Part of my impetus for starting to work on a science fiction novel has been that I started watching “The Expanse” recently. When I first saw previews for it, my first thought was that “Oh shit!” one has when someone soundly beats you to executing an artistic notion. For two years I have been kicking ideas around in my head for a novel or series of novels set in a spacefaring intrastellar future–what will possibly occur over the next two to three hundred years. The Expanse works squarely in that territory.
Fortunately for me, as I watched, I felt and continually feel, that I can do a lot better. This is not to say that The Expanse is bad, but having been thinking about the dramatic possibilities of this topic for awhile, I find it disappointing.
One of the issues that I have is the dearth of robotics. I know, I’m sure their budget limitations won’t allow too much, but if we are going to be in space for a long time, we are going to need a major robotic infrastructure. When I look at the amount of work that needs to be done in order to support human beings with something like quality of life, off-Earth, again and again, a great deal of that labor is going to have to be done with robots or drones. It’s as if one were setting up a colony in Antarctica, and expecting it to flourish and grow without aid. Something is going to have to work out on the ice. Human beings really cannot. Likewise something is going to have to work in the vacuum of space because we are just utterly ill-suited to it.
The next question I ask is how many of these robots will it take? What is the robot/human ratio for an extraterrestrial colony? It will be lower on Mars, higher on the Moon, asteroids and other moons. The quality of these machines and their degree of adaptation will be important factors. The more poorly adapted we are to a location, the more robots will be needed. These machines will have to be developed, purchased, directed, monitored, maintained, improved, and recycled. Remember R2 on Luke’s X-Wing? We’re going to need tons of them. At a guess, probably as many as five to ten per person. If we are just talking maintenance of an existing infrastructure that’s one thing, but we tend to like to grow. In order to make the robots we need, we are going to have to have robots that can make more robots from local materials.
On Earth, almost all of that work is performed by nature–and we still have a lot to keep us busy surviving. In space it will be done by robots directed by human beings. Will people be insulated from all of that work that goes on, just as we have been oblivious of nature on Earth? Will robots be partners or slaves? Just like Nature on Earth, we need Nature, but Nature does not need us. Likewise in space, we will need robots. Our lives will depend on them utterly–but they will not need us. If we give them intelligence and awareness, we will need to decide pretty quickly what our relationship will be. If we keep them very limited, we will need more of them and it will mean more work for us to monitor them.
Another factor to consider is how these robots are going to affect our evolution. We are talking about creating a fairly plastic environment (literally) for ourselves to live in