Life on Theta Priori

2020-09-10

(approx. 3500 words)

Introduction

In 2018 my gaming group started playing Disaspora, or rather Diaspora rules from 2013 grafted onto Fate Core from 2018.

In Diaspora players create not only characters but the small star cluster in which they live. This is the star system and planet I designed, using only three die rolls and a lot of inspiration from topics in the news. The main text is what I sent out to the group, with some small formatting tweaks, but I’ve added some commentary and explanations at the end. Maybe someone will find it interesting.


Theta Priori (2018)

Technology: +3
Slipstream1 mastery.
Environment: +1
One garden world and several hostile environments.
Resources: -1
Almost viable.

ASPECTS

SUMMARY

On the surface Theta Priori looks like a technocratic utopia that makes deserts bloom, but serious political, social, and ecological problems lie just under the surface. They’re pursuing cutting-edge technologies to outrun multiple looming catastrophes.

HISTORICAL PARALLELS

Modern Japan, Victorian England, “Gilded Age” America, “millennial” culture.

Some inspiration from the Roman republic’s patronage system and social classes: patricians run everything, equites guard the patricians, plebs do everything including governing themselves (tribunes), outcasts and free foreigners fend for themselves.2 On Theta the slaves are mostly non-sapient robots, although the “servant” class takes the high-end roles … and risks.

PLANETOLOGY

The Theta system is mostly rocks, ice, and gas giants. Automated factories mine some of them for raw materials.

The sole habitable world, Priori, is naturally arid. Water covers only about a third of its surface. Equatorial regions are hot and inhospitable to all but a few native extremophiles. Deserts, scrublands, and savannas cover most of the land, with the occasional scattered grove or forest. True forests don’t begin below 30 degrees North and South. The planet’s proximity to its sun and axial tilt prevent glaciers from forming at the poles, although the South Polar Sea is mostly frozen year round.

In all but the polar forests, daily temperatures typically exceed 30° C. Priori’s entire biosphere requires continuous tweaking to provide food, textiles, and a livable climate. One solar flare, asteroid impact, or weather control glitch might trigger a global ecological collapse.

POPULATION

Most of the population lives in heavily industrialized cities on or near a river, lake, or sea. Those living in the hotter, rockier, more arid lands tend the largely automated mines, solar farms, wind farms, and fusion reactors that provide raw materials and power to mostly automated factories. The poorest, mostly loners and outlaws, cling to life in the badlands; the wealthiest 0.01% own huge estates and laboratories – the difference is academic – in the cooler regions, tended by a town’s worth of personal servants, technicians, scientists, scholars, and assorted functionaries.

TECHNOLOGY

Theta has adopted technologies from the other three systems3, and has exceeded them in automation, slipstream technology, environmental engineering, and human-machine integration. Their most notable breakthrough is memory implants; most citizens have brain implants that can record the individual’s own memories, download and upload memories from public or private Matrix nodes, and install expert systems which provide an extensive knowledge base for just about every profession or academic subject. Advanced cybernetics allow nearly instant acquisition of physical skills requiring hand-eye coordination and quick reflexes. (The owner still needs strength and agility training, or prosthetic limbs with the equivalent.)

POLITICS

Officially the planetary government is a constitutional representative democratic republic; all adults born on Proxima vote every two years for their district’s member of the World Parliament. The true masters of Proxima, though, are a few dozen wealthy families. The oligarchs of these families sit at the center of a vast web of patron-client relationships; they fund (and sometimes create) cutting-edge research, orchestrate relationships between tens of thousands of corporations, and sponsor politicians and public figures. It’s not corruption if all the money transfers are legal.

Theta’s corporations have far fewer legal rights than in 21st century Earth. They more closely resemble LLCs or companies in colonial America: organizations chartered for a specific purpose or product and shut down when they stop being profitable. Corporations may come and go, but their chief officers and boards of directors tend to be the same people. Profits go to the executives and directors, losses get written off when the corp shuts down.

