1. Every Supervillain Needs a Secret Base
Three may keep a Secret, if two of them are dead.
-Benjamin Franklin (1735)
Every villain needs a place to live, work, and scheme. While civilians may content themselves with a "home," an "office," or a "home office," you're going to live the supervillain dream by plotting in style and comfort from your own palatial secret base.
There are some restrictions to keep in mind when scoping out locations for a secret base. The "secret" part of "secret base" means it should be hidden, or at the very least inaccessible: you don't want meddling do-gooders easily stumbling across it. "Base" means it should be sustainable and self-sufficient, able to support you (and ideally a staff of henchpeople) for months if not years at a time. Remember, if you can't bunker down in it for the long term, then you don't have a base: you have a vacation home.
And one simply does not take over the world from a secret vacation home.
First, let us dissuade you from what you're already thinking, which is this:
Obviously the best place for me to build a secret supervillain base is inside a volcano, this is easy, I don't even know why I bought this book since I know all this stuff already.
Building in an active volcano is a bad idea: it can explode with little to no warning, cooking you alive as the air fills with toxic gases and rocks rain from above onto a floor that is literally lava. Even a dormant volcano means you're living inside a very visible, non-secret hole/tourist attraction.
Your main concern here is self-sufficiency: if your base is to support you and your henchpeople without having to rely on the outside world, it will need to be a certain minimum size. The precise nature of that minimum size depends on how you answer the question of "wait, how much space do we really need to keep a human being alive indefinitely?"
Various authorities have attempted to answer this question throughout history. In the 700s CE in England, land was measured in hides, which reflected the amount of land thought necessary to support a family. Hides ranged in size from around 240,000 to 728,000 square meters (m), depending on the productivity of the land, but around the Norman conquest in 1066 CE, they became standardized at around 485,000m: slightly less than half a square kilometer. Whether families at the time included just immediate family members or also extended family is now unclear, but if you assume a small family of just four people, that works out to 121,250m of arable land per person.
Factoring in the modern farming technologies developed over the past millennium, a more recent 1999 calculation determined that a diversified and sustainable European (meat-eating) diet demanded 5,000m of farmland per person, further calculating that if you assumed a largely vegetarian diet; no soil degradation, erosion, or food waste; ample irrigation; and godlike farmers who both planted and tended to their crops perfectly, you could probably get that number down to just 700m a person. Lower numbers are better here: they help keep your base reasonably sized and have the side effect of making it easier for the rest of the world not to starve to death. That's a good thing, given that the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization's measurements of global arable land per person have been trending downward for decades: in 1970, it was 3,200m per person; in 2000, it was 2,300m per person; and in 2050, the global arable land is projected to be down to just 1,500m per person.
But even these calculations are still just estimates and educated guesses: they're not facts. Supervillains ponder and plan and scheme, yes, but they also reach a point where they take bold and decisive action. The supervillain's technique to scientifically discover how much space humans actually need to survive is straightforward:
1. Find some humans.
2. Put them in an enclosed area of a certain size, then seal them in so that neither they nor anything else can get in or out.
3. Sit back, relax, and then check in every once in a while to see if your humans died or not.
And even though we're only one chapter in, this book has already saved you lots of money, because I can tell you that this experiment has already been performed before! It was run in 1991 on eight human volunteers during the two-year experiment that was the inaugural run of Biosphere 2, and it cost $250 million USD, equivalent to almost $500 million today. Money in your pocket, friend.
Whatever Happened to Biosphere 1?
There were some earlier proof-of-concept prototypes to Biosphere 2, including a sealed test module filled with plants (some to eat, some to produce oxygen), which saw stays by humans that ranged from an initial 72-hour visit to a 21-day experiment in closed-loop, bioregenerative, self-sustaining isolation. However, none of these prototypes were called "Biosphere 1." That's because members of the project considered Biosphere 2 to be a sequel to the natural environment they'd come from, which makes Earth the true Biosphere 1. Therefore, the answer to "whatever happened to Biosphere 1?" is "a heck of a lot actually, gosh, where do I even start?"
