need a large power source to make them really powerful. 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 building habitats. I would be interested in discussing the habitats that are planned to be put on the Moon or Mars or anywhere else. Should a habitat be underground so the ground acts as a radiation shield? Then you need to worry about tectonic shifts. Stuff like this.

    Looking for the edge of survivability here. Any ideas would be welcome.
  6. Oct 7, 2014 #5


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    Since the planet is so brutal, the prisoners will be mostly left to themselves, with minimal supervision, because who would want to supervise them? So the warden is also a prisoner, but with somewhat better rations, and the promised possibility of parole. Thus, the prisoners have plenty of opportunities to organize, but also have to compete to survive, as there are not enough resources for all the prisoners. If your life support goes wonky, you have to take one from someone else.

    I don't see a place for war machines in this picture. Any skirmishes would be with improvised mining tools. Perhaps mechs are used for mining, since they are much more flexible than tanks for this role.
  7. Oct 7, 2014 #6
    Obviously, if you are interested in types of brutal prison planet scenarios, you can check out Alien 3 and Chronicles of Riddick, if you haven't already. Maybe play or pick up a copy of the game Red Faction for further ideas. (Perhaps you even drew inspiration from these sources!) In such an environment, obviously mech- or tank-like vehicles would be doing any sort of heavy drilling or crust penetration on the outside. But once you are within the actual mine shafts, the need for heavy gear could be reduced to armored environment suits or the like.

    Corrosive elements in the atmosphere would force mining operations underground from the get-go; perhaps batteries are easy to make with the pronounced acid/alkali compounds present. Because of imminent danger to the miners, maybe explosives are restricted; perhaps lower/higher gravity might cause extreme working conditions where explosives make for dangerous outcomes.

    What is the primary reason for coming to the planet? If it's just a bunch of exiles that crashed into class 4 environment (Think the surface of Venus) then they probably came ill-prepared. You mention a warship; a warship would have weapons and armament that could be used, but probably lacking any sort of mining and/or environment tech, if just enough for emergency reasons. They may have the shielding and armor plating, being a warship, but limited survival gear because the ship isn't geared for expeditionary reasons. In this case, you have created the most violent outcome for a bunch of people sitting in the boiler room on the edge of known space. What is one to do with all these weapons, and nothing to do with them?

    Forget the penal colony; if you are placing a penal colony on this world, it's either to keep people from getting out, or it's because this planet has something so valuable but in such a hostile environment that normal miners wouldn't come to this place. In the case of the latter, why not use robots? Mining equipment and things of this nature are out of the question unless there is a very strong military or police presence to keep these criminal-like people in check, to make sure they are doing the slave labor, or not using the mining equipment to overthrow the jailers. If you are trying to keep people from getting out, then yes, you want the most hostile, ridiculous environment with the bare-minimum supply chain as to keep these maximum security prisoners from attempting to cause havoc again.

    That's my two cents, hope this might be of help!
  8. Oct 12, 2014 #7
    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 reason robots aren't used for mining 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

    The warship was decomissioned and stripped of military equipment; that's why it survived to the end of the rebellion - it didn't pose a military threat.
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