Planetary security is reasonably efficient with plebe on plebe crime, but they clearly know who ultimately pays their salaries. When an Oligarch (or more commonly the agent of one) commits a crime against a plebe, the plebe is better off appealing to his employer or patron than to security. Conversely, a plebe who offends an Oligarch is pretty much screwed. Oligarchs and their favored clients / agents generally sort things out amongst themselves, quietly; should extreme sanctions become necessary, nobody finds the bodies and nobody goes looking.

ECONOMICS

All registered citizens, i.e. those born on Priori or naturalized as citizens, receive a basic subsistence income from the government deposited directly into their bank accounts. This is unaffected by any other income they may earn, from whatever (legal?) source. This doesn’t include foreign workers (nearly always highly skilled and well paid) and those who have for whatever reason opted out of the system. Nobody starves unless they really try.

Counting only registered citizens, 90% work only a few hours a day and live comfortably if not luxuriously. (This includes most civil servants.) Another 9% earn a few luxuries through hard work and luck, mostly in medicine, the arts, science, and engineering. Enterprising MPs and media darlings are rare but notable exceptions. 1% live better than that, sometimes much better; see below.

Priori automates all work, though, unless a person is mandatory, traditional, or just cheaper. Thus the vast majority of jobs require moderate amounts of knowledge but very little creativity or autonomy. Most jobs are make-work: paper shuffling, rote procedure following, compliance ensuring. When a specific job ends – through bankruptcy, automation, or obsolescence – workers search for a new one through the Ministry of Labor. Eventually they’ll find another. Usually. Unless they drop out and become a hermit in the wilderness. Otherwise, their new employer’s human resources department downloads any required training or knowledge into their brains. and they go immediately to work. The net effect is to turn 90% of the populace into meat robots.

Standard salaries and universal basic income discourage families from having more than one child, so the plebian population is aging. Neither Parliament nor its masters have a clear idea what to do with a growing population that can’t even perform minimally necessary work.

SOCIETY

As stated above 90% of the population – the plebian, proletarian, or working class – live reasonably comfortable lives with few frills. (For arbitrary definitions of “reasonable”; the managers and maintenance staff of an automated factory, mine, or power station live in small, isolated villages in inhospitable terrain.) A small fraction of this population use their free time for artistic pursuits, politics, or other forms of self advancement; most are unsuccessful. The majority spend time consuming mass media, buying useless crap with their meager disposable incomes, and amusing themselves the way humans have always amused themselves for hundreds of thousands of years.

Less than 1% of employment simply resists automation: personal services, “emotional labor”, public and private entertainment, discreet handling of confidential tasks, and military / security command. They receive training in interpersonal skills, personal defense, leadership, tactics, and sometimes skulduggery. Most of them work for the same patron – or that patron’s patrons – their entire lives, in various capacities: butler/maid, “companion”, multi-media performer, liason, negotiator, “troubleshooter” (covert operative). Even the most successful of them never ascend to the Oligarchy save through rare (and typically discouraged) inter-class marriages.

The 0.01% who control the planet’s wealth and (indirectly) its administration have no rules. They have private tutors in a broad range of subjects, from pure science to black ops. In public they dress only a little more nicely than everyone else, and everyone calls them “sir” or “ma’am”. In private they live however they want to live, and through anti-aging treatments as long as they want to live. Most discreetly “retire” at about age 70, while still running their financial interests behind the scenes.


Comments from 2020

INSPIRATION

Alea Iacta Est

The first inspiration was from the die rolls: standard Fudge dice, range of -4 to +4, bell curve centered on 0.

Diaspora presumes that Technology +4 societies are On the verge of collapse … or at least what might look like collapse but might be some sort of transhuman singularity. Since Theta was just short of that, I had the idea that they were heading toward some kind of collapse or paradigm shift. Also, since they had the highest Technology score in the entire cluster I argued that they’d mastered several other far-future technologies as well.

With Environment slightly above average but Resources slightly below, I posited a society that relied heavily on industry and imports to keep the population of their one habitable world fed. They’d landed on a resource poor world, terraformed it as best they could, and used automation, asteroid mining, and interstellar trade to make up the rest. One of the other players suggested modern Japan as a model.

