Using a real planet for a story: Criteria to consider

Book cover of an edition of Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

I love what Anne McAffrey did in The Dragonriders of Pern Series to make the planet Pern feel like a believable possibility.

When I started reading McAffrey’s Dragonriders, series, I was happily engrossed in a fantasy setting with a medieval. This was true right up until she introduced major science fiction elements in book #12: The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall. This book showed how the people from a space ship had landed on Pern. Then, they had to learn very quickly how to deal with the land-destroying Thread. A planetary orbital issues causes this threat to their new planet.

Whoa!, why did the science show up in my medieval fantasy read?

I realized that I liked this twist on the classical medieval dragon story. I liked the idea of a “scientific” genesis to the creation of the first colony on Pern. Another aspect that I liked was the idea that knowledge was forgotten and the society had changed into their version of a “Dark Ages.” The first book begins with that society struggling to remember how their ancestors had dealt with the Thread threat. They discovered clues and warning signals left behind to help future generations.

This play on past and present reminded me of our own modern collective unconscious. Are we the product of aliens? Are aliens visiting us in real time? According to some researchers and theorists, the evidence studying the past with our modern tools seems to suggest this is so. Truth or lie, proven or not, some people have been exploring this aspect. Furthermore, the ideas are not held as closely guarded secrets, but are televised and published. Quietly, these ideas are becoming part of the collective unconscious.

This play on past and present reminded me of our own modern collective unconscious.

There’s a feeling of awe and wonder about the cool tech that might have been available. There’s a fascination with how the people might have behaved, dressed, ate, governed themselves, and the list goes on.

I wonder what future archaeologists will have to say about New York when they uncover the great skyscrapers. What will they make of the purpose of Central Park?

Why my story requires a real planet

Ever since I read McAffrey’s Dragonriders series, I actively look for stories to read that blend elements of fantasy and science fiction in unusual ways.

For example:Book cover of C.J. Cherryh's The Faded Sun Trilogy

  • The movie Avatar blends elements normally reserved for fantasy stories and integrates them with elements of military space fiction. Powerful commercial and military Earth interests, mirroring contemporary attitudes, justify extracting minerals from another planet. We discover on this new planet, Pandora, elements that we associate with traditionally fantastical elements. Spiritual elements are also threaded into the story.
  • The Mri people in The Faded Sun trilogy love to travel the stars while some of their people never leave their home town. The author C.J. Cherryh pieces together a fascinating approach to star travel by a group of aliens similar to humans yet organized and motivated in very different ways.
  • How about wizards in space? In The Magitech Chronicles Chris Fox weaves a story about mages in tech armor that help them funnel magic as they defend their quadrant of space from obliteration by dark dragons.

I want to write stories that experiment with this blending of fantasy and science fiction elements.

For that reason, the current work-in-progress requires a real planet.

I read and studied a lot of books on world-building, I learned that founding your story in what seems and feels real makes the story more believable.

The sense of wonder critically requires the reader’s believing that this could really be. And that’s probably the main reason to use real science in a story. Skillfully done—as background, not lecture—it imbues a sense of reality that can carry your reader along, that can elicit the willing suspension of disbelief almost unconsciously.” – Stephen L. Gillett, World-Building: A writer’s guide to constructing star systems and life-supporting planets

I’m excited that recent space exploration findings have revealed a planet that meets all the criteria for my story.

What were the criteria to decide which real planet to use for the story?

Artist rendering of four Earth-class planets
Earth-class Planets Line Up from NASA

As the story and backstories evolved, it became clear that the location of the story required:

  1. A real star system
  2. Enough distance from Earth to require several generations to travel in space
  3. Close enough to Earth for astronauts in the near enough future (200-500 years) to get there within 200 years
  4. At least two habitable planets (preferably more)

Listed this way, developing a plausible environment in this star system feels like a lot of work.

Yet environment, especially in speculative fiction, is crucial.

An environment affects its inhabitants profoundly, and that goes especially for an alien world. Working out how their planet will affect its inhabitants (and any visitors) is a fruitful source of the conflict and details that animate a story.” – Stephen L. Gillett, World-Building: A writer’s guide to constructing star systems and life-supporting planets

So, figuring out how the environment affects the story world and the characters within it helps the story feel more real. This is so because the world feels like a real possibility to the audience.

The planet I plan to use for my story

In fact, I found a star system with planetary formations that meet the criteria.

Scientists have named the system TRAPPIST-1.

A Space.com article headline announces how TRAPPIST-1 has seven Earth-like planets, of which three and possibly four, are sitting within the “habitable” range orbiting a red dwarf star.

>>>What to name the story world? Should it be named after a planet? What if it has a boring scientific name? Criteria to guide the work based on other author examples. Naming a story world: Examples to consider.

What are the implications on the story world using a real planet?

Artist rendering of the size of TRAPPIST-1 system's sun in relation to the orbit of its planets
Abstract Concept of TRAPPIST-1 System from NASA

I need to consider what it means to have seven earth-sized planets orbiting a red dwarf star. What will be the impact on the story knowing that these planets are orbiting their sun within a range smaller than Mercury’s orbit around our sun?

Yet another Space.com article reports how sky would feel like perpetual twilight. How does that get translated into the story?

How to describe sunrise, midday or sunset for a planet that is orbiting very closely to a red dwarf sun?

Then, I wonder, whether people would get really good at distinguishing the nuances of colour within a shorter bandwidth of light. This shows up in our own world where humans can’t see the ultra-violet or infra-red of the rainbow. Would our eyes process colour differently if we had grown up, generation after generation, with a brighter or dimmer sun?

How to describe sunrise, midday or sunset for a planet that is orbiting very closely to a red dwarf sun?

This same article reports that scientists are presuming that the planets are tidally locked to each other. This means that they don’t spin on themselves. Instead, planets are locked into each other’s gravitational field. This results in one side of the planet always facing the sun. So, one side of the planet is always facing the sun, living in constant daytime. The other side of the planet is always facing into space, so always in nighttime.

I wonder if that’s really true.

Artist rendering of the surface of planet "f" of the Trappist-1 solar system
Surface of TRAPPIST-1f from NASA

If it’s true, what impact would these environmental elements have on the people, culture, time-keeping, and so on?

How would humans landing from a space ship adapt to this environment? How would human genetics evolve over time to acclimate to this environment?

I’m not sure how I feel about a planet with a narrow spectrum of light.

Yet, deciding to use a real planet does seem to help get the creative juices flowing to come up with something different. It’s a good strategy to counter the reflex to transpose an Earth-like world elsewhere.

What stories have you experienced that did a good job building an environment on a planet that is not Earth?

Images courtesy of NASA and book publishers.

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