David Conyers is an Australian science fiction author and Arts and General Editor with Albedo One magazine. David Kernot is also an Australia science fiction author and editor with Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Their latest offering is Extreme Planets (from Chaosium), the first science fiction anthology of exoplanets, featuring fifteen tales of planetary exploration and colonisation by established names and newcomers to the genre.
Exoplanets or extrasolar planets, worlds orbiting stars other than our own, are being discovered at an accelerated pace and now number well over 1800. What is more fascinating is their sheer variety, and it seems cosy, stable, life-loving Earths are unusual. We are the odd-ones out in the vast galactic playground of exoplanets, but with such a variety, perhaps every planet is odd.
Out there planets exist in the extremes, from hot Jupiters boiling away in mad orbital dances within a few million kilometres of their suns, to super-Earths ten or more times massive than our home with surface gravities that only fighter pilots have ever experienced. It is speculated there are planets with oceans hundreds of kilometres thick pressing down on layers of ‘hot ice’ and ‘superfluid liquids’, and carbon planets with thick crusts of diamonds upon which it rains petrochemicals every day. And there are tidally locked worlds were it is perpetual day on one side, night on the other. Scientists postulate lava planets, desert, ice and iron planets, and massive solid planets fifty or more times the mass of the Earth. And where these exoplanets are being found is just as strange: orbiting neutron stars and binary star systems. It seems entirely possible that strange worlds might even orbit black holes.
The sheer variety of exoplanets is making us rethink science fiction. The variety of alien terrains that heroic space adventurers will now be subjected to is likely to be more bizarre than anything we’ve yet encountered. Therefore, in celebration of the recent release of our book Extreme Planets, the first anthology of exoplanet tales featuring carbon planets, water worlds, super-Earths and lava planets, we would like to draw your attention to eight classic SF novels that feature some of the strange worlds ever imagined.
Mesklin is a supergiant planet with an unusual interaction between its strong gravity and centrifugal force due to its fast rotation. The g-force gradient is extreme, starting at 3g on the equator and ending at 665g at the planet’s pole. As a result the world has an equatorial budge twice the length of the pole-to-pole axis. When humans explore the surface they find intelligent life forms in centipede-like creatures that can withstand the varying gravity.
Pyrrus is a truly unfriendly world, with gravity twice that of Earth, a severe axial tilt that results in extreme weather, frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and two moons which form unpredictable tides of 30 meters or more. To complicate matters, several supernovae have erupted in the local stellar neighbourhood irradiating the planet. With such trying conditions it’s not surprising local animals and plants have evolved to survive the extreme, and they regularly attack human colonists with incredible speed and ferocity.
On the nitrogen-methane world of Yellowstone, human inhabitants live within a huge crater spewing unusual gases that help to provide a breathable atmosphere. Inside this crater was built the strata settlement of Chasm City, safely contained underneath eighteen huge biodomes collectively known as ‘The Mosquito Net’. Once the height of human advancement and culture, Chasm City was later infected with the Melding Plague, which causes the tall skyscrapers, cybernetic implants and technology to mutate and run amok, reverting the city to a steam-aged culture.
The desert world of Arrakis, or Dune, has been praised in science fiction has being the “first planetary ecology novel on a grand scale”. Arrakis is thought to have been impacted by a comet or asteroid 50 million years ago, which depleted the planet of most of its water and oxygen, causing extinction of nearly all fauna and flora. One species that did survive was a tiny worm, which over the intervening period evolved into the gigantic 400m long sandworms.
Kaglash is a world illuminated by six suns. There configurations always provides enough light so the inhabitants have never had a need to define ‘night’, and as a result, they have never noticed other stars outside their stellar system. But every 2049 years, the stars enter a configuration where there is a moment of darkness, and a far larger universe comes into view.
The massive moon of Jinx orbits an enormous gas giant, stretched by such powerful tidal forces that it has become egg shaped. While the poles lie in vacuum and the equatorial regions feature a hot and dense atmosphere not to dissimilar to Venus, it is the bands in between that features atmospheres and temperatures breathable by humans. Due to the extreme gravity almost twice that of Earth, the local humans have grown short, squat and have become incredibly strong, but they die early due to heart and circulatory problems.
Kithrup is a water world with a high proportion of heavy metals up. The indigenous life has adapted to and incorporated metals in their biology, including metal-organic exoskeletons and skins that shine with bright, chromatic colours. Kithrup’s few islands are dominated by metallic mounds, and drill trees grow here, burrowing their metal tipped roots into the mounds to harvest the organics and silicates trapped below. Humans exposed to the seas for a lengthy period have to undergo chelation therapy to remove the excessive build-up of metals in their bodies.
Not strictly a planet, the neutron star in the Constellation of Draco certainly behaves like one, spawning life in an environment where the surface gravity is 67 billion times that of Earth. Later the cheela evolve as intelligent organisms with the volume of sesame seeds who live their lives a million times faster than humans. When explorers from Earth observe the cheela, they watch their entire civilisation rise and fall over a period of one month.