The year is 2067. Forty years after the first landing on Mars, the beginning of a dream that turned into a terrible nightmare for those who followed that intrepid explorer. Civilization hasn't ended, though it hasn't been smooth sailing either. Rising sea levels wreaked a bloody toll on those nations unable to properly defend their coastlines; saving New York was touch-and-go, though Ho Chi Minh City and Shanghai were protected in time. (In the end, it was a choice between Miami and New York; the result was never in doubt, but emigre Floridians still protest regularly outside the New World Trade Centre.)
The South China Sea has replaced the Mediterranean as the focus of world trade, the collapsing nations of North Africa eventually coalescing into a misnamed Maghreb Union, a puppet state of the moribund European Federation. China is at the top of the heap, the closest thing this world has to a hyperpower, victory in the Second Sino-Russian War merely confirming what everyone already knew. Though the Indochinese Union and the Australasian Republic still wage an uncertain Cold War, they are overmatched, and know it, resorting to dirty tricks and intelligence coups in a bid to stay ahead of the game. China controls – effectively – Central Asia, Siberia, East Africa and Sri Lanka, their corporations owning what the government does not control.
The rest of the world struggles on. Europe never really recovered from the Second Great Depression, still less the Third, and propping up the remnants of North Africa and the Middle East has proven a major economic and sociological drain; British, Polish, German and French peacekeepers roam from Casablanca to Baghdad, and those garrisons will likely be there for the foreseeable future. (The European Union's evolution into the European Federation brought the seceded nations back into the fold, though the new model is far more of a loose confederation than a tight political union.) In America, the United States fared badly from the economic turmoil of the first half of the century, but maintains Great Power status, certainly in its hemisphere. India and Pakistan managed to decapitate each other in the Subcontinental War, the former collapsing into a collection of warlord states, the latter absorbed into the Chinese-dominated Central Asian Union.
Technology has progressed in leaps and bounds, but has stumbled many times along the way. The Internet crashed five times during the First Cyber War, the root cause of the Third Great Depression, and since then an emphasis on robust security has been at the heart of development. Computers aren't that much faster than they are today, but they're a lot more secure, and a lot more reliable. Most have at least one electronic contact lens in at one time, effectively giving them a permanent heads-up display, and the earbud phone is ubiquitous.
AIDS is gone, as is Alzheimer's, and most of the cancers have been cured. That's the good news. The race between bionics and regrowth ended in a victory for the prosthetics, at least for the present, though there are signs the pendulum is about to swing back again, according to the latest results from the Hanoi biotech labs. Life expectancy – at least among the well-off – is well over a century now. The bad news is that the toxic clouds over much of the world show no sign of dispersing, and the industrial wastelands have reduced many parts of the planet to lifelessness.
The exhaustion of oil stocks grounded a lot of airplanes, making them luxury prospects once again, though the opening up of the Titanian petrochemical fields is coming 'real soon now'. The world is run by fission, solar, wind and geothermal power, with experimental fusion plants run by most major governments. Paradoxically, this helped, and the environment is beginning to come back again, albeit slowly.
In space, no-one can hear you protest. Orbital space is a confusing collection of national and commercial space stations, dozens of them at the last count, to the point that there aren't very many automatic satellites any more; huge, man-tended platforms support the communication, navigation and observation needs, run by the Chinese, Europeans, Americans respectively. (Smaller platforms are operated by the Australasians, Brazilians and South Africans, purely due to a dislike of depending on the largesse of the major powers. A Russian platform was abandoned after the Sino-Russian War.) More than ten thousand people work in LEO, on a collection of industrial plants, refineries and hotels.
The idea that the typical space worker would be a highly-trained Ph.D. didn't last. Third World workers were far cheaper, and just as good at cleaning the gunk out of life support systems, or removing the mould from the walls of space stations. There are expert engineers, but most of them remain on Earth, leaving the grunt work to the cheaper, disposable laborers. There are a few spaceplane flights every day, from Vostochny, Kourou, Houston and Woomera, The BAE/Airbus Skylon is still the workhorse after thirty years, though the Tupolev-440, Boeing 910 and COMAC C999 spaceplanes are also well used. Kawasaki, Boeing and COMAC are reportedly working on next-generation models, expected into service soon.
Beyond Earth, the Moon is home to a series of scientific outposts, more for prestige than any perceived need; the commercial possibilities had yet to pay out, despite a few failed attempts at Helium-3 mining, but a couple of dozen small bases are scattered across the lunar plain – Chinese, American, European, Japanese, Brazilian, Australian, Indochinese, the list goes on. At least as many abandoned bases exist, periodically scavenged for valuable parts, the subject of numerous lawsuits.
Mars failed. The first landing took place with much fanfare, a NASA astronaut taking the great leap to the surface from a commercial spacecraft, and ten years later, four outposts had been established, as well as settlements on Phobos and Deimos – from China in the former case, a consortium of private American, Russian and European companies in the other. For more than a decade, it became a billionaire's playground, those who won in the aftermath of the Second Great Depression, spending their fortunes on building their settlements, in many cases realizing a great dream. Or running from their creditors, escaping death sentences back home. (The reason for North Korean, Sudanese, Liberian and Panamanian settlements on the Red Planet.)
None of the colonies could become truly self-sufficient, and none of them were supported in the long term. One by one the wealthy lost their fortunes or drifted back to Earth, and all that remained were a few thousand forced settlers, struggling amid the ruins of their world. Most of them gathered in Nirvana City, the remains of the short-lived International Mars Base, taking everything they could with them, though a half-dozen others maintain desperate independence. The colony is doomed, population falling, kept going by occasional charity drops.
Phobos, however, was another story. China never really spent money on the surface of Mars, investing it instead on the moon, buying and closing the operations on Deimos at the first opportunity. It became a Special Economic Zone in 2040, the home of dozens of off-Earth corporations seeking to exploit the Asteroid Belt, or (at that time) support the Martian colonies. Thousands of people live on the moon, ranging from billionaires to paupers, the greatest free port in the solar system.
Out in the belt, prospecting companies, hundreds of them, extract the raw materials that keep Earth's industries running, elements now too expensive to mine on Earth, hurled in huge shipments to the processing plants in LEO for shipment to the surface. Platinum, Antimony, Iridium, and dozens of other metals fly down to Earth in twenty-ton loads, to the cargo spaceports scattered across the world. There were fortunes to be made, out in the void, but often they are lost as fast as they are created, the markets volatile on the slightest hint of a major new discovery – secrecy, in asteroid mining, is paramount.
Beyond? There's an abandoned space station around Venus, the aftermath of a five-year research project, now bought for cents on the dollar by a private consortium of investors for no-one-knows-what reason, and a functioning research facility on Mercury, run by a Siberian-Korean company (which means China, through a puppet, more than likely) working on potential resource extraction and power generation. Men have walked on Callisto and Titan, in the 2050s, European and Chinese expeditions respectively, and another expedition to Titan is on the way, gathering data for planned refineries on the surface – the bugbear of eco-terrorist groups, who have made many attempt to bring them down.
The first probe headed for Proxima Centauri ten years ago; it will be in flight for more than a century...