While reflecting on the movies I’ve seen lately, I’ve realized there’s an odd phenomenon: every single superhero movie uses either the name of the central hero, or the name of the super team.
All of them. And most of them use only that name, perhaps with a number or a subtitle.
It seems odd.
Between 2 and 3 years ago, I did a series of posts describing a science–fiction setting of my own invention. I was exploring different ways one might resolve the Fermi Paradox. For those unaware, the Fermi Paradox goes like this: We observe many places in the universe where technological life could appear and persist; but we have no evidence of alien visitors to Earth. Where is everybody?
The default solution to this paradox is to have technological life be rare in the universe. Other possible solutions include civilizations encountering various problems; barriers that prevent them from traveling or sending robotic emissaries across interstellar distances. So I call the setting “Fermi Problems” (geeky reference is geeky).
One situation I considered was life on a gas giant; specifically a hypothetical superjovian planet around HIP 66461, a G-type star 150 parsecs from the Sun. Since HIP 66461 is in the section of sky allocated to the constellation Ursa Major, I called these hypothetical aliens the ursians and the planet Ursa. I had thought that Ursa was a deep enough gravitational well that the ursians could never escape without outside intervention. I may have been wrong.
So, How Do You Escape From A Gas Giant?
To go into orbit around a gas giant with 2.8 times the mass of Jupiter, you have to acquire a speed of at least 50 km/s. Escape velocity requires twice the energy of the minimum orbital speed – i.e. 70 km/s in velocity, plus a bit more to account for the remaining gas drag. That is very fast.
This is going to be my first entry into what is likely going to be a long series. I’ve written a number of sci-fi and fantasy short stories, and I have been putting some effort into getting them published… but at some point, I run out of potential venues to sell them to.
Thus, when I give up on a story, I’ll go ahead and put it up here for your entertainment. Of course, since these are stories that have been rejected a few times, I’d love to have some feedback on where they have gone awry.
This particular story, “Universe in a Box,” exists in several forms; I’ve also written (and had rejected) a related story called “Sandbox,” which I’ll be posting later.
She was reading a paper on the latest techniques in miniaturization. She was fascinated by the description of improved methods for controlling the dynamics of a solar system compressed to the size of an atom.
But her time of quiet reading did not last. As usual, once she had finally found a moment to catch up on the literature, she was interrupted by a chime at the door. She pushed the holographic text aside and said, “Come in!”
The doors slid into the walls, revealing her newest student. He seemed worried and embarrassed at the same time. He pulled nervously at his whiskers, and a few tufts of his fur stood on end. “Uh, professor? Do you have a few minutes?”
“With that kind of face? I think I have a few more than a few minutes.” She resigned herself to finishing her reading at another time, and gave the command for a seat rest to emerge from its place in the wall.
The student was too nervous to take the rest. Instead, he paced, rattling his fingers against the walls whenever he wandered close enough to reach them. In her small office, this was often. “I, uh, made a mistake with one of the boxes. I set some of the constants wrong. Well, a lot of them wrong.”
During a discussion I participated in elsewhere , science-fiction world building spontaneously appeared in a discussion of another subject when a couple of people brought up the example of floating forests / floating islands. These have shown up in fiction before, and also in real life. I was inspired to add them to the Fermi Problems setting. When I had a notepad and a little time, I designed a planet to put them on and named it Tāwhiri.
What Is A Floating Forest?
When I say “floating forest” here, I mean a large mass of vegetation floating in a body of liquid. Perhaps there is too much similarity here to the micro-gravity asteroid-surrounding forests and floating aerogel-clumps that already feature in the setting, but I will include it anyway. It is relatively straightforward to produce a planet where such islands occur to a much greater extent than they do on Earth:
Consider an ocean gyre like the Sargasso Sea. Have masses of floating seaweed-equivalent that grow densely enough and stack thick enough to give a portion of the mass that is persistently well above the water line – avoids the photosynthesizing bits getting shadowed by or eaten by other stuff growing in the water. Then the clumps that are strong enough to avoid being disrupted by frequent waves/wind have a survival advantage, because they keep their energy supply more reliably. To get something that looks like a terrestrial forest, rather than a lumpy-mat-berg-plant-thing, invoke selection for traits that keep the clump in the gyre and so at a good latitude for growing. Growth dependence based on sunlight illumination patterns can do that, and progressively give “trees” with trunks and sail-leaves that adjust themselves unintelligently to take advantage of prevailing winds and stay in the gyre.
Some clumps will still escape, and either freeze in cold water or die in too-warm water or end up in another gyre. Clumps that get too big will fragment during storms, some will have die-offs due to competition between the various species that accumulate to form the colonies, some may capsize and persist as dead-or-dying rafts that can be colonized by new growth, and so on.
