Colonies in "Flat Black" are basically post-apocalyptic

In another thread, @martinl posted:

There are two horns to the answer.

The first is buyers’ remorse. A lot of the colonies in Flat Black didn’t even have a workable plan for success. There were a lot of crackpot utopias, some based on religious prescriptions and others on pre-scientific political, economic, and sociological theories. That they worked at all is because people survived the failure of the plan. Some colonies were set up with assurances of a sound plan by dishonest promoters. There were four colonies planned by diligent government technocrats with no unfounded enthusiasms and no corrupt interests: Mayflower, Paraíso, Navabharata, and Xin Tian Di. In all four cases the politicians cut the funding before the first ship even landed.

So why did people migrate to these places? Selection effect. The people with accurate or pessimistic estimates of what they would be like didn’t go. The people who underestimated the difficulties and over-estimated the comforts and certainties chose to do so.

The second is real options theory. If you make a contingent plan you give yourself options. And if you have to commit scarce resources or turn down alternatives to provide against contingencies you are in effect buy options. If you spend $100,000 and give up a ton of your cargo allowance to have the things you will need to make good the loss if something goes unexpectedly wrong then you have in effect bought $100,000 and a ton worth of insurance. If you spend $100,000 and give up a ton of your cargo allowance to have the things you will need to exploit the opportunity if something goes unexpectedly right then you have in effect bought $100,000 and a ton worth of lottery tickets. Either of those things means having $100,000-worth and a ton less of the things you will need if things go as expected. Having limited resource and limited cargo capacity, people buy only a limited amount of insurance and a limited number of lottery tickets. I have enough insurance against my house burning down that I could build a new house and buy adequate furniture and clothes to be comfortable, but not enough to replace my art and antiques.

Back in the land of the literal, pioneers in Flat Black made some contingency plans and took along some “just in case” equipment. But they didn’t take so many precautions that a disaster would have no impact at all. They planned and equipped themselves to blunt the edge of disaster, not to completely immunise themselves against any possible eventuality.

What you see, in effect, is the result of the plans they had working to some extent, in that 97.7% of the colonies survived at all.

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In one sense, having any cash balance is a method of giving yourself options.

If there are shops to buy from, and so long as the money remains good, yes.

There may of course have been places where they expected not to get much in the way of further shipments, and planned accordingly. Those, I suspect, are the ones that did well after the collapse.

The ones that did really well after the collapse are ones that were two hundred years old when it happened, with millions of people and a developing economy.

As for the people who aimed low and got there, that’s another way to get through. But other things can go wrong other than Earth suddenly vanishing. On Hijra they got a supervolcanic eruption.

This sort of thing is why engineers like myself are bad at designing plausible settings. I’m like “Surely everyone had a High End DL 8 Ruggedized Apollo 13 Expert System that would take current colonial resources and expert opinions as inputs and put out reasonable plans to grow and prosper as outputs,” and Brett’s all like “Well, yeah, half of the folks who went out were too sure of their own nutzy kookoo plan to even bring one, and the other half did fun stuff like skip it for extra bogroll rations, add an nonviable ideological slant to the system, or replace it’s database with 70 sitcoms and pr0n because the DBA wanted those more than the backup system.”

I then pause for a moment and say “Yes Brett, that does sound more like the humanity I’m familiar with. I was in engineer mode again. Sorry.”

Sorry Brett.

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As an aviation enthusiast, my answer to “Surely humanity wouldn’t rely absolutely on a single system with no backup” is “GPS”. Radio navaids are being turned off all over the world, because GPS is “always there” and it’s so much cheaper than actual transmitting stations.

Except when it isn’t always there.

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People are terrible. They don’t deserve engineers.

Including, ironically enough, human engineers.

More seriously, when you are working within constraints every preparation for one contingency costs you forgone preparations for other contingencies. A plan that will produce comfortable prosperity despite any possible sequence of events is not feasible, maximin planning handicaps success by investing too much in things that are useful only in very unlikely worst-case scenarios, and humans accept risk.

The question is what the colonies were expecting, and therefore optimising for. “Traffic with Earth goes on forever”, certainly. But presumably they weren’t expecting to receive goods, and send nothing back, forever? Were they working up to building flingers of their own?

They were working up to self-sufficiency, though in many cases the plans, being bad, had already gone wrong and there was no way to send timely information to Earth and order a different class of goods and skilled workers.

It’s best to consider the colonies as trading with newly-arrived immigrants rather than as trading with Earth. Emigrants from Earth financed their ventures by liquidating their holdings on Earth, exchanging land and shares and all that for trade goods and a backstop of pioneering supplies. The deal with Earth was done. Then they transformed themselves into immigrants at the colonies and exchanged their critical imports for land and local goods and services.

The arrangement was viable as long as the colonies had land to sell to immigrants, without there being any return to Earth. It’s not an example of Ricardian trade. The time delays involved in trade by flinger would in any case have make difficulties in negotiating normal trade, not to mention driving a huge wedge of opportunity cost of capital between the price ratios.

I’d be happier with “perceived as very unlikely” - it seems like clear overconfidence to me. Nitpicking, I know.

The actual thing that stopped Earth from sending more stuff was out of left field, but from the colonies’ POV it wasn’t any different from a perfectly boring political boondoggle that turned off and scrapped the flingers, or a more attractive world being found in their launch cone, or some bastard grabbing the rights to their cone, loading up a warship, and coming down on their heads with it.

Ok, that last one is actually worse, but it also happened at least once IIRC.

The whole colonial experience is very odd in the sense that contact with the home system is essentially shut off, but they can send almost anything after you, and you will get very little warning, if any, about what they do.

