Using Science to Build a New World – Part 3

Building a Beta World

I did a LOT of research for Tangled Planet. This is the last of three posts on how I used some of it in the book.

DISCLAIMER! I have stretched, tweaked and in some places rabidly mauled the current tech in my book – the second half of science fiction is the fiction part, after all. Astrophysics shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.

Problems with Interstellar Colonization

The challenges that would face colonizers of any planet outside our solar system are enormous. Firstly, it’s unlikely there would be a naturally-occurring atmosphere that would support human life. Humans can only thrive with a fairly narrow range of oxygen content as well as enough atmospheric pressure to keep blood gases dissolved and allow us to breathe easily. There are likely to be elements in the air or a planet’s dust that we could be violently allergic to, or would be cancerous or poisonous in inhaled doses. If there is already life on our future home, even the tiniest bacteria could be (or mutate to be) deadly.

For these reasons, our first efforts at creating homes off-Earth are likely to be sealed, self-contained units on planets in our own solar system. Terraforming a whole planet is a completely different prospect, one that seems all but impossible now. But I often think of how insurmountable the challenges to the first Moon landing would have seemed in say, the Tudor period. If we try to imagine a future hundreds of years from now, it is likely that they will have technology that is well beyond our current imagining. It would be like trying to explain Instagram to Henry VIII.

What won’t change for future space travelers are the problems related to distance. A planet 30 light years away would have to function on its own. A one-way message would take 30 years to reach Earth, so getting the answer to a simple question would take much of a lifetime.

This is why, in Tangled Planet, all of the settlers’ technology is designed to be fixed with the limited specialization available to a crew of 500 and the resources on the Venture or awaiting them on the planet. They have to function with relatively simple tech – more advanced than ours, but primitive to the inhabitants of Earth at that time.

Whole-Planet Bioengineering

While whole-planet bioengineering is unimaginable with our current technology, in writing this book, my job was to try to imagine it – or at least have a good idea of how it worked in outline. So – my future society found a planet as similar to Earth as possible – in cosmic terms, at least – and adapted it with seeding ships – vessels sent hundreds of years of the Venture to prepare the planet. These ships travelled faster than the Venture, as they don’t need to worry about the gravitational stresses on their occupants. They delivered waves of genetically modified bacteria and bugs to tweak the atmosphere and cleared Beta of anything that could be dangerous. Each wave was designed to die off before the next replaced it, their microscopic bodies forming a nutrient-rich top soil, so the final waves of seeding ships could plant the diverse flora that, along with millions of species of carefully designed bugs, created a temporary ecosystem ready for our colonizers to settle and add to, with the animals they planned to introduce in carefully staggered releases.

But even then, Beta Earth would not be like our own planet. Our world had billions of years of life, not hundreds or thousands, and without plankton or similar life subjected to anaerobic decomposition, heat and pressure over millions of years, there would be no fossil fuels – no oil or gas for the settlers to rely on or use to make plastics. So my crew are working on setting up hydro-electric, solar power and wind farms.


Fruit Trees and Bioplastics

I gave my settlers high-yield fruit and nut trees, because I’m nice like that. Even in early spring where my story starts, many food sources are available on Beta. However, my crew is unused to foraging and focused on building their new home, so they still rely on food from the Venture, rather than fully exploiting these new sources. I have also given my settlers a kind of tree that also produces a polymer that can be used within their 3D printers.  Bioplastics are not new. We already have naturally occurring polymers, like rubber trees and plant-based products such as polylactic acid, being used on an industrial scale. Tires are now being made from plant-byproducts, and plant genes for producing isoprene (a hydrocarbon that is a component of rubber) have been put into E. coli bacteria. My bioengineered polymer trees are harvested in much the same way that latex is, yet their polymers are designed to need no processing. The printers can use the raw product to produce useful objects.


To make the moon-less woods easier to navigate at night for a crew used to life aboard a well-lit spaceship. I gave them bio-engineered glowferns – a ground-cover plant with natural bioluminescence.

Again – this is based on a technology we already have. We have added bioluminescence to animals, where it can be used in detection of diseases.  However, these animals mostly only glow under UV lights, and getting a plant to emit a useful visible light by itself is much harder than that, as the Glowing Plant Project discovered.  But we’re still a lot closer to glowferms than we are to interstellar travel!


Since animals would not be able to survive the accelerated journeys of the seeding ships, and bringing an ark consisting of enough genetic variation to colonize a world is unrealistic (can you imagine the smell after 400 years?), they, like the crew, would have to be created from frozen genetic material. This creates further complications – they would have to be hand-raised or raised by machines while they are juveniles. And since the idea is to keep the technology simple, I have gone with the former option (although it’s likely to cause its own problems with animal behaviour). I have artificial wombs in my story – again this is something we are working on, but as yet they can only help once fetuses are past a certain age – at the moment, a mother’s uterus is irreplaceable.

I don’t think such tech will ever be as good as the natural alternative, which is why in my world, animals created this way have a 10% chance of having health problems, such as organs not developing properly. This is an acceptable level of risk for creating animal populations on a new planet, but not for creating humans on a low-resource ship  – so my humans are grown the old-fashioned way.


Earth is Seriously Amazing

Doing this much research reinforced how miraculous our own planet is, and how perfectly we are evolved for it. Tweak just one aspect of bacteria, radiation, gravity, rotation, axial tilt, geological activity, atmospheric make-up, temperature or any one of a countless list of other factors, and Earth would not sustain human life. Our planet is fantastic, and sadly more fragile than we realize.

Final Disclaimer – I Make Ridiculous Mistakes

I will have made mistakes in this book. I’ll have overlooked things. I’m building a spaceship and a planet – that’s not a one-person job. Sometimes it’s the silliest stuff that can slip through the net. In one of the very final proofing drafts, during a thunderstorm, I repeatedly had the crack of thunder come before the flash of lightning – because I apparently decided that sound actually travels faster than light.

Whatever mistakes I have made in my final book, I’m glad to say I caught that one.

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