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"How Sci Fi gets populations wrong most of the time" Topic

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1,252 hits since 24 Dec 2017
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Personal logo Patrick R Supporting Member of TMP24 Dec 2017 6:07 a.m. PST

In Battletech the populations of most planets after roughly a thousand years of colonization is usually in the millions with a few high density planets that are in the billions and only a few that have populations comparable to earth.

Star Trek has slightly higher numbers with many planets having populations in the billions and more or less comparable to earth today.

In Star Wars the galactic population is an average of 1.63 million per inhabitable planet with a total population of about 100 quintillion sentient beings.

Now it's been estimated that with technology only slightly more advanced than ours, fusion/fission power, no FTL etc, our solar system could easily house about ten thousand times our current population at a very reasonable cost (compared to building a Dyson sphere or even a ring) without straining resources and with plenty of elbow room for everybody.

That's a scenario that's just about within our reach.

With more advanced tech one could build a Dyson Sphere which would be able to allow about 15 million times our current population.

And that's assuming regular humans or similar humanoids, one might imagine that with enough tech they might move onto more efficient forms.

Yet space battles seem comparable to what we have seen in our own history with a few hundred ships on both sides. Invasions are done with thousands rather than millions and in universe like Battletech planets give up if their company of battlemechs is vanquished in battle …

Entire Federations feel more like a collection of countries or even cities rather than huge expanse with mind-boggling populations that can be achieved and maintained at low cost as long as your resources are used efficiently enough.

Granted, advanced tech is a huge multiplier and might end up giving an individual the firepower of a WWII battalion of Marines or more. But given that we're not only scaling up populations to levels matching the scale of a solar system and its resources, we're not gonna send in a few hundred troops expecting them to do the same job those Marines did, taking areas the size of a Pacific island. Given the population spread over a solar system you'll need a few million troops to start to make a mark and even a billion advanced soldiers is going to be much cheaper on the budget than raising a legion back in Roman times or an armoured division in WWII.

These are mostly basic assumptions and you quickly find yourself at least several magnitudes above that what we commonly find in fiction without even making a distinctive effort. Imagine relatively small FTL space empires (say 400 light years from the home world covering 1 million solar systems) going to war with each other and throwing a few hundred trillion troops into battle without really making a massive effort (that would be about in a billion serving in the military), it makes the average Tyranid swarm pale in comparison.

Full galactic empires would be hundreds of millions of times bigger than our small local empires. Just in case you needed your mind to boggle.

bsrlee24 Dec 2017 6:15 a.m. PST

Orbital Bombardment, like nukes but just using local junk and gravity. Quick way to render a planet useless for millennia.

cosmicbank24 Dec 2017 7:51 a.m. PST

Population laws

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP24 Dec 2017 8:46 a.m. PST

Taxes and welfare--and women's education. Have a child, the mother loses time from her good-paying job. Kids are expensive and time-consuming, and the government will take care of you in your old age, so you don't need them.

Every "advanced" country on earth--meaning representative democracy, sexual equality and a welfare system--has a total fertility rate below replacement. If you want billions of people on your planets, you need to have very different governments and cultures than the ones currently building space probes.

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP24 Dec 2017 8:52 a.m. PST

The OP is begging quite a few questions.

cosmicbank24 Dec 2017 8:53 a.m. PST

Darker side Population laws are the reason for rebellion. why rebel it happy and well fed?

Personal logo Extra Crispy Sponsoring Member of TMP24 Dec 2017 10:14 a.m. PST

CGI is expensive so dozens of ships is all you can afford.

zircher24 Dec 2017 11:16 a.m. PST

Interesting point. I can't stand large crowds, there will always be people like me moving away from large population centers but don't want to take up the life of a belter. When I GM or write a story, high population is almost always portrayed as a negative.

In a diverse galaxy, dispersed population reduces the change of genocide or unchecked plague. There are plenty of cultural reasons for spreading out. Farming societies need a lot of space.

Sargonarhes24 Dec 2017 11:41 a.m. PST

How familiar are you with the population results of the Legend of Galactic Empire anime and books?

At the height of Galactic Federation, before the rise of the Empire the human population was 300 billion. After the Galactic Empire was established there was a purge and an unknown millions were killed. Then there was the secret exodus of Heinessen fleet founding the Free Planets Alliance. After 150 years of war between the FPA and Empire the total human population dropped to 40 billion.

Fleet battles happen, but not with any great frequency. Because when you have really big fleets of 10,000 ships, you're looking at casualties in the millions.
However the battles are often fought in space and civilian populations are not as affected.

billthecat24 Dec 2017 11:58 a.m. PST

Robert P: so true…..

In any case, erm…. we are talking about fictions, yes…?

I mean does sci-fi get plasmalaserantigrav right?
Grain of salt, always….

Personal logo nvdoyle Supporting Member of TMP24 Dec 2017 1:12 p.m. PST

It's almost as if the worlds, systems, and ships were put together in service of plot and theme rather than as a strict extrapolation of real-world trends and theories.

Call me crazy, but sci-fi might, just might, not be a research paper on speculative demographics and resource management.

Mister Tibbles24 Dec 2017 2:04 p.m. PST

+1 nvdoyle

Also notice that every sci fi planet, especially Star Wars and Star Trek, has only a single type of environment? Whole planet is either desert, snow, woods, city, water, ect? Yeah, that sure is realistic!

Lion in the Stars24 Dec 2017 2:35 p.m. PST

I agree that scifi populations should be a lot bigger. I got into that argument on the population of the planet Dawn in the Infinity setting, it's about 1/10 of what it should be based on a starting population big enough to maintain steel production (~1mil) and ~2% annual population growth (can't grow humans too much faster than that, starts to kill the mothers). But I suspect that the writers in Infinity went with the old US population growth and starting point (which didn't require a million people starting out).

