It is an inconvenient characteristic of the universe that the planets with the most valuable near-surface natural resources are also the planets most inhospitable to human life.  The processes of planetary formation that bring useful minerals close enough to the surface of a planet to be mined, e.g., volcanic activity or meteor impact, also create conditions that are hostile to human existence, e.g., toxic atmospheres, temperature extremes, etc.  As such, the most valuable resource finds are frequently on planets and in systems that cannot be sustainably colonized.

These conditions generally make working on these planets extremely hazardous.  As the hazard level of the environment increases so does the cost of safety for the workforce.  Worker shelters, exposure suits, and artificial atmospheric systems become more expensive the more dangerous the environment becomes.  With most of these planets being in uncolonized systems, when factoring in the cost of transportation of equipment from a Union hub to a frontier planet, the costs are driven up to the point where the cost of providing a safe working environment makes resource extraction unreasonably or prohibitively expensive.  AI systems, as advanced as they may be, are still woefully insufficient for complex problem solving such as those encountered in exploratory mining and resource extraction.

Still, despite the risks and challenges, the mineral wealth of these planets is enticing.

This, the potential for extreme wealth existing outside the regular reach of Union laws and regulations has resulted in a new and terrifying form of quasi-slavery: corporeal debt bondage.

During the 18th and 19th Centuries, when resources such as coal, silver, or gold were discovered in the Appalachian Mountains, North American West, Africa, or Indian sub-continent far from civilization, an economic system known as Company Town would often develop.  A company would invest in the development of a small homestead in an isolated location rich in some valuable resource.  Workers would be attracted to the homestead by company men with the promise of work and good wages.  When the workers arrived, they would be charged for the cost of the transportation to the site, equipment, food, and whatever else they needed, that would be extracted from their wages and they would find themselves virtually enslaved by debt to their new employer.  Often, any personal belongings they brought with them would be confiscated, and the lack of supplies and remoteness of the company town prevented these workers from escaping to freedom.  This is the essence of debt bondage.

It is said that there is nothing new under the sun.  This aphorism has proven to be true under the alien suns of distant systems.

This system as it exists on frontier planets is compounded in its horrors.  As the amount of money to be made increases, so in some people does their capacity to be cruel to their fellow man to obtain that money.

Workers are still attracted with the promises of work, good wages, and safe working conditions.  Because these contracts are technically enforceable under Union laws, they are in the strictest sense, true.

The devil, however, is in the details.

The workers are put into induced hibernation for the long haul to the distant company colony, which is standard for deep space transport.  During induced hibernation, the worker’s brain is surgically removed and placed into a robotic body.   The technology for total body prosthetics has existed for some time, however, the near-universal consensus among Union medical practitioners and ethicists is that total body prosthetics strip away so much of a person’s humanity that no reputable surgeon would perform such surgery and consequently patients having had such surgeries are not found in Union societies.

The worker’s body is then shot up with preservatives and placed in a simple cryo storage system, not unlike those used for the transport of consumable meat (or corpses).  Without concern for brain death, long-term preservation of the body is much simpler and cheaper.  Furthermore, since the only life support system needed is for the worker’s brain, the total investment in life support is much lower.  The company does not need to build living facilities with artificial atmospheres for or provide exposure suits to workers.  Food, water, and breathable air costs are minimized.  A simple oxygen and nutrient drip to sustain the brain and power for the robot body are all that are necessary.

The workers labor in their robotic total body prosthesis, for their term of service until their debt bondage is paid off, usually measured in tons of refined product generated, then for as long as they can stand the horror of being separated from their body.  At which point the worker’s body is removed from cryo-storage, the brain is re-implanted, and the worker revived.  There is little to no physical harm to the worker.  The psychological and emotional trauma is significant.

The prosthesis is then sterilized and prepared for the next worker.

The experience for the worker is not painful.  Ironically, what is considered to be the most horrific aspect of a total body prosthesis is the lack of pain as well as the lack of almost all sensations.  The brain is subconsciously aware of the body all the time.  It is a biological phenomenon known as proprioception.  When the brain is removed from the body, that awareness is broken.  The only sensory input the brain receives is from sensors from the prosthetic, generally visual input, audio input, and pressure feedback sensors in the prosthetic hands for the use of tools.  Artificial sensors are limited.  For the worker colors are muted, sound is monotone, and almost all physical sensation is non-existent.  One typically does not think about the importance of all the sensations a person regularly experiences until they are gone, the sound of music, the satisfaction of tasting good food, the feeling of being full after a meal, the simple joy of scratching an itch.  Not to mention the rapture of a massage or physical intimacy.  All gone and replaced by nothingness.

One might wonder why such workers are even given a term of service and why pay them when their job is complete.  Once the brain has been put into the prosthetic and is maintained by life support, why not have the worker labor indefinitely until the brain dies.

The answer comes to us from antiquity and the story of Pandora’s box: hope.

Hope that the term of service will end and the worker is made whole and sent on their way with their wages is what keeps the mind rooted and functioning.  If hope is lost, the mind in the prosthesis will, as they used to say, go mad.  The worker’s brain will suffer a psychological break and the worker will become utterly useless.

This becomes the ultimate motivation for the worker to labor, the need to end the waking nightmare and be reunited with their body.

Companies that use this system advertise good pay and safe working conditions, and exploit loopholes in Union laws and take advantage of distance from Union authorities to get away with abominations of human cruelty.  The reality of corporal debt bondage is that it is an emotionally damaging horror show, the long-term negative effects of which far outweigh the value of the wages earned.

It is in the Charter of the Union of Worlds to “spread humanity among the stars and to all celestial bodies that can support life.”  In our desire for natural resources and wealth, some have spread inhumanity among the stars.

It is the recommendation of this report that this system of labor be expressly and explicitly banned within the Union, resources extracted using this method be embargoed from Union import, and efforts made to subsidize the development of resource extraction on hazardous and inhospitable planets using humane and ethical labor practices.

Sic itur ad astra

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By J. Kb

4 thoughts on “Read the fine print: a report on the corporeal debt bondage of frontier planets”
  1. Alas, today’s Cloud Minder class sees classic cautionary tales as blueprints for Utopia.
    They’ve been exposed to all the ideas already, and think, e.g., having creche-raised worker castes (for all skill levels) is a wonderful activity. After all, even the Alphas have been programmed to accept their place in society and would never think of plotting against their unseen masters!

    1. “… is a wonderful activity” – dunno what I thought I was saying there. Words are out of order this morning, even if it is technically afternoon. “… would make for a wonderful society” perchance?

  2. If you want to write a story about the Debt-Peonage of the natives on your planets?
    Look to what China is doing with its Belt and Road Initiative. They already own airports and ports in Africa.

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