Putting the life back in science fiction

Repurposing Dwarves
August 28, 2016, 8:50 pm
Filed under: fantasy, science fiction, Speculation, Worldbuilding | Tags: , ,

Ah August, that wonderful time when I learn how to navigate selling used stuff on Amazon (pro tip: if it’s selling for much less than $3.00, don’t bother, because that’s about where Amazon’s fees per item tend to land, at least on the stuff I’ve looked at).  And while I’ve been inputting inventory, I’ve had time to think about language, and red dwarf solar systems, and the repurposing of words.

So I’ve been sitting here pricing books and other stuff with the Amazon phone app.  In one way it’s great: you can use the phone’s camera to scan the book, and if Amazon’s smart system can match the cover, it will tell you what it’s selling for.  Mostly they’re selling for a penny plus $3.99 shipping, but occasionally (<i>Flinx in Flux</i>!?) they sell for a lot more.  The penny sales go to charity, because I’ll lose about $3.00 in fees on the sale, and the few that are sufficiently valuable get boxed up to see if I can make someone else happy with a sale.   Given returns so far, I’d qualify this as market research and decluttering, not a paying job.  I’ve made more with a yard sale.  Be that as it may, it’s given me time to think.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is Proxima Centauri, and Proxima Centauri B, it’s putative planet.  I’m sure you’ve seen the news about the discovery.  It has it’s own well-stocked Wikipedia page.  Personally, I’m trying to figure out if I’m sufficiently interested to write a story about Proxies.  Proxies?  Well, what else are you going to call the inhabitants of Prox B, especially if they’re human settlers?   Athenians, because they settled a world that looks like the big gray eye of a goddess (see next paragraph).   I mean, do you think we’ll let a minimum 1.3 G on the world stop us from colonizing*, if we’re crazy enough and interstellar travel is possible?

The Proxy joke got me thinking.  Red dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri are supposedly the most common stars in the galaxy, so it makes sense to figure out what a human-habitable world orbiting a red dwarf would look like.

It will be close to its star, like really close (Prox B has a year that’s 11.2 days long).  The star will likely be flaring and doing the nasty with UV and X-rays on a semi-regular basis, so it’s a place where the atmosphere takes a beating and keeps on ticking (or the radiation counters tick, anyway).  The habitable planet is tidally locked, so there’s a big ol’ storm more-or-less centered on the day side (the putative big gray eye), and there are big glaciers on the dark side, and sane beings live on the day side fairly near the day/dark terminator, if only because the atmosphere’s a bit thicker between you and your sun, in case you’re worried about a UV-induced sunburn.

Since it’s day all the time, probably Terran plants can grow.  After all, the planet is getting about the same amount of sunlight that it would get on Earth.  It’s just that the spectrum has shifted, and there are those flares.  But still, if plants can survive the flares, then there’s enough total light and there’s almost certainly enough light in the proper bits of the spectrum for photosynthesis.

I’ve had just enough biology to make me a little arrogant about the things our planet does.  Oxygen-based respiration makes a lot of sense, so I’d expect life on the planet, and an oxygen atmosphere if the planet is more than, say, 4 billion years old.  DNA makes a lot of sense, because it’s such a stable chemical.  Amino acids and proteins make a lot of sense, because they seem to be easy-ish to evolve.  A lot of biochemistry makes a lot of fundamental sense, because it’s reasonably efficient and quite resilient.  So I’d expect to find a lot of the same general stuff on an Earth-like alien planet that’s, say, 4.5 billion years old or older.

What I wouldn’t expect to find is alien life using the same codes for translating DNA to proteins, or using the same suite of amino acids, or using all the same epigenomic tricks for annotating DNA that we do.  I wouldn’t expect multicellular organisms to be multicellular in quite the same way they are here, simply because it turns out that Earthly life has figured out a bunch of independent ways to go multicellular, and there’s no obvious reason why some work ways better than others.  Ditto life cycles, but that’s so fundamental and technical that I’m not going to discuss it here. But anyway, that’s all another post.  My point is that life on a red dwarf planet like Prox B might actually look kind of Earth-like.  Maybe its life will be fluorescent to deal with UV flares, or have hard-ass DNA repair tools to fix the damage from those pesky X-rays.  But it’ll be homely for the humans, homey enough to bite them in the ass and give them weird food allergies if they sample the local cuisine.

So here’s my second lame joke: if people start regularly settling around red dwarf stars, why not start calling them dwarves?  I know, I know, it doesn’t work.  We’re used to dwarves being stocky subterranean dudes and dudettes (the females are either rare or indistinguishable from the males).  While I’ll grant that the Proxies might resemble the stereotype, Prox B being a heavy planet and Proxima Centauri being a flare star where humans might want to live underground, there’s a more important point.  People living around red dwarves are going to share a lot of life experiences that would seem really weird to a Terran like you or me.  No matter what they look like, why not talk about their stereotypical shared lives and call them, collectively, dwarves, no matter what they look like?

