An Advertisement for Celestia

I am spending the evening, as every good science fiction writer should, creating and destroying planets. In my imaginary future history, from AD 11000 to roughly AD 65500, five great Diasporas are inflicted upon the earth, and the eleven or so artificial subspecies of man, biological or mechanical or both, are carried to all the worthless planet-bearing stars withing 100 lightyears of Sol.

Now, I am always vastly disappointed in authors who, in their imaginary histories of the future, do not tell us where their stars really are, and delighted with the authors who do.

For example, I rejoice that Larry Niven selected a real star,  61 Ursae Majoris, to be the home sun of the Kzinti Patriarchy, or that Frank Herbert selected a real star, Gamma Piscium, to be the thronestar of the imperial world of Salusa Secundus (albeit he cleverly calls it by its Chinese name of Wai Ping) and likewise placed planet Caladan around the star Delta Pavonis, the same star used by John Maddox Roberts and Eric Kotani as the setting for their diamond-hard SF novel of the same name.

I also have a twitch of distaste for authors who settle worlds around nonearthlike stars, red giants or blue dwarfs, merely because they have famous names, easier to recognize, but which are less likely to have earthlike worlds than G-type stars. I do not know how many stories I have read with worlds around Rigel or Sirius, envisioning a solar system like our own, instead of one, say, crowded with a score or a hundred earthlike worlds or jovial gas giants.

Instead of spending my writing time tonight writing an actually, you know, a scene with like characters talking or shooting at each other, I’ve spent hours revising a chart I made to keep track of the overlapping waves of migrations across the many millennia from Earth in order to give it that extra nuance of realism. In my previous chart I did not pay very close attention to the distances between stars.

I wanted to use realistic astronomical information. That is what science fiction writers do to make our craft more noble than that of writers of Westerns or Sea Stories or Vampire Samurai Bodice Rippers.

Now, I understand that many of the stars known to have planets have only dry numerical designations, and that everyone would much rather hear about the Rigelians and Sirians than about the men of HR 4458 in Hydra (also called  CD-32 8179 AB) or, worse, the haughty invaders from BD+63 238 in Cassiopeia. But the sad fact is that the binary HR 4458 is known to have a planetary body, and has a sol-like age and metalicity and luminosity, and Rigel is not and has not. HR 4458 is but 31 lightyears from Sol, practically in our backyard, whereas gigantic and inhospitable Rigel is an immense 862 lightyears away. The world of HR 4458 (which for convenience I have named We See Strange Dawns) orbits 741 years at 80.5 AU. (eighty times the distance between Earth and Sol) Star A orbits Star B at 0.0087 AUs with a year of about 18.4 hours. The suns after sunrise would circle each other more than once every earthday as they crossed the sky. You see? Doesn’t HR 4458 already seem to have more personality than it did?

I walk in the footsteps of Jack Vance, who, in his magnificent and magnificently fun Tschai books, called the star Carina 4269, and he did not hesitate to keep that designation throughout.

I wish to avoid the tin-eared error of Gene Roddenberry, who, much as I delight in his work, I cannot hide from myself the knowledge that there is no such planet as Ceti Alpha Five, because there is no star Ceti Alpha because the star is really Alpha Ceti, also called Menkar or Menkab, names of poetry, names to conjure with! It has more than twice the mass of the Sun and, as a giant star, it has expanded to about 89 times the Sun’s radius.  It is a perfectly good star, and the wording sounds just the same to the layman.

And the cold and unearthly intellects inhabiting that sphere, ageless and reticent, seeing how we insulted their allies, the Mi-Go of Pluto, (who world we demoted to a dwarf planet) may be provoked to wrath if we ignore their perfectly good and real star for a dumb make-believe star which is just a real star name with the words reversed. They may apply to the Symbiosis of the Lesser Magellanic Cloud for retaliation. So, as you see, I have good cause not to make lighthearted errors when naming my stars and planets and macroscale structures.

