The Dictatorship of the Colonist

19 02 2010

It was Gina from Alpha-2 who organised the discussion of Fram’s political landscape at the +150 Conference. She argued passionately and articulately. She noted that the system of governance in place was that which had been used aboard the Quoqasi during the voyage from Sol.

“That was a totally different situation,” Gina spoke. “We lived in a closed system with crop failure as the greatest threat. Such a system should not be maintained in perpetuity, or by default.”

She was, of course, speaking disingenuously; there were much greater threats posed by the interstellar voyage, although the worst of those would have affected all the colony pods equally. But her point was well, if grimly, received.

The Colonies were governed by a centrist socialism. Communism in its less malign form had been an appropriate governmental model during the early colonisation efforts in the Solar System, in situations where there was little economic growth and correspondingly little private property. Everything – crawlers, KOVTARs, elevator cables, fusion plants, hydroponic domes – belonged to the Colony and was shared by each of the colonists. Labour was likewise undertaken for the benefit of all rather than the individual.

This was not some imposed ideological position, but rather the natural result of settling on another planet in another star system, carried by a starship with limited payload and thus limited stores and equipment. Our situation imposed constraints upon our governmental model, rather than our governmental model be made to fit a preconceived ideology.

The system against which Gina agitated was one of collective, representative leadership, organised in councils – soviets – of successive authority and responsibility. Each of the four Colonies was governed by a local soviet of five members, who were elected by the members of that Colony. These five members selected a member of that Colony to represent the Colony in the upper soviet. The upper soviet governed the four Colonies in an executive though not legislative or judicial sense. Finally, there was the position of supreme soviet, held by a single person who was directly elected by all the colonists of the four Colonies. The supreme soviet could only vote in situations where the upper soviet was deadlocked.

“It is a flawed system,” Gina spoke from the podium. “Deeply flawed. It functions as it currently does only through the vested interests of each of us in the continued stability of our colonisation of Fram.”

That “vested interest” was not some tenuous or abstract concept, came the reply from the floor: quite to the contrary, it was a fundamentally inculcated structure which conditioned the agency of each and every colonist. But the implications of Gina’s words were not lost.

Gina’s concern was one which had remained unspoken since the collapse of Alpha-2’s life-support loop – that the colonists of Alpha-2 were becoming, slowly and silently, disenfranchised. Alpha-2 lacked a speciality because of the trauma of its complete relocation, and because its infrastructure was made so much the poorer by the evacuation of its colony pod. It had been dependent upon the other Colonies in a way that none of the others had been, and as a result had contributed less to the colonisation effort. The vote of their representative in the upper soviet had become subtly marginalised.

“Because, in the end, support or opposition in the upper soviet comes from the support or opposition of its members. Individuals. What we are discussing here is the concentration of too much political power into too few hands.”

Here could be inferred Gina’s fear of the disempowerment of her Colony. Alpha-2 would need the support of two other colonies to affect legislative change in the upper soviet, or the support of one other colony and that of the tie-breaking supreme soviet. The election of candidates with dim views of Alpha-2 would threaten this delicate balance, and there were no checks or balances to the growing resentment of Alpha-2 among the other colonies.

Hers was a legitimate concern, which could not be dismissed as simple paranoia. Gina’s apprehension spoke to the need to effect changes in our government structure, changes which better reflected life on Fram rather than life on the Quoqasi. Debate began immediately, and drew more attention than the other workshops on the closing day of the Conference.

A number of reforms were proposed. Most of these proposals affected the supreme soviet: one suggestion was to impose a rotating membership upon the position of supreme soviet; another suggestion was to fill supreme and upper soviets randomly from a pool of eligible, candidate colonists; still another suggestion was to set fixed terms to each seat, and limitations on the number of terms a candidate could sit. Some anarchists even suggested that the upper and supreme soviets be abolished, that even these bodies represented the concentration of too much power.

Most of the supporters of this latter position were from Alpha-2, and the prompt, almost casual rejection of their proposal seemed to justify Gina’s concerns.

These were all imperfect solutions. None of these proposals addressed the fundamental issue of the dispersal of political power, and many actually diminished the agency of the citizen. Imposing limits on individual power was not of itself collective leadership. The problem, noted one commentator, was that Fram’s population was both too small and too large: too small to effectively implement a constitutional democracy, too large to ignore the politics and rely upon a loose meritocracy.

In the silence between rejection and counter-proposal, someone muttered that what we were doing now was as good as politics could get.

“What do you mean?” asked Gina, encouraged.

A tall, thin man from Alpha-4 stood up reluctantly. “I mean this Conference. Everyone meeting together like this, every so often, to discuss what comes next.”

The idea was seized upon. It was discussed, debated, developed. Word spread quickly, and experts from all fields dropped in from other workshops to contribute. And suddenly (or, at least, it seemed to those of us there), we were drafting language for a constitution.

