It’s finally time to complete our tour of humanity’s near-future playground: the Solar System. We’ve already gotten a look at what humanity has in store for the inner worlds, the resource-rich asteroid belt, and even the frosty moons of the two biggest gas giants. Jupiter and Saturn were cold and remote, but where we’re headed, cold and remote are taken to a new level. In the space beyond Saturn lies the dismal dregs of the Solar System. Water ice is just the most common type of rock, the Sun is just the brightest star, and humans are just specks in an endless void. It’s almost enough to make one wax nihilistic. Yet as empty as this place is, humans have still managed to colonize and exploit their environment. Let’s take a look.
We can already tell that we won’t be spending much time here: Uranus is fairly boring. Its moons are just your standard outer-solar-system dirty snowballs; they’re a lot like the mid-sized moons of Saturn, but less shiny.* They’re peppered with colonies, yes, but the moons of Jupiter sprouted great, independent civilizations before humans ever set foot on the moons of Uranus. There’s not much reason to, besides the fact that they’re there. The Uranus system is backwards and dirty; the butt of all sorts of jokes for all sorts of reasons.
We’re too far out for even enormous reflectors to do much good, so each properly terraformed moon has at least one dedicated sunlet* orbiting it. None of the moons were quite big enough for humans to be able to walk properly in their ultra-low gravities. We had to skip a few centuries ahead of our previous stops at Jupiter and Saturn to find cheap artificial gravity and great leaps forward in floating island technology* to entice more settlers to these worlds. The colonies originated as worker housing for the helium-3 harvesters in the Uranian atmosphere, plus the typical mix of libertarians, cultists, refugees and extreme snowboarders who didn’t particularly care about the quality of the real estate so long as it was free and remote. Even now, Uranian culture has a backwards, eclectic, frontier feel to it. Most inhabitants couldn’t tell you who Shakespeare was, despite living on worlds named after characters in his plays.* It’s hard to get mixed into the melting pot of human culture when the nearest humans are light-hours away. The Uranian colonies are more like crusty soup bits that splashed out of the pot and dried up.
As bland and backwards as the Uranian system is, there’s one gem we should explore before moving on to the last great planet. Miranda*, the smallest and innermost of Uranus’ “big” moons, has been left largely untouched for the same reason that Earth’s Mt. Everest wasn’t terraformed: it’s a mountain-climber’s and spelunker’s paradise. Miranda is a dangerous beauty, full of chasms and bizarre, impossible geological features. Its caves are the final resting place of hundreds of adventure-seekers from across nearly a millennia. It’s still famous even now – but most tourists nowadays take guided tours on the rail lines between dome cities.* We stop by the gift shop, but we don’t have time to take the full tour – and in any case, we’ve already seen our share of bizarre ice formations on this trip. Onward, to Neptune!
Here we are: the farthest out we can get and still have the nice, comforting view of a big gravity anchor out our window. Although the current view isn’t so much comforting as psychedelic; what we’re seeing out our ship’s view screens doesn’t seem possible. The early colonists of the Neptune* System were rich artists, wary of becoming a far-flung backwater like Uranus. So they created the largest piece of artwork to date. Self-replicating fusion lanterns powered by atmospheric hydrogen have transformed Neptune into a shimmering neon painting.
This ridiculously-scaled mural has paid off: Neptune is a remote but powerful force in high culture and upscale art. Not to mention, all that heat from the fusion lanterns brings the upper atmosphere to Earth-like pressures and temperatures. A cutting-edge forcefield even allows for open air living in the universally famous Rainbow Ocean Art Academy, the place you send your kids to study if you want them to be famous artists.*
Even a quick guided tour of the Academy proves dizzying. Our trip around the Solar System has spun, disoriented, jet-lagged, and shook us – but we’ve never had a reason to question our sanity until this trip into the bowels of the Neptunian rainbow.
It’s not like the humans of the Neptune System have completely given up on terrestrial living; there are moon colonies where the inhabitants don’t have to spend their entire lives in a featureless expanse of swirling color. Like Zohal*, Neptune sports a single large gravity-rich moon, Triton, that entirely overshadows the rest.* Triton’s cryovolcanism made the world difficult to tame, but this liability became a blessing when the early colonists used it to supplement fusion and help power their terraforming efforts. And from what we can see of the colorful spider-web patterns of land, this world has most definitely been terraformed. Well, minus the “terra” part perhaps. If Triton’s sculptor was using Earth as a model, this world represents an epic fail.
Like everything in the Neptune system, Triton’s floating, “terra”formed surface is (arguably) a work of art. The polymer surface was produced over many decades by self-replicating Vonn Neumann machines – the same strategy currently* being used to efficiently harvest metal from the asteroid belt. On Triton, these machines have harvested organic molecules and processed them into various colorful polymers for assembly into floating continents.
