Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Answering Mothership Setting Questions


Paul Lloyd

A while ago, I wrote a post of 20 sci-fi setting questions, to accompany ten by Luther Gutekunst. Then Semiurge made 20 more. it has taken forever, but I've answered most of them - removing redundant ones and dropping a few I didn't have interesting answers for.

Luther's Questions

 > What do PCs do?

PCs are contractors, unionists, and low-tier citizens scraping by on the fringes of the Colonial Trade Alliance. This will typically turn into "stumbling on unspeakable horrors".

> What's the setting's scale?

The Expansion Sphere is an irregular blob about 250 light years across. The most heavily developed systems are within 30LY of Earth, with settlements becoming much more sporadic as one passes the 50 LY margin. Most of the further volumes are empty and unexplored. While called a sphere, it's more like a fractal clump of spaghetti.

> What level of tech will PCs generally have?

Ordinary technology will be in-line with the base presumptions of Mothership, which is a bit anachronistically behind our own times in a lot of ways (handwaved as a security measure against omnipresent cybersecurity threats. People learned very, very fast that Internet of Things was a bad idea.)

> What's the highest level of technology?

Celestial-made technology (jump drives, hyperspace gates, terraformation crucibles, starlifting facilities etc) is all firmly in clarketech / blackbox territory: if it's been designed with a human-compatible interface we'll be able to operate it, but the underlying principles are far beyond anything we can understand.

> Are there any psychic abilities, superpowers, etc?

Iteration A: No.

Iteration B: The practices of atûm-rama and devil-sorcery are rare, but are still known to the public (and usually couched in extensive misinformation).

Ontological hazards, such as those cause by the Jump-9 disaster, might be found scattered around the Expansion Sphere, but those who claim they can be mastered are idiots or trying to sell you something.

> How do I improve my character?

Surviving long enough to accumulate gear, specialized skills, and knowledge.

> What's the most important faction in the area?

The Colonial Trade Alliance dominates the Core, the Lords of the Road keep watch over the network of hyperspace jump gates, and the Margin, Rim, and Periphery are a patchwork of CTA claims, Great House holdings, independent polities, and the fledgling Outer Systems Mutual Aid Pact.

> Where can I get normal equipment?

Purchased in a shop or printed out from a fabricator (with appropriate license and blueprint, of course). Hand-made goods are their own market and are usually treated as luxury goods.

> Where can I get illegal / dangerous equipment?

Purchased via the black market or through a jailbroken fabricator. For the former you will need some token of favor from a local syndicate, for the latter you will need to be *extremely* careful.

> How do I heal myself?

You'll need a surgeon for serious injuries. In the field, you're likely stuck with a bit of sterilizing medfoam, painkillers, adrenaline shots, and whatever triage other people can perform. 

My Questions

> What miracles (clear deviations from what is possible in reality) exist in the setting?

There's a more practical inverse to this question, which is "what are the parts that don't get handwaved?" Because much of the hard science of this exercise is vibes rather than fact, so it's easier to list the parts that hew close to reality. I've got two:

1) Communication goes at light-speed or by the fastest FTL ship, no faster. (The Celestials might have an ansible, but if they do they are not sharing.)

2) Getting to orbit from a planet's surface is difficult.

> How do people get from A to B? What is it like in terms of speed, scope, accessibility?

Let's say that you are on Earth, and you are going to go visit Epsilon Eridani.

  1. From Earth dirtside, you take either a surface-to-orbit shuttle or book a ride on a space elevator to get to Earth orbit.
  2. From Earth orbit, you board a cycler bound for Mars, accelerated using a skyhook tether.
  3. As you arrive in Martian orbit, you switch to a Mars-Jupiter cycler, and are launched again in the same manner.
  4. Arriving in Jovian orbit, you purchase interstellar passage on a passenger liner.
  5. From Jupiter you reach the Jump Point and transition into hyperspace.
  6. Upon exiting hyperspace at Epsilon Eridani, you will go through some combination of these steps in reverse.

Which is to say that getting from A to B is a matter of multiple steps, taking weeks to months depending on how far you are going. It gets easier and cheaper the more support infrastructure there is in a system.

> Where do people live, in general?

The majority of the human population lives in orbital habitats - typically around gas giants. Terrestrial worlds, while they consistently capture the imagination, usually have comparatively few surface inhabitants. The only major exceptions to these are first-generation colonies in the Core (established before the Distributed City could easily spread) or on the Rim (where there's not enough investment to establish the City in the first place).