For reasons too obvious to mention, the planet called Pure Abode of Unreturning Souls had been colonized by the Patricians ruling the world called Mountain of the Lovely Peach Trees, and they in turn hail from the Land of Hungry Needle-Necked Wraiths, a planet of Myrmidons, who come from an evidently more hospitable sphere called World of Willows and Flowers ruled by Hierophants,  and all of them came from Rosycross of Promixa, the nearest star to the world called Tellus before her madness, but now called Eden.  We know the Rosicrucians enjoy a nonorthagonal psychology, having been modified extraordinarily far from the human norm in a fashion never to be permitted these days, which might explain why their colonies suffer such odd if euphonious names.

And obviously again, the planet circling the star Chara (also called Beta Canum Venaticorum) had to be called Joyous, and the world of 88 G. Monocerotis had to be called Unicorn for the same reason the world of Delta Pavonis had to be called Splendor — because all three were settled by Earthmen. But the question was, which worlds were the mothers of which colonies? Which stars?

Some things were not so obvious.  I could determine that the mother world of the colonies of Mothace and Neodamode, could be none other than a world named Eurotas which was settled in the Twenty Fifth Millennium by the Chimera race of Mars (originally a penal colony). The aptly named Eurotas circles the star 107 Piscium (an Orange star 24 lightyears from Sol with a planet at 0.62 AU whose local year is 202 earthdays) and therefore Neodamode orbits 58 Eridani, which lies in the same sector of the sky, and Mothace orbits Rho Cancri (also called 55 Cancri).  All these stars are those which are known to have solar systems according to the best and latest information of modern science.

In my first draft, I had Mothace orbiting a star on the other side of the sky. But upon studying various star charts in frustration,  I realized that the colony was rather far (well, everything in space is rather far, but you take my meaning) from 107 Piscium: there would be no reason to carry a slowerthanlight sailing vessel the size of a hollowed-out asteroid the extra lightyears at unthinkable expense of energy if other stars within the expanding sphere of the Empyrean Polity of Man were closer. So I needed to settle which stars settled which.

I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to try to discover how far apart stars are from each other, especially for someone as mathematically innumerate as myself. It is easy enough to find the distance from Sol, on the internet, or by a call to the local librarian research desk, but hard to find the lateral distances in three dimensions.

I had already looked up the astronomical information for the gas giant known to circle Iota Draconis, also called Eldsich, and I thought of it as my world circling my star, the way a muggle might think of a pet or a lovingly hand-rebuild jalopy. I already knew that the gas giant had a highly eccentric orbit which passed into and out of the heat zone of habitable to man twice in its 200 earthyear long year, and I had erected the elaborate speculations of how men, even if possessing a high degree of pantropy and terraforming techniques both to modify their children and modify the world, would attempt to adapt to mercurial summers and plutonian winters.

I was desperate to find out how far the planet was from Arcturus and Xi Boötis and 44 Boötis, the home stars (as far as my imagination was concerned) of the planets Nightspore and  Euphrasy and Schattenriech and Hard Rime, which in turn had been colonized many centuries earlier from Aesculapius of 70 Ophiuchi.

And I found a free-to-download three-dimensional fully interactive starmap of all the stars I needed for my book. I am filled with such joy at the convenience of this tool (no more trigonometry!) that I offer this unprompted and heartfelt testimonial and commercial advertisement.

Science fiction writers! You now have no excuse whatsoever for astronomical inaccuracies in your space operas! None!

I cannot describe to anyone who not a writer (or not quite weird) the soaring and ecstatic sensation of turning on a three dimensional map and having the viewpoint swing around to center on a planet which you have already spent months peopling with cities and crater-lakes and monstrous black space elevators and an uninhabitable northeastern hemisphere. There! The mapmakers had put in my world! MY WORLD! MY WORLD!!

