Will we ever have the space opera future?

May 22 JDN 2459722

Space opera has long been a staple of science fiction. Like many natural categories, it’s not that easy to define; it has something to do with interstellar travel, a variety of alien species, grand events, and a big, complicated world that stretches far beyond any particular story we might tell about it.

Star Trek is the paradigmatic example, and Star Wars also largely fits, but there are numerous of other examples, including most of my favorite science fiction worlds: Dune, the Culture, Mass Effect, Revelation Space, the Liaden, Farscape, Babylon 5, the Zones of Thought.

I think space opera is really the sort of science fiction I most enjoy. Even when it is dark, there is still something aspirational about it. Even a corrupt feudal transplanetary empire or a terrible interstellar war still means a universe where people get to travel the stars.

How likely is it that we—and I mean ‘we’ in the broad sense, humanity and its descendants—will actually get the chance to live in such a universe?

First, let’s consider the most traditional kind of space opera, the Star Trek world, where FTL is commonplace and humans interact as equals with a wide variety of alien species that are different enough to be interesting, but similar enough to be relatable.

This, sad to say, is extremely unlikely. FTL is probably impossible, or if not literally impossible then utterly infeasible by any foreseeable technology. Yes, the Alcubierre drive works in theory… all you need is tons of something that has negative mass.

And while, by sheer probability, there almost have to be other sapient lifeforms somewhere out there in this vast universe, our failure to contact or even find clear evidence of any of them for such a long period suggests that they are either short-lived or few and far between. Moreover, any who do exist are likely to be radically different from us and difficult to interact with at all, much less relate to on a personal level. Maybe they don’t have eyes or ears; maybe they live only in liquid hydrogen or molten lead; maybe they communicate entirely by pheromones that are toxic to us.

Does this mean that the aspirations of space opera are ultimately illusory? Is it just a pure fantasy that will forever be beyond us? Not necessarily.

I can see two other ways to create a very space-opera-like world, one of which is definitely feasible, and the other is very likely to be. Let’s start with the one that’s definitely feasible—indeed so feasible we will very likely get to experience it in our own lifetimes.

That is to make it a simulation. An MMO video game, in a way, but something much grander than any MMO that has yet been made. Not just EVE and No Man’s Sky, not just World of Warcraft and Minecraft and Second Life, but also Facebook and Instagram and Zoom and so much more. Oz from Summer Wars; OASIS from Ready Player One. A complete, multifaceted virtual reality in which we can spend most if not all of our lives. One complete with not just sight and sound, but also touch, smell, even taste.

Since it’s a simulation, we can make our own rules. If we want FTL and teleportation, we can have them. (And I would like to note that in fact teleportation is available in EVE, No Man’s Sky, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, and even Second Life. It’s easy to implement in a simulation, and it really seems to be something people want to have.) If we want to meet—or even be—people from a hundred different sapient species, some more humanoid than others, we can. Each of us could rule entire planets, command entire starfleets.

And we could do this, if not right now, today, then very, very soon—the VR hardware is finally maturing and the software capability already exists if there is a development team with the will and the skills (and the budget) to do it. We almost certainly will do this—in fact, we’ll do it hundreds or thousands of different ways. You need not be content with any particular space opera world, when you can choose from a cornucopia of them; and fantasy worlds too, and plenty of other kinds of worlds besides.

Yet, I admit, there is something missing from that future. While such a virtual-reality simulation might reach the point where it would be fair to say it’s no longer simply a “video game”, it still won’t be real. We won’t actually be Vulcans or Delvians or Gek or Asari. We will merely pretend to be. When we take off the VR suit at the end of the day, we will still be humans, and still be stuck here on Earth. And even if most of the toil of maintaining this society and economy can be automated, there will still be some time we have to spend living ordinary lives in ordinary human bodies.

So, is there some chance that we might really live in a space-opera future? Where we will meet actual, flesh-and-blood people who have blue skin, antennae, or six limbs? Where we will actually, physically move between planets, feeling the different gravity beneath our feet and looking up at the alien sky?

Yes. There is a way this could happen. Not now, not for awhile yet. We ourselves probably won’t live to see it. But if humanity manages to continue thriving for a few more centuries, and technology continues to improve at anything like its current pace, then that day may come.