> What is the average quality of life like?

For the underclasses of the CTA, life is a perpetual state of precarity-by-design. You will have just enough to scrape by, but always with the shadow that if the dice ever come up bad, you are fucked. Sapient rights vary by polity, but are generally poor-to-abysmal for the prola (and often locked behind a paywall).

> What are the points of conflict in this society?

Primarily, the CTA has grown so large and so oppressive that its foundation is breaking underneath its own overbearing weight. Rebellions, workers' riots, major strikes, brushfire wars in the Rim, the war with the Firebird, syndicates moving into the cracks like weeds in a sidewalk. It's all too much, something's gotta give.

> What are some commonplace technologies players will interact with?

On computers: Imagine app-centric IOS-style design mixed with command prompts and you will have something approximating what it's like. The internet is walled gardens with utter chaos in between. Any amount of control over your hardware, software, or privacy means that you will have to roll up your sleeves and do a lot of work on the site to make a good setup.

> What's something that technology has fucked up?

The internet is effectively useless outside a few heavily-regulated regions, to the point where searches beyond those boundaries are best done with an accompanying exorcist. Adaptive botnets, long abandoned by their creators, flood the net with bullshit and targeted harassment.

The amount of art and records that have simply been lost to digital entropy is a very depressing number.

> What's something that technology has fixed?

Medical technology, for those who have access to it, can work some true miracles when properly applied.

> What are the most valuable goods and resources?

The thing with living in space is that raw goods come in such excess that the the most valuable thing is good logistics. But it certainly doesn't hurt to have a decent supply of living space, reaction mass, and phosphorus.

> Who enforces the structures of power?

The police state ecosystem has specialized for the many niches of interstellar civilization. It is a complex topic which has proven damnably resistant to getting a post completed. But basically you have your for-hire contract private security, you have Civil Security (antiterrorism branch of the CTA military), and the armigers sworn to any given Great House. None of them like each other, but they hate you more.

> Can PCs own a ship normally, or will they have to steal one?

Individual or small-group spaceship ownership is dependent on the availability of second- and third-hand vessels.

> Does alien life exist? What's its scope? Microbial? Rare, common, exotic? Sapient? 

This is the most up-in-the-air, according-to-my-mood variable of the lot of them. There's always going to be some sort of alien life, (no point in doing space opera if there's not) but the amount varies, and towards the populous end of the spectrum is ceases being Mothership-appropriate. I like keeping aliens and plug-and-play elements.

At bare minimum, there's commonplace bacterial life and a smattering of garden worlds across the Expansion Sphere, but not so many that people can't make catchy Tom Lehrer patter songs out of the list.

One step above that, there are a few proto-sapient species - the Bishops, Puzzle Boxes, and Radio Trees.

Step above that, start adding a few, but not all, entries from the lists of precursor, space-faring, and non-sorted aliens (plus the Gravesphere and the self-replicating alien fast food chain)

Beyond that, well, we're out of Mothership territory. But that's fine, just a topic for another post.

> Can AI be made or become conscious?

It's complicated. Metacognition can develop over time as an AI grows increasingly complex and entropy does its job - feedback loops can spiral out of bounds and lead to rampancy.

This is, of course, for AI operating on a logic core. There's no equivalent transitionary process for Emulated Intelligences (leading to several major polities judging them non-conscious).

> Is it possible to digitize and upload a mind?

Not directly. You can emulate it and make a copy, but that's it. No continuity of consciousness through that process.

> What's the overall tone like?

"Things are bad, and the end is not in sight. But even these times will not last forever."

Semiurge's Questions

> Is the dominant mode of production still capitalist? Why?

No, but it is structured so as to give the appearance of it. The actual reality is something closer to feudalism.

> Who's the oldest person who's still arguably alive?

Debated. There are a few members of the Great Houses who claim to have been alive for the signing of the Epsilon Indi Accords, which would put them at over *hrrmph* hundred years old. A few other individuals claim to be older still, but none would claim older than contact with the Celestials. There is, however, an old man on Karadoon who claims to have just celebrated his 36,211th birthday.

> What is the legal status of transhumans, uplifts, and other such para-human creatures? 

