In the first two articles of this series, I have put forward some thoughts for what life might be like for freelance, civilian space workers as a sort of thought-exercise and the foundation for some of the characters and events in my novel in progress, codenamed “PSA”  With this episode, I describe the main elements of the idea.

My spacers started out as good-natured, friendly, heart of gold types, but I needed an edge, or something that I felt like I could call them mine. So I made them superstitious, stressed out drug addicts trying to make their way in a cruel, unforgiving universe. I think they’d be  a little… “touched” to put it nicely.

Copyright Ken McCulloch 2012

They’d be paranoid, afraid of strange people (outsiders/non-spacers), working shifts most of the time, they feed themselves as much “medication” as they do food, just so they can tolerate each other and still concentrate on the job. They may be the strong silent type, who’ll remind someone they’re stepping out of line and bop them if they don’t shut up/calm down, for the good of the ship and crew. They might also be very superstitious, in the ways of the Ancient Mariner, because if anything does go wrong, even worse things will begin to happen. They may have lots of good luck charms, even say prayers or magical chants just to ensure that nothing can go wrong. Stuck a few light years off the main “shipping routes” in deep space (i.e: not inside a stellar system) with no fuel is probably going to take out the entire ship – would help arrive in time before the crew resort to killing each other over petty squabbles, or for food, or they die of asphyxiation?  Would they put their trust in each other if some guy had to jury-rig a fix to the jump drive that could potentially work, or perhaps destroy the whole ship?  Keep in mind that the crew of Apollo 13 had the support of a ground crew engineering fixes, so a friendly stable voice was never far away, but while a deep space ship might have an AI to help out in a crisis, they’d really be on their own.

These were the sort of characters I wanted in my book, people who had seen what the universe could throw at them, hard bitten survivors with chips on their shoulders, and I felt they were shaped by these conditions.

Hygiene: They’d have bad teeth, bones, simply because all their food is synthetic and probably excreted from a “food printer” that can synthesize a wide variety of food from the same easily replaceable materials.  They need vitamin supplements to offset this, possibly included in the food. Bone density is low from spending time in low-g environments, or not getting enough exercise in the ways they should.  They’d smell okay though, since they need to get along with other spacers in close confines.

Work schedule: A small crew would suffer the most. If a ship needs to maintained constantly, either because its very complex, or the technology is unreliable, then the engineers are going to be on it in shifts, perhaps 24 hours a day and always on call during a flight. Not being able to get decent relaxation times will lead to stress, bad work ethics and mistakes. If its shift work, that means that their socializing goes down and possibly so too their enthusiasm; though some people might enjoy this, it could also lead to others disliking them for being apart from the others and get them paranoid about what they’re up to…

Work Environment: On a regular day, its not bad, at least at first glance. Ships probably have their own ways of dealing with stress: gymnasiums, exercise regimens, entertainment and so on, but over time, people will get bored, tired of the routine and just turn off. Not being able to see outside, or large open spaces, will probably get to people over time. Claustrophobia inside, agoraphobia outside, pick your poison. Also, daylight – simulated and controlled by computer. Day/night cycle might get reprogrammed to adjust your day between two different planets, to get you ready for your work when you land. That’s nice of them.

On the second glance, you’re away from home – a very long way from home. If your ship gets stuck, its unlikely you’ll get rescued, even with distress beacons bleeping your position, in a reasonable amount of time. Assuming communications at the speed of light, you’re looking at a few years before rescue, in bad conditions 20-30 to a nearby solar system, if the message is picked up at all. Also, the rough seas of space are… rough indeed: radiation, potential hull breaches from debris impacts at relativistic speeds (assuming shield or armour failures), air contamination (who forgot to replace the CO2 scrubbers..? or even microbes passing from person to person), drinking and eating recycled waste, mis-jumps or navigational errors (its a large, complicated place out there and vectoring in the wrong direction is a bad thing)…  And let’s not forget the rest of the crew – which one of them will snap first, or go on a bender, or make a mistake, or irritate someone else, or who decide to use an emergency hatchet to see what the inside of someone else’s head is like JUST to see what they’re thinking…

