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What is the appeal of prison planets?

Despite the really amazing waste of resources it would take to shoot people off into space to strand them on a prison planet, this trope has endured in SciFi literature and media through the decades. Sometimes the trope is used to provide an interesting setting as in the blockbuster movie Aliens3. Other times it is simply a small part of a larger story, as in Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick. It has shown up in episodes of popular TV shows, Like SG1, and even provided a plot twist for the TV series Earth2.

Every good SciFi trope needs a good what-if concept.
In these last two, there were no jailers or wardens, just “bad” people abandoned to fend for themselves. This version of the trope has a lot of good SciFi “what if” factor to it. What sort of society would evolve if a lot of bad people are left without good folk to guide them? Always interesting, but I’m still looking for a story like this done really well.

It helps to start with a plausible premise.
I’m currently reading Outcast Mine by Jamie Craig. In this story, the authors have done a good job of providing a plausible reason for the prison planet. The prisoners are being used as slave labor to mine a deadly and rare substance. Being exposed to the substance leads to a nasty death, so it makes sense that they would use the worst of the worst criminals to do this work. (Although, maybe if you’re advanced enough for space travel you might be able to come up with a robotic mining operation, but it is still good enough to suspend disbelief.)

Characters always make the story.
What really makes the book (at least so far) is the two central characters. First there is the human prisoner, Aleron, a charming rogue of a thief who ends up there by virtue of the fact that he’s escaped everywhere else. And the second character, Jasak, is the alien jailer whose mix of decency and hopelessness make him hugely sympathetic.  The twist here is that the jailers are also prisoners or outcasts from their home world. They keep the mine running and control the human prisoners in exchange for more privileges. I’m about three-fourths of the way through and there is an oddly sweet romance developing between this unlikely pair. Behind it all is a sinister plot about to unfold. So far, I’m rating this one high on my list for prison planet stories.

What do you think of the prison planet trope? Do you have a favorite story? Why do you think this trope is so enduring?

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10 thoughts on “What is the appeal of prison planets?

  1. Why are these kinds of tropes popular? I’m no expert but off the top of my head I’d say it’s probably that Man-Vs-Nature theme. We’ve seen it done so much in the real world, from Jack London to Hemingway and you could probably even argue Charles Frazier. To do the same theme in an unfamiliar world ratchets theme up a notch, don’t you think? Sounds like a real interesting, Charlie. Thanks for the peek.

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    • Good point! I also think we like opportunities to take our human characters to much less civilized society. I think we are facinated by our own natures. What would I do in such an environment? This type of story also ratchets up the fear involved in any wrongfully convicted scenario.

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  2. I’ve always felt that it was a take-off on history when England used to send their prisoners to Australia.

    It seems over the top to have an entire planet as a facility for prisoners. If they’re so bad, why not kill them and get them out of your society? You’d be committing them to a slower death on a prison planet.

    And where do all these funds come from? If they’re abandoning them on the prison planet, it seems terribly cost prohibitive to maintain unless the prisoners are paying back society by doing dangerous work no one else will do.

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  3. I think the key to a good SFR or any work of science fiction is to write interesting, sympathetic and compelling characters. Better stick a good plot in there too, but characters can make or break a story for me.

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    • Agreed! And sticking your character in terrible trouble allows you to focus on a character that might otherwise be more difficult to use as a protagonist. Even a character with a few bad traits like Aleron the theif becomes sympathetic in a harsh environment.

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  4. The inherent tension/conflict of prison life comes to mind. Even if the guards aren’t convicts, they’re still condemned in a way. That can not only make the prisoner-guard conflict high, but it can also forge bonds between them that leads…ahem…elsewhere 😉

    Maria said, “If they’re so bad, why not kill them and get them out of your society? You’d be committing them to a slower death on a prison planet.”

    Perhaps that the point 🙂

    I have “correctional mines” in my story–tho no scenes there in this book–on an otherwise civilized (realatively speaking) planet. Hopefully my explanation for not using robotics works for the reader 🙂

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    • Yes – lots of built in conflict.

      Even if a robot could do the job, I can see that the cost of maintaining the robots or machinery might make expendable slave labor a viable option. And then there is the deterrent factor. The risk of going to work in a dangerous mine might make the risks of crime much less attractive.

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  5. I think the reason why prison planets contue as a trope is that they add a speculative nature to the classic prison tale. Prison stories are interesting. Take some of the most dangerous elements of society, lock them up together and youve got instant character conflict. The Sci-Fi nature of it adds a speculative capacity that allows one to have prison rules or other such conflicts that you just couldn’t get in a modern day prison story.

    Why a whole planet? Well, we do tend to monoculture things. It would of course be a complete waste of resources. A space station would do, or a single part of a planet.

    As you say, in a future where space travel is easy enough to get people to a planet, and keep them alive there, surely robots would do the job better than undermotivated slaves with violent background.

    But I think the answer as to why one keeps a prison planet HAS to be in either the hope of redemeing the prisoners or the desire to punish them.

    The advantage of Prison over execution is, of course, that executions tend to be somewhat irriversable if it turns out there was a miscarriage of justice.

    As a result, having prisoners do deadly work doesn’t make sense. It has to be menial, hard and perhaps totally pointless (Boy, there is a lot of dirt in that hole. You’ve got to move it out. Now you’ve gone and put all that dirt on my lawn. Put it back in that hole. Now that hole is full of dirt again…), but not deadly.

    Having a whole planet set aside as a prison also seems a terrible waste of resources. If it is cheap enough to get prisoners to a planet and keep them alive there, then there are probably individually owned space craft. That makes the security issues involved on a prison planet be insurmountable. Breakouts happen, and if anyone with a Firefly can buzz by, then the idea of isolating people on a planet doesn’t make sense.

    Nope. You can have a prison on an inhospitible planet, or better yet in deep space, but a whole planet devoted to it? I’d hate to pay taxes in THAT government.

    Even so, I love Prison planet books. If the cliches are avoided, they are great character studies.

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