You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.
☆Want to visit scenic Beta Colony? There are a few things you should know.
- Weapons are illegal. Concealed weapons are especially illegal. Stunners are allowed with a permit, but most people interpret arms as a signal of antisocial aggression, which is tightly regulated and can result in mandatory therapy. It would probably be more fun to spend your visit to Beta not in therapy.
- Violence is forbidden. Antisocial behavior, including violence, falls under the purview of Beta's Mental Health Board; instead of prisons, Beta has therapy, and no matter how long it takes, you will emerge well-adjusted and smiling. If you want to punch someone, threaten a lawsuit instead.
- The Betan standard of living is extremely high. Miniaturization and recycling are the rule, and there are tiny gadgets for everything. Diet is solely vegetables and vat-grown protein for a dizzying variety of tastes; most Betans hate the idea of eating anything that used to have a brain.
- Fashions on Beta are exotic and ever-changing. There is no nudity taboo, and Bel has no idea what people will (or won't) be wearing this season. Betans are more public about sex and sexuality than is customary in the rest of the galaxy, and will expect visitors to know what they're in for.
- Earrings hold a special and very specific meaning for Betans. Visitors with pierced ears will be urged to exchange their own earrings for Betan ones: simple studs in a variety of near-identical styles signaling one's sexual preferences and level of interest. "Not looking" is also a choice, but the wrong set of earrings on Beta can lead to extremely awkward situations.
☆Notable locations on Beta include:
- Silica: Beta's capital, mostly underground, a miracle of microengineering and interior design. Features: shuttleport; Silica University Hospital (most advanced reproductive technology in the galaxy); Silica Zoo (microhabitats containing exotic life forms such as hamsters and koi); politics, progressiveness, shops and entertainment.
- Quartz: also mostly underground; a booming party city, home to the bulk of Bel's genetic minority group, most of whom never leave Beta. Features: parties that never stop; desert trekking.
- The Orb of Unearthly Delights: the most notorious of Beta's many pleasure domes, with licensed, medically supervised carnal adventures to dazzle the most jaded palette. Features: lots and lots of sex.
Overview: Bel's planet of origin, Beta Colony, has long been the most technologically advanced system in the Wormhole Nexus. It was the main site of the genetic engineering boom 200 years before canon's present-day, and remains independent and progressive.
Environment: On the outside, Beta is a hot desert world with winds that would scour trees to the bone in a day. "The old sandbox" is an affectionate and long-established nickname used by expatriates. Rebreathers, nose filters, and environment domes are necessary for survival. Air is protected, processed and filtered; nothing is dumped into the atmosphere without considerable thought (and cost). Wood is an expensive luxury; verdant landscapes are unknown. Beta has saline lakes instead of seas, the largest smaller than the lake at Vorbarr Sultana. With good colonizing tech and asteroid supplies available, Beta is not in want of water. Cordelia, for example, had a fishtank.
Geography: Known Betan cities include the capital city, Silica (home of the Naismiths, Tav Calhoun, and Steady Freddie), and Quartz (home of Beta's largest genetic minority population, and known for wild parties.) Beta's cities "plunged down into shafts and tunnels, many-layered and complex, cozy and safe. Indeed, Beta Colony did not have architecture so much as it had interior design."
Government: Beta is a constitutional democracy; one important clause in its constitution forbids restricting citizens' access to information. Public discourse, the "Betan vote," and widely practiced committee decision-making are often perceived as extreme by other galactics. Media is voracious, publicity taken for granted, privacy not necessarily respected; there's 24/7 coverage of everything, along with talkshow and street-interview commentary. Incredibly fast information pipelines speed processing of enormous amounts of information, though deliberate bureaucracy can slow things down considerably. Disadvantaged people can register for shelter and food; scraping poverty is nearly unknown to those in the system. Therapy, sometimes mandatory until the problem is judged as solved, is used instead of penal law. Betans feel the advantages outweigh the potential for abuse of this system. Miles sees it as a flaw that Betans run everything through their systems and "nobody takes personal responsibility for each other" like the Barrayaran lord-district structure.
Science/Economy: Beta has a rabid culture of scholarship and research, and has been at the forefront of galactic science and technology for 200 years. Beta's economy partly runs on releasing its advanced R&D tech a year or two after Betans acquire it; Beta invented the laser-mirroring tech and personal anti-disruptor mesh suits (and, 200 years earlier, revolutionary artificial gravity technology). Best-known exports are high-level tech and weapons technology. Medical care, including cosmetic surgery, is the best in the galaxy, except for the illegal specialties on Jackson's Whole.
