April 24, 2011

This Alien Earth--Settings For Sci-Fi/Fantasy Writers Who Just Want To Stay At Home!

This Alien Earth


Settings For Sci-Fi/Fantasy Writers Who Just Want To Stay At Home!


The wormhole was open at last. Kevin, clad in the very latest protective environmental suit, stepped through it. SNAP!

He stood on the surface of a strange world. A monstrous gibbous moon hung just above the eastern horizon. It dominated the black-reddish sky. Stars could not compete with its brilliance. His readouts showed a complete lack of oxygen and deadly levels of carbon dioxide. There seemed to be no life anywhere and it was hot, very hot. Air pressure was incredibly high, and only Kevin’s suit saved him from being crushed. He felt a shudder. Earthquake! Where he stood, the ground pitched and rolled beneath him and then lifted high. Boulders clattered and tumbled. Rocks rolled and crashed. An alarm sounded. Kevin glanced at his altimeter. He, and the darkling plain with him, had just risen almost a kilometer high!

Just then, a strange dark wall appeared on the horizon. He heard an incredibly loud rumble. Kevin realized, belatedly, the wall was a giant wave of black water rushing toward him. It must be a thousand meters high! Just as he stepped through the wormhole again, it occurred to him that the moon of this world hadn’t been as large as he’d first thought, but just very close to the planet, instead, and so creating the tremendous tides.


He stood on the edge of a slumping cliff. Below him, receding into the distance was an ancient seabed, an endless expanse of vitreous, ochre-and-yellow sand dunes. They looked like waves of frozen Venetian glass. There was almost no atmosphere at all on this world. Unfamiliar stars glittered brittle and hard in the night sky.

Then, a startling line of crimson appeared across two-thirds of the horizon. A vermillion sliver peeped above the lines of dunes there. The sliver grew into a monstrous crescent of ruby sun, great spots clearly visible on its roiling, heaving, and seething surface. His readouts showed the heat and radiation levels soaring as the scarlet sun rose.

In the distance, he could see the dunes glisten sanguinely, looking red-wet, as they began to melt once again with the heat of a new-born day, one born from hell. He waited no longer. He would die here if he didn’t leave. Without hesitation, he stepped through the wormhole once more. SNAP!

Okay, I think we must all have the point by now. Barring just a touch of literary license (more or less--probably more), these scenes could well have been Earth at one time or another, and probably actually were to some degree. The first scene was meant to be from early Earth not long after the oceans had formed. The last one was our planet in the far future, before our dying red sun engulfed it. Of course, there may have been no sunrise, because the Earth might have just one face eternally locked toward the sun by then. So this was just a touch of literary license here, if you will.

You see, we think of our planet as being static in its environment and only undergoing changes slowly, over vast amounts of time. But we forget just how different the Earth was at various stages of its existence. Yes, we all know about the dinosaurs and the ice ages. We know how different things must have been then, but I don’t believe most of us truly comprehend, viscerally, on the gut level I mean, that it goes far beyond that. When people picture the dinosaur or ice ages for example, they mentally people it with those strange animals, or glaciers, but keep everything else pretty much the same, oceans, blue skies, puffy white clouds. Most of us don’t take into account that even the air would be different. For example, the oxygen levels during the Carboniferous period would have been much higher than now. Fires would have ignited quickly, and burned ferociously. Moreover, there is strong evidence for microbial life forms living as far back as 3.85 billion years ago. Prokaryotes, single-celled life forms without a nucleus, may have also existed; yet dangerous viruses or bacteria only rarely come up in sci-fi stories and seldom in time travel tales. Why not?  And an ice age is nothing compared to a Snowball Earth, when the entire planet was white, low in oxygen because of little plant life, but getting ever higher in its carbon dioxide mixture. You wouldn’t be able to even breathe there.

There were many times in the past, and there will be again in the future, when our planet was, or will be, fundamentally and totally alien to us, so different, we wouldn’t probably recognize it as ours. If you were somehow transported to those eras, you would probably believe you were on another planet altogether.

It wouldn’t just be the animals romping around that would make you think this, or how hot or cold it was; it would be just about everything, every aspect of what you think of as familiar would be different--plants, animals, terrain, even the skies and the stars in them. I’m betting you’d find that planet incredibly hostile and strange, and probably unsafe and/or unfit for colonization by humans.

How different could it be? Well, for instance, a few million years either way would make the heavens appear utterly different to us, with a multitude of unfamiliar stars forming strange constellations. Judging by them, we wouldn’t even be able to tell if we were on our own world then. Planets might well have been in different orbits, looked very different. Something big happened to Uranus, for instance. And even a Mars-like world probably crashed into the Earth at one point. And as for Mars, at one time, it may have looked much like Earth--a blue world instead of red.

