I recently cleaned out my T-shirt drawer, which had slowly gone from “full” to “overflowing”. What you see is the culled, tidied version. There are 41 T-shirts in there, 12 of which are black.
Why do I own 12 black T-shirts? Well, each is a
special and unique snowflake little different, and those differences matter to me. There are long-sleeved ones and short-sleeved ones, ones with designs and plain ones, girly-fit ones and normal-fit ones. Some of them are older, stiffer and greyer; some are new, soft and coal-black.
But the real reason I have 12 black T-shirts is because I can. They’re relatively cheap1, so I can afford to buy them with very little reason. And I have room to store them.2
Neither of those conditions would apply in space3. Even if the ship is in trading range of a planet, getting a cotton T-shirt—or its component materials—out of a gravity well isn’t cheap. Out of trading range, I’d be taking the shirt out of finite ship’s stores, so I’d have to pay scarcity and opportunity costs on top of the shipping cost. And, as always in a built and pressurized environment, every cubic meter of storage space is expensive.
One could, of course, use storage areas outside the pressurized body of the ship. They’d be a lot like the self-storage units that have become ubiquitous in much of the First World. Rather than put on a P-suit and root around in there, I suspect customers would pay an access fee to have their unit repressurized while they added and removed possessions.4. Note that these units would still have mass, so if you’re writing about a ship under acceleration, account for the costs of boosting them.
So what does life look like when every garment is expensive and storage space is tight? Well, people have fewer clothes, obviously. I’d be more likely to have 4 T-shirts, two of them black, or a single black T-shirt.
But if I could only have a single black T-shirt, what would it look like? Instead of buying one of every variant of sleeve, tailoring and design that I liked, I’d have to choose. Different people would choose differently, of course: I would probably pick a neutral style, because it would to go with the other things I wore. But others would get something quirky and make it characteristic: one of those garments that evokes its owner even when it’s off5.
One trait that the few remaining garments would probably share is quality. If a mediocre €10 T-shirt and a durable €20 one both have a €2 shipping cost, then quality is a material factor in the price. In that case, I’m more likely to buy low-quality ones than I would if shipping added €40 onto the cost. This feeds off of the space issue, as well; I’m more likely to experiment with a lower-quality shirt if I’ve got a place to put it.7
Then, having the shirt, I’d wear it to death, unless I could find a way to resell it and make back some of the shipping cost. I’d maintain it carefully, mending tears and redying it when it got too faded. Then I’d use the rag for cleaning.
Now take these constraints, these particular kinds of scarcity, and expand them out. Everything in a space station or generation ship would be subject to the same pressures of room and cost. It’s a given that people in space will own less stuff. What’s interesting is how what they own will be different as a result; the changes are deeper than the fact that there’s no Costco out there in the black.
- Too cheap, really. Water costs in the production of the cotton, labor costs in the entire manufacturing and supply chain, and shipping costs (including end-of-life transport costs) are all lower than is morally defensible. But that’s another blog entry entirely (or, perhaps, a lifetime of activism).
- Until I don’t. Then I clean out the drawer again.
- Indeed, there are many places on earth where one or both of those conditions do not apply. Again, there’s another blog entry or ten in there.
- Not everything would survive the pressure and temperature variations: liquids and pastes could do interesting things. There are some story ideas in there, or at least some ideas for realistic touches in a wider plot.
- Combine the way sparse wardrobes increase the tendency to associate characteristic garments with the people who own them with the need to recycle6, and what do you get? Quilting. Particularly because spacefaring environments will probably tend to be a little chilly.
- Yes, inevitably, I’ll be writing about this in a little while.
- I’m also more likely to tolerate unexpected defects and false advertising. I would expect robust consumer protection to be part of the social order in a closed society in space. Picture the outrage one feels when one is being ripped off, particularly for large amounts of money. Now picture that same outrage where a person can find the merchant who ripped them off, and where the vacuum is always out there, waiting…