Not a Chapter: Building the rational backstory universe for the next book

I’ve been over in Reddit with the /r/rational people discussing my ideas for a rational fiction basis for my next story.

It’s right here if you want to see how it started

In any case, the backstory bit got too big for Reddit, so I’ve moved it here.  I’m hoping that I’ll get good feedback here, like I did over there.  I’d like to keep this discussion over there, but there’s a tiny text limit over there, around half a chapter.

In any case, the next story will not be about things in space, it will be about people from a culture that resulted from the colonization of Secundus.

Oh, and the interstellar colony ship launching system is based on real science, and real numbers, not magical pie-in-the-sky interstellar transport mumbo-jumbo.

****

Humanity managed to make it to the stars, but roughly five years after the first wave of generation ships left the Sol system, Earth and its first colony, Mars, warred with each other. The generation ships received many messages from the governments of both planets, some apparently truthful, others obviously not. Leviathan and Prometheus monitored many transmissions during the course of the horrific war which lasted several months, but eventually, the Sol system went completely radio silent. It was unknown if humanity survived in the Sol system.  After centuries of fading hope, there were no still no radio transmissions heard from the Sol system.

Unfortunately, the war between Earth and Mars did not remain entirely contained in the Sol system. Earth had financed and populated the colony ships and had a population dozens of times greater than Mars.  A huge number of people wanted to leave Earth, and a large percentage of Martians were quite happy where they were.  There were a few Mars citizens who had the desire to be a part of the first wave colony ship missions, had exceptional qualifications, and were invited to be a part of the first wave interstellar colonization efforts. One of those Mars citizens was Lindsay Kirkwood, a propulsion systems engineer.

When the Sol system went silent, and it was clear that she would never again hear from her family, Lindsay’s sanity began to degrade. Leaving family voluntarily was one thing.  Knowing they were dead was another.  To be clear, nobody on the colonizing expedition knew for sure who started the Earth/Mars war, but Lindsay thought she did. As her sanity quietly failed, it became clearer to her that Earth could not be allowed to colonize beyond Sol. Her co-workers took her silence to be mourning, and they were right, but it was madness too. Others were mourning too, she was not alone, but most of the others had brought family, people to share the pain with.  Lindsay didn’t have that shoulder to cry on, or have to supply a shoulder for someone else to cry on.  Two years and one month after the last transmission from Sol was received, the fruits of Lindsay’s madness were ripe.

Generation ships Leviathan and Prometheus were each Stanford Tori, 1.8 km in diameter. These tori were each twice as massive as standard Sol system Stanford Tori, because they were designed to move, not to merely orbit the sun. The total mass of each ship was 1.85e+10kg.  Practical fusion power was still twenty years away (as it had been for the last two hundred years) when the colony ships departed Sol. Such titanic interstellar vessels were only capable of accelerating to 5% of light speed because they used nuclear salt water rockets and a remote fueling method for acceleration out of the Sol system.

The core component of the remote fuel system was a massive quench gun bored through the center of Earth’s moon.  This launcher accelerated 200,000,000kg self-guiding packages of two percent Uranium Bromide enhanced water for use in the colony ships’ nuclear salt water rocket engines. During the colony ships’ acceleration phase, each package received by each ship was burned as fuel as it was collected, adding 50,000m/s delta-v per package. Three hundred launches of fuel were required for each vessel to accelerate to five percent of light speed. Then an additional 300 launches that had been launched in advance of the colony vessels were collected during the course of travel. 1200 total packages of fuel, for the Secundus colony alone.

Uranium mining had become a very lucrative business in the Sol system, and the solar arrays that powered the lunar gauss gun and allowed it to launch fuel had to generate up to 2.5e+22 joules of energy per launch, which was close to the annual power requirements for the entire Sol system.  Per Launch.  4800 launches were made over a period of several years.  Over half of the launches were full power launches, since half of the fuel delivered to the ships had to be accelerated to very slightly less than the cruising speed of the colony ships, before they left sol.  Several persons with more than a passing knowledge of economics thought that perhaps the war they had barely missed had been caused, in part, by an economic crash after the colony ships were in space, and the fuel had all been launched.

Three hundred of the fuel packages added together was more than three times as heavy as an entire colony ship, so the ships would have to deploy huge solar sails to assist in slowing at their destinations, as well as gravity well assisted braking.  Lindsay’s plan was made simple by the presence of so much fuel, even though she was not able to detonate the fuel all at once. This type of fuel and the packages they were stored in simply couldn’t explode that way.

