Setting: Underwater Dome City – part 1

I wanted to live underwater as a child. I saw underwater domes on Saturday morning cartoons, but also in serious reference books predicting that by the far-off future of 2015, there would be cities inside underwater domes as well as domes on the lunar surface. I would imagine myself driving a kelp-harvesting tractor, piloting a mini-sub, walking into the depths wearing a high-pressure suit, and swimming with friendly dolphins. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever see such a place. In some ways, the present day seems less futuristic than my childhood, when there were men landing on the moon and supersonic passenger flights. At least there’s been progress in other areas, such as the medical technology that probably saved my life (twice), food production technology that keeps the world from starving to death, and E-cigarettes (I’m not a smoker, but I don’t understand why these didn’t achieve 100% market share the day they came on the market – fewer people being annoyed at you PLUS less cancer, what else do you want from a product?).

The first thing you’ll need to decide about your underwater dome city is whether it’s one giant dome, or a series of smaller domes connected by a network of tubes. One giant dome is more efficient from a surface-to-volume ratio standpoint, but you’ll have to fill your dome with skyscrapers to utilize that volume, or if you’re in a dystopian mood you can fill in the entire dome with rooms and corridors, meaning only the rooms on the outer edges have windows for sunlight and pretty ocean views. Multiple domes make more sense if the community was built gradually over time, or if the domes have different owners or nationalities.

Next, you’ll need an economic reason for your dome city to exist. I’ll sketch out a few ideas, along with some characters you might put there:

Vegas Under the Sea: The Las Vegas that we know certainly wouldn’t exist in the middle of the desert if gambling was legal in the rest of the United States. Your underwater dome provides some vice that is illegal in the surface world: gambling, prostitution, red meat, coffee, gladiator games… My first inclination is to turn this into a Mafia story: a new criminal group tries to muscle its way in, or a G-man arrives and tries to clean the place up.

Power Source: Huge power cables run from the dome to its sister city on the surface. The dome could be near a geothermal energy source, or it could mine methane deposits (in which case it might have a pipeline rather than power cables), or it might harness the power of moving water – water rushes through a canyon during tidal changes (don’t get caught there at the wrong time), or there is a more steady flow of upwelling water at the edge of a precipice (does something with tentacles come up one day?). Obviously, I’m thinking of disaster storylines with this one, so your characters can include the guy who warns everyone but nobody listens, and the guy who ignores the potential disaster because he’s stupid, lazy, greedy, and/or wants a disaster to happen. An alternate storyline is an economic and/or military conflict between the dome city and its surface customers, because one side or the other isn’t happy with the prices being forced on it.

Undersea Farm: For reasons I’ll detail later, your dome city may not be the best place to grow crops. However, if the surface world is beset by a plague of genetically modified or alien locusts, perhaps it’s the only place to grow crops. Characters could include a quarantine officer tasked with keeping the locusts out, and a corrupt or incompetent government official who risks letting them in. Perhaps an entire dome has to be sealed off and collapsed to protect the other domes.

Dome on Another Planet: The planet receives too much radiation for humans to live on the surface, so they live under a protective blanket of water. They choose to live underwater rather than underground, because they can place prefab structures rather than building tunnels, and because they can utilize the light which penetrates the water and dome. Colonization stories would work here, and the colonists could explore the land in lead-covered crawler vehicles; any story normally set on a submarine could be set on a crawler. One interesting difference would be that the crawler crew could get out and walk around at night.

In part 2 of this topic, I’ll discuss some of the practical difficulties of life in an underwater dome.

Please leave a comment below if you like/dislike this setting, or if you think of another aspect or character to contribute. Are you as fascinated by underwater domes as I am? Would you like to live in one? Do you know of any sci-fi stories using this setting?

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7 comments

  1. I have an irrational fear of drowning (a result of someone trying to kill me that way when I was a child), so I doubt I’d ever want to live in an underwater dome. And off the top of my head, the only story I can think of that has an underwater dome for the setting is Deep Storm, by Lincoln child, which is more of a techno-thriller with sci-fi elements. (I’m sure I’ve read others, but I can’t think of specifics right now.) In many ways, an underwater domed city is like any other domed city in an environment that is inhospitable to humans — a dome on the surface of, say, Venus (because of the ridiculously high atmospheric pressure) would have many of the same things to deal with as a dome under our own ocean.

    Now that I think about it more… If I recall correctly (and I’m rather embarrassed that I’m not entirely sure — my trivia skills are waning), Roger Zelazny’s short story “The Eve of RUMOKO” has something about underwater domes in it (and why explosions underwater are bad for everything in the neighborhood).

    1. Thanks for the references. I put underwater dome into the search box at Amazon, and was surprised that dozens of books didn’t pop up. I remember reading a short story about a volcanic island-building project going wrong and wiping out one or more dome cities; could that have been the Zelazny one you mentioned? I can personally verify that even tiny explosions underwater sound like the end of the world.

      For my childhood fantasy dome, I was envisioning warm, shallow water, so I could go outside for a swim (using my artificial gill of course) with my dolphin friends. Fortunately I didn’t have an experience like yours.

      1. Yes, that’s the one.

  2. More imagination on display in this post than in most of the ‘best of’ anthologies! Why aren’t you writing these stories yourself? You should…

    1. Thanks. Fortunately, these ideas are “big picture” enough that a dozen of us could use them and not produce similar stories.

      Having said that, when I was brainstorming the idea for this series of articles, I did come up with one setting that was more limited in scope, and I decided to keep that one to myself – I’m hoping to turn it into a short story if I ever finish my current project.

  3. […] part 1 of this topic, I introduced the underwater dome as a setting for science fiction stories. Here, […]

  4. I like the part about living underwater to avoid radiation, that could hold a lot of potential for sci fi stories.

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