Matthew Graybosch
a cynical idealist, sf author, and full-stack developer

Computing and Networking Culture in Starbreaker

As humanity began to colonize space after Nationfall, it soon became apparent that the high-availability DNS-based internet and World Wide Web that had dominated Gaea was not suitable for interplanetary networking, and would no doubt prove utterly impractical for interstellar information exchange.

While researchers attempted to build out a suitable system for both terrestrial and interplanetary applications using IPFS (Interplanetary file system), a motley crew of surviving BSD Unix fans and sysadmins centered around the SDF Public Access Unix System (along with the FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, DragonflyBSD, OpenIndiana, and Plan 9 developer and user communities) to revive the use of UUCP (Unix to Unix Copy).

While the IPFS people were busily trying to bootstrap a terrestrial IPFS-based internet and failing due to the protocol’s bias toward hypermedia and dependence on a high-availability internet with instant peer-to-peer access, SDF successfully completed bidirectional transfers between earth!pub!seattle!sdf!faroes and luna!pub!armstrong!nerv!melchior, a host operated by the NERV Public Access Unix System based in Armstrong City. They also completed a bidrectional transfer with europa0!pub!outland, a host operated by the Outland Public Access Unix System of the Europa Zero orbital habitat. Both of these UUCP transfers were accomplished via radio.

Armed with proof that classical low-bandwidth/low-availability networking tech still worked, the Unix-speaking peoples soon persuaded the IPFS researchers to abandon their pursuit and work to establish a more sustainable computing and networking culture centered around public access Unix systems communicating across systems via UUCP. By the time the Starbreaker Crisis occurred (64PN, or CE 21XX), Unix-based computing using free and open-source software (FOSS) and networking using non-WWW technologies were ubiquitous throughout the Helios system.

This revival fueled an employment boom, as not only competent system administrators were required but a much larger force of professional moderators for social technologies such as IRC and USENET newsgroups. Rather than perform this work for free, both the sysadmins and the moderators organized and formed allied trade unions: the Interplanetary System Administrators Guild (ISAG) and the Interplanetary Social Moderators Union (ISMU). Together, ISAG and ISMU organized professional developers into the Interplantary Software Developers Guild (IDSG). With IDSG, the ISAG and ISMU then set about organizing the infosec trades, creating the Union of Information Security Practitioners (UISP). These four tech unions then set up apprenticeship programs along with criteria for recognition as journeyfolk and masters within their respective trades. In addition, they took over the development of technical standards for networking (the RFCs), programming languages (previously handled by ANSI, ISO, and ECMA), and operating systems (POSIX, X Window).

One of the practical effects is that any Unix system that connects via UUCP can be identified using a common schema: planet, sector, city, organization, host, user account with bang (!) delimiters. Sectors can be one of the following: commercial (com), public access (pub), non-profit (org), academic (edu), scientific (sci), or government (gov). For example, if you wanted to send email to Claire Ashecroft, you would address it to earth!pub!london!sdf!falstaff!cybershaman. If you wanted to email Isaac Magnin using his personal shell account hosted by the AsgarTech Corporation, you would use earth!com!asgard!asgartech!mastema!imaginos.

An astute reader will question the emphasis on BSD when Linux (and GNU) currently enjoys real-world ascendancy. In the Starbreaker setting, the Linux kernel, the Free Software Foundation, and many GNU projects were co-opted and corrupted by the North American Commonwealth’s military-industrial-parliamentary complex. While implanted computers powered by Linux are common, most of those equipped with such cyberware are thus equipped because of the positions they hold in society, rather than by choice.

In the Starbreaker setting, any individual holding any position authority no matter how minor is required by law to be equipped with an implant capable of accessing the optic and auditory nerves for realtime recording using Witness Protocol. Since these implants often come with POSIX shells and OpenSSH, and using an implant’s shell and SSH does not leave a trace on Witness Protocol, many people with implants use them to interface with local PAUS (public access Unix systems) for their computing needs instead of using a physical terminal.

It is for this reason that so many records documenting the Starbreaker Crisis and many of the events presaging it remained available for compilation by Sharon and Catherine Gatto when the Phoenix Society engaged the law firm of Tipton & Downing to provide prosecuting attorneys for class-action lawsuit of homo sapiens v. Isaac Magnin & the Disciples of the Watch.

Gray hats like Claire Ashecroft and Josefine Malmgren aided in the archival effort by scouring systems for journals, emails, text messages, IRC logs, USENET postings, text files published using gopher, and other documents. In most cases, the Gatto sisters were able to obtain information without recourse to subpoenas since Ashecroft and Malmgren were not only involved in the Starbreaker Crisis, but knew many of the the participants as friends and were thus able to request information. In other cases, the defendants themselves provided information despite vehement opposition from their attorneys.

The ready availability of primary sources due to the Unix- and UUCP-based computing and networking culture that sprang from the ashes of Nationfall provides ample in-universe justification for writing the Starbreaker saga as one long epistolary novel, or a set of short epistolary novels and novellas. More on this later.

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or constructive comments, please email me. I may reply directly to you, or if I think your message might be of interest to other readers I will answer with a new blog post.