Biosphere 2 is a 12,700m complex of concrete, steel, and glass built in Arizona whose expenses were privately funded by billionaire Ed Bass. On September 26, four men and four women entered the complex through an airlock, intending to remain for two full years-during which they would depend entirely on the environment inside to keep them alive. In theory, the only thing to enter the Biosphere in that time would be electricity, and the only thing to exit it would be information. The sealed campus was divided into different biomes: a tropical rainforest (modeled on Venezuelan tepuis: tall, flat, and isolated mountaintop ecosystems), a savannah (modeled on South American grasslands), a desert (modeled on coastal fog deserts, with parched ground but moist air), a marsh (inspired by the Florida Everglades), and an "ocean" (salt water, Bahaman sand, and tropical coral reef). Beneath the Biosphere was a basement filled with support machinery, which was also accessible to the "biospherians" inside, since they would be the ones responsible for its maintenance and repair.
Each biome contained its own indigenous plant and animal species: the plants were responsible for producing the oxygen the humans would breathe, while the animals were chosen both for biodiversity and for food. A breeding pair of Ossabaw Island hogs was included due to their ability to "turn almost anything that remotely resembled food into meat and fat," with chickens and goats making the cut for similar reasons: they were sources of meat, eggs, and milk that could eat things that humans won't. Since everything was self-contained, the biosphere had its own water and carbon cycle. The biospherians would, in effect, be drinking the same water over and over again. It was to be the first time in history that humans would be separated for so long from the natural biosphere of their planet.
The experiment was not without its challenges, including:
The site drew unexpected attention, with tourists gathering and tapping on the enclosures' glass when they wanted a photo of the biospherians. Few places inside the Biosphere actually provided privacy to its inhabitants.
Some members brought insufficient supplies of clothing from outside, eventually resulting in vital items like boots being barely held together with duct tape.
Venomous scorpions snuck inside before the Biosphere was sealed, and they had to be hunted by the biospherians to extinction within the Biosphere (there's a word for that: extirpation!)
Some crops failed, including their only supply of white potatoes, which an infestation of mites forced into extirpation. Sweet potatoes replaced them in the biospherian diet, and they ate so many-half their daily calories came from sweet potatoes alone-that their skin began to turn orange from beta-carotene.
A species of Australian cockroach stowed away too, and their population exploded before they could be contained and extirpated. Hordes of them swarmed over the floors and tables in the kitchen area at night, turning white countertops brown. The humans countered this by vacuuming them up en masse and feeding them to the chickens, thereby transforming the pest roaches into delicious eggs.
Despite a carbon dioxide scrubber, CO2 inside the Biosphere required daily monitoring to make sure it didn't exceed safe thresholds. Grasses in the savannah were cut down and stored in the basement as a sort of manual carbon-sequestering system.
Oxygen inside dropped to dangerous levels, eventually requiring two oxygen injections into the Biosphere, one a mere month away from the two-year mark. (It was later discovered that the concrete inside the building was sequestering CO2, which is what was causing oxygen to seemingly disappear from the Biosphere. The concrete was sealed for a subsequent experiment, solving this problem.)
Twelve days into the experiment, biospherian Jane Poynter lost the end of her middle finger when she accidentally got it caught in a grain thresher. She had to be removed from the biosphere for six and a half hours to visit a hand surgeon.
And on top of all this, the food was never quite sufficient.
The agricultural land inside Biosphere 2 took up just 2,500m of space, which works out to a little over 300m per person: less than half of that best-case-scenario farmland-per-person estimate from 1999. And while the high-fiber, primarily vegetarian diet inside the Biosphere was designed to be nutritionally complete (except for vitamins B12 and D, for which supplements were taken), it supplied only about 1,790 calories per person per day: less than recommended levels. These low-calorie diets caused the women and men inside to lose on average 10% and 18% of their body weight, respectively, during the experiment. At one point, a biospherian calculated that if his rate of weight loss continued, by the time the experiment was over he would weigh negative 40 kilograms (kg). Peanuts were eaten whole-the shells at least took up space in the stomach-and some biospherians found consolation in taking turns with a pair of binoculars to spy on a nearby hot dog stand.