We won’t have FTL, so we’ll be bounded by the speed of light. But the speed of light is still quite fast. It can get you to Mars in minutes, to Jupiter in hours, and even to Alpha Centauri in a voyage that wouldn’t shock Magellan or Zheng He. Leaving this arm of the Milky Way, let alone traveling to another galaxy, is out of the question (at least if you ever want to come back while anyone you know is still alive—actually as a one-way trip it’s surprisingly feasible thanks to time dilation).

This means that if we manage to invent a truly superior kind of spacecraft engine, one which combines the high thrust of a hydrolox rocket with the high specific impulse of an ion thruster—and that is physically possible, because it’s well within what nuclear rockets ought to be capable of—then we could travel between planets in our solar system, and maybe even to nearby solar systems, in reasonable amounts of time. The world of The Expanse could therefore be in reach (well, the early seasons anyway), where human colonies have settled on Mars and Ceres and Ganymede and formed their own new societies with their own unique cultures.

We may yet run into some kind of extraterrestrial life—bacteria probably, insects maybe, jellyfish if we’re lucky—but we probably ever won’t actually encounter any alien sapients. If there are any, they are probably too primitive to interact with us, or they died out millennia ago, or they’re simply too far away to reach.

But if we cannot find Vulcans and Delvians and Asari, then we can become them. We can modify ourselves with cybernetics, biotechnology, or even nanotechnology, until we remake ourselves into whatever sort of beings we want to be. We may never find a whole interplanetary empire ruled by a race of sapient felinoids, but if furry conventions are any indication, there are plenty of people who would make themselves into sapient felinoids if given the opportunity.

Such a universe would actually be more diverse than a typical space opera. There would be no “planets of hats“, no entire societies of people acting—or perhaps even looking—the same. The hybridization of different species is almost by definition impossible, but when the ‘species’ are cosmetic body mods, we can combine them however we like. A Klingon and a human could have a child—and for that matter the child could grow up and decide to be a Turian.

Honestly there are only two reasons I’m not certain we’ll go this route:

One, we’re still far too able and willing to kill each other, so who knows if we’ll even make it that long. There’s also still plenty of room for some sort of ecological catastrophe to wipe us out.

And two, most people are remarkably boring. We already live in a world where one could go to work every day wearing a cape, a fursuit, a pirate outfit, or a Starfleet uniform, and yet people don’t let you. There’s nothing infeasible about me delivering a lecture dressed as a Kzin Starfleet science officer, and nor would it even particularly impair my ability to deliver the lecture well; and yet I’m quite certain it would be greatly frowned upon if I were to do so, and could even jeopardize my career (especially since I don’t have tenure).

Would it be distracting to the students if I were to do something like that? Probably, at least at first. But once they got used to it, it might actually make them feel at ease. If it were a social norm that lecturers—and students—can dress however they like (perhaps limited by local decency regulations, though those, too, often seem overly strict), students might show up to class in bunny pajamas or pirate outfits or full-body fursuits, but would that really be a bad thing? It could in fact be a good thing, if it helps them express their own identity and makes them more comfortable in their own skin.

But no, we live in a world where the mainstream view is that every man should wear exactly the same thing at every formal occasion. I felt awkward at the AEA conference because my shirt had color.

This means that there is really one major obstacle to building the space opera future: Social norms. If we don’t get to live in this world one day, it will be because the world is ruled by the sort of person who thinks that everyone should be the same.

The Expanse gets the science right—including the economics

JDN 2457502

Despite constantly working on half a dozen projects at once (literally—preparing to start my PhD, writing this blog, working at my day job, editing a novel, preparing to submit a nonfiction book, writing another nonfiction book with three of my friends as co-authors, and creating a card game—that’s seven actually), I do occasionally find time to do things for fun. One I’ve been doing lately is catching up on The Expanse on DVR (I’m about halfway through the first season so far).

If you’re not familiar with The Expanse, it has been fairly aptly described as Battlestar Galactica meets Game of Thrones, though I think that particular comparison misrepresents the tone and attitudes of the series, because both BG and GoT are so dark and cynical (“It’s a nice day… for a… red wedding!”). I think “Star Trek meets Game of Thrones” might be better actually—the extreme idealism of Star Trek would cancel out the extreme cynicism of Game of Thrones, with the result being a complex mix of idealism and cynicism that more accurately reflects the real world (a world where Mahatma Gandhi and Adolf Hitler lived at the same time). That complex, nuanced world (or should I say worlds?) is where The Expanse takes place. ST is also more geopolitical than BG and The Expanse is nothing if not geopolitical.