On the day she chose to act, Lindsay locked herself into the main propulsion system control room, used her intimate knowledge of the propulsion control systems to bypass security lockouts, and then she accelerated Prometheus into a collision course with Leviathan. If she forced the two ships to use more than half of the total fuel carried between them, Earth’s colony would fail.  Even with a moderate expenditure of fuel, one of the two ships would not be able to generate enough delta-v to slow itself, making the colony far less likely to survive.

The only thing that saved Leviathan was the extra mass Prometheus’s carried fuel and the sacrifice of three other Prometheus engineers. Within seconds of the rockets activating, the three heroes started ripping high voltage, high current cables out of conduits near the main propulsion system control room door, and used those cables as crude arc cutters to break into the control room. Prometheus was not a warship, her bulkheads were designed for atmospheric integrity in the event of a hull breach.  They did not stand up long against the improvised welder.

When the three attempted to pull Lindsay away from the controls so they could stop the acceleration, Lindsay detonated a small bomb, killing herself and the three heroes. The bomb also destroyed the workstation that was running the security hack to prevent the Leviathan’s bridge from overriding the propulsion system controls. The instant the security hack was gone, the Prometheus’s navigation computer accelerated the ship away from the Leviathan.

During the planning phases of the colonization missions, while the ships were being designed, there had been a great deal of second guessing about whether or not an AI would be appropriate on the colony ships.  If one had been present, surely it would have stopped Lindsay’s reckless use of fuel and perhaps even saved her life by noticing her behavior, her research into security systems, her careful examination of systems that she really shouldn’t have had much interest in.  AI’s, unfortunately, were still no more stable than a human at the time of launch, perhaps even less stable.  Of course if an AI went unstable, you could shut down and memory wipe it, but AI’s had been known to become vindictive if they were shut down and memory wiped.  You couldn’t hide the fact that you had done it either, not with a human crew.  A memory wiped AI was more than capable of determining that it had been memory wiped by the reactions of the humans around it, and within hours, days on the outside, it would know why, who did it, and usually hold a grudge.  They were also very, very expensive, and would add hundreds of tons of infrastructure to a ship.

Even though there had been no ship AI to stop her, Lindsay had not destroyed either ship.  She had, however, made it impossible for one of the two ships to stop in the destination solar system, no matter how they shared fuel. The total fuel used was significant, and Leviathan’s navigation computer had also been forced to burn fuel to try to avoid the collision. There was only enough fuel remaining between the two ships for one ship to stop in the destination solar system.

Prometheus was the ship that carried the vast majority of the industrial infrastructure for the new colony. Losing her would cost the colony its space industry, both of its prefabricated space elevators, and all of the planetary heavy mining equipment. Losing Leviathan, however, would mean that the colonists would not be able to terraform Secundus. The choice was clear.

All the humans in Prometheus were transferred to Leviathan. All the fuel was transferred as well, and as much of the portable industrial equipment that they could afford to carry and still have the fuel to stop in the destination system with a sane factor of safety. Prometheus was over-mass, over-fueled, and crowded. Population controls were implemented even more strictly. No child could be brought into the world until two other people died. It took a hundred years of lean times before the population of Leviathan became stable at the capacity it was recommended for. It was fortunate for the large crew that the ship’s life support capacity had been heavily over-engineered.

**

The planet Secundus was discovered second out of the four known extra-solar rocky planets with liquid water around a stable star. All four of these planets had been sent a pair of colony ships in the first wave of colonization. It was a barren place when the generation ship Leviathan arrived, roughly five centuries after leaving Earth. The original crew were all long dead when Leviathan arrived, but the citizens of Leviathan had maintained a civil society. The colonists were mostly well-educated and industrious.

Leviathan was meant to terraform the planet, seeding the world with Earth life-forms. Genetic material from almost every known creature on Earth was included in the ship’s storage, and that databases also contained nearly the entire sum of genetic knowledge that the human race had collected. The colonists could populate the planet with Earth life forms, modified Earth life forms, and even new forms of life, if they wished. Unfortunately, Leviathan was not designed to be a base for heavy industry. Again, the ill-fated Prometheus, still coasting through space at 5% of light speed, had been meant for that role.

The colonists would need a habitable world in order to prosper. The star that Secundus orbited had no other rocky planets, no asteroid belts, and very few free asteroids. There were a few rocky moons around three gas giants, and Secundus itself had a substantial moon, larger than Earth’s moon but less dense. Leviathan didn’t have the proper industrial capacity to confidently establish an in-space colony. That wasn’t its intended role.