For people growing up looking at a red dwarf, it’s always morning or evening, because their planet is tidally locked, and that sun always sits fairly low in the sky, because they live fairly near the terminator.  Night is a place, not a time, and seasons don’t happen, even if the planet has an elliptical orbit (every Friday is hot, every Monday is cold?).  There are no regular tides at all (the star doesn’t move relative to the planet’s surface), just storm tides.  And on and on.  It’s a lifestyle more suited to someone who lives on a submarine than on Earth, because Earth’s climate is strongly seasonal almost everywhere in the world..  Even the tropics have wet and dry seasons.

These Red Dwarf colonists will have a very different idea of how to organize their lives.  They may have watches of 6 or 8 hours, rather than days.  For example, schools there might not be school days but school watches.  The school could be in use constantly, with teachers on different watches sharing classrooms.  Ditto offices.  If your life was divided into 8 hour watches, you could work one watch, sleep one watch, and do personal stuff one watch.  You life wouldn’t be organized around dawn and dusk, but around getting to work every first watch, or every second watch, or every third watch, because they’d all take place at the same time of day.  Seasonal emergencies, like star flares, would come fairly randomly, not at particular times of year.  Your friends would share your watch schedule, and moving to a different watch would bring you into contact with a whole different group of people, even if you all lived in the same place.

Most importantly, people living around red dwarf suns would all have similar experiences, and they’d all be really weird to people living on Earth, or on any other planet that had a fast day-night cycle.  Why not call these people dwarves, no matter what they look like?

Repurposing  normally happens in language, anyway.  Back in the 1930s, calculators and computers were jobs  (often for women), not types of equipment.  Back in ancient times, the steersman on a boat was called either a cybernetes (origin of our term cybernetic, and now the cyber- prefix) or a governor.  We’ve repurposed those terms.  President used to be the term for someone who presided over the meeting of a small organization or a school in a college, and it was slapped on the leader of the US possibly because people were sick of kings after the Revolution, and they didn’t want Washington getting ideas.

It’s a normal process, and it’s one we can play with in science fiction.  I’ve suggested, to no one’s amusement, that if civilization crashes, rather than people having phones, people who have an education and a short-wave radio might come to be known as phones, because they can do the same work a smart phone currently does.  If you’re more old school and want our species to start seriously colonizing other planets, I’d suggest that maybe we should repurpose the term “dwarves” for those who settle around red dwarf stars.  There’s no need for elves, orcs, trolls, or hobgoblins–I’m not thinking AD&D in Space.  I’m just thinking about the one term, and about what life would be like on Prox B, or Barnard’s star, or any of the others.  What’s more important is that the planets around red dwarf stars are going to be strange places, and they’re going to shape their inhabitants in similar ways.  Why not start recognizing those commonalities?

What did I miss?  Since there’s nothing new under the sun, presumably some SF writer already came up with this.  If so, who was it?

*Actually, I do, especially if FTL doesn’t exist.  But why spoil the summer daydream?


7 Comments so far
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Prox b gravity minimum is cubert(1.3)/sqrt(1.3) as min mass is 1.3 Me. Local life could be in the ocean to avoid radiation. It might also be highly reproductive to ensure survival of species that try to exploit the surface. I wouldn’t bet my life on DNA as the information storage mechanism, but maybe some close analog. Earth settlers, should they want to settle on the planet ( foolish people) will live in sheltering cities to ensure an artificial day/night cycle and proper atmosphere, as well as radiation shielding.
Stephen Baxter describes his planet around Proxima Cenauri in hides novel “Proxima”.

Comment by Alex Tolley

That’s getting at the failure of imagination of SF writers like Baxter. If a hospital, Google, or a submarine doesn’t turn the lights down and cease operations because it’s dark (to pick three random examples) , why should a colony arbitrarily impose a colony-wide blackout to try to keep the place arbitrarily earth-like? If nothing else, scheduled blackouts would make for a lot more crime.

Besides, it’s simpler and cheaper for someone to just close the door and turn out the lights if they want darkness to sleep in.

Yes, 24 hour cycles are reputedly good for health and all, but we keep breeding day-neutral crops, and I have a sneaking suspicion that anyone planning on colonizing a red dwarf would be sure to bring along organisms that didn’t need darkness to be happy. Hard on cats, rats, and hamsters, certainly. Maybe parrots will be the pets of the spaceways?

Comment by Heteromeles

If light conditions are constant, or under the direct control of each individual, the body’s circadian rhythm will free-run at about 25 or 16 hours on average. individuals will get out of sync for cooperative work. Therefore is does makes sense to create a universal day/night cycle. In places inside the Arctic and Antarctic circles, people have difficulty with the constant day or night and this leads to mental issues, like depression.

So like the ISS, universal day/night lighting cycles do make sense for a human colony, and probably for many animals, especially mammals, too. There may even be information about that given that people do live in these conditions.

Personally, I am in the camp of those who think that space colony life is more suited to human colonists than planets. Machines, like artilects, that is a different matter.

