Stars and planetary systems in fiction

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Stars outside of the Solar System and their planets have been featured as settings in works of fiction since at least the 1854 novel Star ou Psi de Cassiopée (English title: Star: Psi Cassiopeia) by C. I. Defontenay, which depicts aliens living in the planetary system around Psi Cassiopeiae. Most of these fictional stars and planets do not vary significantly from the Sun and Earth, respectively. Exceptions include anthropomorphized stars and planets with sentience, planets without stars, and planets in multiple-star systems where the orbital mechanics can lead to exotic day–night or seasonal cycles. Besides systems of fictional stars, several real ones have also made appearances in fiction, with the nearest one—Alpha Centauri—receiving particular attention.

Types[edit]

Stars[edit]

For the most part, stars in fiction vary only in size and colour. Exceptions to this are rare and appear comparatively lately in the history of science fiction.[1] A toroidal star is featured in Donald Malcolm's 1964 short story "Beyond the Reach of Storms".[1][2] Sentient stars are depicted in Olaf Stapledon's 1937 novel Star Maker among others.[1][3][4] A handful of works depict lifeforms on or even inside of stars, such as the 1980 novel Dragon's Egg by Robert L. Forward and the 1993 novel Flux by Stephen Baxter, respectively; in both of these stories, the stars in question are neutron stars.[3][5] Some stories including Bob Shaw's 1975 novel Orbitsville depict stars being enclosed by Dyson spheres.[3]

Planets[edit]

Most extrasolar planets in fiction are similar to Earth—referred to in the Star Trek franchise as Class M planets—though there are several exceptions.[6]

Exotic shapes[edit]

Various exotic planetary shapes appear in fiction.[7] In Hal Clement's 1953 novel Mission of Gravity, the planet Mesklin's rapid rotation causes it to be shaped roughly like a flat disk and gravity is consequently about 200 times weaker at the equator than it is at the poles.[6][7][8] Another disk-shaped planet is the Discworld of Terry Pratchett's 1983–2015 book series of that name, a flat world which is carried on the backs of elephants that are in turn carried on the back of a turtle, with the arrangement orbited by the world's sun.[6][9] Bizarro World in the Superman franchise is a cubic planet, rendered that shape by the actions of Superman.[6][7] Earth itself gets turned into a cube in Henry H. Gross's 1987 short story "Cubeworld", and an altogether artificial planet-sized cube is the setting of G. David Nordley's 2009 novel To Climb a Flat Mountain.[7] Double planets close enough together to share an atmosphere through their Roche lobes appear in Homer Eon Flint's 1921 short story "The Devolutionist", the 1982 novel Rocheworld by Robert L. Forward, and Charles Sheffield's 1990 novel Summertide.[7][10][11] A planet in the shape of a torus is the setting of Flint's 1921 short story "The Emancipatrix", being the result of the protoplanetary disk condensing so quickly that it did not coalesce into a spherical shape first; an artificial planet-sized torus also appears in John P. Boyd [Wikidata]'s 1981 short story "Moonbow", while Larry Niven wrote of a much larger toroidal megastructure in space in the 1970 novel Ringworld and a much smaller one in the 1973 novel Protector.[7] Arthur C. Clarke's 1949 short story "The Wall of Darkness" is set on a planet bounded by a wall in the shape of an Alice handle, a three-dimensional equivalent of a Möbius strip.[6][12]

In multiple star systems[edit]

Refer to caption
Schematic diagram of the orbits in a binary star system. One planet is in a P-type, or circumbinary, orbit around both stars. Another planet is in an S-type, or circumstellar, orbit around only one of the two stars. Circumbinary planets are sometimes nicknamed "Tatooine worlds" after the Star Wars planet.[13]

Planets in multiple star systems have attracted attention from science fiction writers, especially in terms of what kind of life would exist on planets with more than one sun and how history might be cyclical as a result of the "long year" that occurs if the orbital period around one of the stars is very lengthy.[10][14][15] Isaac Asimov's 1941 short story "Nightfall" portrays a planet which is in constant daylight from at least one of its six suns for millennia at a time before a single night of true darkness, which is a much-anticipated event,[5][14][16] and Mark Hodder's 2012 novel A Red Sun Also Rises is set on a planet where a dim red sun rises at the same time as the planet's twin white suns set.[14] Hal Clement's 1957 novel Cycle of Fire depicts a planet in a binary star system where the seasons last for decades and different species dominate the hot and cold parts of the year,[6][10][15] Poul Anderson's 1974 novel Fire Time portrays a planet where the majority of the surface becomes uninhabitable approximately once a millennium when it makes a close approach to one of its stars and mass migration of the native lifeforms ensues,[14] and Brian Aldiss' 1982–1985 Helliconia trilogy is set on a planet where the orbital mechanics lead to century-long seasons and there are two distinct ecosystems—one adapted to the short period around the closer star and another adapted to the long year around the more distant one.[6][11][14][15][17] The 1985 anthology Medea: Harlan's World is a collaborative effort between Harlan Ellison and several other science fiction writers consisting of several stories set on the same planet in such a system.[6][10] The 2002 television series Firefly is set in a system of five stars each orbited by its own planetary system, all close enough to each other to permit easy travel between the worlds.[14]

