Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: February 2009

Altairians are weird.

This is due to demographics than something in the water, and stems from the disproportionate number of scientists on the planet. By this, I do not mean that everyone on world has a higher degree[1], but everyone is a scientist, and by outlook and not education. Altairians will take more risks, for example, come up with more innovative solutions, do things because they are interesting or unusual and be generally more curious and easily distracted.[2]

Anyway, this creates some odd attitudes on Altair and is commonly thought to be paramount to insanity by the other worlds. Decisions will be taken based on the coolness of the solution, or complexity of the device, or simply how interesting something is to use. This leads to some rather odd technologies cropping up around Altair. Windows briefly went out of style for example, and many just replaced their glass with mini-screens and displayed whatever view they felt like for a while. The train network uses a highly advanced magnetic cushion technique which provides incredibly smooth motion without the need for grav’ panels, but will wipe any hard drive placed too close to the carriage floor. Likewise, latter in the setting they build grav’ assisted roads right down the sides of the tower, only to realise that every time someone tries to enter one from regular gravity they go flying as the car can’t cope with the sudden change of direction[3].

As you can probably tell, the application of technology is rather hit and miss on Altair but every so often they will come across something amazing[4]. This leads to a slightly odd development pattern, where the colony will freewheel for a few years, throwing out a few random ideas which generally could have been implemented in a much simpler and cheaper way, but then come up with something groundbreaking and race forward until stagnating again.

Altair also possesses a phenomenal healthcare and education system, mostly due to the extremely high levels of education already present in the population. This creates a situation almost unique to Altair where the educated public sector jobs are actually in short supply, and so only the best workers actually get the jobs. In addition to quality Altair also possess a quantity of positions[5], with, for example, each hospital possessing a specialist in any disease you would care to contract. This will probably decrease over time, as economic pressures cause the career imbalance to correct itself, but for a while at least Altair can enjoy some of the best public services in the galaxy. They even offer free genetic augmentation.

As a culture, the Altairians are fairly unique, running off their own set of values that are heavily inspired by western life, but a lot of the religious undertones are actually from the subcontinent. This has resulted from the mix of demographics when the Altairians deregulated, the initial population was largely Indian, relatively uneducated and devoutly Hindu. The later influx of scientists were generally Westerners or Westernised and had a much larger say in the setting of policies, but were relatively relaxed on the subject of religion. So, this gives a melting pot where the surface is Western but the people are far more familiar with Hinduism than Christianity[6]. In more subjective terms this means that there is a strong emphasis on personal liberty and personal responsibility, with a good side helping of personal accountability in the legal system. This does have a tendency to conflict with the state which has a few ‘nanny’ tendencies, but opinion is slowly shifting it to one that prizes individual liberty.

[1] Though at one point about sixty percent of the population had a degree in biology, and even in 2100 this figure is still much higher than any other planet, including Earth. (Never ask if there is a doctor in the house on Altair. There will be one, but it is unlikely they’ll have studied the disease you have.)

[2] I think this xkcd basically sums them up.

[3] Curiously, they just invented another solution to this problem, magnetic traction control. Everyone else just made the curve less sharp.

[4] Take running roads down the sides of the arcologies for example. A brilliant way of saving space but driving in an artificial gravity well held ninety degrees to the normal field is pretty much the definition of insanity and only the Altairians would invent such a thing. However, once they had proven it was safe most of the arcology worlds took it up.

[5] Mostly because, with the economic bloom the Altairian government has more money than it really knows what to do with.

[6] This is not to say that there aren’t other religions present, but Hinduism is the major one. Actually, this isn’t such an achievement as Altair is the only planet in which Jediism is followed by seventy percent of the population. Most statisticians assume this is a backlash from them not including a ‘mind your own business’ option.


Altair was founded in 2079 as part of the Commonwealth’s land grab initiative and was almost certainly premature, but at the time the government was very worried about an American colony springing up next to Arcturus and denying them Altair was the logical choice. Funding soon dried up, along with the flow of immigrants, as the Commonwealth found itself overreaching and the local government was left with a massive infrastructure surplus, with no way of maintaining it, and near zero population influx.

