Nov 18 2011 4:00pm

Imaginary Exoplanets

Extrasolar planets have been a staple of science fiction pretty much from the get-go. My favorite fictional movie planet is probably Metaluna of This Island Earth. For one thing, who could possibly trump that wonderfully evocative name? Besides, it’s beautifully realized in the movie, with its cratered surface bombarded by radio-controlled meteors and its underground civilization. Then again, it might just be because it was the first exoplanet I had ever been introduced to.

I am sure, though, there will be those who will hold out for Tatooine from Star Wars as the best-known movie world—especially when its name was prominent in the news recently. In the film, Tatooine is depicted as having twin suns. The discovery of Kepler 16b, the first world known to be orbiting a double star, reminded a great many people of George Lucas’ fictional planet. (The fanfare was somewhat unfair, however: space artists such as Lucien Rudaux and Chesley Bonestell had been depicting worlds orbiting double stars at least as long as 75 years ago!)

What’s somewhat rarer are movie planets described orbiting real stars. For instance, one of the most memorable of all science fiction extrasolar worlds is Altair 4, the fourth planet from the star Altair, in the classic Forbidden Planet. And Arrakis of Dune circles the star Canopus, the second-brightest star in the night sky (after Sirius).

I had the privilege and pleasure of working on David Lynch’s version of Dune. A great deal of effort was made to make the movie planet as plausible as possible. We not only tried to carefully follow Frank Herbert’s descriptions, but tried to make the science right, too. At my suggestion, Lynch even invited advice from professional astronomer Bill Hartmann.

By far the majority of fictional extrasolar planets exist solely as a setting for the author’s action. They’re a convenient background (like Mongo from Flash Gordon or Klendathu from Starship Troopers). But there is a handful that really stand out... so much so that they are important characters in and of themselves. Hal Clement’s Mesklin, for instance, a giant world (orbiting the real star 61 Cygni A) that rotates so rapidly that its surface gravity is 3 g at the equator and 275 g at the poles, or Isaac Asimov’s Lagash, which sits surrounded by six suns in the midst of a globular cluster and has never known a dark night. (Clement, in Iceworld, managed to turn the tables, describing the Earth as being a hostile extrasolar planet to visitors from a distant star; in the process, Clement reminds us that to someone else, the Earth is an exoplanet.) Robert Forward was a genius when it came to creating bizarre yet plausible worlds. Rocheworld, for example, is about a contact binary that resembles equally bizarre asteroids like Hektor, while Dragon’s Egg describes the kind of life that might evolve on the surface of a neutron star, about as hostile an environment as any world has to offer.

Certainly the best-known exoplanet to show up in movies recently is Pandora. In James Cameron’s Avatar, it is an Earth-sized moon of a gas giant Polyphemus orbiting the star Alpha Centauri A. Likewise, Allen Steele’s Coyote is another Earth-like world that is in reality a moon of a gas giant called Bear. Like Altair 4, Arrakis, and Pandora, Bear orbits a real star, 47 Ursae Majoris. The eponymous star of a series of award-winning novels, Coyote is one of the best-realized of modern fictional planets.

Sometimes the extrasolar planets come to us, usually with catastrophic results, as when Bronson Alpha and Bronson Beta arrived in our solar system in When Worlds Collide (1933). They were two frozen worlds, thrown from their star by some ancient calamity that had been wandering through space for uncounted millennia. Only recently have such rogue planets been shown to exist in reality. They are probably worlds blasted from their solar systems when their sun exploded in a supernova. Now they are frozen, dark worlds drifting in the void between stars….

What is your favorite exoplanet from a book, a movie, or a TV show?

Ron Miller has been a freelance artist and author specializing in astronomical subjects for more than thirty years. His latest project is the award-winning iPad app, Journey to the Exoplanets, which he created for Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux in collaboration with Ed Bell. Learn more at: and

1. Dietes
I really like Hyperion, from the novel of the same name by Dan Simmons, with it's Tesla trees and Flame Forests. I also liked Blue and Green from Gene Wolfe's "The Book of the Short Sun"- Green in particular was very evocative. Plus almost any fictional depiction of Mars.
2. mahendra singh
This looks very interesting … my favorite planet would have to be Solaris, from the eponymous novel by S. Lem. Its hallucinatory ambience was unique.
3. a-j
Brian Aldiss' Helliconia with its millenia long seasons.
4. A J J
"Brian Aldiss' Helliconia with its millenia long seasons"

We share the same initials and the same opinion too :)
Del C
5. del
Another of Clement's worlds has become prophetic lately. Tenebra, from Close to Critical, orbits Altair, a white star that spins so rapidly it's noticeably ellipsoid, like a stellar equivalent of Mesklin. Its poles are so much closer to the star's centre that it radiates more light to the north and south than it does around the star's equator, and Tenebra's orbit is tilted with respect to the star, so it gets quasi-seasons related, not to planetary tilt or distance, as in the two most common scenarios in science fiction, but due to the face of the star that's visible.

But all that's not the prophetic part: Tenebra is of such a temperature and composition that it has no clouds. Nothing in its thick atmosphere ever condenses out into a milky white mixture that light could reflect from, so the light just goes down down into the atmosphere and never comes back out. It's a black planet.

And now the news is all about dark exoplanets just like that, and it's a shame more of the reporters don't give Clement credit for predicting it in fiction.
6. wiredog
The Smoke Ring in Niven's book The Integral Trees is a wonderful idea. Pity he had lost the ability to write by that time...
7. wyoarmadillo
I have always been partial to Tran-Ky-Ky for Alan Dean Foster's Ice-Rigger Series.

Through Trantor from Asimov's foundation series particularly its transformation from a city encompassing planet back to an simple ag world also stands out.

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