Varies by polity. The party line within the CTA is that the benefits of citizenship are open to anyone who pays the subscription fee, but the reality of the matter is that affording those fees is out of reach for many and that many metahumans and uplifts find themselves disenfranchised by the Alliance status quo. Usually because of links to cultural movements the CTA deems subversive (ie, they were fine with the chimpanzees until they started demanding equal pay, and the thelychroma have always been too leftist)

> Can you own your own clone and make him/her/them do tricks for your amusement?

A full clone is a twin, legally speaking. So no.

> What's the primary existential threat humanity faces?

A) The Celestials deciding that they no longer care for humanity mucking around in their garden.

B) Hyperspatial threats such as the Gaunt

C) Berserker swarms of the PROGENITOR ARCHIVE

D) Ontological breakdown.

E) Some combination of the above.

> Which cultures/nations/religions, or parts thereof, have ascended?

One of the major demographics of post-Collapse Earth was a hybridized West African - Chinese culture. Several first-generation colonies still reflect this.

Much of Mars' third and final colonization push was from Spanish-speaking regions of post-Migration period America, likewise with Chinese influence.

The Alliance of Indigenous Nations, holding the importance Belt habitat of Cahokia at Vesta, proved vital in giving its member nations a seat at the table against the Terran superpowers.

Veneration of the Celestials in some form or another is the biggest religious group outside of the CTA state religion of the Principles of Prosperity and Profit.

The Great Chain Ontology dominates the culture and social structure of the modern CTA.

> Which have fallen by the wayside?

The British monarchy still exists, as an unrecognized micronation occupying approximately 0.5 square kilometers in northern France.

The Catholic Church still exists, but is not only greatly diminished, but has been bogged down in an antipope standoff for generations. (Rotating cast of sects, typically 3-5 antipopes, with one particularly confusing year having 9)

> What's the most dangerous thing you can do with your average spaceship?

Hitting a planet / habitat / other ship.

Weaponizing a torch drive.

Venting a jump drive close to a habitat or inhabited planet.

> How uncomfortable is space travel?

Quite. The inside of a spaceship is typically cramped, hot, and smells pretty funky.

> What's the equivalent of first class/business class/economy class/freight class for space travel?

There's really only high-roller and steerage options. High-rollers can get a private cryostasis ward where they can get in and out at their leisure. Everyone else has minimal space and privacy for prep before being packed in the tubes like sardines in a can.

> Could you model space travel with a random encounter table/hexes/pointcrawl?

Yes, but it would be "encounters when you arrive in the next system" - running into anything inbetween points of the crawl will be highly anomalous and usually a sign that terrible shit is about to go down (and thus a special instance beyond the purview of a random table)
> Can you fuck the aliens?

You could, and some people do, but it would require (on top of finding a partner willing to try inter-species coitus) specialized equipment. Even with the cybeles, who are very much into that.

> Who gets the custom-made real waifus?

The upper classes keep trying, and they keep violently rebelling. Many is the technocrat beaten to death by a paracoita who picked up the Firebird. Some habitats on the Rim have taken in so many that they form a statistically noteworthy population demographic.

> Are there any memes that have survived from the present day?

On an airless rocky moon of a humdrum gas giant in the Rim, someone has inscribed on a great plateau, in letters fifty kilometers tall, "I HOPE YOU'RE READY FOR AN UNFORGETTABLE LUNCHEON".
> What sound do guns make (pew pew, zap zap, bang bang, etc.)?

Bang, thwip, fssh, bzzt, and DHOOM.

> What's the worst thing that could happen to me from getting the cool & illegal robot parts/genemods?

Splice cancer, auto-immune compromization, biochemical incompatibility, rejection syndrome

> Are there martial arts for robots, mechs, and/or intelligent non-human apes?

Android martial arts aren't flashy, but make up for it in brutal, bone-crushing effectiveness.

Ape martial arts have to compensate for differences in center-of-gravity and arm length - lots of grapples and throws, very few kicks.

> How big are the mechs?

Depends on the definition of mech. If it's just "a robotic apparatus with a human pilot", some common orbital dockyard machinery is fucking enormous. If it's narrowed to "human piloted military vehicle that isn't a tank", it's about the size of a tank.

> Psychic powers, or internet-of-things facsimile thereof? 

There are people who combine internet-of-things with a brain-computer interface. This is typically a terrible idea and will require some very robust malware blockers to maintain any semblance of sanity amid the constant deluge of junk data and viral AI. But it will allow you to command compatible devices with your mind, without having to use a wire.

