Five Ways Authors Motivate Characters to Leave Earth Behind


Few challenges are as vexing to ardent space colonization fans as the continued existence of Earth. Earth possesses a notoriously socialistic biosphere, one where even peons can breathe unmetered air, where food literally grows out of the ground, where the magnetosphere and a thick blanket of air protects even the undeserving poor from an endless sleet of radiation. How to attract workers to toxic, nearly airless, radiation-bombarded Mars, hellish Venus, or even the bone-eroding microgravity of the asteroids when there’s a perfectly habitable planet available?

To borrow a phrase attributed to a notable public figure, “No planet, no problem.” If for some reason Earth is not available, then workers would have no choice but to accept life on alien worlds for as long as it takes to kill them. Some of you might think Earth is pretty big and hard to get rid of. SF says: Hold my beer!

There seem to be five primary strategies available to eliminate Earth from the equation. In order of increasing apocalyptivity, they are as follows…

Unaffordability

The existence of a life-sustaining biosphere is only one aspect of living on Earth. Most of the other elements involving transferring money from one’s own pocket to someone else’s. Provided steps are taken to enhance the income-extraction aspects of living on Earth, moving to a place with metered air may seem like the lesser of two evils. Cost-of-living enhancements can vary from morally unjustifiable taxes squandered to prevent the remnants of Earth’s biosphere from collapsing to more tolerable micropayments required to maintain the license on one’s Kreb’s cycle. The exact details do not matter as long as the end result is that the characters cannot afford the fees for living on Earth.

Some centuries prior to the main plot of William Barton’s Acts of Conscience, residence was made expensive enough that only Earth society’s wealthiest could afford the fees. For the other forty billion people, there was an abundance of small, expensive habitats in space and the other rocky worlds of the Solar System. Gaetan du Cheyne is a master mechanic but he isn’t rich. Thus, he has no choice but to live in cramped quarters in a moderately hazardous space facility. It’s no surprise that when ownership of a functioning starship falls into his lap, he swiftly takes advantage.

Intolerability

An equally functional (and more common) alternative is to provide Earth with a culture or government that is intolerable. Although this often involves conditions such as rampant violence, crime, or political and/or religious repression, history shows that one can achieve much the same results with an excess of will-power-sapping positive qualities1. The important thing is that characters find themselves out of step with their surroundings, to the point that the environmental challenges of another world appear the better choice.

Readers might wonder why the inhabitants of 25 Phocaea in M.J. Locke’s Up Against It opted for their precarious existence in space. Life in the asteroid belt is an endless quest for volatiles, complicated by the necessity to fend off hostile takeover bids from borderline criminal organizations. The answer is that as challenging as the belt can be, life down in violence-ravaged America2 is even worse. Presumably the US is not alone in providing contexts which make space habitats seem like a good deal.

Forced Migration

It does not really matter where people prefer to live if they are given no choice in the matter. History is rich in examples in which states have decided for one reason or another that the state’s interests would be enhanced by shuffling populations around like pieces on a game board. This practice goes back at least as far as the Iron Age and probably earlier.

A century and a half before Alan E. Nourse’s Trouble on Titan begins, a small but hardy population was exiled to Titan precisely because Titan was so inhospitable. Titan seemed an ideal location for a prison. When valuable rubidium ore was subsequently discovered, the prisoners and their descendants were a convenient labor force. Intent on cost-cutting, Earth authorities decided that the descendants of the prisoners were just as villainous and unworthy of high wages as the original criminals. There will be, however, consequences for mistreating the workers on whom Earth’s energy security depends.

Inaccessibility

Space colonists have no choice but to make a life in space if for some reason they are barred from access to the Earth. While plunking the characters down sans maps in some remote region of the galaxy is a common gambit, people within the Solar System can be deterred from returning to the Earth via such rudimentary methods as technology-inhibiting fields or a propulsion regime entirely unsuited to landing on planets like Earth.

The backstory to John Varley’s Eight Worlds novels, for example, involves first contact with judgmental aliens. Preferring cetaceans to primates, the aliens simply turn off all advanced technology on Earth. An astonished Lunar colony is forced to survive without Earth. Fortunately the Lunars were up to the task.3

Uninhabitability

The simplest method of removing Earth as a factor is to render it utterly uninhabitable (non-existent is a specific subset of uninhabitable). Whether by nuclear war, runaway nanotech, rampaging hypernova, or micro-black hole mishaps, the main thing is to force people to move elsewhere by making it lethal to remain on Earth.

Malka Older’s The Mimicking of Known Successes features a community in the clouds of Jupiter4. Why settle such a challenging world? Because humans in their exuberance rendered Earth even more uninhabitable than Jupiter. Go team human!

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Perhaps there are plot-enabling stratagems that I have omitted or examples better than the ones I selected. Feel free to expound on them in comments below.



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