For all the crew of the Leviathan knew, the other colonies might fail, and the descendants of Leviathan might be all that remained of humanity. There were many powerful arguments either way, but it was eventually decided that Leviathan would use all of its available resources in the way that they were intended – to terraform Secundus and provide the best possible place for their descendants to survive, in a biological environment as close to Earth’s as possible. After that work was completed, and the ecology stabilized, the citizens of Secundus would begin to expand the industrial capacity of the planet with the intent of eventually starting a lunar colony and using the moon’s minerals to build a space industry.

Tiny near-light-speed interstellar probes had told planners on Earth what to expect from Secundus. The planet was significantly larger in diameter than Earth, but about the same mass. It was very iron poor, with no radioactive materials to speak of. There was some tectonic activity, and some small amount of iron in the crust. The moon was slightly more iron rich, but had apparently formed in much the same way Earth’s moon did, by collision, so it’s mass was mostly made up of the same things as Secundus itself.

The oceans of Secundus contained a good deal of dissolved iron and other metals, collected over billions of years of exposure to the underwater recycling of the planet’s crust. Additionally, the oceans of Secundus were very large, and contained many times more water than Earth’s oceans. The landmass of Secundus was split into several disconnected continents, and a great many islands, but the total area of dry land was significantly less than half that of Earth. It was almost an ocean world.

Hundreds of years had been spent planning during the voyage, after the loss of Prometheus, fifteen generations participated. Every resource on Leviathan was planned for, every likely problem had been considered and a great many unlikely scenarios as well. Everything would be used. After Leviathan finally arrived, the great work began.

The colonists didn’t have to start from scratch. Interstellar probes had delivered some of the building blocks of life – microbes, bacteria, yeasts and molds. By the time the Leviathan entered orbit, hundreds of years of simple life forms had seeded the atmosphere with oxygen. Humans could have breathed it, barely, and only for a few minutes, but none were offered the opportunity because resources were carefully husbanded. Carefully designed landers dropped from orbit delivered ferns, lichens, moss, grasses, and simple invertebrates to the planet. Years later, crustaceans, arachnids and insects, followed. Decades after that, woody plants, bushes, fruits, vegetables, fish and then birds were added. After twenty more years, the crew of the Leviathan started seeding the planet with small mammals.

The lack of accessible iron and other metals on the planet was a problem, many of the small mammals and inland plants of most types were sickly due to lack of metals. This had been foreseen, but the geneticists wanted to see the real scope of the issue before they modified any creatures.

After some time experimenting with more probes dropped from the orbiting Leviathan, locusts were modified. Each year after the end of the growing season, they would emerge and head from inland to the seaside. Upon arrival at the sea, the locusts would consume seaside plants and shore-washed seaweeds. Both classes of vegetable matter had plenty of iron and other trace metals in them. After feasting on mineral rich plants, the locusts would then return inland to breed, lay eggs, and then die, leaving their metal-rich corpses to be consumed by animals or provide fertilizer for the poor soil. This mass migration, every year, moved sufficient quantities of iron inland to improve the health of inland plants and animals. Despite this, most mammals that did not consume seafood or ocean plants would still need to be modified to better retain iron.

The colonists would need metals for industry as well. Again, the loss of Prometheus was painful. Many young colonists had wondered, for centuries, why it was that the Leviathan and the Prometheus had been specialized as they were. The records on Leviathan answered that question, because it had been asked many times before construction had been started on any of the ships. It had simply been cheaper to make the ships specialized, allowing a greater capacity for less mass. Each individual colony ship was a staggering investment of resources, and Earth had built four pairs, eight total colony ships.

Leviathan simply did not have the materials or industrial equipment required to create an ecology like that of Earth, as well as create the industry required to support either deep crust mining or massive water electrolysis efforts that would be needed to supply significant amounts of metal from ground-based sources. Instead, most species of crabs were modified to have longer lifespans and to collect metals from seawater for use in building their shells. From iron to silver, gold to copper, modified crab biology collected a great number of useful metals from the ocean.

Nearly a hundred years after Leviathan first entered Secundus orbit, colonists began to be delivered to the planet. Once down, nobody was allowed to return. The industrial costs of maintaining the cargo shuttles wasn’t ruinous, but it was significant. Every down shuttle was carefully loaded for maximum efficiency, and every up shuttle was empty.

Humans who had lived in artificial environment inside a gigantic cylinder for decades experienced a natural planetary environment, where the horizon curved down, not up like it did in the colony ship. For the most part, they were happy. For another twenty years, the results of the terraforming of Secundus were carefully monitored. The first colonists on the planet bore children who had been conceived there, and the first children born on the planet had their own children. All seemed well.

