By Nicholas Haberling and Lexor Adams
A common theme in science fiction is the role colonies play in a future space society. Will they be checkpoints in an ever expanding human empire? Cogs in the machine of some great capitalist endeavor? Or conflict zones for anti-Earth revolutionaries? As far as we know, there isn’t another civilization that has expanded across the stars so our best example is humanity's own complicated history of colonization on Earth. The primary incident we will be looking at is the colonization of the Americas by the Europeans. One key difference being colonization won’t involve taking land from those already there (unless there are actually aliens nearby). The primary conflict will be between countries or companies; this is similar to colonization of the Americas and Africa though as the European nations typically paid no heed to anyone already there other than Europeans (classic example being the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 when Pope Alexander VI divided the Americas between Portugal and Spain.) The present legal structure for space is actually especially problematic from this perspective as it creates zero room for any type of legal ownership.
The current law is primarily derived from The Outerspace Treaty, a multi-nation treaty signed during the Cold War. This agreement prohibits ownership (by both nations and individuals/corporations) of the various celestial bodies in our solar system and beyond. For now, this isn't a problem as space is governed similar to Antarctica where research stations are essentially the only permanent settlements and amount to camping on international land. This works in small numbers (Antarctica’s peak population is around 1,000 people in the summer). The International Space Station is a model of multi-national cooperation and cohabitation; but, it’s easy to see how it’s unlikely such an internationally governed area would function inhabited by thousands of people as a sort of space city seen in science fiction.
At some point, a territorial claim system in space will have to be created. It’s likely this will happen sooner, rather than later, as asteroid mining and private space exploration may force the issue. Even if humanity were to unite under one government at some point, as seen in the Halo video game series with the United Earth Government, there would still be the issue of competing private ownership: who gets to extract which resources, who gets to build where, and so on.
We will be taking a historical view of territorial expansion and ownership, specifically in the context of colonization. This was a high competition environment and it’s possible space will someday be a similarly sought after area of expansion and colonization, particularly when considering the limited number of human habitable planets and the various resource dense planets and asteroids that are likely to be in high demand. Combine this with an exploding human population on earth and, at some point, running out of resources, and we have a recipe for a highly competitive environment. All that’s holding this back right now is the high cost of space travel. We’ll examine possible forms of space colonization by comparing historical British Colonization with space colonization in science fiction.
Historical British Colonization
In British colonial history there were three types of colonies: charter, proprietary, and crown colonies. All three types were subject to British rule; but, the level of independence from the British Crown and their administrative structure varied.
Charter Colonies: These types of colonies generally had the greatest amount of autonomy at the local level. Charters were granted to companies and groups to establish colonies in territory that, while recognized as being part of the British Empire, did not have a formal British governmental presence. It is possible that without an established infrastructure in place the offer of greater independence was used as an incentive for settlers.The major difference between a charter colony and a proprietary colony is the nepotism-like founding of the latter. Proprietary colonies were established by allies of the King with his blessing while charter colonies were set up by groups more removed from the King such as the Puritans. The Puritans are also the most prominent historical example of a charter colony with their founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Being a religious organization many Puritans came to the Americas to practice their religion without the interference of the Church of England. In Science Fiction we see a perhaps similar situation with the Mormons in The Expanse. In this series the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, UT has commissioned the construction of a multi-generational starship that will take Mormon colonists beyond our solar system. The TV show (which is based on a book series) doesn’t explain whether they are escaping persecution or simply choosing to explore, but this remains probably the best example of a charter colony in Sci-Fi. That is, until their ship is hijacked in an attempt to save the solar system.
Proprietary Colonies: A King needs allies and what better way to make/reward friends than giving someone their own colony. Jokes aside, this style of management allowed the King of England to focus his attention on the home island while trusted associates managed his ever expanding empire. Of course if the colonies you gave to your friends are mismanaged or more profitable than you thought they would be, you might run into some problems. Unsurprisingly, these colonies would eventually have their proprietary status revoked and be subject to direct control from Britain when they were recognized as crown colonies. This can be seen with Virginia which was started by the Virginia Company. Our Sci-Fi spotlight is of course Hadley’s Hope, which was situated on the planet LV-426. While we don’t know whether or not the United Americas granted Weyland-Yutani the right to build Hadley’s Hope on LV-426, that fact that Colonial Marines were sent to investigate its radio silence suggests the colony is still under United Americas jurisdiction and could therefore be a proprietary colony. Established by mega-corporation Weyland-Yutani, Hadleys Hope was exposed to a xenomorph infestation by the bio-weapons division in an attempt to study alien xenomorphs. Naturally, the Colonial Marines and Ellen Ripley had to step in to clean the mess.
Crown Colonies: What happens when you don’t like how your friends manage their colonies or want to revoke a charter? You take the colony back of course! While colonies may have initially been granted limited independence in their administration, this was only until the King decided it was time to bring them back under direct control. Crown colonies would generally have local elected officials; but, the real power was in the hands of Crown appointed governors. Our historical example of this would be the Thirteen Colonies in North America. While the colonies were established by various means they would all eventually fall under the control of the British Crown. Naturally this could lead to a little situation that sounds like, “No taxation without representation.” Since Sci-Fi has to mirror real life, we see a similar scenario in the Halo Universe. Before the Human-Covenant War, humanity was in an all out struggle for control of the outer colonies which didn’t want to be ruled by a distant United Earth Government and their military arm, the United Nations Space Command (UNSC). In fact, our favorite super-soldier John 117 (the Master Chief) was trained to fight these Insurrectionists before the genocidal Covenant arrived and put the human galactic civil war on hold.
The two major hurdles we see for space colonies, technology aside, is the legal framework and administration. Right now it appears that colonies are outside the parameters of modern space law (other than research bases like the International Space Station). As we move closer to actually sending people to live on planets, moons, and space stations it is likely we will see some major updates. If reasonable changes to the laws are not made to take into account resource excavation and colonization, we could see a remake of the discovery of the New World and military conflict/land grabbing. Nations that have technology and military power will ignore current treaties in order to dominate an expanse of new territory. Regardless of possible law changes, the administration of these colonies will likely follow historical trends as well. Relatively independent colonies will experience gradual encroachment on their sovereignty by their home nation/planet. If history repeating itself sounds depressing then maybe this will cheer you up. If such a scenario were to arise we can only hope it would lead to the creation of a galaxy saving super-soldier. (And we humbly volunteer ourselves for the necessary genetic modifications...in the final phases, not the initial trials please.)