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Notes & Queries 1/3/09

What do you get out of science fiction? We’d all answer that question differently, I suppose, and surely the breadth of concepts and startling ideas is at the top of the list. But for me, the real beauty of the form is landscapes. I sometimes find myself reading a paragraph and then just putting the book down to mull over what I’ve just ‘seen.’ As in this passage from Jack McDevitt’s 2004 novel Polaris. Here, Jack is describing Sacracour, the inhabited moon of the gas giant Gobulus, which orbits its star at a distance of 160 million kilometers:

Most of the planet’s contemporary inhabitants — there are fewer than three hundred thousand altogether — live along a seacoast that’s usually warm and invigorating. Lots of beach and sun. Great sky views. They haven’t yet achieved tidal lock, so if you time things right you can sit out on the beach and watch Gobulus, with its rings and its system of moons, rise out of the ocean.

Small descriptions like that dazzle me, the off-hand observation that brings home the staggering variety of planetary settings we’re likely to encounter. I could fill a book with passages from science fiction stories that create such moments, but this is the one I had at hand yesterday when the feeling hit me again. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that feeling goes all the way back to childhood, where it emerged from writers like Heinlein, Clarke and Andre Norton.


The first Carnival of Space of the new year is now available via Cheap Astronomy. Those with a deep space interest will want to see the post on Triton on the Supernova Condensate site, where the intriguing moon is examined in terms of its tenuous atmosphere and its surprising geysers, some of which Voyager 2 observed to be rising fully eight kilometers, the liquid nitrogen analog to Yellowstone National Park. But it’s that atmosphere and its properties that gets my attention:

Nitrogen ices encrust the planet’s surface, with some evaporating to form a thin nitrogen atmosphere. Surprisingly, there’s a little more in common with Earth here than you might realise. Specifically, Triton’s atmosphere has a troposphere — a region with weather. Rising a mere 8 km high, this region is thought to have prevailing seasonal winds. Clouds of nitrogen ice particles form here, and a haze of nitrogen rich hydrocarbons (such as nitriles) has also been found, alongside clouds of condensing nitrogen gas lower down. This starts to paint a nice little picture of nitrogen snow falling amid the gassy plumes. Triton could be said to have a nitrogen cycle, with a tenuous parallel to the cycle of water on Earth. Above the troposphere, the rest of Triton’s atmosphere extends for another 800 km above the surface, forming a neatly structured thermosphere, ionosphere and exosphere.

With a surface that is apparently the scene of extensive slush flows from cryovolcanism (consider how young the surface looks, with few impact craters on display in the areas Voyager could see), Triton’s ‘cantaloupe’ terrain could keep geologists occupied for years once we get out there for a closer look. Remember that Voyager was able to image only about forty percent of the surface and you realize how much there remains to be discovered on this enigmatic object.


And speaking of astronomy blogs, if you’re looking for the ultimate list, check out the Top 100 Space and Astronomy Blogs recently published on the Find Schools Online site. We all try to keep up with the constant activity of bloggers around the globe, but new talent emerges quickly and it’s all too easy to keep revisiting the same places without looking around at what’s new. I find many old friends here but quite a few newcomers whose work will surely wind up in my RSS feeds. A blog devoted to Spaceports? Why not, or how about the Space Elevator Blog? The beauty of the format is that we can tackle a single topic with passion, as the many fine bloggers represented on this list continue to do.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Peter January 4, 2009, 3:10

    I think those motivated by the vision of interstellar flight think more about those panoramas than the practicalities of earth energy, population, etc. If we pursue interstellar flight because we ‘have’ to, it betrays a sense of desperation. If we do it, it should be because we want to.

  • Jay Lake January 4, 2009, 8:50

    Us science fiction writers call that frisson of novelty “sensawunda”, which is a useful term in SF criticism. Some of us write the stuff for that same hit, straight from the vein.

  • Administrator January 4, 2009, 9:10

    And I think ‘frisson’ is also exactly the right word — it hints at both awe and an inevitable sense of fear in the face of the unknown, the whole being a unique and pleasurable sensation!

  • Mark Phelps January 4, 2009, 14:08

    Hello Paul,well for I it is the art of Richard Powers…does anyone else have a strong feeling of recognition or right-ness when you see his work…..? The feeling is similar to looking at the work of Hopper but in a space or ‘other world’ environment. I saw his work when I was but a wee barn back in the day and it stuck with me….whom ever decided to place his artwork on pulp and other sci fi was clearly a member of the advance party….for verbal landscape there is Conrad,set on the sea but too a space of its ‘own’..

    ‘the passage had begun,and the ship
    ,a fragment detacted from the Earth,
    went on lonely and swift,like a small
    planet. Round her the abyss of sky and sea met in an unattainable frontier . A
    fresh circular solitude moved with her,
    ever changing and ever the same,always
    monotonous and always imposing. Now and then amother wandering white speck,burdened with life,appeared far-off–disapperared;intent on it’s own destiny.’
    J Conrad

    ‘…while the slim,long hull of the ship moved ahead slowly under lower topsails. The loose upper canvas blew out in the breeze with soft round contours,resembling small white clouds snared in the maze of ropes. Then the sheets were hauled home,the yards hoisted, and the ship became a high and lonely pyramid,gliding, all shining and white, through the sunlit mist. ‘

    J Conrad
    both of the above could be said of spacecraft which ask the question,where is the new literature taking place in and on the world of space? Ray Bradbury comes close
    in his works,for those who can find a copy,’If the Sun Dies’ by Fallaci has one of the best four paragraph statements of why we go into space….by Ray Bradbury of course….and so on,



  • Administrator January 4, 2009, 14:24

    Mark, you and I clearly have a lot in common. I’m a great admirer of Powers’ work, and how well I remember the days when a good science fiction selection in a bookstore was stuffed with Powers covers. And yes, as for Conrad, I’m with you again, a personal favorite to whom I return with greater pleasure each time.

  • ljk January 6, 2009, 11:08

    Peter, you make a very good point, but sadly, it always seems to
    take some kind of crisis or major need on the part of humanity to
    become motivated about many things, including and especially that
    which will save and uplift us.

    Maybe we will grow up enough by the time we can conduct real
    interstellar journeys to do them for the sake of knowledge and
    other forms of enlightenment. Of course it is also wise for us to
    spread ourselves beyond one world.

  • Theo Stauffer January 7, 2009, 21:48

    Hi Paul, thanks for the snippet on Triton. I am trying my own hand at SF at the moment and my story is set on Triton and in Neptune’s atmosphere. SF gave me something to dream about when I was a kid, and I really like the experience of writing myself.