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Solar System Tour
Welcome to The Universe Next Door! In this quarterly blog, I will be bringing you themed articles on science fiction, including reading recommendations from our collection. So if you’re a fan of rockets, robots and little green men, you’ve come to the right place.
We’ll start with a tour of our local neighborhood: the solar system. Science fiction writers have been plonking human heroes down on other planets pretty much as long as science fiction has been a thing. Starting with the sun and moving out to the Oort cloud, I’ll share my favorite works of science fiction that have taken place on each planet (or other significant landmark.) Share your own favorite planetary books and movies in the comments!
Mercury has always been a pretty hard sell for colonists, even in the imaginations of sci-fi authors. It doesn’t really have an atmosphere to speak of, it’s tiny, and it’s way too close to the sun. The sunny side of the planet is hot enough to melt lead, while the night side is cold enough to reduce oxygen to a liquid. However, if you can overcome these drawbacks, you’ve got a limitless supply of solar energy and one of the richest concentrations of heavy metals in the solar system, making it a good place for industry.
My favorite idea for colonizing Mercury is Kim Stanley Robinson’s city of Terminus. An entire city on rails, it constantly moves to stay in the twilight zone between night and day, saving it from being broiled or frozen. 2312 is mostly concerned with a murder mystery, but the strange setting of the rolling city makes Terminus the real star.
Venus is just awful. It’s even hotter than Mercury due to a runaway greenhouse effect, the pressure at the surface is like being under half a mile of water, there are volcanoes everywhere, and the most common weather conditions are hurricane-force winds laced with sulfuric acid. If someone offers you a trip to Venus, politely decline.
However, back in the 19th century, serious scientists looked at the clouds covering Venus and theorized that it was probably a warm, rainy planet covered in swamps and jungles, not unlike the Cretaceous period on Earth. Science fiction writers then spent a happy century populating Venus with dinosaurs and decadent jungle civilizations, until the Russians ruined everything with their Venera probes.
Old Venus is a collection of short stories which throw out everything we’ve discovered about Venus in the 20th century, because jungles and dinosaurs are way better for narrative purposes than boiling acid hurricanes. The list of authors include some of the best people writing science fiction today, so you may discover a new favorite writer along the way!
The moon has been the target of exploration and colonization for countless science fiction writers going back to the ancient Greeks. It’s close, it doesn’t try extremely hard to kill colonists, and we know how to get there. There are many serious thinkers who think that permanent human settlement of the moon is inevitable within the next few generations.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress explores what might happen if we don’t treat our colonists right. A moon colony, founded to exploit the natural resources of the moon, declares independence from the nations of Earth. Heinlein uses the rebellion to explore themes of politics, technology, and why you don’t pick a fight with someone sitting at the top of your gravity well.
Mars is the top candidate for the next world humanity is likely to set foot on. We know that there’s plenty of water there, and we have the technology to go there just as soon as we get the funding and political will. And while signs of life have been surprisingly elusive, it’s still on the short list of the most likely places in the solar system to harbor extraterrestrial bacteria.
The Martian is a near-future adventure following the struggles of a marooned astronaut to survive until he can be rescued. The protagonist is smart and funny, and the narrative is lively while remaining tied to real science and technology. Plus, it’s currently being adapted into a movie starring Matt Damon. This is one of the books on the list I’d recommend to people who don’t normally read science fiction.
The Asteroid Belt
While not actually a planet, the zone of free-floating asteroids between Mars and Jupiter are likely to be a hot spot of human activity in the not-too-distant future. Metallic asteroids pose a tempting target for space-based mining, since any materials mined from asteroids could be returned to Earth orbit at practically no cost. Companies such as SpaceX are already working on plans to mine asteroids, with studies suggesting that one medium-sized asteroid could provide more precious metals than have been mined on Earth in all of human history.
Orson Scott Card opens his prequel to the classic Ender’s Game among mining families in the asteroid belt. While the main plot of the story concerns mysterious aliens from beyond the solar system, his detailed descriptions of the daily life and culture of these spacefaring clans are some of the most interesting passages in the book.
Jupiter seems pretty hostile at first glance. A gas giant, it doesn’t have anything resembling a solid surface, and the crushing gravity and pressure at its core mean that familiar gases like hydrogen or oxygen are compressed into exotic metallic compounds. However, its plethora of moons provide plenty of terrain for exploration, and the sheer size of its atmosphere means there are altitudes where the temperature and pressure are pleasantly Earth-like.
Ben Bova explores this idea in Leviathans of Jupiter, suggesting that life forms similar to gigantic jellyfish could thrive by floating in the Jovian atmosphere. Bova’s knack of combining feasible future technology with intricate personal drama makes this one of the more fascinating books set in Jupiter’s neighborhood.
With its iconic rings, Saturn has captured the human imagination since the time of Galileo. Like Jupiter, Saturn lacks a solid surface on which to have adventures, but features a healthy selection of moons and an atmosphere in which floating colonies could be founded.
In Kubrick’s film version of 2001, the original destination of the Discovery One was changed to Jupiter, and then largely ignored in favor of claustrophobic showdowns with the murderous HAL computer. In the book, the ship was instead bound for Saturn. Clarke uses the Saturnian system as a surreal backdrop to explore themes of humanity and the perils of technology.
Uranus is an odd planet. The first of two “ice giants,” it is in many ways a smaller, colder copy of Jupiter and Saturn. However, its atmosphere is far more active than scientists predicted based on its low temperature, and it is the only planet in the solar system that rotates “sideways” in respect to its orbit around the sun.
One of its main selling points for future explorers are the various light and volatile gases that make up its atmosphere, many of which could be harvested for fuel. In A World out of Time, Larry Niven takes advantage of these gases to transform Uranus itself into a massive fusion reactor. The resulting energy is then used in an attempt to move Earth further from the sun, whose increasing brightness threatens to render the planet uninhabitable.
Neptune is a boring garbage planet where nothing interesting ever happens, even in the future. If a good story has ever been told about Neptune, I wasn’t able to find it. Stupid Neptune.
For whatever reason, Pluto has always captured the public imagination all out of proportion to its size and distance. From its discovery to its contentious demotion to dwarf planet up through the recent conclusion of the New Horizons flyby, Pluto has always been the favorite solar system underdog.
While Joe Haldeman’s classic military sci-fi novel The Forever War eventually follows its heroes across vast spans of space and time, some of its most arresting scenes take place during boot camp on Pluto. The unimaginably hostile and alien conditions on Pluto are an apt analogy for Haldeman’s personal experiences as an infantryman in Vietnam.