Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

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Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Megabot » 2019-03-21 08:07pm

I recently rewatched Infinity War, whose plot involves Thanos planning to enact a universe-wide population control (read: genocide) to bring stability to the universe out of fear of an unchecked population eventually consuming all available resources, which was supposedly inspired by his own homeworld's extinction due to this and his apparent success in "saving" Gamora's homeworld from the same fate by killing off half its population. I know plenty of people have already analyzed the hell out of Infinity War's plot and poked so many holes in the problems with Thanos' logic that it resembles swiss cheese by now, but it got me thinking about that sort of thing in general applied to some science fiction settings.

Much has been made over the argument about the negative effects of unbridled capitalism and artificial scarcity on our own planet's population...
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...and when applied on a galactic or even universal scale the issue of scarcity sounds even shakier. My main question, as the thread title indicates, is that does the idea of a galactic civilization being in danger of "running dry" despite having easy access to the near limitless resources available in space and possessing advanced enough technology to create a post-scarcity society make any sense?

The next thing that comes to my mind after Infinity War is the Dead Space game series, about how centuries in the future humanity is undergoing some vaguely-defined imminent resource crisis and collapse due to unbridled Space!Capitalism despite having conquered the stars and possessing the ability to break down entire planets for their vast resources via Space!Mining by Space!Corporations, and said Space!Resource Crisis can only be staved off by the Space!Corrupt Government (tm) experimenting with Space!Artifacts that generate infinite energy and reanimate corpses into Space!Zombies that are worshiped by Space!Scientologists...hmm, that sounds even more ridiculous than Infinity War the more I think about it. :P

Contrast this to something like Star Wars, where despite the Galactic Civilization not being a true post-scarcity society ala Star Trek or The Culture, what with its Space!Capitalism and Space!Imperialism, vast divide between rich and poor, etc., still doesn't seem to be in any danger of running out of resources or mass starvation as a whole despite having persisted for tens of thousands of years and having millions of populated worlds and a population of who knows how many quadrillions of sentient beings, apparently due to things like super-fast and easily accessible FTL, incredible power generation via hypermatter, and the fact that they haven't forgotten that resource recycling exists, with even the tightly-strapped Rebellion making good use out of vast salvage yards (seen in X-Wing Alliance) to recycle metals they so desperately need, and thus can operate as fugitives in deep space and don't have to be dependent on Imperial-controlled worlds and territory for resources.

Basically, the more I think about it, the more the idea of a spacefaring civilization with casual interstellar travel and advanced technology having to undergo any kind of general resource crisis, and the things that spawn from it like resource conflicts and imperialism, falls apart. In my completely uneducated opinion that may or may not be ripped to shreds in any replies to this thread, the only way it makes sense to me is if the conflict driver is some kind of explicitly rare special resource, like Avatar's plot device Unobtanium, rather than mundane resources in general like what drove Star Trek's Cardassian occupation of Bajor, which like a lot of DS9 is modern or historical problems being projected onto a futuristic society rather than thinking of what new problems might arise from technological and social advances.

Then there's the question of the subtrope of this, We Will Use Manual Labor in the Future, labor scarcity and things that arise from it like slavery and exploitation of workers under Space!Capitalism and ensuing labor revolution, rather than the today's very real concern of workers being phased out via automation and the question of what new jobs and problems might arise from new advances, which sounds just as absurd as a writer from the Middle Ages thinking we'd still be a bunch of serfs and peasants toiling in fields under feudal lords; the difference is of course that they couldn't likely foresee something like the Industrial Revolution happening, while I like to think we have an at least somewhat better idea of what future technological advances might be like.

One setting which seems to avert this trope that immediately springs to mind is the Homeworld game series. Despite being released in 1999 and having minimal worldbuilding (albeit extensive backstory), it appears to have all the makings of a post-scarcity spacefaring society that can transcend capitalism: Not just casual FTL and energy generation, but also things like widespread Phased Disassembler Array devices which break down matter to its base components allows for both easy access to raw materials and recycling, advanced fabrication and construction tech allows for efficient use of those resources (and presumably smaller scale food and component replication given that in the first game you play as Space!Fugitives with zero access to planetary infrastructure for months on end...which, come to think of it, makes the existence of Space!Pirates in that same game rather nonsensical, hmm...), and hints of massive use of automation, with things like a kilometer-long warship having only a crew of 150 and a massive multi kilometer long mining and construction vessel having a mere 1,150 souls operating aboard it at any one time, and the latter taking less than three weeks to build. And strangely, despite all this advanced technology, they still can't design a point defense system for their warships worth shit! :lol:

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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by B5B7 » 2019-03-21 10:06pm

I haven't seen the Infinity movie, but killing half the population is ineffective as a means of population control. The only way to prevent population growth is by birth control. Any population can double in size after one or two generations, so if wipe out half the population can be back to original size within two generations, making limited genocide an ineffective means of population reduction.

