Backyarder
Backyarder
Image from Steve Bowers
Most of the ships that were built by the Backyarders were crude, like this vessel with pulsed-fusion drive, a concept which can be traced back to the dawn of the Information Age


"a Cen or bust!" - Graffiti (possibly incomplete) daubed on the hull of a small manned capsule, the wreckage of which was salvaged from Old Earth orbit in 708at.

A popular term originating in the media of the mid-Interplanetary Age. At the time, it was used to describe an individual or group interested in independently attempting ambitious technological projects, including many that were attempting to remove themselves completely from a reliance on government or megacorporation products and influence. The majority of Backyarders in the period before the Great Expulsion were Earth-based, working in both densely populated cities and in isolated areas of wilderness, but over time it became strongly identified with the growing movement of private attempts at developing and using launch vehicles and space habitats in the decades preceding, during and immediately after the Nanodisaster.

Often mistakenly thought of as an actual culture, the Backyarders were actually a diverse group of individuals from many different subcultures, linked only by a desire to remove themselves (either partly or completely) from the influence of the governments and megacorporations that largely dominated the hi-tech and space industries of the time. This independence, combined with their often unorthodox methods and systems, led to them gaining a somewhat undesirable reputation as unreliable and degenerative. Often seen as a "thorn in the side" of the established authorities, due to their use of unregulated and untested technology and the risks this posed to both the biosphere and the technological monopolies of the time, they are now judged to have made important contributions both to the technology and cultural diversity of post-Nanodisaster SolSys.

Backyarder attempts were met with mixed success, especially away from Earth. A high proportion failed catastrophically, with the loss of many lives, but several groups established themselves beyond Earth orbit, and some even managed to reach other star systems.
The modern era's view of the Backyarder movement is quite fascinating, and they have gained an almost legendary status in several cultures. The movement is viewed in turns to have been tragic, heroic or comic, and the tales of the Backyarders are still sometimes told as either a warning against or encouragement for attempts to establish a home beyond the influence of the established authorities. The fantastical stories common in smaller enclaves beyond the Inner Sphere often include very little historical accuracy.

History

Space exploration and travel was almost completely monopolised by a handful of nations during the 20th century CE and into the 21st, but gradually space had begun to open up to private groups and individuals in the decades after the Moon landing. First it was large corporations that developed their own launch systems, satellites and, later, intra-orbit transports (although these were often under subcontract from governmental space agencies), and then it was the turn of smaller companies and individuals.

Launch costs during these early years were prohibitively expensive, even for the national space agencies (who were unable to bring down costs significantly, despite many attempts), and it wasn't until large corporations started investing in huge orbital telecommunication constellations that the space industry began to make concerted efforts to develop cheaper launch vehicles and allow prices to start tumbling. The expansion of private space industry (led by microgravity manufacturing and tourism) lowered costs even further as profit-making operations in Earth orbit and beyond became a viable reality.

As the corporate space industry grew, there were many smaller organisations and individuals that were also attempting to lower the costs of climbing the gravity well. Often driven by the lure of prize money (similar to the prizes occasionally offered to the pioneers of exploration and expansion in the pre-space flight era) and funded either by sponsorship or from their own pockets, many of these early space pioneers could be considered as among the first "Backyarders". During the 21st century they achieved many small landmarks (often in competition with each other); including sending a payload into orbit and returning it safely to Earth, developing a reusable vehicle, landing a probe on the surface of Luna and, finally, a manned orbital flight. Small, privately designed and constructed planetary probes "piggy-backing" on larger national or corporate missions became relatively commonplace, as did news reports of the scientific and technological innovation of these small companies and organisations.

As space exploration and colonisation grew during the 22nd and 23rd centuries, these small businesses and amateur rocket enthusiasts exploited several niches that the burgeoning megacorporations hadn't taken over for themselves. While large-scale interplanetary colonisation and mining missions launched from Earth were largely the preserve of the huge megacorps and national agencies, smaller companies were often preferred for some of the smaller roles like satellite repair, temporary orbital accommodation and space-junk cleanups. Tourists looking to explore Near Earth Orbit and beyond were often keen to stay "off the beaten track", so looked to the smaller tour operators (often amateur groups with only one launch vehicle) for a more exciting, and risky, experience than that offered by the bigger orbital travel agencies.

