I'm creating a world for a space opera as a continuation of my series:

The villain protagonist is from a human sub species called Maraki. They look like Elves, but act like Orcs. The planet is full of feuding tribes, bloody vendettas, raiding enemy villages, abducting nubile women and killing everyone else. Shrunken heads are prized possessions, and 60% of men die in battles. The bloodthirsty warriors have many wives and children, the weak and the pacifist are killed or castrated.

The planet has been occupied several times by more civilized foreigners, but none of them managed to pacify the Maraki. Since the conquerors always had advantage in armor, aircraft and heavy weaponry, what kind of planetary conditions would make a modern army's advantage as small as possible?

Judging by the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, I guess that mountainous terrain, caves and bad unpredictable weather would make things difficult for the modern army, while flat desert & clear weather makes it easy for modern armor & aircraft.

  • $\begingroup$ Just to make this clear: while you are asking about civilizations that are capable of occupying other civilized planets, which is quite some time in the future, you still want to look at current-day technology and weaponry, right? $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jan 25 '18 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Secespitus Yeah, it's a space opera, beside hand-waving interstellar travel and I want rest of the technology to not to be much different then ours. $\endgroup$ – Jiguna Jan 25 '18 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ It's prophetic that you bring up Afghanistan. That country has defied the technological advantages of both Russia and the United States for years and decades. Look also at how much trouble the world is having with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. A gueurilla force can hold off a large mechanized force, especially in mountainous terrain, so long as they're using equivalent small arms and shoulder-fired weapons. Not to say there won't be a lot of casualties, but your elf/orc/klingons appear not to mind that. Q'apla! $\endgroup$ – JBH Jan 25 '18 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH Hence the application to this question. All bets are off if the planet becomes of strategic or economic importance. I am thinking of Saudi Arabia also as an example - ignored until it became strategic in the war, and then more so after oil was discovered. I don't see why this planet would be any different. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Jan 25 '18 at 22:04
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    $\begingroup$ If I was an alien and wanted your planet I would simple take a rock 20 miles or so in diameter smash it into your planet. The dust cloud in the atmosphere darkens the skys kills all the food. All living things starved to death, and I can come back in about 5 years when most of it has fallen to the ground. $\endgroup$ – cybernard Jan 25 '18 at 23:05

12 Answers 12


I think you have adequately explained why the planet has not been pacified by outsiders, in your description of the planet.

There is no REASON for outsiders to want to invest the time and energy in pacifying such a planet.

There does not seem to be many resources, the planet has a primitive technology, the inhabitants seem more intent on violence than on building anything. And the inhabitants are obviously very, very prolific, if the population is as high as it must be to maintain all of the competing factions. It would be, by universal standards, a very primitive, non-inviting place.

The planetary inhabitants have evolved a social system that, paradoxically, keeps their society primitive, but also keeps it uninviting to outsiders, and thus protects it from pacification attempts.

If the cost is too high, for the return, methinks outside agents would just pass it by for better, easier prospects. Exactly the same reason as police forces stay out of the worst lawless ghettos on earth, instead of trying to bring law and order to them. Surround and contain.

Under these conditions, what would prompt an outside force to even WANT to pacify the planet?

About the only agents interested in such a place would be 'evangelical' types intent on 'converting' and 'reforming' the inhabitants through 'good deeds' and proselytizing, not by armed conflict.

How immune are your inhabitants to being converted by organized brainwashing techniques?

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    $\begingroup$ They are xenophobic clannish people, the only peaceful exchange with foreigners is commerce. Any missionary who comes to proselytize would be immediately put to death. Doing good deeds doesn't make you virtuous it makes you a sucker who wastes resources that should be better spent on his family, clan and tribe. The only way to marry a girl from the other tribe is to abduct her or for her elope with you otherwise her tribe which invites retribution. "Me against my brother, my brother and I against my cousin, and all of us against the stranger" $\endgroup$ – Jiguna Jan 25 '18 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ Until they discover the planet has some extremely rare and valuable resource that is worth the expenditure. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Jan 25 '18 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ @JustinThyme Any connection with the above reference to Afghanistan perhaps? ;) $\endgroup$ – Turtle Jan 26 '18 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Nathan Truthfully, I was thinking entirely of Saudi Arabia and 'Lawrence of Arabia' and 'Toothless Tiger'. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Jan 26 '18 at 15:19

Any planet would be difficult to pacify.

