As writers, we’re always looking for cool new ways to develop our fantasy and science fiction settings. If you’re a scientifically minded type, this may be a blessing or a curse, as you catch worldbuilders’ disease, and try to justify all the things you want to add by the “rule of cool”. Alternatively, the incredible complexity of the natural world might leave you paralyzed, because for every weird trait you come up with, there’s probably already a creature that has it, right here on earth. I personally find it incredibly difficult to think of original new wildlife to put in my settings, when the oak trees in my backyard somehow never fail to awe me. Besides, I’m a physics and chemistry person by trade, not a naturalist.
So I’ve turned to alien worlds for inspiration – specifically exoplanets that NASA has already found and studied! Speculative biology is the branch of world-building in which you start from a hypothetical premise and then build a world from the ground up, considering how creatures and plants would adapt and evolve to fit in the setting you’ve created. In this post, I’m going to share some of my favorite exoplanet systems with you. Hopefully, it sparks some inspiration!
Trappist 1 – Habitable planets all on top of each other
This is my all time favorite TED talk, because it lets us listen to the music of the spheres. Sound doesn’t travel in space, and the planets rotations aren’t in a frequency that we can perceive so it would be impossible to literally hear their orbits. Even so, because the system is so well tuned, I imagine that people from one of these planets would be able to hear and make noises in a much different, much lower range than ours. This implies that the creatures might be incredibly large, or maybe even have a way to broadcast their communication in radio (light) waves that can travel in space, as opposed to sound waves. There might be networks of communication connecting individuals all around the planet, and even between planets. They might also develop religions centered on the idea of holy ratios, with their feast days falling in turn with the planet’s alignment. Imagine the mythological origin stories of a culture where each planet is a god. How come they move so closely and so perfectly around each other, and around their shared sun?
NASA makes posters from the “Exoplanet Travel Bureau”, treating these places like vacation destinations. In their design for Trappist 1, they show people coming together to watch the alignment, like the way we gather to watch eclipses on Earth. In the background, you can make out Orion’s belt to the left, and our sun, a pale yellow dot in the top right.
This star is a closest neighbor and lives in the constellation Centaurus. It’s also a flare star, which means it is prone to random and dramatic changes in brightness. It’s also part of a triple star system, with stars A and B being much bigger and more similar to our sun than this little red dwarf. The exoplanet, Proxima Centarui-b is a rock planet a bit larger than Earth in the habitable zone of the red dwarf, and so it might have life.
Life on a planet with a flare star might be extremely harsh due to the sudden “storms” of radiation. Animals on this planet might exhibit melanism – a hyper pigmentation of their coloring to avoid being burnt by a sunburst, and learn to take cover during one of these events where the world gets bombarded with X-Rays.
Civilizations might primarily be underground in tunnel systems where they’re shielded from the radiation, and where the dim light can’t reach. What might a cave dwelling society look like and when would they hazard visits to the surface? What if they could generate energy from the bursts to drive their technology, or predict sunbursts, migrating away from where they’ll hit the planet hardest?
Tidally Locked Planets
This isn’t a specific exoplanet but it is a concept I think is cool. Tidally locked planets don’t rotate like ours does, giving us a day/night cycle with the sun evenly heating the world. Instead, their rotation is locked in place, so one side of the planet is always facing the star. This results in one side that’s a never-ending hot, and one side that’s left cold and dark, with a thin strip of habitable area called the “terminator zone” in a perpetual twilight.
Anyone living on a planet like this would have to live in that thin strip of land that isn’t lava, or a frozen wasteland, which would also make all of those civilizations fundamentally interconnected, because you have to pass through to get to the next town, there’s no way to go around. There might also be expeditions into the hot or cold side to get rare resources, or a rail network that goes all the way around the equator of the planet. Any creatures adapted to live closer to the hot side would need to have special equipment to cross over into the dark side, and vice versa. Think about how many dualistic philosophies we have in our world between day and night, and all the symbolism associated with that. How would society work differently with the planet literally split in half?
Thanks for reading! Do you have a favorite method of worldbuilding? I want this blog to be more than me shouting into the void. If I can use this platform to help boost other creators, I’d love to see your work too. If you want to have your recommendations and/or your own writing featured in a Resource Rec post, or if you want to collaborate with me, you can leave a comment below for both, or contact me on either tumblr or IG! If you feel so generously inclined, you can support my writing by leaving me a tip or buying stickers on my Kofi. Until next time, thanks for reading and happy writing!