In parallel to these small organisations opening up space under their own terms, a similar trend was occurring in other cutting edge areas of technology. Nanotech, biotech and computing were all becoming increasingly important to the general populace, and inevitably there were hobbyists and hackers that weren't happy to only rely on the established industries to develop these technologies. Some were driven by idle curiosity, others by the yearning for riches and still others were interested solely in shedding the constraints of living under the influence of the authorities and wresting control of these products from the megacorps. Many were fearless in their pursuit of innovation, and were responsible for many important advances during the early Nanotech Age.

It was a combination of these technologies that gave rise to the first true Backyarders, as well as their prominence in the public consciousness of the time. Projects that would previously have only been possible with corporate or governmental facilities and funds were now possible to construct in the average backyard, and reports of the spectacular failure of several home-based experiments led to the emergence of the term. Of course, in practice the construction of large, and potentially dangerous, projects were rarely "homegrown" in the literal sense, but rather constructed and maintained in larger communal laboratories and factories (occasionally referred to as "hackerspaces" thanks to their similarity to the online discussion groups used by amateur computing enthusiasts). Despite the apparent derogatory nature of the phrase, many amateur groups and smaller tech firms affectionately adopted "Backyarder" to refer to themselves and each other.

There were several Backyarder enclaves that were established in areas of wilderness, as far from the influence of the governmental/megacorp regimes as could be realistically achieved on Earth. Learning from, and sometimes working with, other exdependant groups, self-sustaining habitats were established in many harsh environments. Some prospered, and the techniques they perfected were often transferable with space-based habitat construction, but there were several failures reported in the media (some causing loss of life and/or considerable environmental damage).

Many, but not all, of the megacorps at the time saw these Backyarders as a problem or a threat, especially thanks to their apparent willingness to ignore and bypass the regulations and usage limits of nanotech products which had been imposed on safety grounds (although the protection of profits was also clearly a factor for at least some of these impositions). The incomplete records of the pre-Nanodisaster period indicate that several megacorps were at least partly responsible for establishing a memeset that saw the Backyarders as a motley band of unreliable and borderline dangerous degenerates, so irresponsible that their precariously unregulated tech was often falling into the hands of terrorists. Some groups of Backyarders could certainly shoulder some of the blame for this view as well, as it was their experiments with and development of replicator tech that caused several incidents and widespread damage.

Separately to the fears of the megacorporations, many environmentalists were dismayed at the potential damage that they could pose. Confusingly, there were many Backyarders arguing that their way of life was the more environmentally advantageous, returning as they were to a decentralised, self-supporting lifestyle (similar in respects to pre-industrial revolution civilisation).

Reputation notwithstanding, the Backyarders were becoming more influential in the 4th and early 5th centuries AT. Many groups had established themselves alongside the mining communities of the asteroid belt, with some reaching even further than that. Several "clans" were known to have reached the Oort Cloud, working closely with the outward-looking, transhumanist Heterosemiotics that were planning the colonisation mission of the Pi3 Orionis system which was to launch around 438.

On Earth, Backyarders were increasingly engaging in debate with the corporations and governments through the media on various technological and societal issues. Some were early champions of sentient rights, thanks to large swathes of transhumanists and AI counted within some groups, and many of these were putting pressure on the more conservative states to recognise fully the equality of AI-entities, simms, virtuals and even vecs. Others were not interested or willing to engage with wider society at all, preferring to protect their own autonomy or simply not interested in what they saw as irrelevant arguments and ancient, outmoded social constructs.

The Nanoswarm Age

In the decades preceding the Nanodisaster, Backyarder activity was increasing at a rate that alarmed many of the regulatory agencies on Earth. The Backyarder enclaves around the world that the authorities had not managed to reign in, or cease altogether, were growing and using increasingly advanced and dangerous technology. Tensions increased when several were declared demarcation-zones by the nanotech protection agencies, considered too dangerous to be allowed to physically interact with society at large.

