Anthony O’Neill’s hard-boiled detective novel The Dark Side follows Lieutenant Damien Justus, who has come to work law enforcement in the lunar colony of Purgatory.
The colony is the extra-territorial kingdom of eccentric billionaire Fletcher Brass. But as Justus starts to grind away at the seedy underbelly of Purgatory and Brass’ tactics, on the other side of the moon a murderous robot by the name of Leonardo Black is leaving a trail of blood on his way back to Purgatory.
It will be up to Justus to get the answers he needs from Brass before stopping Black from achieving his end goal.
This novel should appeal to fans of the crime-thriller genre. That should also come a small warning to some about the depictions of graphic violence. O’Neill builds tension in multiple encounters with each culminating in enough gore for the reader to finish the job in their own mind.
However, the non-violent scenes in the book are well written, and the mystery surrounding Fletcher Brass, his daughter, and the political machinations of a place like Purgatory, as well as the slowly intertwining mystery of the amnesiac robot Leonardo Black, are more than enough to keep the reader intrigued.
The protagonist, Damien Justus, is a classic noir good guy, with just enough back story to provide dimension to what would otherwise be a simplistic, straight-laced, morally righteous law-man.
What drew my attention from a Space Law perspective was the details O’Neill included in establishing Purgatory under established Space Law.
“[O]wing to the long-standing observance of 1967’s Outer Space Treaty, which in Article  forbids private ownership of real estate in outer space, corporations had to be content with exploiting the subclause that permits ownership of objects in space, including object “landed or constructed on celestial bodies, along with all their component parts.” This was how Brass’s battalion of lawyers was able to claim that their client had exiled himself to an object – a giant telescope, 120 kilometers across – which was in effect his own legally recognized territory. And which came to be known as Purgatory.”
This idea, of creating territorial rights through ownership of an object, prompted me to reach out to my colleague, Thomas Cheney, Executive Director of the Centre for a Spacefaring Civilization. I asked him whether this approach could work.
“There are a few issues, first the concept of ‘space object’ isn’t particularly well defined. If we take the ISS as a model then each individual section of the ISS is treated as a separate space object so claiming than an array of various different dishes is one space object probably wouldn’t fly. However, it may not need to, as there are prohibitions on ‘harmful interference’ with the activities of others as well as the strict liability rules that would probably be as effective at keeping people away as an actual right to exclude.”
And this is where O’Neill gets extra points from a space lawyer, because he contemplates this argument and includes it in his book:
“All vehicles in Purgatory are forbidden from creating vibrations that might affect the readings of the interferometry arrays – all those modules and radar dishes, thousands of them across the crater floor, that together make up one immense multifaceted telescope with a resolving power infinitely greater than anything on Earth.”
That being said, Thomas is correct, in that the argument hinges on application of a space object. And in this case, space objects must be registered to a country. So in the case of Fletcher Brass, he would still be under the jurisdiction of the country in which he originally registered the array.
But that hasn’t stopped Thomas from pursuing this idea. “Funnily enough I have been exploring the utility of the space object concept as a basis for a legal regime for space settlements for a while now. Indeed the exploring governance structures for future space settlements is one of the major projects the Centre for a Spacefaring Civilization is currently working on.”
I asked him what the end goal should be for space law development. “What is clear is that you can’t outright claim territory on the moon; however, the Outer Space Treaty does clearly envision bases and outposts as there are discussion of those things within it, but we are rapidly approaching a point when the governance regime needs to evolve, particularly as we want to avoid a situation where an ‘eccentric billionaire’ does whatever he wants and people are willing to let him because the space governance regime is viewed as being too rigid and outdated to matter anymore.”
So a tip of our hat to Anthony O’Neill for a thoughtful extrapolation of space law in his book. And a warning* to all would-be eccentric lunar billionaire sovereigns.