But The Expanse is not just psychologically realistic—it is also scientifically and economically realistic. It may in fact be the hardest science fiction I have ever encountered, and is definitely the hardest science fiction I’ve seen in a television show. (There are a few books that might be slightly harder, as well as some movies based on them.)

The only major scientific inaccuracy I’ve been able to find so far is the use of sound effects in space, and actually even these can be interpreted as reflecting an omniscient narrator perspective that would hear any sounds that anyone would hear, regardless of what planet or ship they might be on. The sounds the audience hears all seem to be sounds that someone would hear—there’s simply no particular person who would hear all of them. When people are actually thrown into hard vacuum, we don’t hear them make any noise.

Like Firefly (and for once I think The Expanse might actually be good enough to deserve that comparison), there is no FTL, no aliens, no superhuman AI. Human beings are bound within our own solar system, and travel between planets takes weeks or months depending on your energy budget. They actually show holograms projecting the trajectory of various spacecraft and the trajectories actually make good sense in terms of orbital mechanics. Finally screenwriters had the courage to give us the terrifying suspense and inevitability of an incoming nuclear missile rounding a nearby asteroid and intercepting your trajectory, where you have minutes to think about it but not nearly enough delta-v to get out of its blast radius. That is what space combat will be like, if we ever have space combat (as awesome as it is to watch, I strongly hope that we will not ever actually do it). Unlike what Star Trek would have you believe, space is not a 19th century ocean.

They do have stealth in space—but it requires technology that even to them is highly advanced. Moreover it appears to only work for relatively short periods and seems most effective against civilian vessels that would likely lack state-of-the-art sensors, both of which make it a lot more plausible.

Computers are more advanced in the 2200s then they were in the 2000s, but not radically so, at most a million times faster, about what we gained since the 1980s. I’m guessing a smartphone in The Expanse runs at a few petaflops. Essentially they’re banking on Moore’s Law finally dying sometime in the mid 21st century, but then, so am I. Perhaps a bit harder to swallow is that no one has figured out good enough heuristics to match human cognition; but then, human cognition is very tightly optimized.

Spacecraft don’t have artificial gravity except for the thrust of their engines, and people float around as they should when ships are freefalling. They actually deal with the fact that Mars and Ceres have lower gravity than Earth, and the kinds of health problems that result from this. (One thing I do wish they’d done is had the Martian cruiser set a cruising acceleration of Mars-g—about 38% Earth-g—that would feel awkward and dizzying to their Earther captives. Instead they basically seem to assume that Martians still like to use Earth-g for space transit, but that does make some sense in terms of both human health and simply transit time.) It doesn’t seem like people move around quite awkwardly enough in the very low gravity of Ceres—which should be only about 3% Earth-g—but they do establish that electromagnetic boots are ubiquitous and that could account for most of this.

They fight primarily with nuclear missiles and kinetic weapons, and the damage done by nuclear missiles is appropriately reduced by the fact that vacuum doesn’t transmit shockwaves. (Nuclear missiles would still be quite damaging in space by releasing large amounts of wide-spectrum radiation; but they wouldn’t cause the total devastation they do within atmosphere.) Oddly they decided not to go with laser weapons as far as I can tell, which actually seems to me like they’ve underestimated advancement; laser weapons have a number of advantages that would be particularly useful in space, once we can actually make them affordable and reliable enough for widespread deployment. There could also be a three-tier system, where missiles are used at long range, railguns at medium range, and lasers at short range. (Yes, short range—the increased speed of lasers would be only slight compared to a good railgun, and would be more than offset by the effect of diffraction. At orbital distances, a laser is a shotgun.) Then again, it could well work out that railguns are just better—depending on how vessels are structured, puncturing their hulls with kinetic rounds could well be more useful than burning them up with infrared lasers.

But I think what really struck me about the realism of The Expanse is how it even makes the society realistic (in a way that, say, Firefly really doesn’t—we wanted a Western and we got a Western!).

