The Complete Idiot's Guide To Known Space

This review courtsey of the excellent
By Republibot 3.0,
Complete Idiot

Part 2

Despite the fact that Science Fiction doesn't *have* to have anything to do with space, the rocket ship has been the officially unofficial logo of the genre since the earliest days of the twentieth century. This is fitting since so much of SF is about travel, about human expansion and exploration, about getting to, and pushing back the frontiers, or about stuff that happens on the way to those frontiers. What better catch-all icon than the vehicle that makes it all possible? Just as the horse is a vehicle and a central image of the western, so the spaceship is a vehicle and a central image of speculative fiction.

A vehicle implies a destination, however, some place on those frontiers that you want to get to for whatever reason - a new start for the Human Race, or maybe just to kill a day at the Venusian outlet mall - you've got to have some place you want to get to, and nineteen times out of twenty that destination is a planet. So if there's a huge preponderance of American stories about people on spacecraft having adventures going to and from places, there's only a slightly smaller number of stories about people having adventures on the exotic alien worlds they've traveled to. That follows, right? Just as one thing leads to another, that's part of the equation of space-based Science Fiction, right? And it always has been.

Which is what makes it so strange that *most* of the actual planets you come across in Science Fiction are so damn unimaginative. They hardly seem worth the trip.

If you go by the example of any iteration of Star Trek, then the universe would seem to be composed of endless planets exactly like Southern California, most of them including an exact duplicate of Vasquez Rocks, evidently the most common geological feature in the universe. If we use the (generally superior) Stargate franchise, the universe seems to be made up of one desert planet and endless numbers of Pacific Northwest planets with the occasional renaissance faire. "Planet Cascadia," I like to call it. The recent Battlestar Galactica revival improved things started out with several Planet Cascadias, but at least managed to show a series of uninhabitable and marginally-habitable planets. While none of these worlds were particularly exotic or at least interesting, at least they got across the idea that the universe is not nearly so friendly towards life as television cliché has led us to believe, and most of it is useless rock and poisonous gas.

Obviously the exigencies of television production are the reason behind this woeful lack of imagination on Television SF: Budgets are limited, so the planet of the week tends to look a lot like the general area where the show is filmed. I'm not being hypercritical here, and I'm fully aware that television SF is generally a watered-down lowered-expectations version of its literary counterpart, but my point is that if you go by what we've seen, one planet is pretty much like another, and that becomes rather depressingly boring fairly quickly.

Ah, but what about movies? Bigger budgets, more thought and time goes in to their production, there must be some exotic worlds on display there, yes? Well, yeah, but we're essentially exchanging one set of clichés here for another. Whereas on TV we have an endless parade of earthlike planets, in films we tend to have an endless parade of what I like to call "Elemental Worlds" - that is, planets who's entire surface is given over to one particular climate, as unlikely as that may be from any logical point of view.

Star Wars is the handiest example here, but of course there are others: you've got the Desert World of Tattoine (And Abydos from Stargate: the movie, and the moon of M6-117 from Pitch Black), the Ice World of Hoth, the Jungle Planet of Dagobah, the water world of Kamino (And Solaris from the movie of the same name), The Forrest worlds of Endor and Kashyyyk, the city planet Coruscant, and most interestingly, the air-planet of Bespin.

These are indisputably more interesting and exotic and fun to look at compared with the backlot planets we see on TV, and they're rather interesting on their own merits, independent of comparison to their various small-screen cousins. But again, there is something a bit...a bit too...homey about all these worlds, isn't there? I mean Endor is obviously just a redwood forest on steroids, Hoth is clearly just a particularly bad winter in Norway, Tattoine is just an unpleasantly hot day at the beach during (Very) low tide. All this stuff is immediately recognizable as stuff we already know. It's fun, it's exotic-ish, but it's not what you'd really call "Inventive." More thought goes in to it than on television, but not *Very* much more thought.

What about literary SF? Well, yeah, you've got occasional oddities like Hal Clement's Mesklin from "Mission of Gravity" and Robert Forward's Rocheworld from his series of the same name, charmingly odd biospheres of the worlds from Stanley Weinbaum's stories, but to a surprising extent the planets in print are just as dull as the ones on the big and little screens. I'm not saying they're all boring or unimaginative by a long shot, but I am saying that a disproportionately large number of them are depressingly familiar. Depressing because a novel or short story has no budgetary concerns, and hence is limited only by the imagination of the author (See: Stanley Weinbaum again) or the lack thereof (See: well, I'll be nice and not name names.). I like to call these "MacGuffin" planets, since they're frequently more plot device than actual location, the place the good guys want to get to on their ship, and then they do, lower the curtain, the end. Not important beyond being the end for which they strive.

Which brings me - laboriously - around to Known Space.

Niven's Known Space worlds are - most of them anyway - almost a deliberate rebellion against sameness, and a glorious and fun-filled rebellion it is.

