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I am working on an earth-like empire (actually, an alternate-universe Earth with Belgium as the global powerhouse) which, instead of using fossil and nuclear fuels, uses light as their principal form of energy. The idea is that, apart from just the raw energy in light, they also use patterns of light and dark for everything, from powering their machines, houses and vehicles to waging war with it. They are about 500 years in the future compared to our time (but still human), and they have figured out a way for feasible interstellar travel using light (they have, I'm still working on it).

I'm currently trying to figure out the following issues:

1) What could push an entire planet to focus on light instead of fossil and nuclear fuel? One option would be a nuclear war that scared people away from using nuclear fuels, but that has been done in Blake and Mortimer and I don't want to use that.

2) What method could they use for interstellar travel? For regular travel, my idea was that they figured out a way to essentially travel through the power grid. However, that method can't work for long-distance travel. I could say that they managed to increase the speed of light and use light beams to travel there, but that's been done in Blake and Mortimer as well as Futurama.

3) How can I use the light-based technology to implement a darker edge to the culture? I don't want to create a purely utopic society. I want the empire to look nice for someone who just entered it, but anyone who spends more than a month starts to sink into a gray-and-gray moral zone.

A solution would likely involve different physics from those in our universe. I don't yet have a plan for these physics, so any suggestions on how they should be changed are welcomed.

background information about the empire

The empire serves as a background for a science-fiction space opera set in a golden age of space exploration: mankind has settled colonies across the Sol system, and is preparing to expand into the stars. Interstellar explorers are sent out to track suitable habitats for humanity. Someone from our time (the protagonist) lands right in there and gets involved in major events.

The empire itself is a combination of history and fiction: The Belgae tribe was a match for the Roman Empire and became a satellite state and a powerful ally of the Romans. After the fall of the Empire, a number of historical figures born in the empire (or one of the states it conquered) started to systematically take over the rest of the world. around 500 years in their past, the entire world has been unified, but already with significant improvements in technology compared to our stage. It is at this point that they started developing light-based technology.

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  • $\begingroup$ You'd need to change physics. Do you have a plan for how physics has been changed already or are you looking for the answer to say what changes would be needed? $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 8 '14 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB I don't yet have a plan for physics changes, since Im' not versed well enough in physics to know what needs to be changed. $\endgroup$ – Nzall Oct 8 '14 at 13:19
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Tackling your issues in order:

  1. The main reason I would see the planet moving to a light based power source would be some quantum leap forward in the technology. That is, someone has to invent the technology first, and it must be widely regarding as awesome. It must be powerful enough to take on their current energy needs. Most importantly, it MUST be cheap. In order everyone to abandon fossil fuels, this option must be super cheap to implement. There will be very rich and powerful people trying to fight its adoption. To counter those people, the cost must be such that it can be put into place and there is an immediate savings. There are certainly a ton of benefits to this type of power, but the motivating factor would be cost.

  2. For interstellar travel I would recommend looking at Solar Sails. Solar pressure pushes on large mirrors to propel the spacecraft. The interplanetary version of this is already being used, so it just needs to be upgraded with some better technology. The hypothetical interstellar version could be powered by high intensity lasers. I highly recommend reading the Wikipedia article!

  3. What is the down side to the light based power source? Is there a side effect? My first concern would if there were health consequences to the power source? Do the new power companies need to rip open the ozone layer to get better and more lucrative? Imagine that there are still plenty of ways for energy cartels to develop and exploit the system in an attempt to make more money. (Avarice is always a good motive.) Is energy distributed fairly across the masses? I hate to just recommend the classic conflict of the haves vs the havenots, but I see this world as having larger and larger skyscrapers, reaching closer to the light source. At the same time, the people down on street level are literally stuck in their shadows, getting very little light.

--I hope this helps a bit, good luck!

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for point 3. The city of Hengsha in the game Deus Ex Human Revolution is a good example of how light-deprivation by overzealous light harvesters would affect the disenfranchised. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Jan 20 '15 at 12:31
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Let's tackle these issues, one at a time:

  1. Why go to light for fuel? It doesn't cause that much cancer, no overtly deadly byproducts, and the sun makes a lot of it for free. Maybe these people have a very strong sense of environmental stewardship, or they want a system that lasts practically forever. Also, if they have space flight, they could rely on space-based solar power! As an interesting technical side note, gamma radiation is both very high energy light and a byproduct of nuclear reactions, so I wouldn't rule out nuclear power entirely! Finally, light can be used to make solar-thermo-power plants.
  2. Light-Based Interstellar Travel? Solar sails, all the way! They can be used many times, require no fuel, and if you're tricky with your orbital mechanics, you can go anywhere! (It may just take a while...)
  3. How to find the darker side of the Empire of Light? Just because they use light for things doesn't mean that they don't have the personalities or problems that we do. Also, not all light is visible, so you can have a light-based power conduit that doesn't produce visible light. (Throwing someone in such a conduit may result in cancer, or bursting into flames, etc.) There can be inadvertent environmental downsides as well, such as mining for the proper minerals to make the solar panels.
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  1. For fossil fuels it would be most likely depletion of the resources. For nuclear fuel, it could be a ban of nuclear technology, either because it could be used to produce nuclear weapons, or due to fear of the dangers of nuclear technology.

  2. The most obvious way to use light for interstellar travel would be if they have ultra-strong lasers and use the recoil of the emitted light for propulsion.

  3. One possibility is a certain group of people (ruling class, specific corporations, illegal organizations) having (officially or unofficially) the power over the light technology. That power might be used from simple things like denying someone access who doesn't obey their will (possibly camouflaged as technical failure, but in a way that those it is directed at know why it happened, but cannot prove it), to using the light as weapon (again, camouflaged as accident), or even all the way to possibly directly manipulating people's brains through mechanisms we don't know yet (some interaction of light with neurons, or maybe "hacking" the brain through its reaction on subconscious light patterns caught by the eyes).

