Sci-Fi: Decadent Textures

The Bright Conference needs an aesthetic. For justifiable reasons, I'm going with maximalist sci-fi. 

Forget smooth silver hulls, used future pipes and grease, NASA white tiles, and concrete. Forget tasteful. Embrace "four hundred skilled workers devoted months of their lives to sew this dress" and "I need to walk but my shoes are impractical."

Alex Jay Brady

There are limits to impracticality. Mass is important. Without magic thrusters, the rocket is still a tyrant. One way or another, you need to pay for everything you carry.

Ostentatious spaceship designs are therefore a sign of wealth, power, and confidence. In the level playing field of hard vacuum and null gravity, you can get fairly creative. A pressure vessel will still look like a pressure vessel, and a nozzle will still look like a nozzle, but you can arrange them in all sorts of interesting and sub-optimal ways. "Look at my gyroscopes. I'm so wealthy I can make my spaceship asymmetrical."

If you can't afford to haul around extra mass, haul around extra paint. Spacecraft are frequently white or reflective for good sensible reasons, but I think it's safe to assume temperature management technology has some of room for improvement (though, of course, there's no magic heat-to-energy machine).

Actively projecting signals is probably considered noise pollution, and generally frowned upon. There's no enforcement, but if the goal is cooperation why make yourself a nuisance? 

But since light is going to bounce off your ship anyway...

Chris Foss

Side Note: The Visual Spectrum

Stars emit light in a predictable range of wavelengths. Since light sensitivity has evolved multiple times independently on Earth, it's safe to assume it's so useful that it will turn up elsewhere.

Human eyes and human brains have a number of tricks for turning incoming light of various wavelengths into internal signals. These tricks don't nessesarily translate to other species (even on Earth), but wavelength differentiation will. So if you paint your starship in bands of (what humans call) red, blue, and green, then chances are good that a species that has a sight-like ability with some form of wavelength differentiation will see the pattern. It might even be easier if you use a slightly glossy red, a matte blue, and a polarized green.

Of course, humans can't see all the wavelengths available, or see polarized light, so a false-colour filter might be wise until the Mark 1.1 Eyeball comes along.

Coronation of Nicholas II by L.Tuxen


  1. Painting
  2. Frieze
  3. Statue / Figurehead
  4. Banner / Sail 
  5. Bicolour Radiator / Solar Panel
  6. Adjustable display panels. Can be reconfigured to show different symbols, scenes, or directions.

Showing the Species:

  1. In their home environment.
  2. Committing violence (?). A warning or a depiction of a meal?
  3. Before they adopted their new space-adapted form.
  4. Progressing through history.
  5. Their glorious leader / religious figure / ideal form.
  6. Assisting your species. That was quick work... or was it?

Additional Starship Decorations:

  1. Chains / hair. Carefully balanced, but a ludicrous thing to attach to your ship. Anything that keeps moving when you stop moving is asking for trouble.
  2. Spines. Could be aerials, could be "do not bump into me" signals.
  3. Mass balancing arms. The centre of mass of a spacecraft might change as it burns fuel or loads cargo. Adjustable weights or fluid tanks can be made decorative.
  4. Excessive windows. Windows are great, terrariums may be useful, but no ship needs this many glass domes.
  5. Inflatable bladders. Extra volume without extra mass. Could also be used as a form of temporary temperature control.
  6. Rotating structures. Possibly for gravity, possibly for stabilization, but possibly just because it looks neat. Pinwheels, Moiré fans, etc.

Geometric Figures Representing:

  1. A nation / faction / religion / sponsor. Do you have a flaaaag?
  2. A pleasing mathematical concept.
  3. Galactistandard warning labels.
  4. The atomic structure of favoured / vital elements. 
  5. A map of star systems visited. Cultural or personal.
  6. Fractal complexity. Every panel has designs, every design is made of smaller designs.

Well We Think it's Impressive:

  1. A display of every reasonably stable element. You think your species had trouble filling out the periodic table? You should see where we come from. At least you had a solid surface and metals.
  2. Hunting trophies. It's a status thing. Would you descend into the depths of the sea to fight a giant squid bare-handed? And if you did, wouldn't you want to tell your peers?
  3. A local unique product (e.g. wood). Can your species make it? Didn't think so.
  4. Testimonials, gifts (given or received), and glowing quotes. Nobody believes them.
  5. A relic / corpse / chrysalis. Explore the stars even in death.
  6. A projection / model of the surface of our homeworld.
Boyard Costume of Prince Felix Yusupov

Spacesuits and Costumes

How would you visually represent your culture/nation, your goals and aspirations, the essence of what makes you you and humanity humanity? It's the same problem faced by Olympic uniform designers (and not always solved successfully). 

Species that are not fully vacuum adapted require environment suits. Should the outer suit resemble the inner creature? Ideally, want humans to recognize other humans, and other species to recognize humans quickly. But can humanity enforce a standard? Is the spacesuit a mask, a display, an artificial self (what Hochschild might call "the public face of an emotional system"), or the true self piloted by a thinking organ?

Aliens aren't going to build us space suits. A few fancier polymers, a few more efficient catalysts, possibly a few off-the-shelf modules, but no instant industries. Suits are built by the same military-industrial chains that build our current space suits. Their contents will be discussed in another post.

Chris Foss

High-Effort Materials

“It’s hard to be an ornithologist and walk through a wood when all around you the world is shouting: ‘Bugger off, this is my bush! Aargh, the nest thief! Have sex with me, I can make my chest big and red!”
― Terry Pratchett, Monstrous Regiment

From birds to baboons, colour proteins signal quality. If your chest is big and red, it's because you've eaten well, aren't sick, haven't been eaten by predators, and should therefore have desirable genes.

What is the equivalent in space? There are many ways to create a colour. Lightfastness and stability are important, but it's possible that deliberately fragile pigments could be used to signal competence. "Look at us, we can afford to replace the skin on our ship every few cycles."

Fancy polymers and crystals may also signal competence. Things found in nature, but not by chance. Would NASA start a hummingbird farm just to decorate a spacesuit? Possibly. "We've developed a self-replicating bioreactor to make this material."

On the flip side, plain materials may signal a detachment from display concerns. The robe of a monk next to the brocade of a king. Some species can get away with mass and design alone, if they've got sufficient reputation.


  1. See also:
    Baroque Star Wars:

  2. On the topic of space suits, Zozer Games did a nice little pay-what-you-want booklet on space suits for Traveller.