And, depending on whether you went forward or backward in time, the moon would be closer or farther away. It might disappear altogether; look different, without its mares, totally different patterns of craters. Or it might eventually wander away from earth altogether billions of years from now, or come crashing down on us in the far future.

We do know the moon is receding from the Earth at close to 1.5 inches a year, and so once was much closer. So, travel back far enough in time and you will have a bloated moon with a different-looking face suspended above you, filling the night and day sky, causing tides that would yank the land out from under you, as high as a kilometer before dropping it back, and thus causing numerous tremors at the top of the Richter scale. Go far enough into the future, and the moon will be so far away that it will appear tiny, a bright speck in the sky. Our day will be longer, and tides virtually nonexistent.

Several billion years from now, the moon will be 1.6 times farther away than it is at present. Its period of revolution will be about 55 days. Eventually, our world’s rotation will take fifty-five days (same tidal friction problems) and thus the moon may appear to stay in one place forever, hanging over just one portion of our planet. Anyone living on the wrong side of the planet would have to travel far to see the moon hanging in the sky. You see, only beings living in certain regions, but nowhere else on Earth, could see it. Can you imagine how strange this would seem to people alive today? Try visualizing living on an Earth where one day is equal to fifty-five of ours, and it only takes seven of them to make a whole year. 

The weather would be awful, too, on such an Earth. There would be intense heating on the sun side, terrific cooling and freezing on the other. Violent winds would be one probable outcome. Migrating oceans might be another. Oh, and don’t forget to throw in a couple billion years of evolution (if life survives that long), and you would have an Earth unknown to us, one that is truly alien, indeed! Even the sun would be much larger and a different color--a brilliant red.

Okay, so if we travel far enough through time either way, we end up on a planet that seems nothing like our own. Length of day, temperatures, landmasses, atmospheric constituents (or none at all), size and proximity of moon (or whether we even see or have one), tides, weather, life forms, unrecognizable star patterns, strange plants and animals--all of it will be in the future, or was already in the past, vastly different from what we know today. Great places and times to set stories in then, aren’t they? (Who needs other planets when you have ever-changing Earth?)

How about changes occurring now? There is global warming and the possibility of a sudden ice age onset (another Big Chill?), but what about other things? Did you know, for example, that on any given day there are about twenty-four volcanoes in an erupting phase? In the past, so many volcanoes let go at once that they severely altered the constituents of the atmosphere. They produced lava fields that covered thousands of square miles (so-called Siberian Traps) and caused major biological die-offs, perhaps the biggest one in Earth’s history. Think of the stories you could write if this were to start happening again--now?

And this isn’t even taking into account super volcanoes. These monsters do not often erupt, but when they do, the consequences are chilling. The Yellowstone Caldera in Yellowstone Park, Wyoming, is one example. For a long time we didn’t even know it existed. It wasn’t until NASA wanted to test some heat sensing equipment that we realized the caldera was even there. Visitors walked around Yellowstone every day, enjoying the geysers and boiling mud pots, not the least bit aware they were perched precariously atop an active super volcano. Many geologists consider it to be (currently) the most dangerous one on Earth! It erupts about once every six hundred thousand years or so. That means it is due any time now for another such eruption. And remember, many scientists believe one such super volcano, about 70,000 or so years ago, reduced the human population on the entire planet to a mere few thousand! Again, this is an excellent idea for a story setting.

If the Yellowstone Caldera blows, it will mean total devastation for hundreds of square miles around, sending tons upon tons of soil and debris high into the atmosphere. This debris will make the nuclear blast at Hiroshima look like a child’s pop-gun toy by comparison. A nuclear-style winter will engulf the Earth. Plant life will suffer and die, and then the rest of the food chain (meaning us) will, too. Ash up to five inches deep could cover the United States and most of Canada from coast to coast. Much deeper layers of ash (feet thick) will plaster enormous areas of North America, wreaking havoc on the Great Plains breadbasket. (Word of advice: should Yellowstone go off, run don’t walk to your nearest supermarket and stock up on those canned goods! Trust me; you’ll need them.) Is that enough of an alien planet for you?

Earth is hardly static. Transformations are happening all the time. Our planet careens from one wild swing to another, suffering numerous and swift changes that have catastrophic results for life on land, and in the seas. Some scientists, for instance, now think that ice ages might come in mere decades, instead of over centuries. Changes on this alien Earth are always occurring and every day.

They make great concepts for stories with settings and plots limited only by a writer’s imagination. Whether it is an author setting his or her stories in the beginning of time, Devonian period, Dinosaur Age, Ice Ages, far future, or just a few decades from now, Earth is the perfect alien planet for your story. Think about it. And it isn’t just science fiction. Many major fantasy authors have used past ages of Earth for their settings.

Next time, we’ll discuss truly alien worlds, how to create them, and how not to mess it up big time when doing so!  When building planets from scratch, one has to be very careful!


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