Monday, 17 March 2014

Littering the galaxy, one sweaty footprint at a time!

The universe is full of trash. There's evidence to suggest life is ten billion years old young in the galaxy at large, with a four billion plus history on Earth. The lifetime of a person or even an interstellar civilisation is nothing. A million cultures could have emerged in that time, expanded across dozens of systems, destroyed themselves with decadence or plague or murderbots or relativistic kill vehicles or trans-sapient speciation or simple ennui (or an ascent transcendence), been forgotten. 

Ruins on Earth, battered by the wind and pollution and microorganisms and looters, can last thousands of years. Here's the thing - on an airless world, or in airless space, or even on atmosphere'd worlds abandoned and lifeless for many centuries - ruins and litter will stand for eonsNeil Armstrong's footprints will last forever (if they aren't disturbed by tourists, which they will be soon). The Voyager probe will continue to drift for an eternity, lost between systems (until it collides with a Sirian generation ark and kills twenty trillion electronic personalities stored within its transport pods). 

The kind of evidence space-faring civilisations leave behind need not be as grandiose as any stark black rectangle or space ark. Any culture embracing regular spaceflight is going to leave behind footprints, mining camps, abandoned machines... even if "regular spaceflight" meant a few atomic rockets burning around a single solar system.

An interstellar civilization would be even worse. Replaying Mass Effect lately brought this into stark relief. Most pop culture science fiction only deals with inhabited planets. Han Solo, James Kirk and their messy ilk only seemed to despoil garden worlds. Mass Effect wasn't afraid to drop people into the airless boondocks...

The Infinite Wilderness

For those who haven't played it, large sections of the first game in the trilogy involve taking the Mako - a sorta cross between a moon buggy and a Spähpanzer Luchs armoured car - and dropping into the middle of a vast planetary wildernesses to seek out adventure (also minerals). Tiny little modular colony pods and mining camps hide in the shadow of vast mountain ranges. Ore deposits dot the landscape, waiting to be surveyed and claimed. Occasionally, you come across signs of violence - crashed spaceships, dead soldiers from forgotten wars, an aircar sitting in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the corpses of outlaws who were ambushed and left for dead...

Let's assume that my versions of Commander Shepard - all paragons of virtue, naturally - were diligent about keeping records. S/he certainly told Alliance command about all the mineral deposits she found and set up claim markers next too. She can't have been the only person flying around the universe setting up claim markers. Either those claim markers will be scouted and dug up - strip mining! - or left there to stand undisturbed forever... and I can't imagine the legion of wildcatters referred to in the setting (or even Shepard's Cerberus mining crews in Mass Effect 2!) were exactly careful about cleaning up after themselves!

Commander Shepard and co: defiling pristine wilderness with bacteria drenched corpses since 2183

We could also assume s/he informed the authorities of every corpse s/he left behind in those identikit colony pods on the frontier. Certainly, their equipment was comprehensively looted tagged and removed for safe-keeping. Maybe the Normandy even removed the corpses. Maybe the police arrived to clean up the scene, take notes, hunt down leads to other outlaws. One imagines that Alliance personnel were waiting in huge numbers for the Normandy to sneak into the Nepheron system and knock out the Cerberus base: to go over it for clues, not to clean up. Removing every trace of the battle would be an impossibility. Those colony pods and hidden bases would be left to stand empty.

And would anyone even care? Even if the Citadel Council has some kind of park ranger service wandering around thousands of uninhabited worlds removing empty colony pods, Mass Effect 1 took place in the Attican Traverse, a war torn frontier region populated by pirates, survivalists and terrorist training camps. Half of the planetary missions in that game were about locating secret bases and hidden colonies set up by freaky cults or human supremacist cells, based on sketchy information.

And those battles... all of those destroyed turrets. All of those tank traps thrown about by autocannon fire and explosions. Wrecked shuttles. Shattered Geth constructs. Every time a Geth Armiger managed to punch through the Mako's shields, pieces of armour - ablative or otherwise - would be strewn across the dirt, hitherto entirely undisturbed for a billion years. I imagine pools of omnigel spattering across the pristine wilderness. Every missed shot would punch a molten hole into a virgin natural environment. On airless worlds, you could trace Shepard's footprints as s/he dived out of the Mako and ran for cover. An investigator a million, a billion years in the future could trace the sequence of events even if the bodies had been carried off long ago. Maybe someone with more physics know-how than me might know - would the Mako's passing blow away nearby dust prints on Luna like they would on Earth? 

It's a really good thing (for the environment, at least) that Mass Effect 2 spent less time on the empty frontier, because there's no way Cerberus was going to send someone running after Shepard picking up every spent thermal clip...

Leonid Brezhnev's sweat

Progenitor-God of the Martian species
There's a line in a Ken Macleod novel about the inadvertent colonisation of Mars by a Soviet probe. So Leonid Brezhnev provided the machine with a hand written note greeting explorers of the future and the bacteria from his sweaty hand impregnated the note, which then survived the journey across interstellar space... 

(I could swear I asked the author about that in his blog somewhere and he confirmed that the note did exist - bacteria or not - but I can't find that comment. Maybe it was a dream. It wouldn't be the most mundane dream I've had lately...)

Every time Shepard shoots someone on a world with atmosphere - or gods forbid, a garden world - it doesn't matter how NBC sealed and decontaminated they were. Those bullet holes open them to the world. The bacteria in their blood will contaminate the planet around them, changing the environment permanently if any of it survives and adapts.

I guess the small legion of pirates and mercenaries the Normandy team massacres can be content with this small measure of immortality. They died, so Terran microorganisms could colonise another world! Whatever happens to Earth, our particular model of double stranded DNA carbon based life will live on! 

In the Cthulhu Mythos native life began as an accident, the result of elder thing biologists being careless about contaminating the world around them. There will be worlds in the galaxy where life began as a result of a shoot-out between outlaws and government forces... 

(In some ways, the PURGE THE ALIEN WITH FLAMETHROWERS Warhammer 40k crowd might be less messy than the goody two-shoes Mass Effect peeps. Yay for them?)

An eternity of trash

Every single star faring civilisation that ever included a careless criminal underclass, fought a war, sent independent prospectors to find mineral treasure, inspired isolationist religious or cultural organisations or even sent explorers over the frontier will leave trash all over the galaxy. On airless worlds, it'll last for eons. Even if a fleet of murderous robot berserkers burn the homeworlds to ash, evidence of the old powers will live on in footprints, abandoned colony pods and survey satellites abandoned between planetary systems. 

Characters discovering these artifacts may not be able to determine the age of what they're looking at. They'll find rocket burn marks, abandoned probes, foot prints, slither prints... probably they'll erase them in examining them, or simply add their own marks. A single abandoned probe might be surrounded by the tracks of a hundred investigators from twenty cultures over a ten million year span of Lovecraftian deep-time. 

There's a kind of sadness to it. Every time an untouched world is graced with a footprint, it loses the quality of 'untouched by outside influence' - if that means anything or has any value. Every time that footprint is accidentally erased by an investigator, an immortal monument is destroyed. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy featured a group prepared to go to war to defend the untouched martian environment, and GURPS Transhuman Space adapted that idea into a powerful "preservationist" ideology around environmentalism and "baseline human" biochauvinism. Now, i'm normally a slash'n'burn terraforming pantropist(1) but all this galactic littering might be enough to make me run off and join Swampie in his yurt...

(1) I don't get enough opportunities to say that (2).

(2)...or I get too many. I'm not sure.

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