Culture: The colony insists on egalitarianism, with women, men, and others of every race and orientation facing (theoretically) no institutional discrimination except the occasional petty interpersonal feud. Legally actionable antisocial behavior is widely defined and most Betans find suggestions of violence barbaric and offensive, while freedom of expression allows for considerable leeway in satire and entertainment; a thriving litigious culture drives most disputes under the civil law umbrella. Stunners are legal to carry on Beta; most other weapons, such as needlers and disruptors, are not.
Comfort and technological amenities, such as sonic toothbrushes, are prevalent and highly personalized; the amount of gadgetry in the standard Betan's personal life seems ridiculous to Miles. Nothing is discarded, everything recycled. Betans live on vat-grown protein and no animals are killed for food; even years later, Cordelia finds real cooked fish disgusting (there is no information on Bel's preferences). Fashions are ever-changing and wild: sarongs and sandals keep making comebacks; body paint not so much.
Beta scandalizes the rest of the galaxy by normalizing complete freedom of interaction between partners of consenting age. Formalization of relationships exists only in regards to co-parent contracts; "bastard" is a meaningless concept. Licensed practical sex therapists of "all three genders" are widely used and the Orb of Unearthly Delights is a popular tourist destination. Specific earrings advertise a Betan's relationship status and receptiveness as a courtesy to avoid awkwardness, while mandatory contraceptive implants, installed at puberty, ensure that the colony's strict population-control laws have no effect on All The Sex.
Reproduction: Uterine replicators are the most popular birthing choice by three to one, with the minority claiming "psycho-social advantages" to body births. Physical, psychological, and economic tests are required to be a co-parent; two child permits can normally be applied for, and people with uterii aren't allowed to remove their contraceptive implants without one. Certificates must be earned and third-child permits have to be scrimped for. Relationships between single- and double-sexed people are not unknown, but offspring of these unions must be genetically designed to be either the one or the other.
Bel's people: were created 200 years ago as part of an enthusiastic genetic/social egalitarianism experiment which "didn't catch on". They are a demographic and geographical minority, staying mostly in Quartz, which has a reputation as a party city. Despite their minority status, they are represented as one of the Licensed Practical Sex Therapist genders -- and have the most customers.
Many outside galactics are deeply prejudiced against this "third gender," and even on hypertolerant Beta, they're subjected to such routine microaggressions as Cordelia's "[disliked political candidate] should put on falsies and go woo the herm vote in Quartz" and her mother's description of them as "pathologically unable to make up their minds." They vote and participate in Betan politics, but there's no knowing how well they might be represented in the colony's democracy.
Bel -- rare in being a galactic wanderer -- thinks of Beta and its culture as boring, too regimented and "too safe," and does not seek news about it or plan to return there. Progressive even by Betan standards, Bel is willing to take a unilateral stance on issues of civil rights and to fight for it on any planet in the galaxy, with or without others' support or agreement. Bel proudly identifies as Betan, though, retains Betan citizenship, takes an interest in other Betans encountered out in the galaxy, and continues to insist on Beta's preferred pronouns and terminology.
200 years earlier, boom in genetic manipulation results in invention of genetically altered human lines; they "don't catch on" as the next phase of humanity. Beta Colony's development of artificial gravity incidentally results in the escape of Cay Habitat's brand-new quaddie population to Quaddiespace; Bel's people remain a minority on Beta.
(Over 100 years after the genetic boom, the Komarr-Barrayar wormhole is discovered, ending the Barrayaran Time of Isolation. Various conflicts follow, notably the First Cetagandan War. Note: check whether/how Beta was affected.)
About twenty years before the Barrayaran-Escobaran War, Bel Thorne is born. Beta is still (and remains) at the top of the R&D food chain, releasing its discoveries well after its own citizens take full advantage of them. Beta shares wormhole connections with Dalton and Escobar, and is a longtime trade partner with Escobar.
About half a decade before the war, Miles Mark Naismith of the Betan Astronomical Survey dies in a shuttle accident. His daughter Cordelia becomes a member of the BAS as well. After an unhappy relationship with a man who used her as a stepping stone to the captaincy she wanted, she soured on relationships but later did attain her captaincy.