As to the other point about resources - any sufficiently advanced culture would be able to convert materials from one form to another, so as long as have hydrogen (the building block of the universe and effectively unlimited) then can have as much resources as you need.
Even lower level space faring groups can mine asteroids and comets for water and iron and other materials and probably also the atmospheres of gas giant planets.

As regards labor there are intermediate positions between human labor and automation, such as modified people or animals, that many SF stories have dealt with. Even today we have advanced robots in places such as car factories that do the work of many people. This will only accelerate in the future.
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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Batman » 2019-03-21 10:35pm

Movie Thanos was a moron (of course he was strongly indicated to be insane so that might fit). Yes, eliminating half of all living beings will reduce the consumer base, but those consumers don't poof out of existence when they die (unlike what Thanos did), they go back into the ecosystem. So if anything Thanos made the resource problem significantly worse.
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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Jub » 2019-03-21 10:39pm

In short, the answer is no.

In longer form, almost all war in space will have to be ideological and even those wars are a stretch. There are ~250 billion stars in our Galaxy alone. If four groups launch to a single system and expand from there even if they can double their holdings every decade (which is unlikely) it'll take 360 years to fill up the Galaxy. This also assumes that all systems captured are set for full utilization and that you can go from a colony to fully developed system in a mere decade.

None of this tends to be the case in sci-fi where resource wars are depicted. It's also very unlikely that a new resource will be discovered that can't be replicated artificially elsewhere be; that an element, an organic molecule, or some really cool geographic feature. Unobtanium, Latinum, Spice. All of these are terrible plot devices for a realistic sci-fi setting because they make no sense unless you enjoy fantasy in your sci-fi.

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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Zixinus » 2019-03-27 12:04pm

Thanos gone insane because his homeworld did not listen to him when he predicted the catastrophe that happened. The catastrophe happened and what Thanos saw that he was not aggressive enough in his vehemence, so he makes the same prediction for the entire universe. That is what the film heavily implies. Personally, I would have preferred him as a straight-up conqueror and bully, but that's been done too I guess.

As for resource wars, the issue is more that most authors struggle to fully understand the vast economic scale that several star systems, let alone a galaxy, would require or need. And to be fair, it's hardly simple task. Just as a medieval writer imagined lords and vassals for us, so would our economic and social models would be near-impossible to predict a thousand years into the future. Capitalism may be as outdated economic model as mercantilism.

But for wars, well, wars happen when problems escalate until only war presents itself as an acceptable solution for them. The mechanism can be indirect. Theoretically we shouldn't have wars today, and the world is at more of a relative peace than thought possible centuries prior, but wars still happen as dysfunction of our systems. It is unlikely that resource wars would start out of raw resources, but imbalances can destabilize things. I mean, look at WW2 and its causes, how the economic depression created destabilizing influences that created a world war again.
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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by K. A. Pital » 2019-03-27 02:27pm

Why would space capitalism not make war? Because it is “not economical”?

It is, of course, unlikely that space capitalism is feasible precisely due to the artificial scarcities and due to the extreme path dependency and totality such a system has, moreso than any other system in history, so for non-capitalist advanced societies, war might be illogical and unnecessary.

But space capitalism is much like what we have now. If there is a profit to be made by destroying worlds for unobtanium, it can be done, even though it is not making sense from a purely humanist viewpoint.

Notice how capitalism produced uncounted stories of space war and space colonialism, even space fascism. Be wary.
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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Gandalf » 2019-03-27 04:07pm

Batman wrote:
2019-03-21 10:35pm
Movie Thanos was a moron (of course he was strongly indicated to be insane so that might fit).
I think even the Russos have referred to Thanos as the Mad Titan in interviews, so I would say that the idea of him as someone driven by the trauma of seeing his planet die would be a valid one.
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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Megabot » 2019-03-28 05:11pm

K. A. Pital wrote:
2019-03-27 02:27pm
Why would space capitalism not make war? Because it is “not economical”?

It is, of course, unlikely that space capitalism is feasible precisely due to the artificial scarcities and due to the extreme path dependency and totality such a system has, moreso than any other system in history, so for non-capitalist advanced societies, war might be illogical and unnecessary.

But space capitalism is much like what we have now. If there is a profit to be made by destroying worlds for unobtanium, it can be done, even though it is not making sense from a purely humanist viewpoint.