The only major offworld colonies are Mars and Ceres, both of which seem to be fairly well-established, probably originally colonized as much as a century ago. Different societies have formed on each world; Earth has largely united under the United Nations (one of the lead characters is an undersecretary for the UN), but meanwhile Mars has split off into its own independent nation (“Martian” is now an ethnicity like “German” rather than meaning “extraterrestrial”), and the asteroid belt colonists, while formally still under Earth’s government, think of themselves as a different culture (“Belters”) and are seeking independence. There are some fairly obvious—but deftly managed rather than heavy-handed—parallels between the Belter independence movement and real-world independence movements, particularly Palestine (it’s hard not to think of the PLO when they talk about the OPA). Both Mars and the Belt have their own languages, while Earth’s languages have largely coalesced around English as the language of politics and commerce. (If the latter seems implausible, I remind you that the majority of the Internet and all international air traffic control are in English.) English is the world’s lingua franca (which is a really bizarre turn of phrase because it’s the Latin for French).

There is some of the conniving and murdering of Game of Thrones, but it is at a much more subdued level, and all of the major factions display both merits and flaws. There is no clear hero and no clear villain, just conflict and misunderstanding between a variety of human beings each with their own good and bad qualities. There does seem to be a sense that the most idealistic characters suffer for their idealism much as the Starks often do, but unlike the Starks they usually survive and learn from the experience. Indeed, some of the most cynical also seem to suffer for their cynicism—in the episode I just finished, the grizzled UN Colonel assumed the worst of his adversary and ended up branded “the butcher of Anderson Station”.

Cost of living on Ceres is extraordinarily high because of the limited living space (the apartments look a lot like the tiny studios of New York or San Francisco), and above all the need to constantly import air and water from Earth. A central plot point in the first episode is that a ship carrying comet ice—i.e., water—to Ceres is lost in a surprise attack by unknown adversaries with advanced technology, and the result is a deepening of an already dire water shortage, exacerbating the Belter’s craving for rebellion.

Air and water are recyclable, so it wouldn’t be that literally every drink and every breath needs to be supplied from outside—indeed that would clearly be cost-prohibitive. But recycling is never perfect, and Ceres also appears to have a growing population, both of which would require a constant input of new resources to sustain. It makes perfect sense that the most powerful people on Ceres are billionaire tycoons who own water and air transport corporations.

The police on Ceres (of which another lead character is a detective) are well-intentioned but understaffed, underfunded and moderately corrupt, similar to what we seem to find in large inner-city police departments like the NYPD and LAPD. It felt completely right when they responded to an attempt to kill a police officer with absolutely overwhelming force and little regard for due process and procedure—for this is what real-world police departments almost always do.

But why colonize the asteroid belt at all? Mars is a whole planet, there is plenty there—and in The Expanse they are undergoing terraforming at a very plausible rate (there’s a moving scene where a Martian says to an Earther, “We’re trying to finish building our garden before you finish paving over yours.”). Mars has as much land as Earth, and it has water, abundant metals, and CO2 you could use to make air.Even just the frontier ambition could be enough to bring us to Mars.

But why go to Ceres? The explanation The Expanse offers is a very sensible one: Mining, particularly so-called “rare earth metals”. Gold and platinum might have been profitable to mine at first, but once they became plentiful the market would probably collapse or at least drop off to a level where they aren’t particularly expensive or interesting—because they aren’t useful for very much. But neodymium, scandium, and prometheum are all going to be in extremely high demand in a high-tech future based on nuclear-powered spacecraft, and given that we’re already running out of easily accessible deposits on Earth, by the 2200s there will probably be basically none left. The asteroid belt, however, will have plenty for centuries to come.

As a result Ceres is organized like a mining town, or perhaps an extractive petrostate (metallostate?); but due to lightspeed interplanetary communication—very important in the series—and some modicum of free speech it doesn’t appear to have attained more than a moderate level of corruption. This also seems realistic; the “end-of-history” thesis is often overstated, but the basic idea that some form of democracy and welfare-state capitalism is fast becoming the only viable model of governance does seem to be true, and that is almost certainly the model of governance we would export to other planets. In such a system corruption can only get so bad before it is shown on the mass media and people won’t take it anymore.

The show doesn’t deal much with absolute dollar (or whatever currency) numbers, which is probably wise; but nominal incomes on Ceres are likely extremely high even though the standard of living is quite poor, because the tiny living space and need to import air and water would make prices (literally?) astronomical. Most people on Ceres seem to have grown up there, but the initial attraction could have been something like the California Gold Rush, where rumors of spectacularly high incomes clashed with similarly spectacular expenses incurred upon arrival. “Become a millionaire!” “Oh, by the way, your utility bill this month is $112,000.”