Cordelia's Honor: Cordelia's BAS ship, attempting to survey a newly discovered planet with a newly discovered wormhole connection to Beta, encounters a Barrayaran force (led by Aral Vorkosigan) preparing to invade Escobar through a different newly discovered wormhole. After her escape, Cordelia returns to Beta Colony and warns them of the impending military movement.
Beta responds by answering Escobar's call for aid, sending supplies and -- with Cordelia's new ship, part of the not-exactly-military Betan Expeditionary Force -- the weapons that would end the war, which only lasts a couple of months and ends in a Barrayaran rout. Only four people ever knew the whole thing was Ezar Vorbarra's secret plan to assassinate Barrayar's Prince Serg and suppress his ugly legacy: Cordelia, Aral, Ezar, and Negri (and arguably later his successor Simon Ilyan).
Beta's president during the war is "Steady Freddie", whom nobody seems to have voted for. His image rests on exaggeration and jingoism; the media eats it up, but press-ganging a war-scarred Cordelia into a public speech turns out to be a big mistake. After the media disaster, Freddie reportedly "took an interest" in Cordelia's treatment.
Cordelia, refusing a full medical debriefing after returning home (in order not to reveal true focus of the war,) is assumed to be a sleeper agent by Betan psychologists and is almost hospitalized against her will. Escaping to Barrayar (with the help of a very young freighter pilot, Arde Mayhew), she weds Aral. She suspects there's still an outstanding warrant on Beta for military desertion, suspicion of espionage, fraud, and anti-social violence. She says afterwards that she hadn't "fit" when she'd returned from the war. Swearing allegiance to four-year-old Gregor Vorbarra cuts her last ties with Beta, though communication later resumes with her mother (and, probably, brother's family).
About five years later, Bel Thorne leaves Beta to join the Oseran Mercenaries.
Miles visits Beta at age fifteen. Difficult adjustment, between his own illnesses, the social scene's jaded interest in anything "different", Betan entertainment-propaganda against Barrayar, and his Betan grandmother's well-meaning attempts to broaden his horizons by sending him to Betan parties and on a "disastrous" rock-climbing expedition. (Elizabeth Naismith still lives in the capital, Silica, where she's a top researcher in uterine-replicator technology. Despite Elizabeth's collusion with the mental health people when Cordelia fled Beta, she has a good relationship with her daughter and grandson.) Miles has a terrible first relationship with a Betan girl who loses interest when his body doesn't prove unusual enough. The psychological effects are devastating, though Miles hides them and suffers without seeking help.
The Warrior's Apprentice, two years later: washed-up jump pilot Arde Mayhew, with Miles's help, gets his condemned ship away from Tav Calhoun and goes on a supply run, along with a Barrayaran expatriate who'd been living off-the-grid in the recycling facility. They leave behind the very irate creditor, a Betan in paperwork limbo after attempting to sue Elena Bothari for striking him, and a tangle of legalities surrounding Betan-civilian Mayhew's Armsman-oath to Miles (moot because Mayhew never returns to Beta). During the ensuing weeks, Ivan Vorpatril arrives on Beta to look for Miles, but is distracted by a Betan woman and leaves with her instead of his superiors, which saves his life when their sabotaged jump ship disappears. Miles returns eventually and fully repays Calhoun, and Elizabeth takes in Elli Quinn, "one of [Miles's] strays," and sees to fixing her face so she can rejoin the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet.
The Vor Game, several years later: Just before the Cetagandans' attempt to capture the Hegen Hub, Beta developed wearable anti-disruptor mesh suits, planning to release them to the rest of the galaxy several years later.
Ethan of Athos: Elizabeth co-authors at least one scholarly article on uterine replication, to appear in a prestigious Betan medical journal; an article by one of Bel's people is also noted.
Brothers in Arms: Besides Elizabeth, Miles notes that he and Mark have an uncle and aunt on Beta (Cordelia's brother and sister-in-law), two cousins, and a cousin once removed.
After Mirror Dance, Elizabeth helps Mark go through therapy on Beta, along with Kareen. The two visit the Orb, later scandalizing Kareen's parents.
Circa Memory, Mark had started school on Beta. Some time after that, Bel would make a brief visit to the old sandbox, the first in approximately twenty-six years, but feel out of place and leave again.
[Post-Memory spoilers go here.]