> What weird political movements are there that aren't just projecting current/historical movements into the future (e.g. not "what if the civil rights movement, but for sapient octopi")?

Outside of the aforementioned Great Chaos, the main political divide is shaping up to be what manner of transhumanism should be taken - cybernetics, bioware, both, neither. With human civilization being as big as it is all four are currently co-existing, but that doesn't stop them from fighting each other over who gets to have influence on policy.

> Where and how is information processed and stored?

It's a fucking mess, like the rest of compsci. If you want something stored securely, either airgap the shit out of it or get a physical hardcopy.

> Who's watching you through the ubiquitous surveillance technology?

No one, most of the time - not because you aren't being monitored, but because there's no consciousness at the other end. Save for those poor emulated souls plugged into the Eye and forced to sift through surveillance data.

> Is there a level of virtual simulation that people could reasonably doubt that what they're currently experiencing is the real world? If answer is yes, what new mental illnesses has this demiurgical atrocity spawned?

Yes, but from the other direction - instead of making the simulation detailed enough to pass as reality, the user is deadened down enough to let it pass. Cut off the meat-body's feedback systems and redirect some of the brain interface and it doesn't matter if the table is clipping through the wall. This gets particularly insidious with emulated minds, as one would expect.

As to answer the second question, there are many, and fall into some variant of:

  • Thinking you are inside a simulation when you are not (False Truman Syndrome)
  • Thinking you are outside a simulation when you are not (Wachowski Syndrome)
  • Believing that there is no outside when inside a simulation (Solipcism)
  • Believing there is no separation between simulation and reality (Unificationism)

> Do most people still have jobs and if so what do most of them do?

Employment tends to fall into one of the following categories

  • Supervising / maintaining / repairing automated processes (dual-level automation is...risky)
  • General labor (This still typically involves a lot of complex machinery.)
  • Entertainment (Includes streaming ecosystem)
  • Sanctioned violence (Always hiring)
  • Education and training (Eternally struggling)
  • Handicrafts (Any AI can make art, which means that ai-made art is worthless as a signifier of status)


  1. Answered, at least, until I find new answers.

  2. Totally cool with a non-canon answer, but what do you imagine the UK (or what used to be the UK) is like in your setting?

    1. During the time period where the answer is meaningful and relevant: Gaelic Union in the north and west, the south had a revolution and took on a lot of migrants from north Africa, Spain, and elsewhere.

  3. God almighty, this is like Orion's Arm in a blessed timeline where OA was free of Kazlev's constant libertarian posting and the general STEMlord posturing bs that hung like an iron-planted albatross around its neck. It's also clearly a lot more but I was one of the losers that combed the site over and over back in the day so this aspect is close to my heart. The inspirations chosen (at least the ones I could catch) are rock solid - looked back at related posts and was hyped that Hider-analogues made it in. Do you think something like the Ghost Net would be around in this setting, whether as a Hider project or not?

    The religious aspect is a real strength - the image of CTA goons cracking down on unlicensed prosperity faith is a fantastically evocative one. Would the Celestial-based spirituality here be familiar to Archaitheologians? Def hoping that one or two Mujtahid AI-alikes are kicking around, doing what Sufis do best and engaging in expert-level syncretism

    1. Oh I still comb OA regularly for material (nothing else quite scratches that itch), but yeah you are spot on the money wrt the...end-of-history style naivete? Whatever makes folks write something like "It has nothing against diversity or free will as long as it does not get in the way of expansion" and consider that internally coherent.

      As far as the Ghost Net, the hiders of this setting generally don't have access to FTL-capable ships, so there's no real interstellar communication among their groups. Those inside a single system will tend to be very light on radio and laser messaging and rely more on couriers.

      For Celestial worship, that is a topic for another post. But I can say that syncretic Islam has been doing pretty well for itself in this future

  4. Since you've brought real-life ethnoreligious groups into this, I'm legally obligated to ask: what are the Jews doing?

    1. Carrying on as usual. More orthodox groups have remained on Earth (or otherwise in the Sol system), but there are Jewish communities across the Core systems.

  5. As a thought on psychic powers in sci fi (which feels like they used to be way more prevalent in the past): Their existence as scientific fact in a future setting always implied to me that Uri Geller isn't a fraud and that somehow strikes me as utterly wrong.

    1. Yeah - for a while it was just considered to be a given even within the boundaries of science. Weirdest thing.

      But yeah Uri should always be a fraud, as should Crowley. Because they were frauds