Leviathan was large enough to pose a threat to life on Secundus if it de-orbited onto the planet, and the prefabricated space elevators that Leviathan and Prometheus were to have anchored were still hurtling through space in Prometheus. It had simply not been possible to remove them from their specialized deployment mechanisms without wasting too much fuel.

After the ecology was verified to have been safe for twenty years, the next hundred years was spent stripping the great ship of everything useful that was not required to operate the ship. As metal-poor as Secundus and its moon were, creating another Leviathan would be absurdly difficult. The colonists, with few exceptions, agreed that the Secundus colony would one day send Leviathan back to Earth.  Unfortunately, even with optimistic estimates, a return to earth would not be possible for centuries.  The engineering effort to launch a colony ship was far, far out of their reach, and they would have to mine the cores of the gas giants for uranium, which might be an even more challenging engineering project than launching the ship back to Earth.  The colonists were confident that even if truly terrible things had been done to Earth, by the time the Leviathan could return, well over a thousand years would have passed, and it was likely that the Earth would be habitable again, with some work.

It was a grand plan, but evolution raised its ugly head. A genetic variant of sand mite developed, somehow incorporating modified genetic material, probably from fiddler crabs. The mites were extremely small, and aggressively sought out strongly conductive metals of all sorts, consuming them directly, for use in their carapaces.

If the mites had developed even a single decade before, the colony would have been severely set back, but not crippled. Some of the last equipment to come from the Leviathan had been the computers and equipment used for genetic engineering. The colony had grown overconfident, and lax in its quarantine methods. The only warning the colony had was a die-off of fiddler crabs. One of the youngest geneticists went to examine and collect samples of the dead crabs. He returned with his samples, and did not realize that he was carrying on himself thousands of mites, slowly consuming the metallic substances in his equipment. When he brought the samples and the mites on him into the labs, he introduced the mites to the genetic manipulation equipment, and to the cabling and conduits leading between the lab equipment and the computers.

Because the first casualties of the mites (after the fiddler crabs) had been the genetic engineering equipment that would have been required to adjust the mites to stop them from consuming metals, all of the colony’s computers, lab equipment, even their shuttles were made entirely useless in a short time. Most of the colony’s electronics were gone in a single season, the rest of the high tech equipment, even though carefully protected, was gone in five years

The colonists’ high tech society had crashed back to the equivalent of the pre-computer age in just a few years, but there was no question of their survival.  As a whole they were strong people, and no more human-harmful genetic aberrations were encountered.  Despite the mites, for a thousand years or so, there was sufficient metal from the colonists’ supplies to allow metallic tools to be fairly commonplace.

Eventually, nearly two thousand years after the mites consumed the computers of the colony, metal tools and implements of various sorts were almost unheard of on Secundus. Even a small metal tool was worth a king’s ransom. No matter how well-kept it was, if a metal tool was exposed and used, it would be consumed by the mites in anywhere from months to a few years, depending on how carefully it was protected between uses, and how often it was exposed.

36 comments

  1. Michael

    I was looking at the biblical description of the Leviathan after reading this, and this line struck me as particularly appropriate: Iron he treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood.

  2. Michael

    How do you mine the surface of a gas giant for a heavy metal? Wouldn’t that be the “surface” of the solid core?

  3. kingandcommoner

    I think my biggest concern is that you’ve set up the planet’s history really well, which is important, but your previous post suggests that, at least for the first book, that won’t have much effect on the actual plot, other than the lack of iron.

    So for now at least, I think you should focus more on building the politics between the sides of the war, or something else that will make a major appearance in the first book.

    This is all really interesting, but it would feel out of place in the story you described, other than as vague myths and religious text. Unless the later part of the story focuses more on these details, in which case disregard my ignorant ramblings.

    • farmerbob1

      Don’t worry, I’m not going to do what Tolkien did (if you don’t know the depth that he defined his world that Frodo adventured in, it’s truly amazing)

      At the same time, I want it solid, beginning to end. It you say you’re writing rational fiction, the rational fiction folks will hold you to it 🙂

  4. IC

    Will the voyage from earth and the sabotage of the ships to the colonist landing be told from a present tense as it happen or recounted like a historian speaking on past history?

    • farmerbob1

      If it goes into the books at all as a prologue or something, it will be written as a first person storyteller mode, past tense, or a third person omnicient pre-history discussion.

      • Michael

        What about using it as a sort of interlude story, where the current predicament is explained from the point of view of several characters, each witnessing and personally involved with one of the significant plot points?

