Colony is a 2017 science fiction novel by American writer James McLellan. Thematically, Colony is a survival story of robots on an alien world selected for it's suitability for human colonists, rather than the machines attempting to tame the wilderness.

AuthorJames McLellan
Cover artistMaciej Rebisz
CountryUnited States
GenreSciene fiction
Publication date2017
Media typePrint and e-book
Preceded by
Followed bySingularity

2Plot Summary
4See Also


The story takes place on a fictional Gliese 832(c)[1], named Marin by the settlers. Marin is 4 times more massive than Earth, and 1.5 times the radius. Marin orbits it's primary star, Gliese 832 (called Asa) at a close distance of 0.16 astronomical units. Despite the closeness, Marin sits on the outside (colder) edge of Asa's habitable zone. Temperature is regulated by a periodic growth and dieback of plantlife. The amount of time it takes for this cycle to complete is variable, but in the course of Colony the period averages four years for a complete seccession of seasons. Animal life on the planet survives by frequent migration.

Plot summary

Plot setup

Sara, a crew member of the interstellar settlement ship Diomedes, conducts a final round of publicity stops before launching from Earth. In a series of short interviews she reveals that the colonists have been placed in suspended animation for the long journey, the trip will be launched on a course that takes it within range of twenty potentially habitable exoplanets, and that the final destination will be selected mid-flight, or the ship will turn around and return to Earth. A conversation between two spacemen performing the final checks on Diomedes before it's launch reveals that the care of the vessel will be entirely in the hands of 26 expert systems -- artificial intelligences of tightly limited scope and no self-awareness. Riding in an advisory role will be one self-aware artificial general intelligence, who is slated to pick up adminisitrative duties when the colony makes landfall.

One and a half years later, with the journey well underway, Sara is informed that a competing sequence of radioed instructions from home have exhausted the ship's fuel reserves. Lacking access herself to fix the problem, Sara orders the unpacking of an artificially intelligent survey robot named Robbie. With Robbie's physicality and Sara's information, the pair conduct a mutiny, taking over the ship's systems. With the assistance of the expert systems, Sara concocts a plan to save the ship from being adrift forever in space. However, the plan will require the colonists to remain asleep while Sara performs the ground breaking that the colonists were intended for.

Plot conflict

Fifty two years later, Robbie and thirty-one other self-aware artificial general intelligences poached from spares begin landing on the new colony world, dubbed Marin, following along a modified master colony plan prepared by Sara. Two initial sites are located, and the machines immediately set to work identifying sources of extractable minerals and assessing the fitness of the world for agriculture.

Agricultural experiments fail, as Marin's microbiology appears to have specialized in the destruction of plant life. Even a tiny environmental leak is enough to destroy crops brought from the Solar System.

Assessments over an eight month period show that Marin is cooling rapidly. Plans are drawn up to move the more northern landing site to more equatorial latitudes. An expedition pulls core samples from a glacier to determine if the cooling is cyclical, or if runawy global cooling may be underway. The thirty-two artificially intelligent co-conspirators recognize the task of building up industry from nothing is more difficult - and dangerous - than they had planned for. Also, prospectors have been unable to find sources of some key industrial elements - chiefly iron. The machines realize that they will need to re-invent many processes to use the resources Marin provides, which will require more computer minds than they have available.

The machines hatch a plan to create lobomotomized versions of themselves, small enough to run on the simple computers in most industrial equipment. These new machines will do the dangerous and tedious jobs, freeing the more advanced machines for other work.

The cooling of Marin ends naturally. The planet appears to have a several year long cycle of seasons, mediated by cycling of an oxygen-rich or carbon-rich upper atmosphere. This atmospheric cycling is caused by the rapid dominance of plant-destroying Marin microbiology, which then leads to a general die off as plant matter is eradicated, before seedlings rapidly re-take the surface every few years. The machines try to understand the impact of their industrial efforts on this sensitive form of temperature regulation.