Take "Canyon" for instance: Originally an uninhabitable mars-like world named "Warhead" and owned by the alien Kzin who used it merely as a forward base. Humans hit it with the mother of all beam weapons, carving a gash in its surface the size and rough shape of the Baja Peninsula, but miles deep. The aliens lost the war and ceded the planet over to humanity. Meanwhile, the tenuous atmosphere of the planet sank in to the now-cooled gash, which ended up more-or-less accidentally full of all the breathable air and useful water on the world. (Water rolls downhill. So do gasses, eventually) while the rest of the planet outside this monstrous valley became even less inhabitable, and only slightly less of a hard vacuum than the earth's moon. Thus you've got a large, comfortable island of life on an utterly hostile world. Any way you slice it, that's pretty cool!

"Warhead" was renamed "Canyon" when humans go it because a running gag in Known Space is that the least inventive thing about its planets is their names. This annoys some people. It doesn't annoy me, since I come from a planet called "Earth." "Earth," of course means "Dirt" or (on a good day) "Land," which, let's face it, is pretty bland as names go. And it seems to follow Tolkein's saw about how humans always give things the least imaginative names possible: 'if it's a lake in the shape of a finger, humans will name it 'finger lake' and so on.'

This theme of a comfortable island in the middle of a hostile world is a recurring one in Known Space. Take, for instance, the planet "Plateau" in the Tau Ceti solar system, about 12 light years from earth. This planet is effectively the photo-negative of Canyon: It's Venus-like and enshrouded in the kind of hellish weather and temperature you'd expect to find on that planet. However just like the real Venus, the atmosphere isn't toxic and caustic and kiln-hot all the way from the ground to space. On Venus we suspect that there's a strata of breathable air about twenty-five miles above the surface, and of course Plateau has one of these, too. The big difference between Venus and Niven's fictional Plateau is this: At some point in the distant past there was an unexplained catastrophe that caused the planet to build a continent-sized mountain which happens to intersect with this strata. Venus, meanwhile, has no such thing. Thus, humans can live comfortably on the mountain where it falls within this liveable range. Fortunately "Mount Lookithat" (Named when the first human to see it screamed "Lookithat!" in horror) has several large, overlapping plateaus in that altitude range.

Total liveable area on Plateau? Roughly equal to the surface area of Southern California, on a planet about 95% the size of earth.

We're told that "Mount Lookithat" is gradually sinking back in to the crust, and human habitation there is ultimately temporary, but "Temporary" in this case refers to geological time, so they've got ten or twenty thousand years until it's a problem.

Or let's look at Jinx in the Sirius solar system about eight and a half light years from earth: Jinx is not actually a planet but a planet-sized moon of a gas giant planet like Jupiter. Its orbit is so close to the planet that tidal forces have stretched it out like an oval. The moon has water and air and plant life, of course, but owing to its unique shape, there are comparatively narrow ranges where these can exist. The ends of the oval - or tips of the football if you will - extend clear out of the Jinxian atmosphere in to hard vacuumed, so this is naturally where the spaceports and heavy industry are located. Meanwhile, at the equator the atmosphere is dense enough to choke you, and that's where the oceans are located too. Between the vacuum poles and the hellish over-oxygenated and mostly-flooded tropical regions are two bands of liveable land, one on either side of the equator. It's actually easier and safer to take a spacecraft from one of these bands to the other than it is to travel through the tropics to get there. Again, how super-cool and exotic is that? It's described in the stories as looking like "God's Own Easter egg."

The uncool side of Jinx is its gravity. It is larger and more dense than Earth, hence gravity there is nearly twice that of earth - just below 1.8 G, and earth is of course 1.0 G. Jinxians - humans who emigrated from earth - have had to breed themselves to withstand it. They tend to be short, very stout, unusually strong, and die young of heart problems. Neat looking, but definitely not my preferred tourist destination. Niven himself notes that the first batch of colonists quickly began swearing a lot...

"We Made It," a planet orbiting the star Procyon just under 12 light years from earth, requires a bit more explanation. Unlike the examples mentioned above, "We Made It" is generally habitable, or at least livable anywhere on its surface, much like our own world is. However: You know how Earth and the other planets in our solar system all orbit roughly in a plane around the sun? And earth's axis is at (very roughly) a right angle to that plane of orbits. Thus, our world whirls about on it's axis while more gradually orbiting the sun. Everyone knows this, right? Well in the case of "We Made It," the planet's plane of orbit and its axis are both the same thing, like the planet Uranus in our own system.

This is hard to picture with words. Imagine the planet spinning on its side, rather than spinning like a top. What this means is that essentially at one point in the planet's year its north pole is pointing directly at the sun, and six (local) months later the south pole is pointing at the sun. As a result of this, the weather is amazingly fierce, getting worse continually as the Procyon reaches its zenith over a pole, then gradually getting better as it moves away again, and worsening as it approaches the other pole. Lather, rinse, repeat, forever. There's only a month or two in the whole local year in which the weather is what we'd consider 'earth normal', during which the colonists can go outdoors. They live underground the rest of the time, but they tend to sing on cliffside to celebrate their breif respite above.

