The Restitution Project and the External Service

The year is 2321. Humanity has been an interplanetary species for the better part of 200 years. There are cities in the clouds of Venus, along the canyon walls of Mars, amid the rings of Saturn, and in the inky black of the Kuiper Belt. Nearly a hundred million people live somewhere beyond Earth’s immediate orbit, from Mercury to Pluto and beyond. Spaceflight, once a marvel of cutting-edge science, is now routine.

But Earth itself is a dying world. Three centuries of uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions have let loose the fastest mass extinction event in the planet’s history, killing off thousands of species and rendering vast swaths of the planet’s surface uninhabitable to humans. Once-vibrant oceans are sterile. Once-fertile farmland has withered. Whole nations have been devoured by the steady advance of sand and sea. Catastrophic shocks to the world’s food supply led to mass death on a scale not seen since the arrival of Europeans to the Americas in the 16th century.

The survivors’ vow to rebuild has taken life in the Restitution Project.

Simultaneously a world government, an economic system, an infrastructure project, and a cultural north star, the Restitution Project purports to be the revolutionary remaking of human society. It brings together every nation, every religion, and every culture toward the goal of rebuilding Earth’s devastated biosphere and preserving it for future generations. Emerging out of the planetary turmoil of the 22nd century, the Restitution Project supersedes the nation-state as the dominant system of human political and social organization. Wielding power as a worldwide government, the Restitution Project has set off to outer space to make possible the dream of a reconstructed Earth.

The process of reversing catastrophic climate change — in effect, terraforming planet Earth — is an immense undertaking. It requires rare minerals and gasses sourced from the furthest reaches of the Solar System. It requires the construction of hundreds of habitats, thousands of ships, and all the secondary infrastructure to support a large population living and working in space.

Today, more people live in orbit around Earth than on the planet itself. Billions live in a gargantuan orbital ring wrapping around Earth’s equator in low orbit, connected via cable train to nearly every major city. Earth’s orbital space is a dense constellation of stations, ships, drones, telescopes, factories, solar power collectors, laser brooms, and more. Nearly 16 billion people — over 99% of the human population — live on or around Earth. Whether they live on the planet’s surface or in its orbit, they are Earthers, united in their work toward repairing a planet ravished by debilitating climate change.

But those who live further afield experience the Restitution Project very differently to their Earthbound cousins.

Space Truckin' by Graham Gazzard
(Artstation) Artwork by Graham Gazzard

The Spacers, as they’ve become known, are the descendants of Earthers who set out beyond the comfort of their home planet to work for Restitution. Those settlers spoke hundreds of different languages and practiced dozens of different faith traditions. They learned to live side-by-side with each other, adapting to the challenge of inhabiting the most hostile possible environment to human life. As a result, the Spacers are defined both by their remarkable diversity and their unifying experience of life deep in interplanetary space.

Millions of people now live, work, and die in space, never once setting foot on planet Earth. That separation has alienated the Spacers from the Restitution Project and the planet they labor to keep alive. For them, Restitution isn’t the promise of a revolutionary reconstruction of the human species’ shared home. It’s an exploitative weight extracting their wealth and funneling it back to the metropole. Spacers experience the Restitution Project as an empire — life-saving resources flow in toward Earth, while Restitutionary authority radiates out.

The interplanetary arm of the Restitution Project, the apparatus of empire in outer space, is the External Service. Conceived in 2250 to standardize and rationalize the colonial administration, the External Service has become an outlet for the careerist ambitions of politically-connected Earthers, ideologically conformist and unsympathetic to the needs and wants of the people they’re responsible for. Even educated, skilled Spacers are shut out of the ranks of the bureaucracy.

Restitutionary propaganda appeals to the shared humanity of Earthers and Spacers, imploring them to come together as one for the survival of the home planet. But in practice, the External Service sees Spacers as a sinister other needing to be controlled, managed, and policed. A culture of paranoid xenophobia has taken root in the External Service, whose agents see existential threats to the Restitution Project everywhere they look.

Working-class Spacers suffer from widespread poverty and terrible conditions on the job. Low pay, long hours, and abuse by the bosses are rampant, as is an appalling level of neglect from the authorities. Spacers struggle with a number of health maladies ranging from weak hearts to skeletal deformities to appallingly high rates of maternal mortality. Many Spacers organize into unions to press for improvements to their living and working conditions, but labor organizing is met with violent repression from the Restitutionary authorities.

Middle-class Spacers are no more reconciled with the External Service. As the respectable leaders of Spacer society, many feel they are best equipped to identify and solve the problems that plague their brethren. Their demands for democracy and good government are met with silence from the insular, conformist External Service. Denied a voice in the regime, they’re left to complain amongst themselves. Some advocate for an accountable, responsible Restitutionary administration, while others urge for full independence and a reorientation of the interplanetary economy toward Spacer — not Earther — needs.

The External Service sacrifices the needs and wants of Spacers on the altar of planetary reconstruction, ironically putting the entire Restitution Project in danger. While limited in number, the Spacers are well-positioned at the heart of the Restitutionary industrial machine. Their dissent could very well doom the cause of Restitution. In reproducing the crimes of the colonial past in the name of order, the External Service alienates its victims from Restitution altogether, and risks revolution.

September 13, 2022