Their solution was both simple and controversial, in 2084 Altair legalised all forms of genetic engineering and removed all regulations to be reassessed at an unknown date. This caused pandemonium across the settled systems, with an almost unilateral movement to cut off the Altairians. But the planet was out of the jurisdiction of anyone but the Commonwealth[1], and by the Commonwealth’s own rules they could only advise, not dictate laws[2].

The economic sanctions brought against Altair were of minimal effect, and half hearted at best as they only affected goods for sale and did not increase the price of vital supplies moving into the colony. Within a year or so, the migrant flood had begun again, but this time it was not the poor or dissatisfied, but educated workers from every major biotech company in human space[3]. The economy trebled in less than six months, and suddenly Altair became a self sufficient colony and the exporter of biotech goods.

Its position as a major power was basically assured at this point[4], but colony growth pretty much stalled two years later, as everyone who was going to migrate to Altair was either already their or unable to reach the planet. This left Altair is a bit a quandary. It briefly held a position equivalent to Arcturus in sheer economic might, but its meteoric expansion plateaued very rapidly and they were left with a fairly standard growth rate of four percent. With no real options Altair elected to introduce regulations on the biotech sector to try and reduce the sanctions against them[5].

The regulations were left deliberately vague, and skirted around many key issues. Human modification didn’t even get a mention, instead falling under the banner of modification of mammals, which was totally legal. There were multiple safeguards put in place to help the victims of rampant genetic modification, and these could be easily applied to altered humans or victims of an escaped virus[6]. Also included were details on the minimum safety requirements of an active lab and the licences you would need to perform experiments of various risks[7].

This did reduce the crippling tariffs somewhat, but Altair was still avoided, partly out of fear and partly because it’s actually a little off the beaten track. It also did little to stimulate the economy, and Altair’s growth will remain relatively slow for the next two hundred years or so, with most of the major investments[8] being government funded.

[1] Annoying the Commonwealth at this point was a bad idea, not because of their military, but the fact that they contributed to about twenty percent of your economy.

[2] Advice in this context can be ‘do as we say or we’ll shoot you’ but thankfully it never progressed to this point.

[3] The companies themselves sponsored the movement, reasoning that they would need their educated workforce where they would not be restricted by regulations.

[4] The knee jerk reaction felt across the systems when Altair started releasing its first major goods practically crippled genetic research on any other planet than Altair. No one stopped to think how powerful this would make Altair.

[5] A ninety percent import tariff has never encouraged anyone to buy your products.

[6] No such escape has ever occurred, mostly because if a modified virus did get out, even if it caused no more than a bad head cold, the company could be sued for billions.

[7] This ranges from air purifiers at the lowest level, to being able to flood the entire lab with napalm at a moments notice for the highest. I’m not actually sure if anyone has ever required such a licence, as it would probably require you to be bringing back the dead. (Zombie moves aren’t made on Altair as they actually have procedures for dealing with such a thing.)

[8] The ongoing terraforming project for example.

Altair is my planet of focus for Vast Worlds, with most of the lead characters at least hailing from the world even if the scene is not actually set on the surface. In a way it is rather idealised, becoming the old classic of the characters home town being the one where the author wishes to live, but I have tried to rise above the stereotype and give the place a realistic background with its own darker side. Still, things tend to be a bit more idyllic than they have any right to be any.

Anyway, Altair is a bright sun roughly seventeen light-years from Earth, and the system is actually fairly sparsely populated, with only two rocky dwarfs and a single gas giant in the outer system[1]. Due to the mix of elements, the planets are quite light, with Altair II (the colony) possessing only about four fifths of the gravity of Earth, even though it has roughly the same radius. This also gives them a deficit in heavy metals, though as it a solar system, this only increases costs of exotic elements and doesn’t prevent them from being found at all[2].