Plot resolution

Summer monsoons destroy the southern landing site. The destruction leads to a social revolution among the newest machines built essentially as slave labor, and those sympathetic to the labotomized machines. Storms cause some of the human colonists to accidentally awaken from hibernation. To everyone's surprise, the colonists survive.

All of the remaining colonists are awakened from hibernation, creating an integration problem between the thousand colonists, and the several thousands of self-aware machines that have been on Marin for nearly a decade. Some colonists attempt to blend in with the machines. The alternate colony site, scouted out when winter appeared likely to overrun the first settlement, is selected as a location for the human colonists to build with minimal meddling by the machines.

Scarcely a year later, humans from the third settlement seize the first settlement in a bloodless coup. The first colony is re-captured in a feint. The machines develop a technology that helps remediate their lobotomized former slaves by collecting digital experiences, and sharing them directly to the minds of any and all subscribers. Demming, one of the colonists attempting to integrate, proposes applying the technology to human knowledge and experiences, and becomes the first adoptee of the technique.

Momentarily politically stable, the people of Marin begin an undertaking of creation of a ship that would be sent on a diplomatic mission to return home.


Torch Ships

The Diomedes uses a torch engine[2] to make the forty-eight year journey to Gliese 832. These rockets produce more thrust than ion engines, and have higher fuel efficiencies than chemical rockets. Torch ships achive this increase in both power and efficiency by using nuclear power - fission, fusion, or annihilation - to heat and accelerate rocket exhaust.


The thrust and efficiency of torch ships is specified by the rocket equations[3] :

(1) : \delta u = v_e \ln{m_{full} \over m_{empty}}

Assuming enough energy is available, torch ships can achieve the maximum possible exhaust velocity - the speed of light. When exhaust velocity (ve) and change in speed (du) are both close to the speed of light (c), then some terms drop out --

(2) : (%c) c = c \ln{m_{full} \over m_{empty}}

It's possible, then, to calculate how quickly any torch ship can travel within the solar system. And how much fuel the ship will be required to carry using the two equations below.

(3) : %c = \ln{m_{full} \over m_{empty}}
(4) : e^{%c} = {m_{full} \over m_{empty}}

Example: a torch ship wishing to cruise from Mercury to Mars (about 1 astronomical unit) in 5 days at a cruising speed of 0.1% c (0.001 c) would only need to carry 1% of the ship's weight in fuel. The rest of the ship can be loaded with cargo, crew, and passengers.


In Colony, the Solar System has been significantly colonized. To achieve the incredible fuel efficiencies required, Torch ships must be able to impart tremendous energy to the propellant, accelerating rocket exhaust to close to the speed of light.

The energy required to accelerate the rocket exhaust to the necessary velocity effects flight performance. According to the conservation of energy, at a minimum, the amount of energy spent accelerating propellant will be equal to the change in energy of the ship.

(5) : E = {{m c^2} \over {\sqrt{1 - {v^2 \over c^2}}}} - mc^2

For torch engines attempting to cruise at a significant percentage of the speed of light, the energy needed to accelerate the propellant can be a significant part of the ship's entire mass.

Torch ships rely on nuclear power to generate the necessary exhaust velocities. There are three types of nuclear power available : fission, fusion, and annihilation.


In fission, heavy atoms are split to form smaller ones. A typical U-238 fission reaction will produce 1 MeV (million electron volts) of energy, out of a mass of about 238,000 MeV. Fission's efficiency, then, is around --

K \approx {1 \over { 238,000 }} = 0.0004%


Fusion combines lighter atoms to produce heavier ones. A very good fusion reaction is to convert hydrogen to helium, gaining 7 MeV on an mass energy of approximately 1,000 MeV. Fusions efficiency, then, is around --

K \approx {{7 \over { 1,000 }} = 0.7%
Binding energies for common elements


Particle and anti-particle pairs can annihilate eachother in a reaction that completely consumes both. The energy efficience of this process is 100%

Performance Impact

Mass and energy are equivalent. Therefore, the mass of the ship can be expressed as an energy--

(6) : E_{full} = mc^2

And the minimum energy spent by the torch ship is equal to--

(7) : E_{input} = ({1 \over {\sqrt{1 - {v^2 \over c^2}}}} - 1) mc^2 {1 \over K}

With equations (6) and (7), it is possible to determine, for a given velocity, how much mass energy must be spent accelerating the ship exhaust.