Notice how capitalism produced uncounted stories of space war and space colonialism, even space fascism. Be wary.
Indeed, and my entire question is pretty much simply on the feasibility of Space!Capitalism as a catalyst for the plot war and imperialism, even as a real life allegory, and whether such a system falls apart when one puts any significant thought into it. The very idea of (artificial) scarcity as the driving force behind capitalism seems becomes very shaky at best when dealing with a galactic-scale civilization with easy access to the near-limitless resources in space, and using one's super advanced FTL-capable warships to cross half the sector/quadrant/galaxy/universe to invade an inhabited world for its resources doesn't sound in any way logical instead of just using said warships to procure said resources from much closer, uninhabited, and more convenient sources. The first example that comes to my mind for the latter is the aforementioned Homeworld's ubiquitous asteroid and nebula mining combined with Star Trek-like replicator tech to support your lifestyle as hunted space refugees in a large fleet with tens of thousands of people (basically a hella more plausible version of BSG), and the first thing that comes to mind for the former is the ID4 aliens with their space imperialism, though at least that level of stupidity handily explains why they were brought down by a Jeff Goldblum-designed computer virus. :P

As Jub says above, only through the use of plot magic does any kind of resource conflict in a sufficiently advanced setting sound logical, in which case space capitalism and imperialism destroying worlds for their unobtanium/latinum/spice/etc. that can't be artificially produced with their oh-so-adavanced tech because of reasons can even begin to make economic sense. The Voltron: Legendary Defender cartoon takes this a step further by stripping away all pretenses of science fiction, having the universe-spanning fascist and colonialist Galra Empire invade and harvest inhabited planets not for generic resources or even something technobabble-ish like the aforementioned unobtanium, but rather for Quintessence life energy to power their magitek, straight up admitting to the setting having literal magic to allow the plot to basically be Avatar: The Last Airbender in Space. Otherwise, wars of ideology like The First Order/Resistance war or the Idiran/Culture war seem to be the only halfway sensible conflict driver (again, as Jub says above) in a series like Star Wars or The Culture where the civilization is so advanced that going to war for any kind of material reasons, be they greed-related or not, should be a non-issue.

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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by FaxModem1 » 2019-03-28 05:36pm

Star Trek's big resource that they need is dilithium. They need it for warp travel.

That's probably the reason for why the Dominion War in DS9 was about ideology. The Dominion doesn't need the resources or territory, the Founders built their entire empire around ensuring that everyone around them is controlled so that they feel safe from persecution, and they want a government powerful enough to be able to ensure that no one can oppose them. So it swiftly becomes a war about being controlled versus not being controlled, because any nation able to compete with the Dominion is viewed as a threat and must be stopped, rather the same way that communist dictatorships view any non-communist nations as countries that must be destroyed.

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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Jub » 2019-03-28 06:25pm

FaxModem1 wrote:
2019-03-28 05:36pm
Star Trek's big resource that they need is dilithium. They need it for warp travel.
Well obviously the Sol system had enough of it to power humanity's first flight, so it can't be that rare. If it formed here what are the chances they can't find kilotons of the stuff just within 100 LY of Sol? Plus, in any harder sci-fi the idea of a rare mineral only found in a few places is likely to be a non-starter. It just can't be that exotic because we know IRL that it's unlikely that a material with the properties of Dilithium can exist. It may as well be magic space juice.

Plus, any combination of atoms and molecules can be replicated with sufficiently advanced power generation and material science. If Trek actually bothered properly utilizing the systems they nominally control they wouldn't need to fight amongst themselves over anything. If you go even further down this chain of logic, the Vulcans should have taken a slow and steady path to expansion fully utilizing every system along the way, they shouldn't have even been out exploring to find humanity given how little they've even utilized their home system's resources.

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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Gandalf » 2019-03-28 06:26pm

Though interestingly for the Dominion, their machinery of state is reliant on Ketracel White. In Statistical Probabilities, the key part of the negotiations concerns the availability of a key ingredient in it.
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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Batman » 2019-03-28 06:41pm

Um-you don't need dilithium for Warp travel, you need it for matter/antimatter reactors. You can have Warp travel without those. The 'Phoenix' was built on a freaking ICBM, the TOS Romulans could move at Warp despite being limited to impulse power, and the TNG Romulans use a freaking singularity to power their ships. Dilithium is not inherently linked to Warp travel.
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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Jub » 2019-03-28 07:10pm

Batman wrote:
2019-03-28 06:41pm
Um-you don't need dilithium for Warp travel, you need it for matter/antimatter reactors. You can have Warp travel without those. The 'Phoenix' was built on a freaking ICBM, the TOS Romulans could move at Warp despite being limited to impulse power, and the TNG Romulans use a freaking singularity to power their ships. Dilithium is not inherently linked to Warp travel.
Then you don't need dilithium for anything and Trek gets even further away from the science part of sci-fi. Any hard sci-fi anti-matter power generation, let alone potential future power solutions using anti-matter, sure as hell won't need it. Hell, the hard part of anti-matter is just making it and that just requires loads of energy and a way to store it. Trek powers should have absolutely no need of dilithium for anything and even if they did, it should be something the can synthesize or obtain locally by the ton.

