Setting the Setting

Now that I have two lead characters, I need to settle on some details of the setting. We know it will be on a prison planet called Mal, but that is not enough to actually write anything. So let’s start fleshing out the details about Mal.

The most important question that needs answering is why is there a prison planet in the first place. After all, it is expensive to transport mass of any kind through space. It would be far cheaper to build a penal colony in a local system or on the planet where the criminals exist. Instead, our universe has a prison planet. Why?

As I was thinking about this, I remembered a novel by Stephen King where there was a game show that follows real people who are attempting to avoid capture for whatever reason. It’s been too long since I read the novel and the movie is quite different. The point is that it occurred to me that perhaps this prison planet exists for a similar reason: entertainment.

Having decided that there is an entertainment purpose behind the prison planet, some things begin to make sense. Obviously, the company producing the entertainment will be offsetting or outright paying the costs of transport to get their “characters” to the set for their show. It then becomes apparent that there is a benefit to the various nations to send prisoners to Mal, especially those serving life sentences. It also gives them a cost effective way to get rid of particularly violent or dangerous offenders without executing them. There is no execution and the prison planet is better than a cell.

There would also be a deterrent effect since people would be familiar with the conditions on Mal and know that they could end up there if they commit crimes. On the other hand, people get to indulge their voyeuristic impulses by watching the antics of the prisoners attempting to survive on another planet.

So now that we know that Mal is really a giant set for an entertainment scheme, we now know some of the features that must be present on the planet. Obviously, there must be a communication endpoint that can transmit information to other planets.  There must also be an infrastructure to observe and record the antics of the prisoners. This assumes at least a minimal infrastructure. Additionally, the producers must be able to find and replace or fix their equipment which suggests some sort of global positioning system and also a planetary communication network.

It can be assumed that this entertainment gimmick is profitable. After all, the producers would not be able to bring in additional prisoners unless they had the financial wherewithal to do so.

Using current real life as a guide, I also assume that there will be protests against the treatment of prisoners, some of which will be violent and some of which will involve attempts to break in and rescue prisoners. This means that the producers will have to have some level of defence around the planet. It also means that, from time to time, people will end up on the planet without being convicted of any sort of crime as space ships crash or are shot down by the planetary defences.

Because Mal is a prison populated by convicts, it is inevitable that the occasional innocent person will end up there. The question becomes what do the producers do about such situations. In cases where sufficient authorization is provided by the authorities that convicted a prisoner, the producers will attempt to locate and rescue the wrongly convicted person. It also occurs to me that some people will prefer the life on what is essentially a frontier world to their previous lives and that some would rather stay on Mal rather than return in this situation.

This brings up the possibility of people who volunteer to be imprisoned on Mal. The producers would be fools to turn down such people, especially later on as the deterrent effect means that fewer and fewer people are convicted of crimes that would land them on Mal and those that are will tend to be more likely to be psychotic or sociopathic. After all, the tension between sane and insane makes for great entertainment.

So now we know why and how Mal exists as a prison planet and also how prisoners end up on the planet. We do not know anything about the producers, however, and that will be critical information that informs the development of conditions on the planet.

The producers are a reclusive group known only as “Dave”. Dave arranged for Mal to be terraformed, at great expense, and installed all the technical infrastructure necessary to produce Inmate Survivors, the entertainment empire built around Mal. Dave operates Mal completely above board and does not interfere in the lives of the inmates. Anything that would make for good entertainment is permitted to play out, including the occasional attempt at outside interference from protesters that end up on the planet or people attempting to influence the show.

Dave also builds in an incentive for prisoners to work hard at survival. Should a prisoner manage to escape from the planet’s surface or find his way to one of the hidden sanctuaries (from which the show is produced), he has the option of joining Dave or returning to civilization anonymously with a new identity. Well, as anonymously as can be expected given the fact that he will have been filmed in the attempt to escape.

This raises the question of exactly why supporters of a particular prisoner do not simply show up and rescue him. This is, of course, controlled by the cost of actually doing so. Interstellar travel to remote locations is expensive and the further the expedition must travel, the more expensive it is. Also, the sheer number of prisoners makes it impractical to rescue more than a handful at any given time. This rescue cost is further increased by the fact that Dave does not install a beanstalk and without advanced transport infrastructure, rocketry is the only viable means of lifting payload from the surface of Mal. A very expensive proposition indeed.

