Monday, 6 February 2012

The Further You Get from the Sun

I've recently discovered a podcast called The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy, which I can't recommend highly enough. With reasonably lengthy interviews with the likes of William Gibson, George R. R. Martin, Richard Dawkins, Simon Pegg, Neal Stephenson, and Chuck Palahniuk, and always-thoughtful-and-entertaining discussions on topics as varied as "Africa in Fantasy & Science Fiction", "Satan", and "Dungeons & Dragons", it's pretty much guaranteed to appeal to readers of this blog.

I'm slowly working my way through their back catalogue, and tonight ended up listening to to this episode. Once you get past the Catherynne M. Valante bit (which I confess did not particularly interest me; if there is one criticism of the show I would make, it's that there are too many interviews with Young Adult Urban Fantasy We're All Faeries in the City-type writers, who are not to my taste) the discussion moves on to the topic of "pulp era Venus and Mars". One of the presenters makes the interesting point that, to pulp writers, it was as if the further one got from the sun, the more ancient, advanced, and decadent things became. Venus, close to the sun, was a world of dinosaurs, oceans, and primordial wonder. Mars, far from the sun, was a place of antique, decaying civilizations almost given over to barbarity and scattered with ruins and remnants of forgotten societies.

This got me thinking: what if you were to take this further and expand it to include all the 9 planets for a solar system-spanning Sword & Planet setting? (If you feel yourself about to butt in along the lines that Pluto is no longer a planet - go to the nearest mirror and take a long hard look at yourself and ask yourself whether you have made all the correct life choices.)

If the further you get from the sun, the older things get, Mercury would be the most primordial place of all, right? I picture it as a world of magic, thaumaturgy, elementals, and spiritual entities who are barely distinguishable from the stuff from which the universe is created - the phlogiston, if you will.

On Pluto there would naturally be nothing left alive, but deep, deep below the ice which covered it there would be buried the ruins of impossibly old cities with forgotten technologies.

Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are where it gets harder. But you get the idea. What do you want, something coherent on a Sunday night at 8pm?


  1. Pluto may not be a planet, but we'll always have Yuggoth.

  2. I think in the source literature the trend breaks down at the asteroid belt (which of course, surely must be the remnant of a destroyed world). Of course, no reason not to extend it. Jupiter could be a world of brain-monstrosities, evolved beyond the need of bodies, swimming in gaseous seas. Neptune is a world of ice-girt prehuman ruins--a tomb-world in an eons long ice age. Not sure about Saturn and Uranus.

  3. Maybe on Uranus the last civilization is long dead, but the ghosts of its citizens are still around.

  4. "Further out = older" was based on the best scientific knowledge of the time. AIR the view was that the accretion disk from which the solar system formed collapsed into planets first at the furthest extremities, then later and later as you went further in. It was only considerably later that it was established that the whole solar system formed at roughly the same time.

  5. Maybe you need to tweak it a bit.

    Mars = just enough older than Earth so that Martians are smug and decadence is starting to set in.

    Jupiter = hedonistic, solipsistic closed society with a bureaucratic buffer zone to keep off-worlders at bay. Every single inch of the planet is urban and regulated.

    Saturn = entire planet *was* urban and controlled, now most of it is abandoned. Max Headroom meets Dark Angel.

    Neptune = total social and ecological collapse. Many ruins under icy ammonia oceans. Bands of barbaric Neptunians living as strangers in the remnants of their forgotten glory; the few who still use machines don't understand the technology, are possibly using it wrong, and can't repair it, only pray to the gods who built it all.

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  7. Its a good idea. I much prefer vast topographical oddity or use of planets to the almost empty useless notion of "planes".

    Vernor Vinge (I haven't read his work) had the idea that intelligence in species increased as one moved from the unthinking depths approaching the centre of our Galaxy to godlike entities far out in the 'transcend'. Technology itself stops working depending on its complexity the closer you move inwards too, ie spaceships break down and so on.

  8. I always loved this idea. I believe that Space 1889 used it, no?

    With this approach, Pluto as Yuggoth is almost perfect - you can't "older" than Cthulhu Mythos.

  9. Cool, its as if the planets kept spawning through the eons, life and civilizations formed and passed as they were pushed farther away from the birth star.

  10. This made me look through my old Gurps books like Ultratech. If you increase the peak technical level of each planet as you move further away, Neptune has Tech Level 15. At that level, you have all kinds of insane-power stuff.

    What I liked was Saturn having Easymatter. I like to imagine an easymatter mage/mad scientist.

  11. Space 1889 nicely summarized the pulp view, but, as pointed out, the pulp writers really only went for the inner worlds. If you expand out to include the outer planets, you could make the time scale smaller. So Mars becomes the near-future, including jetpacks and bubble-cities; Buck Rogers stuff. Hmn, maybe each suceeding planet becomes a new vision of the future as seen in SciFi, so that Jupiter becomes a Golden Age, 1950's future and Neptune is cyber-puncky.

  12. Some writers in the 1880-1950 period looked at the outer world, this is discussed in rpg terms (with the stories) at