Several public awareness campaigns urged against the use of unregulated, non-state approved technology, with dire and graphic warnings of the hazards posed by unregulated nanotech, primitive chemical propulsion and insufficient radiation shielding. While there were many Backyarder outfits that were operating well below required safety levels, catastrophic failure was relatively uncommon (mortality rates among Backyarder space launches were roughly comparable with the early space exploration programmes of the Atomic Age).

While nothing could have prepared the Earth (or, indeed, the wider Solar System) for the devastation of the Nanodisaster, many Backyarders claimed (at the time and later) that they were not surprised at the unprecedented scale of the disaster. Several groups had lobbied for the full public domain disclosure of all information pertaining to nanotechnology (both commercially available products and the more rarely observed "khaki" and "blue" type nanotech), in the hope that the release of this information would lead to better understanding of the dangers involved and allow the wider academic community to study possible failure modes and defences independently of the state/corporate-sponsored research teams. It appears that the major players within the nanotech industry had refused. The hypothesis that the Nanodisaster was at least partly a consequence of such a refusal is the subject of fierce debate, but it is more widely accepted that several examples of Backyarder nano-tech were responsible for several specific incidents.

Many groups attempted to escape the panic and chaos of the Earth during the brief, but catastrophic, period of destruction. Many established Backyarders saw Earth orbit and beyond as their best chance for survival, and some relished the opportunity to finally shake off the restrictions of planet-bound life without regret. Of course, many other groups also suddenly found themselves as part of the Backyarder movement as they risked all to survive.

Groups with a large amount of available funding (including many religious and charitable organisations) were able to appropriate suitable launch systems, and stood a good chance of survival even in the harsh environment of space. Tragically, there were many thousands of orbital launches that were never likely to succeed as people pulled together whatever technology they could in desperation. Many amateur rocket builders strapped inapt manned pods to modified suborbital boosters, and there were reports of looting in several museums as people hastily recommisioned archaic capsules to use as lifeboats. One famous report describes a centuries-old Space Shuttle strapped to several ICBM's; it was destroyed during atmospheric reinsertion having failed to reach orbital velocity.

These haphazard launches were seen, perhaps justifiably, by the failing governments as a severe threat to the general population, and were heavily discouraged. The use of extreme force was not uncommon, and several vehicles were intercepted and destroyed in the minutes after takeoff.

The sheer number of these attempts meant that hundreds of small capsules and lifeboats littered low Earth orbit, often in a precarious situation thanks to insufficient orbital velocity, a lack of life support resources or both. Rescue efforts were painfully slow, as strict quarantine procedures had to be used because of the fear of contamination from dangerous nano. Mortality rates among the Backyarders that actually reached orbit during this brief period were shockingly high, but little indication of this apparently reached those still aspiring to escape by such means.

While some attempted to escape into space, others were to look in other directions for salvation. Backyarders were known to have been experimenting with uploading and back-up techniques, thanks to their distrust of the megacorp-funded companies offering such services at the time, and the disappearances of several Backyarder clans have been attributed to mass emigration to either virchlife or data storage. The only techniques available at the time are believed to have been destructive, and the safety and effectiveness of the Backyarder-developed systems were probably very poor (considering even the established uploading techniques of the time were very far from perfected). The dangers to digitised data during the Nanodisaster, while different from embodied living, were extremely abundant and therefore any successful Backyarder uploads are likely to have totally isolated themselves. The eventual fate of the Backyarder uploads, if any, is unknown.

The number of Backyarder launches from Earth dropped off sharply in the years between the Nanodisaster and the Great Expulsion announcement, as the realisation spread that space was now considerably more dangerous than Earth thanks to the stabilising efforts of GAIA and the Treaty Org.

Many of the more isolated Backyarders still on Earth were to be embroiled in the "Last War". Some aligned with Treaty Org and some were more than happy to accept GAIA's ultimatum to leave, while still others remained staunchly independent and bitterly opposed their increased regulation of nanotech (astonishing, in view of the catastrophe of the nanoswarms). Several of the communication networks set up by the Backyarders (including those hidden within public networks and some completely "off-the-grid" networks) were to play an essential role during the chaotic opening hours and days of the war.

