Filed under: fantasy, science fiction, Speculation, Worldbuilding | Tags: Dwarves, Proxima Centauri, worldbuilding
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?
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