Sunday, October 14, 2012

Eclectia and other Worlds Stranger than Star Wars in Fact and Fiction

Star Wars treated its fans to visually striking worlds, from the ice planet Hoth, to the desert world Tatooine, forest moon Endor, and others covered with ocean or city or lava. Or the Death Star itself, which was essentially a fully mechanical version of the moon. These planetary bodies were generated by a relatively simple method--take a climate or condition available on the Earth we know and craft an entire world out of it.

The real universe is significantly odder that Star Wars. In our own Solar System, consider Venus. With its dense atmosphere, 92 times thicker than Earth's, at a pressure equivalent to a kilometer underneath the ocean, but hot enough to melt lead, lightning swept, with sulfuric acid rain, it forms its own particular version of hell. Or ice-covered Europa, Jupiter's moon, which highly likely has an ocean trapped under the ice, but whose surface is swept by a radiation that would be quickly fatal to humans because of charged particles trapped in Jupiter's magnetic field. George Lucas never took us any place as extreme either of these very real worlds.

Stranger still are more recently discovered planets outside the Solar System, including the discovery of a miniature solar system around a pulsar. These planets have their obits in almost exact proportion to the spacings among Mercury, Venus, and Earth and are immersed in an extended cloud of gas, around 1,500 light-years away in the constellation Virgo. The smallest and latest-discovered of these planets is no bigger than one-fifth the mass of Pluto and all the orbits are proportionally smaller than what's found in our own Solar System. But what's truly exotic about this system isn't its relatively tiny size--it's that these worlds orbit a pulsar—a former star that exploded and collapsed into a dense object that now spins 160 times per second, emitting a pulsing radio signal broadcast from the star's magnetic poles. The sun for these worlds might be nearly invisible and all other stars in the sky hidden by the dust cloud, forming worlds of perfect darkness...unless a planet's orbit intersected at some point with the magnetic pole of its star. Then for several days each orbit the sky would flash weirdly bright...

A new planetary find seems to indicate a world made of diamond based on the temperature, mass, and carbon composition of a planet that closely orbits its star. At an approximate surface temperature of 2150 degrees C (3900 degrees F), Jean-Luc Piccard won't be beaming down anytime soon--not without some kind of suit offering protection from its high temperature (and high gravity). But imagine aliens who could live under such conditions, not unlike the high-temperature crystalline Tholians imagined in Star Trek (who were actually conceived of living in conditions far less extreme, but you get the idea). Or better yet, imagine such a world formed in high temperatures which somehow got pulled away from its star, cooling enough for humans to land on this massive planet with a thick diamond crust. Such a world hollowed out, forming a sphere within, would be not unlike something I created for The Crystal Portal. But as diamond is the hardest substance known, such a world would not only allow diamond mining for jewels--it would allow mined diamond to be used for structures, for cities, or anything else. Imagine a starship carved from a single massive crystal of diamond...

Real worlds observed by the best methods available to astronomy include far more that's odd, as you can see in this Wikipedia link for Extrasolar planet. Most planets that have been discovered, of course, are not in any way realistically inhabitable, since most orbit their stars far too hot or too cold.

Science fiction of a more realistic stripe than Star Wars has at times portrayed living creatures on the most extreme of possible worlds. For example, in 1980 Robert Forward produced Dragon's Egg, which portrays life being somehow possible on the surface of a neutron star (a.k.a. pulsar). This imaginary life is made of highly compacted matter--neutronium life--thriving under conditions completely incompatible with human life. 

Not surprisingly, science fiction usually portrays places humans can inhabit, though many of these are inhospitable. As early as 1935 Stanley Weinbaum penned Parasite Planet, set in a jungle on Venus (not well known in 1935) far more hostile to human life than any jungle of Earth. Even a single unsuited exposure to air would bring an attack of killer fungi that would literally eat a human being alive...

The Planet Eclectia of the newly-minted Avenir Eclectia collection (which I helped edit and wrote stories for), is itself barely on the edge of inhabitable. Pulled by heavy moons into a wobble so fast that the world shifts from winter to summer and back every five days, Eclectia has a badly fractured crust, continual earthquakes, and an atmosphere choked with volcanic ash. If not for the two separated oceans that cover each of its poles teeming with life to produce oxygen, the world would be altogether uninhabitable...but for humans, even these oceans are dangerous, subject to sudden tsunamis, with vicious aliens eager to take human life lurking in the depths. Hostile life isn't limited to the ocean depths, since giant bugs roam the surface of the planet, always ready to attack.

It's noteworthy that even under these extreme circumstances, people find the will to survive and to even thrive. And that some of the most dangerous enemies human beings face, even in extreme conditions, remain other human beings...

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1 comment:

  1. Yep, and that's why I love eccentric Eclectia so. She seems to me to be more realistic than the pretty places of Star Wars and others.

    The Earth is such a beautiful and diverse place, and so human friendly, life friendly. Most of the rest of the Universe is nothing like it. Most other places, including most planet surfaces, are hostile to life as we know it.

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