The World Ouside Your Door

Besides the historical inspirations listed above, I drew from a number of stories in the news at the time:

So I extrapolated current trends into a future society that was a mix of good and bad, neither utopia nor dystopia. On the one hand, on Theta Priori only those making a political or social statement suffer from hunger, homelessness, or untreated illness – a goal that elludes us today. On the other hand, 90% of the population do little better than those basic needs, 9% are “upper lower class” through luck and hard work, and 0.99% live in somewhat more luxury only by catering to the peculiar needs of the ultra-wealthy 0.01%.

A Little Help From My Friends

One of the other players suggested that even if most jobs could be automated, it might still be cheaper to let people do them. Judging by our era’s automations, humans still might have an edge in pattern recognition, hand-eye coordination, and the “soft skills” of relating to other human beings. Rather than posit a permanently unemployed class, I decided to use the “skill implant” – an advantage I wanted for my own character – to spread employment among the 99%. Anyone can earn a little extra doing what we call “semi-skilled” or clerical labor.

ELABORATION

Beyond what I was thinking at the time, here’s how I think today that some place like Theta Priori might work.

Humans in an Automated Economy

One of the key problems facing this society is that most of the population is, bluntly, superfluous, from an economic perspective. The Ninety-Nine Percent are on average 70-80% unemployed. Maybe ten percent of the population, through hard work, relentless self-improvement, “talent”, and luck, beat the odds and earn comfortable livings for themselves. But they can’t hold a candle to those with inherited, inter-generational wealth and the vast educational and technological resources that come with it. On Theta Priori the ultra-wealthy Oligarchs are enlightened despots. They know that, if they don’t want a planet-wide uprising, they have to keep the masses fed, clothed, housed, healthy, and most importantly busy.6

Thus the Oligarchs distribute the remaining necessary human labor among as many people as possible. They set up a social safety net to keep the masses comfortable, and a planet-wide communications net with enough entertainment to keep them distracted. They set up a government – with as much real power as a high school student government – that creates at least the illusion that the majority control their own fate. Maybe they give the Ninety-Nine Percent a tenuous hope that they can better themselves by starting their own businesses, although a careful observer might note that the only ones that thrive have an Oligarch pulling the strings. And, in the back of my mind, I always assumed the Oligarchs subtly encouraged the Ninety-Nine Percent not to have kids, or at least have fewer kids, so that at some future date they could drop all this mummery and spend all their effort for their own direct benefit.

As I said, this what I saw as the optimistic path.7

What Do The Simple Folk Do?

To date I have only a rough concept of how the Ninety-Nine Percent live.8 Most, I imagine live in government subsidized dormitories, eat at government cafeterias, and wear government issue clothes that they decorate according to their tastes and abilities. The government also provides free education programs over the CommNet: elementary schooling, essential civic lessons, and general technical background. plus training in skills that can’t simply be implanted. When they get a little money the majority blow it on live entertainment and restaurants with better food. A minority save up for that business they want to start one day, or that condo unit in a better part of town, or the art or hobby that gives their life meaning.

Relatively few of the Ninety-Nine have reliable incomes, and can pursue all those opportunities if they wish. Politicians, corporate officers, and CommNet stars seem to wield power, but they know that public opinion or an Oligarch made them and and the same forces can unmake them.9 A very lucky (or unlucky?) few have some talent an Oligarch wants, and may find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly “elevated” to the service of one of the great Families … whether they like it or not.

The Privileged Few

The Oligarchs and their households live very different lives. Imagine a mix of Gilded Age robber barons grown “respectable”, the British ruling class at the height of Empire, modern American tech billionaires, Japanese feudal lords, organized crime families throughout the ages, and patricians during the better days of the Roman Empire. Their retinues are an eclectic mix of household servants, personal assistants, business managers, bodyguards, spies, negotiators, and envoys to rival families; some individuals may serve in multiple roles. (My character in the aforementioned game was modeled on Wodehouse’s Jeeves, albeit for a more competent but no less negligent master; the PC had seen the bars of his gilded cage and wanted out.) Most outside the Oligarchs’ circles know only the ubiquitous family names; they might meet Oligarchs’ representatives once in a great while but see the faces of the Great Ones themselves only in paparazzi shots. All the maneuvering, treachery, proxy wars, and “unfortunate accidents” occurs well out of the public eye.10

EVALUATION

Science fiction may be set in the future but it’s really about the times in which it was written. So I’m not going to apologize for this setting or the political or economic theories it might imply.

