Livingon inhospitable worlds

Here’s a column by James Davis Nicholl at Five Truly Inhospitable Fictional Planets

Nicholl offers a look at five worlds that can’t be easily terraformed and are lethal outside atmospheric domes. Let’s see which worlds he picks out of the pile . . .

Cyteen. Yep, good choice. Remember that the first Ari would have died because she once took a breath of unfiltered air? Of course someone killed her first so that didn’t turn out to limit her lifespan, but still, wow.

I have to say, she was not really a loss. Ari 2.0 was a LOT nicer.

Komarr. Yep again. Remember how Miles wound up handcuffed to that railing, watching someone else die because he hadn’t checked the air supply of his breather. Not nice. Personally, I’d rather live on Sergyar — at least once they got the worm plague under control.

Courtship Rite. Wow, it has been a long time since I read this. Yes, it does offer a terrible planet. No need for a dome, it’s the nutrients that are the problem, not the air. Grim social development. I only ever read it once, even though I admired it a good deal when I read it the first time.

Then a couple I haven’t read, click through to see if you have.

Here’s one Nicholl missed: Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein. Fantasy world that … wait, is this fantasy? No, look, it’s SF! With . . . are those dragons? Maaaaaybe not exactly.

The native biosphere is a real problem on this world, which is being slowly terraformed, although no one knows it except the reader. This isn’t clear to the reader either for a long time, though surely everyone figures it out when they meet the nomadic people with the goats.

The question on my mind when I think of this amazing wonderful stunning series is: should I re-read it now or wait a little bit longer and see if the fifth and sixth books actually do come out eventually? So far, still waiting. But this is my favorite truly inhospitable world, though it’s partly terraformed by the time we see it.

Who’s got another pick for a great book set on a terrible world?

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2 thoughts on “Livingon inhospitable worlds”

  1. For a very insidiously dangerous planet, because of the lack of a specific nutrient, Destiny’s Road by Larry Niven is the one that springs to mind for me.

    For an openly hostile-to-human-life environment, Mars has been used as a dangerous planet to stay alive on in several books over the years, from the recent The Martian by Andy Weir to the old Heinlein juvenile The Red Planet, which was one of the first SF books I read as a kid.
    Dad had a shelf of Heinlein juveniles, and several of them were set on other planets or moons in our solar system, where surviving on this hostile world was an important part of the story, like Farmer in the Sky, set on one of the moons of Jupiter.

    Isaac Asimov’s “Lucky Starr” SF juvenile detective series also features a different planet of the solar system as a setting for each book; Mercury was the most dangerous from what I remember after all these years.

    Those kinds of stories, of human explorers against a dangerous natural environment, seem to be less in vogue at the moment, except for The Martian (or maybe I’m overlooking some).

    On the fantasy side of this, thinking of worlds you haven’t mentioned yet, the world of the Sharing Knife seems unexpectedly lethal to ordinary humans, with those very scary malices and the grey wastes that will suck out your life slowly. But neither of those cover the whole planet, so maybe it doesn’t belong on this list: as far as atmosphere and nutrition, water and temperature goes, the basic necessities for supporting human life are good on that world. Like the “thread” on McCaffrey’s Pern, if you know what to expect and have got the means to deal with it (or get away from it), it can be survivable; but if you don’t you’ll be toast. That goes for both individuals and civilisations.

    On that note of being physically habitable but still too inhospitable to live on safely, there’s a planet in one of James H. Schmitz’s Telzey & Trigger stories, about a world where the trees influence all those who spend time on the world, both on a mental and a genetic level, to become more peaceful and no danger to the trees – humans staying there for a few generations get turned into a lazy kind of giant treefrog of limited intelligence, with no ambition to burn or chop down trees. Individuals survive, but not our specific human species or civilisation.
    He invented several other inherently dangerous & inhospitable worlds, but usually as places his characters visit and quickly leave when they figure out the danger, like an angry sentient-seeming world in The Witches of Karres that summons a lightning storm and earthquake to get rid of its visitors. Those are more of a “set of adventures” settings than “environment we have to live in” worlds.

    Getting back to SF, the more recent Amaranthe series by G.S. Jennsen does something like that too, positing an array of universes where tweaking some constants encourage the development of different kinds of intelligence, with different levels of aggression (including some plant-based and some crystal-based lifeforms), which are visited by the protagonists. Most of them would be quite inhospitable for a longer stay.

  2. In Forever War the boot camp portion takes place on Charon – very inhospitable.

    Wen Spencer’s Elfhome series is sort of a sf/f hybrid, and the animals on Elfhome are almost all pretty dangerous. It all looks similar enough to Earth that uninformed tourists run into trouble.

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