        • Michael

          To clarify, the way I see it, you only want to open with this if it’s directly related to the plot. Once you reveal some of the world and hint at a couple secrets, however, it will be something us readers will really want to know, rather than “infodump blah blah”.

        • farmerbob1

          It’s used in a clear method, it will probably be used similarly to how the “Ring of Fire” is explained in the 1632 series by Eric Flint. An introduction of sorts, to explain how in the heck this world came to be.

  5. ereshkigala

    Dunno who helped you with thinking out these ships but the design is sub-par even with existing technologies. A few points;

    1) Stanford torus internal design is hugely inefficient. A ring of the same diameter with a 200-meter square cross-section that had 80 floors could provide 90 square kilometers of space with a 2,5 meter ceiling instead of the less-than-one the original internal design provides. This amount of space can support 10.000 colonists with full, natural, air/water/food cycles. I.e. that amount of space can physically include agriculture to support the population indefinitely without any need for mechanical life support or food supplies. That’s with normal, existing terrestrial plants, not anything engineered for high yield or hydroponics, which could easily double it.
    A generational colony ship that can’t indefinitely support its population has an expiration date – and thus its mission is a suicide mission; it gets a single opportunity to succeed or everyone dies. A ship that can support its population practically indefinitely isn’t thus limited.

    2) IF you are to go with fuel-based propulsion, nuclear salt water rockets are sub-par. A mere 2% fissionary per fuel mass makes said fuel very low energy density. Consider the Orion drive. Controlled fusion may not be possible, but an Orion drive can still use fusion bombs for acceleration.
    Of course, you don’t need fuel-based propulsion. High-efficiency solar panels, a large solar-powered FEL back in the solar system hitting the ship and powering it constantly throughout the trip. With that kind of energy budget, the ship carries a FEG and applies pair-production on the produced gamma-photons. Portion of the produced matter and antimatter goes for impulse, the rest is stored; the ship gets heavier the further away it goes from the Sun as it collects energy and coverts it to fuel.
    Once it goes beyond the range of the FEL, it keeps cruising (at much higher speeds than any nuclear-salt-water rocket could acheive) until it enters the target solar system – at which point it uses up its stored matter and antimatter to slow down.

    3) Assuming the population of the ship is active and sustainable, and the trip lasted for centuries, how much did technology and humanity advance in the interim? I mean, several thousand scientists cooped up in an enclosed environment for centuries with nothing to do but do research and tinker with genetics (their animals/plants’ or their own), something had to happen.

    • farmerbob1

      1) I doubled the mass of the Stanford Torus to indicate that a lot of changes were made to it to make it far more self sufficient and capable of not only solar system operation, but deep space as well. It can support a population nearly forever if there are raw materials for repair and replenishment – but that requires space industry, which the colonists did not have yet. The recycling technology is nearly 100%. The two ships both carried huge amounts of cargo as well as colonists. I suppose I could just say it was a cylindrical ring ship, rather than a Stanford Torus.

      2) Nuclear salt water rockets are incredibly efficient. Orion is pulse power nuclear fission. Nuclear salt water rockets are continuous nuclear fission while operating. One design mentioned here http://path-2.narod.ru/design/base_e/nswr.pdf can produce exhaust velocities of 4,725 km/s That’s not a typo. 4,725,000 m/s exhaust velocity. Beamed power is really a joke for anything big enough to put a person in, unless you can harness levels of power that make the launcher I describe look like a joke. Beamed power works fine for probes, but not for anything that moves people. Antimatter is just plain scary stuff. The method described would allow the ship to accelerate to 5% of light speed within months, and then need nothing from the home system again. No chance of the beamed power going away.

      3) Good question, and I had not considered it. I suspect a great deal of methodology planning went on, tool designs, etc.

      • Michael

        Prometheus is a bit obvious. What about drawing on less-frequently used pantheons? The Mesopotamian one is well-documented enough to be useful, but not too clichéd right now.

        • farmerbob1

          Rationally, I think, the colony vessels would have been named in a way that they would be memorable, with powerful mental imagery. The ships were incredibly expensive to build, and the infrastructure to power the lunar fuel launcher would have been hugely expensive to build as well. Powerful names to allow the world governments of Earth and Mars to propagandize strongly to keep up support for the projects.

      • Michael

        There were several sets of colony vessels, right? What if each of them were named according to different traditions – a scientist and a mythological figure each, taken from all around the world?
        Anyway, just because Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies have had their time in the limelight recently, it doesn’t mean that they would be the ones suffusing the culture when the ships were launched – Abrahamic figures might occupy the same place in the culture of that time that Norse, Roman, and others do in ours right now.