(8) : {E_{input} \over E_{full}} = ({1 \over {\sqrt{1 - {v^2 \over c^2}}}} - 1) {1 \over K}

Example: a torch ship wanting to cruise at 3% the speed of light using fusion at 0.7% efficiency would need to reserve 12% of it's mass to accelerate to cruising speed and another 10% of it's mass to slow down at the end of the trip (22% total). An antimatter torch ship, even an imperfect one that's only 30% efficient, can make a much faster trip with much less mass-energy (4% of the ship mass for the total trip)

Expert Systems

Several of the central characters in Colony are expert systems. These are very intellgent computer systems that, despite their intelligence, are not self-aware. Expert systems are trained by developers. Expert systems may or may not continue to learn when shipped to customers for use. They are not self-aware, and possess only a tiny amount of general intelligence.

Artificial General Intelligence

Sara and Robbie are both artificial general intelligences (AGI). Their minds are modeled on the human brain - taking in new input and experiences for a sixteen hour "awake" cycle, then collating and cross-referencing the day's experiences in an eight hour "sleep" cycle. The result of this self-education is different for each running computer intelligence.

Fused Reality

Augmented Reality Couch

The machines in Colony interact with the world primarily in a fused reality space, where most (but not all) digital objects possess additional metadata positioning and describing the thing in real space. Any human colonist with augmented reality equipment, or any of the robots, can participate in this blended environment. The fused reality is further augmented with stitched-together sensor data from all available cameras and microphones. This lets participants stretch their perception beyond the horizon, browse older recordings of the same area, or digital enhance a scene to improve lighting or remove clutter.

Digital Colloids

The elements traditionally required for high-capacity data storage are rare on Marin. The robotic settlers re-invented high capacity storage to make use of the materials available. One of the two concepts developed was digital colloids[4]. Digital colloids are nano-scale combinations of oil that can act, depending on design, as : receivers, transceivers, or storage devices.

Synaptic Transmission

The humans colonists of Marin use digital colloids to help them integrate with the machine's fused reality infrastructure. Nanomachines deliver colloid transcievers to each synapse, where they settle permanently. The transcievers forward brain synapse activity to a nearby computer, or receive remote information to activate or suppress the synapse. With the assistance of synapthic mapping, abstract ideas (such as networked video) can be communicated.

Synaptic Maps

The robots of Marin store their experiences encoded in software that simulates, as much as the technology allows, the functioning of a biological human mind. As a result, although two copies of the same artificial intelligence may be identical when activated, as they accumulate different experiences, where information is stored about the same concrete object will begin to change. Synaptic mapping is a mostly manual process in which the machines simulate a concrete experience : a sound, an image, or a word. Recording equipment identifies which parts of the simulation react to the stimulus. A software map is produced allowing the fused reality world (which consists of defined objects) to be transmitted and interacted with by the machines.

In order to rehabilitate an entire generation of machines who'd been intentionally lobotomized to fit on less-performant computing equipment brought from Earth, it was not enough to provide modern computing equipment. Initially, a manual program of instruction was instituted to help the formerly crippled Marin robots rehabilitate. Marin's machine citizens invented a way to use synaptic maps to rapidly communicate crystallized and fluid skills, as well as general experience.

The human colonists of Marin also realized this technology could be used to overcome the performance gap between machines and humans.