You don't actually need to invent any particular planetary conditions in order to guarantee that the defenders will eventually win. You just need to ensure that the invaders are not as committed to winning as the Maraki.

Logistics and size of invasion force

Planets are big. There is no one terrain type that guarantees that it will be spectacularly more difficult to pacify than another. A determined resistance force could hide in a jungle, tundra, or mountains, adopting to each scenario as needed.

Assuming that your indigenous population was widespread, the invaders would have to deploy a very large number of troops across a very large area in order to maintain a proper presence. This would almost guarantee that the defenders would be able to strike at weak spots almost at will.

What it takes to win

When conquering a land (or planet), you need to either commit to crushing your enemies, or accept that you will eventually be kicked out. Iraq and Afghanistan are excellent examples of this.

The US were unwanted visitors, but nothing more. They managed to accomplish almost nothing, overall. They roll into a town, take down the evil leader, build a school, maybe a water pump, and roll out. The next day the "evil dudes" roll in, execute anyone who cooperated with the "enemy" and smash anything they built. You can't possibly win like this.

If the invaders want to have any chance of success, they would need to commit terrible atrocities. Destroy sources of food and water, cull the population, mercilessly eliminate anyone even suspected of working against them, and their families as well, just to be sure.

Anything less than that is guaranteed to end in failure when facing a determined enemy (as you make the Maraki sound)

  • $\begingroup$ The trouble is that some of the conquerors didn't had any problem with terrible atrocities. I'm pretty sure that Afghans would surrender to USA / USSR and convert to Christianity/ Atheism if they were really ready to nuke 10 largest cities to show them they are serious. On the other hand if whole planet looked like Himalaya range, even nukes couldn't do much. $\endgroup$ – Jiguna Jan 25 '18 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ @jiguna - you're wrong. Nukes would still be devastating. And even if, for the sake of argument, they would have no effect, chemical attacks would. Or weaponized viruses. There are always options. The key is to be willing to live with the consequences of those actions. For example, when conquering a modern country, what you'd need to do is cut off food and water to the cities. Allow people to riot and kill each other over the left-overs, then set up a food distribution centers, and offer anyone who surrenders shelter/sustenance. Done. If they riot, shoot them. If they attack, bomb the city. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 25 '18 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ It's not about destroying something, even current day nuclear powers US/RU could wipe out everybody in a planet even if its completely mountainous. The problem is that planet must be still useful for you. Radioactive piece of junk with poisoned water wouldn't be worth fighting for since cleaning is several magnitudes more expensive and could make the planet uninhabitable for millennia. $\endgroup$ – Jiguna Jan 25 '18 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ @jiguna - it all depends on what you're trying to accomplish. You mentioned that the locals are a subspecies of human. That's probably enough of a genetic derivative to allow very specific viral targeting. You could also use a virus with a limited shelf life, or that your troops are simply vaccinated against. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 25 '18 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Jiguna or in other words, the country or its government might surrender, wouldn’t be the first time, but that’s not the same as having won the war, as the enemy is not a country. To max that out, consider the example of Somalia which didn’t even had a central government that could surrender. A problem, even the ancient Romans had with the Germanic tribes, there was no ruler that could declare that all of them surrender. So, in the end, the political structure is the answer to your question, not the geographic. $\endgroup$ – Holger Jan 26 '18 at 8:58

Poisonous air and sabotage

The Maraki's planet has a low oxygen content (10%) and high carbon monoxide content of 3000 ppm. This is unfortunate, because not only is it hard to breathe the air, the carbon monoxide will kill any human in 30 minutes. Substitute any other airborne poison as you wish.

People can't breathe the air. Public opinion doesn't like it when they send in the killer bots to extinguish Maraki settlements. The Maraki can and will sabotage any equipment sent down to extract extremely valuable resource A. If the extractors spend enough money on force fields or electric fences and robotic guard dogs to protect their operation, they will be losing money.

Ultimately, companies and governments keep thinking they can make peace with the Maraki or economically protect their extraction sites. Ultimately, these efforts are doomed to open warfare or lack of profit.

This is basically the plot of Avatar.