On the whole it’s not a bad bit of world-building. If we’d spent more time on Theta Priori, or if I were writing fiction in the setting, I’d probably want to develop a few things.

Implants

For one, I’d go into a little more detail, and do more research, into what skills could be implanted and which couldn’t. The hard line at muscle memory and conditioning is OK for game balance, but if a game spent a lot of time on Theta Priori we’d have to create categories of brain implants, e.g.

  1. expert system implants, my default model, which simulate domain expertise with an expert system metaphorically hovering over the user’s shoulder and walking him through each task step by step.11

  2. knowledge implants, which augment the user’s semantic memories – stuff you learn – so that the knowledge needed for their job would be present as if they learned it the old fashioned way.

  3. reflex implants, which overwrite instincts, reflexes, and procedural memories – stuff you do – for jobs and tasks where delay or hesitation could mean failure.

  4. memory implants, which provide autobiographical and episodic memories – stuff you think you have done – to make impersonating other people easier … or, if not voluntary, to impose another personality.

Some abilities or roles may require multiple categories of implants. The last one may be incredibly rare, require serious brain surgery, or be unreliable if it’s available at all. I imagined Thetan brain implants were “side-loaded”, so that the owner retained full control of his own mind, just with a short-cut to conventional learning techniques. But the ruling class of Theta Priori have almost unlimited resources, control the most advanced technology in the cluster, and recognize no authority but themselves … so who knows?

Everyday Details

I’d also like to know some of those small details that make a fictional world seem real:

No doubt there’s an unlimited number of potential questions. The trick is to answer just enough to make the society seem real.


  1. Diaspora’s faster-than-light technology. ↩︎

  2. This description of Roman society was from memory, and probably not correct. – Future Frank ↩︎

  3. I.e. the other worlds in the star cluster. – Future Frank ↩︎

  4. Science fiction authors have explored this theme for decades, from Star Trek’s cheerful post-scarcity society to the permanently unemployed of Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano. ↩︎

  5. At this time I hadn’t yet read Thomas Piketty’s Capital, and I still haven’t gotten more than half way. But I’d heard bits and pieces of his thesis, and the idea of privileged families accumulating stable wealth over generations is both old and obvious. ↩︎

  6. Historical societies with massive under-employment have sometimes resorted to threats and superior military technology to keep a restless population in line. Most of those, however, relied on that huge population to grow food or seasonal cash crops. The stereotypical cyberpunk setting, in which the general population is barely scraping by while corporate elites hole up in well-defended gated communities doesn’t strike me as economically, socially, or politically sustainable. If history teaches us anything, eventually the oppressed organize. (And, remember, this is my fiction, and I wanted to avoid dystopia.) ↩︎

  7. Maybe in Theta’s history the Oligarchs tried things the other way, it backfired badly, and the new Oligarchs chose to plan for the long term. ↩︎

  8. My character from this planet was part of the 0.99%, who realized he’d be stuck in his role for his entire life unless he got off the planet. ↩︎

  9. Because of Theta’s laws regarding corporations, the careers of corporate managers rise and fall as quickly and as often as politicians’ or pop stars’. The only ones with stable careers work in necessary but boring industries, like government contracting, construction, hydroponic farming, or standardized consumer goods. When even a “boring” company stumbles on Theta, the management team are first to go, without golden parachutes or the like. Unless they’re part of the Oligarchy, where they don’t need the job at all. (Though a disgraced Oligarch might have far bigger problems than income.) ↩︎

  10. Naturally the CommNet is full of conspiracy theories about the Great Families’ machinations. Some of them may be right. ↩︎

  11. Chales Stross’s Neptune’s Brood did this with external boxes. ↩︎