Tāwhiri – A Waterworld
But how to make a planet where these floating forest-mats are the tallest-standing lifeforms? We need to avoid having much land-based life to compete with. We need a waterworld.
There is a problem with making a world that is entirely covered in water: Carbon dioxide emitted from the mantle during volcanism enters the atmosphere/ocean, and acts as a powerful greenhouse gas. Unless it goes into making limestone or something similar, biosynthesis of carbon compounds only keeps so much of the carbon out of the atmosphere and only for so long. On the Earth, weathering processes on rocks exposed to the air create carbonate rocks, which eventually get subducted and return the CO2 to the mantle. If there is no exposed land at all, this process doesn’t work and the climate tends to run away into a steamhouse atmosphere, which is not conducive to abundant life. So I will do a little fine-tuning on the volatile content. The planet we are considering will have just enough water to cover all but 1% of the surface – we have various small exposed, largely volcanic, pieces of land; and larger relatively shallow areas of ocean that we would call submerged continental fragments if they were on Earth. This is enough to give a stable climate, albeit one with more CO2 in the atmosphere than we humans can breathe:
- Mass: 0.95 Earth masses
- Insolation: 340 W/m^2 average.
- Mean surface temperature: 300 K
- Atmospheric pressure: ~1.1 atm, 0.01 atm CO2
That surface temperature is a few degrees hotter than Earth was during the Permian, and is such that there are no ice caps at the poles. Some additional properties follow in part from the above and in part by arbitrary decision:
- Host Star: Kiwi – 0.85 solar masses, 0.43 solar luminosity
- a = 0.7 AU, year = 0.635 yr (291.4 local days)
- Mean solar day: 19h6m.
- Two satellites, each between 30% and 50% the mass of the Moon.
The relatively-shallow regions of the ocean also serve a useful setting function: they give a pattern of gyres and overall surface currents that is more-or-less fixed relative to the seafloor, rather than drifting around the planet. Keeping the maps straight will still be annoying, but at least a given gyre will stay over the same geology.
I am also pleased to assume people living in/on these floating forest-mats. Their cultures, history, anatomy, and evolution are not yet specified – this is a rapid once-through, after all.
But consider this technical problem: where do you get metal if you live on this world? There are several possible sources: those few areas of dry land that do exist, sulfide or hydroxide deposits on the sea floor, and some manner of catalytic process that separates out the metals dissolved in the sea water. The last has a terrestrial precedent: a ~3-cm snail called the scaly-foot gastropod that hangs out near some deep-sea vents:
So there are ways to start developing the hardware necessary to get off-planet and start expanding through space, although it would be somewhat more difficult than doing so on Earth. I will have the inhabitants of Tāwhiri in the Fermi Problems setting not have done this yet, in keeping with the large gaps in the setting between the number of places where life has appeared, the number of places where cultures have appeared, and the number of places where cultures have spread across large volumes.
Specifically, I wrote a cute little command line utility I creatively named SolarSystem. It’s an N-body gravitational solver, which means that if you plug in the positions and velocities of whatever stars, planets, moons, or spacecraft you want, it’ll tell you what happens to them in the future, how they orbit each other, and so on. It’s also entirely general — I included an example which runs a demonstration based on our own solar system, but you can write up your own based on any system you want, real or imaginary.
Why did I do this, do you ask?
Well, first, I’ve always wanted to write a relatively nice gravity solver, convenient for solar systems. Now I have one. Yay!
Second, I’m plotting a novel based on the second example system I included with the software. It’s a system which has gone very, very chaotic. Interesting things happen to those poor planets. As to why this is important to the story… well, I’m going to keep that under my hat for now.
And, finally, I’m also looking for jobs. Like, in the real world. Preferably the kind that pay you for doing stuff like writing software. So, I’m also planning on using this project as a launching point for beefing up my programming skills. At the moment, this program is a command line utility — you’ll need to know a little bit about working with a terminal and the Linux environment in order to use it, you’ll need to know a little about solar systems in order to make your own, and you’ll also need a separate plotting tool in order to look at all the shiny results. I plan on writing a GUI (graphical user interface) that handles all that in a clean manner. Preferably, something intuitive to use. If you’ve got suggestions for features you’d like to see, please feel free to leave them here.
If you want all the gory details about how it works, you can read the help document I included with the program. Ideally, it should help. If you do end up using it, keep in mind that it’s not up to snuff as full-bore scientific software. There’s a whole host of effects it doesn’t include, ranging from the time-delay for how long gravity takes to affect something (Earth feels the Sun’s gravity from where it was eight minutes ago, and vice-versa) to tidal interactions. So, keep that in mind.