Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Floating habitats

From James Davis Nicholl at tor.com: Five Science Fiction Books Featuring Floating Habitats

Five! Don’t you think it should be possible to get to ten?

Well, let’s see …

Venus is so inconsiderate. It presents itself as a sister world, one that would seem at first glance to be very Earth-like, but… on closer examination it’s utterly hostile to life as we know it. Surface conditions would be extremely challenging for terrestrial life, what with the toxic atmosphere, crushing pressures, and blast-furnace-like temperatures.

That’s at the surface, however. Just fifty kilometers above the surface, there is a region with terrestrial pressures and temperatures, a veritable garden of Eden where an unprotected human would not be almost immediately incinerated but instead would expire painfully (in just a few minutes) due to the lack of free oxygen and the prevalence of toxic gases.

Yes, you know, this sort of thing makes me think of this great post from Russell Monroe: What would happen if you tried to fly a normal Earth airplane above different Solar System bodies? The part about Venus is actually my favorite part of that post:

Unfortunately, X-Plane is not capable of simulating the hellish environment near the surface of Venus. But physics calculations give us an idea of what flight there would be like. The upshot is: Your plane would fly pretty well, except it would be on fire the whole time, and then it would stop flying, and then stop being a plane.

The atmosphere on Venus is over 60 times denser than Earth’s, which is thick enough that a Cessna moving at running speed would rise into the air. Unfortunately, the air it’s rising into is hot enough to melt lead. The paint would start melting off in seconds, the plane’s components would fail rapidly, and the plane would glide gently into the ground as it came apart under the heat stress.

A much better bet would be to fly above the clouds. While Venus’s surface is awful, its upper atmosphere is surprisingly Earthlike. 55 kilometers up, a human could survive with an oxygen mask and a protective wetsuit; the air is room temperature and the pressure is similar to that on Earth mountains. You need the wetsuit, though, to protect you from the sulfuric acid. (I’m not selling this well, am I?)

The acid’s no fun, but it turns out the area right above the clouds is a great environment for an airplane, as long as it has no exposed metal to be corroded away by the sulfuric acid. And is capable of flight in constant Category-5-hurricane-level winds, which are another thing I forgot to mention earlier.

Venus is a terrible place.

You should absolutely click through and read about the Cessna flying everywhere else in the solar system, but meanwhile, back to Nicholl’s post about floating habitats — which five does he mention?

Floating Worlds by Cecilia Holland (1976)

Venus of Dreams by Pamela Sargent (1986)

The Clouds of Saturn by Michael McCollum (1991)

Sultan of the Clouds by Geoffrey Landis (2010)

The House of Styx by Derek Künsken (2020)

I haven’t read any of them, though several sound like they might be pretty good! That most recent one sounds grim. All dystopian politics and toxic family relationships. I might be reading too much into the description, but that’s my guess.

Anyway, though commenters at the post mention various others, including stepping sideways into fantasy, I’m pretty sure they’ve missed some science fiction examples. I’m almost positive Kim Stanley Robinson floated habitats or cities in the atmosphere of Venus in 2312, with the Chinese being particularly involved in terraforming that planet. Could’ve been some other book, but I’m pretty sure it was Robinson’s 2312.

I’ve only read a couple of Iain Banks’ Culture series, but I’d be surprised if there weren’t floating habitats in the high-tech post-scarcity utopian Culture. Can anybody more familialr with that series confirm or deny this?

I normally stick to books, but we all remember the floating towns from Firefly, I bet. What a great episode that was. What was the name of it … okay, “Trash.”

I’m sure there are plenty of other SF floating cities. And if we do expand our search terms and look at fantasy, there’s everything from Castle Black to (of course):

Meanwhile! Did you hear about this?

Possible evidence found for life on Venus

From just a few says ago:

The best evidence for life beyond Earth has been found in the most surprising of places – the atmosphere of Venus.

A team led by Jane Greaves, who is a professor at Cardiff University, has detected the presence of phosphine gas in Venus’ clouds. The intriguing thing about phosphine, which is a molecule formed of three hydrogen atoms and one phosphorous atom, is that on Earth its only natural source is from some anaerobic (i.e., non-oxygen breathing) microbial lifeforms. No known geological mechanism or non-biological chemical reaction produces it on our planet, although it is produced deep inside gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn where hydrogen is plentiful and the temperature and pressure extremely high.

Of course, if there’s one thing the past decade has shown us, it’s that there is plenty we do not understand and have never before seen when it comes to geological mechanisms on other planets. Still, pretty neat, eh? Though I will never be satisfied with microbial life on other planets. If we’re talking about life on other planets, I want it to be more like James Tiptree Jr visualized in Up the Walls of the World.

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5 Comments Floating habitats

  1. SarahZ

    If fantasy settings count, there’s Strange the Dreamer, Howl’s Moving Castle, and I’m sure plenty more. I can think of more sf examples in film, like in Star Wars.

  2. Craig N.

    I don’t recall floating habitats in the Culture series, but I haven’t read them all and it *does* seem like it would fit.

    In Poul Anderson’s ORION SHALL RISE, a large aerostat plays an important role: it’s pretty good-sized.

    In the third Hitchhiker’s Guide book there’s a flying party (“now in its fourth generation”) which has devastated most of the planet it flits above.

  3. elaine t

    There’s a book on our shelves that I haven’t read, The Shattered World by Michael Reaves, which features a planet that has blown apart (fantasy magic went wrong apparently) and the chunks are floating around in space orbiting each other. Or something. It’s one my husband has read and I notice, try and put back.

  4. Rachel

    Elaine, by a startling coincidence, I’m sort of playing around with a book with a setting something like the one in that story. I didn’t much care for the Reaves story, but the setting is pretty snazzy.

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