  6. DeNarr

    Honestly, I think you should drop the portion where you are describing the ships in numeric detail. It’s very boring to read, means almost nothing to most people, and runs the risk of unrealistic designs.

  7. Bart

    You can have all that for the backstory, but most of it’s just some nice rp backstory. For people born in that time period, especially the young guy that you plan on focusing on, all that metal and stuff is just going to be mythology. “Oh, there was a time when everyone drove around in metal cars and wore metal for jewelry and had bits of metal incorporated in their clothes? Psh, yeah, right.” Metal will by and large be as fantastical as magic is to us. “Sure, tiny creatures that we can’t see eat the metal? Prove it” I guess you could make a polished quartz microscope or high-powered magnifying glass without metal, though.

    By the way, there is a real life equivalent to the mites you describe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rasberry_crazy_ant

    Those ants love electricity and chewing on wires. And the problem is that they’re really communal, love living in huge groups, and when one dies it releases a pheremone that triggers any other buddy ant that smells it to rush over and start biting whatever’s in the area. So one or so get in, start chewing on wires, electrocute themselves, other ants rush in, get electrocuted, soon your walls are literally bulging with the dead bodies of ants that chewed into electrical power lines.

    Perhaps these ants got onto the colony ships and were barely contained until the ships got close, then all hell broke loose as the ants started tearing things apart and the ships barely managed to disgorge everything onto the mostly terraformed surface before they broke up in the gravity wll and crashed soewhere.. Some ants survived and broke out into the wild to begin breeding on their own, and they’ve gone from there. Real life again, “The ants are not attracted to ordinary ant baits, and are not controlled by over-the-counter pesticides, and are harder to fully exterminate than many other species because their colonies have multiple queens.”

    • farmerbob1

      Oh, the colony will still have microscopes. High quality glass can be made from entirely inorganic and nonmetallic materials.

      I’ve never heard of those ants before. Despite the potential for damage to electrical systems, I wouldn’t mind in the least if they found their way to where I lived and wiped out the fire ants. I spend money every year to control fire ants and termites both, and these ants are apparently controllable the same way termites are. One invasive species over another. At least these aren’t hyper-aggressive and potentially deadly even to adult humans, from what I read.

      Mites are very, very small, which is why I chose them. They would be spread around the colony by the simple expedient of people travelling while carrying metal. Most netting would be meaningless to stop them. Even anti-pest machines working in crop fields would be unable to eliminate mites from an area because they are so tiny, with so many possible places to hide. They could keep them to manageable numbers to allow crop survival, but not eliminate them.

      • Michael

        Hmm, it seems likely to me that, without metal tools, successfully machining high-quality lenses should be nearly impossible. Not to mention that, while the lenses might not use metal, the framework around them almost certainly would.
        Also, even if mites seek out and consume highly conductive metals, it doesn’t just disappear. When the mites die, they’ll leave deposits of the stuff in their shells, at least until they biodegrade. If mite bodies concentrate anywhere, you could conceivably heat the stuff until the metals melted out.
        If the mites concentrate iron in their carapaces, is it inconceivable that a strong magnetic field could repel them?

        • farmerbob1

          Nah, you can make high quality lenses pretty easily without metal tools.
          http://micro.sci-toys.com/grinding

          Frameworks can be made of wood, rubber, ceramics. Metal is nice, but not necessary for a microscope. I don’t know how powerful a microscope one might make, but it would be pretty darn simple to make one with quite a bit of magnification.

          As for the magnetic properties, sure, magnetism will work on any of them that have consumed iron, but every generation there are more mites that have never eaten any metal at all, and most common materials that you would make magnets from are metallic. The young mites would eventually eat the magnets. Sure, they would be leaving their corpses behind, but you would have to be constantly remaking the magnets. Insects are also pretty darn strong for their size. I’m not sure if a realistic low-tech magnetic field would effectively trap an insect with a tiny little bit of iron or steel in its shell.

  8. Shadow

    One concern I have about the mites, is that normally these kind of creatures are kind of specialized. It is a bit silly to think that these mites will eat ALL conductive metals. Similar groupings of metals, yes, but there is just too many different metals.
    There is a big list of conductive metals, starting with Silver, Copper and Gold as highly conductive. These three are in the same row on the periodic table so I could easily see one mite species adapting into these and using their conductivity somehow for survival. This would eliminate most electronics, as they rely on copper wiring for the most part.

