Force Fields and Wombow Carts: Tech Mixes on Colony Worlds

Sci-fi readers are wonderful people. There are things they take in stride (so long as they fit the world) that other readers might collide with, bounce, and stare at as they wondered who put the wrong words in the blender. Spaceships unloading into a depot that also has animal-powered transportation? Why not. In many ways, depending on the nature of the world, or the type of colony and culture, high tech for big things and low tech for small things makes perfect sense.

There’s a scene in an episode of Firefly where the main character gets into a bar fight. In classic Western-style bar fight tradition, said character goes out the main glass window. Except . . . the window is a force field that drops, allows our hero to sail through it, and then re-forms. Is it a waste of energy, and possibly the money needed to pay for the energy, to replace a window with a force field? Well, it depends. In the story-world, power generation is really cheap, force fields are cheap, anti-grav hover tech is cheap. Glass is expensive, presumably because the colony worlds don’t have the tech to make large pieces of plate-glass*, so which makes more sense for the bar owner?

In the RajWorld universe, moving mass between star-systems is expensive but moving data is even more expensive. Passengers and cargo can get from Home to Shikhari, Eta Tolima, LimWorld, WemWorld, and other places for less money and faster than a routine government communication broadcast travels. Emergency comms do outpace cargo and passenger vessels, but the cost is staggering. So what gets transported, aside from people? Luxury goods, unusual things and exotic medicines, art, equipment for necessities like city-size force-field generators, the machines to make other machines, and so on.

Those all cost a great deal of money. So why pay for an anti-grav transport for local no-rush bulk goods like grain or food that are just moving a few tens of kilometers when you can hitch up four wombows and go? If you are fishing or boating near-shore or on a lake, why not use sails or an electric outboard motor? Since the Staré are quite willing to work for humans, making labor inexpensive (for some things), food synthesizers, insta-cookers, and other tech doesn’t make sense for people who can hire a Staré to cook, or who buy food from Staré and human take-away shops (which appear like the proverbial mushrooms after rain as soon as someone finishes a new spaceport or cargo distribution center. Staré learn very quickly.) Some people find Staré-made goods to have better quality for the cost when compared to purely machine fabricated things, although the fit is equally good. The micro-level tech (medical, some environmental, weaponry) is very high, the macro-level tech (interstellar transport, protective domes and shields) is very, and the middle ranges from pretty high tech to wombow carts and hand-sewn clothes made from locally synthesized fabric decorated with trim a Staré wove on a back-strap loom.

I suspect, once real-world humans figure out how to escape the Sun’s gravity well and spread beyond our own home system, tech blends will appear on worlds where the environment supports them. Domed cities a la Grayson (Honorverse) and in older stories will certainly be possible, and pure high-tech colonies as well, but moving mass is expensive, and someone, somewhere, will get frustrated when something expensive breaks, will look at the local domesticated livestock that is large enough and docile enough to use for traction, and re-invent the wagon and cart. Never underestimate the creativity of ticked-off individuals. It is rivaled only by that of bored individuals.


*The Union government in Firefly takes the cake in many ways if you are looking for “how not to run my interstellar empire.” There’s a difference between benign neglect and “ignore their pleas for assistance as long as the taxes get paid on time.”

9 thoughts on “Force Fields and Wombow Carts: Tech Mixes on Colony Worlds

  1. Given that people in this day and age use tech mixes whenever it’s convenient to them – see any SCA or cosplay event, for one – why shouldn’t they reinvent whatever works?

    Although I admit to finding myself a bit confused here. How can moving data be more expensive than moving mass? That’s what letters – and sneaker net, flash drives, and whole e-book encyclopedias – are for. Granted, you’d have to treat it like the Age of Sail and load up the data-holders on every freighter, but moving data shouldn’t be that costly. As long as it doesn’t have to get there fast, you can move it.

    • That has been puzzling me as well. How can the speed of communication be less than the speed of transportation? Transportation might be limited in timing and introduce latency beyond “it takes x time to get there.” Speedy/immediate communication being extremely expensive makes some sense – a letter is cheap at a few pages for the price of a stamp, a telegram has a per-word cost sort of thing.

    • It has to do with how much energy is needed to boost signals (uncorrupted) through the wormholes versus moving mass. The humans in the story are still not entirely clear on WHY it is so, because their applications outpaced their theories, but it is so.

      • Right, I got that signal-boosting was more expensive. What Taurus and I are puzzling over is that instant comms is far from the only way to do data transfer.

        So you’re essentially back to Age of Sail info-transfer, where it’s much, much easier and simpler to send a (relatively slow) letter on the latest ship than to try and set up a heliograph that can reach long distances. Or for a more modern version, sending a flash drive with a courier by jet. That’s still moving data.

    • As I understand it, the problem is a latency and bandwidth issue for their FTL communications method. They can’t fit much through the “pipe” quickly. The image that popped into my head when I read that was the telegraph. I would imagine high-priority comms go FTL and everything else travels via ship. That might mean the ships all have integrated databanks and comms systems that automatically tie into each world’s comm systems, or it might be physical media (flash drive or equivalent) being transferred at each stop, much as mail has at times been handled by boats, ships, trains, planes, and airships here on Earth.

      I’d imagine FTL “telegrams” regarding major events and breakthroughs. But I’d also imagine them to be sketchy summaries. Details would be conveyed by newspapers, journals, magazines, private correspondence etc. carried by interstellar ships. There would be something of a lag. Depending upon how frequent interstellar travel is, a world could be “up” on the latest information or not.

      I may be misunderstanding. And how exactly it plays out is of course something Alma controls. But this is how I picture it from the snippets seen so far, and her comment below.

      • I think it’s this sentence that throws me, in particular. “Passengers and cargo can get from Home to Shikhari, Eta Tolima, LimWorld, WemWorld, and other places for less money and faster than a routine government communication broadcast travels.”

        Government officials are cheapskates. Any time, anywhere. If moving cargo is the cheapest way to get from point A to point B, then that would become the way to do “routine” government communications. Expensive stuff would be for emergencies, like military communications. See the British Colonies in the 1600-1800s.

        *Shrug* Probably just word choice there that pokes at me. But that was my thought.

      • Documents, file-packets and so on do travel by starship, which means that it is going to make a few stops before it gets to where it is going, especially from Shikhari. The way worm-jumping works, only one ship can go through at a time, because there’s not a good way to tell yet if anyone else is in wormspace and exactly where they are relative to you. After two rather nasty accidents, it was decided that ships would alternate passages, one in-bound, one out-bound, each carrying a small beacon so the next ship through knows that “OK, now it is my turn.” Someone paying top prices for fast passage or super-priority cargo can get from their place of origin back to Home or out to Shikhari before Ye Government Missive will be half-way there.

        Emergency data can either be relayed (not so great if you need certain security features that civilian transports don’t have access to use) or sent in FTL bursts that cost enormous amounts of energy and money. So in a way we are back to the telegraph days, if not the Age of Sail. Because of course no disaster needing emergency help, or the presence of the entire Navy, will ever happen without lots and lots of advanced notice . . . Noooooo, never. *evil author cackle*

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