  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking about Avatar the whole time that I was reading your answer, and then I got to the last line :D $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 25 '18 at 15:52

I get to a planet with

  • Lots of metal. Fake radar returns everywhere, the local biology incorporates metal into leaves so forests are opaque to radar, iron filing sandstorms are common. Insects and microorganisms evolved for a high-metal environment create an ongoing maintenance nightmare as they find their way into everything.
  • Extensive natural cover. This can include both forests and karst-like cave systems. I like the caves because it lets you have lots of stuff in a place where the invaders can't find it or use a lot of their toys. Also, extensive caves make the ground liable to collapse under heavy vehicles.
  • Thunderstorms, an active star, an active magnetosphere to disrupt hi tech communications and electronics in general.
  • Thin air, making it harder for aircraft. Between thin air, wind, electrical storms, and metallic sandstorms, most of an invader's aircraft will spend their time out of service.
  • Characteristics that make surface-orbit traffic harder. This could be a highly inclined axis, something that forces civilization out to the poles, lots of orbital debris, a large close moon, or simply size.

One throwaway simple answer that would work in a book:

The other day I was thinking, imagine if our Earth was just a bit bigger - say, twice the size (twice the radius).

It occurred to me:

the surface area would be massively, spectacularly, stunningly bigger - imagine an Earth with four times the surface area.

our present Earth has the three or four land regions - North America, Sth America, Africa, Eurasia.

Bearing in mind too that the poles are a bit wasted, an Earth merely twice the radius would have perhaps 20 or even more such "massive socio-political-historic regions".

About 10x the landmass and 10x the population would make it absurdly difficult to conquer. Your characters would talk about how it would be like conquering a whole system of 10 ordinary planets...

Consider all the amazing modern history, say last 400 yrs, of Africa.

All the ins and out, different "eras", colonialism, etc etc...

On this planet we really only have three or four "major stories," like that.

Consider, if Earth was a "large surface area" planet, with merely twice the radius, the overall human story would be just really astoundingly large and complex.

There would be perhaps 15, 20, massive "major areas" each with substantially massively different cultures and stories.

Let me explain how I came to this thought:

On this Earth as we know it, I've been everywhere! :) There are maybe 10 good bars and I've gotten smashed at all of them. I was thinking ... imagine if we had half a dozen Earth-like planets all close in our system and travel was possible. That would be fantastic! Instead of just "Asian culture", "African culture", "The Americas", and "European culture" - with these half-dozen planets, there would be 10, 20, 30 such massive major regions. Instead of the 5 or so major world megacities we know, there would be 30 or 40!!

All of that is great, but then I realized, if you simply had a planet that was merely twice the radius, that is such an incredibly large surface area that indeed it would be just as good as having a half dozen Earths!

As a typical evil villain megalomaniac, given some advanced alien technology i can sort of imagine "conquering all of Earth" as we know it....

But if Earth had 10, 15 massive major regions - rather than just the 3 or 4 we have currently - it would be a whole other thing.

And many, many more good bars.

(Of course, watch out for gravity - but you can handwave that, particularly as we already have terraforming, psychic power, and FTL. It's precisely the sort of thing that would make the planet special.)

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    $\begingroup$ I think the maximum for terrestrial planet is 1.4 the radius of the Earth, which would make twice the surface area. I like the idea but it won't be enough alone. $\endgroup$ – Jiguna Jan 25 '18 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ Not sure how this answers the question. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 25 '18 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM Larger planet would require even larger occupying force. Plus 1.4 surface gravity for make life more difficult for humans /technology adapted to 1 g. So I think it would help that's why I've up voted the answer, but alone it won't be enough. $\endgroup$ – Jiguna Jan 25 '18 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ @jiguna - the problem is that the author does not come out and say that "Increasing the planet size and gravity would make it more difficult to conquer". Instead, he gushes over how fantastic some bars are, and all the different cultures that would exist on a larger planet. Aka he goes on a massive tangent. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 25 '18 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM I agree that answer needs work, but the core idea is sound. Perhaps he could improve with the feedback in the comments. $\endgroup$ – Jiguna Jan 25 '18 at 15:53

Reproduction rate

The female of the breed could have a fairly short gestation time. At the same time the number of offspring can pass the dozen. You can add a time of maturation and independence of only a few months for the new offspring.

Uniting these characteristics, with the culling of the weak or "paccifist" and you would have a very difficult task to pacify that sentient species.