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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Batman » 2019-03-28 07:30pm

The 'Phoenix' managed to barely Warp for a few seconds, just enough to be noticed, the TOS Romulans had very limited endurance, it's entirely possible that by the mid-to-late 23rd century efficient and long endurance (and possibly high speed, the E-Nil didn't exactly have to redline the engines to follow the BoP in 'Balance of Terror') Warp travel requires M/AM reactors and thus Dilithium. Remember you want a 'controlled' M/AM reaction, that's presumably what the Dilithium is for.
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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Jub » 2019-03-28 07:38pm

Batman wrote:
2019-03-28 07:30pm
The 'Phoenix' managed to barely Warp for a few seconds, just enough to be noticed, the TOS Romulans had very limited endurance, it's entirely possible that by the mid-to-late 23rd century efficient and long endurance (and possibly high speed, the E-Nil didn't exactly have to redline the engines to follow the BoP in 'Balance of Terror') Warp travel requires M/AM reactors and thus Dilithium. Remember you want a 'controlled' M/AM reaction, that's presumably what the Dilithium is for.
You should be able to control them via controlling the rate at which you allow your M and AM to interact, no exotic materials required. The only viable role dilithium could serve is as a material that doesn't interact with anti-matter but which otherwise acts as normal matter. That's, of course, complete nonsense and is a role which can be replaced via magnetic storage anyway, so once again dilithium is seeming pretty worthless, not worth waring over at any rate.

You've also yet to bring up a reason why it would be rare and why Trek can't just mine out the local star systems for it. Just admit that Trek's politics and science make no sense and that their star systems are vastly underdeveloped even as they fight wars over resources and territory. If we're looking at this from a logical standpoint every faction in Trek is run by idiots.

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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Batman » 2019-03-28 07:45pm

Because there's totally no rare elements in nature or even ones that flat out don't occur naturally. How about dilithium simply doesn't happen unless an unusual set of circumstances occurs.
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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Jub » 2019-03-28 08:03pm

Batman wrote:
2019-03-28 07:45pm
Because there's totally no rare elements in nature or even ones that flat out don't occur naturally. How about dilithium simply doesn't happen unless an unusual set of circumstances occurs.
Looking at stable elements, thus discounting stuff like Astatine which is not a good dilithium analog, there are literally tons of them laying around. Rhenium which is 0.00007 ppm in the Earths crust is still refined at a rate of 47 tonnes per year from a single planet. Shit just isn't rare on a galactic scale unless it decays very rapidly, in which case mining it is worthless.

All purely synthetic elements that we yet know of are unstable to a degree which makes Astatine look like Iron-56. Even if dilithium is an element occurring in the proposed island of stability it'll be something you can make in a lab. This is assuming that it's even needed for A/AM reactions which modern physics tells us is bunk.

The fact is dilithium sounds exotic so writers, who are idiots, use it as a plot crutch not realizing that it makes every power in their entire universe into massive idiots. Even in Wars, which does a lot of dumb stuff, the materials they usually mine have synthetic counterparts that are less efficient than just mining them. That's miles better than Trek which many fans claim to be more realistic.

Show me a stable element so rare that we'd need to leave our solar system to get a reasonable amount of it. Then tell me what dilithium does that you can't do with flow rate control and a magnetic field. You brought both of these points up, so make your case.

-----

I should also clarify that all 'unique' resources in sci-fi are stupid not just dilithium. Tibana gas, as anything but a particularly useful mix of elements that works well in weapons, is stupid. Spice as a resource only harvested on a single world is stupid. Unobtanium is stupid.

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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Solauren » 2019-03-28 08:41pm

Really resources crises and related conflicts do not make sense one you reach practical fusion/fission/atomic synthesis technology.

After all, there are these massive sources of matter, that constantly lose massive amounts of it without problem.

In short: Once you can draw matter from a star, pulsar etc (or even just a solar flare) and turn it into whatever matter you want, resources become a function of how much time you want to put into it, and what infrastructure you have towards it.