Why, of course I will show you a picture! If must look politely at pictures of pets or handbuilt jalopies which muggles press upon me, I  reserve the right to inflict the pictures of my beloved things on others!

WeregildOkay, technically, this is the primary of my world, the superjovian gas giant which the earth-sized satellite called Torment orbits, but, then again, if you squint you can see Arrakis in the corner, also called Mu Draconis in Draco.

You might ask why: Why would an author waste his time on material which will appear, if at all, only in an appendix?

The answer is — no one knows. Artists are madder than chessmasters.

But I am a philosopher, so I can guess what the answer might be! I offer this only as a speculation, and make no promise of authenticity.

My speculation is this: authors waste time with background details in order to charm, to feed, and to impregnate the muse.

Myself, I cannot imagine a world unless I imagine concrete details, and can see in my mind’s eye which elements of society, which races of man, which institutions and which laws, where carried to the imaginary world when.

The social strata in America, for example, puts the Red Indian in a lower position than enjoyed by the White Englishmen; the Irish came in a later migration, the Blacks were brought by force and subjected to degradations never to be forgiven until Doomsday, and so on. The rich complexity of American colonization is layered by the history of who came when and why. Likewise, if I have made up a far future Earth which is in nowise a monoculture, and it is scattered by force to the stars, which wave conquers whom and when will produce the complex strata of society needed to make it seem real to me in my imagination.

The readers, who can sense fear like dogs (sorry, readers, but you know you can), know darned well when a writer shows any hint in his work of fear or uncertainty or unrealism.

It does not matter if none of the Elfish languages Professor Tolkien so painstakingly invented ever came onstage or not: he had to invent them in order to breathe life into the world of Middle Earth.

If I may liken great things to lesser, likewise a humble space opera writer like me has to do the work to make the background as real and solid as possible, so that I can know as if by instinct, without groping, why the cunning Fox Maidens of Torment are denied the use of electronic amplification, but the arrogant Patricians are not, or which descendent from which deracination ships would permit their womanfolk to walk abroad the dangerous alleys of ghost-haunted Landfall City with only an austere and reticent posthuman of the Swan race for her escort, and which would assign weaponized yet scented clouds of motes.

So if my protagonist see a hooded figure in a street where all the houses are occupied by download corpses who have abandoned their physical bodies,  or sees a drayman struggling with a rearing horse and whipping a pack of angry dogs, my imagination needs to know — and this is the important point — my imagination needs to know thoughtlessly, effortlessly, automatically, as if the ideas sprang from nowhere — just what a person raised in my protagonist’s odd society, making none of the automatic assumption a modern earthman might make, would think of a hooded figure and a rearing horse, and why he would suspect the eyes at the hubs of the cart wheels were staring at him sardonically.

Those assumptions cannot be natural and graceful unless I know who arrived on the world when, who killed whom, which wars were fought or where stopped by Potentates and august posthuman beings. I cannot tell what a man of Iota Draconis is like unless I know where he came from and why, and I cannot know what a world is like unless I know where it came from and why.

(I trust some sensitive person of the Left-leaning persuasion thrilled with disgust at the thought that in some future place and time they think about whether or not to escort their women and keep them safe from molestation. It is that reaction which is your lithe and slimy dragon, dear reader, which the reading of books is meant to slay. Myself, I cannot tolerate that the assumptions of our remote descendents would be the same as ours. What is the point of reading science fiction if every alien mind on worlds remote and years yet unborn and uncounted acts and thinks exactly like your next door neighbor?  If you want to read a book about your next door neighbor, read a love story or a murder mystery, depending, I suppose, on whether you love your neighbor or hate her. They are honorable forms of entertainment. But they are not science fiction, which make the unique demand on the reader, and invites him to enter a world not his own. The assumptions of that world are different. They do things differently there, beyond the skies we know.)

Also, the other reason I wasted the whole evening filling in a chart is that making up worlds and stars is fun! We all have a wee bit of Our Father in us, and He enjoys creating creation.