  • A way to discourage extinction level attacks. If it was just about unobtainium deposits under the Elvish villages, any interstellar invader could redirect a few big rocks, cause a mass extinction event, and then start mining in the "pacified" crater fields. This could be in the nature of the invaders, possibly they're "too civilized" for that, or something valuable in the ecosystem of the planet.
  • Sufficiently low stakes. When the parents of a casualty ask "why did Johnny have to die for this dirtball?" there should be no good answer.
  • Jungle as cover. Even better than mountain caves. An unbroken canopy of green, murky twilight underneath, the surface a tangle of roots and vines.
  • No centers of government or industry. No chief who could be bribed or intimidated into declaring a surrender. No factories that could be taken out by a strategic air offensive.
  • Discouraging assimilation. You need an explanation why young Elves prefer their huts in the jungle to a workers' tenement block at the starport, with running hot and cold water and no strutting warriors. How about a vision that is adapted to the jungle habitat and somehow does badly with the normal monitors and printed texts? Or a species-level predisposition to dyslexia, to explain why they won't do well in an industrial civilization?

Insurgencies rely on combatants hiding in a sea of non combatants. Getting logistic support and intelligence from them.

If everyone is a warrior then everyone is a target. You need to address why the invaders can't kill anything they see, because they can.

Perhaps a solution is like Imperial India, playing one tribe off against another - it conserves resources. Also look at air policing by the RAF in Iraq in the 1920s.


A high gravity well would dramatically increase the costs and difficulty in bringing in (and taking away) supplies and material. While the natives would have adapted to high gravity, aliens may also find it difficult to even move around effectively. So combine hostile violent natives, high costs of transport, difficultly in exporting anything, including your own wounded, and pacification (aside from just dropping rocks on everything) becomes costly.

Note, even Earth would constitute a high gravity well for Martians. Imagine how much more access to space we would have if Mars was just a smaller Earth with 1/3 the gravity. Getting stuff into LMO would be much cheaper.

Lifted from Atomic Rockets

Table 1: DeltaV budget for our Polaris mission.

Stage******** Delta-v(m/s)

Terra liftoff 12,908
Hohmann to Mars 5590
Mars landing 5030
Mars liftoff 5030
Hohmann to Terra 5590
Terra landing 12,908

Total 47,056

As you can see, getting on and off of Earth is extremely costly in rocket fuel, over half the delta V required for a round trip! So if your advanced race must abide by the rocket equation then a high gravity world, even a 1 gee one, may just be too expensive to be worth the fight. Even with a technological advantage, they just can't land enough forces to make a difference. Satellite coverage, small drones, orbital attacks, these things can't pacify like boots on the ground (as the US drone war against several countries clearly demonstrates) unless the goal is extermination of the entire ecology.


I would say conflicting, unprovable beliefs about the permanent allocation of one's immortal soul does a pretty good job of making things hard to pacify.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi Todd, and welcome to Worldbuilding Stack Exchange! This is a good start to an answer, but could use a bit of fleshing out. How precisely would these conflicting beliefs prevent pacification by an invader? Why are historical or commonsense approaches inappropriate? For example, Christianity has the concept of the Holy Trinity today because an emperor essentially locked the leaders of the day in a room and ordered them to sort it out. Would that not work here? $\endgroup$ – Pingcode Jan 26 '18 at 0:48
  • $\begingroup$ It does wonders to escalate conflicts too. $\endgroup$ – Clearer Jan 26 '18 at 13:37

Part of the reason Africa was never entirely conquered was for similar reasons plus rampant diseases that would kill anyone who was not genetically used to the region. If the planet has rampant and virulent diseases that are so common everyone on the planet is infected from birth but is lethal to adults getting it then it would make it a real challenge to even live let alone conquer without controlling it through friendly native tribes.


Let the planet cyclically enter a non-preferred area of operation. This can be for example:

  • solar radiation
  • asteroid field

Some stellar object shields the planet and the geosynchronous orbit from bad influence until it does not. Think along the lines of the movie "pitch black" or russian winter as in any war against russia.

That way you can have the invaders proclaim an easy war against some savage tribe. And still be able to stop the invasion at any time without the natives to have anything to do with it.

The hard task will be to explain why the invading party ignores the danger (its not that bad our advanced gizmo will take care of it, but fails because foo -> "killzone 3", "titanic" etc) or

Why they can not predict it(realistic sensors and drives only, like lidar only, makes extrasolar objects quite dangerous (see books from charles stross on the handling of realistic sounding space warfare)


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