Five SF Stories Featuring Unsuccessful Attempts at Space Colonization


While perusing the latest edition of the tabletop roleplaying game 2300 AD1, this passage caught my attention:

While the major nations were negotiating the terms of the Melbourne Accords, other groups worked to bypass the emerging treaty. Termed ‘Jumpers’ by British press (for ‘jumping the queue’), these were often dissident or minority cultural or religious groups, fleeing persecution or the perception of it. (…). Many Jumper groups expanded to stars within 20 light years, the practical limit for early drives, but few survived. The alien worlds they attempted to settle were simply too hostile for the limited resources and support they could bring to bear. The lucky ones were able to return to Earth, while unlucky colonists simply disappeared, overwhelmed and swallowed by the worlds they thought to rule.

Given that alien worlds will tend to be, well, quite alien, and settlements on Earth, the planet on which humans evolved, have been known to collapse and vanish in the face of calamity, this passage seems quite plausible. It is not surprising that a significant part of the current edition of the game touches on the technologies required to survive on other worlds, and what social effects these enabling technologies might have. Nor is it surprising that SF authors have sometimes turned to what I will call “premature settlement” for inspiration.2

Starman Jones by Robert Heinlein (1953)

Book cover of Robert A Heinlein's Starman Jones

Frustrated farm boy Max Jones abandons his vapid stepmother and her latest beau for a life among the stars. At least, that’s the plan… Max’s lack of credentials in the guild-dominated Earth of tomorrow dooms his ambition to join the starfarers’ guild. It falls to Max’s ethically flexible pal Sam Anderson to wangle berths on starship Asgard through the power of applied lying.

A navigational mishap maroons Asgard in a hitherto unknown system. Unless Asgard can find its way home—if, say, a former farm boy turns out to have a cognitive knack seemingly designed to fulfil a very specific plot need—the crew and passengers will live the rest of their lives on the unfamiliar alien world. As the planet in question already has owners who have little interest in sharing, those lives could be quite short.

Heinlein has something of reputation for placing humans above all other beings in his fiction. However, several of his pre-Starship Troopers works feature aliens that humans are well advised to treat with respect and caution (lest humans discover the hard way the full extent of the aliens’ abilities). Starman Jones is such a novel.

“On the Last Afternoon” by James Tiptree, Jr. (1972)

Book cover of Warm Worlds and Otherwise by James Tiptree Jr

(Collected in Warm Worlds and Otherwise and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever) Their ship irreparably damaged, Mysha and his fellow humans were forced to set down on an alien world. The surface of the world appeared relentlessly hostile until—at the very last moment—a convenient clearing appeared, a clearing where they could safely land and build their new community.

The human castaways assumed that the clearing was due to a tornado. This is not, in fact, the cause. The unfortunate settlers are about to get firsthand experience of the thing that cleared the forest. Unless they can produce a miracle at the last moment, the experience is likely to be the humans’ last.

Readers will be cheered to discover that humanity survives the calamitous events of this story… in the same way that humanity survives the events of Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To…

The Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes (1980)

Book cover of The Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes

The class-B, marginally habitable planet Isis has but two inhabitants: robot Guardian and young orphan Olwen Pendennis. Olwen accepts her solitary circumstances as normal. The impending arrival of a starship packed to the gunnels with colonists promises unwelcome change.

As the newcomers discover firsthand, almost all of Isis is uninhabitable absent certain advanced technologies not immediately available to the colonists. Clad in an environment suit to protect her from the colonists, Olwen does her best to provide the newcomers with guidance. Alas, the promising arrangement is imperiled when the settlers discover precisely how it is the young girl has survived on the hostile alien world.3

While this colony doesn’t totally fail, there aren’t all that many settlers and they are confined to a single, specific region from which egress is impractical. On Earth, a species with such constrained numbers and restricted location would be seen as endangered. Making matters even worse is the fact that this group of settlers is somewhat lacking in ingenuity and willingness to change and adapt.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (2015)

Book cover of Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Seven generations after launch, an aging generation starship approaches Tau Ceti. The original crew hoped that their descendants would found a new community on the potentially habitable world known to be orbiting Tau Ceti. Said descendants, having been involuntarily drafted into the effort through the misfortune of having selected the wrong ancestors, are rather less enthusiastic about the whole settling-an-alien-world concept.

The good news: Tau Ceti does indeed have at least one potentially habitable world. The bad news: there is a huge gap between “potentially habitable” and “actually habitable.” It is in no way clear that the involuntary settlers have the correct combination of technology, ingenuity, and leeway for error to bridge the gap. The only alternative is to return to the Solar System, a task that may be as beyond their limited abilities as settling an unfamiliar world.

Rather than dwell on the hilarious science errors scattered throughout this jeremiad against space colonies as a coping mechanism for climate change, I will admit there are two factors that legitimately doom this effort. First, that two thousand people is too few to ensure survival after the inevitable setbacks. Second, that these folks are for the most part incurious nincompoops whose failure is as foreordained as that of any Robert Sheckley characters. Unlike Sheckley’s works, this novel does not seem to have been intended as comedy.

The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown (2023)

Book cover of The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown

Having abandoned the Earth as irredeemably damaged, the Calypso and the rest of the Goddess Flotilla set off for Proxima. Proxima b proved beyond the would-be settlers’ ability to colonize. The disheartened crew of the Calypso reluctantly abandoned efforts to turn Proxima b into a new home and set off to see if Earth was quite as hopeless as their ancestors thought.

The return voyage is far slower than the outward journey. More time for aging starships to fail and fall silent. Whether their ingenuity will be sufficient to keep Calypso functioning long enough to discover what has become of Earth  is a question that concerns the crew. Thanks to an alien stowaway, insufficiently closed life-support loops are the least of their problems.

There are some basic rules that would-be colonists should follow to enhance their odds of survival. First, don’t go haring off to an unknown world on a generation ship with only a handful of colonists armed with untested colonization methods. Second, try very hard not to be written by James Tiptree, Jr. or (arguably worse) a depressed John Brunner.4 Third—and this is the mistake the crew of Calypso makes—don’t be characters in a horror novel.


These are only a few of the heartwarming tales SF authors have spun about intrepid colonists boldly settling hostile worlds…then failing thanks to insufficient technology and resources. While this is not a large subgenre (see footnote two), there are certainly other examples not mentioned here. If I missed your particular favourite—such as that Poul Anderson story; you know the one I mean—feel free to mention it in comments below. icon-paragraph-end



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