During the second year, biospherians resorted to eating emergency grain reserves and excess seeds not intended as food-a short-term solution that meant that if they were to stay inside beyond their two years, they might not have enough seeds to plant the following year. Later analysis showed that despite the best efforts of the biospherians-including, at times, gathering to manually pick individual pests from crops in a labor-intensive attempt to save them-the farmland inside was sufficient only for seven people, not eight.
But perhaps the biggest, and most unexpected, challenge came from the humans themselves. While all eight were friendly upon entering and foresaw no real issues-many were long-standing friends and expected life on the inside to bind them together into an almost utopian society-personality conflicts bloomed and escalated quickly. Within a year, the eight had fractured into two hostile groups of four, with members from one barely speaking or even looking at members of the other group outside of formal meetings. Biospherian Jane Poynter-she of the amputated finger-named the groups: "Us" for the one she belonged to, and "Them" for the other four members. The atmosphere was tense, aggressive, and fraught: at one point two members from Them actually spat in Poynter's face. One walked away without a word, and the other responded to her stunned "What have I done?" with "That's for you to find out." In The Human Experiment, her autobiography about her time in Biosphere 2, Poynter wrote, "We were all suffering, hurt beyond words," noting that in the last few months, "I felt the air would ignite, explode in flames with the spontaneous combustion of so much suppressed anger, fanned by a grueling schedule. I had the unnerving feeling that someone would hurt someone at any time." Once they left Biosphere 2, after two years and twenty minutes inside, Poynter wouldn't speak to the four of Them for over a decade. In a 2020 documentary about the experience, Spaceship Earth, a former biospherian said, "One of the reasons that our group of eight was belligerent toward each other was we were suffocating and starving." (A second, abbreviated six-month mission at Biosphere 2 with just seven people achieved food self-sufficiency-and added an on-call psychologist.)
Anyway! All that expense, drama, suffering, starvation, and heartbreak allows us to conclude that a sustainable base for yourself and six henchpeople, selected for loyalty to you and a predilection not to break off into groups and get all weird and sad, requires at least 12,700m of space, with 2,500mof that dedicated to farming. If you'd like a larger staff, increase the farmland and oxygen levels some and you're golden.
What's a Little Isolation Between Friends?
These biospherian reactions to isolation aren't unprecedented: when stuck together in places with minimal privacy, forced social interaction, and few chances to escape interpersonal conflict, humans can get a little strange.
In 1970, at the T-3 station (a small research outpost built on top of a 60-kilometer-square [km] iceberg floating in the Arctic Ocean, at the time populated by 19 isolated scientists), a dispute over a stolen jug of homemade raisin wine ended with one crew member fatally shooting another with a shotgun. In 1980, after returning from a stay on the Soviet Salyut 6 space station, cosmonaut Valery Ryumin told his diary, "O. Henry wrote in one of his stories that if you want to encourage the craft of murder, all you have to do is lock up two men for two months in an 18-by-20-foot room. Naturally, this now sounds humorous. Confidentially, a long stay even with a pleasant person is a test in itself." And in 2018, a scientist at Russia's Antarctic station was charged with grabbing a knife and stabbing a colleague he disliked in the chest: early reports said it was over him repeatedly spoiling the endings of books, a hilarious but sadly fictional motivation for murder. (The two later reconciled.)
But there's some success stories too! A NASA-sponsored base in Hawaii (the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) kept a crew of six volunteers inside its 111m dome for a full year in order to simulate what a mission to Mars might be like. The group did splinter into two ("It wasn't even two cliques as much as two tribes," crewmember Tristan Bassingthwaighte said later. "Soon, all your personal time was spent with people who weren't driving you crazy."), but there wasn't even a single murder attempt! Two of the volunteers even started a romantic relationship-which ended just after their year in the dome did, when both were no longer limited to a field of, at most, five other humans for potential suitors. Ouch.
Copyright © 2022 by Ryan North. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.