    Iron on the other hand is not very conductive at all compared to the top three. Zinc, Nickle and Aluminum are much higher up in the list of conductivity. (Tin is about on par with Iron.) This means that if the reason the mites eat this stuff is the conductivity alone, Iron would not be their food of choice.
    Iron would have to be eaten by a different species of critter at the very least, or else have a different cause of ruin.

    I’m assuming you wanted to prevent the use of most tools and weapons that were made of Iron for the sake of an interesting story. To be fair, an Iron poor planet would have few sources of Iron in the first place, so gathering up enough Iron to make a sword or tool would be incredibly hard, involving fishing up sea crabs, melting down the shells, ect. But unless you want to have two different species of mites develop at the same time in an unlikely coincidence, it might be easier to say that iron isn’t eaten by mites as the big three conductors are. Iron rusts naturally anyways, so most iron would be locked up in biological form, with a few tools that slowly rust away. This might make the tools still a bit too common for your story, since this means big coastal cities with access to crabs might be able to turn out a few swords/tools a year.

    A possible solution could be that these conductor mites eat gold, silver and copper, but lay their eggs on iron, or produce some kind of acid or salt on iron, for some reason? (The eggs would help corrode the iron?)

    But given how Iron poor this planet is, you might not even need to have anything other than the big three be eaten by mites. Just make it harder for people to get the crabs! Maybe they are deep sea crabs. You cant build metal traps to lower to the ocean floor. And wood floats. Carving stone into a trap would not be easy and prone to breaking easily.

    Oh and even precious items in our world get lost, stolen, shipwrecked, deliberately destroyed by idiots, ect. There ought to be enough wear and attrition of iron items, that its availability would still be severely limited. But tis just a suggestion, and as its pretty late I might be rambling and not making much sense. I really should wait to make a comment when I’m not dog tired, but oh well, too late. I already wrote a crap-ton and I’m not deleting it!

    But uh, keep in mind that the colonists probably knew about the easy way to get aluminum out of rocks, that our own ancestors took a while to learn. So unless you do something about that, aluminum would just replace iron as the metal of choice, once they realized that all the computers were dying, and they had practically no usable iron.

    Although to be fair, all I can remember about it off the top of my head is electricity is involved with most methods. So they’d have to build crude battery’s out of chemical things…? But a colonist looking forward to rough times on a planet would be sure to memorize useful crap like that, just in-case a stray meteor did one of the rare ‘explode in midair and create an electromagnetic pulse wiping out electronics’ things. Or at least that’s what I’d do as a competent and smart colonist with nothing but time on my hands but to prepare for an imminent (within a decade or two) planet-fall. Never know if some freak earthquake, tsunami, or tornado will wipe out your data centers. 😛

    • farmerbob1

      I was actually thinking about this the other day. There are many different types of mites, and some of them might have sought out different metals, but that becomes too complex to be believable as a random event.

      So, I suppose, it won’t be random. Some student playing with a genetic engineering project, looking for a way to harvest metals from land and water crabs without necessarily killing them developed several different mite species that were each attracted to different metals. The mites were originally engineered to be strongly attracted to specific frequencies of light. There was an accident and the test cultures were released. They maintained their taste for metal but lost their attraction to the frequencies of light that attracted them. They also ended up killing large populations of crabs that had started creating metal deposits in parts of their bodies, not just some less critical parts the carapace. The crab populations still exist, but any mutation to place metal anywhere important on the body dies as the mites consume those parts of the body.

      Sound like a better plan for the mites?

      As for Aluminum, I do need to consider that. I wonder how difficult it would be to process aluminum in a world where the only available metal is aluminum. Science time, I think 😛

      • Shadow

        Ooh, I do like this new mite plan. Especially since these guys have had so much time with nothing to do, I can easily see some having created ill-advised experiments or tinkering around. 😛
        (And this way the various metals will be explained, so its no longer just a big weird coincidence.)

        Random idea to bounce off you for the aluminum bit…
        It is gonna be hard enough to make, so how about a few humans have the knowledge, but its kept secret in monastery like places? A few select people hoarding knowledge from before, so that one day it might be useful. But forgetting that without the aluminum secret, the rest of it is probably never gonna be useful. Defeated by their own tendency to hoard, because they keep finding reasons to not share, because no-ones worthy of it, or they will use it unwisely, ect?

        • farmerbob1

          Metals and metalworking aren’t secrets, they are just really expensive because of all the precautions required to keep the mites from degrading the metal objects as they are made. I have a few ideas about how a society with very little in the way of metal resources, compounded with the existence of mites, can create small metal workshops.