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Here are three scenarios that could answer the third question "How can I use the light-based technology to implement a darker edge to the culture?"

3a). The dark side shines a light: A common scenario for future energy is that we have giant solar panels in space, which convert sunlight to electricity and then beam the energy down in the form of microwaves, to a receiver on earth. You can simplify this by assuming they're converting sunlight to microwaves directly by shifting the frequency [1]. Or perhaps they simply have mirrors in space, which focus the sunlight onto receivers on earth. In any case, you have a civilization with potential death-rays in space.

3b) A thought flickers by: In animal experiments on the brain, using light to trigger activation in specific brain cells is a common technology, so you could build on this to describe a machine-brain interface. Unplug the cable in their neck and that fiber-optic cable takes in and transmits ambient light in the room. That light could be surreptitiously altered to mimick the signals usually going through the cable, or induce an epileptic seizure.

3c) You can run, but you can't hide: There's a whole lot of fiber-optic cables in this society. But we can transmit light at any frequency, including invisible ones, and change the frequency upon arrival to suit our needs. You can do away with a lot of cables if people would just build their houses in a material which is transparent to some frequencies. The light can then be modulated to another frequency inside the house. This cuts down a lot on cables for both power transmission and data transfer but has at least two downsides:

1) You risk frying people inside the house or someone's neighbour, if they get in the way of the beams, happen to stand at a focal point or a place where waves interfere constructively. This happens rarely, but is as accepted a risk as the risk of fires from household electronics and car accidents are in our society.

2) Everyone's houses are transparent in some frequency, so you can illuminate a house and, with the right camera, see everything that's going on inside. Everyone's data transmissions are also readily available to bystanders unless they use encryption.

[1] http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn3750-alchemy-with-light-shocks-physicists.html#.VL5Ss0Z0xaQ

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1) What could push an entire planet to focus on light instead of fossil and nuclear fuel? One option would be a nuclear war that scared people away from using nuclear fuels, but that has been done in Blake and Mortimer and I don't want to use that.

Light energy as we know it today is hardly sufficient replacement for fossil and nuclear fuel, so it would either because they found a breakthrough (that we have yet to discover) or they fear the use of polluting the planet through nuclear war or otherwise. However, I find that "fear of polluting the planet" is a weak reason. If we were still waging war, it would be because there are still some people that are looking out for their own best interests and hence you wouldn't likely see everyone begin using a lesser form of energy for the "betterment" of mankind.

Therefore, the reason would have to be advantageous. My idea is that they discover a form of radiation that comes from light that can not only be transformed into energy, but through quantum mechanics, it can also be teleported. This means you can have devices that don't require charging or batteries and work anywhere, so long as the plant collecting light energy is active (the connection between the device and the plant could be through quantum entangling or it could be by proximity). The devices can also be incredibly thin, even transparent.

This would issue in a new age of technology shortly thereafter. You begin seeing weapons being created to harness this power, likely storing the energy and releasing in bursts. It would become far more practical to use in a war scenario since you no longer need ammo, you have no mechanical components so it is less likely to break, and it is still just as lethal as a pistol or even a sniper rifle. For the same reasons, you would see siege weapons begin to favor light energy over projectiles since you'd obviously prefer to burn a hole through a tank rather than explode a projectile next to it (which if it is heavily protected, it could resist). This might lead to other technologies, always through light energy, that would provide shielding against light-based weapons.

2) What method could they use for interstellar travel? For regular travel, my idea was that they figured out a way to essentially travel through the power grid. However, that method can't work for long-distance travel. I could say that they managed to increase the speed of light and use light beams to travel there, but that's been done in Blake and Mortimer as well as Futurama.

A theorized possibility for interstellar travel has been to use a large reflective parachute known as a Solar sail facing away from the nearest star. The light coming from the star would continually reflect off the parachute and push the spacecraft faster away. This approach seems to have the best long-term results, approaching even near the speed of light given enough time. It seems logical that such a civilization would combine the shielding technology with the parachute, initially using the shielding to reflect off high-powered lasers to get an initial boost, then relying on the star's light to continue pushing away (shielding presumably consumes energy, so it isn't practical to think that it would stay on, however, depends if realism if what you're after or not).

3) How can I use the light-based technology to implement a darker edge to the culture? I don't want to create a purely utopic society. I want the empire to look nice for someone who just entered it, but anyone who spends more than a month starts to sink into a gray-and-gray moral zone.

  1. There are all sorts of ways you could do this. In the episode Justice in Star Trek: The Next Generation, there is a utopian society which enforces laws by using only one form of punishment: capital punishment.

  2. Suppose they find a way of preserving your brain's state on a computer as a way of achieving immortality. The government could abuse this system by forcing people to do what is asked of them by the government or else you would not be able to preserve yourself on a computer in this way. These people would be ostracised as a consequence, and so you would end up with a culture with very few people that resist the government, or do so in secret. Naturally people who have already been immortalized in this way must do the government's bidding or risk getting deleted.

  3. Suppose they find a way of harnessing light energy to convert into matter, and food can be fabricated given enough energy. The government uses this to force people to do the government's bidding by threatening to reduce their energy rations, not because not enough energy exists but because they wish to have control. The government could hide this just the same by claiming the former.

These are just a few ideas, though I think there are many other ideas you could use. Really any dystopia would do in this case. The light energy technology could simply substitute any technological requirement before such a scenario could become possible.

I hope that helps!

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