As previously discussed, Gerard K. O’Neill’s vision of space colonies was particularly comforting to 1970s anxieties. Soaring population? The asteroid belt has enough material to build habitats promising many times the surface area of Earth! Energy crisis? Have said habitats pay for themselves by building solar power arrays IN SPAAACE! Indigenous populations weirdly ungrateful for genocidal displacement by Europeans? Colonization do-over in space where there are no natives to displace or complain!
Various factors—primarily that the essential concept was as sound as the Darien Scheme and the technological barriers proved insurmountable—ensured the proposal would come to naught.
Just as well, because had O’Neill’s colonies been realized, their governments would probably be struggling to deal with the 30 percent of their population who been convinced that air is noxious. It’s just a MSM plot to con people into purchasing life support! Free yourself from air dependence—open the airlocks to space!
At least all this space colony talk inspired some great illustrations!
An interesting aspect of O’Neill’s proposal was that while it caught on with mainstream media, it wasn’t nearly as inspirational to science fiction writers. If I had to speculate why, I’d put it down to two elements:
- Space colonies, particularly large ones, are essentially cities.
- L’anglosphere SF authors of this era disliked cities.
Nevertheless, the space colony concept lingered on into the 1980s and after. Here are five novels—recent in the sense that they were published in the last forty years—featuring space colonies.
The End of the Empire by Alexis A. Gilliland (1983)
A fleet from the Holy Human Empire flees its last stronghold on Portales, hoping to find a refuge in uncharted space. By mere chance (and authorial fiat), the HHE refugees end up the same system settled by Mamnu anarchists who fled Portales nine centuries earlier.
There’s only one thing to do: conquer!
Fearing that their descendants would fall prey to the temptations of government, the founding anarchists established a minarchic government that was powerful enough to prevent more interventionist states from arising while being too weak to fulfil most of the standard functions of government. Under this regime the fortunate enjoy luxury and comfort in orbiting habitats. The masses are dispatched to poorly terraformed Malusia, where from time to time the unreliable infrastructure thins their numbers through famine. This arrangement has endured for nine centuries. It may not survive exposure to ideas (and conquerors) from outside the system.
HHE intelligence officer Colonel Saloman Karff is dispatched to Malusia to provoke a crisis that the HHE remnant can exploit. It is a challenging task, not least because Karff is frequently sabotaged by corrupt superiors who see him as suspiciously competent. Nor does Karff have much time in which to operate: the same opponents who drove the HHE fleet from Portales may at any moment appear in Malusia’s system.
The Man Who Pulled Down the Sky by John Barnes (1986)
Colonies in American SF often follow a well-defined lifecycle: settlement, growth, disenchantment with imperial decrees, a very thinly veiled recapitulation of the American War of Independence, triumphant independence! All of which is backstory by the time this Barnes debut novel opens. Indeed, the Orbital Republics have reduced Earth to an agrarian colony, which they rule with all the grace and kindness shown by the United Fruit Company when it was hegemon in Central America.
The wheel of history turns once more: settlements in the asteroid belt are as eager to slip free of Orbital domination as the Orbitals once were to escape Earth’s rule. Economics currently favour continued Orbital domination. The asteroid settlements send Saul Pareto to Earth to stir up dissent. They hope to upend the current balance of power. It’s a bold plan, one in which the long-suffering people of Earth are but a means to an end.
Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling (1985)
The thriving human colonies of the Solar System embraced humanity’s favourite hobby: bitter rivalry over trivial philosophical differences. The Shapers insist that we should use biology to reshape humanity. The Mechanists favour improving technology that will expand human abilities. Both factions tend to see mere individuals as expendable; both factions loathe each other.
The Mare Serenitatis Circumlunar Corporate Republic made the error of dispatching youthful Abelard Lyndsay as envoy to the Shaper city-states. He returned a firebrand, convinced the Corporate Republic was a sclerotic ruin in dire need of a visionary revolutionary to redeem it. Surely the system is so rotten that ruthless idealists must prevail! Alas for Abelard, he is at best the Republic’s second most ruthless idealist. What began as a bold reformation transforms into a decades-long learning experience for the would-be revolutionary.
A Plague of Angels by Toren Smith and Adam Warren (1990–1991)
When member worlds are overwhelmed by crisis, the United Galactica’s World Welfare Work Association dispatches field agents to resolve the problem. A very unlucky minority of worlds find themselves being assisted by Trouble Consultants Kei and Yuri, who are as inadvertently destructive as they are inexplicably scantily-clad. Code-named “the Lovely Angels,” the apocalyptic pair are infamous as the Dirty Pair.
Habitats are by their nature fragile. Kei and Yuri are harbingers of doom. Logic would dictate sending someone else—anyone else—to Kalevala O’Neill Colony. The 3WA sends the Dirty Pair. Kalevala is struggling to deal with smugglers. Soon, smugglers will be the least of Kalevala’s problems.
The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski (2011)
Humans have finally sunk to heretofore unsuspected depths of folly. Jupiter’s resources might perhaps offer Earth the means to deal with climate change and alien invasion…but such a voyage would require passing beyond the impenetrable (and non-existent) Biblical Firmament that the Centrists believe surrounds the Earth. Too bad the Centrists control the American Senate and White House. To even attempt a voyage to Jupiter would be blasphemous.
(Hey, remember the good old days when the idea that a significant fraction of elected officials would base public policy—policies on which human lives depend—on delusional beliefs manifestly contradicted by the physical evidence was clearly intended as absurdist satire rather than something one might hear in a news broadcast? Heady days!)
Protagonist Jenny Ramos Kennedy has been born into the American political caste and may someday serve in high office. as did her ancestors. First, she must deal with her crippling shyness. She’s sent off to Frontera College, which orbits safely above damaged Earth. As Jenny will discover, the college is not half as isolated from events on Earth as she might like.
This being a five-item list, it is not a comprehensive overview of SF featuring space colonies. No doubt I overlooked many fine examples of space colony SF in this piece—in particular, I didn’t touch on Japanese SF, where habitats appear to have met a more inviting audience. Please feel free to mention examples not listed above.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.