Indeed, even the poor on Ceres don’t seem that poor, which is a very nice turn toward realism that a lot of other science fiction shows seem unprepared to make. In Firefly, the poor are poor—they can barely afford food and clothing, and have no modern conveniences whatsoever. (“Jaynestown”, perhaps my favorite episode, depicts this vividly.) But even the poor in the US today are rarely that poor; our minimalistic and half-hearted welfare state has a number of cracks one can fall through, but as long as you get the benefits you’re supposed to get you should be able to avoid starvation and homelessness. Similarly I find it hard to believe that any society with high enough productivity to routinely build interstellar spacecraft the way we build container ships would not have at least the kind of welfare state that provides for the most basic needs. Chronic dehydration is probably still a problem for Belters, because water would be too expensive to subsidize in this way; but they all seem to have fairly nice clothes, home appliances, and smartphones, and that seems right to me. At one point a character loses his arm, and the “cheap” solution is a cybernetic prosthetic—the “expensive” one would be to grow him a new arm. As today but perhaps even more so, poverty in The Expanse is really about inequality—the enormous power granted to those who have millions of times as much as others. (Another show that does this quite well, though is considerably softer as far as the physics, is Continuum. If I recall correctly, Alec Sadler in 2079 is literally a trillionaire.)

Mars also appears to be a democracy, and actually quite a thriving one. In many ways Mars appears to be surpassing Earth economically and technologically. This suggests that Mars was colonized with our best and brightest, but not necessarily; Australians have done quite well for themselves despite being founded as a penal colony. Mars colonization would also have a way of justifying their frontier idealism that no previous frontiers have granted: No indigenous people to displace, no local ecology to despoil, and no gifts from the surrounding environment. You really are working entirely out of your own hard work and know-how (and technology and funding from Earth of course) to establish a truly new world on the open and unspoiled frontier. You’re not naive or a hypocrite, it’s the real truth. That kind of realistic idealism could make the Martian Dream a success in ways even the American Dream never quite was.

In all it is a very compelling series, and should appeal to people like me who crave geopolitical nuance in fiction. But it also has its moments of huge space battles with exploding star cruisers, so there’s that.

What would an interplanetary economy look like?

JDN 2457397

Today’s post is the second Reader’s Choice topic, chosen by a vote of my Patreons.

Remember, you too can vote on future topics if you pledge at least $10 per month.

Actually, there was a tie between two topics; since I was in an SF mood today, I decided to do this one as the official Reader’s Choice post. The second, “The challenges and possibilities of a global basic income”, I’ll do as a later post. (If I don’t get around to that before the next vote, you can of course always vote for it again.)

Will we ever colonize outer space? Many people thought we’d be there by now.

In Blade Runner, released in 1982, Roy was built and deployed to the outer colonies in 2015, which you may remember as the year that just ended.

Predictions of the future are often wrong, but predictions from the 20th century of the 21st century seem to be consistently overoptimistic about technology. In a past Idiot Free Zone post, I hypothesize that this is due to the confusion between exponential and logistic growth.

Paul Krugman is also a big fan of SF (it is actually about as likely that I’d run into Krugman at Worldcon as at an economics conference), and he wrote a paper on the possibility of interstellar trade way back in 1978. I think he’s kind of satirizing economic theorists actually; he uses sophisticated mathematics to address a problem that doesn’t exist in the real world—just like they do.

I think we will eventually at least reach the point of interplanetary colonization, if not actually interstellar. To begin, let me emphasize that vital distinction. Mars is currently about 60 million kilometers away at its closest approach. The core of the Alpha Centauri system is 4.24 light-years away, which is about 40 trillion kilometers. The distance from Ann Arbor to Toledo is about 84 kilometers. Thus, the difficulty of going to Alpha Centauri is about as much higher than that of going to Mars as the difficulty of going to Mars is compared to going from Ann Arbor to Toledo—each a factor of 700,000 times the distance.

With current technology, we can send robots to Mars (how cool is that? We did get some of the future we were promised). A typical trip takes about half a year. It costs us about $2.5 billion to do that, though India somehow managed to at least make Mars orbit for $75 million. Even if we use the $2.5 billion figure, that still means our current economic output the US and Europe alone could support hundreds of missions per year if we were willing to pay for it. (Devote the entire US military budget to NASA and we could land a new robot on Mars every day.) Interplanetary travel is most definitely feasible.

