When Humanity expands into space, we will have to come to terms with many different environments, most of them hostile. One less well-known consideration is how our physical surroundings will affect the political atmosphere of a colony.
Interreliance and Justice
The right to strike and publicly protest is considered a fundamental part of a modern political framework. Even civil disobedience is tolerated (at least, those who deal harshly with protesters do themselves no favours in the eyes of the world) by any government that wishes to be seen as progressive. In a small (by terrestrial standards) colony, surrounded by a hostile environment, everyone must play their part in order to keep the basic necessities of life (air, food, water, warmth) in constant supply. As a result, the citizens of such a colony are likely to be much more conscientious than their planetside counterparts. Untidyness and unpredictability will probably get you killed, so "loose cannons" will be regarded with distrust. This mutual reliance can build a strong sense of community, but it can also lead to the abrupt concentration of political influence.
If the oxygen workers threaten to strike, they can hold the entire colony to ransom. On the other hand, the colonial government is likely to treat strikes in the vital services as tantamount to terrorism. How the forces of interdependance play themselves out when the colony is first founded will go a long way toward deciding the political atmosphere of the colony.
States of Emergency
In times of trial, some civil rights (such as protest, gathering or strike) are rescinded until the emergency is past. Given that a hostile environment exerts a constant pressure upon a community, it may well be that such rights have been abolished. It simply isn't feasible for the water recycling technicians to go on a three-month strike. Of course, this kind of conduct doesn't have to be enforced from the outside. Colonial citizens will be all too aware of their mutual dependance, and lawbreakers are likely to be given very short shrift indeed. As with all such cases, those who sacrifice some freedom for some security usually end up with neither. As the government is entrusted with ever-greater powers to ensure the smooth running of the colony, so it will gather to itself ever-greater political power. In the Star*Drive setting, VoidCorp has managed to relegate all of its citizens to the status of employees, disenfranchising them from the political process. In a colony structure, such a feat would be much easier to achieve. Such a small volume of living space allows for little opportunity to gather, few places to hide and wealth of potential whistle-blowers for those who try to challenge the status quo.
In ancient times, the first empires were based upon control of water supplies. Those who controlled the irrigation systems controlled the land, and thereby the populace. Anyone attempting to move away would face starvation. In a similar way, the government of an enclosed colony can enforce quite draconian rule upon its populace. In a world where the very right to breathe is based upon consent from the colonial government, dissidents and those who question authority can be dealt with in summary fashion with little resistance from the populace as a whole.
So, what would stop the very service workers themselves from becoming the political elite? History has an answer to this as well; the caste system. By segregating workers from different disciplines, the civil power base is immediately divided and can be picked off piecemeal. Historically, peasant farmers, those who dealt with the dead, sewage workers and the like have been labelled as "untouchables", deprived of even the rights enjoyed by their fellow commoners. If similar technicians are segregated by colonial governments, then their ability to challenge the powers-that-be is severely curtailed.
Heroes who visit such a colony are likely to notice that things aren't quite right long before they actually step off their starship. Visitors are likely to be strictly controlled (and probably watched), and the heroes will probably have to submit a complete intinerary, together with detailed reasons for their visit. Even gaining admittance could be an adventure goal, and heroes from undesirable species or nations will probably be refused entry out of hand.
Once they actually arrive, they will probably be harassed by the local police and customs (feel free to incarcerate the heroes for eighteen hours in a "waiting room" with no food, water or toilet facilities while a battalion of officials investigate a spelling mistake!), and viewed with suspicion or open dislike from the locals. If the colony has a tourist area, the welcome may well be warmer there, but robberies and even murders of outsiders may attract no more than a cursory official investigation (as long as the crimes are against undesirables, even the most militant police know the need for certain elemnts to vent themselves). Such places will also likely be the haunts of would-be revolutionaries and the like, all of whom will try to latch on to the heroes as potential allies, or else be so disillusioned that they will reject any offer of help the heroes DO make. You can make a lot go on in a small space, so feel free to go to town.
The above may paint a rather grim picture of the future, but the forces of historical progress still have a part to play. As with any technological society, the need for technical and scientific progress will force the powers-that-be to allow at least some specialists certain rights and prerogatives. Without them, the colony will quickly fall behind its competitors. During the rule of Stalin in the Soviet Union, his penchant for killing those who challenged or even disappointed him led to a critical "brain drain" effect that persisted until his death. While following leaders were less bloodthirsty (or at least less obvious), Soviet scientists laboured under a severe threat of penalty for failure. This, together with ideological constraints that led, for example, in quantum mechanics being totally ignored, forced Soviet science to lag steadily behind the West. The advances made even in this climate are a testimony to the persistence and courage of those scientists. A more extreme example would be imperial China, whose technological advances often led nowhere. After inventing the magnetic compass in the first century AD, it had been completely forgotten when european explorers brought them back to their origin in the sixteenth! The printing press failed to produce the social change it did in Europe, and the Mongols quickly saw the potential benefits of gunpowder weapons, inventing the first cannons.
This may mark a dividing point in the development of a colony. In a stagnant, conservative culture, authoritarianism (and probably isolationism) will be the rule. If, however, the culture is cosmopolitan and advanced, the concerns of the populace will have to be freely expressed, even if by non-traditional means.
Airing Views in Airless Environments
The need for public protest is a very real one. However, the previous principles still hold true. If a strike or mass demonstration goes so far as th threaten the olony, then public support will be behind any measures, however draconian, taken to restore vital services. Legal means of protest may include written petition, orderly public demonstration, media pressure and so on. One advantage of an enclosed society is that its size is constrained. As a result, the colonial government can become far more answerable to its electorate than is usual at the present. The futuristic equivalent of an "internet poll" could be used even for critical policy decisions, recreating the Athenian city-state in space. It could well be that these smaller (a million or less) colonies could function with only a small beaurocracy, with day-to-day decisions made by the colonial population itself.
As ever, such a situation will be semi-stable, and some colonies may well be characterised by rapid shifts in political climate. The concentration of population, together with the extremely hostile outer environment, will probably make such colonies political hotbeds where every possible (and some impossible) approach to government will be attempted at least once. As a GM, this provides you with a wealth of places to try out unusual ideas and philosophies. Feel free to go mad on this one.
© Mark Peoples 2001.