The Conference would be the basis of our government. At regular intervals, a similar conference would be held; while the Colony was young, this interval would remain one hundred and fifty Earth days. These Congresses would be attended by a Central Committee of some two hundred members – fifty representatives from each Colony, nominated by whatever method that Colony chose – who would confer on any issue that fell outside the jurisdiction of a single Colony.

The +150 Conference, thus, became the First Congress.

“But think of the Texas crisis!” Gina implored. “We mustn’t assume that all decisions will wait for a scheduled Congress.”

Replacing the upper and supreme soviets was the Presidium, a body of sixteen full and eight candidate members. The Presidium directed the government between the Congresses of the Central Committee. Only full members could vote; candidate members acted as the tie-break, voting only when the votes of full members were deadlocked. Each Colony elected four full and two candidate members. The Presidium met only in plenums in the period between Congresses.

Despite comments made in jest – “revolution in one solar system!” or “dictatorship of the colonist!” – the authors consulted widely, and the draft was quickly composed. The constitution went to general referendum a week after the conclusion of the Congress, and passed in a landslide with an eighty-four percent majority.

Of 3974 persons, 3338 voted in favour of the new constitution.


Proton Storm

12 02 2010

On the penultimate day of the +150 Conference, the magnetic field of Alpha B became in one place knotted, and then snapped back on itself – releasing a tremendous solar flare.

Ground-based observatories watched as an enormous prominence, aglow with plasma heated to tens of millions of kelvin, arced over the surface of Alpha B. Astronomers observed the tremendous forces of the star; the magnetic field of the photosphere had twisted and penetrated to the corona, allowing the corona to suddenly and violently release magnetic energy outward. In addition to photons and plasma, the flare vented electrons, protons, ions and gamma rays, and accelerated these to a significant proportion of the speed of light.

Port Mayflower was well inside Fram’s magnetic field, and most of the orbiters were currently docked to Wilbur. One orbiter, however – the Harry Gold – had been in a high orbit of Fram, just outside the outer edge of the ring system, when the solar flare erupted. The orbiter had been mapping the break-up of Amundsen and identifying new bodies which might disrupt the now-stable ring, or impact Fram itself.

There were a series of quick exchanges between the Harry Gold, capcom, and the observatories; these were almost useless, as the flare had been a particularly concentrated ejection, and the orbiter lacked the delta-vee to quickly slip inside the shadow of Fram or around the far side of Amundsen.

Thirty minutes after the first observation, the proton storm hit. Soft x-rays washed over the atmosphere, cutting communications with the Harry Gold. Auroras danced in the skies above the Colonies, lit green and pink at the edges. Then the hard stuff hit, a cascade of hard x-rays and gamma radiation slipping through the orbiter and its crew as if they weren’t even there.

Capcom re-established contact with Harry Gold an hour later. The six crew were still alive, but barely – dosimeters showed that they had taken a massive 850-900 rems of radiation. They were told that another orbiter would not reach them for a day; some said their goodbyes to comrades and loved ones over the choppy radio.

The tragic irony was that scientific study of Alpha A and B had not been included in the list of topics for the +150 Conference. Those who championed such a study had been told that only applied science was being seriously considered by the Conference. Purely scientific work could wait until the Colony was well-established and prospering, and until that point, only science with a practical value would be undertaken.

The study of the three stars in the solar system had become a very practical notion, if exploration of the solar system were to continue, and an expedition to the Kuiper Belt be launched…


8 02 2010

The miners at the COIL rig in Yom Kippur doubted very much that any significant concentrations of uranium would be found in the base of that crater; they said as much at the conference, when the question was posed to them.

“Sure, the bases of craters are where a lot of metals and minerals are concentrated,” they explained. “Pressure, temperature, fractured bedrock, fused basalt – but the impactor itself is mostly vapourised, and the pressures of impact can’t concentrate what isn’t really there to begin with.”

Yom Kippur, like Hashoah and Yerushalayim and the other nearby craters, were hundreds of millions of years old; the pair of craters laid over each other in which the four colonies were nestled were older yet. Beneath the surfaces of each crater were hundreds of meters of eolianite, regolith deposited by the wind and built up over those millions of years. In this layer the regolith had been compressed by the weight of subsequent layers, and now formed a soft sandstone, tinged purple by high levels of manganese. This layer of desiccated eolian sandstone was laid over bedrock fractured by the force of the impact which had created the crater. It was through this deep fracturing that volatiles and liquefied metals had seeped upwards from the ancient asthenosphere.

“The bigger craters have sheets of basalt overlaid the brecciated bedrock. The tremendous forces and temperatures of the impact that made those enormous craters fused the regolith and eolianite into great sheets of melted, crustal silica – evidence that these impactors created their own magma lakes…”

None of the minerals brought up by the COIL rig had shown substantial concentrations of uranium, which lent strength to the theory that pitchblende veins simply didn’t exist in Fram’s unearthly geology. Uranium might be found in brecciated rocks, of which there were no shortage on Fram, although those rocks might preferably be rich in copper or hematite. More likely, it would be found in the eolian sandstone layer between the regolith of the surface and the comminuted bedrock.