Interstellar travel on the other hand, is still far out of reach. In principle we are limited by the speed of light; in fact, it’s a good deal worse than that. The fastest we have ever gotten a spacecraft leaving the Solar System is about 60,000 km/h; at that speed it would take almost one billion hours to get to Alpha Centauri, which is over 100,000 years. We will need substantial breakthroughs in spacecraft propulsion before we can even consider sending anything to even the nearest stars. (I wouldn’t give up hope completely, however; in 1901 someone could just as well have criticized H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon on the grounds that no one will ever invent a propulsion system powerful enough to reach the moon.)

By the time we manage interstellar travel, our technology will be so much more advanced it’s hard to even imagine what things will be like. But interplanetary travel we could probably do right now.

So let’s suppose we do in fact establish colonies on other planets—most likely Mars and Mercury, as well as several moons of Jupiter and Saturn. What would our economy look like once we did?

For a decidedly Game of Thrones take on this situation, see The Expanse. Their scientific accuracy is quite good (although they still have sound in space!); so far, their economic accuracy seems pretty good as well, but so far I haven’t seen enough yet to be sure.
One thing I think The Expanse does get right is that asteroid mining is a vital part of the interplanetary trade network. The thing that’s currently keeping us from colonizing other planets is a lack of economic incentives to bear the enormous cost of space travel. Asteroid mining is one thing that might actually provide those incentives, if we can leap just a few more technological hurdles in terms of mining robots and spacecraft propulsion.

Many asteroids contain metals such as silver, gold and platinum at concentrations 20 times as great as anything found on the surface of the Earth. The amount of iron and nickel they contain is even larger; we could supply the entire iron production of the Earth (3.2 billion tonnes) with a single asteroid, 16 Psyche, for the next million years. That one asteroid over 2e19 kg of nearly pure iron-nickel, which is 200 quadrillion tonnes. Many asteroids also contain large concentrations of other useful and rare metals, such as lithium and neodymium.

It is unlikely we would actually try to colonize asteroids (they do in The Expanse, but I’m not sure I buy it). None are large enough to support an atmosphere (kind of by definition), so we’d have to build space stations large enough for permanent habitation. With such ludicrous amounts of iron all around us, that might be possible; but would it be cost-effective? I think it’s more likely that we would have temporary habitats, able to support people for several months or maybe a few years, and people would basically do “tours of duty” working in the asteroids, and then return home. This is similar to how we use space stations right now; you can live there for a long time—the standing record is over a year—but nobody lives their whole life there. It might be a sort of “seasonal” work, where the seasons are decided by large-scale orbital mechanics rather than local planetary axial tilt. (We might have to start doing “seasonal adjustments” to statistics based on this!) Provided that the workers are paid a substantial portion of the spoils—by no means a certainty, as we all know from sweatshops around the world—this work could easily be lucrative enough that you become a millionaire after a tour or two and then retire.

But they might well return home to Mars, since the orbital transfer from the asteroid belt to Mars is considerably easier (it has what we call a lower “delta-v”) than the same transfer all the way back to Earth, and the launch and landing are even easier still. Mars does support an atmosphere—currently very thin and not breathable, but that could change with terraforming. It is also large enough to spread out with room for many homes, greenhouses, power plants, etc., and has enough gravity to at least keep human bodies as a basic level of functioning without too much additional support. (Mars’ gravity is about 40% that of Earth’s.)

Of course, most of the products we make are going to be used on Earth—most of everything is going to be used on Earth, probably for centuries to come. It’s possible that we’ll end up like the British Empire did where the colonies are more populous than the source, but it will take a long time for that to happen. (Moreover, the primary reason—cheap, fertile agricultural land—will not apply unless we happen upon a habitable planet or get very good at terraforming.) This means we will need to ship something from Mars to Earth. But since the delta-v is exceptionally high, we’ll want to ship as little as possible. I think this means that we will do most of the refinement and even manufacturing on Mars, and then ship prefabricated components to Earth. Any process that removes mass will be done on Mars, to minimize the amount of mass that needs to make the trip to Earth.