Physical environment[edit]

Portraying planets with conditions that differ significantly from Earth's in terms of physical environment has been a recurring practice since the middle of the 1900s.[11] Many of these stories imagine how indigenous lifeforms might be adapted to those conditions.[18][19] The high gravity of Mesklin in Clement's Mission of Gravity thus results in its inhabitants having a centipede-like body structure,[6][7][19][20] while the low gravity yet dense atmosphere in Poul Anderson's 1958 novel War of the Wing-Men makes it possible for humanoid creatures to fly using their own wings.[6][11][19] Desert planets are common; astrophysicist Elizabeth Stanway posits that this is because the setting strikes the right balance between novelty and familiarity to most audiences, in addition to the relative inhospitality providing a survival aspect to the narrative.[21] One of the most prominent examples thereof is Arrakis in Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune, where the extreme scarcity of water influences all aspects of the planet's ecology and society.[6][11][20][21][22] Less extreme desert conditions are found on the Star Wars planet Tatooine, with more plentiful and varied lifeforms as a result.[21]

Other[edit]

Other types of planets in fiction include starless ones as in the 1934 short story "The Sunless World" by Neil R. Jones and the 1977 novel Dying of the Light by George R. R. Martin,[10][23] and sentient ones as in the 1961 novel Solaris by Stanisław Lem and its 1972 and 2002 film adaptations.[4][6][24] Sentient planets are relatively rarely portrayed in fiction when compared to sentient stars, but the related concept of an entire planetary ecosphere as a single organism—known as the Gaia hypothesis—is not uncommon; one such example is found in Isaac Asimov's 1982 novel Foundation's Edge.[4][25] Science fiction writers sometimes use exobiology as a form of worldbuilding, describing alien ecosystems and how humans do or do not fit into them; the desert planet Arrakis in Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune is a particularly detailed example thereof.[6][18]

Planetary systems of real stars[edit]

Alpha Centauri[edit]

The Alpha Centauri system is the closest star system to Earth—with Proxima Centauri being the closest of the system's stars—which has given it a special position in science fiction literature. Several stories of the first interstellar journeys have featured it as the intended destination. Among the earliest examples are the 1931 short story "Across the Void" by Leslie F. Stone and the 1935 short story "Proxima Centauri" by Murray Leinster.[1][26] The spacecraft in the latter reaches its destination in less than a decade but has the capacity to function as a generation starship if needed; the use of an actual generation starship headed for the system was later depicted in the 1944 novel Far Centaurus by A. E. van Vogt,[27][28] and the 1997 novel Alpha Centauri by William Barton and Michael Capobianco portrays such a mission being endangered by terrorists.[1][29]

Psi Cassiopeiae[edit]

Psi Cassiopeiae made one of the earliest appearances as a setting in a work of fiction of any star system in the 1854 novel Star ou Psi de Cassiopée (English title: Star: Psi Cassiopeia) by C. I. Defontenay.[1][2][30] The novel, described by science fiction editor David Pringle as "the first detailed evocation of an alien solar system",[31] depicts immortal aliens inhabiting the planets orbiting the stars.[30][32][10][33]

Tau Ceti[edit]

The Tau Ceti system is a common setting in science fiction.[34][35] James Nicoll, writing for Tor.com, attributes this to a confluence of factors that make it the nearest star (at approximately 12 light-years) that could plausibly have a planetary system with habitable planets, including having a favourable brightness and being a solitary rather than multiple star.[35] In 2015, Andrew Liptak [Wikidata] interviewed several authors about why they used Tau Ceti for their stories; in addition to the star's relative proximity to Earth, Ursula K. Le Guin (who wrote The Dispossessed, 1974) and Larry Niven (The Legacy of Heorot, 1987, with Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes) cited the star's similarity to the Sun, while Kim Stanley Robinson (Aurora, 2015) pointed to the recent discovery of several exoplanets around Tau Ceti.[34]

See also[edit]

A photomontage of the eight planets and the MoonNeptune in fictionUranus in fictionSaturn in fictionJupiter in fictionMars in fictionEarth in science fictionMoon in science fictionVenus in fictionMercury in fiction
Clicking on a planet leads to the article about its depiction in fiction.

References[edit]

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  5. ^ a b McKinney, Richard L. (2005). "Stars". In Westfahl, Gary (ed.). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 751–753. ISBN 978-0-313-32952-4.
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  29. ^ Stableford, Brian (2004). "Barton, William R.". Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature. Scarecrow Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-8108-4938-9. Alpha Centauri (1997), in which terrorists plague the colony ship which is humankind's last hope
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  33. ^ Stableford, Brian (2004) [1976]. "Star (Psi Cassiopeia)". In Barron, Neil (ed.). Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction (5th ed.). Westport, Connecticut: Libraries unlimited. p. 179. ISBN 978-1-59158-171-0. A pioneering account of life in the vicinity of Star, a world in a solar system that has three principal suns and a miniature sun that orbits Star along with four satellite planets. The multicolored light from these various sources has kaleidoscopic effects on the surface of Star, which is inhabited by variously sized humanoids whose history—involving forced migrations to its inhabited neighbors—is elaborately described.
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Further reading[edit]