The claims that the machines would rise up against their human masters or turn the world into a gray goo proved to be largely false; the machines that survived the global EMP hardly ever try to harvest humans to generate more surfacing polymer. Or at least, that’s what it says on the plaque in the Vonn Neumann Memorial Museum. The culture here is odd, to say the least; even with the finest translators money (and time travel) can buy, it takes quite a while to figure out whether the plaque is a joke. As it turns out, this moon was terraformed ironically; a perfect symbol for this society of isolated, post-scarcity* hipsters.
Other than the penal colony on Nereid, the moon carved into a bust of Poseidon, and of course the rainbow rings, there’s not much else to see here. It’s time to leave the last planet behind and venture into the void beyond.
The Kuiper Belt and Beyond
When we think of the Solar System, we think of the eight planets orbiting the Sun and their host of moons. And yet, the vast majority of the colonizable area and accessible water orbiting the Sun lies in the yawning darkness beyond Neptune. Downgraded Pluto is here; cast out of the planet club, forever wandering in the dark with Charon and the rest of its supportive family.
Humans have had little reason to venture here except to get away. The first inhabitants of terraformed worlds here were homeworlders who towed or hurled their self-sustaining asteroid worlds into the far reaches – nobody wanted to bother terraforming the local rocks. Hide in them, however, was a different story; the area we’re currently exploring has been packed full of criminals, pirates, and innocent-but-neurotic libertarian types for centuries. If the goal is to avoid the rest of humanity as thoroughly as possible, this is the place to be. There’s effectively infinite living space – not to mention, all the water survivalists could ever need for fusion and drinking, and plenty of carbon & nitrogen for fabricating food.
There’s not a whole lot of competition for the nigh-uncountable little snowball worlds floating around here – just don’t underestimate how far away they all are! Encounters, whether between ships or planetoids, do not happen by chance. The darkness beyond Neptune boasts the majority of the surface area in the Solar System – but it still takes minutes or hours at near-light-speed to travel to your nearest neighbor.
Even now, in the faaaar future, this vast region still has a mostly-deserved reputation as a desolate, unfriendly backwater. Sure, you could live here – say the folk from In-System – but why? It’s not like it’s proper civilization; even the terraformed worlds like Pluto and Eris are liable to pirate raids.* Our tour of this wide open region could take us to worlds where people die of curable diseases, slavery is legal, or the descendants of a crashed transport ship are constantly warring against the descendants of survival cult colonists. But if we’re going to explore that sort of cultural barbarism, we might as well just take our time machine to historical Earth; the scenery would be nicer, at least.
Yet with the inner worlds more orderly and civilized nowadays, it’s arguably an asset to have somewhere to visit (or colonize, or invade) to get away from it all. There’s plenty of water; with today’s technology, that’s all you need for your cult or your group of escaped convicts or oppressed supersoldier clones to start a new life. Absolute freedom – from resource scarcity, living space restraints, and the dictates of governments and society – can have a million different consequences. And all million of them are on display here, assuming we had the patience (and the stomach) to visit them all.
Even More: What about Alpha Centauri?
What happens if we… keep going out?
The little snowball worlds of the Oort Cloud are the last rest stops before Alpha Centauri, which is still a hell of a long trip. We’re not going there on this tour – even plot-convenient spacetimeships have limits. Yet it’s safe to assume that humans will someday, even if stuck traveling well below light speed. A truly extrasolar colony (even one as close as Alpha Centauri, at 4.1 lightyears) would produce a truly, fully independent culture. Not just isolated, but distinctly, fundamentally separated from anything happening on Earth. Even the distant colonies of the Oort Cloud can get news from Earth days or weeks later; on Alpha Centauri, all the latest news and music from Earth is already four-plus years old. Once humans achieve this incredible level of separation, we’ll have completed another full cultural cycle: unity in Africa, dispersal, and isolation among Earth’s remote continents; re-unity in the 19th-20th centuries, dispersal to the Solar System, and finally, re-isolation in separate star systems.
Bringing it Down to Earth
It’s been fun – but it’s time to return to present-day Earth and drop everyone off. (After a detour to the near-future for a few winning lottery numbers, of course.) On Mercury, Venus, Luna, Mars, the asteroids, moons of the gas giants and beyond, we’ve witnessed humanity’s propensity to shape the world- the worlds- to better suit us. But what we’ve seen is just one potential trajectory, with fuzzy timelines but fully plausible science. The problems space habitation and terraforming pose can be thoroughly ridiculous, but astronomical timescales are more ridiculous yet. Humans have eons upon eons to conquer and remake every world in this Solar System – all we have to do is resist the impulse to destroy ourselves.
Throughout this terraforming series, we’ve only toured our immediate neighborhood: the little region of sun-soaked space we call the Solar System. But even if we don’t ever manage faster-than-light travel, there could yet be a time when humans spread across the galaxy. Most of the good real-estate is probably already taken, but…well, one problem at a time.
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