The COIL geologists went on. “Yeah, eolianite might be best. I think about 20% of uranium on Earth comes from sandstones, although we can expect much less on Fram because it’s so much smaller and so much drier. More to the point, we wouldn’t be sacrificing the other metals we dig up. We’ll have to prospect along basal channels.”

Irrespective of where the uranium was located, we wouldn’t be digging it out with a COIL rig.

“The concentrations will be so low,” the geologist continued, “that digging enough of its out to enrich into yellowcake is a really volume-intensive endeavour. We’d be better off with an open-pit mine. In fact, we’ll take a look at the tails of the open-cut mine to the north; start prospecting from there.”

A climatologist from Alpha-1 spoke up. “And who’ll notice a little radon gas in an atmosphere already 80% poisonous?”

The conference attendees laughed.

Energy Security

6 02 2010

We held a conference in Alpha-1 at Planetfall +150, eight weeks after the arrival of Mayflower. The meeting was nominally called by the upper soviet, but in reality it was the response to a grassroots, bottom-up venture. Now that the supplies and equipment from the May had been assimilated into our fledgling economy, there was a drive to plan the next steps of our colonisation of Fram, and to set ourselves a series of achievable and practical goals.

One of the more important issues raised by the conference was energy security.

The Mayflower had borne from Sol enough deuterium to fuel our four fusion reactors for a period longer than that which we anticipated being reliant upon such supplies. But we had also learned the bitter lessons during the bottleneck that not everything went according to the plans written before we had left Jupiter. Fram had its own way of dictating our progress. And so it became an important matter for that part of the conference dedicated to energy security to identify alternative sources of fusion fuel.

Our reactors used a D-D fuel cycle, meaning that strictly speaking we only required input of deuterium to maintain the reaction. Indeed, deuterium was the only fusion fuel which the Mayflower had carried – a payload of some 75,000 tonnes. Deuterium existed naturally as one part in every six thousand parts of water; we could separate it from water ice, but Fram was a dry world, and what little hydrogen could be found was pooled in the shaded bases of craters or frozen into the walls of canyons. The richest source of hydrogen from which we could refine hydrogen-2 – deuterium – were the icy Kuiper bodies at the edges of the Alpha Centauri system. The supply of deuterium was not yet a guaranteed thing, and efforts were to be made to supplement that amount of deuterium already in the colony’s possession.

The conference looked at other fuel cycles. A D-T cycle, introducing tritium  to the reaction, was easier to facilitate than a purely D-D reaction, although its optimum temperature was slightly lower at 15KeV. While using tritium would make our supplies of deuterium last longer, we would have to produce our own tritium, as none had been carried on the Mayflower. Fortunately, the miners in Alpha-4 had been bringing up surprising amounts of lithium from the new open-cut mine to the north of the colonies. Lithium could be bred into tritium inside a nuclear reactor in much the same way that uranium was bred into plutonium. Over 90% of the material mined thus far had been the lithium-7 isotope, while the remainder was lithium-6; this meant that we did not have to actively enrich the lithium before introducing it to the nuclear reaction.

The short-term consequence was that we would have to build our own nuclear reactor, not for power, but to breed new metals and fuels. The engineers of Alpha-4 were already drawing up plans for both the reactor and the gaseous diffusion plant to enrich the uranium mined by the COIL rig. That same rig had also brought up enough graphite to moderate the reaction, sparing the use of deuterium as a moderator.

There were other, longer-term benefits. Excess tritium not introduced to the fusion reaction decayed into helium-3. We expected that our second-generation of fusion power plants, many years into the future of the colony, would operate using a deuterium-helium-3 fuel cycle: probably the most efficient and clean fusion fuel cycles we could achieve on Fram. There were significant deposits of helium-3 on the surfaces of the moons of Fram, and these deposits would be our ultimate source of fuel for the second-generation reactors. But until we had set up lunar mining stations and developed a way to cheaply and efficiently return the helium-3 to Fram, the by-product of decaying tritium would assist research and development.

Three points came from the discussions on energy security at the +150 Conference:

1. In the short-term, an industrial nuclear reactor and gaseous diffusion plant would be constructed to breed tritium from lithium-7. This reactor would be constructed by Alpha-3, but designed and operated by Alpha-4.

2. In the medium-term, further exploration of the lunar system would be undertaken by Alpha-1 with the objective to identify sources of helium-3 for future fusion projects.

3. In the long-term, missions to the outer solar system would be launched in order to capture and return comets to the near-Fram system. Deuterium would be mined from these objects for use as both a fuel source and as a moderator to the nuclear reactor.

Clear, concise, achievable goals, set in response to the current context but also in anticipation of future complications – the delegates for energy had set an example to the rest of the conference. The bottleneck had passed. Now it was down to the business of building a world…