Copyright Ken McCulloch 2012

Latent Pulse development Concept sketch

Background: If it takes a strange kind of person to tolerate this kind of environment, then they’re going to be strange to get the job. Since I’m looking for conflict, they’re going to be loners, paranoids, possibly even criminals. Of course, they’d want to keep this information to themselves, making them paranoid, but also make everyone else wonder they’re hiding, because everyone will have a problem (does this sound like the Paranoia RPG to anyone? 😉 ) and this will make everyone get along with each other because… they don’t want their secrets getting out into the open, nor do they want to become the center of attention, as it could become their downfall. BUT no one would be willing to hand out the dish on someone else because it could cause the whole network of back scratching to collapse into a mutiny, or worse a flesh-eating blood orgy the likes of the Reavers never dreamed about. (Please remember that in my hands this IS the only likely scenario, regardless of how improbably it may sound, as my Creative Sampler might point out)

Superstition: Murphy said if it can go wrong, it will. Sod’s Law states that Murphy was right and it will happen to YOU, in a way particular (or peculiar) to you.  Also, if worse things can happen at sea, then even worse things can happen in space. (Call this Ken’s Law, 🙂 )  Keeping this in mind, unless the person is already suicidal and has nothing to lose, then they will most likely do their damnedest to not allow bad things to happen: obsessive compulsiveness about maintenance or procedure, unnecessary upkeep of parts or relentless diagnostics, incessant drills or practices, rituals/mantras/blessings and other traditions such as exorcisms, banishment/cleansings, sacrifice or admonishment to deities, no matter how silly it sounds in a scientific age will most likely get performed.  Each of these performed over and over again will eventually lead to negative effects, such as dismissal of their importance, laziness, inattention to the practices (let’s just get this done), or even failure to recognize the real catastrophe (nah, its just another drill) when it occurs. Real pros will walk a fine line between these extremes, but they may end up paranoid, mad, etc… which just feeds into the whole cycle.

Habits:  My spacers like to lead balanced lives. When they “relax” they have three drinks: One for the body, one for the mind, one for the soul, being “Water”, “Caffeine/Stimulants” and Alcohol.  They multitask since downtime is a rare and special thing. They might need to turn off, but still possibly wield a wrench when it counts.  They live on synthetic chemistry – drugs – in a variety of designer forms, administered in water-soluble chew sticks, mostly Red Bull-esque energy drugs and recreational kinds, but also steroid forms and illegal “combat” drugs when things go bad and peak physical form is required.  Since they take these in response to stress and stress is common place, they probably use whenever they can, or whenever they feel the need… which, yes, feeds the previous conditions quite nicely.  There are obvious relationships between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and my version of spacers, so in some ways, I see the most extreme of them seeking solace in the same ways that soldiers during the Vietnam did.

The characters in my novel are still nice people, unfortunately, which is something I’m still working on. Oh, they have their sordid secrets and not afraid to go to extremes to protect their interests, but they still need some major souring up. Turns out the good-natured spacer cliche is a bit too close to my heart to ignore it.

After reading all this you may come to the conclusion that Ken’s spacers are just futuristic versions of old salty sea-dogs! And to some extent, you may be right, but I think that the human condition really hasn’t changed that much over the years and so faced with a similar environment to explore, we will do so and engage the same forces of nature that sea-farers strove to overcome, and still do, to discover brave new worlds – and more importantly, make a buck.  Why should the spacers of the future be any different?

Related Articles:

Fast, Cheap, Legal: Pick Two,  Spacers, Part 1

Even worse things happen in Space: Spacers, part 2

Image: All drawings and sketches by Ken McCulloch, (c) Copyright 2012