In Firefly why do the outer planets generally all exist in a preindustial, low technology state?

Even if there was limited tech brought from Earth the new civilization has been around long enough for nearly all of the planets to be comfortably terraformed, huge cities to be built (on the inner planets at least) and a relatively robust trade economy to have formed.

This would seem to be a prime setup for the goods and services of the inner planets to become desired commodities on the outer planets, driving a flow of high tech goods to the outer colonies in exchange for any raw materials and other goods they can provide (such as food, ceramic clay, lumber, minerals, etc).


Quoted from the Firefly Wikia, on Rim planets:

The Rim worlds are the latest results of terraforming technology, only recently settled, and raw and untamed. Out on the farthest edges of the system, life can be quite challenging, as the comforts of civilization common to the Core Worlds just aren't so here. Technology and power are far more expensive out on the outer worlds and moons, so folk have to make do without. People ride horseback, farm with handmade tools, and resort to entertainment that doesn't require electricity or batteries to operate. While some folk dream of the luxuries available on the central planets, others enjoy the freedom of open air and hard toil. In their own way, they're as stuck-up as the Core-Worlders, looking down their noses at soft folk who've never dug a ditch or mucked a horse stall.

In addition, several of the episodes show that on these outer planets/moons, the people in charge are intentionally keeping technology out of the hands of the commoners - just take a look at how Burgess is described in "Heart of Gold":

Mal and Zoë discuss the situation with Nandi, who describes the poverty Burgess enforces on the locals "so he can play cowboy".

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    I suppose that is the in-universe explaination, although I'm not sure I completly buy that technology and power are so prohibitively expensive as to be nearly non-existent (barring colonies that just don't want it). Should we ever establish a colony in our system you can be sure that there will be power and prevalent technology, regardless of the cost of it.
    – Xantec
    Jan 2 '12 at 1:36
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    Don't forget that the Core Worlds and these outer planets recently had a war. Combined with the fact that the outer planets are only recently terraformed, there's a good chance there's just not enough technology to go around. However, this is speculation, so unless someone finds a source, I'm not editing it into my answer ;)
    – Izkata
    Jan 2 '12 at 2:02
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    There is an historical analogue, though - in the 19th and early 20th Century, the US north-eastern states (and California coast) had factories and steam railroads and were more 'civilized', while the mid-west and the south was a lot less populated and used lot less of the technology that was available in favour of manual labour (especially before the abolition of slavery).
    – HorusKol
    Jan 2 '12 at 5:33

Technology requires extensive infrastructure. You need raw materials, electricity, spare parts, manufacturing facilities, transportation, etc. Shipping many of theses things in sufficient quantities across space is impractical. And if you do not have the infrastructure, then most of the high-tech products are useless. You cannot use a car with an internal combustion engine for very long if you do not have any fueling stations, repair shops, or spare parts. You have no use for a TV if you do not have electricity or a broadcasting station. Even firearms will not be very useful if your ammo has to be shipped from another planet.

So there are two choices when setting up a new planet: either you build the infrastructure ahead of time, assuming that there are enough raw materials on the planet itself to make it self-sufficient, or you simply bring in people with farm animals and the most basic tools and let them fend for themselves. The latter approach is also described in Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein.

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    From a Pournelle story: Horses & donkeys can make more horses & donkeys — and mules; tractors can’t make more tractors. Mar 12 '12 at 19:00

Look at earth now, there are built up areas in the cities where the rich and powerful spend their time and money. Industry and finance converge on these central locations for convenience so they attract more investment and more money.

Compare the outlying rural areas of Wales with London city centre. Several modern conveniences are lacking even thought we have the technology to supply them (eg wifi). It is a question of return of investment, no one is going to spend millions setting broadband powered wifi up in rural mid Wales because there is no way to make money off it and people there have never had it and therefore are adapted to not having it.

The same principle works on a macro scale in Firefly.


Lack of raw materials? Some worlds may have different makeup than our nickel-iron core. Most important would be lack of water and above all:


The worlds of the Verse had no carbon based lifeforms before terraforming. Therefore no oil. Therefore no plastics, cheap fuel, coal, gasoline, etc. Not even paraffin for wax candles or polyester for clothing and other fabrics.

And further, wood would be an expensive product since it takes 25 years to grow a tree to harvestable size. Bamboo would be the easiest substitute. On a newly terraformed world, houses would be built of adobe, brick,stone and metal (locally mined or imported).

DH and I were discussing this the other night in terms of transportation. Roads would have to be concrete. Personal vehicles would be rare, although those that existed could be very high-tech -- for example the hovermule that the crew uses in the BDM. The train in the Train Job would be normal for middle distance travel combined with air(nuclear fuel cells?) for long distance. That Serenity, a cargo transport, can be flown in atmosphere as well as in the Black is an indication of this delivery method.

I work in Canada's Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. The difficulty of developing infrastructure in rural and remote communities should never be underestimated. And it is canon that a program of homesteading is still underway for Rim worlds. For comparison take a look at a few episodes of Hell On Wheels, where occasional "high tech" buildings (such as a very high class and well finished hotel) show up even ahead of the railroad, although the surrounding land is either subsistence farming or held by the local First Nations people.

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    Excellent points! Agriculture/biotech could provide a partial substitute for petroleum. Use alcohol for fuel, and engineered plants to produce plastics and the like. But all this would be more expensive and less convenient than just pumping oil out of the ground. Jan 24 '14 at 15:21

As far as I understand it, when people moved form the earth-that-was they just dumped the 'less important people' on poorly terraformed planets and moons out of the way of the sophisticated upper classes who could afford technology and infrastructure.

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