Dave has a policy of not rescuing anyone who arrives on the surface except those who were convicted wrongly. This is simply a cost equation. The wrongly convicted usually do not arrive at Mal in the first place for Dave vets the cases very carefully before agreeing to pay for transit. Also, truly innocent people crashing or otherwise arriving at Mal by accident is unheard of; most “crashes” are orchestrated to get past the planetary defences. This explains how Eben will end up on Mal but not be rescued by Dave.

We can assume that Dave has recovered the cost of setting up Inmate Survivors by the time this story takes place. In fact, I have decided, somewhat arbitrarily, that Mal has been in operation for 226 years at the point the story takes place. This means that Mal is well know by the entire human population of the galaxy.

Dave also has hidden motives for operating Mal but these will remain hidden for the entire story. They may become relevant should a sequel occur but this particular story will not require them. Their presence, however, may serve to further increase the believability of such an expensive undertaking. Also, the exact members of the reclusive Dave are currently not known but should it become relevant, this information can be created in conjunction with the hidden motives.

I did write a similar story piece about Mal’s history as I did for Eben and Ogden. I have decided to include it below though it is somewhat long. So, for your reading pleasure, the story behind Mal.

Any society or civilization ultimately faces two problems: entertaining the masses and maintaining order. The latter is expensive and the former often difficult. The League of Worlds (any many non-aligned worlds) faced the problem of escalating costs to house criminals.

One particularly enterprising individual known only as “Dave” had a novel solution. Why not make money from inmates instead of paying for their keep? Most powers that be scoffed at the idea but he was able to obtain sufficient investment to claim an unoccupied planet and terraform it. He then placed automated recorders around the more habitable areas and socked the planet with mobile drones and a solid communication network, closed of course. Then he started broadcasting over the interstellar network, first the empty planet and a suggestion of his idea. Then, some worlds realized that there was no moral objection to shipping death row and life sentence inmates to such a place. Dave paid the transport costs which were very quickly offset by the revenue from Inmate Survivors.

Unlike most reality shows, there was no need to rig the show to derive entertainment value. That was its gimmick – no contrived plots; boring reality at its most raw.

For generations, this planetary boradcast continued. Even the occasional attempt to interfere was allowed to play out. As time passed, viewers watched a culture and civilization  begin to form, but it was constantly shattered by the influx of new malcontents and criminals. Some were innocent but even this made for good viewing. Some innocents were rescued when appeals succeeded but a surprising number had no wish to leave after they had stayed fora time.

Eventually, the morality of sending people into exile on a barren planet with no infrastructure gave rise to groups opposed to the practice. Most of these groups folded before they gained any real momentum. Occasionally, they changed the policies of their local governments but there was never a shortage of fresh inmates from other worlds. There was even a movement of people who “volunteered” for Mal for various reasons.

Of course, as with any successful business venture, rivals attempted to control, duplicate, or destroy the successful venture. Many attempts to sabotage Mal over the years simply resulted in better ratings as the attempts were filmed and broadcast. Some attempts were to organize the inmates to overthrow their jailers but most saw little point as they were freer on Mal than when they had been free. Some were attempts to provoke war and destruction or to destroy the camera gear which met with greater success but Dave always replaced cameras quickly from a seemingly endless supply.

The ultimately successful intervention was a truly covert one, consisting as it did of two unwitting instigators. Even Dave did not realize the implications until too late but the struggle for independence and order made for a brilliant broadcast. In the end, Dave had the rights to a fully complete record of the rise of a nation from initial settlement (and even the terraforming before) all the way through establishment of a sovereign nation. Even with royalties paid to Mal for the use of said library, it was very lucrative.

In fact, Dave had foreseen that nationhood or similar was a likely outcome and had set aside a portion of the proceeds from the beginning. Against these profits, he had charged the actual cost terraforming (duly recorded and documented), the cost of producing the show – cameras, transportation, distribution costs, etc., and set aside the rest in an interest bearing deposit. By the time Mal gained independence, its government inherited a bank account large enough to clear the national debts of half of the League of Worlds.

With the ultimate success of Dave’s Mal venture, it became a popular thing to finance colonies through vid exploitation but none garnered the level of success of Mal for they were no longer novel and they faced competition. Still, many colonies succeeded where they would have otherwise failed without such a venture.

There is, of course, additional information in the above passage that has not yet been discussed, including revelation of some of the broad strokes plot details of the story. More on those details in another post.

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