Heck, you don't even really need stellar mining. It's not like, at that level of technology, you need gas giants to help deflect asteroids and the like from habitable planets.

In Sci-Fi settings, realistic wars are going to be over belief, territory, and infrastructure. Resources in of themselves? Unlikely.
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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by K. A. Pital » 2019-03-29 05:30am

Dudes, synthetic rubber removed the need for natural rubber. Fordlandia perished.

But just a few decades prior, a third of the population of Congo was exterminated for natural rubber to fuel the automobile / tyre boom.

The scarcity is a function of the ability of industrial processes to produce replacement or substitute at a reasonable cost. If substitution has not yet been discovered, a short-term assault on, say, a singular source of materials may happen. It just takes a few men with guns, after all.

There is nothing truly unique about anything, but conflict minerals are a thing even when substitutes are available.
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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Jub » 2019-03-29 01:05pm

K. A. Pital wrote:
2019-03-29 05:30am
Dudes, synthetic rubber removed the need for natural rubber. Fordlandia perished.

But just a few decades prior, a third of the population of Congo was exterminated for natural rubber to fuel the automobile / tyre boom.
A few decades are the blink of an eye in terms of world history. In any realistic sci-fi setting, it might take that long just to build the ships and reach the enemy, to say nothing of securing the resources and shipping them back home. Plus, what would the rare resource in space be? It can't be anything inorganic or a hydrocarbon so at worst you'd be fighting over seeds or genetic material.

That would make for an interesting conflict at least. I could see the tensions for such a war building if the space side was seen as evil by those stuck on Earth but in the end, it would be easier to give over the seeds and genetic samples rather than risk billions of lives.
The scarcity is a function of the ability of industrial processes to produce replacement or substitute at a reasonable cost. If substitution has not yet been discovered, a short-term assault on, say, a singular source of materials may happen. It just takes a few men with guns, after all.

There is nothing truly unique about anything, but conflict minerals are a thing even when substitutes are available.
Okay, so what materials will be scarce in space? We know that unique resources are unlikely to exist close to home and that unique inorganic materials are unlikely to exist at all. So that leaves finding a planet with unique and useful life somewhere within realistic colonization range. Do you honestly think that's likely to start a war, especially a war where the attacking side builds and launches forces knowing they'll take a decade or more to reach the enemy?

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K. A. Pital
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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by K. A. Pital » 2019-03-30 05:41am

Who knows? What if the other side is immortal and 10 years are like nothing to them?
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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Jub » 2019-03-30 06:07am

K. A. Pital wrote:
2019-03-30 05:41am
Who knows? What if the other side is immortal and 10 years are like nothing to them?
Immortality doesn't exist even if you go full machine your physical form can be destroyed and, without some way to back up your current mind that version of you dies. So you risk your immortality over something you could obtain in other ways, not a smart move. Also, as an immortal, you could afford to play the long political game to get what you want instead. Or just wait for your faction to gain the ability to manufacture the resource in a system you already own.

This and you'd still need to come up with a realistic resource that's still scarce in space. Something which I'm not convinced actually exists.

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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Q99 » 2019-03-30 11:15am

I've recently been reading a webnovel (the Mech Touch) where the economics are built around 'exotics,' various rare materials with special properties. A lot of aliens evolved around them so have some really weird powers (but can only reproduce in systems with said specific exotic), while we need it for our best stuff. The point is made that humans could survive and prosper even if they all vanished, but with them around, they drive competition for power, and the strength of states is often decided by access to exotics (they're more common in the galactic core, rare in the rim, so the rim sectors are backwaters full of minor states where even basic exotics are valuable, while the first-rate superstates nearer the core can make units full of high-end exotics en mass), which drives conflict because it's not about survival or such, it's about power.

Make the resource rare or such, and it can make sense.

And one can still be reasonably advanced and still have control over systems as valuable, as long as the FTL isn't *too* good or has limits (like, gate-based FTL where you need to build the other end).

Basic stuff like food, water, metal, of course shouldn't be.

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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by K. A. Pital » 2019-03-30 12:39pm

One of the better ideas is the Borg, where the “otherness” of the assimilated is itself the rare resource they are seeking. :P
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Re: Do resource crises and conflicts in advanced sci fi settings make sense?

Post by Q99 » 2019-03-31 02:04am

K. A. Pital wrote:
2019-03-30 12:39pm
One of the better ideas is the Borg, where the “otherness” of the assimilated is itself the rare resource they are seeking. :P
Yea, they don't care about your mining facilities or even your dilithium stockpile. If you have a fancy dilithium facility that uses a new technique, they're going to care about the machines.

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