And what will Earth provide in return? As we import this huge quantity of metal (or metal components), what will we export in return?
Well, one possibility is that we won’t—at first, we (by which I mean “our corporations”) will simply retain ownership of the entire supply chain and do all the accounting as though production were being done entirely on Earth. We won’t think of it as “trade”, just as corporations engaging in a series of prospecting and mining ventures. At least at first.

Yet this will become increasingly unwieldy, just as it became unwieldy for the British Empire to retain control of all its colonies and collect their taxes for the Crown. Communication between Mars, Earth, and the asteroid belt will be relatively fast—a few hours delay at worst—but travel will be very slow and very expensive. Local institutions will form and assert themselves, and may eventually topple the corporate managers, expropriate their assets, and create new governments. The corporations could see the rebellion coming a year in advance from the transmissions, and still be powerless to stop it because the ships will take too long to arrive.

Once new local governments form, we will start thinking of it as “trade”. So what will we be trading? To some extent people on Mars might simply accept Earth currency (perhaps US Dollars, or Euros, or as I like to imagine some unified currency, perhaps the Atlantic Union Dollar); but only if they can then use that Earth currency to buy things they actually need. What will they actually need?

Food, for one. Some amount of food production will be done on Mars by necessity—you can’t survive if you depend entirely on imported food to survive. But it will be expensive, and most likely nutrient-dense but tasteless and monotonous genetically-engineered vegetable products. People will get tired of eating bricks of processed Aresoy(TM) for the 17,000th time and will crave real food; Earth will respond by selling them frozen steaks at $12,000 per kilogram. Probably only luxury foods will be imported, actually; why spend $11,900 for a hamburger when you can spend $12,000 for filet mignon? Nominal income on Mars will be huge—millionaires will be ubiquitous. At purchasing power parity, it may not be so impressive, once you account for the ridiculous cost of food and housing. It’ll be like living in Silicon Valley—on steroids.

Water, perhaps. This one is not as obvious as it may seem. While Earth does have the largest concentration of liquid water (except for a couple of moons of the gas giants), there is plenty of ice in them thar asteroids. It will most likely be cheaper (albeit not cheap) to obtain water by capturing and melting down asteroid ice than to ship it all the way from Earth.

But I think the most important Earth export will beculture. The main products that Martians will want to buy from us will be books, movies, songs, video games, hologram simulations. They will be blueprints, patents, 3D printer schematics. Those who travel to Mars will be bold, adventurous, many of them loners and misfits—but deep down they will still sometimes long for the comforts of the books they read as children, the songs they listened to as teenagers. The beautiful thing about selling culture is that it can be transported almost for free—just add it to the radio transmissions you were already sending. Mars will also produce its own culture, of course, but the much smaller population and constant struggle for survival will mean that most of the cultural flow will be outward from Earth to the colonies rather than the reverse. The Internet won’t work normally between Earth and Mars due to the time delay, but there will be something like it, a local MarsNet that caches material from the Internet on a delay of a few hours and then shares it with the colony. You won’t download webpages in real time, you’ll request them a day in advance. You won’t send instant messages, but sending email will be hardly any different. (Instead of Nigerian princes we’ll start getting scam spam about Martian mining entrepreneurs.) Whoever owns this communication monopoly will become fantastically rich, perhaps even more so than the mining companies themselves—because the mining companies have overhead.

Overall, the increased availability of previously-scarce metals like gold, lithium, and neodymium will make new technologies possible and also widely available, including battery technologies that might finally allow Earth to wean itself off of carbon emissions. (Unfortunately, our current means of spacecraft launch are all very carbon-intensive. We will need to invent nuclear engines that don’t leave fallout so that we can launch with them from the ground.) Like all trade, the mutual imports and exports between Earth and Mars will benefit both societies.

But unless we change course dramatically as a society, interplanetary trade will make one problem even worse, and that is inequality. I am having trouble foreseeing an interplanetary trade system that doesn’t involve making the middlemen who own the shipping and networking companies rich even beyond the wildest dreams of today’s plutocrats. We will witness the birth of humanity’s first trillionaires, individual men (and let’s face it, probably men, unless we figure out gender equality too) who own as much as not just entire countries, but as entire large First World countries. The GDP of France today is $2.8 trillion per year; the CEO of Aresoy or MarsNet could well make more than that on dividends. Of course, that provides him a great incentive to start the project now—but what will it mean for our societies when one person can buy a spaceship as casually as we would buy a cup of coffee?