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP24 Dec 2017 3:19 p.m. PST

If you go by The Lord of the Rings, there are no humans from Bree to Rohan.

cosmicbank25 Dec 2017 5:18 a.m. PST

Extra Crispy for the win

Legion 425 Dec 2017 11:18 a.m. PST

Sci-fi gives you a number of options … and diverse scenarios of a future "reality". WH40K vs. Hammer's Slammers, vs. Star Trek(s) vs. Star Wars, etc., etc.

When it come to Sci-fi to one level or another. One has to suspend or adopt certain ideas, concepts, paradigms, etc., of how far or what he wants to "believe as a future reality(s)" …

Personal logo Cacique Caribe Supporting Member of TMP25 Dec 2017 3:46 p.m. PST

Off-World Colonies? What colonies? Ain't no money for that! Robots will do all of that off-world work, with perhaps a handful of "human" or human-ish android caretakers.

Oh, wait. Are you referring to the controlled depopulation program? Yes, the so-called "colony ships" that will ferry people to the processing plants:

YouTube link

Face it, Humanity will not go with a bang or even a whimper. Just a few shocked screams and then a loud grinding sound.

PS. Though I would have named it the U.R.I.T. (Ultimate Recycling Implementation Technology) Program.



Mobius25 Dec 2017 4:11 p.m. PST

It's not the food but the people. People can be held hostage from attack from space. There is no way to stop it. If ships can travel fast KE attacks on planets will take out the population so the only way to be safe is to disperse.

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART26 Dec 2017 7:08 a.m. PST

My take is that it's the lack of imagination on the part of most of the authors. Planets are treated as small countries, especially the much derided "One city nations."
Most SF books and other media keeps it simple with the old 'grab the capitol city' cliche. In North and South America, population exploded in the space of a few centuries. While immigration was a factor, it pales in comparison to the steady generational expansion seen globally.

With such growth comes a complexity that would spoil 90% of classic space opera plots. It would be pretty hard for an audience to buy into a story where a handful of intrepid heroes land in Buenos Ares and in order to seize the (fill in the blank) that will conquer the entire planet.

VCarter Supporting Member of TMP26 Dec 2017 8:55 a.m. PST

Once you control the high ground (Space above the planet) it's just a matter of a few thunder runs by the ground troops to show who is in charge.

Keep the light on and the food coming and most people don't really care what address the taxes are sent to.

Sargonarhes26 Dec 2017 9:48 a.m. PST

So you're telling a population of 300,000 in about 150 to 200 years when landing on a planet and already having technology couldn't amass a population of 12 billion if they managed to avoid any wars with a greater population?

Darkest Star Games Sponsoring Member of TMP26 Dec 2017 2:39 p.m. PST

I think what a lot of people are missing here is that sure, a planet COULD host several billion people, but if there are tons of viable planets out there, why should they HAVE to host billions? I mean, just as know there will be people in the future who do not agree with the ideas of their neighbors and decide to pull up stakes and move on and reestablish themselves elsewhere. And each planet will have different laws (as shown in Traveller), and you might find one world where there are laws for population density that give each person 500 sq.miles, and on another planet there may be no laws what so ever. And as said above, there probably would be multiple governments on each planet rather than a single pan-planet entity, and then you have wars. It's just human nature. Cheap technology and lots of space won't keep us form constantly trying to genocide ourselves away…

(truth be told, I don't think the human race has much of a future so any argument of people moving beyond our system to form any sort of extra-solar colony is moot, but I don't think I will live to see our demise…)

Zephyr126 Dec 2017 3:31 p.m. PST

With all those (b-/tr-/gaz-)illions, there is definite job security in a career of waste management.. Be sure to pass that vital information to your future progeny… ;-)

Lion in the Stars26 Dec 2017 4:51 p.m. PST

So you're telling a population of 300,000 in about 150 to 200 years when landing on a planet and already having technology couldn't amass a population of 12 billion if they managed to avoid any wars with a greater population?


Max sustainable human population growth is about 2% (~5 kids per family, one every 3 years or so). Faster than that severely reduces the mother's lifespan.

Basic compound interest formula gives a population of 15.75million from a starting population of 300,000 after 200 years growth at 2%.

Dynaman878926 Dec 2017 6:04 p.m. PST

> Max sustainable human population growth is about 2% (~5 kids per family, one every 3 years or so). Faster than that severely reduces the mother's lifespan.

We are very close to not needing women to carry a fetus any longer, so that limit should not apply to a star faring society. The only restriction on scifi populations is cultural rather than physical.

The Shoveler Inactive Member26 Dec 2017 11:25 p.m. PST

If you have access to faster than light propulsion… Why stack up in a single solar system with a trillion other people when you can just leave?


Dynaman878927 Dec 2017 7:26 a.m. PST

Any number of reasons, planets may be plentiful (indeed, they ARE plentiful) but ones we can live on without lots of high tech help, probably not many. If genetic manipulation is in the cards then that opens up more planets but leaves the question of what is human.

Mobius27 Dec 2017 9:12 a.m. PST

We are very close to not needing women to carry a fetus any longer, so that limit should not apply to a star faring society. The only restriction on scifi populations is cultural rather than physical.

Then you might get the phenomenon (at least to us) of siblings being less than 9 months in age different than one another.

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP27 Dec 2017 9:59 a.m. PST

You people have been reading, and believing, far too many "science" fiction books.
We're stuck here. Get used to it.

Lion in the Stars27 Dec 2017 3:55 p.m. PST

I'm not convinced that the artificial womb will *ever* work right.

You don't want to consider how many variables there are involved in bringing a fetus to term.

Worse, I suspect that we won't find a lot of those things until about 10 years after the first uses of the tech.

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