Several demarcation zones (including the largest exile groups in Antarctica and the Indian Ocean) became major flashpoints, and several Backyarder groups played a key part by smuggling restricted technologies through blockades and siege areas. Records of this period are unsurprisingly incomplete, but both profiteering and genuine humanitarians concerns were clearly underlying the Backyarder's involvement.

After the subsuming of Treaty Org by GAIA and the end of the war, Backyarder activity appears to have increased substantially. Perhaps seen by GAIA as an inexpensive way of starting the process of removing the majority of the population, there were rumours that not only were launch attempts condoned but Backyarders were actively encouraged, even assisted with technology and other "gifts".

The Backyarders already in space were to have mixed fortunes. Many, especially those rescued from LEO, were to claim refugee status and spread throughout SolSys. Some attempted to stay true to the independent spirit of the Backyarder movement, joining already established Backyarder communities or finding their own niche among the asteroids and gas giants. Ships built by Backyarders formed part of colonisation missions to many stars, and those escaping SolSys were to proudly identify with the original movement for many centuries. The arkships built by Backyarders were crude compared to those built by GAIA and her agents, and many were lost on route; but nearly half reached their destination successfully.

At the peak of the movement, in the years just before the Nanodisaster, itís estimated that there may have been several hundred million individuals across SolSys that could be described as 'Backyarders'; although the interchangeability and vagueness of the term makes a definite number impossible.

Backyarders2
Image from Bernd Helfert

Influence on modern civilisation

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Backyarders is their pioneering use of technology and societal modes allowing groups, and even individuals, to survive in isolation. This allowed for a greater diversity of survivors from the wreckage of the Nanodisaster and the Dark Ages, although some historians believe that this same lifestyle paradoxically prolonged the Dark Ages as there would not have been such an impetus among survivors to band together and fall back into larger organisations.

There have been several claims by modern researchers that the Backyarders may have been somehow involved in the rumoured emergence of transapients in the pre-Nanodisaster period, or even that they may have been responsible for their creation. While it is known that there were many Backyarder groups interested in AI research, there are no surviving records of any groups that claimed to have created any kind of transcendent intelligence. Backyarder links to these early S1 entities are speculative at best, and have little support with mainstream historians.

The relatively small number of Backyarders that survived the Nanodisaster, and the wide dispersal of those, meant that identification with the original movement slowly died out and there are now only a few groups that still claim to originate from the Backyarders of Old Earth.

The availability of relatively advanced space tech means that almost any modosophont in the Sephirotics can effectively become a "Backyarder", and the practice of small groups and individuals creating, launching and maintaining their own space vehicles and habitats is so widespread that the term is rarely used in the original sense. In the modern era, it is more often used to refer to those that design and create their own technology from scratch, rather than relying on widely-available nanofac resources and template libraries.

The Backyarder movement is viewed somewhat romantically by several cultures and groups, normally those that are interested in establishing themselves away from the rule of the transapients (or whatever else is the local power). Although little is known about the hiders and backgrounders, several of their popular "fables" have been discovered that hold the Backyarders as a source of inspiration and wonder.

In the Sephirotics, interest in the Backyarder movement is currently at its highest level for several millennia thanks to "The Backyarder Run", a hugely popular historic-adventure virch. The massively multiplayer virchworld is modelled on a very heavily-romanticised Nanotech Age SolSys, and allows players to take on the role of either a heroic Backyarder or an agent of the "evil" megacorporations. While the objectives of the game are clearly outlined (escape the Solar System or stop the anarchistic Backyarders), the methods are pleasantly open ended and allow for uncountable variations in gameplay. The highest of the ten levels of difficulty includes supremely accurate physics and medical models along with painstakingly reconstructed legal systems of the pre-Nanodisaster period.

The virch-game has been praised for its dramatic and entertainment aspects, although the historical and societal accuracy has been roundly condemned by several discerning critics.

There are only several thousand games run simultaneously by the developers at any one time, so entries are usually in high demand and expensive. Their commercial Net-space has more information on the current prices and waiting list lengths.
 
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Development Notes
Text by Graham Hopgood based on original by M. Alan Kazlev

Initially published on 08 October 2001.