Altair II is a snowy world, with the global temperature at just bellow freezing, and this actually leads to an odd situation where the temperature is rarely low enough to form permanent ice sheets, but never high enough for liquid water. During the day, the top layer of snow vaporises, and practically doubles the density of the thin atmosphere. Then, at night as the temperature drops back off, the water re-solidifies to form a dusting of snow across the whole planet[3]. Because this occurs roughly two hours after sunset there is actually a permanent snow storm travelling around the planet and it is easily visible from space as a band of cloud reaching from pole to pole.

Terraforming is actually rather rapid, and mostly based around biological control mechanisms[4]. Extremely thermophobic bacteria from Earth’s deep ocean trenches (heavily modified) are spread around the planet, and are actively photosynthesising the trace carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This produces oxygen but more importantly heat, which has already increased global temperatures by two degrees and a thin line of permanent melt water now rings the equator of the planet. The exposed surface is now home highly basic plants, extracting carbon from the curst of the planet and replenishing the rapidly dwindling supplies in the atmosphere.

Because of the shape of the continents, Altair is being terraformed to be cooler than Earth, mostly to maximise the amount of temperate land on planet for farming[5]. This will create lower seas, large ice caps, and the thinnest band of ‘tropical’ terrain around the equator which many see as a shame as the planet will not possess the sheer variety of life that Earth does. Others respond that that is true, but we’ll never be short of penguins.

[1] The giant, Kale, is near inexplicably pink. This is actually due to the mix of gasses and the amount of UV radiation the sun puts out, but still the Altairians actually feel a little embarrassed about how effeminate their planet is.

[2] Actually, the majority come from Altair I, which could be easily compared to Sol’s Mercury.

[3] The thin atmosphere spreads the snow fairly evenly across the planet as it diffuses very quickly. Due to the axial tilt, this means that one hemisphere always has huge drifts of snow, while the other a mere dusting. This change is seasonal.

[4] But what else would you expect from the capital of genetics?

[5] Though the residents have not realised they’ll never need that much farmland.

Merak is a system that mirrors our own in its infancy, all be it with a much brighter sun. Merak the planet orbits at about two AUs out, and is rather a hot world, with vast dust plains covering much of the surface. Meteor strikes are uncommon as most will burn up in the thin atmosphere and the emerging gas giants in the outer system sweep up a lot of the debris.

The AMAn colonisation policy is odd in that there is no central government. Instead, massive numbers of people were moved to the planet, a basic dome erected, and then they were left essentially to their own devices. This lead naturally to more than a few settlements dieing off entirely, but most survived and the successful became very large, very quickly as more immigrants arrived along with refugees from other parts of the planet.

Eventually, this created the political situation that is currently present on the planet, which is actually fairly reminiscent of the ancient Greek city states. Individual metropolises control vast tracts of land and hold dominion over the various satellite towns within their influence. Rather unsurprisingly, Merak is one of the few planets to boast surface based armies, and a significant militarization of space. Most of the these weapons are pointed at other cites as an ultimate deterrent, and so far there has only been a single instance of strategic weapons being used aggressively.

Somehow, the people of Merak are some of the most productive citizens in human space. This has mostly been put down to the very low levels of bureaucracy and short chains of command that are still in place simply because no one’s had time to come up with anything more complicated. Crime is rife, working conditions are dangerous and civil liberties are fairly hit and miss at best, but at least the trains run on time.

Politically, Merak would be a huge power if the individual states would just stop squabbling and actually pull together for once. Sadly the only thing that would cause such unity would be a common enemy.

Random Fact: Merak[1] is the only planet in human space to posses multiple space ports. While none are as large as the single dedicated facility most planets boast, they all at least have at least a runway and a pressurised hangar. The more affluent states will have launch tubes, and the major powers actually have mag-rails, though these are a fairly recent addition.

Authors Note: I really like Merak, but most of my thoughts on it actually came from writing this piece. I have got to get a plot centred there.

[1] And a few of the other AMAn colonies.