How are exoplanets portrayed in science fiction?

We only recently determined that planets do in fact exist around other stars. The discovery of such “exoplanets” is of interest not just to science but also to science fiction. Other worlds, of course, feature prominently in science fiction – notable examples include Star Wars’ Tatooine, Dune’s Arrakis, and Star Trek’s Vulcan. Exoplanets featured in science fiction long before being confirmed in reality. What is the interplay of how these two enterprises, science and science fiction, engage with exoplanets? To learn more, we spoke to Emma Johanna Puranen, a PhD student at the University of St Andrews who studies exoplanets’ portrayal in science fiction. She is also a member of the St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science

Why do you study how exoplanets are portrayed in science fiction?

In many ways, science fiction authors have been writing about exoplanets for far longer than astronomers. The earliest example that I have found of an exoplanet (though I’m using the term anachronistically) in fiction is in Margaret Cavendish’s astonishing 1666 work The Blazing-World. In it, a young woman travels from the North Pole of Earth to a world that orbits an entirely different sun. The heyday of exoplanets in science fiction, however, came in the mid-20thcentury and after. Once it became increasingly clear from Solar System exploration missions that Venus and Mars were not home to intelligent life, those worlds became less popular as story settings. Writers do love their extraterrestrial intelligences, though, so exoplanets became the only viable setting for such aliens.

Astronomers have discovered thousands of real exoplanets in just the past few decades. Currently, many of these worlds are just data points. With future missions, though, we hope to characterize these exoplanets to find out the chemical makeups of their atmospheres and even to search for biosignatures. What we’ve learned already is tantalizing and revolutionary. We now know that planets are common, that gas giants can orbit blisteringly close to their stars, and that planets can orbit multiple stars. But before we knew any of this for certain, before astronomers observed the first real exoplanets in the 1990s, there already existed a wealth of fictional portrayals of exoplanets. What inspired these writers? How did they go about the process of constructing the environments and societies of these fictional exoplanets – the process known as worldbuilding? I believe there is a lot that exoplanet scientists can learn from fictional exoplanets, which are often the public’s window into their field.

What are some general themes regarding exoplanets’ portrayal?

The fictional exoplanetary environment is always purposefully created by the author, and it strongly informs the plot and story of the science fiction work. The harshness of the desert world Arrakis, as well as its being the sole source of a valuable spice, fundamentally shapes the novel Dune. Sometimes, as in the case of the planet-wide oceanic consciousness of Lem’s Solaris, the exoplanet is itself a character. Even when the fictional exoplanet is nearly a twin of Earth, there is an intentionality behind this decision that must be considered.

With the recent flood of information on real exoplanets, the designs of fictional exoplanets are changing. All science fiction, and therefore all fictional exoplanets, exist on different parts of the spectrum from “hard” (realistic) science fiction to “soft” (more fantastical) science fiction. Many fictional worlds are portrayed as similar to Earth in such characteristics as gravity, length of year, length of day – even having atmospheres that human characters can breathe. This is natural when telling a story that focuses on the human experience and human emotion. It is still the case that many fictional exoplanets are human friendly, but I have noticed an increase in less Earth-like worlds in more recent fiction. This has happened as authors become more familiar with concepts like habitable zones and tidal locking. In these less human-friendly environments, human characters are portrayed as wearing spacesuits, and aliens are being designed in more diverse ways – ways that are, well, truly alien.

In your studies, what is something surprising you have learned about the interplay between science and science fiction?

People often speak about the predictive power of science fiction. But even if super-Earths (rocky planets more massive than Earth) appeared in fiction before they were confirmed observationally, this does not mean that science fiction authors predicted the future. This misconception comes about because of the unique and symbiotic relationship between scientists and science fiction authors. Many scientists are inspired to their career path by science fiction, and many science fiction authors find story ideas by staying abreast of the latest science. While scientists might run computer models to test their theories, science fiction authors are performing modeling of a different sort. They write “what if” scenarios and test out ideas with a focus on the human elements of those ideas. A scientist will determine if it is possible to construct a type of robot; a writer will investigate how society might change if such a robot existed. A scientist will theorize about the stability of planetary orbits in binary star systems; a writer will explore how having two suns would affect a culture that lives on such a circumbinary world.

This sort of modeling, combined with the prominence of science fiction in the public consciousness, makes science fiction an invaluable tool for science communication and public outreach efforts – if scientists can harness it. Exoplanet science is such a new field that the public is much more likely to learn about exoplanets from consuming science fiction media rather than in their science classes. Now, I firmly believe science fiction authors are under no obligation to “get the science right” – they write fiction, after all. But many of them profess a desire to do so. They reach out to scientists to consult on their stories, thus continuing the ongoing dialogue between science and science fiction. Even if stories are far from scientifically rigorous, they still have immense power to inspire readers to look up to real exoplanets and to imagine what it might be like to go there.