Stellaris: The Commercial Space Race

Note: I wrote this post in late October, not knowing that the Megacorp DLC was coming out. I haven’t gone back to Stellaris since, but it’d be interesting to revisit it now and see how everything’s changed. Apologies for the slightly dated argument.

As with last week, I want to focus on one small little element of a text and see how the themes and implications of that one element might have wider implications in the text as a whole. This week, we’re back to Stellaris. Well, we will be shortly – we’re actually going to start with Richard Branson. 

You’ve probably seen something about the super billionaire space race in the news. You probably saw Elon Musk shoot a Tesla car into space on top of one of his rockets. Richard Branson fronts one of the other big space race companies, and Jeff Bezos is the third. We’re just gonna focus on Branson for now though. If you go to Branson’s space rocket company website, VirginGalactic.com (sounds like a porno, isn’t), the header tells you that “Together we open space to change the world for good.” It’s slightly unclear who ‘we’ refers to in this instance – we’ll come back to that issue shortly.

The main thing to note for now is that this new space race is fundamentally a commercial enterprise. The Virgin Galactic website uses a bunch of flashy rhetoric about the future of humanity – on their ‘Purpose‘ page, for instance, they open by saying “Virgin Galactic recognizes that the answers to many of the challenges we face in sustaining life on our beautiful but fragile planet, lie in making better use of space.” Quick note for the grammarians among you, that comma after ‘planet’ shouldn’t exist. Also if you scroll down to the bottom there’s a video with Malala – I mean fuck, they really are laying on the whole future of humanity vibe. However, on another page, they talk about how alongside “using space for good,” they also want to be delivering an unparalleled customer experience.” Make no mistake – these clowns are eyeing up your wallet.

So there’s a mixture of commercial language with some uplifting drivel about the fate of humanity or something. Back on the ‘Purpose’ page, we’ve got quotes like this: “From space, we are able to look with a new perspective both outward and back. From space, the borders that are fought over on Earth are arbitrary lines. From space it is clear that there is much more that unites than divides us.” It’s using the universal ‘we’ here, right – it’s not ‘we the company’, it’s ‘we as humans’. As humans, we can all see that country borders are just arbitrary lines. We’re all united, we’re all actually one global community who should ALL USE VIRGIN GALACTIC TO GET INTO SPACE OKAY?? But then at other times, the ‘we’ refers to just the company. Back on the ‘Mission‘ page, the site announces that “We are a part of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. [Blah blah blah,] we are developing and operating a new generation of space vehicles to open space for everyone.” In this instance, ‘we’ obviously just refers to the company.

Now we can return to that opening statement from the front page – “Together we open space to change the world for good.” I just want to quickly query here – I’ve given evidence of ‘we’ being used in two ways – to refer to the company and to refer to global humanity. What’s the usage here? If it’s just the company – all the employees working together to open space – well, alright, that makes sense. But what if it’s the other meaning? All of global humanity, opening space to change the world. At first, it doesn’t quite make sense – in what way are you and me opening space? We’re not connected with Virgin Galactic. But of course we are – not as part of the company, but as consumers using their services. We all work together – the company provides a service, and we give them heaps of money and make them all rich. And it’s changing the world for good. Whose good? Don’t ask.

This is quite a long digression, but I just wanted to make the point that there’s a space race going on, and it’s a race that’s wrapped right around commercial interests and the ongoing systems of capitalism. I’m not saying it’s necessarily good or bad, I’m just pointing out that it’s by no means disinterested in coin. Now let’s talk about Stellaris.

In Stellaris, you can play according to a bunch of different political systems. If you have the Corporate Dominion civic, it means that a supercorporation has taken over the role of the state, and you can build privately funded colony ships to populate new worlds. These new ships cost energy credits instead of minerals, because you’re basically paying a company to fuck off and colonise a world for you. According to the wiki, if you build a Private Colony Ship, “the player doesn’t decide what pop ethic is used to create the ship, meaning pops with randomly chosen ethics are on board the ship.” It’s an odd little quirk, and I wanted to talk about it, especially against the backdrop of Virgin Galactic.

On the one hand, okay, it’s just a random mechanic and it doesn’t impact much and it’s not necessarily that big an effect. But you’d think that if you were paying a company to colonize a planet, they might have their own commercial or political strings attached. It surprises me that the ethics are just randomly chosen – it kinda makes the company who’s supposedly doing the colonizing seem unimportant. That company doesn’t have any other tangible effect on your empire – it’s essentially just fictional fluff text justifying a randomized population ethics. All I really want to point out here is that if you think about Virgin Galactic, they come with commercial strings attached. They also come with political strings attached – Branson is obviously and actively engaged in political spheres. For instance, here’s an article of him pulling out of a trade deal with Saudi Arabia after the Saudis (‘allegedly’) murdered Jamal Khashoggi. On his blog, Branson wrote that if the allegations were true, it “would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government.” That’s a very political thing to say. I’m not saying that he’s wrong or that I disagree with him – again, it’s really just the very basic point that the Virgin empire is 100% involved in high-level international political discourse.

Given all of that, then, it seems odd to me that these private colony ships don’t have more strings attached. We can see right now in the real world that there are a bunch of spaceship companies running around, and they all have their own political agendas. It’s weird that Stellaris doesn’t make more out of that mechanic.

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