An unusually bad colonial experience might be along the lines of:
Yr 0 - Utopians with good funding but terrible planning arrive.
Yr 3 - More Utopians, but these ones have weapons since there was a shism with the old way and the colony needs to be brought into compliance.
Yr6-30 - No one arrives. Utopian movement in Sol System is no longer interested in colonization.
Yr 33 - Shipment of political prisoners with no equipment.
Yr 63 - Trillionaire with enough stuff to live comfortably for the rest of her days. Lands far away from others.
Yr 72 - Mercenary company sent to kill the trillionaire by very vengeful enemies.
Yr 75 - Yogurt sent as an advertising stunt by the yogurt company that is the only significant remnant of the original utopian movement.
Yr 78-93 Persecuted minority that can barely afford this flinger window, and skimp on supplies hoping to find the utopian paradise planned by the original colonists.
Earth Explodes
500ish years later - Pirates smash the only settlement of significance from orbit. Partly for funsies, and partly because one of their shore party got lightly hurt in the “murder locals for fun spree” shore leave activity.
600ish years later - Mink arrive and sneer behind their sleeves at the terrible state of the natives.


Pretty much!

The thing about having such an array of catastrophes is that different precautions are needed against each one. Maximin planning concentrates on the worst possible outcome, which is objectively unlikely even though a disaster of some sort is quite likely. The sensible plan is to take a selection of generally useful stuff likely to be helpful in many different sorts of disasters and not a lot of highly specific precautions. In the end, this is why 97.7% of the colonies even survived. There are places where only the advance party arrived—civil and life-support engineers intended to build the bases that the actual ecological engineers would live in when they arrived (in 2.2 years) to start the actual terraformation. Ten out of twelve of those colonies survived. They survived because they had taken real insurance in the shape of a few genetic engineers and a bit of germ stock and a minimum of equipment just in case something went wrong.

The colonies in general handled the destruction of Earth much, much better than (it seems to me) real government and industry actually handle systemic risk. I used to call Flat Black a pessimistic setting, but David Bofinger convinced me that any scenario that involves humans founding interstelar colonies or surviving the next two centuries, let alone both, is pretty optimistic whatever else it posits.

I agree with this man. We have had civilization wrecking levels of weaponry for about my lifetime, and have been lucky so far - the world has not until very recently put reckless morons in charge of them. But it has happened, and will happen again, and we will not stay so lucky unless something fundamentally changes about humanity.

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If you take this too far you get Haldeman’s The Forever Peace, which leaving aside its literary qualities doesn’t give you many opportunities for adventure.

Or Flat Black, which draws a hazy veil over Old Earth’s (optimistic) history and keeps regular humans in line using an Empire that is deliberately inhuman.

Yes. It happened to Navabharata. The colony was founded by the Republic of India in the wave of enhusiasm after news arrived at Earth that the first colony ships, Red Earth and Golden Hind, had arrived safely at Tau Ceti. The political motivation was to gain prestige for the country; the project was well planned and for fifteen years amply funded. But after those fifteen years political support fell off. The project was consuming a lot of resources, and it wasn’t producing any national prestige. Because of lightspeed delays, no news of arrival could be expected for forty years after the first ship set forth. Rival causes came for the budget. First the subsidies were cut, so that emigrants had only the equipment and supplies that they could afford to provide themselves. Then, the government declared that the proper role of government in setting up a New India had been completed. It “privatised” the colony, selling it off to private promoters in a closed tendering process. A fabulously wealthy tycoon won the tender, and proceeded to support the place lavishly, subsidising the transit not only of a lot of very highly-skilled and well-equipped healthy young people to build up the place materially, but also a few promising composers, artists, and poets and a number of cultural treasures. After carrying on in that way for about twenty years he suddenly left for Navabharata himself, with a battalion of mercenaries and a hold full of light military equipment. He left behind him a business empire stripped of assets, deep in debt, parts of which had been secretly sold several times. Everyone could then see what he had done, and there was no further demand for migration to Navabharata. Liquidators auctioned the rights, which sold for a trivial price and were not exploited.

Further pondering: From a lot of colonial POVs, increasing your DL is not that important.

There are no neighbors who will exploit your backward weakness except the Empire, and fighting the Empire is out of reach for everyone not already at the top of the DL list anyway. (Also the Empire’s exploitation of low DL colonies is much lighter than the traditional human exploitation of low DL areas by high ones, and any even moderately canny colonial leader will be aware that things could be much worse.)

Propaganda from higher DL areas is also restricted as it all has to come across interstellar distances. I guess some do-gooder could put a radio satellite in orbit or something, but low DL colonists won’t be able to hear it and leaders of colonies with higher DLs are able to take it out.

The remaining drivers of increasing DL in a colony are internal competition (highly variable, but plenty of societies are organized in ways where internal competition over relative DL is minimal), greed (a powerful force, but is increasing the DL a better avenue for greed than moving into Fubar’s territory or squeezing the Barfus a little harder?), and idealism (which isn’t nothing, but isn’t very reliable to say the least.)

Opposed is basically the entire conservative wing of society that resents change, foreigners, and especially foreigners bringing change. Suite charitable aid workers trying to convince you to give up your blacksmith shop and start a pin factory are just crazy weirdos from beyond that sky, and the last idiot blacksmith who listened to them got murdered by the guild for her trouble.

On the other hand, it is also possible that societal ideals of Old Earth or the First Settlers’ Grand Plan persist to create strong social commitment to change, and outside aid is accepted so eagerly that the biggest problems with development are social disruption and opportunistic grifters.

In conclusion, Flat Black is a pan-stellar volume of contrasts.

The big thing about development is that increasing development increases incomes and makes imports cheaper, so standard of living is dramatically improved. But rulers and ruling classes don’t care about the poor very much, not if improving their lot means giving up privileges, prestige, and power. And the Empire only really cares about poverty to the extent that if results in premature deaths.