At first glance "Silvereyes" (In an unspecified solar system about 20 Light Years from earth) would appear to be an elemental water-world. And it is, but with a twist: Sunflowers - genetically engineered exobiological weapon - have landed on the planet, taken root, and grown from the ocean floor all the way to the surface miles above. Thus there are five perfectly round continent-sized masses evenly spaced around the equator of the planet that are made entirely of these plants and their mats of vegetation. From space, if you see the planet full-on in daylight, you can only see two of these plant colonies at any given time, and they look like eyes on an otherwise blank face, hence the name. Niven hasn't spent much detail on this world, but obviously a planet with a comfortable temperature, plenty of water, and a breathable atmosphere is simply too good to waste, so its been colonized. The humans here appear to live in floating sea habitats similar to the ones in Marshall Savage's "Millenium Project" if you're generous, or kinda' like big deep sea oil drilling rigs if you're not. Either way, they're located far away from the Sunflower colonies, since those things are deadly on their own, and in the giga-numbers found on this planet, well, best to keep twice the distance you need methinks.

And of course no discussion of exotic worlds in Known Space would be complete with the best-known example of Big Dumb Objects in literature: The Ringworld, but I'm going to save that for another day simply because it's not a natural phenomenon.

The reason for all this marginally-habitable whackness is a running gag about some poorly-programmed interstellar probes that inadvertently were instructed to look for "Habitable regions" rather than "Earth-like worlds." Colonists sent to these destinations on slow one-way-only starships were stranded in these generally not-unpleasant gulags, and had to make a go of it or die.

That's not to say that every Known Space world is so inherently fascinating, Niven has his share of "Backlots": Wunderland in Alpha Centauri is basically a lower-gravity version of earth with an extra moon. "Home" is basically another Planet SoCal. "Gummidgy" appears to be an elemental forest world. "Margrave" may be too. "Down" is basically SoCal orbiting a red sun. "Fafnir" is an admixture of an elemental water world and a SoCal planet. Think of it as "Isla California."

The point is not that every planet has to be completely unique in the annals of science fiction. Rather, the point is that all of Niven's Known Space places *Feel* like a place, and that place doesn't feel like here. Even when they're only hanging in the backgrounds of stories - an offhand mention, a flashback, a brief stopover, whatever - these worlds have some heft and identity to them. They may not all be as different as Canyon and Silvereyes, but even the less unprecedented worlds are at least as different as, say, Corsica and Hawaii.

This, more than anything else, is what grabbed me about Known Space as a kid: The fact that there were strange worlds - loveable and liveable, but unlike our own - and plenty of 'em. The kinds of places where everything isn't instantly familiar, but it isn't oppressively alien and hostile either (Excepting maybe Jinx). New worlds that humans colonize give birth to small, isolated colonies that have to be self-supporting, and go centuries with very infrequent contact with the homeworld. Cultures emerge and develop to fit the local environment and the local realpolitik. By the time most of the stories take place, most people can be recognized on sight as coming from this world or that. There is a sense that speciation is gradually affecting humanity, that even though we're all still the same species, clearly eventually we won't be. Humanity is becoming alien. And how cool is that? (Answer: Very Cool). These changes and developments in society and biology brought about by these strange new exotic environments is something I hope to get in to at another time.

All this beggars the question: Why is there so little imagination in planet-building in Science Fiction? Ok, we know why in the visual media: budget and whatever planet you cook up has to be something people with an7th grade science education can understand. But in books? Even in print, for every We Made It we find scores of boring just-like-earth planets. What's the excuse for that?

Myself, I think it's a vicious feedback loop: People see endless Backlot planets on TV, and not being of a curious or scientific mindset they go on to assume this is what planets have to be like. Then they only feel comfortable reading books set on planets like that, or they go on to write books themselves never realizing there are other options. I did a survey a year or two ago where I asked people to list the top five most exotic, non-earth-like planets they could think of. Predictably the Star Wars worlds swamped the list, but to my surprise I had difficulty even making my readers understand the question. I explained the concept of "Liveable, but not earthlike" in some detail, and ended up with replies all going on about various nasty alien plants and animals, which, though interesting, have little to do with questions about unusual planet logy. In the end, most didn't understand, and the few who did couldn't think of any real examples that I didn't already have on my list. ("Mogo," the Green Lantern planet being the one exception) It was depressing.

In explaining why I like the Known Space worlds so much - they feel like places I'd actually want to visit, and it feels like just a fun place to explore - a friend of mind found the descriptions of the more notable worlds to be appalling and intimidating. 'A marginally habitable world? How horrible! That's hellish! Who would want to live in such a place?' I pointed out that most of earth is useless to us, and much of it is actively hostile, and she eventually admitted I was right and that she's never thought of it that way, but I don't think the realization made Canyon any more palatable to her, I think it just made Earth seem a bit worse.

Sad as it seems, I think we have to accept the fact that there's some intellectual inbreeding in SF and its gone to the point where many people get all fuzzy-round-the-edges at the thought of something *other* than what we see on TV, or out the window. They're uncomfortable with the notion of 'place,' which is what Known Space is based around.

But if the place you're going to is exactly like the place you left, then what's the point in even going?

And that's the central reason I keep coming back to Known Space.

copyright © 2009, Republibot 3.0

On to The Complete Idiot's Guide to Known Space, Part 2.