Frenchman Jules Verne’s writings started coming to America in the 1850’s. These started out as adventure stories about visiting exotic places on earth using futuristic traveling technology. They were popular and the technology of the stories and locales visited steadily got more exotic. With the popularity of these stories as an inspiration, other writers started using exotic travel technology to visit other planets and describe their exoticness. Thus began science fiction’s rise as a popular genre.
In the 1890’s and 1900’s astronomy was thriving as telescopes were getting bigger and better. Instead of just dim points of light in the sky planets became blurry images. (Crystal clear wasn’t going to happen as long as one had to look through earth’s turbulent atmosphere. This is why stars twinkle.)
One person who jumped on this astronomy bandwagon in a high-profile way was Bostonian Percival Lowell. He pushed the trend along by building bigger telescopes in the clear, thin, dark air atop the high mountains in Arizona — a lonely place in those days. From these he personally spent hours and hours observing Mars over many years, and popularized the idea that Mars was covered with canals — as he called them — that may have been built by civilized beings — he further speculated. His speculations fired the science fiction writing about ancient civilizations on Mars that became part of the Golden Age of science fiction writing — the 1930’s-50’s. These Golden Agers were not the first, H. G. Wells, for instance, wrote War of the Worlds in 1897, but they were prolific and built up a standard. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars first appeared in 1912, and the series that followed became an icon of the civilized Mars concept.
And, if Mars could have alien beings, why not other planets? Venus quickly joined the parade. Because it was Earth-sized and totally white cloud covered, sci-fi writer logic called for it to be a jungle planet.
Astronomers of the 1920’s, with physicists watching over their shoulders, observed more, deduced more, and determined that the other planets were not nearly as hospitable. The gas giants were too big and too cold, Mercury was too small and too hot, and the Moon was airless, waterless and had nothing resembling Martian canals. That left the big three — Venus, Earth and Mars — plus yet-to-be-observed planets around other stars.
Then in the 1960’s astronomical harsh reality got really harsh. With radar observing Venus’ surface, satellite telescopes observing all the planets from above the atmosphere, other satellites flying close by the planets, and one or two landing on the surfaces of Venus and Mars, it became real clear that neither Mars or Venus was currently harboring civilized life, or any kind of life, and the Golden Age for space stories was over. All that was left was Star Trek with its totally imaginary Warp Drive as a way to get from star to star quickly.
But it turns out the desire for space stories on distant planets is still strong. And given that, what can be said about these three styles of worlds?
Each of these world styles offers different setting benefits to the story teller.
Staging a story on a desert world has the benefits of simplicity and visibility. Life is simple on the desert world — keep moving and find water — and little is hidden in the clear air and endless vistas. A close cousin of the desert world is the post-apocalypse world. This is another style of world where simplicity is the virtue.
Conversely, hiding things is the biggest benefit of a jungle world. How many stories in jungle settings have held a “lost city”? (Or if the writer is on a low budget, a lost mine.) Jungles are all about losing things.
Ice worlds offer interesting architecture — things such as glacier crevasses, ice caves and ice palaces. They also offer exciting geodynamics — crashing cliffs and avalanches and hopping across floating ice chunks.
The disadvantages to all of the above is they are cliches — they have all been done many, many times.
Here are some suggestions for moving beyond these common uses:
Desert worlds reveal easily, so have them reveal interesting things. This can be interesting geology of various sorts, such as the climate used to be different, or culture was different. On a desert world military maneuvers can be seen on a grand scale, and the culture being fought over is likely to be simple and sparse. An example in real life is the fun writers have had with the North African campaigns of World War II — featuring German general Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, and Bernard Montgomery his British nemesis.
In addition to hiding things, jungles offer complexity. This is a setting where interactions between living things is complex and that can produce neat surprises. I’ve seen just two stories take advantage of this, and I liked them both. One was Symbiotica written by Eric Frank Russell in the early 1940’s, and the other I can’t remember. Use a jungle setting to reveal variety in lifestyles and interesting interdependencies, as in, ecology stuff. Having living styles that aren’t taking place in cities, lost or otherwise.
Ice worlds can be settings for “Journey to the center of the earth”-type stories. It’s much easier to have extensive ice caves and to build ice tunneling machines than it is to do so in hard rock.
21st century exotic planets
Now, in the 21st century, astronomy has advanced even more. And… we can now detect, and in some cases even barely see, the planets of other star systems! We have broken the eight planet barrier. Yay! This means we SF writers can once again be seriously speculating about what other planets are like. (Here is an 11 Jan 14 Economist article, Planetology comes of age, discussing the state of the art in 2014.)
But we don’t have to wait or go that far away to see good examples of other exotic world styles. It turns out the larger moons of the gas giants are ice worlds on the outside, and some may be liquid on the inside. One of the more exotic is Titan, the moon orbiting Saturn. Titan is an ice world with a thick atmosphere. Ice worlds with thick atmospheres that are not gas giants are not common. Titan is the only planet/moon in the solar system with this combination. The large moons of Jupiter are icy, but don’t support thick atmospheres. The planets Neptune and Uranus are icy but so pressurized deep down that the structure of the materials changes. The common compounds, such as water ice, phase shift into exotic forms. These will be very difficult for humanity to interact with using the materials we know of today. Conversely, on Titan the ice is water ice as we know it, the atmosphere is nitrogen plus organic smog, and it supports liquid ethane/methane lakes at its poles. This is exotic, real, and with quite possible real-world technology, it can be human inhabitable.