Comment by alexandertolley

I was disappoint that the Antipope* thread fell into the hoary old discussion of interstellar travel, rather than bring its nerdy attention into focus on sufficently blue-sky-in-their-own-right questions like: observing the absorption spectrum of the planet’s atmosphere, the feasibility and desirability of saying ‘hello’ by E.M. signal, &c.

*there’s still some weird barrier to me commenting there, for reasons known to the dwarves who run the internet.

Comment by a scruffian

Presumably you’ve tried setting up a new identity on Antipope? If that doesn’t or didn’t work, let me know and I’ll refer it to the moderators.

I suspect the subtext of this is that SF editors are reportedly looking for Space Opera to buy. In this circumstance, it makes more sense to look at Proxima B as a setting, rather than as science.

Comment by Heteromeles

On earth, does it make sense to think of people who live in temperate climates as one sort, and people who live in tropical climates as another sort? Everybody who lives in a temperate climate has a lot in common that they don’t have in common with tropical people.

There is some of that but I can’t think of a name for it, and people tend not to think about it that way. We tend to divide it up finer than that. So temperate climate people talk about oceanic regimes where it doesn’t get that hot or cold, versus inland. Plains versus mountain versus hill-folk.

Comment by J Thomas

I had an idea for a civilization living on a tidally-locked world. It was meant to be an artifact from a prior high tech civilization that could legitimately lay claim to planetary engineering. The planet is pretty close to a bright star but has a giant moon situated as a sun shield. The moon always remains in front of the planet and the pair orbit the star. It’s not something that could be arrived at in nature and I’m pretty sure straight up orbital mechanics should forbid this even if you set it up.

Anyway, what I arrived at is there’s three waves of colonists that came in. The first group were on sublight warp ships that took decades to get there and they’ve been there for a few hundred years. They’re a religious lifestyle group and have a quasi-Buddhist feel. They’re into tech minimalism in the sense of maintaining a high tech society while not letting the technology overwhelm the daily experience, think “we are putting walking and bicycle paths here not because we can’t afford automobiles but because we don’t agree with the lifestyle.” The main population centers are along the terminator. The surface is parkland and agricultural. Night rooms are typically underground where the families will sleep and the community has a tradition of going dark at certain hours. I’ve got a notion of night spaces connecting the living and market areas. They’re open-air during day periods and covers roll over at night periods and you’ve got dark with lamps.

The nightside of the planet has attracted nomads from the first group and they go about their business there. Some of the weirder local flora and fauna can be seen poking through the glaciers from the thermal sea below. The ice can be kilometers-thick but will thin in many places due to upwelling from vents.

The second settling group was on the losing side of a war. They’re quasi-fascist with a whole thing about genetic supremacy and triumphing the will. They were invited in if they chose to abide by the rules. Rule #1 is don’t wreck the ecosystem. Heavy industry on this world uses slow chemistry and seawater mineral extraction and remediates all pollution. This is not compatible with high-intensity, quick turnaround industrial activity. The second group really misread the inclination towards pacifism by the first group as being doormats. A short, decisive war corrected their ways. Younger entrepreneurs from both factions ended up putting resources into space mining, a way of keeping the planet clean while getting more heavy industry resources available.

Why do they need to improve? Because space is getting a lot smaller. Warp tech had been stuck at sublight for a few thousand years. Tech didn’t change much. Colony ships took decades to pass between the stars. Warp made it practical but was still limited to sublight speeds. Now fast warp is coming along and now a journey of decades can be handled in a month. This backwater world is on a developing spacelane. Based on gravitational interactions between stars, some pathways are very low energy and desirable for warp travel. The idea is cribbed from the gravity highways in our own solar system. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interplanetary_Transport_Network There’s big potential for this planet to develop like Petra, a city whose wealth and fame was built on being in a great place with water and food on a long caravan road between major civilizations.

The third group that comes in are inspired from the spartacus story. What if the rebellious slaves weren’t betrayed by the pirates? What if they were able to escape? So this group are bio-engineered servitors who have rebelled. They’re originally from human stock but tweaked and modified greatly. They came about as a mix of status symbol, conspicuous consumption, petty sadism. In the comparison of field slave and house slave, the field work is done by robots and automations. The house work could be done that way, too, but you can’t really dominate a roomba. It’s just not fun. So you have human-like playthings with no rights and you can do whatever you want with them. Again, you can’t sexually harass a roomba. So these slaves manage to escape and find themselves a new home. They’re a big mix of different lineages and purposes so some side ideologically with the first group and some with the second group.

In thinking about your original question with dwarves, I wouldn’t want to reuse the word but I do think your idea of identifying common cultural traits is spot on. If we look at our own world:

Highlanders tend to be poorer and more stiff-necked because the lowlanders were richer, stronger, took the better land. Harder environment means they have to be harder.

Harsh environment peoples from inuit to berber have similar environmental pressures, a disinclination to permanent settlement due to necessities for nomadic lifestyle.

There’s always tension between the farmers in the country and the city dwellers. There’s usually some interdependence, can’t have one without the other, but both tend to feel they could do without the other if they have to.

Comment by Gregory Muir

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