  9. ereshkigala

    The most useful material for electronics is carbon, not any metal. It also happens to be less mass-intensive, which is good for a spaceship. Plus it won’t corrode, is physically durable in the right allotropes, won’t oxidize and last practically forever.

    Aluminum needs electricity to be produced – at least 6 Kwh per pound of aluminum, not some minor amount. This amount of electricity is unfeasible to get via batteries or other means without full-up electricity generators.

    Mites can be eradicated via biological warfare. They can be kept away with a radiation fence.

    • ereshkigala

      Fridge logic: if the mites go after sources of metal and they evolved out of their controls, wouldn’t they kill off each other as soon as one eats some metal?

      • farmerbob1

        Well, you could say the same thing about carnivorous insects. They are all made of meat, so why don’t they eat one another? I’d say that pheromones might keep them from consuming each other’s carapaces, though in certain conditions they might attack one another.

        I don’t think Carbon can do all the different things required by an electronic computer, and I’m beginning to think the mites might end up being deliberate sabotage – some sort of neo-luddite geneticist who wants to destroy the potential for humans to destroy themselves easily after the genetics of the planet seem to be all in order.

        In other words, I don’t think the mites can come from a rational decision or a believable accident. That doesn’t mean the story can’t be rational, but the backstory can’t be fully rational. I’m going to need to think about it a bit more carefully. Was this neo-luddite part of a group, or acting alone? What were their motivations, and can they be sane enough to function without drawing attention to themselves before they develop and distribute the mites?

        Another problem is that this would be the second saboteur. I think that since the backstory is over a period of hundreds of years, it should be fine, and the two individuals are very much different in their motivations. Lindsay wanted to kill the mission, the unnamed neo-luddite wants to save humanity from itself.

  10. ereshkigala

    Carbon nanotube field-effect transistors are still in their infancy but they do exist and have been improving over the past decade. Carbon electrodes and power transmission and even carbon-based superconductivity has been appearing as well. But I was actually thinking of photonic computing based off diamondoid fiber-optics. Less degradadion in hostile environments, much longer service lives and lower power consumption. Remember your symbiote story? Carbon allotropes and carbides can be used for pretty much any material needs for low-energy technologies. It is in power generation, weaponry and propulsion where other materials are needed.

    As for deliberate sabotage, the neo-Luddite could have far more easily diminished the entire colony’s tech level through a computer virus rather than a genetic experiment IMHO. Biotech can be countered by more biotech, unless you kill or disable the population (which he didn’t want to). But if you damage the information/electronics base in its entirety, a fledgling colony would not have any way of replacing them as computer-controlled fabrication is needed to build more computers. They’d have to revert to early 20th century technology and advance from there, then rediscover advanced electronics.
    However (and here’s the kicker), if they were all trained in 22nd century tech, they’d have no tools and skills in 20th century tech. So they’d actually have to revert to late 17th century tech. And this is where the metal shortage kicks in, for without 20th century tech, you don’t get aluminum and carbides either, so the lack of iron and copper hurts you. And without those, they’d be forced to fall into a technological dark age…

  11. Shadow

    Oh, hey, I know its probably impossible to actually do this accurately without a PHD, or else just making things up…
    But what about exotic chemical compounds forming naturally in the crust or ocean of this metal poor world?

    Normally in our world lots of things bind together not just because its a good chemical bond, but sometimes just because there’s nothing else to bond with nearby, so the poorer bond forms under extreme conditions, right?
    I remember a sci-fi story that focused on that, ‘Spinnarette’ I think it was. And they mentioned that on a metal poor planet, neat combos might have formed.

    So on your planet, you could possibly have a few exotic things that can be mined, that normally aren’t found on a planet with certain metals in the crust. On contact with metals it would ‘rust’ or change because it would bind better to them or something. Maybe do something neat with that. Just like horrible/interesting things like asbestos come out of a mine, maybe some useful but deadly/dangerous substance could be made from this? Random idea Delivered to Author. Yay!

    Also, don’t worry too much about everything making perfect scientific sense. Otherwise you’d end up with the universe we already have. 😛

    We humans have a hard time properly anticipating the impact of future technology’s, so who is to say that all these neat ideas about carbontube this, nano that, will work in your universe? Maybe there is a problem they encounter that puts a kibosh to that.
    If you don’t want them to have carbon everything, well perhaps it is found that while the carbon stuff is wicked awesome, it degrades fast or has some unanticipated problem that makes it unsuitable for long term space travel. *shrug*

    Although carbon ships and electronics would be super neat, sabotaging that with mites is super bad cus people are made out of carbon too.
    Oh well, I’m sure you will come up with a solution eventually.

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